My friend and I interviewed a WWII Vet for a History Assignment
|There was only one thing I knew for certain as I walked up the stone path of 114 Midland Ave; I would be hearing the story of Fred and Ruthie Engelken, a storybook couple married and in love for over sixty years. As they led me and Lauren through the front door, I was hit by the distinctive scent of the elderly, a scent that winds it way through nursing home halls, a scent that let me know this couple had history to share.
We sat down on the floral sofa and got to the interview right away. Both elders were enthusiastic, and it made me feel more comfortable in the unfamiliar environment. Fred would be the main speaker, but Ruthie sat down with us as well to listen and offer her two-sense whenever she felt necessary. Fred, now 84, grew up in Paterson, NJ until he joined the Navy soon after the start of WWII. After serving in combat in the Philippines, Japan, and China, he returned home and fulfilled a career as a teacher at Fairlawn High School. Eager to start, Fred began his address before Lauren and I could even open our laptops. Our first question for him was quite simple.
L & C: How old were you when the U.S. entered the war?
Fred: 1941…that was when Pearl Harbor was attacked: I had just turned 18.
L & C: What was your initial reaction to hearing the news [of the war]?
Fred: Terrible. I was going to Paterson State, which is now William Paterson
University, and we had played basketball in Albany the night before. We were riding back home on the bus, and we were listening to music from the Great Band Era: Tommy Dorsey, Glen Miller, all those great songs that are gone. So the radio was playing those, and an announcer broke into the music, and he said he had a very special announcement. Pearl Harbor has been attacked by the Japanese. And he gave us a very little amount of information, because I don’t think they wanted a lot of info out that early. So we knew we were at war. We didn’t need a declaration of war. When the Japanese attacked our main base in the Pacific Ocean, without warning, it didn’t take a genius to know we were going to be at war. The next day Roosevelt, December the 8th, made a great speech to the nation. He told us that we were at war and that Congress had declared war. And it was know as his day of infamy speech. It was a great speech.
L & C: Did you end up serving in the military?
Fred: Not then. I was a civilian going to school. In 1943 or ‘42 I took a test for the Navy Reserves. I think it was about six hours or something. I passed the test, and so I was a standby situation until there were openings in school for us. The goal was to achieve a commission in the navy. I was drafted into the Navy at Drew University for one semester. We were in uniform, and they taught us the basics about the navy and the military, nothing too deep or pretentious. I was going to go to midshipment school but there were no openings. In December, an opening occurred at Columbia University in New York City, and so that’s where I went for my training.
L & C: What is midshipment training?
Fred: Well what midshipment training is we were going be there for ninety days, at Columbia. Schools all over the country opened up to take men and make officers out of them. We were called “90 day wonders” because it’s a wonder you learned any thing in ninety days. It was good because I could come home on the weekends and [Ruth and I] could have a weekend together. We would go to the movies and visit relatives. During those ninety days at Columbia, we were working very heavily from morning to night, no let up. We had a test everyday in every class. When you get used to that psychology can you figure out what that would do to you if you went to Pascack? It puts pressure on you to really study, because you know you’re going to get hit every day. And it works; it really works.
At this point, Ruth went on to tell a story about when she visited Fred at Columbia, causing us all to erupt into laughter. After we regained our composure, Fred continued with no questions asked.
Fred: In April 1944, I got my commission in the United States Navy Reserve, and a week later Ruth and I got married and I turned 21. It was the biggest week of my life. I got orders to go to Boston, the first naval district, to report to my ship, an LCI that stands for landing craft infantry. (He shows us a picture of an LCI and explains its structure to us). When I reported to the director’s office to get my orders he said the ship wasn’t even built yet. Ruthie came up to Boston for our honeymoon, thinking we had a lot of time. So13 days later that ship was floating, and we were ready to leave. They put them together in a hurry. Then we went to the Chesapeake Bay where we had a week of shakedown with an experienced LCI officer who broke us all in. We ran all the drills on the ship and everything that had to be done, he showed us how to do it. After going to Bora Bora for two days we went to New Guinea and then got ready to go to the Philippine Islands. We went up and invaded the islands in October 1944. McArthur invaded the Philippines, and we were all up there with him during the invasion. The Japanese sent three big task forces to the Philippines to try and drive us out of the Lady Gulf, and they almost got in. It was called the Second Battle of the Philippine Seas. We sunk a lot of Japanese ships. That was the last major naval effort that the Japs were able to make during the war. We were inside that harbor. We were really the target. They wanted to get their big selves in there and get rid of us who had landed.
