Korean War veteran fought fires on aircraft carrier, then in the city
The Buffalo News, N.Y.
BUFFALO — At 18 years old and just graduated from Our Lady of Victory High School in Lackawanna, David J. Shatzel and nine other 1951 graduates of OLV wanted to help the United States achieve victory in the Korean War.
“We all enlisted in the Navy, and you either got sent to the Atlantic Fleet or the Pacific Fleet. I got sent to the Pacific, and it was exciting. I first went to California. I’d never been anywhere before that,” the 79-year-old Shatzel says.
He had been raised in Lackawanna by his parents, Elmer and Agnes, who ran “a working man’s saloon” – Shatzel’s Grill on Electric Avenue. That background, incidentally, would serve as the foundation for his later success as owner of Coles on Elmwood Avenue in Buffalo and Brennan’s Bowery Bar in Clarence.
But as a patriotic teenager, Shatzel was off to see the world. The Navy trained him as a “hot suit man,” which had nothing to do with wearing flashy clothes, but rather saving the lives of pilots whose planes sometimes crashed onto the flight decks of aircraft carriers.
“We wore asbestos suits so we wouldn’t get burned if the plane was on fire and we had to get the pilot out,” he says.
By 1952, Shatzel was stationed on the USS Bairoko headed for the Korean peninsula.
“The propeller planes on it were catapulted off the deck into the air. That’s how they took off. You would put a cable on the plane and shoot the catapult,” he says.
Shatzel went into action when aircraft returned from their bombing runs, experiencing mechanical difficulty after being shot up by the North Koreans and their Chinese allies or simply from making a bad landing.
“Sometimes when the planes would land, the tail hook would miss engaging with the arresting gear, a cable that goes across the flight deck. The planes would hit fiberglass barricades to prevent them from crashing into other planes that were parked forward on the deck,” Shatzel says.
Such emergencies, he explained, required the hot suit man to “climb up on the wing, get the pilot out and put the fire out, if the plane was on fire.”
He doesn’t consider himself a hero: “It was just a job.”
After the Korean War, he and fellow shipmates sailed to waters off the Marshall Islands, where the United States continued to develop its nuclear arms program in a testing program known as Operation Castle.
“They were dropping atom bombs on Enewetak and Bikini islands. It was done in the early morning at dawn. I was right up on the flight deck. I could see mushroom clouds,” he recalls. “On our ship, we had the scientists, and they would be taken on helicopters to take tests and survey the damage.”
Toward the end of his service, Shatzel served on the USS Boxer in the Philippines. In 1955, he was honorably discharged.
Back home, he put his military skills of working in heated situations to work as a Buffalo firefighter for six years and in his off-hours tended bar. His goal, he said, was to follow in his parents’ footsteps and own a bar. In the 1960s, he bought a downtown tavern, but it soon closed. Shatzel remained determined and succeeded in 1970 when he opened Brennan’s Bowery Bar, which to this day is one of the region’s best-known taverns.
In 1973, Shatzel purchased Coles, an Elmwood institution that also continues to flourish.
One of Shatzel’s five children, Michael, now runs Coles, and another, David Jr., manages Brennan’s.
Of his military service, Shatzel says, “I was a kid, and it was a good way to grow up.”
Just recently, he received his war medals in a surprise ceremony at a restaurant in Lackawanna, thanks to his friend Neil O’Rourke, who filed the paperwork to make sure he was recognized – though 57 years later.
“Dave barely stopped to get his mustering-out pay when he left the service,” O’Rourke says. “He wanted to get out, get home and have a couple nights out on the town with the boys.”