STOW: Larry “Toots” Debevec easily can cover a table in his apartment with newspaper clippings and old Coast Guard photos from the moment he and his crew became American heroes.
The faded articles with bold headlines recall an important moment in the history of World War II in which he and his shipmates on the USS Eastwind captured the German trawler Externsteine, taking 17 prisoners on Oct. 15, 1944, 69 years ago today.
Debevec, 93, a Barberton High School graduate, served in the Coast Guard from August 1942 until October 1945.
The capture of the German ship that was stuck in ice was significant, Debevec said, because the Germans were attempting to establish weather stations in Greenland.
Just 11 days previously, the icebreaker also took part in capturing a German weather station on Little Koldeway Island, according to the U.S. Coast Guard website.
“They were going to establish a weather base there so they could monitor the weather in the North Atlantic so they could radio their submarines to look for American convoys,” Debevec said.
His ship was serving in the North Atlantic with three other Coast Guard ships when the two critical victories occurred. He said his ship carried an airplane with it that flew over the Atlantic and spotted the German ship that they captured.
While his job on the Eastwind most of the time was to keep records for 350 men on the ship, during times in battle, Debevec was part of the action.
“My battle station was in the upper handling room of a 5-inch twin gun,” he said. “I would take the shells and send them up to the gun.”
Along with the ship that was captured, the Germans sank one of their own ships, and the Americans sank a third German ship.
The only difficulties he suffered from the war, he said, was a stressful trip back to Boston on his ship with high 30-foot waves.
Debevec, an A&P retiree, and his late wife, Judy, who died 29 years ago, had one daughter. He now has one granddaughter and one great-granddaughter.
Debevec said he was called “Toots” because of his affinity for Tootsie Roll candy. He said he loved being in the Coast Guard — even though the only boat he had ever been on before entering was a canoe on the Portage Lakes.
After returning from the war, Debevec said, he has never seen any of the men he served with on the Eastwind.
“It was sort of stressful, but we handled it,” he said. “We were green, but we did our jobs and we are proud of it.”
Jim Carney can be reached at 330-996-3576 or firstname.lastname@example.org.