Remote island became ‘vacation’ for sailor

Emil Partak of Venice, Fla. went to Kwajalein Atoll during his early years in the Navy. He signed up in 1956, immediately after graduating from dental college at Loyola University in Chicago.

Shortly after boot camp at Great Lakes Naval Station he received the word he was going to Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific as a lieutenant junior grade.

“Kwajalein Atoll was the worst duty station in the Navy,” according to what he’d been told. “It was a little island 2,100 miles from Honolulu. Only 2 ¾ miles long and ¾ of a mile wide the Navy used it as a refueling station for its sea planes. There was also a top secret LORAN (long range navigation) operation there too.”

Partak, now a resident of Bellagio subdivision in Venice, said the place was so remote with such a bad reputation that he received a personal letter from the admiral in charge of all Navy dentists.

He was trying to sell the island to the young dentist as a tropical paradise. Included with his letter were pictures of the palm trees on Kwajalein’s gorgeous sugar-white sandy beach.

He received the word from a corpsman friend who told him, “Kwajalein is just fine if you go out there with the proper attitude.”

Kwajalein wasn’t very big. It was 2¾ miles long and three-quarters of a mile wide. The atoll was staffed by 2,800 naval personnel and their dependents. Photo provided

“That was hard to do,” Partak said, “I couldn’t take my wife or my car with me to Kwajalein. Even so, it was an exciting time for me because it was my first time on the West Coast. I grew up in Wisconsin. They sent me to San Francisco for a couple of days before I flew on to the Hawaiian Islands. Kwajalein was another full day’s flight in a twin-engine prop-driven transport.

“I arrived there just at reveille,” Partak recalled decades later. “They took me around to the various dental offices on the island then they showed me my quarters. I shared an apartment with another lieutenant.

“I quickly adopted to life on Kwajalein. My commanding officer was a good guy. He told me, ‘I don’t care how much work you do on a daily basis. I just want you to do a good job.’”

“We had a 4 ½ day work week. One of my duties was to take the higher-ups who arrived on the island fishing. The Navy had a couple of 40-foot, twin-engine cabin cruisers we used for fishing.

“The fishing had its drawbacks,” Partak said. “Sharks would eat most of our catch before we could get the fish aboard.”

“The sharks in the lagoon at Kwajalein were small, six or seven feet compared to the ones at the dump at the end of the runway. They were huge.

“Most of the naval officers on the island were aviators. They had to fly around to get their pilot’s time in,” he said. “They would fly their twin-engine sea planes to an island inhabited by natives a couple of hundred miles away. Row ashore in rubber boats and sit around in a circle on the beach trading with the natives.”

Hand woven rugs and little ship models made from bamboo were traded by the natives. The Americans would swap soap and cigarettes with them.

Life for him improved considerably after two months on the island when his wife flew out to be with him on Kwajalein.

“When my wife arrived I met her at the plane. I took her to my new Navy house,” Partak said. “We lived in a two story brick duplex. They told me to go down to the Navy furniture warehouse and pick out anything I wanted to furnish my new house with.”

It was 1956 and by this time some 2,800 Navy personnel worked on the island, he said. The island had a couple of bars and three movie theaters, a grocery store and a school for the sailors’ kids.

During the time Partak spent on Kwajalein, the most outstanding part if his year-long billet was the weather.

“It’s great because the temperature on the island was usually around 80º. It never got below 70 and never above 85. There was always a breeze and there was sunshine all the time.”

“The time I spent on Kwajalein with my wife was a vacation for both of us,” he said. “Then I was transferred to North (Island) Air Station on Coronado Island off San Diego which is just where I wanted to be because I planned to practice dentistry in California when I got out of the Navy.”

Coronado Island was where the UDT (Underwater Demolition Team) set up its base. It was also where the Navy’s hottest jets were based. They were part of the carrier fleet whose home base was San Diego, too.

Partak and his wife spent their second and last year in the regular Navy at North Island Air Station. After discharge he served an additional seven years in the Naval Reserve. He was a lieutenant commander when he was finally discharged.

For 40 years, Emil practiced dentistry in the San Jose, California, area before retiring and moving to Venice in 1997. He has three children who live out of state: Terese, James, and David.

Name: Emil John Partak
D.O.B:  30 Jan. 1932
Hometown: Phillips, Wisc.
Currently: Venice, Fla.
Entered Service: Navy
Discharged: 1956
Rank: Lieutenant
Unit:
Commendations:
Battles/Campaigns: Cold War

This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Monday, Dec. 31, 2018 and is republished with permission.

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Comments

  1. I enjoyed reading Emil Partak’s “vacation” experience. I have a few assumptions reading the story; when talking about “Venice” it is referring to Venice, FL and the picture posted is a current picture of Dr. Partak – thank you for your service. Postscript to Loyola Chicago’s dental school, per the Chicago Tribune 6/9/92: “Amid shouts of anger and weeping from its students, the Loyola University School of Dentistry announced Monday it will close its doors June 30, 1993, the year of its 70th anniversary.”

    • We missed adding “Fla” to Venice – thank you for the heads-up and the update on Loyola University School of Dentistry.

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