Warren Fike is 85 years old today
Warren Fike of Ramona knows the thrill of taking off from and landing on an aircraft carrier in a torpedo bomber, not as a pilot, but as a passenger.
Fike served in the U.S. Navy during World War II from May 1944 to June 1946. He said he volunteered for the Navy because he saw it as a chance to see the world.
The 18-year-old farm boy reported for duty at Ft. Leavenworth in May 1944, along with Eddie Klose of Ramona.
After basic training at Camp Farragut in Idaho, Fike attended 16 weeks of signal school at the camp, where he learned Morse code and learned how to use lights and flags to convey messages between ships.
He served on three ships during his time in the service, traversing the Atlantic Ocean numerous times. Several times, he traveled from the East Coast to the West by train to a new ship assignment.
“I went under the Golden Gate Bridge three times before I ever got to come back under it,” he said, referring to the suspension bridge at San Francisco.
The official Navy uniforms in which sailors usually are photographed were not what they wore in their daily work. On board ship, Fike said, he wore jeans and chambray shirts. The uniforms were worn only when leaving the ship to spend time on shore.
“After being on a ship for a long time, it felt funny to walk on solid ground,” he recalled.
Some of Fike’s most memorable experiences happened at the end of the war when he served as signalman aboard the aircraft carrier the Antietam, which had been docked at Tokyo when Japan surrendered.
He was stationed on the bridge above the deck and observed torpedo bombers as they took off and landed. He said he saw several mishaps.
One time during a practice run, he had the chance to ride in a bomber. He especially remembers the landing, when the deck hook caught the plane and brought it to an abrupt stop.
“I was wearing goggles beneath my helmet, and when the plane stopped, they flew up on my head and dropped down to my chest,” he said.
He estimated the plane was going 50 miles per hour when it landed.
Fike began active duty in January 1945. He was sent to a naval base on Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay and was assigned to the U.S. Navy Armed Guard. The Guard included signalmen, radiomen, and gunner mates who served aboard merchant ships.
He was assigned to serve on a minesweeper that was being sent back to Boston via the Panama Canal.
Fike was the only Navy man aboard. The rest of the crew were members of the Merchant Marines.
A sister ship followed Fike’s ship, and he and the signalman aboard that ship, a sailor from Minnesota, conversed using their signal flags.
Fike said traveling along the coast was rough and rocky. Sometimes the ship’s propellers at the rear came up out of the water, sending a violent shudder throughout the ship. The rolling actions made him seasick.
Going through the Panama Canal was a memorable experience, the two ships moving together from one lock to another as they progressed through the canal.
When they were off the North Carolina coast, one of the crew slipped on the ship’s deck and broke his collarbone. The captain headed to shore to Morehead City to find a doctor. He missed the channel, and the ship became grounded on a sandbar.
Another ship came to the rescue but could not get close because of extremely rough water, so they cast a rope to Fike’s ship, and each man climbed over the side and went hand over hand in the raging water to the rescue vessel. Fike said everyone made it safely, including the injured man.
The crew spent several weeks in Morehead City while the ship was pulled off the sandbar and taken into dry dock for repair of a cracked hull.
Fike said workers that dislodged the ship went through the ship and stole many things. Fike lost all of his clothes and other personal items. He used his clothing allowance to purchase new supplies.
The ship finally made it to Boston, where Fike was put on a train for the Armed Guard Center in Brooklyn, N.Y. He then was put aboard a troop train going to San Francisco.
Bringing troops home
There, he was assigned to a cruise ship, the MV Noordam. It was being used as a troop carrier ship. It belonged to the Holland-American line and was run by Dutch sailors, so there wasn’t much communication between the crew and the Navy men.
After passing through the Panama Canal, the ship sailed to LeHavre, France, a city on the English Channel, to pick up troops. Germany had just surrendered.
The fog was thick in the channel, and ships used repeated horn signals to avoid running into each other.
The troops were delivered to Staten Island, N.Y., and the ship docked at Hoboken, N.J.
Loaded with supplies, the ship sailed back to France, this time to Marseilles on the Mediterranean Sea. It picked up more troops and returned them to Staten Island.
After another train trip across the country to San Francisco, Fike was sent on a supply ship to the South Pacific and his last assignment on the USS Antietam.
Fike remembers several incidents that happened at port stops on the way to Japan.
While at Hong Kong, he was delighted to meet Bill Munsterman, a Navy sailor from Lincolnville. Munsterman was serving on a destroyer, a ship that dropped depth charges.
In China, Fike saw people living on sampans, or boathouses. He said he and other sailors had fun throwing apples and oranges to the children, who dove into the water to retrieve them.
Fike received an honorable discharge in June 1946, at Norman, Okla. He returned home to the family farm without fanfare and soon was busy helping with wheat harvest.
His purpose for joining the Navy had been fulfilled.
“I enjoyed seeing different places,” he said. “I was very fortunate in my service to our country and appreciated all the American people who had to sacrifice to support the war effort.”
Fike is a member of the Antietam Association, and he and his wife, Paula, have gone to most of its annual reunions. He still communicates with two other veteran signalmen, one from Missouri, and one from Iowa.
Warren and Paula have been married for more than 60 years. They have lived all of their married life in the same farmhouse where he has lived since age 13. The farm is one mile west of Ramona.
The couple has 7 children, 18 grandchildren, and 19 great-grandchildren.
Fike is celebrating his 85th birthday today. He has been an active member of the community, serving as a rural mail carrier and a member of the local farm cooperative and the Centre USD 397 school board. He served on the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service (ASCS) county committee for eight years.