ROSBURG — In 1923, the roaring 20s were gathering momentum in lavish over-spending and over-production that would lead to the Wall Street crash of Oct. 29, 1929 and the decade-long Great Depression. The Union of Socialist Soviet Republics was established. Henry Ford’s mass production lines built 2,011,125 Model Ts, the most produced during any of the 18 years of Model T production. U.S. President Warren G. Harding died and Calvin Coolidge became the 30th president.
But, most importantly for this article, on July 19, Hilma Sofia (Hanson) Wirkkala gave birth to a son, Edwin Wirkkala, at the naval hospital on Whidbey Island. Edwin was the sixth son of Hilma and John Alexander Wirkkala. At the time, the family lived in the town of Langley on the island. The senior Wirkkala owned a sawmill on Green River west of Seattle.
Following Ed’s birth, his father sold the sawmill and moved the family to a farm near Mayger, Oregon where he raised cherries. Ed attended the first grade in Mayger. In ensuing years, life for the growing Wirkkala family became nomadic as Mr. Wirkkala worked where work was available.
“After the cherry farm, my dad went logging with the original Wirkkala boys,” recalled Ed. “He and my uncles Sam and Oscar logged together. They logged some in Naselle, some in Eden Valley as well as Rosburg and other areas. Uncle Oscar was an inventor. Among other things, he invented the choker which had a big impact on production in the woods. They quit logging on their own and went to work for Buflinn’s, a logging company up on Mount Baker. My dad ran the train there, hauling logs to the dump in Bellingham Bay. The tracks went right by where we lived and he used to stop the train and pick me up. I was a little guy then, about the third grade or so. He had eggs all ready to go when I got on and he’d boil them in the firebox. That was quite an operation. It was so steep the track had switchbacks so by going forward and backward the train could get up and down the hill.”
It wasn’t long before the effects of the nationwide economic disaster began to be felt.
“The Depression hit while we up there,” Wirkkala said. “If you had a big logging company, you could make it, but little logging companies went belly up. Pirates got the timber out of the bay. There was no market for logs and what was there were stolen. The depression years were really a tough time.”
Heading for Seal River
With work scarce, the family, that now included a seventh son and a young daughter, moved to Tieton, near Yakima, where they slept in tents and worked in an orchard owned by a Mr. Kochendorfer. Eventually, the family ended up in Seal River.
“We had an old Durant automobile,” Ed recollected. “All of us climbed into that thing and we came down the road and through Longview. They were still building that road (now State Route 4) that comes across here. We had to wait for them to dynamite the road out. That would be around 1933. We started living in Seal River where my folks spent the rest of their lives.”
Wirkkala attended the Riverside Grade School in Rosburg and, following a graduation ceremony at the first Rosburg Hall, which later burned down, he moved up to attend high school in Naselle. Following graduation in 1942, Wirkkala went to work in the woods for Brix in Knappton. Wanting to be closer to home, he went to work a couple of months later for Swanson’s Grays River Log Company as a choker setter.
Radar man on Normandy Beach
By 1943, World War II was in full swing and Wirkkala felt obliged to heed the call.
“I volunteered for the service because the war was on,” said Wirkkala. “I wanted to go to flight school but the quotas got filled and I didn’t pass the original test. I didn’t have time to take the test again because they shipped me off to radar school. I probably ended up better off since I most likely would have been shot down anyway. There were five of us Wirkkala boys in the service at one point or another during the war. Walt, Ernest, Art, George and me. Art went to the South Pacific as an army radio operator on a landing craft and involved in several island invasions. George was on a seaplane tender in the South Pacific and got involved in the fighting there. Ernest was a mechanic for P51’s. Walt was in the horse cavalry, which later evolved into the armored division, but he was discharged due to a heart murmur that was to affect him for the rest of his life. I ended up as part of a mobile radar unit in the European theater. Radar was pretty primitive then compared to what it is now, but we did pretty good with what we had. We’d guide bombers into their targets and pulled a lot of missions helping the Army infantry guys.”
During the night of June 5, 1944, Wirkkala and his unit were bobbing about on the English Channel preparing to take part in what was to become known as the Normandy Invasion.
