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Interview with Henry Von Oesen, June 16, 2005 | UNCW Archives and Special Collections Online Database

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Title:
Interview with Henry Von Oesen, June 16, 2005
Date:
June 16, 2005
Description:
In this interview, civil engineer Henry Von Oesen discusses his education and military career, the period he served as city engineer, and projects that he and his firm were involved in along the Carolina coast.
Phys. Desc:

Interviewee: Von Oesen, Henry Interviewer: Hayes, Sherman / Zarbock, Paul Date of Interview: 6/16/2005 Series: SENC Notables Length 57:20

Q: Good afternoon. Today is the 16th of June in the year 2005. We're recording in Wilmington, North Carolina, a Mr. Sherman Hayes, university librarian, is one of the interviewers. My name is Paul Zarbock, a part-time associate of the university. This is part of the Special Collections collection and we're interviewing Mr. Henry Von Oesen. Have I pronounced it correctly?

Henry Von Oesen: Von Oesen.

Q: Von Oesen. Well, could you give us a little background as to the origin of the name?

Henry Von Oesen: Our forbearers came out of the northeastern part of Holland and the original name was O-E-S-E, pronounced "ess". The Dutch king married a Spanish queen, who brought the inquisition to Holland with her and ran all of the Lutherans out of Holland into Hanover and that is where my family settled. The area that they settled in Holland-- in uh... Hanover was low, very much like the area of Holland. Uh.. they both uh... had long lines of families, which uh... were farmers. They were all farmers and, in the early days of my parents, they told me that the principal methods of transportation there were by can- on canals rather than on roadways. My parents came to this country in uh... 1895. Uh... both of them were very young. My father was sent by his mother to get him out of Germany and out of the army and my uh... mother was sent because her mother died and her father married another mother and had more children and they needed space. Uh... they eventually came to Wilmington, North Carolina, to live with aunts and uncles who were here in Wilmington and uh... that is the way they met and married and they married in 1910 and uh... have uh... I guess had a good life. They-- my father was in the grocery business and my mother was a housekeeper.

Q: When you say they came from parts of the Netherlands, were they German or Dutch?

Henry Von Oesen: Well, the, the original families were Dutch.

Q: Were Dutch, okay.

Henry Von Oesen: I'm sure that they intermarried in, in Hanover and uh.. I have some genealogy and records but uh... I do not have them completely filled in.

Q: But apparently the family had family members here. You mentioned an aunt and uncle were...

Henry Von Oesen: Yes.

Q: ...here in Wilmington?

Henry Von Oesen: I had an aunt uh... who was a Mahler, M-A-H-L-E-R, and she was my father's aunt, his mother's sister. I had uh... my mother uh... had an aunt-- rather, two uncles in Wilmington and their name was Haar, H-A-A-R, and she came to live with them uh... and uh... eventually uh... the second husband of the family she lived in, Jorgen Haar, uh... was the, I guess, father for her uh... through and, and an interesting thing: she came with her sister and, when each of them were married, Jorgen Haar built a house and gave it to them for a wedding present. You don't see that any more.

Q: Two questions remaining in my mind about your name. Did the spelling of your name change?

Henry Von Oesen: Well, obviously, in Germany, they have a bad habit of adding letters to, to names and uh... obviously, they put an "N" on the end of the Oesen-- Oese, making it Oesen and uh.. I have a, a cousin who lives in Hamburg now, he's very old but he added an "H" in the name, too. O-E-H-S-E-N. And I don't know why.

Q: And it's Von, though?

Henry Von Oesen: Von.

Q: Did they add that, too, or has it always been...

Henry Von Oesen: I, I don't know how that got on there but, of course, the word Von only means "of".

Q: Oh, I see. So, in German, it's pronounced Von.

Henry Von Oesen: Von.

Q: Von.

Henry Von Oesen: Yes. From.

Q: But it picked up the connotation of wealth and importance.

Henry Von Oesen: Yeah.

Q: As a landowner. I thought maybe you were like a duke or something.

Henry Von Oesen: How kind of you. (laughter)

Q: Let's get you born here in Knoxville. What year were you born?

Henry Von Oesen: I was born in 1917 at 7th and Princess in Wilmington.

Q: And where did you attend church in those days?

Henry Von Oesen: In St. Paul's Lutheran church, which happens to be on the same block.

Q: And that was a German service?

Henry Von Oesen: St. Paul's was built by a group of German settlers about uh... 17-- about 1858 and uh... the first part of the church was born before-- was built before the Civil War. It was later finished, following the war uh... and I think there was uh... 40 families at that time but I'm not real sure of the history of the church. It's there in the archives if you want to, want to look at it.

Q: But you received your Catecatical instruction and you were baptized there?

Henry Von Oesen: Yes.

Q: And do you speak or did you speak German?

Henry Von Oesen: My parents did not teach my sister and I any German and we knew very little about our heritage because I was born in the first World War and uh... there was a considerable amount of feeling.

Q: But if you were from the Dutch, then what would it have mattered?

