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Charles Schanck
WWII Medals & Citations

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Ector B. Latham
WWII Medals & Citations

a letter from the front

(This short sketch appeared in the NOAA Corps Bulletin)

Ector B. Latham, Charles Schanck, and Eli Packer
Ector B. Latham, Charles Schanck, and Eli Packer

I passed through Louisville, Kentucky in July and stopped to talk with Charley Schanck. He had just finished mowing his lawn and looked like he would do better on our physical readiness tests than some of our junior officers. During conversation with him, I found a man who had one of the remarkable careers that was so commonplace with the Coast and Geodetic Survey in the first half of the Twentieth Century. RADM Schanck began his career as a hand on a geodetic field party on July 9, 1924, and was commissioned as Aid with relative rank of ensign on February 5, 1927.

What RADM Schanck recalls with most pride during the time before the Second World War was being Chief-of-Party on a triangulation crew with a hundred men, forty trucks, and twenty brand new Bilby steel observing towers in the mid-1930's working across the upper Midwest and the Southeast. That was as a Lieutenant (j.g.) with close to ten years service. He moved with his wife and brand new baby about 50 times during those years. Actually, most of Charley's career up to this point had been in geodesy throughout the United States working with triangulation, astronomic, traverse, leveling, and baseline measurement parties. For a man born on a ranch outside of Red Lodge, Montana, field life was natural to Charley. His brother still runs the family ranch.

He talked of duty in the Philippines from 1936 to 1938 on the FATHOMER with Robert Studds, commanding, and then "Runt" Warwick. He completed the triangulation tieing the southern Philippines to Borneo across Sibutu Strait. Charley was on the FATHOMER when it was blown aground during a typhoon at Cape San Vicente at the very northern tip of the Philippines completing his circuit from one end of the islands to the other. His job during this blow was to watch the glass for signs of lessening intensity. The barometer didn't rise until bottoming out at 26.77". The record low ever observed at sea level was 26.35" by comparison. The FATHOMER was salvaged and survived to survey another day with help from the Philippine Coast Guard. They dynamited the reef underneath the ship, drove pilings offshore from the reef, and then used steel cable to winch the ship into deep water.

RADM Schanck loved the jokes and the fun times inherent in our work. He was on the HYDROGRAPHER when Ensign John Tribble inserted a radio-acoustic ranging bomb down a shark's mouth, released the shark, and then watched in horror as the shark circled back to the ship and exploded next to the hull. The concussion woke up Captain Parker who stormed up on deck to determine the cause of the explosion. Ensign Tribble was forcefully reminded of the necessity to maintain proper safety procedures when handling explosives.

If you liked that one, you'll love the old funnel down the pants trick. A few of Schanck's wardroom cronies on the HYDROGRAPHER chose to educate a new ensign who had just returned to the ship after a night on the town. It was suggested that this individual was incapable of projecting a coin that was placed on his forehead into a funnel which was inserted between his belt and his pants. When the ensign threw his head up to get the proper trajectory, a member of the wardroom poured a glass of water down the funnel. Upon reflection, the new ensign decided this was such a wonderful joke that he had to try the same thing on another unsuspecting soul. In walks Charley who had been aware of the original prank. Charley played so dumb that the ensign was reduced to demonstrating the procedure. Upon launching his head back for the proper aim, down the funnel went a second glass of water. Lightning does strike twice in the same place. Perhaps it was no accident that RADM Charles Schanck retired on April Fools' Day 1958.

In geodesy, Charley had a survey crew that was working in the vicinity of a University of Wisconsin summer survey field camp outside of Baraboo, Wisconsin. The students had formed the Baraboo Rattlesnake Club that required bringing a live rattlesnake into camp for entry into the club. Unfortunately, Charley's crew decided this was a great idea and chose to form a sub-chapter of the club. After weeks of finding rattlesnakes in tool boxes, cement sacks, and water cans RADM Schanck was only too glad to pack up and leave the Baraboo Rattlesnake Club.

In 1943 Lt. Charles Schanck was 39, a veteran of eighteen years in the Coast and Geodetic Survey. He had been designated personnel officer for the Aeronautical Charting Branch and was responsible for hiring, firing and monitoring 500 civilian employees in the high pressure environment of war time chart production. Keeping old ladies who wanted to help the war effort but couldn't draft off the drafting tables and keeping young men who could draft but needed critical skills deferments on the drafting tables was the gist of Charley's job. After a year of this, he started grumbling about going where the "action is". Within a month, Charley was transferred to the army and sent to Fort Sill, Oklahoma. On March 25, 1944, he graduated from the sixteenth Officer's Sound and Flash Ranging Course and then headed up to Fort Riley, Kansas, to complete his transformation to a field artillery survey officer.

In mid-December 1944, Major Schanck landed at LeHavre, France, and by December 20 he had found the "action" as he was transported to his unit at Dohlem, Luxembourg, right in the middle of what came to be known as the Battle of the Bulge, the last great German offensive of WWII. Charley Schanck survived his baptism of fire and described his experiences in the following letter to Rear Admiral Leo Otis Colbert, then Director of the Coast and Geodetic Survey.

