Seabee Brings Christmas to Overseas Troops

During the early 1940s, Ivan Detwiler attended North Side High School in Fort Wayne. His family, like many, had little money. In September 1943, Detwiler quit school to enlist in the Navy. He was 16 years old.

While stationed in Japan in December 1945, Detwiler wired a 50-foot fir tree for lights.

“It was the only branch that allowed guys to enlist at that age with written permission,” he said. “My father needed a little persuasion to sign the form, but in the end he did,” he said. Note: The actual legal age for young men to enlist with a parent’s written permission was 17.

Ivan Detwiler served in the Seabees during WWII.

Ivan Detwiler might have chosen to enlist in the Navy, but he barely made it through boot camp. At Great Lakes Naval Training Center near Chicago the Navy required every recruit to pass a swim test. This included jumping off a high diving board and swimming with a 45-pound pack on his back.

Detwiler didn’t know how to swim. On six occasions he attempted to complete the test, only to be rescued before drowning each time. “The navy finally placed me in a swim class,” he said. “By the end, I was good enough to qualify for life guard rating.”

One thing Detwiler had learned from his father was skills as an electrician. Many days after school, he had spent time working with his father who was an electrician. “I trained with him as an apprentice and hoped to make it my career,” he said.

Detwiler’s upbringing aided him when he was sent to Rhode Island for 12 weeks of training with the Seabees. From there he rode a troop train to San Francisco where he boarded a ship for Hawaii.

While at sea, Detwiler was violently sick. “I laid in the fan tail (back) and just wished I could die,” he said. 

Detwiler’s complete story is told in ‘We Defended Freedom: Adventures of World War II Veterans.’

At Hawaii he worked as part of the 31st Construction Battalion in the Pacific. “Our main duties were to keep the air strips maintained with electrical needs,” he said. 

After VJ Day (Victory in Japan) on August 15, 1945, Detwiler and other Seabees were sent to Japan as part of the occupational forces. “We were housed in a barracks that had been part of the training camp for the Imperial Japanese Army,” he said.

At the city of Sasebo Detwiler and 49 other Seabees were assigned to a building as a barracks that had been a horse stable during the war. On a nearby parade grounds stood a 50-foot fir tree.

Christmas 1945 was a few weeks away. Detwiler was told to use his skills as an electrician to decorate the tree with lights for the American military living there during the holidays. 

It was a big job, literally. “I painted dozens of bulbs red, green, and white,” he said. With the help of a soldier manning a cherry picker, Detwiler wound the lights, strung together with rubber wire, around the tree, top to bottom. “We used a generator to light them,” he said. “Thankfully, on Christmas morning when I plugged them in, the tree lit up!”

Detwiler, 19, was discharged in May 1946 at the rank of Seaman 1st Class. His time in service counted towards an electrical engineering degree which he earned in 1948.

Ivan worked for his father at Detwiler Electric in Fort Wayne. He sold real estate and worked for Federal Express until age 75.

In 1950 he married and became the father of four children.

A younger brother served in the Marines during the Korean War and another brother served in Vietnam.

During the war, Detwiler learned to play the guitar. Later in life, he played music, mostly jazz, at venues around Fort Wayne, as well as with the Jimmy Stier Orchestra. He has participated in the Honor Flight of Northeast Indiana.

“I thought the camaraderie of being in the military was great,” he said. “The war was a big adventure and it taught me a lot.”

The End

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