Henry Von Oesen: Well, the name was Von Oesen, which strictly is German.

Q: Oh, I see. So you weren't going to be able to hide.

Henry Von Oesen: No.

Q: That brush was awfully broad and tarred a number of people.

Henry Von Oesen: Yes, it did. I'm sure it did. But they got along nicely and they did not ever mention any problems they had.

Q: What was life like? How would you characterize your life as a youth and your preparatory years?

Henry Von Oesen: Wilmington was a very small town, only about 20, 25,000 people. Very quiet. Uh... some of the big things in a young man's life was the Bijou theater and, and YMCA that uh... and the beach. There were electric trolleys here in town and electric beach cars that went to the beach and it just so happened we lived right on the car line. The trolleys went up Princess Street and stopped right at our house. The only problem was always having enough money to go take a trip.

Q: Was that the era of Lumina Station?

Henry Von Oesen: Oh, yes. Lumina was quite popular when I was a youth and was very, very nice facility. It provided an opportunity for most anyone to go down and take a swim in the ocean. You could rent a bathing suit, rent a, a bath house and uh... go in, swim and they had uh... stands there with food and this kind of thing so it was quite nice and the great thing, of course, that I remember is Saturday night dances at the Lumina when I was in college and between college and the Second World War.

Q: So when you were in high school-- you graduated in what year from high school?

Henry Von Oesen: I graduated in 1934.

Q: '34. So you were really-- it was a very tough time, I mean, you know, the Depression...

Henry Von Oesen: That's correct.

Q: What did that do to Wilmington? Did it just dry up or slow down or...?

Henry Von Oesen: Well, Wilmington was, at that time, blessed with the presence of the general offices of the Atlantic Coastline Railroad and there were, I would say, a goodly number of the people here were employed there and the salaries were good and uh... we had our share, I'm sure, of, of difficult times. I know that, at our house, we had no spare money. Fortunately, my father ran a grocery store so we had plenty to eat but uh...

Q: Now, did he own that himself or did he run...

Henry Von Oesen: He worked, at first, for my uncle and then he, he'd uh... bought the business.

Q: And what was that called?

Henry Von Oesen: Home Grocery Company.

Q: Home Grocery Company.

Henry Von Oesen: At Front and Walnut, where the Cape Fear Community College is located now.

Q: Oh, interesting. Yeah. In the Depression, it'd be good to be in the food business, that's for sure.

Henry Von Oesen: Well, it was an interesting, interesting business. Uh.. the big cotton exchange and cotton compress, which you've heard about, were-- was right down Walnut Street on the waterfront and uh... there were a great number of employees there and, between the employees coming out of the railroad offices and those, there were a lot of people passing the store and he did a very good business. Uh... the cotton compress, I think, is something that's been forgotten here but that was a, a tremendous machine that would take a bale of cotton and reduce it almost to a third of its normal size so that it could be packed into ships. You could get more in there.

Q: I hadn't heard of that. They'd come in in a rough bale, is that...

Henry Von Oesen: They, they came in in a big bale, like you've seen baled cotton.

Q: Right.

Henry Von Oesen: And was stored in the warehouse and then they would systematically run it through this tremendous compress that was run by steam and it would, it would uh... reduce a bale of cotton into maybe a yard each dimension.

Q: Wow!

Henry Von Oesen: And it would be banded and the ships that came in to pick it up were mostly English, German, Dutch, a few French ships and most of it went to Europe.

Q: During that time, when you were in high school, did you have a part-time job or how was...

Henry Von Oesen: I always had a part-time job at a grocery store. (laughter)

Q: It probably wasn't a paid job, right?

Henry Von Oesen: No. (laughter) But I collected a lot of cans and stacked a lot of shelves and-- but it was a good, good training.

Q: For people who will listen to this videotape, maybe years from now, the grocery industry might have changed considerably. The grocery industry, when you were child, and the grocery industry as it is now presented have nothing in common.

Henry Von Oesen: That is correct.

Q: Tell me about-- what was-- if I came into your grocery store, what would I do?

Henry Von Oesen: You would come in and come up to the counter and tell the clerk what you wanted and he went and got the items. Uh... much of my father's business was by telephone. Wives would call down and order their order. The order would be filled by the clerks, put in a box and delivered by a delivery man to their kitchen. We don't have that service anymore.

Q: Were you one of the delivery men?

Henry Von Oesen: Well, I wasn't trusted to drive a truck until I was old enough so... I helped some, yes, I did.

Q: What was the racial situation like as a youth during those days?

Henry Von Oesen: During my days, I, I was not aware of any real threat from any of the uh... black population around me. I had a lot of friends who were black boys and we played together. I could walk through any street in Wilmington and never have any fear of it. It was very, it was very safe. Everybody was poor and uh.. everybody was trying to help everyone else. And uh... I think it, it changed during the second World War. I believe that's when really things began to change.

Q: After high school, what happened in your life?

