Sub finder pings memories of World War II

El Dorado County vet searched for enemy submarines, said he was ‘lucky’ to survive the war
By: Eric Laughlin Telegraph correspondent
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As he nears his 90th birthday next month, Rescue resident and World War II veteran Harry Therkelsen recently reflected on an adventurous life he said was filled with good luck. A child of the Great Depression and veteran of World War II, the retired educator is among a group of men and women that has been called “The Greatest Generation,” for the sacrifices they made for the good of the country. Although the economy these days is nothing to brag about, Therkelsen remembers the much darker days of the 1930s, growing up on a farm in Southern California’s scorching Lucerne Valley. “The desert was not a place you’d want to be without a car,” he recalled. “And I remember people walking for miles to our door just to ask for something to eat. Thank goodness dad had a garden, but nobody had money so everything was barter.” When he reached his teenage years, Therkelsen said he was anything but excited about school. He nearly dropped out his junior year, but managed to power on and received his diploma. By the time he was of age to be on his own, he struggled for a while to find work, but eventually landed a job working at an aluminum plant at around the start of the war. “At that time they were worried about an attack on L.A. or along the coast,” he remembers. “And one night, I was out on the back porch with a friend of mine who also worked at Alcoa, and we started to hear guns firing and saw what looked like an air attack. After that we decided it was getting too close to home and went down to the post office and joined the Navy. I never read anything in the papers about what happened that night, but there were others who saw the same thing we did and came down to enlist.” From there, Therkelsen trained to be a radioman and eventually became a part of the Navy’s VJ-1 utility squadron, which handled operations that included searching for enemy submarines. Not long after being assigned as a radioman on aircraft that carried out dive bombing missions, Therkelsen recalls a scary encounter when the flaps closed on the plane he was on. “Just about three or four days before I got there, we’d heard about a dive bomber that went down, and it was because the flaps closed,” he said. “As radiomen, we’d ride the planes backwards and look at the tail. “And we were dropping down and I saw the flaps close,” he said. “I tried to get the pilot’s attention, but he couldn’t hear me. He did finally look at me and I pointed at the flap and we pulled out right at tree-top level.” Therkelsen said he wouldn’t see that pilot again until later, when he was stationed at Ford Island at Pearl Harbor. “I got a call from the chief’s quarters that someone wanted to see me,” he recalled. “It was that pilot and he wanted me to go with him on a brand new ship that was called the Franklin. I told him I would go if I was ordered, but I wouldn’t volunteer. “I ended up staying behind and they were devastated,” he said. “Two bombs hit the middle of the ship and a lot of guys died.” Eventually, Therkelsen was transferred back to the mainland to Moffett Field in San Jose, where he met the woman from Half Moon Bay who he would spend the next 66 years of his life with. Eventually, he and Helen moved back to his birth state of Oregon, where he finished college and taught high school science, math and physical education. After five years, the new family moved back to the Bay Area, where he would teach in San Mateo County until his retirement to El Dorado County in 1994. “I was very, very lucky,” he said of his time in the war. “God was watching over me and I was the luckiest man in the world.” Nowadays, Therkelsen enjoys the wooded view from the swing on his back porch. Although his legs make for some struggle getting around, he said that physically he feels alright. As far as his old buddies go, he still corresponds with the only other remaining member of his VJ-1 squadron. He’s also made an annual trip to Reno for nearly 30 years to attend military reunions. “I’m probably the oldest one there now,” he said. “A lot of them just recently died. They all leave us. But that’s the way life is.”