Joe Orleck: The Namesake of the USS ORLECK
USS Orleck (DD886): The History of the Ship, Her Namesake, and the Men who Proudly Served in Her
by Robert L. Orleck
Very little is known about the early life of Joe Orleck. Joe was the son of a Russian immigrant junk collector, Maximilian Orleck, and his wife Rebecca. They fled Russia around 1904 to seek a better life in the United States. Two years after their arrival, on 22 June 1906, their first son Joseph was born to them at Columbus, Ohio. Then came three brothers, Phillip, Louis, and Benjamin, and a sister, Ethel.
The year 1924 marked a major turning point in Joe’s life. His father died and Joe enlisted in the Navy. Joe had fourteen years of continuous enlisted service having re-enlisted at each appropriate time, one of those times being in the Naval Reserve. From 14 December 1933 as Boatswain, Ensign on 15 June 1942, to Lieutenant (Junior Grade) on 1 May 1943 then to Lieutenant on 7 June 1943, Joe rose through the ranks to become Commanding officer of the USS NAUSET.
Most of what we know about Joe Orleck comes from historical accounts in the United States Naval records starting with his 1924 initial enlistment. When appointed Boatswain he was ordered to the USS LOUISVILLE and shortly thereafter to the USS QUINCY where he spent approximately three years. When commissioned Ensign he was ordered to the USS RAVEN and it was during this time that he earned the Navy and Marine Corps Medal from the President of the United States for what is described in the following citation:
“For extremely heroic and courageous conduct in effecting the rescue of personnel of the S.S. LANCASTER, aground off El Hank at Casablanca, French Morocco, December 31, 1942. In spite of mountainous seas and exceptionally adverse weather, Ensign Orleck took charge of a motor whaleboat and crew of the U.S.S. WAINWRIGHT and successfully completed one trip to the stranded LANCASTER, bringing approximately twelve men to safety. Although his boat capsized during the second trip, he swam to another motor boat and continued directing rescue operations. As a result of his gallant action, twenty persons were saved.”
On 2 April 1944 he was ordered to Service Force, Atlantic Fleet for temporary service. Then, Joe Orleck took command of the recently commissioned USS NAUSET on 28 May 1943 at Mers-el-Kebir, Algeria. Less than four months later he was engaged in a battle for his life and the life of his ship. Both went down on that fateful day, 9 September 1944. For his ultimate sacrifice he was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross.
For extraordinary heroism in action as Commanding Officer of the USS NAUSET during the amphibious invasion of Italy on September 9, 1943. When his ship, approaching the assault area in the Gulf of Salerno, was struck by aerial bombs which caused numerous casualties and consuming fires over the entire boat deck, Lieutenant Orleck calmly and expertly directed the fire-fighting activities, the control of serious flooding and the transfer of all survivors to the rescue ships. Valiant and determined in the face of imminent peril, he remained aboard the stricken NAUSET in an attempt to beach her and prevent total loss, working desperately until she struck an enemy mine and sank. Lieutenant Orleck’s indomitable fighting spirit and selfless devotion to duty were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.
Lieutenant Joseph Orleck was officially reported missing in action 9 September 1943 and according to law was presumed to have died on 10 September 1944. He was awarded the American Defense Service Medal, the European-African-Middle Eastern Area Campaign Medal, and the Purple Heart.
On 8 January 1945, it was recommended that the name ORLECK be given in honor of the late Lt. Joseph Orleck, USN. Ralph A. Bard, Acting Secretary of the Navy, approved the request on 11 January 1945. USS ORLECK (DD886) was launched 12 May 1945. Thus began the 37 year history of a mighty war ship named after an unlikely hero. Where else but in America could someone from such humble and foreign beginnings have the honor of a mighty destroyer being named for him. The ship and the name she carried brought a feeling of pride. The officers and crew spoke as if Lieutenant Orleck was an active member of the ORLECK wardroom and involved himself in the daily operations of the ship. Joe Orleck’s example and their feeling about him and their ship inspired the men of the ORLECK to serve their country proudly. USS ORLECK (DD886) became a symbol of excellence in her performance as all who came in contact with her would testify.