Henry Von Oesen: Well, I was fortunate in that my father wanted me to go to college and uh... my junior year, I had had a cousin who was building the first oil terminal in Wilmington and he was a civil engineer and he was my ideal. And he would pick me up and take me out on the job with him and so, when I went to college, I knew what I wanted to do. I had no problem with it and that's the reason I became a civil engineer.

Q: Is this the Cameron Oil Terminal or...

Henry Von Oesen: No, this was the original Texaco terminal and I don't believe it's-- I believe it's part of the shipyard actually now.

Q: And where did you go to school?

Henry Von Oesen: I went to North Carolina State and I advertise it. (laughter)

Q: I noticed that there seems to be an emblem there of significance. Four-year curriculum?

Henry Von Oesen: Four-year curriculum. We uh... we worked hard. It was Depression. We had no money. There was no reason to uh... recreation was the library and uh... we'd play softball and other intramural sports.

Q: Was it an all-male school at that time?

Henry Von Oesen: Mostly. There were six girls in my class. They were all day students but there were six girls. I was fortunate enough to play basketball there a little bit, too. I uh... I made the team for three years there but, unfortunately, when I was a center-- was a second string center, the first string center was the high scoring in the Southern Conference so you imagine who played.

Q: You didn't play a whole lot. (laughter)

Henry Von Oesen: No. Until he fouled out. (laughter) Then I got to play.

Q: So how tall were you at that time?

Henry Von Oesen: 6'4".

Q: Oh, that was a tall center still, though, wasn't it?

Henry Von Oesen: Yeah.

Q: They just automatically figured you'd be the center, right, at 6'4"?

Henry Von Oesen: I guess. Well, that's what the coach said to do and that's what I did as best I could.

Q: Did you play in high school, too?

Henry Von Oesen: No, I didn't play in high school. I grew most of my height in my senior year in high school and, and uh... the-- my freshman year in college.

Q: Isn't that interesting.

Henry Von Oesen: I didn't play ball in my freshman year. I, I'm uh... the-- I guess, I don't know why my genes just didn't take off until then but that was it. I played a lot of basketball at the YMCA and at boy's groups and that's really where I got interested in it.

Q: Did you come home on the weekends? Did you come home ever?

Henry Von Oesen: Well, by use of the thumb, we came home maybe every six weeks, maybe a little longer.

Q: And that was a trek to get here, right? I mean, it was three or four hours or...

Henry Von Oesen: Well, it would take about three or four hours to get here but people were very nice. You, you'd get-- the question was, you better watch out because some farmer would pick you up and drive you along at 20 miles an hour and it'd take you 10 miles and drop you. And uh... it was always a good idea to, to, to kind of be a little choosy if you could but uh... it was not difficult to get back to Raleigh. It was difficult to get home except by bus uh... but to go back to Raleigh, we could leave Wilmington at 6:40 on Sunday night, take a train on the Atlantic Coastline to Goldsboro, drop off in Goldsboro, pick up the southern train that took you to Raleigh and you'd get to Raleigh about midnight.

Q: Oh, my goodness.

Henry Von Oesen: And then we walked from there to school, which was a couple miles. Walking then was something we did very readily. People today just amazed that they're asked to walk like that.

Q: Well, plus, I think it's interesting that the train was still the dominant passenger mode, right?

Henry Von Oesen: Oh, very definitely.

Q: Yeah. And the bus was...

Henry Von Oesen: The bus was not...

Q: Not so nice.

Henry Von Oesen: ...as desirable. (laughter) No, and college was very nice. Uh... the town of Raleigh was very nice to us and uh... we didn't have the greatest football team-- basketball team but they weren't the worst. We won about half our little ________________ games.

Q: You mentioned a sister, just so we can get a sense of-- what is her name?

Henry Von Oesen: My sister's name was Elaine.

Q: Elaine.

Henry Von Oesen: And she was four years older than I. Uh... she went to the Lenoir-Rhyne College, uh... graduated in, in library science. Uh... went to uh... work in a library in Leaksville, North Carolina, then decided she wanted to get a master's of library science from Chapel Hill. She grad-graduated there and instructed there for about three or four years in library science. And then was employed by the state library commission to work with them expanding libraries in North Carolina.

Q: Wow.

Henry Von Oesen: And she worked...

Q: About what date would this be?

Henry Von Oesen: Well, I would say that she began work maybe in the mid-'50s with the state and uh... she eventually uh... got to the point of being assistant librarian and then was acting librarian for just, I'd say, about a year because she was ready to retire. And uh... she was very, very much in favor of generating libraries in small towns like Burgaw and other places like that.

Q: Was her name-- was she married or...

Henry Von Oesen: No, she was not married.

Q: So her name was...

Henry Von Oesen: Elaine Von Oesen.

Q: Oh, that's great.

Henry Von Oesen: She was a very nice person and she lived in Raleigh after she retired until she decided she needed to get a little closer to down here and she was one of the first people to go into the, to the uh... Plantation Village uh... development.

Q: In the '80s or the '70s?

