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On Island Profile: Otto Tranberg

July 13, 2008 — Otto Tranberg seems to have fit several lifetimes into his 90 years, from his youthful days as something of a rascal to two decades in the U.S. Navy, and work for the V.I. government that turned him into an early protector of sea turtles.
For that last role, the road into Sandy Point National Wildlife Refuge will be named after him when future road improvements are completed.
Tranberg, slim with gray close-cropped hair and a gray mustache, still carries himself straight and tall as a sailor. Asked to explain his longevity, he said, "We know how to make fun and have fun." Tranberg added his father lived to be 96.
One of seven children, Tranberg was born April 4, 1918, to Lauritz and Virginia Percival Tranberg at home on a farm in the hills.
Beaming while talking about growing up on the farm, Tranberg recounted summer days as being the most fun time on the farm.
"We would play in the hills all day and not even go home for lunch," Tranberg said. "Lunch was from the fruit trees that grew on the farm, such as avocados and sugar apples."
Their time was spent enjoying nature, playing soldiers, jacks and ball games. Tranberg said footballs were made from the inflated, then dried bladder of a pig. He said they made a soapbox car out of used sewing machine parts.
"We rolled down the hills curled up in a tire," Tranberg said. "We took leaves from the mountain cabbage and fashioned a sort of bobsled out of it. We made our own fun –there weren't modern toys around."
It wasn't all fun and games growing up on the farm.
"Around five, Father woke us to go to the pen to milk," Tranberg said.
The Tranbergs had a daily milk route with the boys taking turns driving the cart three miles to town making deliveries before school. The last stop was Boss John's blacksmith shop where the boys would leave the horse while they were in class at the Dane Grammar School on Princess Street or at Frederiksted High School.
In school Tranberg excelled in and enjoyed geography, history and civics and is still an avid reader. His reading habit was greatly influenced by his father, with the two of them taking turns reading aloud to each other.
A Saturday ritual that he said he really enjoyed was going to silent pictures and later, serials starring Hollywood cowboys Tom Mix and Buck Jones, and getting candy.
"We didn't get an allowance so we had to earn our own money," said Tranberg.
To make money the boys trapped mongoose getting 15 cents for females and 10 cents for males. The government decided to eradicate mongoose that killed chickens and ate eggs. The police threw the trapped mongoose into the sea and the boys took them out, selling them twice.
"The police caught on and chopped the tails off," he said.
Tranberg also worked at one point in the eradication of deer as a government hunter. The deer were spreading ticks, which cattle picked up.
After high school he worked at Creque Quarry, and he worked on the sea catching sharks for a deep sea fishing company.
In 1940 he got a job in Mannings Bay, at Benedict Field starting out as a yardman and moving up to a "plush job" as a telephone operator. The Army was training P-40 pilots at the airfield.
In 1942 Tranberg enlisted in the Navy, was sent to Puerto Rico and from there he sailed to Norfolk Naval Base in Virginia. He wanted to train as a mechanic, but he was sent to cooking and baking school.
"He is a good cook when he wants to be," said his wife, Emily.
He sailed on six ships in 12 years at sea going to places like Naples, Italy, to the Artic Circle.
"I learned discipline in the Navy," Tranberg said. "Going to the different countries was a good experience."
While at the Nantucket Naval Facility, Tranberg met Emily Heathman.
"I didn't want to get involved with a sailor," she said. "But he floored me." Heathman, originally from Martha's Vineyard, Mass., had worked as a welder and teacher, as well as a personal companion to a Colgate heiress.
They married in 1956 with "Chico" (Otto's nickname) gone a lot of the time, said Emily Tranberg. They have two children, Lauritz and Patricia.
Tranberg retired from the Navy in 1962. The couple lived in Boston for 11 years. Tranberg retired from the Allied Container Factory in 1973, and they made their final move, with Patricia, to Frederiksted, St. Croix.
Tranberg was hired by the then-Department of Conservation and Cultural Affairs to work in fish and wildlife environmental enforcement. One of his many duties was to make sure fishermen weren't pulling fish out of someone else's fish traps.
Someone had told him about a leatherback turtle found with all four fins cut off, and that started him on his own personal campaign in 1974 of "turtle watching."
"I worked 8 to 5 then I'd go out to Sandy Point in the evening with the wife, kids and neighbors, and we would patrol the nesting beach," Tranberg said. He simply felt he needed to help protect the turtles.
Tranberg retired from the V.I. government in 1989 but he has stayed active since then. He said he loves to do yard work and gardening. And he enjoys all sorts of dancing from the traditional quadrille to the Electric Slide.
Tranberg is active in the American Legion Bromley Berkley Post 133, and Mrs. Tranberg is in the women's auxiliary unit.
They volunteer at the senior center at Alderville, the V.A. clinic at Barren Spot, AARP, and they visit shut-ins.
"Staying active is what keeps him so young," said Mrs. Tranberg.
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