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Frank Klepper, awarded Purple Heart for WWII valor, dies at 94

Frank Klepper, a World War II Marine gunner

Frank Klepper, a World War II Marine gunner who received the Purple Heart for heroics aboard the USS Cabot, died of organ failure at age 94 on Nov. 10, 2017, the North Merrick resident's family said. After the war, he worked for the U.S. Postal Service in Garden City. Credit: Family

Frank Klepper, a Marine who was commended for his valor in World War II but quiet about his exploits, died Nov. 10 at Stony Brook University Hospital. He was 94.

His daughter Dianne Imperial, of Merrick, said the cause was organ failure.

On Nov. 25, 1944, as Allied forces pounded remote Japanese island bases and prepared to retake the Philippines, Klepper was a gunner aboard the aircraft carrier USS Cabot, targeted by Japanese kamikaze pilots while steaming off the island of Luzon, the largest in the archipelago’s chain.

“Cabot had fought off several kamikazes when one, already flaming from hits, crashed the flight deck on the port side, destroying the still-firing 20-mm gun platform,” according to the Naval Historical Center. “Another of Cabot’s victims crashed close aboard and showered the port side with shrapnel and debris.”

Klepper, just 21 and a corporal, was staffing one of the anti-aircraft guns aboard the Cabot, a vessel that war correspondent Ernie Pyle immortalized as the “Iron Woman” in his dispatches from the Pacific.

“With complete disregard to his personal safety, he [Klepper] maintained accurate fire upon several enemy aircraft until his gun could no longer be brought to bear,” according to a citation from the admiral in charge of the U.S. Third Fleet. “Despite a wound, resulting from a bomb exploding below his gun position, he quickly brought under fire other enemy aircraft threatening this vessel.”

Sixty-two men from the Cabot were killed or wounded that day, including Klepper, who was hit in the thigh by shrapnel. He was discharged a year later with a Purple Heart and several service medals.

Frank Klepper was born Aug. 18, 1923, in New York City to Francis and Elizabeth Klappatosk. Ribbing from shipmates about the Lithuanian name caused him to change it after he left the service, said a son, Robert Klepper, of Northport, Florida.

Frank Klepper’s childhood in the Bronx was hardscrabble and sometimes chaotic, Robert Klepper said. In the decades after his return from war, the life Frank Klepper built for himself and his family in Queens and on Long Island was in some ways a repudiation of his upbringing.

Rather than spend the $75 travel money from the U.S. government after his discharge, he hitchhiked home to New York City from California. He married his high school sweetheart, the former Rita Fehrenbach, in 1948, only after he’d saved the $5,000 they needed to buy a house in Jamaica, Queens.

After short-term job selling cigars in a Whelan’s Drugstore in Manhattan, he became a mail sorter with the U.S. Postal Service in Garden City, rising to desk clerk, a job he held for some 30 years until retirement.

The family moved from Jamaica to West Hempstead and finally to North Merrick, each move another rung climbed. “A house on Long Island — that was the ultimate,” Robert Klepper said.

He recalled his father as a stoic man and a keeper of routine. Afternoons and weekends were for mowing the lawn and home maintenance. Nights were for family and a stamp collection that grew to 10,000 stamps.

“That was his only hobby,” his son recalled. Little was said about the other collection, of military decorations and awards.

His father’s approach to living was a simple one, Robert Klepper said: “You don’t say a lot. You just do what you have to do and keep going.”

Frank Klepper was predeceased by his wife in 2006 and their daughter Nancy Terrana, of Bellmore, in 1999.

A memorial was held Nov. 15 at Charles J. O’Shea Funeral Home in Wantagh. A funeral Mass was celebrated at the Roman Catholic Church of the Sacred Heart in North Merrick on Nov. 16, followed by burial at St. Charles Cemetery in Farmingdale.

In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to Patriot Guard Riders, a group that attends funerals of military veterans and first responders.

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