WWII shipmates share memories
Dean Fearing of Staples and Robert Warnberg of Princeton had a World War II reunion of sorts recently in Staples. The two were crew members of the USS Lowndes, a supply and transport ship that was a crucial part of the Pacific Theater in World War II.
They’ve been through Hawaii, Japan, Iwo Jima, Saipan, Okinawa, Guam, Japan, the Philipines, Aleutian Islands and the Panama Canal, but on Nov. 22 they met at the Lakewood Pines, Fearing’s home in Staples.
When Warnberg entered the lobby, the two of them shared a moment alone and then had lunch with their families and talked about their time aboard ship.
Both sailors did their boot camp at Farragut Naval Training Station in Idaho. But they really got to know each other during their two years aboard the USS Lowndes. They worked on different parts of the ship, but “I knew him because he was from Minnesota,” said Fearing.
Warnberg did radar work on the ship and was stationed in the engine room. “It was so hot down there, all they had was a fan in the corner. At least I was able to go topside, he was down there all the time,” said Fearing.
Fearing was on the winch crew which lowered supply boats into the water, filled with supplies or marines.
The two shared some unforgettable memories, especially of the large battles of Iwo Jima and Okinawa. As Fearing lowered marines into the water off Iwo Jima, “I remember the looks on their faces, they were scared,” said Fearing.
They both remember watching the battle from the ship.
“It was fireworks like the Fourth of July,” said Warnberg.
Fearing said, “It was scary seeing those red bullets coming at us, they didn’t reach the ship, we were just out of their range.”
Both of men were in the harbor and saw the marines raise the flag on Iwo Jima, a moment that became famous for the photograph and statue made by re-staging the event.
“Everyone on the ship saw the flag fly on Iwo Jima,” said Warnberg, “it was an old tattered flag,” unlike the nicer one used in the famous photograph.
Fearing recalls “All the ships were blasting their fog horns when they saw that flag flying,” he said.
He also remembers bringing in the boats carrying wounded marines. “It was not a pretty sight, they were hollering in pain,” he said.
They were also in the Pacific when the United States dropped the atomic bombs on Japan.
“We saw the planes taking off,” said Fearing. Warnberg said there were B-29 bombers flying often. He especially remembers seeing them fly overhead during the Iwo Jima battle.
Okinawa was another pivotal battle the two witnessed. “The Japanese didn’t want to surrender, some ran to the other end of the island and jumped off the cliffs rather than be captured,” Fearing said.
Warnberg remembered visiting the island after the battle. “We saw all the tunnels they dug,” he said, realizing how hard it was for the troops to get the Japanese out of their entrenchments.
Fearing and Warnberg talked about other aspects of their ship experience. Warnberg remembered how tough it was to refuel the ship and to transfer troops, especially on the rough seas.
Fearing also lowered some of the boats onto the rough seas and it could hit pretty hard, with the troops on board getting a big jolt.
Fearing said he wasn’t always a winch operator, especially after he talked back to the chief warrant officer one day. The officer put him on mess hall (cooking) duty as a punishment, but it turned out to be his favorite job in the navy. He became the cook for the chief’s quarters, which allowed him special privileges. He worked his way into the laundry area, where he made “all kinds of extra money” by pressing the dress blues for the crews. It also gave him more free time, which he spent playing poker with the new ensigns, another good way to make money.
Warnberg’s son Sheldon brought him to Staples for the day. Sheldon said he still has the dispatch that was sent to the ship telling them that President Franklin Roosevelt had died.
Fearing’s daughter Patty and her husband Brian Baustian also came for the reunion and shared some old photos from the war.
Fearing joined the navy at 17, so he was still young when he came back two years later. “When I got home there was a bus strike, so I had to hitchhike home,” he said.
“When I came home I went to work, got married and never made a big deal about the war,” said Fearing.
He had worked for the Chevrolet dealer in Staples before the war and continued there when he got out of the service, spanning 70 years. He had fought the Japanese in the war, but when Japanese cars began competing with American cars, “I still had to fight them,” said Fearing.
Warnberg’s situation was different. He was married with two children when he was drafted at the age of 27. Upon returning home to his family in Minnesota, he only had enough money to get him to Rock Rapids, Iowa. He borrowed some money, and bummed a ride the rest of the way home.
Warnberg too, went back to his old job he had before he was drafted, the Chicago-Northwestern Railroad. He also had a side business fixing up cars, and had a friend who would paint them for him.
Crew members of the USS Lowndes have had reunions over the years and there is a web site for reunions, but they haven’t had one in a while because “there’s not many people left,” said Fearing.
This reunion was pulled together by Lee Jenkins of Staples along with his wife Judy, who made and served a meal for the veterans and their families.
Jenkins and Fearing had worked together at the car dealership in Staples so Lee knew that Dean had been on the Lowndes. One day Jenkins saw Warnberg at a casino and noticed he was wearing a cap with USS Lowndes on it. He talked to Warnberg for a while but didn’t say anything about Fearing.
Four years later, Jenkins saw Warnberg at the casino again and Warnberg remembered their first meeting. Jenkins in the meantime had spoken to Fearing about seeing his shipmate and this time Lee put the plans for a reunion in motion. It took several months contacting family members and making plans for the reunion. The date was set and it worked out and for veterans.
After lunch and visiting for a while, the two sailors decided to do one of their favorite pastimes on the ship, play cards. They went to Fearing’s apartment and played cribbage and shared more memories of the experiences that brought them together and linked their lives for more than 70 years.