‘Johnny Silk’ can spin a tale

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Like many of the residents at Amerisist of Warrenton, John Sekelsky has lots of stories to tell. Visitors to the assisted living facility can hear about his World War II missions and see the artwork he painted featuring the planes he flew in. They can hear of his years as "Johnny Silk," semi-professional accordion player, and listen to him tickle the keys.

His story began a long way from Warrenton, in the town of Punxsutawney, Pa. Sekelsky was born in the hometown of the famous groundhog in 1923, but for most of his childhood he lived in Cleveland. His family attended Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church, a large Catholic community founded by Slovak immigrants. He attended the parish school and served as an altar boy. It was there his love of the accordion began.

One of the teachers, Sister Anastasia, played the organ but wanted to start an accordion band. Around 50 of the students signed up, and a man from town came to give them instruction, said Sekelsky.

A few years later, Sekelsky was in a nearby park, ice skating and playing the accordion, when he found out that World War II had started. Sekelsky worked for Parker Appliance during the early part of the war making technical illustrations for aircraft parts. In 1943, he was drafted by the U.S. Army but then transferred into the Air Corps, the precursor to the Air Force.

He was trained as a radio operator in Mount Rushmore, S.D., and was sent to an air base in England with the title "radio operator/ mechanic/ gunner."

During the war, Sekelsky served with the same group of men. They named their B-17 aircraft "Miss Memorial." Their first mission was to bomb Berlin, but as Sekelsky put it, "I bombed Hitler."

While flying in a mission over Berlin, the Germans fired on Miss Memorial, blowing out one of its engines. The pilot flew the plane over the water as Sekelsky radioed an air field in Brussels, Belgium, that allowed them to land.

"When we landed in Brussels, all the kids ran up to my airplane and they wanted cigarettes for mama and papa," said Sekelsky. "Kids used to stop on all of the runways, (and ask) 'Got any gum, chum?' "

After completing his missions, Sekelsky continued flying to teach others how to operate the radio on B-29 aircrafts.

The veteran's life was more than his participation in World War II. Sekelsky studied music and art at the Cleveland School of Art. After the war he lived in Croton-on-Hudson, N.Y., for many years. He worked as a commercial artist, using an airbrush to retouch photographs for catalogs and advertising. Each day he commuted by train into his art studio in Manhattan.

A friend introduced him to a visiting nurse from Troon, Scotland, named Elizabeth "Elsie" Hamilton. The two were married at his home parish of Nativity. John and Elsie had five children - four boys and one girl. The family attended Holy Name of Mary Church, where Sekelsky was active in the Knights of Columbus.

World War II veteran John Sekelsky spends most of his days playing the accordion and organ, but 70 years ago "I bombed Hitler." Read the remarkable story of "Johnny Silk" and his wartime missions over Berlin in this week's Catholic Herald. http://bit.ly/1SPEGYSPosted by Arlington Catholic Herald on Wednesday, April 6, 2016

His love of the accordion continued. In his spare time, Sekelsky played the instrument at weddings and other parties as "Johnny Silk." Sekelsky said he knows how to play 4,000 songs.

"I always played the accordion," said Sekelsky. "I'm still playing it."

Pictures in his room of WWII bombers, an aerial view of Croton-on-Hudson and a wedding anniversary photo of his late wife serve as reminders of his storied past. Holy cards from St. John the Evangelist Church in Warrenton are tucked into the frames of a few.

Attending weekly Bible study and Mass has kept Sekelsky's faith - forged in the now closed Slovak parish in Cleveland - alive today.

Di Mauro can be reached at zdimauro@catholicherald.com or on Twitter @zoeydimauro.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2016