BEHIND ENEMY LINES
- Bill Rautenstrauch
- The Observer
Back in in 1943, Ontario-born-and-bred Ken Snowberger had a disagreement with his father. It was about the war, and whether he was old enough to fight.
Most of Snowberger's friends were gone, serving proudly in the Army, Navy and Marines. He itched to get going himself, but his dad insisted he was too young.
So the boy found a way to change the father's mind. He quit doing good in school.
"My dad said I'd have to wait till I was older. He didn't give me a choice. But when my grades dropped, that ended that. He signed me up," Snowberger, 82, of La Grande, recalled recently.
He joined the Navy in April, 1943, embarking on an adventure far more exciting than anything Hollywood could have dreamed up.
Snowberger was only 16 at the time, but more than tough enough. He survived boot camp in San Diego, then was picked for training in the amphibious forces.
He had some good qualifications. First of all, he was an exceptionally strong swimmer.
"I learned how to swim in the Snake River, before they built the dams. I could swim five miles easy," he said.
He had something else the Navy was looking for Â— good old, homegrown, outdoor survival skills.
"They were looking for guys who knew how to live off the land. I'd spent a lot of time hunting and fishing with my uncle, and I knew how to keep myself fed and warm," he said. "All the guys had knowledge of that kind of life."
At Camp Parks, a sprawling naval base near Oakland, Snowberger trained in special warfare.
He learned about diving and how to use explosives. He trained for land-based, behind-enemy-lines operations.
He also learned how use a device called a dark light, an infrared flasher used to send signals to aircraft and ships. Knowing how made him a "communications man."
After graduation, Snowberger was sent to the South Pacific as part of a seven-member, special operations team.
"There were only four teams like it in the South Pacific," he said, then paused to reflect on what it meant to him to be part of so elite a group.
"As a young kid, you think, Â‘Man, I've got the world by the tail,' until you actually get out there. Then the facts of life hit you," he said.
Snowberger remembered that the team included two mapmakers, one for underwater work and another for land mapping, and a pair of Seminole Indians from Florida who specialized in security.
"They were crack archers, and their job was to protect us. If we needed a parrot or a monkey to eat, they went out and got it. If there were enemy patrols around, they'd go kill them," Snowberger said.
The team also included an explosives expert, a boy from Canada whose father had been a stump blower and taught him the ropes.
An early mission was to infiltrate a Japanese submarine base. The objective was to find out how many submarines were there, and determine the location and nature of repair facilities and defensive positions.
"It went all right. We all got back," Snowberger said. "The life of the crews was pretty short, but we were lucky. We all went home, and four of us are still living today."
During the war, home for Snowberger was the USS Procyon, an attack cargo ship that had been commissioned for service in 1940.
Often the target of Japanese flyers, the Procyon earned five battle stars. Snowberger himself is credited with shooting down two enemy planes.
Snowberger's team planned and launched its missions from the ship. There was never a shortage of things to do, especially for men who knew how to swim underwater.
"One of our fun things was scrambling Japanese mine fields in the harbors and channels," Snowberger said. "We'd move the mines around, and then their own ships would come in and hit them."
Operations on land were common, and long on excitement. The one Snowberger recalls best occurred in the Coral Sea.
"There were a lot of harbors there for the enemy to use, and we went in to do recon work," he said.
The team set some explosives at a Japanese airfield. Once the charges were set, Snowberger ran Â— right past a Japanese guard who was idly smoking a cigarette.
The guard managed to get a shot off, just as the charge exploded.
The bullet hit Snowberger in the ribs. He got away, into the surrounding jungle, but the wound was a crippling one.
"I couldn't make the pick-up and I had to go live with the natives," he said.
Those natives hated the Japanese and were more than willing to help an American in trouble. First order of business was to heal the wound.
"They seared it shut, no anaesthetic or nothing. It was just bite-the-stick," he recalled.
Snowberger stayed with the natives three months. After he regained his strength, he led them on some guerrilla raids against the enemy.
The adventure came to an end when an American landing party located Snowberger and took him out of the jungle. He was shipped to Sydney, Australia, to recuperate, then sent back to the Procyon.
Later in the war, Snowberger's team took part in the destruction of the Japanese Naval Fleet in Truk Lagoon. It also helped liberate American POWs in the Philippines.
During the latter exercise, Snowberger was shot in the leg by a sniper. He was sent back to the United States for treatment, and then ordered to join the invasion force heading for Japan.
It was an invasion that never happened, because the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki ended the war.
"I was going back on the fleet when they dropped the big goose egg," Snowberger said. "A lot of innocent people got hurt, but it also saved a lot of lives. The invasion would have been quite devastating for both sides."
At war's end, Snowberger left the Navy and went home to Ontario. He received his high school diploma with the Fruitdale High School Class of 1945.
He went to college and earned a master's degree in electrical engineering. He and his wife, Nettie, raised a family of six children.
In 1973, Snowberger took a job as an electrician at Boise Cascade in La Grande. He worked there until his retirement in the 1980s.
His wife passed away in 2005. Five of the six children survive, though none reside in La Grande.
Snowberger lives alone, though he's rarely lonely. He gets phone calls and visits from his family and many friends, and remains active in his church.
He especially enjoys being with the young people of the congregation, entertaining them with puppet shows.
He keeps up on current affairs. Sometimes when he watches the news on television, he sees similarities between modern times and the days of World War II.
"The Japanese had troops ready to invade the Pacific coast, and they would have, if we hadn't taken the battle to them."
He believes today's terrorist enemy isn't much different from the one he faced in the South Pacific.
"The Japanese were a lot like the Taliban," he said. "They were fanatics in their own way of thinking, and they didn't put value on life. They believed in martyrdom."
Snowberger also believes in America. He believes in it as strongly today as he did when he was a 16-year-old recruit.
"I think we all have a duty to defend our country and our way of life," he said.