89-year-old relishes memories of a life of service and sights seen
by Jennie Zeitler, Staff Writer
Howard Warnberg enlisted in the United States Navy in November 1942, at Bell’s Cafe in downtown Little Falls (currently the American Legion.) Every one of the 17 young men who enlisted that day came home from their service in World War II.
“But I’m the only one still living,” said 89-year-old Warnberg.
Bell’s Cafe was made available to the Navy recruiter because its owner, George Merrick, was a World War I Navy veteran.
Warnberg and his brother, Lawrence, both joined the Navy that day. They went through boot camp together at Great Lakes Naval Base, Ill., in the last class to sleep in hammocks.
“Ever since that, recruits sleep in bunks,” Warnberg said.
Daily attendance at chapel was a “must” during basic training, and Warnberg remembers hearing the Blue Jacket Choir sing.
“Just about the greatest banjo player, Eddie Peabody, played a concert at chapel,” he said.
During training, Warnberg found out his brother wanted to be a cook, and he was immediately put in the galley for training.
Warnberg recalls an incident during basic training when his group was routed out of bed at 2 a.m. by a training chief.
“He told us he’d heard it said that he wasn’t very tough,” Warnberg said. “He wanted to show us who was tough.”
The chief directed the young recruits to run with him around the drill field.
“He outlasted us, and quietly made his point,” Warnberg said. “We found out later that he had been on the cross country team in Kansas.”
Warnberg volunteered for the submarine service, but was disqualified due to his height of more than six feet. He was then sent to the four-month-long torpedo school, also at Great Lakes.
His life took a turn during training, as Warnberg recognized that he “had something to prove” to himself.
“I didn’t have the greatest grades in school,” he said. “I was something of a ‘good-time Charlie’ and I was determined that I could do better.”
Warnberg was one of 10 men of a group of 135 who received an advanced rating, moving up from E-2 directly to E-4.
He then went on to advanced torpedo school in San Diego, Cal. “The Navy has a way of making you study,” he said.
It was on-the-job training in San Diego. Warnberg had his first ride in an airplane during that time and remembers when the pilot made a turn.
“All I could see out the window was the ocean, and I thought, ‘Why’d I leave the farm?’” he said.
Following his training he reported to Pearl Harbor in mid-1943 to the torpedo overhaul shop, where he spent the remainder of the war. His job was to break down every torpedo to the last part, cleaning and rearming them.
“They are very intricate,” he said, “the gyroscope and depth mechanisms.”
While he was at Pearl Harbor, his brother had been at sea aboard an aircraft carrier that took a kamikaze attack which killed 40 men. The carrier came to Pearl for repairs and somehow Lawrence knew that his brother was there.
“He knew I was there and looked me up,” Warnberg said. “It was a big surprise.”
A little-known incident occurred in 1944 when Warnberg was out in the harbor delivering torpedoes and heard an explosion less than a mile away.
“It was called the ‘second Pearl Harbor,’” he said. “Six landing ships were lost and 163 sailors died, but it was top secret. It was not made public until about 1960.”
Warnberg recalls the day victory over Japan was declared, “VJ Day.”
“We were very happy; it was quite a celebration,” he said. “We had been working seven days a week.”
Warnberg left the Navy in 1946 as a chief torpedoman. He married his high school sweetheart, Margaret Larson of Culdrum Township, Oct.19, 1946 and they settled in Little Falls.
He worked for a construction contractor and in 1950 started his own flooring business, laying ceramic tile and carpet and finishing hardwood floors.
“It was a hard trade, but it didn’t hurt me much,” he said.
In 1998, he sold Warnberg’s Floor Service to his nephew, Charlie Warnberg.
Warnberg held public office from 1977 to 1992 as a county commissioner from District 2. During that time, the county built a new jail.
The Warnbergs raised three children: Becky, an educator who lives in Grand Rapids; Kent, a Minneapolis police officer; and Brenda, a nurse in Seattle. There are six grandchildren and three great-grandchildren (with two more expected this year).
In 1974, the Warnbergs began their foreign travels. That year they started in Greece and visited Egypt, Crete, Lebanon, Syria and Israel.
Another memorable trip took them to Hudson Bay for three days in about 1989.
When visiting Sweden in 2000, Warnberg spoke a few words of Swedish to his hosts.
“They immediately knew that it was ‘old’ Swedish,” he said. “I had learned to speak Swedish from my grandparents.”
From Sweden, they continued on to attend the Passion Play at Oberammergau, Germany which is presented every 10 years. They were also able to visit Prague (now the capital of the Czech Republic.)
They visited Alaska three times. They spent a few winter in Florida and a few winters in southern Texas before Margaret died a year ago.
Warnberg has posed for local artist Charles Kapsner for a painting that honors the history of the Navy. It is the second in a series of five paintings that will hang at the Minnesota Veterans Cemetery in Little Falls.
“He saw me in uniform and wanted me for the painting,” Warnberg said. “It shows different eras in the history of the United States Navy.”
Warnberg joined Grace Covenant Church in Little Falls even before he got married, and is now the longest member.
“I feel blessed that I’ve been able to go to a few places and see a few things,” he said. “I think people who have been other places are more tolerant of others and their beliefs; they are convinced more in their own heart what they believe.”
Warnberg is honored to be part of the planning committee for the Memorial Day ceremony at the Veterans Cemetery. It will be Sunday, May 26 with a prelude at 1:30 p.m. and the formal program at 2 p.m. The cemetery is seven miles north of Little Falls on Hwy 371.