Henry Von Oesen: I don't remember but she lived there until she died about four years ago.

Q: But your parents must have prized education, irrespective of the gender. Let me explain what I said. I interviewed a lady a little while ago who said that, when she graduated from high school, her dad said, "Oh," followed by her name, "dye your hair red and marry a rich guy but, you know, that's, that's what you ought to do." Now, the two sons, her two brothers, were all sent to very, very prestigious ivy league schools but his idea was, get married, you know? I don't get that sense from your parents.

Henry Von Oesen: No, they uh... they were very supportive but not-- they didn't give us a lot of direction except that they expected a lot of us. They kept tellin' us that. "We expect you to do well." And uh... I think uh... I, I guess, after I graduated from college in '38, I had a commission then from the ROTC program and uh... I knew that I would be called into the army before uh... too many years passed and uh... in 1941, uh... I got a telegram and then Pearl, Pearl Harbor happened and I was off and gone to the infantry school. But uh... she, my sister, worked uh... I guess at the university uh... until just before the war and then she, for awhile, was camp librarian here at Camp Davis.

Q: Really? That was nice. Just as it was building up and during that active...

Henry Von Oesen: Well, yes. It uh... Camp Davis became active very quickly. That place was really put together quickly and uh...

Q: So you had some career before you got into the army? Did you work...

Henry Von Oesen: Yes. When I got out of school, of the 28 civil engineers that graduated, one of them had a job.

Q: Oh, my goodness. Was that you?

Henry Von Oesen: No. That was not me. That was the son of a engineer who worked for Duke Power Company and he got a job as a flunky on a dam that his father was in charge of so there-- we had offers to go to Oklahoma and, and uh... work on drill rigs but we were warned by our professors immediately, "Don't do that because all they want is labor, intelligent labor." But I came home and worked in the grocery store for about two months and uh... the city engineer here at the time came by and asked me if I knew how to run a survey party and I told him, "Yes, sir, I do." And I got a job running a survey party for the City of Wilmington. And the principal work we were doing was for uh... laying out work for the WPA and the PWA and all of those programs that were going on. And uh... I continued to work for the city until the time I left to go in the service.

Q: What kind of projects were they building then?

Henry Von Oesen: Well, let's see. We built the uh... the nurse's home of the community hospital, which was located about where Williston Middle School is now. And uh... they built the armory on Market Street. Uh... they redid the city hall uh... by completely taking the interior of it out, realign-- reinforcing the walls with a steel frame and putting the floors back in and, and refinishing it. Uh... we built a few uh... dams and floodgates on creeks. Uh... one of the interesting jobs I had that I enjoyed very much was uh... keeping the WPA people busy on the municipal golf course because I would take along a few clubs and play a little golf while we were out there. This was in-- this was after hours. The uh... I guess we installed, as the town grew, a lot of pipelines, a lot of water pipes, sewer, sewer lines and drainage.

Q: I think, again, for purposes of the future, we need a little translation of WPA.

Henry Von Oesen: The Works Progress Administration was a program that employed people. They, they earned 25 cents an hour and you went in and registered and you were assigned to a project.

Q: Black and white?

Henry Von Oesen: Black and white.

Q: You just needed a job?

Henry Von Oesen: They had no, no uh... stipulation as to what-- you could not stipulate what you do. If you had a talent, though, they wanted to know. Uh.. there were men out at the golf course in the ditch in suits digging ditches 'cause that's all they had to wear and, until they could make enough money to buy some work clothes...

Q: Suits, vest and a necktie?

Henry Von Oesen: Very few of them wore the ties.

Q: Now down here. Maybe in Wisconsin in the winter. (laughter)

Henry Von Oesen: And uh.. the Public Works Administration was a program that would provide 70% of the cost of a project from the federal government and the local sponsoring government had to pay the other 30%. And then a job was designed, the plans were prepared and a contract was let to a contractor in a normal, in a normal routine of business of keeping contractors busy, too.

Q: It wasn't make work. I mean, you did good projects, it seems?

Henry Von Oesen: Oh, yes, they were very good projects.

Q: Did you build the post office?

Henry Von Oesen: No, I didn't build the post office, no.

Q: One of the things that WPA did a lot of was the construction of post offices...

Henry Von Oesen: Well, that was probably done, I don't know whether it was done under a WPA or PWA but uh... the post office here was done with an architecture firm from away from here somewhere. I had nothing to do with it.

Q: Well, during that period of time, did you practice many aspects of your profession, civil engineering, or were you...

Henry Von Oesen: Working for the city, I got to do just about everything. And uh... I designed trusses for houses, I uh... designed street pavements, drainage, water systems, sewer systems, bridges, uh... building frames, uh... just about anything that came along. It was not very complex but I had enough training at State to, to be able to do that.

Q: That's good. Were you married at the time?

Henry Von Oesen: No. I was married after I entered the Service. I married a young lady in Macon, Georgia, a Georgia peach. And we we've been married 62 years so we've been doin' all right.

Q: So you ended up as a second lieutenant in the infantry...

