“We Have 15 Minutes to Live”

by Jay Branson National Museum of the American Sailor Volunteer

1942. War rages in Europe, North Africa, and the Pacific. Great Lakes Naval Station (GLNS) turns raw but eager recruits into Sailors by the thousands. The Hostess House, a social and recreation center designed by renowned architect Gordon Bunshaft, opens and serves as a gathering place for Sailors and their loved ones before orders are issued to join the fight.

One of those Sailors was Joseph Brauneis, GLNS Class of January 1943. Joe thought he would be assigned to a large ship, but the Navy had other plans and he found himself in Rhode Island at PT boat school. From there, Joe was assigned to PT-191 as a radio operator/gunner and began a tour of the Pacific that lasted more than two years.

PT-191 belonged to Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron 12, whose primary mission was to destroy Japanese barges and ships that ferried troops, supplies, and equipment to island strongholds. The boats went hunting at night, when the barges and supply ships operated, and crews learned to adapt their tactics on the fly. Torpedoes sometimes passed under the shallow draft of the enemy’s craft, so PT boats used deck cannons and guns to disrupt the Japanese resupply efforts. They were so effective the Japanese called them “devil boats.”

Crews had to sleep during the heat of the day while trying to avoid the many diseases associated with life in the jungle. Squadron 12 island-hopped across the Pacific, establishing bases up river to hide the boats under the canopies of trees during daylight hours before going out on night patrol.

Like many World War II veterans, Joe didn’t talk much about what he saw and experienced in combat. He joked that his first “bunk” on PT-191 was the steel map table, but that was about it. Fortunately, the late Rick Desloge wrote Hell on Keels: The Saga of Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron 12. The book’s cover painting, by acclaimed artist Jack Fellows, depicts PT-191 (from the stern of sister boat PT-190) under attack by 28 Japanese fighters on the early morning of December 27, 1943. That battle serves as the basis of the opening chapter: “We Have 15 Minutes to Live.” Joe shot down one of four fighters before the PTs were able to reach safe cover.

Joe survived the war, worked for Indiana Bell and later Illinois Bell, married, had children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. He passed away at age 91. Joe often advised his children to “be gentle,” because that was how he lived his life post-war.

Joe was my uncle. The building that was the Hostess House is now home to the National Museum of the American Sailor (NMAS), just outside the main gate of what today is called Naval Station Great Lakes. I volunteer at NMAS, and every time I’m there I can’t help but think of Uncle Joe – and how much it means to be in the same building he was in almost 77 years ago before going to war.

Jay Branson

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