Daughter looks back on Don Hellwinkel’s naval career
Editor’s Note: This is the first of a three-part series about lifelong Minden resident Don Hellwinkel’s experiences in the U.S. Navy during the waning days of World War II and the start of Korea.
Panmunjom, Korea. That faraway, mysterious foreign place with the difficult to pronounce name was actually a household word in my 1960s childhood home of Minden. The 38th parallel, the Demilitarized Zone, Gen. McArthur and Adm. Daniel were also familiar terms and names. In our home it was not unusual for my father to get out the projector and screen scratchy black and white, sometimes color, 8 mm home movies of Korea. I was as familiar with images of wounded soldiers on stretchers and of my dad, a good looking, young naval officer, as I was with motion pictures of family’s birthday and Christmas celebrations. In fact, I loved seeing these home movies of what I later learned were historic events.
Today, Korea is pre-eminent in the news. From the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang to the meeting of President Trump with North Korean leader, Rocket Man, Kim Jong-un, America is becoming familiar again with the people and places of the Korean peninsula.
Over the last 65 years, however, America tried to forget about Korea. The Korean War, also called a conflict or a police action, is America’s Forgotten War, a cold war prelude to the Vietnam War. Despite spending around $67 billion and losing roughly 37,000 American lives, the United States public is woefully unaware of what transpired in the early 1950s in the Korean War. Indeed, most Americans do not know that only an armistice agreement, not a formal peace treaty with North Korea, was made in 1953. Technically, we are still in a state of war.
The Korean war was an unpopular, brutal war in a cold, distant place. Young men who were drafted to fight in Korea did not want to discuss what they thought was a godforsaken place when they returned home. Few books, other than military histories, have been written about it. No movies beyond conventional documentary type works have been made. One could possibly consider the film, “The Manchurian Candidate” (1962) to be about the Korean War as it deals with a brain washed veteran, a subject many Americans in the McCarthy era, were concerned about. The popular anti-war TV show M*A*S*H* used Korea as its setting. But, by the time the show first aired in 1972, Korea had faded from the American consciousness.
Pablo Picasso painted “Massacre in Korea” in 1951, an anti-war painting similar to his “Guernica.” It depicts, in cold contrasts of black and white, the mass killing of innocents by a heavily armed and armored anonymous military force. However, because it was considered to be a Communist painting, few Americans are familiar with it.
As more Korean veterans die, so do their stories. Fortunately, after doing some research and with the help of home movies, a scrapbook, and my mother’s recollections, I have been able to piece together my dad’s story.
My father, Donald Fredrick Hellwinkel, a graduate of Douglas County High School and a student of two years at the University of Nevada, was a member of the U.S. Naval Academy Class of 1946. He was appointed by Nevada’s U.S. Sen. Pat McCarran. His graduation and commissioning were held June 6, 1945, the one-year anniversary of D-Day. Commencement was advanced a year due to the need for naval officers in the final push to end World War II. McCarran sent my dad a personal note conveying “Congratulations to you, my boy…” upon notice of his graduation.
Shortly after graduation my father shipped out from San Francisco, to the Pacific, ostensibly to be part of the invasion of Japan. He told me that when he said goodbye to his mother he thought he might never see her again.
Ensign Hellwinkel was aboard the USS Amsterdam, a light cruiser and member of Task Force 38. Its assignment was to participate in carrier strikes against the Japanese home islands.
In early summer, en route across the Pacific, his ship stopped off at the Marshall Island of Roi Namur to await the Third Fleet. My father was at the island’s duty hut when he recognized a pilot driving in from the airstrip. “Rahbeck, is that you?” he yelled. It was his childhood friend, Franklin “Spec” Rahbeck, a naval aviator. Spec’s job in the Marshall Islands was to ferry damaged fighter planes to Roi Namur for repair or sea burial. (Apparently there are many World War II planes in underwater graves off the coral reef of Roi Namur.) Excited by their reunion in the middle of a war in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, Spec convinced my Dad to join him on a flight to another nearby island where there was a USO show. On the way their plane caught on fire, but that did not hamper these two Carson Valley natives. They successfully made it to their destination and enjoyed the show. When the young sailors sought to return to Roi Namur, the officer on duty asked for my dad’s orders. Unfortunately he had no orders, not even to leave the original island. Now Ensign Hellwinkel risked being AWOL. Luckily, he had procured several bottles of whiskey from a Marine at the USO show. He bribed the officer on duty with one of these bottles. (Bourbon or Scotch? It depends who you ask: the Hellwinkels say Bourbon; the Rahbecks say Scotch.) Upon return to Roi Namur, the scared young men found that the Amsterdam had just departed, all the rope ties had been pulled in. Thinking he was doomed, my Dad spotted a jetty boat at the pier. Again, he bribed its operator with whiskey to take him out to his ship. The moral of that story, according to my father, is: Always keep a bottle of bourbon in your sea bag in case of emergency.
In August, the Task Force was off the coast of the Japanese island, Honsu, on alert for an invasion, when the atomic bombs were dropped , and the war ended. The Amsterdam then steamed into Tokyo Bay, the first big U.S. ship to enter the bay. Its job, in particular on Sept. 5, 1945, was to protect the USS Missouri from possible kamikaze attacks during the formal surrender of Imperial Japan. This unconditional surrender was signed on the deck of the Missouri by Gen. Douglas MacArthur. And, on that day, standing behind MacArthur was Adm. John C. Daniels, the man my dad would later work for in Korea.
From September 1945 to Jan. 31, 1949, Ensign Hellwinkel was part of the United States’s post-World War II Naval force. After all, he owed the Navy for his college education. He spent more time aboard the Amsterdam, ferrying combat veterans stateside. This was followed by a tour of duty at sea on the maiden voyage of the USS Saipan, an aircraft carrier, shaking out from Virginia to the Gulf Coast and through the Caribbean. His next assignment was on the USS Adirondack, a floating flagship with advanced communication equipment for an amphibious force. In 1948 he participated in Operation Crossroads aboard the USS Mt. McKinley. The Mighty Mac was the flagship for a Task Force studying the effects of atom bombs dropped on various targets on Eniwetok and the Bikini Atoll of the Marshall Islands. Interestingly enough, the USS Nevada was one of the target ships in this exercise.
My father’s “first” naval career ended at the Great Lakes Naval Training Center when he separated from active duty in early 1949 and entered the U.S. Naval Reserve.
From February 1949 to October 1951, my father returned to civilian life in Minden. He worked for his father, Fred Hellwinkel, at the family owned auto dealership and repair shop, the C.O.D. Garage. But the Navy needed him again. He was called back into service, midway into the U.S. involvement in the Korean War.