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‘I was too busy to be afraid’

Dawson man assisted on bombing missions in the South Pacific during WWII

By Scott Thoma

With Japanese aircraft zeroing in on the American fleet in the South Pacific, Delbert Thielke of Dawson insisted that he was never afraid during the time there while serving his country in World War II.

“Not once was I ever afraid,” he said. “I am a strong Christian and I knew God was with me 100 percent of the time. Besides, I was too busy to be afraid.”

Thielke spent over three years aboard the U.S.S. Shipley Bay as a 3rd Class Aviation Ordnanceman in the U.S. Navy. His duty was to roll bombs and work with bombing missions. He was also one of several plane captains aboard the ship, each being assigned to one of the 30 airplanes aboard the aircraft carrier.

“We had to make sure our plane was in working order and fully loaded before it took off,” he explained.

Thielke is the last remaining member of the crew he spent those years with. And he is one of approximately 380,000 World War II veterans remaining from over 16 million Americans that served during the war from 1939-1945.

“There were about 1,500 of us on our carrier, including crew, two surgeons, two dentists, cooks, barbers, photographers and others,” he explained. “There were four hospital beds on the ship, too. But we never stepped one foot on land in those 3 1/2 years. We had all our food, supplies and ammunition brought to us by supply boats. We made our own fresh water.”

Thielke turned 97 years old on Oct. 9, but the advanced number will fool you. He has outlived two wives and still lives in his home in Dawson. He bounds around the house like a man half his age; not needing a cane or walker to assist him and does his own cooking, cleaning and washing clothes.

“And I make my bed every morning,” he added with a smile.

And even more impressive is that Thielke chops eight cords of wood, splits it into smaller pieces to fit into his wood furnace, carries it all down to a room in his basement, and stacks it neatly.

Thielke was born in 1923 in Appleton, Minn. Just after graduating from high school, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1942.

“There were about 25 boys in my class that wanted to enlist in the U.S. Navy flight program, but only seven of us were considered physically fit enough to be accepted. I was a good athlete and played four years of basketball and football for Appleton.”

And even to this day, Thielke is physically fit.

“I weighed 135 pounds when I graduated from high school,” he said. “I’ve weighed 135 pounds my whole life. I still weigh 135 pounds.”

After enlisting, Thielke wanted to be in the Navy Air Corps and went to Wold-Chamberlain Field at the Minneapolis Airport for training. Once the training was completed, Thielke and others were told there was no place to send them at that time. So they were given the option of discharging and joining the Army.

“I went before the cadet board to explain that I wanted to stay in the Navy,” Thielke told. “So they said there were three schools they could send me to for training.”

Thielke then went to Memphis, Tenn., for training to be an Aviation Ordnanceman (AO), which have some of the more high-risk responsibilities in the armed forces. In the Navy, they handle and service weapons and ammunition carried on Navy aircraft.

Their duties included inspecting, maintaining and repairing the aircraft’s mechanical and electrical armament/ordnance systems. Aviation Ordnancemen also stow, assemble and load aviation ammunition that may include anything from aerial mines and torpedoes to missiles and rockets. They would also service bombs, missiles, and rocket releasing and launching devices, and service aircraft guns.

Thielke trained for three months there before getting advancing to the Great Lakes Naval Training Station, a 1,600-acre Boot Camp overlooking Lake Michigan. Before being assigned to a ship, Thielke had additional training at the Naval Air Station in Seattle on various duties he would be performing aboard a carrier.

Eventually, Thielke was assigned to the U.S.S. Shipley Bay, which he boarded at Pearl Harbor in 1944. From that point on he remained on the ship for over three years.

“We never ported even once,” he said. “We were so busy on the ship that we didn’t even have time to get lonesome. I wrote letters home once a week when I had time.”

During the war, the Shipley Bay was credited with assisting in taking back 16 islands that the Japanese had gained control of.

“We would bomb the island and then others would go in and take it over,” Thielke explained. “We didn’t even know where we were. We just did what we were told day after day. All our orders came out of Pearl Harbor.”

During each mission, however, the fleet that the Shipley Bay was a part of would continually be under attack by kamikaze pilots who flew their planes into one of the many American ships.

“They never missed their target,” said Thielke. “I never saw one crash into the water. They didn’t always sink a ship, but they always hit a ship and caused damage.”

The Shipley Bay, which consisted of 15 torpedo planes and 15 fighter planes, was never hit during all those attacks.

“I saw planes hit one of our ships a few feet away from us,” he recalled.

During the mission, Thielke and other crew members would load the torpedoes and bombs on the planes.

“Even though I wasn’t real big, I was strong,” he noted. “I could lift a 100-pound bomb and put it in a gun rack. The torpedo bombs weighed 2,000 pounds.”

Sometimes the carrier would have to travel with 75-foot waves ramming against the side of it.

“I never got seasick, though,” Thielke said with a grin. “About three-fourths on the men on the ship got seasick.”

When most of the men became ill one time, Thielke had to be the helmsman in the pilothouse to keep the ship on course.

The Shipley Bay was decommissioned in 1946 and eventually sold for scrap in 1959.

Thielke returned home in 1947 and had three children with his first wife, Myra. They were married 32 years before she died in 1977. Thielke was married to his second wife, Anna Mae, for 33 years. She had eight children from a previous marriage. Anna Mae passed away in 2018.

Thielke owned and operated his own photography business in Dawson for 57 years before retiring. The Del Thielke Studio was based out of his home.

Today, Thielke tackles woodworking projects as a hobby. He spends a lot of his free time making hundreds of lapel pins. The pins feature a small cross made out of dogwood branches that he finds in ditches, which he affixes to small apple tree branches.

“I give them away to whoever I meet,” the personable Thielke revealed. “People are falling away from God. But I want people to know that He is the answer to all our problems.”

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