In 1982 Bill Petentler retired from his job as operator in the East Yard's C Tower after thirty-five years of service on the CB&Q and the Burlington Northern Railroads. I first met Bill while delivering company mail to the towers as a Willis Yard clerk in the 1970's. In interviewing him for this story I found that he has lived an interesting life, and that the eighty-year old Galesburg resident is still the gentle, friendly man with a playful sense of humor that I recall from when I first met him nearly thirty years ago.
He was born in Weir, Kansas in 1924. His father worked in nearby oil fields. Bill's uncle, who worked at a Standard Oil refinery near Kansas City, Missouri, encouraged Bill's father to move to Missouri to work at the refinery, so Bill and his family moved to Independence, which adjoins Kansas City, when he was a baby. Bill later attended Independence High School where he sat next to future president Harry Truman's daughter Margaret in freshman algebra class. He said that she was a nice, friendly girl.
Bill quit high school in 1940 at age sixteen. The reason? The lure of the pay he received as an employee of Montgomery Ward in Kansas City. He said he received his pay in cash in an envelope each Friday, and he loved the sight of that cash. He was a stockman at Ward's and supervised four employees who filled mail orders for clothing.
While still working at Ward's he went with two buddies to the Kansas City City Hall in December, 1942 to join the military. He was then eighteen years old, old enough to enlist, and the memory of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor a year earlier was still etched in his memory. At City Hall he and his friends saw recruitment posters for the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps. His eyes grew wide when he saw the Marine poster which showed a Marine in jungle uniform carrying a Thompson Machine Gun with the caption "Marines, Dealers in Sudden Death." The Marine Corps was for him. Bill's mother was reluctant to see her son join the military, but his father, who had enlisted in the Army during World War I, was for it. On December 10, 1942 Bill enlisted.
He went through boot camp in San Diego. Then he was sent to Camp Elliott in California for training on a 30-caliber heavy machine gun. In later combat in the Pacific he carried a 30-caliber Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR). As a member of K Company, 7th. Marine Regiment, 1st. Marine Division, he made landings at New Guinea in October, 1943, Cape Gloucester in December, 1943, Peleliu in September, 1944, and Okinawa in April, 1945. Japanese resistence to the landings was fierce and determined. They frequently fought to the last man. In his experience Bill could not recall seeing a single Japanese soldier surrender. The Marines suffered staggering casualties in killed, wounded, and missing in the island assaults.
For being wounded in the landing on Peleliu Bill received a Purple Heart. He vividly remembers Peleliu, a three by six mile island, part of the Palau Group of the Western Caroline Islands, which was defended by over 10,000 well-fortified Japanese who had the landing beach zeroed in with mortar, machine gun, small arms, small boat, anti-tank, and artillery fire. During the month-long battle the Marines suffered over 6,000 casualties including over 1100 killed.
Bill landed on Peleliu on September 15, 1944 in an amphibious landing craft. Just as he was exiting the craft after the end gate went down on the beach, an enemy shell burst, and he was struck by shrapnel, a piece of which is still embedded in his chest today. He grinned when he remarked that he was standing when he should have been crouched in a fox hole. He was evacuated in a boat that was returning from the beach to a fleet hospital ship on which he received medical attention for three days and then was returned to action on the island. He said that the worst combat that he saw during the war occurred on Peleliu. Many Marines were lost there including many of his good friends. He questioned the judgement of assaulting the island. He didn't think that the island was needed in the Pacific campaign. He thought it could have been bypassed.
When asked if he was a "gung-ho" Marine, Bill replied no. He just did what had to be done. Within that quiet determination to do what had to be done there lurked his sense of humor. In the photo shown here that appeared in Leatherneck magazine in December, 1993 Bill is shown carrying his BAR with his helmet on among his buddies in a 4X4. They appear bedraggled following intense combat. In fact, Bill said that they had been joking and laughing in merriment and relief, just a couple minutes before the photograph was snapped, after coming off the line at Hill 660 on Cape Gloucester. The photographer told them to look "grim" to convey to the people back home the intensity of the Pacific fighting. Bill jokingly said that they looked "rugged."
He told a couple funny stories that had to do with some Australian ladies at the Melbourne USO Club. One story is about the "Ta, Ta" girls. While on R&R at the Club Bill and a friend met two Australian girls. They were very friendly. Bill and his friend took them around Melbourne, wined and dined them, and spent a lot of money on them. When it came time for their date to end, Bill and his friend accompanied the girls to their home on a tram. When the tram arrived at their nice home surrounded by a picket fence, the girls passed through the gate, closed it, sweetly waved, and said "ta, ta" to Bill and his friend. No good-by kisses. No invitation to come into their home. Just "ta, ta." That was the abrupt end of the "Ta, Ta" girls. Then there is the story about the nickname he earned from the Australian girls at the Melbourne USO Club--"Sweet William." Years later when he was a patient in the Veterans' Hospital in Iowa City, Bill told some nurses about his old USO nickname. They started calling him "Sweet William", and word got back to the VA Clinic in Galesburg where the staff now calls him "Sweet William."
