Whenever out in public, Walter Niedbalski, 78, of Columbus, wears a blue hat with the words “USS Saint Paul” across the top.
He said he hopes it’ll spark a conversation about his time in the United States Navy, something he said he enjoys sharing. From 1958-1962, Niedbalski served during a time of relative peace.
“A lot of people, they have a bad taste in their mouth from the military. (When) I was in, they weren’t shooting at me, so I thought it was great,” Niedbalski said.
Niedbalski grew up in Columbus and was the youngest of 13 children. Three of his brothers had served in the U.S. Army and another three in the Navy.
“They all talked about the Navy, and I thought I wanted to see the world,” Niedbalski said. “To see all these ports, the countries on the government's money, see all these different nationalities and to see how they lived.”
So in July 1958, he enlisted. After boot camp, he was assigned to serve on the USS Saint Paul, the flagship of the United State’s Pacific fleet. With a home port of Yokosuka, Japan, the Baltimore-class cruiser was 673 feet long and visited ports all around the Pacific.
Its mission at the time was to put on full display the might of the U.S. Naval power, Niedbalski said, recalling those on the ship giving out candy to children and allowing civilians to come aboard for meals.
“It was a goodwill type ship,” Niedbalski said. “It was just showing those other countries just what kind of power we had.”
Niedbalski is what is known as an “in-betweener,” according to Channing Zucker of Virginia. Zucker served on the ship from 1960-1963 and currently acts as archivist and historian for the USS Saint Paul Association.
He said this period between the end of the Korean War in 1953 and the start of the massive increase in U.S. military presence in the Vietnam War in 1964 was relatively peaceful for those in the service.
Niedbalski said his stay on the ship was only supposed to last 18 months, but he ended up serving on it for two years, two months and nine days. One of his jobs on the ship was working as a helmsman.
“So I actually steered the ship, that was one of my jobs. A little skinny kid from Columbus, Nebraska, 18 years old, steering a ship that was just about 700 feet long,” he said.
Niedbalski said he remembers having to hide his cigarettes underneath his pillow so others wouldn’t mooch off of him. He said the ship had some of the best food in the entire fleet and showed movies almost every other night. One time when it snowed at the sea, he said the crew had a snowball fight.
When President Dwight Eisenhower visited the ship, Niedbalski said he was able to greet him as one one of eight honor guard members, saluting him as he boarded the vessel. But Niedbalski noted one of the proudest moments from his service was when he received a Letter of Appreciation from his commanding officer for the cleanliness of his living quarters.
“I’m pretty proud of it,” he said of the honor, which he now displays on a wall in his home.
Niedbalski went on to serve until 1962 on the USS Watts, where he was discharged in The Philippines. He said he encourages people to give naval service a chance as it can teach social skills and how to get along with others.
And Zucker agreed.
“You’re living with your fellow crew members, 24 hours a day, so you form these real close relationships with your fellow crew members,” Zucker said.
After returning home, Niedbalski went to a national meat cutting school in 1962. He went on to run Nied's Meats & Convenient Grocery at 1520 17th St. for 35 years, selling meat and sausages. As of today, the father of five is retired.
In Niedbalski's home lies his memorabilia room. Down there the walls are covered with reminders of his service. His Naval uniform is hung on display, along with other photos of his youth. Next to them is a memorial to his brother, Dominic James Niedbalski, who was killed in action in Italy during World War II on Sept. 18, 1943. His story is an example of the varying experiences of those in the service.
The space also serves as Niedbalski’s workshop, where he carves wooden crosses and makes birdhouses out of ice pop sticks. While a far cry from the adventures of his youth, the old vet said he is proud of the life he’s had.
So when you see him out and about with his hat on, don’t be afraid to ask him about his service, because he’s just waiting to tell.
Eric Schucht is a reporter for The Columbus Telegram. Reach him via email at email@example.com.