by Robert L. Orleck
What does a mother feel when she sends her eighteen year old son off to a career in the United States Navy? What are her thoughts when a World War erupts and her son is out there facing challenges on the open seas? What does she feel when a month or so goes by and she does not hear from him? Does she worry and think the worst? What if he doesn’t come home to her after the war is over but only writes? No phone calls, just letters. What if he doesn’t return for a visit for the last thirteen years of her life and all she has are the few letters and gifts from overseas. This is what happened to Mrs. Rebecca Orleck of Los Angeles, California whose son was Lieutenant Joseph Orleck, namesake of USS ORLECK (DD886). You might say that he wasn’t much of a son for not having come back home once during that time to visit his ailing mother. But you need to know the rest of the story.
I was reluctant to include what some might think are personal family matters in this history. However, since the story has appeared in several magazine and newspaper articles I felt it was fair to comment on what transpired.
What actually happened was that Joe’s sister and brother decided to keep their brother’s death a secret from their mother and they lied to her for those 13 years.
Mrs. Orleck had a bad heart and her children felt that it was in her best interests healthwise to keep the news from her. They went to the extreme of writing letters and sending gifts in his name. It happened and it is history, but one cannot help but question whether they did the right thing.
Did Rebecca know as mothers do that something was terribly wrong and that she would never see her son again? Did she suffer more from not knowing everything than if she did know? Was it right for her to be denied the knowledge of her son’s heroic efforts at Casablanca and during the invasion of Italy? Was it right to keep her from experiencing the honor of having a United States Naval Vessel named after her son? Was it right to keep his death from her?
In an article, KEPT ALIVE BY LIES, in the American Weekly the article begins by stating: “A hero is dead in the war. The news might kill his mother. What would YOU do?” In the article Ethel Orleck indicated that for nearly 13 years because of the fragile health of her mother that “By every device of kindly deception, I kept Joe alive for my mother’s sake over all these years.” Then when Rebecca’s son Ben also died 12 years after Joe’s death and about a year before she died, Rebecca was told by Ethel that “Ben had been in ‘an accident’ and had decided to go to a Kentucky hospital, because Louis (another brother) ‘would be close there.'”
Was it the right thing to do? “What would YOU do?” Some people cannot go on after the death of a loved one. They just die of a broken heart. But in most cases, especially with those people who have a strong faith, they get through it. As hard as it is to believe at the time, those feelings of loss heal somewhat. At times even good comes from what was seemingly a totally worthless and tragic situation. One could hardly argue that anything good could have come out of Joseph Orleck dying on that day in 1943. But Joe in his death has established a legacy for the future that resulted in not only a gallant ship with his name but a feeling of pride and loyalty by the men who served on his ship for their country.
In the last sentence of the above mentioned article, Ethel asked if she did right. There are some people who die, having wasted their life, and there is little to remember. Yet there are some lives that after they end are celebrated because of what they did accomplish and the celebration comes in the memories of those that are left behind. Joe led such a life. He was a fine person, a hero and a credit to our country. In asking the question even Ethel must have had doubts. If wrong, she was most likely driven by a misguided love of a daughter for her mother.
An interesting side story was revealed by John Marshall Prewett, Attorney at Law (Retired). In a letter he wrote the following:
“I read of the proposed reunion of the U.S.S. ORLECK (DD 886) and it brought back some memories. We were operating out of San Diego. I went to L.A. for the weekend. I caught a cab, and I noticed that the driver’s identification said his name was Ben Orleck. So, I told him there was a destroyer in the squadron by the name of ORLECK. He did not know about the ship, but told me the story of his brother Joe Orleck’s heroic actions for which he had received decorations posthumously, in the Navy, at (I believe) the Anzio landing.
So, I wrote down his name and address, and when I got back to San Diego I went to the ORLECK and read about who it was named for, and it was the same information that Ben Orleck had told me. So, I wrote to him about it, and told the captain of the ORLECK. I had told Ben Orleck that it was probably a different guy because the Navy would have notified next of kin if there was to be a ship named for him. Ben Orleck said that the family had not had good relations with Joe Orleck’s widow, and had no contact with her for sometime…I ran into the officer who relieved me some time later, and he told me that the Navy had just notified next of kin who was Joe Orleck’s widow, and she had not notified his mother and brothers and sister.”
At first it may be difficult to understand the motives for Joe Orleck’s widow, Gertha, not notifying the brothers and sister, but a very logical reason stands out once the facts of the deception are known. If the lie was to be maintained then Ben and Ethel Orleck probably went out of their way to keep Gertha from talking to or seeing Joe’s mother. It is easy to understand why communications might have been severed. If this be so, then the deception affected many people and also kept Joe’s brothers and sister from celebrating his heroism and remembrance by his country. It kept a grieving wife from comforting and being comforted. And it is most sad indeed that Mrs. Orleck did not get to experience the pride and joy that she would have gotten knowing that her son did such heroic acts for his country and his country recognized and honored him in the way it did. “What would YOU do?”