Robert Kaping and his older brother, Melvin, were nearly 7,000 miles from their New Ulm home in May 1945, churning through the Pacific Ocean near Okinawa, Japan, in the final months of World War II.
That's when the men on the bridge of Bob's destroyer, the USS Drexler, received a "hello signal" via spotlights from Melvin's ship nearby. Bob Kaping shared the anecdote about the brotherly greeting in a May 14, 1945, letter home.
"I'm still going strong; never any complaints on this end," Bob wrote, joking that details of his naval service would have to wait "until I get home" because censors would just blot out specifics.
He never made it home. Just 22, he was trapped in an upper ammunition handling room two weeks later when two Japanese kamikaze pilots attacked and sank the Drexler. Bob Kaping was among 168 dead — and the 67th man from Brown County, Minn., killed in action in WWII.
"He left us so soon, before he settled into what kind of man he'd become," said his niece, LaDonna Wagner, 88, of Durango, Colo. "So many went off to World War II like these brothers, but Bob was the one in our family who never came back. He was a great uncle."
Unlike Wagner, another niece — Sandra Nazarenus, 73 — never met her Uncle Bob. But she's inherited those censored letters, heard the family stories, and keeps a thick file of Bob's records at her home in Madelia, Minn.
"He was a friendly, outgoing congenial person who always had a big smile," Nazarenus said.
Family members aren't the only ones remembering Robert Ervin Kaping as Memorial Day approaches. Gavin Klabechek, a 17-year-old sophomore from Ham Lake, is among 16 students selected nationally to research "Silent Heroes" from WWII. Next month, Klabechek and Christopher Stewart, his social studies teacher at North Lakes Academy Charter School in Forest Lake, will present their research and eulogize Kaping at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu.
Working off a list of nearly 500 sailors and soldiers memorialized in Honolulu, Klabechek chose Kaping to profile because of his naval rank as a Storekeeper, 2nd Class. Bob's duties included serving as a paymaster, postmaster and supply coordinator, he explained in a letter to the New Ulm Journal that Nazarenus has in her file.
"I wanted to tell a unique story of someone providing support, not necessarily in a combat role," said Klabechek, explaining that his research "personalizes the individual sacrifices men like Robert Kaping made in a huge, momentous event like World War II."
Klabechek and Stewart recently trekked to New Ulm, meeting with researchers and Kaping relatives at the Brown County Historical Society.
"I think it's wonderful that the younger generation has picked up these stories," said Nazarenus, whose mother, Elsie, was two years older than her brother Bob and the youngest among the five siblings of New Ulm housepainter Otto Kaping and his wife, Annie.
Bob Kaping, who would have turned 100 last month, graduated from New Ulm High School and worked at the Bee Hive clothing store, according to his draft card. Family members think he joined the Navy in 1942 to emulate his brother Melvin, who enlisted in 1937.
With help from the relatives, Internet sleuthing and sources in New Ulm, Klabechek unearthed the "crazy twist" that Kaping served in both the European and Pacific theaters. Naval records show he mustered onto the USS Meredith on March 31, 1944, and survived a mine-strike explosion on board the destroyer near Normandy two days after D-Day. He was away from his bunk when the Meredith struck the mine, killing seven dead and leaving 50 wounded or missing — many of whom slept near him.
"He came home to New Ulm for a month to convalesce," Nazarenus said. If only their uncle had stayed in Europe — or New Ulm — he might have survived the war, Wagner said.
Klabechek and Stewart discovered a yellowed newspaper clipping with a photo of a big-eared sailor and the headline "Smiling Bob Kaping."
"Just a few months ago, he was back in New Ulm visiting friends and now the report has come that he was killed May 28, 1945," the story reported. "While in New Ulm he told of narrow escapes but he faced the future with a brave heart and a bright happy smile on his face.
"Let us hope this terrible war may end before too many of our fine young men will be called to make the supreme sacrifice." The war ended — three months after Kaping was killed.
Klabechek's research will eventually join other heroes profiled on a National History Day website, nhdsilentheroes.org/gallery.
"Uncovering facts and telling his story," Klabechek said, "is a great way to commemorate those who served and sacrificed."
Curt Brown's tales about Minnesota's history appear every other Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at email@example.com. His latest book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: strib.mn/MN1918.