Harry J. Minarik (1920 – 2015)
Navy TBF Pilot – Air Group 16
Harry Minarik was my family’s doctor while I was growing up in Salem, Virginia. He and his wife, Jackie, were close friends of my parents. As I grew older, I learned how my father and Harry had become friends.
During World War II my father was one of three officers in the U.S.S. Randolph’s Marine detachment. The Randolph (CV-15) was an Essex class aircraft carrier and part of famed Task Force 58.
In June 1945, Air Group 16 joined the Randolph while the ship was in the Philippines. On 1 July 1945 the Randolph departed on its Third War Cruise as flagship of Task Group 38.3, part of Admiral Halsey’s Third Fleet.
Harry Minarik was a TBF torpedo bomber pilot in Air Group 16. He and Dad first met aboard ship, but didn’t really become friends because their shipboard contact was limited by their different assignments.
After the war Harry went to medical school at Emory University. After earning his medical license he moved to the small town of Salem, Virginia and opened his practice as a family physician.
My father, who had returned to the University of Virginia after the war, completed his degree in Architecture and also moved to Salem, Virginia where he joined an established architectural firm.
One day in 1950 my mother took me (age 5) and my brother (age 2) to meet the town’s new family doctor. While we were at the doctor's office my father stopped by to meet the new doctor. Mother later told me that Dad and Harry looked at each other for a few seconds; then it was, “Harry?" "Roy?” and the stories and their lifelong friendship began.
Harry grew up in what was then the small town of Sanford, Florida where his father worked for the railroad. After finishing high school he planned to spend three years at Stetson University in Deland before entering medical school, but the looming threat of war made that unlikely.
Harry entered the Civilian Pilot Training program and earned his Private Pilot’s license in September 1941. After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor the Navy sent him to Atlanta for primary flight training, where he flew the N2S Stearman. He was commissioned an Ensign on 31 August 1942, and received his wings as a Naval Aviator on 21 September 1942.
The best Harry Minarik story I heard while I was growing up was how the Navy sent a Florida boy to the Great Lakes to learn how to land on an aircraft carrier. The Navy had converted two lake steamers into small aircraft carriers and newly winged naval aviators became carrier qualified by making several landings using SNJ trainers equipped with tailhooks.
The winter of 1942 was so cold that ice in Lake Michigan trapped the aircraft carriers to their docks. Harry sat around for three weeks waiting to qualify, but the ice was still so thick the carriers remained trapped. The Navy needed pilots so badly that it gave up and sent Harry to NAS Opa-Locka, Florida. While he enjoyed the warmer weather, the trip south meant the first time Harry landed on an aircraft carrier he was at the controls of a massive Grumman TBF torpedo bomber.
Shortly after Air Group 16 came aboard the Randolph the task force began attacking the Japanese home islands. On 24 July 1945, Torpedo Squadron 16 attacked Japanese forces in the Inland Sea. Harry’s actions during the ensuing battle resulted in him being awarded the Navy Cross. His citation reads:
“For extraordinary heroism as Pilot of a Torpedo Bomber Plane in Torpedo Squadron SIXTEEN, attached to the U.S.S. RANDOLPH, in action against enemy Japanese forces in the Inland Sea on July 24, 1945. Pressing home an aggressive attack against a hostile battleship-carrier in the Kure Naval Base, Lieutenant Minarik succeeded in scoring a direct hit and near misses despite intense and accurate antiaircraft fire, thereby contributing materially to the destruction of the hostile vessel. His skillful airmanship and courageous devotion to duty were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.”
When I saw Harry at my father’s memorial service in December 2010, I suggested he come to Pensacola, visit the Naval Aviation Museum, and fly in my Stearman. Two months later, his son Mike called and told me he and his wife were bringing his mother and father to Pensacola, had reservations at the Hampton on Pensacola Beach, and hoped I would be able to spend some time with them while they were here.
I called Julian MacQueen, told him about Harry, and asked if he would have his people at the Hampton take care of them. Julian’s immediate response was, “Would you mind if I upgraded them to the new Hilton?” (For those of you who don’t know him, not only is Julian a good guy, he is an accomplished pilot and certified airplane nut who owns a beautifully restored vintage Grumman Widgeon that was a Navy aircraft during World War II).
Harry and his family had a great visit to Pensacola. Santa Rosa Island Authority Executive Director Buck Lee arranged perfect weather, and on Saturday the good folks at the National Naval Aviation Museum arranged a private tour for Harry and his family, followed by lunch in the admiral’s dining room. Pensacola Mayor Ashton Hayward sent a proclamation making Harry an honorary citizen of the City of Pensacola, which Harry appreciated even more when I told him he didn’t have to pay city taxes.
Sunday was a beautiful "Chamber of Commerce" day and I flew both Harry and Mike in the Stearman over Pensacola Beach, NAS and downtown Pensacola. Although this was the first time Harry had touched the controls of an airplane since he got out of the Navy in 1945, it was obvious he still remembered much the Navy taught him. If he had been able to stay in Pensacola for a little more practice, I think he could have soloed in no more than another two days.
Harry Minarik died 19 March 2015, at age 94. America is poorer without this member of the Greatest Generation. Should you happen to look up “Gentleman” in the dictionary, don’t be surprised if you find a photograph of Harry Minarik next to the definition.
Harry Minarik is in the front cockpit as we taxi out for his final flight in a Navy N2S-4.