A broad span of history can happen in 100 years, and at the upper limits of the human lifespan, few people can speak to such a broad swathe of experience. But one Onamia resident will soon be able to. On Nov. 8, Fred Herke will celebrate his 100th birthday. An electrical engineer originally hailing from Cleveland, Herke’s experiences stretch back to World War II when he served in the U.S. Navy and saw both the Pacific and Atlantic theatres of the war.
Herke is originally from Cleveland, Ohio, where he was born, raised and lived much of his life. In August of 1941, a year or so after he completed high school, Herke joined the United States Navy. As Diane Gibas previously reported in a feature from the Nov. 5, 2014 edition of the Messenger, he knew at the time that America would soon be joining World War II, and he expected to be called to service anyway. Reflecting on his decision to join, he stated he had “been a Navy boy” for as long as he could remember.
His naval career began at the Great Lakes Training Center, and he received both radio and electronics training.
Reflecting on his time overseas, Herke said, “I like to say, ‘where didn’t I serve?’” Herke spent four years serving on the U.S.S. Lansdowne, and this service took him between both the Atlantic and Pacific theatres of the war. The Lansdowne was a destroyer, and during his first several months of his time on the ship, Herke was stationed in the Atlantic searching for German submarines. Reflecting on that period of his service, he said, “Our preparations at that time were for the country as a whole.”
The ship then moved down to the Caribbean another several months, and Herke went with it. Eventually, the Lansdowne passed through the Panama canal, and the remaining three years of Herke’s service occurred on the Pacific.
“I was a chief aboard the ship,” Herke said. “A chief is quite similar to a sergeant in the Army. I had charge of one group of men of our ship–radar men.” He noted that radar was brand new at the time, and his ship was among the first to use it. Using this technology, the ship had been tasked with locating foreign submarines. He recalled sinking a submarine in the Atlantic, the Pacific and the Caribbean. “The Caribbean was loaded with German subs,” he added.
While in the Pacific, Herke said, “We were looking for Japanese submarines, Japanese ships, Japanese anything.” A destroyer was the smallest combat ship, he said. In addition to sonar to locate submarines, the ship also had anti-aircraft weaponry. “We were an all-around ship,” Herke explained. “We worked sometimes with a very small group or even by ourselves. Lots of times, we were with our fleet, which was made up of larger ships.”
Relating on important role he and the crew of the Lansdowne had played during the war, Herke said that the ship had taken the Japanese envoys out from Yokohama into Tokyo Bay to sign the surrender on the U.S.S. Missouri at the end of the war. “That’s one big thing we did,” he said, “the biggest thing, perhaps the most important thing.”
Returning home from the war, Herke attended the Case Institute of Technology in Cleveland, now known as Case Western Reserve University, where he studied to become an electrical engineer. From school, he went on to get a job with Farnsworth Electronics in Fort Wayne, Ind. A bit later, he would work for the Martin Aircraft company, which started out in Cleveland and eventually moved to Baltimore.
Eventually, he returned to Cleveland, where he joined on with NASA. “They were brand new at the time,” he said. He contributed to a number of experiments throughout his time at the administration, though he couldn’t recall the specifics of the work. He continued to work with NASA until his retirement in 1980.
After retirement, he once again returned to Cleveland, where he lived for many years. In 1948, he married his wife, and he had lived with her until her passing in 1996. “Unfortunately, we never had any children,” he said. In the last decade, he moved to the Onamia area to live near his nephew.
Herke noted his memory wasn’t the sharpest these days, and he often had to think twice about things that happened long ago. However, his time in military service had not only taken him through World War II, but he had a hand in the events that directly brought that war to an end. Few people may live to see 100 years, but Herke has also seen history as it happened.