World War II survivor
Old enough to be drafted into American military service in 1943, Blooming Prairie resident Ernie Betlach said he didn't have much choice of whether to serve or not.
"I was given the choice of which branch I wanted to serve and I chose the United States Navy because my brother Frank joined the Navy just months before," Betlach related.
Betlach, who still resides in Blooming Prairie with wife Mary Ann, has his name on the wall at the Blooming Prairie Veterans Memorial.
"I just saw the memorial and it's very nice," Betlach says proudly.
Betlach, who will be 96 next January, is precise in detail when discussing his nearly three-year stint in the Navy during World War II.
Betlach, a former business man in Blooming Prairie for many years at the Pure Oil station, is often called a "walking encyclopedia" because of his unending ability to recall history.
Just prior to Veterans Day, Betlach sat in the living room of his house and reflected on his service to his country from 1943-46.
Ernest Betlach was born in Blooming Prairie on Jan. 12, 1924 and was the youngest of three boys. He graduated from Blooming Prairie High School class of 45 in 1942.
"I'm sitting in my living room, only about 20 yards from where I was born," he smiles.
Betlach, known to many as Ernie and to some as "Tinker,” was 18 1/2 when he was drafted from Steele County. Most of his classmates, a year younger or a year older, were also drafted. Betlach reported for the draft in April of 1943 at the Fort Snelling Armory in St. Paul.
He recalls being asked whether he wanted to serve in the Navy, Marines, Air Force, Coast Guard or the Army. That's when he picked the Navy because of his brother's service. Ironically, the two brothers (Frank and Ernie) hooked up a few years later in the South Pacific. They hadn't seen one another for two years.
Ernie Betlach also recalls being asked to serve six years. He chose the three-year hitch and shipped out days later to the Faragut Naval Station in Faragut, Idaho for Basic Training. "That was tough training and it was damn cold until the sun came up over the mountains," he vividly recalls.
He remembers his Basic Training early duties of guarding a clothes line pole or a furnace. It was duty whether menial at best.
Following Basic, Betlach was shipped to a Seabee base near Santa Barbara, Calif. He was then assigned to the SS Young America, a Merchant Marine ship converted to a troop carrier.
The next destination was Guadalcanal in the Pacific theater of World War II. Prior to reaching the Guadalcanal Island, Betlach's ship landed at Bougainville in the Solomon Islands. Betlach said the Japanese used this island as a stepping stone to reach Hawaii. The United States also used this island to reach the Philippines.
Betlach's unit was then instrumental in building an emergency airstrip on the Solomon Islands. He was serving on a Landing Ship Taker and responsible for taking diesel fuel and gas to shore.
"We rolled the barrels of fuel into the water toward shore and then started getting shelled," Betlach remembers. "We ran to shore and got into our foxholes. When you can hear the shells, they say you are OK," he continued.
Betlach said one American on the LST was killed during a shelling by the Japanese.
For two to three days, Betlach and his fellow Navy men lived in fox holes and built four-place tent used for a mess hall. "We ate K rations,"" he said. The climate was very hot at the time, he said.
Construction of the air strip involved the installation of planks, six to seven feet long fastened together. This design was wide enough for friendly aircraft to land on it.
After 18 months of service, Betlach was sent home on leave. Enroute to home, Betlach spotted a young Army kid playing cards on the ship. "I told him I should know him," Betlach said. He did know him. It was Clayton (Hickory) Peterson, a Blooming Prairie man who worked at Srsen Auto.
Betlach and Peterson spent much of their leave time together. When they returned to duty, Betlach said he kept Peterson and his buddy alive by bringing them ice cream and Coca Cola.
Following his leave, Betlach went back to San Francisco to a receiving station. He was on shore patrol. Some of his colleagues were "tough guys," San Francisco policemen, Betlach tells.
Next tour of duty was out of the U.S. and on a perfect course to the Philippines. The war was over at that time.
For five months, Betlach said he and his crew did nothing, only waiting to be discharged which occurred in February of 1946.
Betlach then came home and ran the service station with his father and brother Frank. Betlach did book work at the station while Frank took care of the garage.
Frank and Ernie were each given a quarter ownership of the business and father Edward retained half. Their father sold his share to them in 1967.
"We were a full service station, pumping gas, checking oil and checking the tires," Betlach commented.
During those days, Betlach said he worked seven days a week from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. The station was located at the corner of Highway 218 and Highway 30.
Betlach and his childhood sweetheart were married in 1949. The Betlachs have four children, five grandchildren, four great grandchildren and one great grandchild on the way.
The station was sold to Bill Wilke in 1989. Betlach then worked for Jim's Standard for 11 years.
Ernie said his time in the Navy was a "good experience" and he has no regrets since he came back home safely.
Betlach loves family and is a follower of many types of sports. He and his wife were Minnesota Viking season ticket holders, starting in the beginning, 1961.
Betlach was given the honor of raising the American flag at a Minnesota Twins game on Sept. 1, 2010 at Target Field. Much of his family was present.
Betlach is very sentimental when relating that he was born just across the street. The doctor who delivered him had to only walk across the street and in doing so, gave Ernie's parents a discounted delivery price of $25.
"I grew up a block from the Catholic church, a block from the playground, a block from the bank, a block from the Pizza Cellar, three blocks from work and four blocks away from the grocery store."