Fallen Hero

Baker First Class

Donald L. Yecke

Donald Yecke, c. 1943. Courtesy of the Yecke Family.
May 26, 1924 - April 6, 1945
Hometown:
Sheboygan, Wisconsin
Entered Service:
February 19, 1943
Unit:

USS Emmons, United States Naval Reserve

Rank:
Baker First Class, U.S. Navy
Award(s):
Purple Heart
Cemetery:
Court 2, Courts of the Missing, Honolulu Memorial

Before the War

Donald Lewis Yecke was born May 26, 1924 in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, a small city on the shores of Lake Michigan. His father, Edward, worked as a baker at the City Bakery. His mother, Louise, was a homemaker. He was ten years older than his brother Dennis, and closest in age and spirit to his sister, Gladys.

Yecke had a typical American boyhood. He loved to play baseball. With a group of neighborhood friends, he formed the “Jungle Club” in a barn located behind the family’s Bell Avenue home. The friends filled their clubhouse with old furniture, a rug, and an old wind-up record player. He was a doting older brother. When his younger brother’s rheumatism flared up on the walk home from a movie, Yecke boosted him onto his shoulders and carried him more than a mile home.

The Great Depression disrupted Yecke’s life. At his father’s suggestion, he left Sheboygan North High School after the tenth grade to help bring the family extra money. Yecke went to work at Sheboygan’s City Bakery alongside his father, a job he held until his draft notice arrived in February 1943. With a dream of one day traveling the world in a sailboat with his cousin, Yecke elected to join the U.S. Navy. He trained at Great Lakes Naval Station in Illinois before attending the Navy’s school for cooks and bakers in Portsmouth, Virginia.

Donald Yecke as a child, c. 1920s, Donald Yecke as a teenager, c. 1930s, Gladys Louise Yecke Grube

Military Experience

Yecke joined the crew of the destroyer USS Emmons, at Naval Station Argentia in Newfoundland, Canada. Yecke was a popular man onboard the Emmons; his shipmates appreciated having an experienced baker onboard. They boasted of Yecke’s desserts to the other ships in their division. His years in the bakery made his cinnamon rolls as light as air, and his treats lifted the spirits of the Emmons’ crew as they traversed thousands of miles from theater to theater.

Yecke maintained his high standards even in the middle of a war. Years later, his brother Dennis learned from a crewmate that Yecke—who knew that real brownies had nuts, unlike the Navy’s version—had used his own money to purchase nuts at the commissary. He wanted the Emmons’ crew to have the most delicious version of the treat. Sailors remembered fondly how Yecke often made seasick comrades something special or offered a roll to calm nauseated stomachs.

Onboard the Emmons Yecke had the chance to realize his dream of seeing the world. The destroyer’s wartime service would ultimately take her from the shipyard in Bath, Maine, to the beaches of Normandy, where she helped bombard the Fox Green sector of Omaha Beach on D-Day. Then she sailed to the Mediterranean, where the Emmons supported the invasion of southern France. In November 1944 she returned to Boston to be converted to a minesweeper.

“See you later”
Donald’s last visit home was for Thanksgiving in November 1944. He returned to his ship after the holiday, and the Emmons sailed for the Pacific. Donald never ended his visits home with “goodbye.” He and his sister Gladys always said, “see you later.” Those were his last words to his sister. Weeks later the Emmons left to fight in the last great battle of the Pacific theater: the invasion of Okinawa in the spring of 1945.

The ship sailed to Hawaii for exercises, and then on to Okinawa to support the invasion. Together with another minesweeper, the USS Rodman, the Emmons was sweeping for mines five days after the beginning of the invasion when the two ships were caught in a massive wave of Japanese kamikaze attacks. The suicide pilots hit the Rodman three times, disabling it. The Emmons began to circle the other ship and rallied to its defense. For several hours the two ships fought off dozens of Japanese planes. Yecke assisted one of the gun crews, who knocked many of the attackers from the sky.

A desperate defense
But the onslaught of kamikazes eventually overwhelmed the two ships, and when the Emmons’ ammunition ran out, she was left defenseless. Five kamikaze pilots struck the ship in just two minutes. A series of explosions rocked the ship, disabling it and taking a terrible toll on the crew. The Emmons suffered nearly 140 casualties in the attack, including 60 killed. Yecke was one of them. He was buried at sea on April 6.

A photograph of the USS <i>Emmons</i> (DD-457) sailing alongside the USS <i>Santee</i> (CVE-29), November 1942, A photograph of the USS <i>Emmons</i> (DD-457), Yecke’s ship, taken in Norfolk, Virginia on November 1, 1943, Donald Yecke with his mother, Mary, c. 1943-1944

Commemoration

Donald Yecke was memorialized on the Courts of the Missing in Honolulu. But Yecke’s influence on his family did not end with his death. Don Grube, a Sheboygan native, happened to be in a boat that picked up crewmen from the Emmons and thought that he recognized one of the sailors they pulled from the sea. When Grube’s mother sent an obituary from the local newspaper describing Yecke’s death, the memory clicked: before the war, Yecke had sold Don Grube bread at the City Bakery. Grube visited the Yecke residence after the war to relay that he had seen him after the battle. Shortly thereafter, Grube began dating Gladys. Three years later the two married.

His sister Gladys wrote this poem following Yecke’s burial at sea:

I look from out my window,
And in the sky afar,
A tiny ship at anchor,
There shown a Golden Star.

‘Tis a lamp set in his window,
A light unto my feet,
Both he and I are waiting
Until we two shall meet.

My “Star of Hope” so precious,
I call this Golden Star,
It Shineth in my sorrow,
My loved one, lost in war.

The last known photograph of Donald Yecke, c, 1943-1944

Bibliography

Appleman, Roy E. et al. Okinawa: The Last Battle. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Army Center of Military History, 1948.

Billingsley, Edward Baxter. The Emmons Saga: A History of the USS EMMONS (DD457-DMS22). New York: iUniverse, 2005.

Bristol, Lieutenant Commander Horace. USS Emmons (DD-457) comes alongside the USS Santee (CVE-29). Men stationed beside 40MM guns on carrier. Photograph, November 1942. National Archives and Records Administration (TR-1655). Image.

“Donald L. Yecke .” American Battle Monuments Commission. Accessed November 1, 2016. https://abmc.gov/node/486246#.Wbaa6siGPIU.

Donald L. Yecke., Official Military Personnel File, Department of the Navy, Records of the Bureau of Naval Personnel, RG 24, National Archives and Records Administration - St. Louis

Ships, Stations, Units, and Incidents Casualty Information Records, 1941-1945; Records of the Bureau of Naval Personnel, Casualty Assistance Branch, Record Group 24 (Box 24); National Archives at College Park, College Park, MD.

USS Emmons (DD 457). Photograph, November 1, 1943. National Archives and Records Administration (HR 20017). Image.

Wisconsin. Sheboygan County. 1940 U.S. Census. Digital Images. http://ancestry.com.

WW II Action and Operational Reports; Records of the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, Record Group 38 (Box 964); National Archives at College Park, College Park, MD.

Yecke Family Photographs. 1920s-1940s. Courtesy of Dennis Yecke.

Yecke, Dennis. Telephone interview by the author. March 2017.