Parkers Prairie man shares memories of his Navy days in WWII

The pages are meticulously written out in long hand. Names, dates and details written in pencil, others in permanent ink.  It’s a gift that will keep on giving for those who know him well. And, for those who don’t know him personally, they too can be intrigued and inspired by a World War II veteran’s service to country and a fulfilling life after the Navy.

Ralph with a 44 mm, a shell he was familiar with in the service. Contributed photo

Ralph with a 44 mm, a shell he was familiar with in the service. Contributed photo

Ralph Jahnke is a humble man who simply wants to share his stories. He’s a retired dairy farmer from Parkers Prairie who likes to write. Sentences stream together, and paragraphs start growing. His memory serves him well. His penmanship is clear, and his memories are special, written out in long-hand cursive.

In his words…Ralph writes his sailor’s story…

“We went to boot camp at Great Lakes, Ill. We went as a crew to Norfolk, Va. We got there on Good Friday. We heard that a German submarine sank a supply ship 10 miles out of Norfolk. The cook, George Johnson, was on guard duty at the beach. He heard people walking. He said, ‘Who’s there?! They ran, he emptied his rifle, all the flood lights went on, they found blood, so he hit a German.”

“When we got out of boot camp, we worked in this big mess hall, fed 500 sailors. German prisoners worked there, scrubbed the deck, or floor. It was baked and greasy…cooking roasters, and they mowed lawns. If one [prisoner] had to go to the bathroom, all went in and locked the door. Two guards [went in] with guns, one in (the bathroom), one by the door. You were not to stare or even look. Their heads were shaven. Young boys and 40-year-old men. The bathroom had no stools, only a 5-foot trough with six boards across; three sailors could sit at one time. The ocean water ran all the time and came out on the sides of the ship.” 

“If we had to move by train or guard duty they always picked the country or farm boys. They must think they are tougher? After mess, cooking in Norfolk, they put me in Shore Patrol, or M.P.s. I didn’t want it; all you did was stand guard at the tent, mess halls, and etc…but they made about 20 or 30 of us march many blocks with our sea bag, 85 pounds. I’m flat footed, so I just stopped. I can’t take it any longer. So, he said we will let you go back, carrying my sea bag. An officer came by with a jeep and took me back to our crew. Oh, was I happy. I wanted to sail and see the world, not guard.”

Ralph Jahnke of Parkers Prairie (lower left) with his fellow sailers during WWII. Contributed photo

Ralph Jahnke of Parkers Prairie (lower left) with his fellow sailers during WWII. Contributed photo

Jahnke worked as a cook on the USS Stickell. “We worked three cooks to a shift. If we are to have chicken, the three cooks will bring six boxes of frozen chicken on deck in the morning. Each 3 feet by 2 feet by 6 inches wide, open them up to thaw them out …frozen chickens with guts in them. We’d go on duty at 1 p.m., two of us, clean all those half-frozen chickens. We put the guts in gallon cans and throw them to the docks to the poor people. The job was hard on fingers; bone cut your fingers. You’re pretty sore by the time you’re done…chicken for Sunday dinner.”

“I made a lot of mayonnaise, whole eggs in  a 5-gallon mixer and beat slow as you add oil and salt. Three guys to a shift, 24 hours on and 24 off. U.S. cooks get up early. You always wore wood sandals for you can get athletic foot, itch between the toes. If you get it, you’ll never get rid of it. I still have it once in a while.”

“When we have battle stations, all hatches are locked. They stay at their battle stations all day. Cooks make sandwiches, lemonade, donuts to all stations. Mess cooks unscrew the hatch, go down a step and close the hatch every time.”

As a sailor, Ralph saw the world.

“We left the USS Kearsarge No. 33 at Guantanamo Bay, and sailed to the Panama Canal. I had two gallons of juice. I hated to throw I out, so I put it into two gallon jugs, and put it in my locker. In two weeks you could smell it. No liquor aboard the ship, so I figured if I got caught with it, I would get discharged. So…as we went into the first lock, water filled, I was wearing my cooking apron, and I took a jug at a time and dropped it in the Panama Canal, two times. My brother was in San Diego; we hoped to get discharged at the same time, so I didn’t want to get caught.”

“I was on duty, so (my) brother Darold and I could not see San Diego together…so he stayed on our Stickell the whole weekend. They said it was an honor to have him. He ate good steak, ice cream, and got a free hair cut from my buddy George, a Norwegian from Hayley, Minn.

“One time we had liberty at Cristobel or Gallon, Panama. [We] anchored in [the] harbor, [and] went ashore by landing craft. We went through swamp, people were poor. They built their houses and toilets out in the swamp. No sidewalks, board walks. [The] sewer was a ditch through town. Charles Jones and I went to a leather shop that sold harnesses, suitcases and saddles. It had a smell to it. I asked about the smell; it smelled like a horse barn. They used horse urine to tan leather. Two saddle horses were tied outside. Charles and I rented them for $2 and rode all over town. It was so slow; boys could run beside, selling tobacco. The sewer was a ditch, and we rode through it. When we got back our white uniforms were dirty. I rode my first Spanish mustang, and we raise them (Ralph later raised mustangs on his farm).”

