Longtime Frisco resident Eric Thiele has led an amazing life. He feels grateful to his adopted country for all the opportunities it has afforded him in his 95 years.
When the opportunity to serve arose in 1943, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy. At that time, Mr. Thiele, who was born premature in Hamburg, Germany, in 1923, weighing less than two pounds, had immigrated with his family to the States and was living in Milwaukee, where his family had settled among that area’s sizeable German community.
Mr. Thiele was working in a defense plant and his bosses considered him so invaluable they refused to grant him a waiver to enlist. “They were strongly in objection to that, but I finally convinced them I would be better off in the service than I would be in a defense plant,” he recalls. “At that time, we were building surface torpedo tubes for the destroyers. That was our main product. We also built diesel engines for the Merchant Marines.”
His first stop was the Farragut Naval Training Station in Idaho, where he went through basic training. Mr. Thiele next went to Iowa State College (now Iowa State University) to earn a certificate in diesel mechanics. Naval Base San Diego, the Navy’s largest stateside base, was next on his itinerary and it was there he was assigned to a landing craft as a Motor Machinist Mate, a position with a simple yet indispensable role.
“The landing craft was propelled by eight diesel engines. We had to have somebody to keep those engines running and that was my job. Anything mechanical on the ship, I had to keep it going,” Mr. Thiele says.
During his three years in the Navy (1943-1946), Mr. Thiele was part of two of the most noteworthy battles of the Pacific Theater, the war between Japan and the U.S., which began with the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.
Mr. Thiele was first at the Battle of Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands, a conflict lasting between August 1942 and 1943, which is regarded as the Allies’ first major offensive in the Pacific and the site of their first major victory. The Allied triumph at Guadalcanal was significant because it kept supply lines between the U.S. and Australia open and because the Japanese lost most of their best naval pilots in that battle.
After island-hopping in the Pacific, he was also at the Battle of Okinawa, the last major conflict of World War II and one of its bloodiest. Nicknamed “Operation Iceberg,” under which the Allies looked to take over the Ryukyu Islands, which Okinawa was part of, this battle began on April 1, 1945 — Easter Sunday. The Allies finished with more than 49,000 casualties, while the Japanese lost more than 100,000 soldiers and at least 40,000 civilians.
“Okinawa was really a mess,” Mr. Thiele says. “We lost more ships and more men than we lost in the entire Pacific engagement. The casualties were very heavy there and I had a hard time keeping those kamikazes from hitting us. For one thing, I am glad I came out alive because the mortality rate on our landing craft was 50 percent. I was able to maintain our ships so we were in every battle. We never missed a battle. Our ship was always under propulsion.”
Once his service was up, Mr. Thiele returned to Milwaukee, marrying his wife, Fern, in 1947 and raising three children — two daughters and one son. He returned to the defense plant he had worked at prior to enlisting.
Mr. Thiele then studied mechanical engineering at the Milwaukee Institute of Technology and earned his degree. After returning to the defense plant, he was transferred first to the engineering department where he became a draftsman and later worked in industrial management.
He retired in 1984, and he and his wife moved to North Texas to be closer to one of their daughters, who had moved here in 1980. After five wonderful decades together, Mr. Thiele’s wife passed away in 2002.
One of his favorite memories of their time together was the vacation they took every couple years, excursions which were always by car. “My wife and I used to go on vacation every two years. We would go to the East Coast, West Coast and all through the U.S.,” Mr. Thiele shares. “We would drive it because, that way, we would get to see all the sights along the way. One of the most impressive (sites) was Walt Disney World in Orlando. I also saw Disneyland in Calif.”
Three years ago, Mr. Thiele participated in the Honor Flight, a program where volunteers fly World War II veterans to Washington, D.C. to see various memorials in the nation’s capital, including Arlington National Cemetery, with all expenses paid by the organization. Memories from that trip remain vivid. “That was a very interesting experience,” he says. “I really enjoyed that trip. We went through all the museums, battle memorials and through Arlington Cemetery. We also saw the changing of the guard. It was really a wonderful experience. The one thing I enjoyed most was the Lincoln Memorial.”
Mr. Thiele turned 95 in January and keeps busy by reading and watching television, but mostly by playing cards (Bridge, Five Crown and Pinochle) at his assisted-living facility in east Frisco and at the Senior Center at Frisco Square, which is where he met the current women in his life, a story he told with pride. “I have three girlfriends, which is unusual for a man my age,” he says with a smile. “They all know one another, and I met them all at the Senior Center. We go out on dates quite frequently. I am what they call an extrovert. I like to be with people and take part in community events.”
Thanks to the Frisco Senior Center, he has seen area attractions like the Dallas and Fort Worth Museums of Art, the Dallas Arboretum and the Dallas Symphony. Locally, he especially likes visiting the Frisco Heritage Museum, a place which impresses him. On several occasions, Mr. Thiele has been to see the Frisco Veterans Memorial at Frisco Commons Park. “I think it is very impressive. On the Fourth of July, we usually go there,” Mr. Thiele says.
Now 95, Mr. Thiele has led a long and vibrant life. He served our country in the Navy between 1943 and 1946, seeing time in two of the most noteworthy battles of the Pacific Theater of World War II, Guadalcanal and Okinawa, service which he takes immense pride in. “I felt it was an obligation to defend the country because of what it stands for and what it had done for me,” he says.
Mr. Thiele is also a self-made man who started out working as a machinist who could fix diesel engines, but one day became a mechanical engineer. No matter where he has lived or served, he has always been grateful for the many blessings he has received — a rosy outlook on life we can all be inspired by and aspire to live by.