Navy veteran shares scariest half-hour of his life

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A few days after leaving Charleston, South Carolina, to head to the Mediterranean Sea, U.S. Navy boilerman John Engleking found himself in the Atlantic Ocean.

Yes, in the ocean. Not on the ocean.

While traveling on the USS Bordelon on Jan. 9, 1969, he and another man were emptying trash halfway down the starboard side when a wave came over the cargo ship. Both of them were washed overboard.

“He washed over and around the boat and washed back up on the boat on the other side,” Engleking said. “I got the luck of being in there for about a half-hour. The after lookout happened to be doing his job and saw me.”

As he was in the water, mountainous 20-foot waves roared around him.

“You’d see the boat. It’d go down. You wouldn’t see the boat anymore. All you’d see is water. A little while later, you’d see the boat, and it just kept going,” Engleking said.

Finally, a wave brought him close to the boat, and he had several life preservers around him that had been thrown out by men on the ship. He grabbed hold of one and made it back on board.

It’s safe to say those were the scariest 30 minutes of his life.

“I was thankful,” the 74-year-old Seymour man said. “I did a lot of praying out there. I thought about my family, and I thought about the guys on the boat.”

Afterwards, he talked to the after lookout.

“I had lost my shoes going over, and he said, ‘That’s the reason.’ I said, ‘What do you mean the reason?’ He said, ‘When I saw you, you were up out of the water to your ankles. If you had your shoes on, you could have walked back,’” Engleking said, laughing.

A few days later, another man on board told him he should have swum to land, which was about 5 miles away.

“I think I could have swam 5 miles if I had to. He said, ‘Yeah, the only trouble is it was straight down,’” Engleking said with another laugh.

When he later returned to Charleston after the cruise, Navy personnel were getting ready to go on a Red Sea cruise.

“I said, ‘No, I ain’t going. I’ll do anything you want me to do on shore. I ain’t going back to sea,’” Engleking said, smiling. “They put me on shore duty for a while, and I had to get evaluated two or three times. They said, ‘Well, we’re just going to let you go.’”

Engleking served in the Navy for two and a half years.

The Bordelon was retired in 1977, and shortly after, a reunion was conducted for the men who had served on the ship since it was commissioned in 1945. Those reunions have continued on a biennial basis.

“We would have probably half a dozen, eight maybe, from my era there, and we would have a good time talking about old times,” Engleking said, adding his wife, Rita, has joined him on those trips.

On May 2, 2013, Engleking received an email from Bill Leslie saying he was looking at the Bordelon website and saw the sea story from 1969 that had been shared by him. He asked Engleking if he was one of the two guys who were washed overboard. Leslie was the executive officer on the ship at the time.

“I actually took the con from our brand-new captain to get the ship in position to retrieve the second guy, and I have always wondered whatever happened to you,” Leslie wrote.

Engleking responded and confirmed that was him.

“You can’t believe how small a tincan looks if you’re not on it and floating around out in the ocean by yourself,” Engleking wrote. “While I was out there, I was praying for all of you guys. I saw the sonar dome on the bottom of the boat quite a few times, and I knew you were taking some big rolls. I didn’t want to take you all with me and really just wondered how you were going to tell Mom I was dead.”

Engleking wrote that he heard the man overboard sound and saw the boat trying to get back to him, but he said it seemed like it was just getting farther away.

“When I was about done (worn out), I saw the boat go down in the swells, and so did I,” Engleking wrote. “When we both came up again, you were sitting right beside me. First thing that I seen on the boat was an armed gunner’s mate. First panic (other than going over) … must be sharks. Then the second time I panicked, they were throwing life rings to me everywhere and I didn’t know which one to grab.”

Engleking also included a copy of the letter the commander sent to his mother letting her know about the incident, her response to his letter and a photo of him about five days later near the place he started down the side of the ship.

“Notice I still had hold of the rail in calmer seas,” Engleking wrote.

He also included a picture of him and Rita at the Bordelon reunion in 2009 in Nashville, Tennessee, and asked Leslie if he was going to the reunion that year.

“I’d really like to meet you again, but not in the middle of the ocean,” Engleking wrote. “I think that I owe you, at the very least, a cold beer.”

In Leslie’s response, he said he has told Engleking’s story on several occasions and was glad to know he was “alive and kicking.”

After he got out of the Navy, Engleking returned to Sellersburg, where his wife lived at the time. They later bought a house in Henryville and lived there for four years before moving back to Seymour.

He and his brother-in-law then started a carpet business, Carpet Villa. When that store closed, he worked for the Indiana Department of Transportation Seymour District for 32 years.

He started off in the shop making signs and later moved up to buying real estate for the state and then became manager of real estate and utility and railroads.

After retiring in 2014, Engleking sold real estate for Paul Nay’s business until Nay died earlier this year. Now, Engleking enjoys working around the house, doing yard work and traveling with his wife.

Their most recent trip was to Mobile, Alabama, for a Bordelon reunion.

Looking back, Engleking said he’s proud of his military service.

“I came from an era of people that you were supposed to go through school and go serve your country, and that’s what I did,” he said. “I wasn’t planning on doing it quite as quick. I thought I’d take a year or two and then do it, but my best buddy at that time said, ‘No, let’s go now.’ ‘OK.’ … I would give a million dollars to not have the experience, but I wouldn’t give a million dollars to do it again, either.”

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