By now I was itching to hear an exciting war story where lives at risk, and before I could say a word, Fred went on to tell his near-death epic tale.
Fred: The next big thing that happened to me was my ship was hit by a kamikaze, a suicide plane. It was on a Sunday. A large contingent of Japanese planes came over the harbor to bomb. Our fighter planes went off the airstrip to meet the planes. Some of the greatest pilots were from the Second World War. We were sitting having coffee in the wardroom, and all of a sudden somebody yelled, “Here he comes!” So I was at the door, and I ran up the ladder and looked out the pilothouse. And here’s this Japanese plane heading right for me, heading right for the middle of the ship. The officer standing next to me grabbed a magazine and fired at this guy, and he hit him right before he was going to smash into us. The fighter deflected and smashed sideways into the rear of our ship. It put a big hole in it. We started to take on water, and we were going to sink. (Gets picture of ship after attack) Nobody was killed on the ship but we were sinking, so we were steered over to the beach by the air force base. It’s just a lovely place to be with big guns that are noisy all night long.
L & C: Were you ever wounded?
Fred: No, I got sick with Dengue fever. I ran a high fever. They took me off the ship and put me in a hospital with tents and cots. They made me sulfur drugs. One morning about 3 or 4 in the morning I was told I had to get up. I was told I had to leave to go to Okinawa. I told the officer I was still sick but I still had to go. I took a plane for the first time in my life to Okinawa. When I got to one side of the island I went to the port directors office and asked where my ship was. He said on the other side of the island, so I hitchhiked to the other end of the island. There were hundreds and hundreds of ships in the harbor; there was no way I could find my ship. So the guy in the signal tower sent a light signal, and sure enough my ship responded and sent a small boat to pick me up an bring me back to the ship. We went to Shanghai for a few months, but it was after the war had ended in the fall of ’45.
Fred then talked for several minutes about his experiences in China and gave us a brief history lesson about the Mao-Tse-tung and his conflict with Chiang Kai Sheck on Formosa.
L & C: When were you allowed to return home?
Fred: Well the war had ended in August, but we were making trips to Formosa until January. They didn’t need us any more after that, so what did we do? We went home. I was approved to take a ship back to San Francisco. Then we had to get home by ourselves, take a train or something from San Francisco. Ruthie met me there.
Fred got up to gather some more things to show us. He came back with two pitchers from the carrier Enterprise, the “Big E”, that were used to distribute coffee to the men on duty. He also showed us his medals, which were showcased in a velvet-lined box. Lacking any trace of arrogance, it was still clear that Fred was proud of what he had done. One last question would lead to the end of the interview.
L & C: Did you become a teacher right away when you got back?
Fred: No, I had to go to school. I had to go to Montclair State. I always wanted to be a teacher. I never thought about being a businessman or anything else. I’ve always loved history. That came from my grandfather. The G.I. Bill paid for my education and some of our income. The other part of our income came from Ruth’s teaching job at Fairlawn High School and my selling shoes in Paterson on the weekends. And that’s the great story of Frederick E. Engelken: 0332611.
Upon leaving, I knew there were so many more things I would have liked to ask Fred and Ruthie if time permitted, but we had spoken for over an hour already and wanted to let the couple get back to their daily routine. Walking down the street to Lauren’s house, I was in a great mood; the interview was a success, and I got a lot more out of it than I expected. I had always listened to my father recount stories from my grandfather, a pilot during WWII killed on the way home from combat, but never before had I heard a war story first-hand from the veteran involved. The account that stole the show during the interview was that of Fred’s ship being attacked by a kamikaze plane. When Fred got up to find pictures of the damage, Lauren and I looked at each other in disbelief. “That’s crazy,” we both said under our breath. I have always been aware of the violence and danger involved in warfare, but having it personalized opened my eyes to the true reality of war, and how taking a coffee break can mean the difference between life and death. The amount of training required before joining the armed forces was something that surprised me. I had always assumed that the country would take any soldiers they could get and send them into battle as soon as they could.
I have a lot more respect for those men who had to learn so much in such a short amount of time and then apply it on the battlefront. That fact that the typhoons in the Philippines were worse than most of the fighting was news to me as well, and Fred had endured three. I never took into consideration the weather’s effect on the soldiers and the battles on the seas. Fred and Ruthie’s friendliness towards me, a stranger, calmed my initial nerves and made me feel right at home. Before walking out, Fred called to us that if we needed help with any other projects, we should just knock. I might have to take up that offer.