Army Soldier Built Radar Unit in the Line of Fire

I read today about the death of another veteran from my book, World War II Legacies: Stories of Northeast Indiana Veterans. Arnold Keuneke served with the US Army in Africa and Europe. He was the first veteran I interviewed who had served in Africa and with radar.

Here are excerpts from his story in my book:

“In February 1942 Keuneke was drafted into the U.S. Army. After completing basic training at Camp Crowder in Joplin, Missouri, Keuneke was sent to Midland Radio School in Kansas City, Missouri and radar school at Camp Murphy in West Palm Beach, Florida, and Drew Field in Tampa.

In January 1943, he and other American troops left on a boat from New York City for the African country of Ouran.

Tech Sergeant Keuneke was attached to the 12th Air Force in the Signal Corps. “We were in charge of maintaining a 588- radar unit,” he said. Radar systems used 300-foot steel masts to emit radio signals. The radar helped Allied pilots receive signals to alert them about enemy aircraft in the area. Located on a hill over the Mediterranean Sea in the South Tibesa desert, the unit operated solely under Keuneke’s expertise.

Part of his tasks required climbing the unit for repairs and working around wiring for bombs. “I had no fear of heights,” he said. “We were careful.”

Keuneke was often in the line of fire on the front line but miraculously always escaped injury. “Those bullets didn’t have my name on them,” he said.

Malaria was a constant threat for the troops in Africa. When Keuneke and his assistant were advised to swallow pills to prevent the dreaded illness, they did so but within hours, Keuneke felt sick. He quit taking the medicine and felt better, never contracting the dreaded disease. Unfortunately, his assistant developed malaria. As there was no hospital around Constantine where they were stationed, the assistant had to endure the illness on his own. Though he survived, he died of malarial symptoms five years after the war.

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From Africa, Keuneke was sent to Pisa and Corsica in Italy. While there, he befriended an Italian family. When he offered candy to their two little boys, the parents begged Keuneke to adopt the boys. “They were so poor and hungry and they thought I could provide a better home for their sons in America,” he said. Keuneke had to refuse the offer but was moved by their plight.

When the war was over, Keuneke, who had served his country for three years, returned to Indiana. He farmed and raised a family while working at Dana Corporation in Fort Wayne as an electrician.”

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Arnold Keuneke was proud of his work while serving as a soldier. Rest in peace Mr. Keuneke and thanks for your service.

I’m proud of all of our vets. Thank a veteran today!

This is 1 of 28 stories in my book which is available for purchase at this site on the home page.

Coast Guard Seaman Sailed on USS Wakefield

James ‘Jim’ Joseph Meyer was my first introduction to a member of the US Coast Guard. It’s hard to find Coast Guard members in the Midwest! I’ve since interviewed two others who served during WWII. I salute all of our branches and thank each vet for his/her service!

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Upon graduating from Central Catholic High School in 1943, Jim Meyer of Fort Wayne enlisted in the US Coast Guard.

He spent 16 weeks in basic training at Brooklyn, NY. Meyer already knew how swim, but the Coast Guard had a special challenge. “We had to swim in water with oil in it to simulate a possible accident at sea,” he said.

At Providence, RI, Meyer learned to shoot rifles, 38-caliber pistols, and 20-mm gun. “We learned how to take apart our gun and reassemble it while blindfolded,” he said.

Meyer was transferred to Portland, ME, where he had lighthouse duty. “We reported ships coming in or going out and planes in the area,” he said.

In late 1943 Meyer boarded a ship, the USS Manhattan. In 1941 the Manhattan had been leased by the US Navy and commissioned as the troopship USS Wakefield. The Wakefield was assigned a Coast Guard crew and became the largest vessel ever operated by the Coast Guard.

Note:  During times of war, the Coast Guard transfers from the Department of Homeland Security to the US Navy.

In 1942, the Wakefield caught fire. It was rebuilt as a troop ship with a crew of 600 including 20 Marines as guards. “Every morning we had general quarters. That meant every seaman manned his guns,” said Meyer. “My duties were with the 20-mm gun. We also washed the decks and painted the ship every time it was in port.”

Seaman 1st class Meyer suffered seasickness on his first trip, but thankfully it never recurred on his 43 other trips across both the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans.

Meyer’s first ocean crossing was in 1944 to Liverpool, England. “We hauled 5000-6000 mostly injured Americans troops and German POWs to the US on each trip,” he said.

According to Meyer. German POWs had cleaning duties on the ship. Meyer thought he detected a certain attitude among them.  “The German POWs acted as though our ship would not make it to the US because German forces would destroy us,” he said.

There was a possibility of danger from German subs in the Atlantic. “We zig-zagged during our route so they would not find us,” he said. “We also posted lookouts on the top of the ship to look for torpedoes.”

Despite their status as enemy forces, German POWs were treated civilly. “When a German soldier died at sea aboard our ship, he was given the same funeral ceremony as if an American seaman had died,” said Meyer.

The Wakefield sailed to LeHavre, Marseilles, Pearl Harbor, Panama Canal, Guam and Naples, Italy, China and Japan. Meyer traded for two Japanese rifles which he took home as souvenirs.

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Meyer recalled one time encountering particularly rough weather while at sea. “We were hit by a 50-foot typhoon,” he said. “We lost three guns and life rafts. We were scared because the typhoon raised our ship out of the water several times.”

The storm slowed the ship by two knots, which caused the Wakefield to arrive late in Boston. German forces spread propaganda that the ship had been sunk. Damage to the ship necessitated it be in dry dock for repairs for 30 days. (Listen to Meyer tell about the storm in a live video here.)

Among the 215,000 passengers carried on the Wakefield was at least one Coast Guard member whose name was well-known.

Jack Dempsey had already attained fame as a boxer when he joined the Coast Guard during World War II. In 1944 he was assigned to the transport USS Wakefield. Dempsey remained in the Coast Guard and later joined the Coast Guard Reserve.

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Meyer and other Allied soldiers around the world thrilled to hear the announcement of VE Day (Victory in Europe) on May 8, 1945. That marked the formal acceptance by the Allies of Nazi Germany’s unconditional surrender of its armed forces. “I was tickled at the thought of going home,” said Meyer. The battle with Japan, marking the official end to the war, concluded on September 2, 1945, when a formal surrender ceremony was held in Tokyo Bay aboard the USS Missouri.

However, like many soldiers, Meyer had to await his turn to return to US soil. He had one last momentous event yet to experience before going home.

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On December 26, 1945, Meyer became a member of the Domain of the Golden Dragon. “It is an unofficial award given to crew members of ships which cross the International Date Line,” he said.

In February 1946 Meyer arrived at San Diego and by April 1946 he had earned enough points to be discharged. He married Barbara Gase from Decatur in 1948 and they became parents to two sons. Meyer later worked at Porter Tire Company in Decatur and as a diesel mechanic for Kroger for 37 years. Meyer has participated with Honor Flight of Northeast Indiana.

He thinks about his time in World War II often via photos, his uniform and other souvenirs from the war. “Somebody had to fight,” he said. “I liked being in the Coast Guard. It gave me the chance to go to a lot of places I’d never hoped to see and meet people from around the world. It was a good experience.”

The End