John Joseph Iwanicki was born 5 January 1922, to Xavier and Frances Koprowski Iwanicki. His parents had been married for almost 20 years when he was born and had 11 other children—5 boys and 6 girls—prior to John’s birth. However, not all had survived—at least two children passed away before he was born.
Xavier, John’s father, was an immigrant who in his mid-teens left Poland for the U.S. in the mid to late 1890s. John’s mother, Frances, was born in 1883 in Peru, Illinois, to parents who had immigrated as young adults from Poland to the U.S. While John would not have known his paternal grandparents, he most likely spent time with his mother’s parents John and Salome Wieszgowski Koprowski who lived in Peru. Both John’s father and grandfather worked at the Zinc Works as did one of his maternal uncles, Walter Stanley Koprowski. His other paternal uncle, John Koprowski, had served several months as a Private in the last year of World War I in the 155th Development Battalion.
When John was only two years old, his older sister Celia passed away—she was 12 years old. Six years later, when John was 8 years old, his mother Frances passed away in the summer of 1930. While this left John’s father alone to raise three remaining children, they were all, including John, not very young, and four of John’s older siblings who were adults were still living at home.
However, the family like many possibly struggled through the ensuing years as the Great Depression settled on the land. Fortunately, by 1940 all the Iwanicki men were working. The two youngest, Stanley and John, were employed with the Works Projects Administration or W.P.A.—a program created by President Franklin Roosevelt to “relieve the economic hardship of the Great Depression.”
In the summer of 1940, with the possibly of war on the horizon, John was the first in the family to join the U.S. Navy enlisting in Chicago on 3 June 1940. His brother Stanley followed not long after enlisting on 23 July 1940. By November 2nd, both brothers were on board the USS Houston (CA-30) in Hawaii. The ship left port the next day to sail to Manilla in the Philippines to join the Asiatic Fleet.
Over the next year, the USS Houston patrolled the waters around Indonesia earning the nickname “The Galloping Ghost of the Java Coast,” as her demise was reported time and again by Japan. Yet through all her encounters with the enemy, contrary to Japanese propaganda, she persevered. Then on 27 February 1942, the USS Houston participated in the Battle of the Java Sea as part of the American-British-Dutch-Australian (ABDA) Command. During the battle all ships involved except the Houston and Perth were lost. However, the Houston did sustain some damage and temporarily stopped in a nearby port for fuel.
The two ships were next ordered to sail to Tijilatjap through the Sunda Strait. Both the Houston and Perth started off on their journey in the afternoon of 28 February 1942. After night fell and midnight approached, in the darkness the Perth noticed a ship off in the distance. The Perth signaled the other vessel, and after not receiving the expected return signal, the Perth realized it was an enemy ship. What the Houston and Perth could not have known at the time was they had sailed into a Japanese invasion force. So soon after the encounter, the Perth began firing on the enemy, and the Houston joined in. A raging battle ensued; however, the two ships were facing a daunting number of opposing vessels including two heavy cruisers, three divisions of destroyers, and a light cruiser. In addition to the enemy’s fighting fleet, there were 56 transports and auxiliaries anchored at the beach unloading men and supplies.
A little after 11:30 p.m. the Perth was hit by a torpedo, and the order was given to abandon ship. Those who made it into the water watched as their ship eventually disappeared below the sea. The Houston continued fighting. And while both ships had inflicted damage on the enemy, there were too many for the Houston to fight alone. Eventually about 12:30 a.m., the Houston was hit by torpedoes causing enough damage that the order was given to abandon ship. Soon after the Houston sunk out of sight, her American flag waving until the end.
Over 1,100 men had been on board the Houston; roughly 350 made it off the ship before it drifted to the ocean floor. According to reports, John and his brother Stanley did not make it off and perished during the battle and subsequent loss of the ship on 1 March 1942. Their brother, Walter Frank Iwanicki, enlisted later that summer in the Army and served a little over three years. When he was discharged on 9 October 1945, he was a Sergeant Company A of the 487th Engineers.
Of those who were alive after leaving the ship, most ended up captured and became prisoners of war enduring a long and horrific three and half years of forced labor, hunger, and appalling conditions until they were liberated upon Japan’s surrender. According to the Naval History website, the “Houston was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation and two battle stars for her World War II service.”
The Iwanicki brothers are remembered on the memorial at the Manila American Cemetery. There is also another memorial established in Houston, Texas, in honor of the ship and sailors of the USS Houston.
This story is part of the Stories Behind the Stars project (see www.storiesbehindthestars.org). This is a national effort of volunteers to write the stories of all 421,000+ of the US WWII fallen saved on Together We Served and Fold3. Can you help write these stories? These stories will be accessible via smartphone app at any war memorial or cemetery. If you noticed anything erroneous in this profile or have additional information to contribute to it, please email email@example.com.
- SBTS Historian: Pam Broviak
You can also access this story at the following sites:
- List sources:
- 1900 U.S. Census, John Koprowski, Ancestry.
- 1910 U.S. Census, John Koprowski, Ancestry.
- 1910 U.S. Census, Xavier Iwanicki, Ancestry.
- 1920 U.S. Census, Salome Koprowski, Ancestry.
- 1920 U.S. Census, Xavier Iwanicki, Ancestry.
- 1930 U.S. Census, John Koprowski, Ancestry.
- 1930 U.S. Census, Xavier Ewanski, Ancestry.
- 1940 U.S. Census, Xaviar Iwanicki, Ancestry.
- 1940 U.S. Census, John Koprowski, Ancestry.
- Illinois Births and Christenings, 1824-1940, John Iwanicki, FamilySearch.
- Illinois, U.S., Deaths and Stillbirths Index, 1916-1947, John Koprowski, Ancestry.
- Illinois, U.S., Deaths and Stillbirths Index, 1916-1947, Salome Koprowski, Ancestry.
- U.S., Headstone Applications for Military Veterans, 1925-1970, John Koprowski, Ancestry.
- “Works Progress Administration,” Library of Congress.
- USS Houston Muster Roll, 31 December 1940, John Iwanicki, Fold3.
- USS Houston Muster Roll, 31 December 1940, Stanley Iwanicki, Fold3.
- USS Houston Report of Changes, 3 November 1940, John J Iwanicki, Fold3.
- USS Houston Report of Changes, 3 November 1940, Stanley J Iwanicki, Fold3.
- Combat Narratives, The Java Sea Campaign, Navy History and Heritage Command, U.S. Navy, 2017.
- USS Houston (CA-30), The Galloping Ghost of the Java Coast, U.S. Navy
- USS Houston, Then and Now, Naval History & Heritage Command.
- James D. Hornfischer, The Ship of Ghosts, Bantam Dell, 2006.
- U.S., Headstone and Interment Records for U.S., Military Cemeteries on Foreign Soil, 1942-1949, John J. Iwanicki, Ancestry.
- U.S., Headstone Applications for Military Veterans, 1925-1970, Walter F Ewanicki, Ancestry.