Bernie Fowler’s war was in South Pacific on USS Engstrom

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Senator Bernie Fowler served on aboard the destroyer escort ship USS Engstrom DE-50 during WWII

Senator Bernie Fowler served on aboard the destroyer escort ship USS Engstrom DE-50 during WWII

“In World War II, you knew who your enemy was” — Sen. Bernie Fowler

D-Day was June 6, 1944, signifying the end of the World War II in Europe.

PRINCE FREDERICK– Even though Bernie Fowler had a “deferrable job” in Washington D.C., which by law could keep him out of World War II, in 1944 he had two brothers fighting to eject Nazi Germany from Europe and India.

“I felt bad with them over there,” only hearing from them occasionally, he said. “So as soon as I got that release from the authorities I joined.”

Former Senator Bernie Fowler, now of Prince Frederick, attended basic training at the Great Lakes naval base and went on to basic engineering school. After that, he was shipped to Viejo, California where he came aboard the destroyer escort ship USS Engstrom DE-50. On this relatively small support ship, Fowler would spend his near two-year tour during the war.

The diesel-electric powered Engstrom traveled across the Pacific to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, where the men geared up for what became, for Fowler, a run to numerous island bases in the Pacific Ocean, where some of the most horrific battles of the Pacific side of World War II were fought.

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The primary operations aboard the Engstrom and similar destroyer escorts were to provide protective escorts for fleets near these islands. They also conducted anti-submarine warfare “sub chasing” and “picket runs” around island bases to look out for enemy submarines, ships or aircraft.

Fowler was a machinist mate, spending most of his time below decks in the engine room. His battle station aboard the USS Engstrom was manning a “K-gun,” so named for its K shape. The weapon was a manual depth charge thrower, which was used against enemy submarines.

Fowler said “it was the days before computers” so the weapon had to be hand calibrated to the correct depth, loaded and then fired manually by yanking on a cable.

While aboard the Engstrom, Fowler traveled to numerous islands, mostly unknown to Americans at the time, including Saipan, Guam, Kwajalein, Tenehan, Ulithi, Eniwetok, Iwo Jima and Truk.

When patrolling an island, the destroyer escort’s job was to circle the island, keeping watch, chasing subs and providing gun support.

On the islands, Marines and Army troops were experiencing battles against entrenched Japanese troops that were among the most gruesome in world history.

During an interview, Fowler chose not to discuss details of the battles he participated in and supported. For many men who survived, the memories alone are debilitating.

On Iwo Jima, it is estimated that more than a third of U.S. Marines there were either killed, wounded or suffered from battle fatigue. More than 6,800 American soldiers were killed on Iwo Jima, and another 19,000 wounded.

Shortly after, during the battle of Okinawa, it is estimated that more human lives were lost than during the atomic bombing of Japanese cities Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Americans soldiers suffered 12,000 deaths and more than 38,000 wounded. Japanese deaths were staggering, military and civilian. The Library of Congress estimates 107,539 Japanese military were killed and possibly another 100,000 citizens of Okinawa.

During this battle, the U.S. lost 34 ships and another 368 were damaged, mostly by suicide kamikaze attacks. 763 U.S. warplanes were lost during the 82-day struggle. The Japanese launched 1,465 suicide warplane attacks on the U.S. Navy.

During the height of Okinawa, more than 1,600 allied ships surrounded the island. The Library of Congress reports an Okinawan civilian called the initial naval bombardment the “storm of steel.”

Here and on all the island campaigns, the Japanese soldiers would never surrender. When faced with defeat or fatally wounded, these enemy troops would hide or play dead while clutching a hand grenade, in hopes of taking one more American life with their own. Allied troops frequently used flamethrowers to “mop up” the remaining hidden troops after a battle.

“We had some other duties that were more pleasant,” Fowler said.

He recalled a mission where his ship was given the order to transport 59 U.S. Marines to Guam to recover from serious battle fatigue from fighting on Iwo Jima.

The ship hit a bad storm at sea and many Marines became seasick. The men on board took care of the sick Marines, for which they were grateful, even if the Navy and Marines have a love-hate relationship.

After the men of the 5th Marine division were unloaded on big ladders on Guam, one man thanked Fowler for the extra care and said: “Now we have a much better opinion of the Navy.”

On VJ-Day, when the United States and allies declared victory over Japan, Fowler’s ship was selected to pick up surrender documents from the Japanese forces on the island of Truk. The Engstrom stayed anchored off shore while Japanese officers were boated over.

“It was so strange,” Fowler said. “The interpreter they had, I said ‘you speak better English than me’.” As it turned out, the interpreter was from California and graduated from San Jose High School.

After the war broke out the man was stuck in Japan and forced to fight the United States.

“He said, ‘I never wanted to fight you guys, when this is over I’m going back to California’,” Fowler remembered.

Fowler said he wishes he would have stayed in touch with that interpreter, “but when you’re young over there, you want to get back home, relax and go crabbing and fishing.”

One of Fowler’s brothers, Staff Sgt. Harold Fowler with the Army’s 82nd Airborne division, never returned from fighting Adolph Hitler’s Nazi army in Europe.

After the war, the USS Engstrom traveled back to Long Beach, California, where it and the other six ships in the division were decommissioned. Fowler said he recalled the Engstrom was sold to the Gillette company, presumably to make razor blades.

USS Engstrom fought through WWII and was sold for scrap in 1946.

USS Engstrom fought through WWII and was sold for scrap in 1946.

When his ship came to shore, crowds of people were there waiting, cheering, and the USO band played. The sailors were handed milk and ice cream, a standard practice for those returning, “Because there were no cows in the ocean.”

“It was great. You get a fullness in you chest, it makes you want to tear-up,” Fowler said.

Now at 88, Fowler said times were different then. Everybody knew what had to be done.

“After Pearl Harbor, there was no division in America those days,” he said. “If you were out and not in uniform, and a service member saw you, they would say, ‘where’s your uniform.”

“In World War II you knew who your enemy was, you knew what the target was and what you had to do,” he continued. “It was indelibly clear in the minds of service people what had to be done, the history of the world was at stake, really.”

Fowler said it is a shame that troops returning from wars in Korea and Vietnam did not receive such a warm welcome, and were even scoffed at.

“Those guys fought just as hard as we did, and bled just as easily,” Fowler said. “But that’s another story.”

“I have absolutely no regrets, none whatsoever,” he said. “If I was 18 again, I’d do it all over again.”

(Editor’s Note: Sen. Bernie Fowler served as a Calvert County Commissioner before being elected to three terms in the Maryland State Senate and since has served on the Chesapeake Bay Commission while leading an annual trek into the Patuxent at Broome’s Island to highlight water quality. He is active in the American Legion.)