Paul Scherbel, World War II Veteran

Paul Scherbel

Everywhere the fleet tug went, it towed.

Its job was to haul destroyers, and when a ship was in trouble, the tug was there to help rescue.

Paul Scherbel was in charge.

He enlisted in the Navy on Jan. 15, 1942.

“Had to go somewhere,” he said.

His pay was $21 a month.

In July, he was sent to Columbia University to be a midshipman, which involved classroom work and a lot of marching.

An APC-109 auxiliary personnel ship was his first assignment, and the ship was to haul Marines to the beach.

But Scherbel caught pneumonia.

When he got out of the hospital in San Francisco six weeks later, he joined the fleet tug USS Pakana ATF-108.

First the fleet tug trailed up and down the West Coast for training. At Pearl Harbor, it towed targets for other ships and aircraft to practice.

The Pakana carried about 100 men and was about the size of a destroyer, and in the South Pacific it towed concrete barges to be used as commissaries and store rooms by MacArthur’s Army at Eniwetok.

“We made two knots,” Scherbel said, “which is about going across the plains 20 miles a day.”

A small handful of six to eight men worked for the communications office, and Scherbel was the officer. He ran the radio room and coded and decoded messages. Scherbel never got any interesting ones, he said, just the usual where to go, what for and when.

Before long, the captain promoted Scherbel to navigator and second officer. The four quartermasters helped Scherbel manage the navigation, but “I was basically in charge of the ship,” he said.

At Saipan, the Pakana tried to pull LCMs off the beach.

“They got them on but couldn’t get them off,” Scherbel said.

Towing was fairly simple: hook the vessel that needed moving and give it a little juice.

“It’s just like towing a car,” Scherbel said.

Scherbel remembers towing large craft through turbulent weather. The Pakana got stuck in a typhoon for several days while towing an ARD auxiliary repair drydock. The tow line broke, and the tug nearly lost the ARD.

“We had to circle that great big ship, great big thing, all night,” Scherbel said.

The Pakana was sent in as part of the Okinawa campaign, the landing beginning April 1, 1945. On the way in, the tug towed a submarine chaser into battle.

“We set out there and watched the landing,” Scherbel said. “Beautiful, no problems.”

Five days later, the Pakana was dispatched on a rescue mission. Japanese kamikazes had attacked the destroyer USS Bush.

On the way over, as Scherbel remembers, a kamikaze flew right over the Pakana. No one saw it coming.

“I could have thrown a rock where I was,” he said.

When the fleet tug arrived, the Bush had sunk. The Pakana crew spent the night sending out a two small boats, shining an arc light, searching for survivors.

The destroyer USS Colhoun also responded to the Bush’s call for help, but it was attacked and beyond salvation, Scherbel said. U.S. forces finished it off and sunk it.

Over the course of the war, some Pakana crew members were injured by shrapnel, but “we never lost a man,” Scherbel said.

The fleet tug participated in other rescue missions and also towed wreckage as part of salvage operations. One day they came across an LCM that had been attacked, the only survivors the captain and the dog mascot. Pakana took them aboard and gave the LCM a tow to harbor.

He can recall one instance when a kamikaze flew close, and one of the Pakana sailors single-handedly shot it down, saving the ship.

“That was all my nightmares,” Scherbel said.

Scherbel got off the Pakana at Guam and was on leave in the U.S. when the war ended. He helped navigate a destroyer, one that had served the war on the West Coast, through the Panama Canal and up to Norfolk, Va. Scherbel was released from active duty in 1946 and then joined the Navy Reserve, where he made rank as commander.

Before the war, Scherbel attended college to become a forester. He met his wife then, coming out of a bank.

“You wouldn’t believe this,” he said.

Scherbel walked out of the bank, looked at the statue of Brigham Young outside, “and I said, ‘I need a girl.’ I didn’t have one yet, and it wasn’t right,” he said.

He looked at the statue’s hand, and it was pointing right at a bus.

“This girl was getting on the bus. So I run down and got on.”

One thing led to another, and they married. The Scherbels had four children, 32 grandchildren and 35 great-grandchildren.

Scherbel worked for the Soil Conservation Service and was the first surveyor to serve on the Board of Registration of Professional Engineers and Professional Land Surveyors. The Conservation Service had asked him where he wanted to work after war, and he said he wanted to be as close to Salt Lake City as possible. It’s where he grew up.

They placed him in Big Piney.

He told his wife they’d be there for a few years.

“Still here,” he said. Since 1946.

At 93, Scherbel still works, and he considers himself still in the Reserve. No one ever bothered to tell him he was released, Scherbel said.

He could get a dispatch today, “and I’ll be on my way.”

They served with honor

Some have said that 1,000 World War II veterans die each day in United States. History dies with each one.

"They Served With Honor" is a special project by the Star-Tribune to collect stories from Wyoming World War II veterans. We will feature one story each week through Veterans Day 2011.

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