Henry Von Oesen: Actually, I had participated in the reserve during the period of time from '38 'til '41 and I had gotten...

Q: Every month or something, you had to go or...?

Henry Von Oesen: Every, every month, you had to go to a training session. And uh... the group I was-- that, that started this thing all got a promotion, one grade, because we participated-- so I went in the Service as a first lieutenant, which helped a little, and I went to the infantry school and...

Q: Where was the infantry school?

Henry Von Oesen: Fort Benning, Georgia.

Q: And how long was the training?

Henry Von Oesen: I was there uh... three and a half months in the school and then about almost another month waiting for an assignment.

Q: And how old were you? About 25, 26?

Henry Von Oesen: 25.

Q: You were probably-- you were a real veteran person compared to most of the people that you were working with. They were all, what, 18, 19 year olds?

Henry Von Oesen: In the infantry school?

Q: Yeah.

Henry Von Oesen: No. They were all just about the same...

Q: First wave was older, then?

Henry Von Oesen: In our, in our class there...

Q: But this was officers then? You were...

Henry Von Oesen: There were no, there were no field officers, just land, just land officers, captains and lieutenants. And we were trained as, as uh.. infantry officers.

Q: But what I meant was, when you went out and finally got a commission with a group of men to supervise, how old were they? In other words, when you finally got in the field, the regular soldier was...

Henry Von Oesen: Well, I ran into a problem that people whose name start with a "V" realize and that is you're at the end of the list. (laughter) And uh... so, as a result, when the assignments came for our class, they got to the "T"s and there were no more so they assigned me to a tactical committee teaching at the infantry school, which I did for about a month. And then a demand came for uh... new infantry idea officers to go to the training camps so I went to Camp Wheeler in Georgia, where I was assigned to a uh... training company and was a platoon leader and I had uh... I taught a, what is called a pioneer school. Pioneer troops are infantry troops that do what engineer troops normally do. And I was there, I'd say, maybe about six months and an opening came up in one of the other companies and I got a promotion to company commander. And uh... I remained there until I left uh... Wheeler. It was a, a good opportunity and great experience and a wonderful happening is that I found my wife, got married.

Q: And what year was that?

Henry Von Oesen: 1943.

Q: Well, for the record and your children are going to receive copies, how did you meet her the first time?

Henry Von Oesen: Well, that's an interesting story. She was-- had graduated at Randolph Macon Woman's College and a friend of hers had told her that her fiancé was at Camp Wheeler, Georgia, and, when they got out of school, could she come and visit her to see him? So this young lady from Louisiana uh... came to visit and her fiancé was uh... in our battalion and, after Charlie Burton had come in a night or two, he said, "Well, Al, wouldn't you like me to bring somebody in to date?" and she said, "That would be nice." So that's how I got in. They broke up, we got married. (laughter) So it was interesting.

Q: Well, did your military career...

Henry Von Oesen: Well, I went from there to the, to the uh... to a group who were, as I understood it, writing a manual on air/ground liaison, air force and the ground forces together and I went to a number of camps. I was very fortunate to come back to Camp Davis for about six weeks to study the new radar system. We ran into the new radar systems and uh... I went to Florida to-- to a air force school to study radios and I went to the-- to uh... March Field, California, and uh... the thing bogged down, just nothing was happening, and uh... so I had an opportunity to answer an inquiry that I had from the Chief of Infantry, if I was interested in getting back in the Service? And I told him I was and I was reassigned, very abruptly, to Fort Ord, California, where I took over as a company commander of the heavy weapons company there.

Q: How big was the company? When you're a company commander, how many people are...

Henry Von Oesen: 165.

Q: And they were broken up into subdivisions?

Henry Von Oesen: Three, three platoons.

Q: Three platoons. And you're a captain at this time?

Henry Von Oesen: Yes.

Q: And a lieutenant would be leading a platoon?

Henry Von Oesen: A platoon.

Q: And then they would have, what, lead non-commissioned officers?

Henry Von Oesen: They would have non-commissioned officers. They would have a, a line sergeant or a staff sergeant uh... as a platoon sergeant and uh... of course, there-- the captain would have a first sergeant and a supply sergeant and probably a driver. So that was the only headquarters group he had. Everybody else was in, in a platoon.

Q: And this wasn't an engineering group...

Henry Von Oesen: No, I was in the infantry.

Q: You were in the...

Henry Von Oesen: The state, the state had no engineering uh... ROTC. They were all infantry.

Q: So they weren't using all of your talents.

Henry Von Oesen: So I stayed there until I was assigned to uh... as a replacement officer sent overseas to the Philippines. Uh... I stayed in the Philippines I guess, well, uh... I was in the Philippines when Hiroshima occurred. And uh... then I flew from there to uh.. Japan, was first in the 165th infantry. Oh, by the way, at Ford Ord I had gotten to be an executive officer in a battalion and gotten a promotion to a major. And I was the executive officer of the 165th infantry there in, in Honshu and uh... when-- that unit was decommissioned and I was sent down to-- I joined the 12th cavalry, ________ cavalry division, and I was in that division until my points came up and they ordered me to, to apply for regular army commission and I told them, "I'm a civil engineer. I'm going home." (laughter)

Q: Now, was Philippines hot when you arrived or...

