As a young man coming of age in the early 1950s, the military draft cast a long shadow in Earl Dean Frieden’s life. He was a 19-year-old farm kid from Shickley who heard the news from Korea and watched friends his age get called up to serve.
“I knew it wasn’t good over there,” he said, and he also knew he could be called any day.
Earl enlisted in the U.S. Navy, preferring four years on the water to the possibility of fighting on the ground in the Korean War.
A few days after he signed four years of his life over to the Navy, he picked up the local newspaper in San Diego, whose headline proclaimed: “Korea Armistice Signed.”
At 87, Earl still considers those words the luckiest of his long life.
“I was so blessed to serve in the Navy during peacetime. It was the best duty I could have asked for.”
Earl spent time on four ships during his service, becoming a machinery repairman. The role took him around the world, far away from the town of 300 where he graduated high school.
Earl completed boot camp in San Diego, Calif. In a black-and-white photo from those days, he is fresh-faced, looking younger than his 19 years as he holds the 30 caliber gun he carried on guard duty.
The next stop was Bremerton, home to the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Washington, where he was assigned to the “Brem Group” and to U.S.S. Indiana, which was used as barracks for the sailors who maintained the battleship for possible future service. It was replaced by another “mothballed” ship from World War II - U.S.S. Missouri. Because the ship was the site of the signing of the WWII peace treaty, it later became a tourist attraction, with people traveling to see its commemorative plaque.
Earl applied to a naval machinery repairman school. His background on a farm, fixing machinery with his father in the family’s shop, served him well. He left to complete training at the school in San Diego and was later transferred to the repair ship U.S.S. Hector. “It could repair almost anything on the ocean,” he said.
During the next year, he would also serve on the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Franklin D. Roosevelt. “A lot of our work was repairing steam and water pumps,” he recalled.
The years in the Navy took Earl to places he never expected to see, from New York, Yankee Stadium, and the former Ebbets Field to the Panama Canal, Santiago, Chile; Peru, and Rio De Janeiro. “On the west side of South America, it was hotter than blazes. Too hot to set foot on deck,” he recalled.
He crossed the Equator and survived the related initiation to become a Navy “Shellback.”
His ship sailed around Cape Horn, the southernmost tip of South America, known for its dangerous waters, strong winds, and icebergs. Earl took measurements of the catapult tracks on the flight deck, gauging the cold’s effect on them.
Duties closer to home took him to Florida and then Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, where aircraft practiced takeoffs and landings on carriers. Sailors weren’t allowed on the flight deck during flight operations, but he snuck up to a high deck sometimes to shoot 8mm recordings of the takeoffs.
Along with fun times, there were sobering days, too.
“We lost some people. Some of the pilots crashed...we never heard too much said about that,” he said.
He still can feel the vibration of the ship in Atlantic Ocean waters when a blade broke off of one of the ship’s giant propellers.
He also remembers the somber days after a small steam turbine exploded, killing three sailors.
“That was a bad deal,” he said quietly.
When he was up for reenlistment in 1957, he chose to come home instead. “I’d had enough of the Navy.”
Earl was discharged as a First Class Petty Officer MR1.
His life resumed again in Shickley. He accepted a position with Lichti Oil. Not only did the job become a 42-year career, its heating and air conditioning training course in Sioux City, Iowa, connected him with his wife, Velda. A friend introduced him to the young woman from Le Mars, Iowa, and they married in 1966. They raised a son, Conley, and daughter, Camella, and were married a little more than 50 years when she passed away in 2018.
When Earl turned 80, his children took him to Hawaii to visit U.S.S. Missouri in Pearl Harbor. He was able to see parts of the ship that had been sealed off during his service, including the quarter-deck.
He was awed by the size of the ship he hadn’t seen for almost 60 years, taking in its 888-foot length and 418,000 square feet of deck space, a ship with the capacity to house 3,000 sailors.
“I said ‘Man,' look at that thing.”
It was one more memory for the sailor, who still stands straight and fixes machinery; who can rattle off his Navy service number at the drop of a hat.
“The Navy was one of those things that come along where you wouldn’t take a million dollars to do it again. But you’re glad you did it once.”