Brigadier general started in the Merchant Marines during World War II

Dewayne Schwanke spent 43 years in military service

By Tina Snell, Staff Writer

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Dewayne Schwanke spent 43 years in military service. He started very early in his life as part of the Merchant Marines, then a career in the National Guard. He now holds the title of Brigadier General.

“A Brigadier General is just an honorary title, not really a big deal,” he said. “I got  the one-star designation in 1981, after I retired.”

Millie, left, and Dewayne Schwanke at their home on Fish Trap Lake in Lincoln. They are pictured with many of Dewayne’s medals from his 43 years of military service.

Schwanke grew up in the Lincoln area, then Randall, both on cattle ranches. He graduated from Little Falls High School in 1943.

“The big thing then was the preservation of democracy,” Schwanke said. “So, I took the train to San Francisco, Calif., to join the Navy.”

Schwanke said he wanted to start in the service in Pearl Harbor, where his brother Ray was stationed. But, he needed a job to survive while he waited to turn 18.

“The SS Wisconsin, a Merchant Marine ship, was in the San Francisco Bay at that time. I was walking the wharf when an old man on the ship asked me if I wanted a job. He turned out to be the captain, a retired Navy man from Great Britain,” said Schwanke. “We talked and I signed up for the Merchant Marines. We became good friends.”

The Merchant Marines was established in 1775, during the Revolutionary War, and is now administered by the Coast Guard. In times of peace, it transports cargo and passengers. In time of war, the service is an auxiliary of the Navy and may also deliver troops and supplies.

Merchant Marine vehicles are not just ships, but also tow and tugboats, ferries, dredges and more. In 2006, the service had 465 ships and about 100,000 members.

“Up until World War II, all supplies such as vehicles, fuel, food, ammunitions and troops went by ship to their destinations,” said Schwanke.

Dewayne Schwanke at age 18 in his Merchant Marine uniform.

From San Francisco, Schwanke did go to Pearl Harbor with a crew of about 30, transporting gas for aircraft and munitions.

On May 21, 1944, an event occurred that many call the second Pearl Harbor disaster. The 4th Marines had loaded many landing ship tanks for the invasion of Saipan in the Mariana Islands, straight east of Japan. While in the harbor, six ships were destroyed in an explosion and 1,600 people were killed.

From Pearl Harbor, Schwanke headed back to California where he was placed on the Frederick Billings, a ship with a 10,000 ton capacity and a crew of 30. The first voyage was to Calcutta, India, transporting gasoline in 50-gallon barrels.

“In the Tasmanian Sea, a storm came up and took our deck cargo, a truck and 39 dogs,” said Schwanke. The ship continued on to India.

When the Frederick Billings arrived in India, the crew discovered the country was in the middle of a cholera epidemic. Each man then received antibiotics twice a day.

As they traveled up the Hooghly River to Calcutta, they saw hundreds of bodies floating in the water.

“We learned that families who could not afford to have their loved ones cremated would throw them in the river,” said Schwanke. “When we got to Calcutta, there were bodies stacked up, waiting in the hot sun for cremation in an open fire called a ghat. It was pretty awful.”

From Calcutta, the Frederick Billings transported equipment, which included 10,000 one-ton bombs, to the island of Tinian in the Marianas, east of Japan, for the 20th Air Force.

Schwanke remembers that each night, from the islands of Guam, Saipan and Tinian, 1,500 B-29s flew to Japan on bombing raids. He said the air was full of planes.

“I was only 18 years old and was enjoying the time there,” said Schwanke. “For just $1, I could get a parachute and become a gunner on a B-29. It was a 12-hour trip to Japan and back. The pilots didn’t even ask my name, but were glad I volunteered to go, thus giving another airman the night off.”

While at one of the airstrips on Tinian, Schwanke noticed two B-29s with large black X’s within a circle on their tails (the X was later changed to an R). The planes were enclosed in a fence. One was the Enola Gay, the plane that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, Aug. 6, 1945. The other dropped an atomic bomb on Nagasaki Aug. 9, 1945.

After his time on Tinian, Schwanke returned to Pearl Harbor, but because of so many ships at port, the crew had to continue on to Honolulu Harbor. He retired at the end of 1945 as a ship’s boatswain or bosun, part of the deck department and in charge of its components.

“I returned to Randall and married Millie Copley in 1946. I also joined the National Guard and worked at Camp Ripley in the ammunitions area,” said Schwanke. “In 1950, I was deployed to Korea, but never went because of my division job. I was needed here.”

During the time of maneuvers in Texas, Millie and one child returned to Minnesota to live with her parents. While there, she had another child.

When Schwanke returned to Camp Ripley, he re-enlisted and was commissioned as a 2nd lieutenant. For 10 years he worked in munitions at Camp and received more education to assist in his advancement in the service.

Schwanke was instrumental in starting the Norwegian Exchange at Camp Ripley in the early 1960s.

“The Camp needed winter gear such as skis and snowshoes,” said Schwanke. “At that time, there were only seven soldiers in training with the Norwegians. Plus, our trail groomers were snowmobiles pulling drags through Camp. It took approval from Washington, D.C. to get a trail groomer.”

In 1973, Schwanke was sent to the Pentagon as a Lieutenant Colonel. His job was to head the committee that formed 19 reserve component training sites in the United States and Puerto Rico.

“I was in Washington D.C. on and off, during the times Camp Ripley didn’t have any troops in training,” said Schwanke. “I did learn one thing while I was there, though. I learned that if a soldier didn’t have a bird (eagle that designated a full colonel), they didn’t get an office with a window.”

It was about 1976 when Schwanke was promoted to a full colonel and received an office with a window.

In 1979, he was given the job of state maintenance officer when Col. Harold Hammerbeck retired. In that, Schwanke was responsible for all the Army equipment in Minnesota.

“I retired to Fish Trap Lake in Lincoln in 1981,” he said. “But, in April 1982, at age 56, I received a letter ordering me to active duty within seven days if a full mobilization was announced. It never happened, but I was on stand-by for another 10 years.”

Schwanke said the most rewarding experience during his military career was marrying Millie and the friendships he forged.

“I still get together with a fellow member of the Merchant Marines,” he said.

Schwanke said he never was really afraid while in the Pacific during World War II.

“I think I was just too young to be afraid,” he said.

The retired general said that Gen. Bill Cheeseman and Col.  Carl Vonderhaar, both of Little Falls, were instrumental in his advancement in the service.

Schwanke and Millie have four children. Tim is now retired Air Force, Lance is a banker, Roxanne is a teacher in Little Falls and Scot works for Yellow Freight.