Robert Wille, U.S. Navy

Over and under the water; Wille served on ships and submarines

-Submitted photo
Ronald Wille served aboard the USS Ticonderoga, the first aircraft carrier he was stationed on after completing training.

CLARE — Robert Wille joined the Navy shortly after graduating high school in 1971.

“They said they were going to be holding a lottery for the draft and when the numbers came up, I was about halfway down the list, but I didn’t know what I was going to be assigned,” he said.

Wille decided that joining the Navy on his own would be better than being drafted.

“I sort of followed in my dad’s footsteps because he served in the Navy and both his brothers were Navy, so I decided to do that,” said Wille.

Wille, of Clare, attended boot camp in San Diego, California,. and then attended machinist mate accession training, commonly called a-school.

-Submitted photo
Robert Wille takes a break from “below deck duties” while the ship refueled an aircraft carrier.

“It was mechanics that I excelled at so I was selected to be a machinist’s mate,” said Wille.

Shortly before he graduated from a-school, the more specialized training called c-school was in need of more students for their cryogenics program so Wille requested and was granted that assignment.

“I asked if I went to c-school what that would do for my career and they told me I’d likely go to an aircraft carrier,” Wille said.

Wille learned how to run the machines that make liquid oxygen and nitrogen on board an aircraft carrier.

“The pilots breathe oxygen while they’re flying so I learned how to produce that on a ship and graduated from c-school,” said Wille.

His first orders were to an aircraft carrier called the USS Ticonderoga out of San Diego.

“They had just gotten back from picking up the Apollo 16 astronauts and they were slated to pick up Apollo 17 astronauts. Shortly after I got on board we headed to Hawaii to start preparations for that and then we picked up Apollo 17 astronauts when they came back from their moon landing.”

Not long after that assignment, Wille’s ship also picked up the first Skylab astronauts.

After the Ticonderoga was decommissioned, Wille was moved to the USS Midway and a month later they sailed for Japan.

“Most of that was uneventful until the end of that tour. Saigon fell and the evacuation of the embassy in Saigon was towards the end of my tour on the Midway. We were assigned to go off the coast of Vietnam and support the evacuation. I think we had over 3,000 evacuees cross our deck,” Wille said.

One alarming experience Wille had while on the aircraft carrier was when the entire ship shook for no apparent reason.

“When I was on the Midway out of Japan, we were cruising along and the entire ship shook. It shook like we were doing a high speed full plank, but we weren’t doing that. We found out about a half an hour later that there was a report of an underground earthquake. It sent shockwaves through the ocean and shook our ship,” said Wille.

By 1975, Wille was about ready to leave the Navy but thanks to a reenlistment incentive, he decided to stay. He was asked where he would like to go next and he requested and was granted Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. He served two years on a tanker ship stationed out of Pearl Harbor before becoming eligible for a shore tour.

Wille wanted to stay in Hawaii so he was assigned to the submarine repair facility at Pearl Harbor.

“I started working on submarines and realized that submarines were my ultimate call so I volunteered for submarine duty out of the base and got orders to the USS Skate and that started the adventure underwater,” Wille said.

Wille said the scariest experience he ever had on a submarine was when they began making an unexpected dive.

“We were submerged and just chugging along and it was kind of late at night. All of a sudden, we started making a downward plunge and everyone in the control room had no idea what was happening. We finally came out of the dive and the captain made the decision that we needed to surface to see what happened. We thought possibly we got caught in a fisherman’s net or something of that nature. We did surface and did a complete scan of the entire area. We never did find out what happened,” Wille said.

Wille served four years on the Skate, a few more years in the repair facility, then the USS Buffalo submarine, and finally ended his career at the Naval Submarine Training Center Pacific.

“I was lucky enough to serve 20 of my 24 years in Hawaii and people asked me why I came back to Iowa but I don’t regret coming back,” he said.

After retiring from the Navy in 1995 with the rank of chief petty officer, Wille went to school at Iowa Central Community College to become a truck driver and went to work driving for a few different companies.

“Twenty-four years in the Navy and 20-some years driving a truck and now I’m fully retired and enjoying life,” said Wille.

Wille said his military career was overall uneventful but he would do it all again in a heartbeat. “Everything about military life to me was very rewarding and exciting. We visited numerous ports like the Philippines, Guam, Hong Kong, Singapore, Korea, and just experienced the different cultures, to me it was just fascinating. One thing for sure, it makes you appreciate what you have here,” he said.


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