Vet recalls relaying top secret nuclear test info

By LEANN BURKE
lburke@dcherald.com

FERDINAND — One morning before the sun came up in the early 1950s, Ferdinand native and Army veteran Jim Uebelhor, 87, snuck down to the shoreline on Enewetak, the 2-mile-wide island he was stationed on during the Korean War. As part of the Army Signal Corps, he knew a nuclear test was about to happen. He wanted to see it.

Uebelhor in 1950s
Uebelhor today

“I tell you, when that devil went off it was like an instant sun up,” Uebelhor recalled in his Ferdinand home roughly 65 years later.

Uebelhor served a year of his three-year Army duty on Enewetak, a tiny, sparsely populated island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean that’s part of the Marshall Islands. As a member of the Army Signal Corps, he and his peers kept constant communication between the nuclear tests being performed in the Marshall Islands and the laboratory back in Los Alamos, New Mexico. At a distance of almost 6,000 miles, it was the longest communication link set up at the time, Uebelhor said.

At the time, nuclear weapons were the cutting edge of war technology, and as such, the information Uebelhor and his peers dealt with was top secret, the Army’s highest security clearance. Before they deployed, the soldiers stationed in the Marshall Islands had to offer six references, and Uebelhor later found out they checked with all six to make sure he wasn’t a communist spy. The men also weren’t allowed to bring any cameras or other recording devices with them, and often the messages they sent via teletype — an electromechanical typewriter that can send and receive typed messages through various channels — had to be encrypted. At the time, Uebelhor and his peers didn’t focus much on their security clearance or the importance of their work.

“It was just part of the job,” Uebelhor said.

Years later, he’s proud of his service and eager to tell stories about his time in the Army and to share photos from his training and his week on leave in Hawaii. The week in Hawaii came at the end of his year on Enewetak. Soldiers could stay on the island up to a year, but no more due to radiation exposure from being so close to nuclear tests. The Army paid for everything in Hawaii — travel, food, lodging — and the only thing the men had to do was rent a car. Once in Hawaii, Uebelhor, a fan of 35mm film and cameras, purchased one and set to taking photos.

“It was a wonderful place to go, but we were far away from home,” Uebelhor said. “Laverne (now his wife) was back at home, and I was there.”

Uebelhor met Laverne (Welp), 84, a Schnellville native, at a dance shortly before he left for basic training. The two dated via letters while he was in the service. There was a chance the Army would open and read their letters, but Uebelhor doesn’t think they ever did. Laverne disagrees. She thinks a couple of them were opened, but the couple could never tell for sure. It was difficult, Jim said, but the two thought they’d found their life partner in each other. And they had. Jim was discharged in May 1953 and returned to Ferdinand. The two were married just over a year later in August 1954.

When he returned to Ferdinand, Jim went to work at Bartley and Co., a general store and feed mill  that his father, Roman, co-owned with the Bartley brothers. At the store, Jim was a jack of all trades. He could run the feed mill, go out to farms to test the chickens that supplied the store’s eggs, butcher animals, make sandwiches and sell the many goods the store offered, including malt for home-brew and clothing.

“The only thing I didn’t like was selling women’s underwear. I shied away from that,” Jim said. “There were always a couple of women there who could handle that.”

He’s got several stories from the store, too, including a few from Ferdinand’s moonshine culture. The moonshiners came to the store to purchase their sugar, as well as other goods, and many of them were well-known townsfolk that Jim knew. He also knew the excise police who came through town every so often, and he became buddies with one of the officers. One April day, the excise officer Jim knew came in with his pants wet up to his hips. Jim asked where he’d been, and the man replied he’d been out hunting mushrooms. Jim said that was impossible. Mushrooms don’t come out in April.

“He said, ‘You wanna bet? We found the biggest one I’d ever found in my life,’” Jim recalled.

Turned out the officers called moonshine stills “mushrooms,” and they’d found a large one on a farm just outside town, broke it into pieces and arrested the people running it.

Jim said he tasted moonshine a couple times, but he never had a drink of the stuff that he liked. He describes it as “ugly tasting.”

In another story, Jim said, he was out on a farm testing chickens for disease. Well, he found one too many diseased hens, and the lady of the farm chased him off.

“We just left,” he said. “We didn’t want those eggs anymore anyway.”

In his off hours, Jim worked on radios and early television sets in the basement of his and Laverne’s Ferdinand home, drawing on the skills he learned in the Army Signal Corps. What began as a small workshop in the home’s basement grew into a small showroom in their garage and eventually into the store that sits at 1445 Main St. today, right next to the home it started in where Jim and Laverne still live. Jim left Bartley and Co. in 1965 to grow Uebelhor TV.

Laverne worked at General Electric in Tell City until 1959 when the couple had their first son, Scott. Their second child, Keith, came along in 1963. The couple now has four grandchildren as well.

Jim and Laverne were active in the community as well. They helped start the first Ferdinand Clinic, were active in St. Ferdinand Catholic Church and helped found the Ferdinand Community Center and YMCA. Jim was also a Ferdinand Jaycee and served 20 years as a volunteer firefighter.

“Those were funny days,” Jim said. “But you don’t forget them.”




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