Henry Von Oesen: Oh, yes, it was pretty miserable.

Q: But, I mean, was the fighting still active?

Henry Von Oesen: No, only in the hills. The Philippine scouts were very active uh... most uh... of our troops were out and were all in Okinawa.

Q: And when you said you went to Japan and you mentioned Honshu, Honshu is one of the islands, am I correct?

Henry Von Oesen: Honshu is the main island.

Q: Yeah.

Henry Von Oesen: And uh... I stayed there until I guess it was April or so of the next year and I came home.

Q: Do you remember where you were stationed on Honshu?

Henry Von Oesen: Yes, in the first, first 165th infantry was in, in uh... Niigata-ken, Niigata province, Kashiwazaki. I can't spell it but that's the way you pronounce it. And then later, the 12th cavalry was in, in uh... Kamakura, down in the temple city.

Q: Kamakura, yes. And what was your function then in Japan? You were occupation forces?

Henry Von Oesen: Yes.

Q: There wasn't resistance but were you...

Henry Von Oesen: We were, we were occupation forces and principal duties that we performed while I was there was searching uh... the area for weapons and explosives and uh... especially on-- in Niigata prefecture, which is very mountainous, there were caves there were full of everything. The worst things in the world was to find a cave full of picric acid. Picric acid is very explosive. They used it in their land mines and it's very sensitive. And we-- the method was to commandeer local people who wanted to work and we paid them so they would come and unload it into wagons and, when we could get it to a railroad, to railroads, and all of that was taken over and put in the sea of Japan, in the ocean.

Q: Well, when you were discharged from the military, you resigned your commission, you returned to Wilmington, is that correct?

Henry Von Oesen: Yes.

Q: And things had changed in Wilmington?

Henry Von Oesen: Came back to Wilmington intending maybe to search around for a job somewhere and the same city engineer con-- called me right quick and said, "Look, they've just expanded the city limits. I'm covered up. I don't know what to do. I need help." And I hadn't done any engineering work for four or five years, you know, and I figured, well, it'd be a good chance to get back into the swing of things. So I said, "Alright, I will help you." And uh... Sunset Park, uh... Forest Hills, Oleander, they were the annexed areas. And uh... so we went to work there and, about six months after I went back to work with him, he had a heart attack and the city might have just said, "Well, do you want to be city engineer or do you want me to get somebody else in?" Well, I knew better than to get somebody new into that so I said, "Well, I'll do it." So I remained as city engineer 'til 1950. In 1950, I won't mention any names but politics got pretty bad in Wilmington. Uh.. in my situation, there was a city manager who was my boss telling me to do things and members of the city council coming in and telling me they didn't want me to do that, they wanted me to do something else. So I finally decided, the best place for me to do is get out and I got out and got into private practice, which was a blessing, and practiced from 1950 until 1990.

Q: Wow. And what was the name of the firm?

Henry Von Oesen: Henry Von Oesen & Associates.

Q: Silly question. (laughter) How big was it?

Henry Von Oesen: Well, we got up to 45 people at one time but we found we were more efficient at about 30 and uh... eight, nine engineers, different talents, mechanical, electrical, structural, civil, uh... sanitary and a lot of us practiced coastal engineering, too, which was a specialty.

Q: Now, what's that? What's coastal?

Henry Von Oesen: Well, beach erosion. Rivers and docks. Harbors. Dredging. Stuff like that.

Q: Still going on.

Henry Von Oesen: It will always go on. (laughter) It's a good operation.

Q: What was your client base? Who came to you for the purchase of services?

Henry Von Oesen: We worked-- well, we worked-- a lot of our clients were municipal governments and county governments and the state. We did a lot of work for the federal government through the military. Worked for the Corps of Engineers, worked for the navy department. We did a lot of work at Camp Lejeune and at Cherry Point and uh...

Q: Was that Sunny...

Henry Von Oesen: Sunny Point. Well, Sunny Point was designed and the original engineering contract was with Robert and Company out of Atlanta, Georgia. Robert-- had Robert call me and said, "Do you know anything about railroads?" I said, "Yes, I do." I think our class was the last class that had any railroad training at State College. So I got a job and we ran the railroad from Leland down to Sunny Point and the railroading stuff on Sunny Point. It was a very interesting job and uh...

Q: Still going? Is the railroad still going?

Henry Von Oesen: Oh, yes. Runs very nicely. It's operated, I think, by uh... the CSX Railroad or whatever.

Q: Right.

Henry Von Oesen: The-- and I had-- some of the projects that I've really enjoyed uh... after Hurricane Hazel, the Point had-- the fort at Beaufort Inlet, at the Atlantic Beach, had eroded terribly and it was threatening to come into, to the close proximity of the fort. I don't know if you've ever been there.

