Wednesday, May 19, 2010

My Dad

— Obituary —
John Enge, 95
January 28, 1915 to May 7, 2010
May 13, 2010
by Marilee Enge

John Werner Enge, a World War II veteran and fishing industry pioneer whose long life closely followed the development of his hometown of Petersburg, died May 7, 2010.

John was born to Martin and Augusta Enge on January 28, 1915, at the family home on Sing Lee Alley. His playmates were Norwegian and Tlingit Indian children and he spoke only Norwegian and Tlingit until he attended school. The wild territory of Southeast Alaska was an adventurous child’s playground and John relished exploring the surrounding waters and virgin forests with his brothers, rowing to Petersburg Creek for camping trips and fishing with his father in an open dory on the Stikine River. He liked hunting and was a good shot, but he always enjoyed being in the woods in the spring and fall, perhaps more than he did bringing home game. The 30.30 he bought for $10 off a punchboard when he was 15 served him on countless hunting trips and is still in the family.

Childhood adventures were led by packs of boys who called themselves “gangs.” John and his brothers belonged to the Point Gang, named after Ness’ Point and it included his life-long friend, Leo Ness, and brothers Arnold and Ernest. They spent days roaming the beaches and muskegs and doing battle with the Hill Gang on the Lutheran Church hill. John was an avid skier and snowy winters found him exploring the backcountry of Mitkof Island. One glorious winter day he climbed a peak above Cabin Creek and skied to the shores of Frederick Sound, leaving his wooden skis behind to walk home.

John graduated from Petersburg High School in 1933 and entered the University of Washington in the fall of 1934. He enjoyed social activities at Chi Phi fraternity, and filled his dance card at sorority functions. He studied fisheries with Dr. Lauren Donaldson at UW and completed his degree in six years, while spending half the year long-lining with his father or gillnetting with his friend Erling Strand to pay for tuition.

After college, he worked for the International Pacific Halibut Commission, spending a winter on a research schooner based in Ballard that trawled for halibut larvae in Hecate Strait. He soon returned to Petersburg where he set up shop as a fish buyer. When the news came in 1941 that the U.S. had entered World War II, John remembered he was seated on the third stool, at the counter of the Pastime Café. A member of the Naval reserves, he was soon on his way to the Sand Point air field to join the Naval Air Corps. He entered flight training, but after his brother, Arnold, was killed on a routine flight near Juneau, he requested a transfer to sea duty.

John was commissioned an ensign and given command of an LST 921, joining a convoy that crossed the Atlantic in 1944. On the eve of the Normandy invasion, carrying a secret cargo of mine-sweeping equipment, the ship was struck by a German torpedo and sank, killing 43 sailors. John stayed aboard until all of the survivors were rescued and later walked the beaches, hoping to find some sign of the lost sailors. His next assignment was in the Pacific and he spent the rest of the war dodging kamikazes. His ship performed support for the Okinawa invasion.

John returned to Petersburg in 1946 and fished with his father and brother. That fall, at a Sons of Norway Dance, he met a young school teacher named Carol Anderson, recently arrived from Iowa. They began a whirlwind courtship and soon made plans to marry, flying to Juneau on Christmas Eve for a private ceremony.

John began his long career in seafood processing buying fish in tiny Pelican, where the couple lived for four years and began raising a family. Back in Petersburg, John went to work as plant manager for Kayler-Dahl Fish Company (later owned by Whitney-Fidalgo) a processor where he spent the majority of his career. John was one of the few in the industry with an academic background in fisheries and came to be a respected for his ideas on developing new fisheries, expanding markets, and on protecting the quality of fresh seafood. He once said the advice he received from his first boss always held, “Be careful with those fish, handle them gently and keep ‘em cool.” Fishermen respected his high standards and sense of honor. He served on the Alaska King Crab Marketing Board in the boom days when Alaska was seeking new markets for the valuable product. He concluded his career at Icicle Seafoods, working for his old friend Bob Thorstenson.

John was a community volunteer who devoted time to the Petersburg School Board, a variety of groups that included the Masons, Elks, Shriners, VFW and American Legion. The Boy Scouts was a special interest and he led his sons’ scout troops and served in statewide positions. Later in life, he and Carol were active in the Petersburg Igloo of the Alaska Pioneers, and together they headed an oral history project that led to the book, “Petersburg Pioneers,” which recounts personal stories of the town’s early families. He insisted that local folks should write their history so it would not be lost. John also enjoyed working with teacher Jim Engell to bring World War II history alive for local high school students.

Above all, John loved the outdoors and loved his family. His children cherish memories of boat trips, berry picking, fishing, camping and hunting with him throughout his life. Sunny days when there was a break in work at the cannery he would ask Carol to pack a lunch and the family would jump into the little fiberglass outboard that served as transportation to outdoor adventures. There were picnic dinners up Petersburg Creek on warm evenings when the tide was high, and trips to the white sand beaches of Dry Bay on summer afternoons. He also flew a private plane and enjoyed fly fishing in remote lakes.

John was a great storyteller and raconteur and was keen and witty until the very end. He was in declining health in recent years, and suffered macular degeneration that had taken his eyesight, but he continued to recognize longtime acquaintances by their voices. He was happiest telling stories about the old days or talking fish.

He was hospitalized Tuesday, May 4, and insisted on returning to his home of 60 years as soon as he was able. He came home Friday, May 7, and died soon after, surrounded by family.

John was among the last survivors of the early generation of Norwegian immigrants who settled on Mitkof Island at the turn of the century. His grandparents, Rasmus and Anna Enge, built the first home and put down roots and the Enge family has been in Petersburg ever since.

John was preceded in death by his parents and brothers. He is survived by Carol, his wife of 63 years; sons Arnold, of Petersburg; John, of Medford, Ore.; Steve, of Port Townsend, Wash.; daughters Marilee, of Berkeley, Calif. and Elisabeth Nyssen, of Edmonds, Wash.; nieces Signe Haltiner and Bobbie Anderson; 12 grandchildren and a great-grandson.