WORTHINGTON - Alvin Obermoller began his freshman year of study in mechanical engineering and psychology at the University of Minnesota in the fall of 1941. A farm kid from southwest Minnesota and valedictorian of his senior class at Brewster High School, he had plans to become an engineer.
Plans can - and often do - change.
Seven days into December, on a Sunday morning, Obermoller and a small group of men had walked from their St. Paul campus to nearby Concordia College for a vespers service. By the time they returned to their dormitory, they heard rumors about a Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.
That attack led to American involvement in World War II, and by the summer of 1942, Obermoller had enlisted in officers training. When a medical issue led to his discharge, he returned to Brewster and married his girlfriend, Lucille Jensen. A year and a half after he’d been sent home, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy as an electronics technician.
The enlistment led Obermoller to the Great Lakes Naval Training School, where he spent a quick six or seven weeks before being shipped overseas.
“It was a rush, crash course,” recalled the nearly 95-year-old Worthington resident.
Obermoller was assigned to the Admiral Hugh H. Rodman, an APA-126 attack transport ship used to deliver soldiers to battlegrounds in the islands of the Philippines and north to Okinawa.
“We would travel across the ocean without convoy,” he said. “We could travel faster than a submarine submerged and supposedly outshoot them.”
Life aboard the 608-foot-long, 75-foot-wide vessel was spent working in the engine room, where Obermoller was tasked with changing the speed of the ship.
The most harrowing experience aboard the ship happened after it left the harbor at Okinawa. It was Obermoller’s first trip to the Japanese island.
That Sunday afternoon, he was off duty and using the time to study for advancement. He was in the engine room, in the rear starboard gun turret, when he saw a Japanese suicide bomber heading straight for their ship.
“He went up and was probably going to be going right between the stacks and on the way down to the engine,” Obermoller suspected.
Just as the pilot set his course, the ship made a sharp right turn. Obermoller believes the pilot was flying with his eyes closed, as he completely missed the ship and crashed into the ocean on the opposite side from where Obermoller was.
“She made a big splash,” he said.
Some 60 years later, Obermoller shared that story while seated under a shade tree at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. Travelling on Southwest Minnesota Honor Flight’s inaugural journey, Obermoller rested on the same bench occupied by a Japanese freelance reporter.
“She was trying to get closure for (the families of) the suicide pilots,” Obermoller said. “She knew the name of the pilot that missed our ship.”
The image of the suicide bomber haunted Obermoller for years after he returned from the war.
“I’d hear a plane and I’d drop,” he said.
While attacks were always a possibility aboard ship, the sailors performed their work and found ways to pass the time when they were off-duty. There was lots of card playing, dice rolling, gambling and smoking going on.
“A friend and I were pinochle champions for more than a month aboard ship,” Obermoller said with a grin.
While the suicide bomber was his most terrifying experience aboard ship, Obermoller described another incident - this time on a mission to Okinawa to pick up troops - when the Admiral Hugh Rodman rode out a typhoon. The ship had taken on water in the storm, and Obermoller said she tipped to 68 degrees.
Whether rough seas or calm waters, this Minnesota farm kid didn’t mind.
“I never got seasick,” he said. “The rougher the water was, the better I could sleep.”
The ship restocked with food and supplies most often at Pearl Harbor. During one stop, Obermoller was able to reunite with his younger brother who was stationed there while in the Army.
Obermoller was discharged from the Navy in the spring of 1946 and returned to the family farm near Brewster. He helped his dad that summer and then rented his first quarter section from an uncle.
“I bought milk cows from him and took care of two nice sorrel horses he had,” Obermoller shared. On his 25th birthday, he bought his first piece of farmland, and eventually sold the milk cows and invested in registered Angus cattle.
He and Lucille raised five children on the farm. She died about 12 years ago, and with their youngest son, Ron, farming the land, Obermoller did his last field work a year ago.
Now a resident of Ecumen Meadows, Obermoller and other veterans in the senior living facility have plenty of time to share stories of their service - or perhaps share stories from the more recent generation of soldiers.
Obermoller’s grandson, Lee Janssen, recently retired after 20 years in the U.S. Navy. The Round Lake native served as a Navy SEAL and has shared some of his stories with his grandpa.
For Obermoller, Veterans Day is about remembering them and all who served their country.
“People see it today as a holiday,” he said. “Very few people outside of family go out to the graves and probably shed a tear or two. Most people celebrate it as an extra day to go shopping, fishing or hunting.
“Very few people realize the freedom our country has and the boys who gave their life for it,” he added. Obermoller lost several friends in World War II, and a couple of cousins in Korea.
For serving his country between 1943-1946, Obermoller received $300 (the pay was $200, with a $100 bonus paid for those who served overseas). He also earned pay while aboard ship, which could be spent on nickel-a-pack cigarettes or gambling. Obermoller wasn’t much of a gambler, so by the time he returned home to his wife, they had about $1,000 saved up.
“I am nowhere near a hero,” Obermoller said of his service to his country. “I didn’t battle.
“We helped take troops overseas. We took a lot of boys overseas that didn’t come back.”