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Published: Saturday, 7/4/2009

Marine flier had 21-year service career

John F. Sutkus, 89, a retired U.S. Marine who survived the 1945 attack on the USS Bismarck Sea, died Wednesday in Toledo Hospital. He died of natural causes, his son, John, said.

Mr. Sutkus served 21 years in the U.S. Marine Corps as an aviator, retiring at the rank of major.

The 1937 Scott High School graduate served in the Civilian Conservation Corps for a couple of years in Idaho before returning to Toledo to pursue flying.

He entered preflight training here, known as "ground school," and then entered naval flight training outside Chicago after the start of World War II.

He received a commission with the Marines and went on to participate in the Battle of Iwo Jima. In February, 1945, he was on board the Bismarck Sea when it was sunk by Japanese kamikazes.

"He only opened up about it the last 10 to 15 years, but he always referred to it as 'the swim,'•" son John recalled. "Obviously it was a real chaotic scene when you had an abandon-ship order issued to a boat that had more than 1,000 people on it."

But his father was a good swimmer and wasn't in the water long before he climbed into a rescue ship. He went right back to work and the next day landed on the island for a combat observation mission for which he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, the younger John Sutkus said.

"That was always his attitude," he said. "He was just doing his job."

Mr. Sutkus retired from the military in 1963 and returned to Toledo, where he lived the rest of his life.

He had a second career in the steel fabricating shop at Surface Combustion. Mr. Sutkus retired in 1981 and joined the "Surco Retirement Club," meeting monthly with all the other "old guys" for lunch, his son said.

After a career in the military, during which he was based in locations such as Japan, Morocco, and Korea and his family lived at bases across the country, Mr. Sutkus was happy to return to Toledo and make a life here, John Sutkus said.

"Roughly about half the time, he was off someplace around the world," he said. "We moved a bit but not nearly as much as he did."

In his free time, Mr. Sutkus enjoyed playing handball and bowling.

"He was serious obviously because he felt you had to do your job and follow duties property, but also he liked to sing and tell jokes and enjoyed being with family," his son said. "His ideal holiday, for instance, like [today] would be get together with the extended family and tell stories and sing songs."

His wife, Dorothy, whom he married in 1946, died in 2001.

Surviving are his sons, John and Lee; daughter, Sydney Norman; brother, Daniel, and two grandchildren.

Services will be after 2 p.m. tomorrow at the Thomas I. Wisniewski Funeral Home. Mr. Sutkus will be buried in Arlington National Cemetery. The family suggests tributes to the Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society or the Injured Marine Semper Fi Fund.



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