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Navy man recalls war service

June 22, 2012
Jenn Brookens - Staff Writer , Fairmont Sentinel

FAIRMONT - "There's no way to put five years and three months into an hour and a half," Fred Wollschlager said when he agreed to do an interview for the Pioneer Museum's series on local World War II?veterans.

But give him some extra time to chat one on one, and Wollschlager is full of interesting tidbits about World War II that no one has heard about in any classroom.

Wollschlager begins with his move to Fairmont from Nebraska when he was 14 during the drought-driven Dust Bowl Era of the 1930s.

Article Photos

LOOKING BACK — Fred Wollschlager and his wife, Theo, were at the Pioneer Museum in Fairmont this week for a showing of a recording dealing with Wollschlager’s World War II experience.

"We played football games where there was so much dust, we couldn't see the end of the field," he recalled.

A few years later, the military was accepting 17-year-olds for service.

"A Navy recruiting officer came to Fairmont," Wollschlager said. "There was no formal college education in our family at that time; there was no financial help. So I discussed it with my family and decided to sign up for the Navy."

On Jan. 15, 1941, he reported for duty.

Following training, Wollschlager was assigned to the USS Northampton, and then completed more training at Pearl Harbor, the U.S. naval base in Hawaii.

It was in 1941 when the USS Northampton was traveling with a task force en route to Wake Island, located halfway between Hawaii and Guam. An error in a fueling exercise may have saved the Northampton and the task force.

"It was about Dec. 5," Wollschlager recalled. "When we had to refuel, the two ships would be tied together as we took on fuel from the tanker. But there was a miscommunication and somehow both ends got dropped and the tie ended up wrapped tightly around the propeller. It was a mess. We eventually had to send divers down."

And the entire task force fleet stayed with the ship.

"We never left anyone behind," Wollschlager. "We were due back Dec. 6, but that took us so long it set us back."

Because the fleet failed to make it back in time, it was not at Pearl Harbor when the base was bombed by the Japanese on Dec. 7, 1941.

"There were very few carriers at that time, and that was why there were no carriers at Pearl Harbor when it was bombed," Wollschlager said. "About 10 years earlier, around 1933-1934, there was a fleet operative task force maneuver published, and that was the program that was used by the Japanese for the attack."

The day after the bombing, the USS Northampton and its fleet ventured to Pearl Harbor.

"Ships had run aground to keep from being sunk," Wollschlager said. "The Arizona was sunk, the California was sinking. The Oklahoma had overturned, and there were a number of men trapped in the hull of the Oklahoma. They could communicate with Morse code through the ship, but they perished because there was no way we could get to them. It was very sad."

But there was no time for mourning, as the fleet gathered up as many provisions as possible and headed back out, looking for the enemy. On Feb. 1, the Northampton's fleet was in the first offensive action in the Pacific by the U.S. Navy during the war.

"We were dispatched to the Marshall Islands," Wollschlager said. "There were various other engagements on other islands leading up to the Battle of the Midway in May. That was when we lost the USS Yorktown carrier. We sank four Japanese aircraft carriers, [plus] cruisers and destroyers. We won one of the biggest naval battles of World War II."

There was also Doolittle's Raid on Tokyo in April 1942.

"It was a coup for the U.S. Navy," Wollschlager said. "The damage might have been inconsequential, but we showed that we could bomb Tokyo."

Then came the Battle of Tassafaronga on Nov. 30, 1942, when the USS Northampton was sunk.

"We were hit with two torpedoes from a Japanese destroyer," Wollschlager recalled. "After abandoning ship, I don't know how long we were in the water, but it was the middle of the night, and you've never seen the black of night like out on the Pacific Ocean. There was some starlight, and then there were star shells fired by the [Japanese], but they weren't where we were."

After the sinking, Wollschlager was sent back to the United States and ultimately reported to the Four River Shipyard in Quincy, Mass. He also took this time to marry his high school sweetheart, Theo, of Blue Earth.

"When I first got back, we talked about getting married, but I didn't want to leave after a month and have her end up a widow," Wollschlager said. "When I learned I was going to be at this shipyard for several months, I called her and said, 'If you can make it to Boston, we can get married. We spent nine months together before I shipped out again."

Wollschlager spent the remainder of 1943 and 1944 on the USS Boston, helping fight in the Pacific islands, including assisting the Army and Marines in the Philippines. But then his experience as a chief mechanist mate was needed back in the States to train other engineers on new ships. He was reassigned to the USS Steinacker, which never got into the war.

Meanwhile, Theo had given birth to a daughter, whom Wollschlager found out about two months after she was born.

"We'd go 30 or 40 days without having any mail or contact," Wollschlager said. "Then when we'd get back, there'd be 30 or 40 days worth of mail waiting for us."

"I wrote him a letter almost every day," Theo said.

Wollschlager got a few days of leave when his son, Gary, was born in January 1946, and then received his honorable discharge in March of that year.

"We won the war because we made less mistakes," Wollschlager said. "But that's the history of all wars."



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