ADAMS -- Frank J. Presnal was just 23 years old when he watched a German torpedo barrel through the frigid port waters of Murmansk, Russia from his post on deck of the USS George Vancouver on Feb. 14, 1945.
"It was coming right at us," Presnal, now 91, said in a recent interview. "A large wave came and altered its course. It just missed us. I was an ignorant young fellow and didn't think anything of it at the time. It really didn't bother me until we made port in Scotland."
At the time, the Adams native was serving as a gunner's mate as part of the U.S. Navy Armed Guard during the tail end of World War II. The USS George Vancouver, an American West Coast Liberty Ship, was part of a convoy of merchant ships bringing supplies to Russia.
The convoy, which reached the Kola Inlet on Feb. 13, 1945, was the subject of a German torpedo and submarine attack, during which the HMS Denbigh Castle was hit. During the convoy's return trip to Scotland, five merchant ships were damaged and the USS Henry Bacon was sunk.
"I was very lucky," he said. "I always said the Lord kept me alive for some reason. I guess that was one of the best Valentine's Day presents I got before I married my wife."
On Feb. 24, 1993, Presnal was one of several Navy veterans to receive a medal commemorating the "40th anniversary of the Great Patriotic War (WWII)" from Vladimir P. Lukin, then Russian Ambassador to the United States, on behalf of former Russian President Boris Yeltsin.
"I joined the Navy because the war was on," Presnal said. "My brother-in-law was going into the Navy and I went with him. I learned a lot."
After enlisting on May 13, 1942, he attended boot camp in Newport, R.I., and gunnery school in Little Creek, Va., before being assigned to the Armed Guard Center in Brooklyn, N.Y.
"I was in Egypt in 1942," he said. "We were waiting to get back on our boat and instead we swam back to our ship. I swam in the Suez Bay and swallowed some of the water. It was pretty dumb to do, but I was young. I ended up getting sick [with Shiga dysentery] and was transferred to a British hospital in the desert. Those English nurses sure were terrific."
In 1943, Presnal was part of a crew transporting German prisoners from Casablanca.
"We told one of prisoners that we were taking him to New York City. He just smiled and said we couldn't because it had been bombed out. That's the kind of mind games and propaganda that went on back then," he said.
Following his discharge on Nov. 23, 1945, Presnal re-enlisted in the U.S. Navy in on Oct. 25, 1948. His career, which lasted 30 years, took him to five continents, also serving during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Korean War and the Vietnam War.
"The last ship I served on was the USS Iwo Jima," he said. "It was the first amphibious helicopter carrier. I was on the ship in July 1962 when the government conducted its last nuclear experiment in the Pacific. We were right under it. It took place about 28,000 feet above us. Of course, at the time, we didn't know it was happening. A few years later, a lot of the sailors I served with came down with different types of cancer. I was lucky that it didn't happen to me."
Upon his retirement from the Navy in May 1964, Presnal, who received 14 different medals for his service, went to work for the Boston & Main Railroad. He married his wife, Adella, in December 1966, just three months after meeting in the bowling alley of the former St. Stanislaus Kostka Society Hall. Presnal's wife died in 2008.
"It must have been love at first sight, because she could have had any guy she wanted," he said. "We were married for 42 years. We didn't have any children, but she had a son, Stanley, with her first husband, who had passed away. He's a great guy. He treated me like I was his own dad. I couldn't have asked for a better wife or son. I've been very lucky."
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