At 17-years-old in 1945, Norman Sengbusch was fending off pressure from his mother to buy the farm across the road from the family’s home. His birthday was only a few months away, and so was his eligibility for military draft rolls.
“I knew that once I turned 18 they were probably going to call me number. I kept telling her that if I’m called, I would have to go—it didn’t make sense to start something [buying the farm] when I didn’t know how long I’d be there,” he says.
Sure enough, just weeks after turning 18 a formal-looking envelope arrived for Sengbusch in the mail, and he was set to take his place within American history as the Japanese Empire entered its final days.
Norman’s father Hugo Sengbusch was much in the same position about thirty years prior during the First World War. Hugo made it through training and was on the east coast ready to ship out when the war came to an end.
When two atomic bombs brought Japan’s unconditional surrender, Norman was stationed in Oregon during a herky-jerky string of transfers up and down the Pacific Coast. In short time Norman was headed to San Diego to depart from his father’s military experience as he departed for the Philippines with the 29th Air Service Group.
All the physical toil imposed during training did not prepare Norman, and several others beside him, for the curse of sea travel.
“I didn’t eat at all for the first three days, I felt so sick all the time. It gets to a point where you know you have to eat something. After that, it wasn’t too bad,” he says.
Senior officers warned the men to avoid eating coconut and bananas together in the same sitting. Without being too graphic, those who defied such advice would soon find themselves caught in a stagnant line for the bathroom.
“I didn’t believe him when he first told us, but I sure as heck never did that again,” he says.
The boat made one stop in Hawaii and another on an island which would later be decimated by American nuclear testing before arriving about forty miles south of Manila at the Clark Air Base, now under control of the Filipino Air Force.
There were no tightwire dogfights in the sky or major bombing runs in store for Sengbusch, much to his relief. Instead, he and the 29th shored up the base’s runways with graters and asphalt amid several construction/destruction projects, as well as providing maintenance of the trove of machinery required.
“They taught me how to drive a bulldozer,” he says, “I had to go slow at first, but picked it up alright.”
In certain instances, Norman was given the aid of Japanese POWs to complete the strenuous work. At first, it was a cold boss/worker relationship between Sengbusch and a group of five Japanese men.
“First thing I did was ask if they spoke English. Nobody said or did anything. Well, as we kept going, I let them take a break for a smoke, then another one a little later, and what do you know? All of them were speaking great English by the end,” he says, laughing in reminiscence.
“The next day they were asking to come back to the same spot,” but did not have their wishes granted, he says.
A little more than one year after being called to enlist, Norman Sengbusch was on his way home, but he didn’t end up buying that farm across the road. Instead, he took a job producing paper on the Thilmany production floor in Kaukauna.
He and his bride were then living out of a trailer home to save money until long-term work was found. Norman did not begin work the very day he stepped in the office, as was offered to him, because he needed at least one day to move the trailer off his parents’ property.
With money saved from the paper mill, Norman built a home in Kaukauna in order to start a family under a comfortable roof.
He retired from Thilmany in 1988 at the age of 62, capping a forty-year career in which he learned the specifics of at least ten industrial-size paper converters and other machinery. Learning new machines was never hard, though—and now those with which he labored could conscionably be called “co-workers” and not “prisoners”.
Norman is a member of Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 6705 and American Legion 363 Hershman-Johnson Post. Even at the age of 92, he makes the half-hour drive to Denmark twice a month for the meetings of both organizations.