Q: I don't think I have.

Henry Von Oesen: You should be-- you should go up there and look because it's one of the old 19-- uh... 1812 civil uh... fortifications that were built primarily as protection because that-- they knew the English were coming back again and again and again. So they built uh... Fort Cazel[ph?] as, as a fort within it in the same era. Uh... so we were employed by the state to go up and study it. We did study it and we did uh... solve the solution. We built a, a jetty, which the-- the uh... coastal commission would frown on but it's done the job beautifully and uh... we found an interesting thing in that in that uh... we asked the water department for plans for the place, whatever they had in their archives. We got a sheet back that showed that three short groynes had been built in the inlet.

Q: What are those?

Henry Von Oesen: Groynes, like a little stone jetty, and they were there for the purpose of retarding erosion; trapping sand. Guess whose name is signed on the bottom of that groyne? Captain Robert E. Lee. That was a real shocker. But uh... that was an interesting job and another thing that I enjoyed very much, we were employed by the village of Bal Harbor, Florida, which is the northern mile of the Miami Beach island to come and help them with their beach. When I arrived down there, there's one mile of steel sheet piling. The ocean is here, and the hotels are there. There is no beach.

Q: Had there been one?

Henry Von Oesen: Yes. They wanted...

Q: They wanted a beach. (laughter)

Henry Von Oesen: Well, at the northern end of Bal Harbor is Baker's Haulover Inlet. It's an inlet that was cut supposedly to cure the, the pollution problem and it just came back. It's a very frisky inlet. The tides run through there at five, six knots steadily. So we made a study and the big problem was where do we get the material to build a beach? We searched back in the bay, found unsuitable material there so we started a, a search offshore and we probed and checked the sand deposits offshore all the way to the edge of the Florida peninsula base, Florida plateau, where it drops off, and we found, right near the edge of that, some beautiful beaches 65 feet deep. And, going back and doing a little research, we found that, in the-- well, the, the stories we had were that 65-- no, uh... 12,000 years ago, the sea was 65 feet deep.

Q: It was shallower?

Henry Von Oesen: It was lower. And these were beaches and they were beautiful beaches. So we uh... sounded them out, went out and probed them and depth of, of sand and the material, located them with buoys and, and uh... made plans of all this and so we let a contract to Great Lakes Dredge and Dock and they brought a big dredge in and they dredged those beaches up and put 'em in front of Bal Harbor.

Q: That deep? They can go 65 feet?

Henry Von Oesen: Oh, yeah.

Q: That seems really...

Henry Von Oesen: And it's, it's right there today, that beach is there today. We did build a jetty at the inlet, though, because that's the secret of stopping that business. All of that sand had gone around and gone through the...

Q: That fast current was taking it. And that's still there today?

Henry Von Oesen: Still there today.

Q: Did they name the beach after you?

Henry Von Oesen: Oh, no.

Q: They should have named the beach after you.

Henry Von Oesen: No, they, they paid us off and that's all we wished.

Q: I'm going to ask something that might be a little embarrassing. Since we're all human, from time to time, we make mistakes. Were you ever involved in a project in which it fell down or blew apart or sunk?

Henry Von Oesen: Not to my knowledge. Thank goodness.

Q: Not yet. (laughter)

Henry Von Oesen: Not yet.

Q: Maybe just this interview fell down.

Henry Von Oesen: I think the statute of limitations... (laughter) it's been 15 years since I practiced so I think-- I'm not worried about it.

Q: Yeah, you're probably out of the woods by now.

Henry Von Oesen: Uh... the interesting problem the county's having with sewer lines now is that sewer lines have been built like they were trying to build them but the state says, no, you've got to make them steeper and uh... that's an argument-- that's a professional argument and I will not get into it. (laughter)

Q: You say it's been around for a long time?

Henry Von Oesen: Well, there are many, many lines around here that are built to the same grade because there is no grade in Wilmington. It's flat.

Q: It's flat, yeah. Costly to make a grade.

Henry Von Oesen: And, well, if you, if you have the steeper lines, then you have to have more lift stations and a lift station is not a cheap operation and it's a permanent operation.

Q: I'm going to jump-- shift here and, again, thinking of viewers in the future. Am I correct that, during the winter months, your residence would be here in Wilmington. Then, in the summer, you'd move out to Wrightsville Beach?

Henry Von Oesen: Yes, about 38 years ago, uh... we were fortunate to find a little beach cottage, very inexpensive. I won't tell you how little it cost but it was-- I'm ashamed that it cost so little. It was not in good shape but we did fix it up and we, we-- Alice and I and the children used to move out there with daylight saving time and we'd spend daylight saving time on the beach and the rest of the time in Wilmington. We were very fortunate, I realize that. That was a mighty good life and uh...

Q: And Wrightsville Beach, though, was a much more...

Henry Von Oesen: Oh, it was a...

Q: ...small community and...

Henry Von Oesen: It's not like it is now.

Q: No. Were there many outsiders in that part or was it pretty much still pretty local?

