Dickinson man's WWII battleship replica also to be final resting placeU.S. Navy veteran Earl Wehner, 82, has been building a replica of the USS South Dakota (BB-57) — the battleship that he served on during World War II. But it has another, long-term purpose.
By: Linda Sailer, Dickinson (N.D.) Press
Navy veteran Earl Wehner poses with a replica of the USS South Dakota at his home in Dickinson on Wednesday.
U.S. Navy veteran Earl Wehner, 82, has been building a replica of the USS South Dakota (BB-57) — the battleship that he served on during World War II.
He’s nearly finished with the project — relying on a photograph, a small plastic toy and his memory to complete.
The battleship features the turrets that fired on the enemy, a pontoon observation plane and the tower topped by the U.S. flag. Built out of oak, the replica has brought back a rush of memories for the former sailor.
“Why did I decide to make the battleship?” Earl asked. “I did it for us — me and (my wife) Winnie.”
A skilled wood carver, Earl started the project in July. It hasn’t been a hobby, though. It’s being made for a purpose.
“Tell her what it’s for,” said Winnie. “It’s a casket for us and for Kayla (pet dog).”
“It’s for our ashes,” added Earl, pointing out the three wooden boxes imbedded inside the battleship and secured by a latched door. “I kind of thought it up and we agreed on it, didn’t we mother?”
The battleship will be a fitting resting place for Earl and his wife, since it played such an important part of their lives.
Earl joined the Navy at the age of 17 as a way to see the world. He served active duty from February 1944 to May 1946, and then was placed on reserve.
“I didn’t get along very good at home and so I left,” he said. “I thought I could get around more places.”
Earl and Winnie met at a dance in Gladstone when they were both 17 — just prior to his joining the military.
“By the time he left, we wrote every day,” she said.
When he came home on leave in September 1945, he gave her a diamond. She didn’t have much knowledge of what was happening on board the ship.
“Everything was crossed out,” she said.
“All the letters were censored, sometimes she’d get half a sheet,” added Earl.
He recalls serving on the USS South Dakota when it saw action from the southern tip of the Philippines into Tokyo Bay.
“We were the first ship to fire on the Japanese homeland — I felt sorry for them,” he said. “I believe we fired on an ammunition facility.”
While the letters were blacked out, Earl kept a diary. Winnie read entries from October 1944:
“Strikes against the ship — Okinawa, Oct. 10, 1944; Luzon, the Philippines, Oct. 11, 1944; Formosa, Oct. 12, 1944; invasion of Philippines Oct. 20, 1944; strike on Leyte Gulf, Oct. 23, 1944; strike on Manila, Oct. 23, 1944; strikes on the Jap surface force at San Bernadine Oct. 25, 1944, strikes on Jap fleet, Oct. 26 and 27 ...”
Earl vividly recalls the Japanese kamikaze suicide airplane strikes against the battleship.
“We got quite a few of them, in fact, we shot down some of our planes that were chasing the Japanese — they got too close to the fleet and were supposed to turn away,” he said.
He said the ship was hit by one kamikaze plane before he arrived on board. But he recalls one major accident.
“We had an explosion on ship in the powder magazine room,” he said. “Luckily, one guy threw the switch that flooded the compartment. We lost 27 people at that time.”
Facing the enemy and accidents weren’t the only hazards for the ships.
“The typhoons were bad,” he said. “The ship’s bow would go way down under the water and then it would come up… boom, boom, boom… the whole ship would shake. Of course what made it shutter was the blades in the back end.”
He also recalls the sound of the guns.
“When we’d shoot the 16-inch guns, the lenses of the search lights would shatter from the concussions,” he said.
Earl’s division operated the 16-inch turrets — the big guns. The ship also had smaller guns, all depicted on his replica.
Werner was assigned with the Second Division of the ship.
“We operated the 16-inch turret. “I was a powder man. We got the powder out of big containers — it was packed in ether. We unpacked the powder, put it in a tray that went into the turrets. The projectiles weighed over a ton. We could shoot them 18 miles.”
The ship was 200 miles at sea from Tokyo when the first atomic bomb went down.
“We didn’t really know what the damage was,” he said. “It took the second bomb to make them surrender.”
The USS South Dakota was anchored in Tokyo Bay next to the ship where the surrender of Japan was held on Sept. 2, 1945, he said.
“The surrender was supposed to be signed on the USS South Dakota, but it was changed because (President) Truman was from Missouri — it was signed on the Missouri.”
After the war, the USS South Dakota returned to the United States.
“We brought back a bunch of troops — the deck was loaded with military personnel,” he said.
After a leave, he joined the battleship which passed through the Suez Canal and to port in Philadelphia.
Earl’s next Naval assignment was serving on the USS Fremont (APA-44). He recalls the cargo ship transported animals to Bikini Atoll in the Bikini Islands. The U.S. military dropped an atomic bomb on the island and the animals were part of the Bikini Atomic Experiments, he said.
After discharge, Wehner returned to Dickinson where he and Winnie were married Sept. 28, 1946. He worked as an auto mechanic for 18 or 19 years, then ran a tune-up shop from 1966 to 1980. The couple also bought a telephone answering service, which they operated for 20 years. They are the parents of a son, Kim in Kennewick, Wash., and a daughter, Desirae who works in Bismarck.
Having no grandchildren, Winnie said, “We have granddogs.”
She supports her husband’s efforts to build the battleship replica.
“He’s got something to do,” she said.
She recalls the time he built a model train that took up two rooms of the house.
“After so long, I needed the two rooms back again,” she said.
He built a doll house that was so large, it’s been donated to the Dickinson Museum Center. A frontier town and characters are on display in a back room.
While Earl has never stepped aboard another battleship since discharge, the Wehners have attended Navy reunions.
“Now, it’s the second generation attending,” said Earl.
The USS South Dakota was decommissioned in 1947 and remained in that status until 1962 when it was sold for scrap. A memorial of the ship, including relics from the ship within a concrete outline of the hull can be seen at Sioux Falls, S.D.
“It’s quite something to see,” he said.
Looking back on his naval experiences, Earl felt it was a good decision to join the Navy.
“I didn’t have to sleep on the ground,” he said.
The Dickinson Press and the Herald are Forum Communications Co. newspapers.