After the Japanese surrender that ended World War II, Bill shipped out from Okinawa in October, 1945, and arrived in San Diego in November. He was then sent to the Great Lakes Naval Station near Chicago where he was discharged in December with the rank of corporal. He said he can still remember his serial number. While in the Marine Corps he had received his high school equivalency diploma.
After his discharge Bill returned to his Montgomery Ward job in Kansas City, joined the Marine Reserve, and dated his future wife Nellie. They were married and had four children, Connie, Wanda, Kathy, and Bill.
While working at Ward's he saw an ad in the newspaper for the Railroad Communications School in Kansas City where he could learn typing and railroad telegraphy. He enrolled in early 1947. He said that he was fascinated by telegraphy which used Morse Code to communicate information about train movement in those days. To this day he remembers the Morse Code and could send or receive it although he would be slow now after so many years. He still has the Vibroplex "bug" that he received at the Communications School to send messages. By learning to type he was able to do the paperwork required of railroad agents and agent/opeators.
After six months of training at the school he graduated and was assigned to go to work for the CB&Q Railroad. He was given a choice of going to work for the "Q" in Nebraska, Iowa, or Galesburg. He chose Galesburg, because it had passenger train service from Kansas City for Nellie and first-born child Connie who remained in Independence while Bill was getting settled in Illinois. When Bill reported to Galesburg, he was assigned to go to Alpha to train for three months on agent and operator work. He rented an apartment for $20 per month in a building which used to be a hotel in Alpha, and Nellie and Connie moved there with him. He later rented a farm house near Barstow. For a year or so he worked the extra list on vacancies at Rock Island, Barstow, Orion, Lynn Center, Alpha, Rio, Henderson, and Knoxville. He was assigned to the vacancies by the Chief Dispatcher who was headquartered in the old CB&Q Depot in Galesburg. The first Chief Dispatcher he worked for was H.V. Lonis. Bill's first regular job was at the Alpha Depot as second trick (shift) agent/operator. On this job he copied train orders from the dispatcher in Galesburg, removed baggage from the Galesburg to Savanna passenger train, removed railroad express shipments for Alpha customers, billed out express shipments, and did janitor work in the depot.
In October, 1950 he was called up as a Marine Reservist after war had broken out in Korea. Once again he served as a BAR man in a combat regiment. He said that in the bitterly cold Korean climate he learned to sleep sitting upright in a fox hole with his BAR propped between his legs after an incident when some GI's were unable to get out of their sleeping bags quickly enough to avoid being bayoneted by the Chinese at night. Bill froze his feet, had a recurrrence of malaria from his World War II days in the Pacific, and spent a lot of time in a Japanese hospital. He was discharged in July, 1952 with the rank of sergeant and returned to his family and his job on the railroad.
Bill worked the agent/operator job in Knoxville from 1957 until the closure of the depot there in the early 1960's. He then bumped to Galesburg where he worked operator jobs at Seminary Street, Knox Street, and Waterman Tower. He eventually became the C Tower operator in the East Yard, and he finished his career on that job. As the C Towerman he marked up teletyped inbound train lists as instructed by the East Hump Yardmaster who designated a classification track in the bowl for each car. As a train was being humped, Bill flipped levers in the tower to switch cars that came his way to the appropriate classification tracks. If a car rolled off the hump too fast, he could activate a retarder to slow it down to prevent excessive impact when it coupled into a car in the bowl. He said that ideal coupling speed was 4 mph. He had to account for rain, snow, ice, wind, and the configuration of the classification tracks, whether they were straight or curved, in his application of the retarder. He also had to be aware of Yard D switch engines coupling tracks in the north end of the bowl. He recalled getting a lot of cars with perishables from the West Coast destined for Chicago on his tracks. He shared rides to work with A Towerman Dick Olson.
Bill told a story about an incident that occurred when he got off duty around midnight after working second shift in C Tower. He went to his car which was parked in a lot off the Old Dump Road east of B Tower to go home. When he got into his car, he was startled when he heard what sounded like someone clearing their throat in the back seat. He turned around and was shocked to see a middle-aged lady lying in his back seat. In the dim light he could make out a tag on her blouse that indicated that she was from the Galesburg Research Hospital. He immediately rushed her to the north end of town to return her to Research. He said that he was scared to death. He naturally got some ribbing from his co-workers when he recounted the story to them. He said that he definitely locked his doors when he parked his car at work after that incident.
Bill enjoyed his work in C Tower where you had to be "on your toes." He enjoyed his railroad career, liked the good pay, and didn't mind shift work. He liked the guys he worked with. They would help each other out both at work and away from work. He recalled that he and Nellie socialized with switchman Herman Talbert and his wife, and he remembers when former Terminal Superintendent Harold Shipman presented him his twenty-five year service award. Bill has a lot of good memories of his interesting life. The lives of many people have been enriched by knowing him.