Of course the sailors looked forward to liberty. “One time we went to Norfolk, Va., on liberty. It was hot, so we took a bus to Buckrow Beach to swim. Rented bathing suits. A jelly fish attacked me, a big one. I got stung all over my body; it was ticked off! It was very painful, and [I] never, ever rented a swim suit again.”

“When we were at Norfolk (we had) training and classes in a big gymnasium hut. About 150 sailors sat on benches. A guy walked around with a long bamboo pole; if anyone fell asleep he would poke him. The whites sat in one group, and the colored boys on the northwest side. One fell asleep and got poked. About 50 guys got up and broke the pole in small pieces.”

“When I was working in the big mess hall, I was very sick, high fever. When everything was cleaned up, I put my head on the table and fell asleep. I woke up in great pain; they put matches in the soles of my work shoes. I had a ‘hot foot.’ They all had a great laugh. I walked four blocks to the hospital sick bay. They kept me three or four days. A lot of guys in beds. Once a day the corpsman said ‘all butts up,’ and we all got penicillin shots. Next to my bed was a Chinese boy; his mother came to the U.S. with the children. He would let me sleep. We got to be good friends, sent pictures and letters. His name was Euk-Ng.”

The carrier, USS Kearsarge No. 33 had three flight planes. Hellcats, Avengers and Coursers and PB4 amphibious plane. If a plane misses the deck, we picked up the pilot and co-pilot. At 4 o’clock the planes came back in, in fours. They peeled off, one at a time. In the morning at 8:15 a.m. all the planes, 30 of them, all were in the air. At night, it took 30 minutes to land and go on the elevator and down one deck in the carrier.”

“On Saturday nights the Navy band played at the park for dances. U.S.O. girls came to dance with the sailors. I wanted to dance the waltz, but no one knew how. We tried…”

“The chief of any group was the boss. He knew what had to be right, boss over officers.”

“We always had to make Navy beans on Thursday for Friday inspection. On Friday, an officer and two sailors inspected the galley. He wore white gloves, rubbed  the top and doors, shelves, bins, oven, stove. They were fussy. We always passed.”

Ralph Jahnke of Parkers Prairie, (lower left) with some fellow sailers. Contributed photo

Ralph Jahnke of Parkers Prairie, (lower left) with some fellow sailers. Contributed photo

“We didn’t use clothespins – all our clothes had button holes, and we used 6-inch strings to tie on the line. Every week or two we all took turns and hung mattresses on the railings to dry for all the sweat from the hot temperature.  You have two straps of canvas with wire loops to fasten the mattress. If (the mattress is) too light you will see behind the ship… (the mattress) floating away. You should have seen the sad look on their faces.”

“When we fished over the side of the ship, we never saw the fish. Captain called to us cooks to get a meat hook with bait, (so sharks would follow). I only found bread, but it didn’t stay on. Chief O’Connor took a 45 caliber out and emptied all the bullets into the shark. It just went down, down, down, clear water, hundreds of feet.”

Ralph met the love of his life after his years in the service. “She was a country girl. We met at a dance, and boy, she was hot. Our first date was to a movie in Henning, Tarzan and the Hurricane and rats came up the aisle and ate popcorn.”

“We dated for five years! She wanted to buy a farm and live close to her folks,” Ralph explained. And so began the next chapters in his life. “We worked hard, and we never wasted anything. We farmed dairy, hogs, chickens, beef, sheep, buffalo, elk…” And Ralph and Etta were hunters. “Etta was a real hunter,” Ralph reminisced.

And as Ralph reminisces, he keeps writing…on notebook paper or the on the backs of photographs. Those photographs include the sailor years, and the farming years, and the hunting adventures. “I started to hunt when I was 12 years old. I walked one mile to my uncle’s to borrow a single 410 shotgun, picked it up on Friday night after country school and took it back Sunday night, every week. I shot grouse, squirrels, pheasants, and ducks. As I got older I traveled or walked a greater range. East of Parkers, south, west, Almora, Henning, Villard, Deer Creek, Anoka, Battle Lake, Park Rapids, Kensington, Elbow Lake, Hoffman, Wheaton…I walked every mile when I hunted. I hunted with buddies, with my kids….and with my Etta.”

Sadly Etta is no longer with us here on earth. So, until he meets up with her again in heaven, Ralph hunts with buddies in Montana. His buddy Phil Revering takes him hunting out West every year. At 92 he can’t wait to get in the saddle again in Montana.

Yup, thankfully Ralph Jahnke likes to write. He’s leaving quite a legacy behind as he jots down precious notes about a life past… and new adventures each day. He reflected, “Everybody says our family had a good life. Keep it up, they say.”