Enlisting in the military was ‘the smartest thing I ever did,’ Downer Grove veteran says

Downers Grove resident Bill Chalberg chose the Navy over college

Downers Grove resident William Chalberg served for four years enlisted service in the Navy and later became a cryptologic technician. Chalberg stayed in the reserves and retired in 1989 as a Commander O-5

Bill Chalberg jokes that he was “being patriotic” when he enlisted in the U.S. Navy on July 4, 1963.

In reality, he was trying to get his life on track.

Chalberg, then 20, enlisted in the Navy “after two years of wasting my dad’s money” at Northwestern University.

“My mom wanted me to be a doctor. Who wouldn’t want to be a doctor? But you had to take organic chemistry. It just wasn’t me,” said Chalberg, a Downers Grove resident.

Downers Grove resident William Chalberg served for four years enlisted service in the Navy and later became a cryptologic technician. Chalberg stayed in the reserves and retired in 1989 as a Commander O-5

Chalberg, now 80, spent four years in active duty and was a communications technician second class M Branch (E-5). He stayed in the Reserves for 22 years and retired in 1989 as a commander O-5.

What did he enjoy about his 26 years with the Navy?

“I suppose it was simple things like having an orderly existence,” he said. “You knew what to wear every day. You knew where you fit in the pecking order.

“I did what I was told to do and it all worked out. I didn’t have to spend a lot of time thinking about what to do. I was able to do whatever I was asked to do or told to.”

Chalberg started his journey in the Navy in boot camp at Naval Station Great Lakes.

After boot camp, he attended electronics technician Class A school at Great Lakes and teletype repair school at Norfolk Naval Station.

He later was assigned to the Naval Security Group.

“First of all, it was classified, so you didn’t really talk about it. But we provided different kinds of information to shipboard commanders,” he said.

He served one year at Guantanamo Bay and three at the Naval Communications Station in Sidi Yahia, Morocco.

“Morocco was great. Very friendly, a wonderful country,” Chalberg said.

Cuban dictator Fidel Castro cut off the water supply to the naval base at Guantanamo Bay before Chalberg arrived.

“In a few months, we built a desalinization plant. I remember the water coming out of the tap was slightly warm because it was ocean water. It tasted fine,” he said.

It wasn’t all hard work. There was some fun when Chalberg sang baritone in the Navy’s Blue Jacket Choir.

“We went to the Air Force Academy, but we didn’t get a chance to learn their song. We kind of barely made it through,” he recalled with a laugh.

Chalberg later sang in church choirs for years.

The Navy helped pay for Chalberg to finish his education at Northwestern University. He has a pension and health care benefits from the Navy.

Chalberg learned plenty while in the Navy.

“I learned to work with people and I did see some interesting parts of the world and not through a porthole. Although now I wish I had been on a ship. That might have been interesting,” Chalberg said.

After active duty, Chalberg returned to Northwestern to finish his education. He got a degree in the school of speech with a Bachelor of Science in radio, TV and film and “wound up selling floor covering.”

Chalberg turned to a head hunter after Northwestern and found a job with Johnson & Johnson in Green Bay, Wisconsin. He was there a few years, noting he enjoyed it but it didn’t pay well.

He eventually got a better job with Whirlpool.

“They were distributing Armstrong floor coverings. I sold carpet, vinyl, ceramic, rubber,” Chalberg said.

Even with his career and raising a family, Chalberg still spent one weekend every month with the Navy Reserve, part of his life that he enjoyed quite a bit.

“When I got the commission, I enjoyed my time as an officer. In the 1980s, I was commanding officer of a couple small reserve units in Forest Park and in Madison, Wisconsin,” he said.

With Veterans Day upon us, Chalberg said he pauses to “reflect on what our guys did, for example, on D-Day. The people who gave their all. I am very grateful.”

For fun, Chalberg has long enjoyed bicycling, which he has done since he was a boy back in the 1950s.

A longtime member and twice president of the Downers Grove Bicycle Club, he is busy with an advocacy role “trying to make the streets safer.”

Yes, Chalberg still rides his bike, although these days he prefers the convenience of his electric bicycle.

Bike club member and co-founder Jeff Bolam of Downers Grove has known Chalberg about 25 years.

“Bill is one of the best people I know. ... He’s a great guy, very personable,” said Bolam, 68. “I’ve always felt a kinship with Bill because my [late] father [John] was in the Navy during World War II.”

Chalberg enjoys helping others, Bolam said, and seems younger than 80.

“He knows many, many people. If you need something, he can help you do it or knows somebody who can help you do it,” Bolam said.

Bolam loves hearing Chalberg’s “stories about this, stories about that.”

Yes, the Navy is mentioned on occasion.

“It’s more about where he was stationed, the various things he did and how he joined the Navy because he was not that successful in college,” Bolam said.

If not for his decision to leave college for the Navy, Chalberg’s life may be quite different.

“It was my good fortune to enlist,” he said. “It was the smartest thing I ever did.”