“We were scheduled to go first and were out there in the English Channel behind the landing craft. But the first E company, outfit and squads all received 60 percent casualties and they called us back. They couldn’t sacrifice all that sophisticated radar and let it go down the tube. We had to go back to South Hampton and wait a couple of days before we actually made the beach. We had to wade in because we couldn’t get the boat in closer to shore. The beach was still a bloody mess. We made it six or seven miles in-land and caught up where we were supposed to go. We used our radar for information on incoming aircraft. We had this radar that was used for the bombings and it was a good thing, since it allowed a breakthrough. There were three companies of us spread out on the front. A, B and C companies. A company was decimated. I knew a number of those guys. I had a .30 caliber Browning Automatic Rifle and bandoliers of shells, so I was well armed.”
Interviews of members of the “Greatest Generation” sometime seems almost criminal. You look in their eyes as they are describing their experience and can tell they are seeing it again. It was clear Wirkkala was there once again as he described the liberation of a German stalag.
“The prisoners would come walking out and there would be a loudspeaker announcement: “Don’t feed them, don’t feed them,” said Wirkkala.
“They were so starved, a quick intake of food would kill them. They looked like there wasn’t any meat on their bones at all. Those guys survived on nothing. There were piles of bodies just stacked up like cordwood. Don’t let anybody ever try to tell you that the Holocaust didn’t happen. I can tell you it did.”
Building a life in the Washington woods
With the war finally over, Wirkkala and his fellow soldiers were transported back to New Jersey in a Victory Ship. Having gone to Europe aboard the Queen Mary, it seemed incongruous to return on what he described as a bucket of bolts.
After processing out, Wirkkala heard a report of a plane crashing in Montana. Having survived the war, he and some buddies decided not to take any further chances and headed back to the West Coast by train.
“When I returned home, brother Ernest got me a job working for the Wirkkala boys. Charlie Matta was cutting right of way by himself. Single jacking with a handsaw and an axe. They sent me there to help him because Albert, Benny and Paul didn’t want him to be by himself anymore. Charlie showed me how to chop notches for springboards and how to undercut and use a handsaw. I also married Mary Kukola from Seal River and we started our family and lives together. I went to work for Vern Larson after that falling trees by hand for a couple three years. Power saws came out after that. Those Disstons, Titans and McCulloughs were beasts. McCulloughs were horrible things. It could take you half a day to start it.”
Wirkkala ran power saws for many years as a faller and bucker. At one point, he and brother Walt, cousin Bobby Haataja and Archie Laine became a four-man crew and got a contract to cut for Peters Mckinnon. The four of them worked together for several years. Wirkkala then went to work for Weyerhaeuser around 1966 and worked there until the shutdown in 1983.
Wirkkala and Mary were together for 50 years before her passing. During that time they raised four daughters and a son: Dianne, Jan, Connie, Susan and Steve.
After the shutdown, Wirkkala took a job at the school as the groundskeeper. After a time, he met Vivian Estell Pernell, who was a teacher at the school, and remarried. Vivian is now in Clatsop Care Center in Astoria.
On July 19, Wirkkala will turn 96. Asked about the reasons for his longevity, Wirkkala responded, “I always maintain it’s all in the genes. You have to have a certain amount of health built into you. I’ve lived pretty moderate, so that helps some but, I think genes are the key. My dad lived to be 97. My mother was 90 and probably would have lived well past that if she had kept her pacemaker in. She said she could hear it beating when she was in her rocking chair and told them to take it out. She passed shortly after that. I had one installed not long ago. They are much more advanced and you can’t even tell they are there. I guess another part of longevity is your habits. If you abuse yourself, it probably doesn’t contribute to longer life.
“Staying active is a key as well. My knees have been replaced and I am able to exercise by walking.”
With a laugh, Wirkkala also notes, “Of course, medication also helps. The doctor has me on so many pills they’ve got me cured like a pickled fish — and pickled fish last forever.”
Wirkkala continues to live in his home in Rosburg and is active in the Valley Bible Church, which he played a role in creating with Walt Forberg. He is also a member and regular attendee of American Legion Post 0111. He enjoys watching an occasional ballgame on television with his little canine companion Icky.