Somewhere in Luxembourg
1 Feb. 45

"To: The Director,
U.S. Coast & Geodetic Survey,
Washington, D.C.

From: Major Charles A. Schanck, K100034
288th F.A. Obsn. Bn. A.P.O. 403
% Postmaster, N.Y. N.Y.

Subject: Personal Report.

I guess the Germans have learned that my unit is in action for we are not permitted by the censors to tell that we are in the 3rd Corps of the 3rd Army. That information plus the newspaper reports for the past month plus my location should give you some idea of what my work has been lately. We have tried hard to forget many things they taught us at Fort Sill and learned a number they didn't mention. As you know any comparison with the quality of the work we do and Coast Survey work is out of the question, but so are the conditions under which we do it. We have been working in about 2 feet of snow with the temperature in the teens and low twenties. One day we ran 12 kilometers of traverse in a snowstorm into a city that had been encircled three or four days earlier, and counted numerous interdiction shell holes along the road en route home that hadn't been there when the survey was made. I have seen range poles cut in half and tripods slivered and have watched an 88 shell burst within 60 feet of myself, instrument man and recorder, leaving us all unscathed but spraying the ground generously two hundred feet beyond us. Yes, it is quite different from C&GS work.

I feel that I am doing my unit far more good here than I did in the States. There I was pretty discouraged when countless other phases of training interfered with my efforts at surveying training. I don't feel that I am bragging when I say that this Corps has been well satisfied with my unit's surveying work and I doubt if it would have without a C&GS officer to direct it...

Before leaving the States I took part in a test that has, so far as I know, been untried in similar units. It consisted of locating targets with sextant angles from a Piper Cub liaison plane that could not be seen from ground observers. The plane was located from surveyed positions with flash observing instruments, all pointing on it upon a radio signal from the plane. At the same instant I took an angle at the plane from the target to a surveyed initial or base point. As the plane flew past the flash observers a series of such cuts gave an intersection at the target's location. Future survey showed that one of the targets had been located to within 15 yards of its actual position. The others were not surveyed in but the cuts on them gave equally small triangle of error. My commanding officer wrote the test up and it appeared in the Field Artillery Journal -- which month I cannot recall. We have not attempted this here and I am willing to let sleeping dogs lie. Taking angles from a Cub is not easy at any time and certainly nothing to ask for in the kind of weather we are having.

I have seen Lushene a number of times and am not far from Johnson but haven't met up with him to date.

My apologies for a hand written letter but no typewriter is available at my present location and the opportunity to write might not be as good for some time as it is tonight.

Respectfully yours,
Charles A. Schanck"

Schanck fought through southern Germany with the III Corps of the Third Army until the end of WWII. He came home unscathed in spite of many close calls. He received the Bronze Star Medal for his service during this period.

Curiously, he didn't even remember writing the letter from Luxembourg to the Director. He doesn't talk that much about his wartime experiences but instead chooses to recall his fellow colleagues from the Survey who also served with him during the Battle of the Bulge and the sweep through Germany.....Deily, Lushene, Thorson, Deane, Johnson, Bryant..... most of them decorated for gallantry in action. Of these men and the other C&GS officers assigned to other theaters of operation, General Jacob Devers, Commanding General Army Ground Forces, wrote to RADM Colbert:

"...I wish to express to you and to the officers of your splendid organization my appreciation for the great contribution made by these officers to the success of the sound and flash ranging phase of artillery action in the operations in all theaters of war.

"...their value was immediately recognized in the resulting increase in efficiency of the units, particularly in regard to their survey functions.

"...the accomplishments of these officers while so assigned reflect great credit on the United States Coast and Geodetic Survey."

Following WWII RADM Schanck was assigned to the EXPLORER in 1946 conducting surveys in the Aleutians with the electronic navigation system known as Shoran. This system was used for aerial bombing navigation during the war. These surveys and 1945 work by the EXPLORER were the first to use shore based electronic control for hydrographic surveying. 1948-1950 saw a stint in the Kansas City Field Office and then a tour on the PATTON as commanding officer. This tour involved work in remote uncharted regions of Alaska. RADM Schanck remembers this work as one of his most rewarding assignments. The ship was engaged in combined operations and working in an area that was a blank spot on the charts. Charley helped fill up the blanks.

Charley finished his career with a tour in aeronautical charting. Somebody finally managed to break him out of the field for a few short years of office work. As mentioned above, he retired on April 1, 1958, after 31 years of commissioned service. In talking with RADM Schanck, the most striking thing I noticed was his vivid recollection of and respect for the people with whom he had worked and lived from one end of the United States and its territories to the other. The closest Charley came to bragging was buried in an address he delivered to the University of Wisconsin Engineering Institute for Surveyors in 1957. In stating that there were 128,000 triangulation stations in the United States at that time, Schanck went on to inject "a wee personal plug here --- my party established about two-tenths of one percent of those stations in Wisconsin." Pride in having been a small part of the whole. That's the essence of Charles Armstrong Schanck. He would probably have his bag packed tomorrow if someone called him up and asked him to run a survey crew....

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