Henry Von Oesen: Summertime brought a lot of people from upstate, a lot of-- and a lot of the beach cottage owners were from Raleigh and Charlotte and other areas, Greensboro.

Q: Yeah.

Henry Von Oesen: The uh... people at-- on the street where we lived, uh... there were two, one from Roanoke-- no, one from uh... Lynchburg, Virginia, and uh... Richmond, maybe, I forget.

Q: And you would commute in every day or would you...

Henry Von Oesen: Yes. Took me nine minutes to get from the beach house to my office. No traffic.

Q: Would you drive or did you come in on the streetcar?

Henry Von Oesen: No, I drove.

Q: Well, the streetcar at that point may not have been very active.

Henry Von Oesen: Streetcars were not active during that time. They stopped.

Q: Yeah, that's what I thought. They were probably gone and you probably had a city bus system pretty soon?

Henry Von Oesen: No, no buses. There was no-- if you, if you didn't have a car, you had a thumb.

Q: Was the bridge the same then?

Henry Von Oesen: The bridge at Wrightsville, there are pictures of it, which I'm sure you've seen, of a 1926, when Mr. Wallace built the Shore Island, ________________ Island and he built a causeway along the old trestle. And he built a bridge there uh... over the intercoastal waterway and uh... but there was no regular hours crossing. They opened it if anybody came, not a lot of people. Mostly the through traffic in the waterway then was from commercial traffic.

Q: So this whole recreational boat industry, when did that explode?

Henry Von Oesen: Yes. I would say in the '50s and the '60s, maybe really in the '70s.

Q: How were decisions made during, oh, the mid-years of your practice of engineering, how were decisions made as to land acquisition, structure, construction of buildings, or anything like that? Was it...

Henry Von Oesen: Well, most owners have an idea about where they want to be and what they want to do and what they want to build. And uh... the talent you have to offer is to help them make a decision in these things and the economy is a large part of it. Uh... I think uh... and we, we really and truly did not get into architecture at all, though we designed frames for buildings for architects and uh... the structural designs we did but we, we did not involve ourselves in architecture.

Q: Now, you talked earlier about a team that you would have. What's the configuration? What are the specialties that you recognized in your firm? You're a civil engineer.

Henry Von Oesen: I'm a civil.

Q: What else would you have?

Henry Von Oesen: Well, we had sanitary engineers who did water and sewer work, sewer plants and so forth. Uh... mechanical engineers who did all of the mechanical work and that would include all the pumps and things in, in the water and sewer plants and the, the-- we did work for architectural firms where they would do all the mechanical heating and air conditioning in a building.

Q: Your guys would do that?

Henry Von Oesen: I had men that did that.

Q: And I said guys...

Henry Von Oesen: Same thing with electrical work. The same thing would be done there. Electrical work in a building would be designed by electrical engineer.

Q: Now, with 30 people, were you the largest engineering firm in the town at that time?

Henry Von Oesen: In Wilmington, yes.

Q: Yeah. I mean, that seems pretty large for this size...

Henry Von Oesen: Well, we practiced primarily from Myrtle Beach to the Virginia line.

Q: That much. But not competing over on the Raleigh side, there were big firms over there...

Henry Von Oesen: Lot of 'em we kind of worked-- were-- we worried about 'em out of the bus-- out of the eastern... (laughter)

Q: You worried them out.

Henry Von Oesen: They uh...

Q: And what about road work? You didn't jog into road work?

Henry Von Oesen: Highway work, no. We did streets and that sort of thing. We did airports, airport runways, taxi ways, uh...

Q: But many times, you or somebody bigger had the whole contract and you were brought in for your specialty, right? Did you run most of the projects or were you the partner?

Henry Von Oesen: No, we, we did uh... very few of those. One of the-- one that I mentioned was on the Sunny Point project. We worked through Robert & Company. Uh... we also worked for Robert & Company on a number of the port projects. They were the engineers who originally did the Ports Authority work. Uh... I guess uh... and one of the last jobs, and I'm tryin' to think of the name of the ra-- of the New York firm that did the waterworks improvements here on the water plant in Wilmington, uh... we worked with them. Uh...

Q: But most of the time, you were the sole engineering firm?

Henry Von Oesen: Primarily. We-- yes. And we, we didn't really try to get out and get the biggest jobs in the world. We tried to get projects that were suitable in this area.

Q: Am I correct you said you have three children?

Henry Von Oesen: Yes.

Q: Do you have any grandchildren?

Henry Von Oesen: I have seven grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

Q: I'm going to ask you to do something that I've asked other people. To look into the camera and address your kids, your children, your grandchildren and your great-grandchildren. Talk to them now. would you please tell them what are the-- what important things have you learned in this life of yours that you'd like them to remember?

Henry Von Oesen: Well, you don't listen to me very much but I will tell you this, that you understand that I've always been very kind to you. I am a little frank sometimes and I think the best thing you can always do is be truthful, do the best job you can do, and love everybody.

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