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One veteran’s story

by Tom Chillemi
The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor changed millions of lives.

With America’s entry into World War II, Floyd Wheeler’s life also took a new course. On the day after Christmas 1941, Wheeler enlisted in the Navy. Like countless others, Wheeler probably didn’t know where the journey would lead. But, like many young men and women, Wheeler heeded the call to defend his country.

On Veterans Day, Wednesday, November 11, a grateful America will honor all those who served in the military.

Wheeler wanted to serve on a submarine. He reported to San Diego where the Navy learned he had a knack for repairing electronics. He and a Navy buddy were given a radio to repair that had been in a fire, recalled Wheeler, a Middlesex resident who is now 88 years old. They got the radio working, which impressed the instructor enough to put Wheeler into electrician school.

“Sound men” were in demand. Radar was less than 10 years old. This technology would be vital in detecting the enemy during World War II, and would play an important part in winning the war.

It was Wheeler’s job to repair and maintain radar, radios and electronics. In time he would attain the rank of “sound-man” first class. “You just did your job,” he said, noting that rank was not important.

The 21-year-old Texan’s journey took him to distant places in the Pacific Ocean, from Alaska to Australia. “I went a lot of places, did a lot of interesting work, and met a lot of fellows who were true friends,” he said this week.

He still remembers a man called “Whidden,” who was plucked from the water after his ship was sunk. “He was quiet and he was first class. You don’t get any better,” said Wheeler.

Wheeler was stationed on the USS Sperry, which was built specifically to be a submarine tender. It was launched in December 1941. Submarines would dock next to the USS Sperry and the technicians would board the submarine and work for as long as it took to make it battle ready. Sometimes they worked a week overhauling equipment.

Wheeler spent some time in the battle zones of the South Pacific, not knowing if his ship would be attacked.

When subs came back to a main base, they often had flags flying to show how many ships they had sunk. “At the time, submariners didn’t talk about what they did,” he said. 

After the war Wheeler had job offers in the electronics field, but he wanted an education. In 3.5 years he earned his BA degree in electrical engineering at Purdue University. He was an electrical engineer for about 30 years.

Wheeler and his wife of 36 years, Helen, now make their home in upper Middlesex County. It’s been a long journey from El Paso, via the world.

posted 11.04.2009

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