Area World War II veterans' tales keep historical event alive
With each year, World War II survivors become an ever-more precious commodity. To mark Veterans Day this year, The News-Gazette's Paul Wood visits with three World War II veterans.
Bill Karr tells us about watching for snipers on the Pacific island of Guadalcanal. Ralph Langenheim describes the early dawn of D-Day from a small landing craft. And Art Leenerman tells the tragic story of the USS Indianapolis, which was sunk out of radio contact, leaving hundreds of sailors trying to stay alive in shark-infested waters.
A letter sent by Langenheim gives a taste of the times; just days after D-Day, he sent a letter to his family that doesn't even mention the Allied invasion of France because censorship was so stringent.
They waited until he and his fellow infantrymen were already on board ship to tell them where they were headed: Guadalcanal.
The South Pacific island had some of the bloodiest fighting of World War II, and in October 1942, Sgt. Bill Karr's troops had the crucial job of holding Henderson Air Field after an early Marine effort had won it from the Japanese.
Karr had enlisted in the Army at the Urbana Armory when he turned 19, more than a year before Pearl Harbor. The young man from Rantoul was a champion sprinter who intended to try out for the University of Illinois track team when he got out of the Army.
Shrapnel injuries to his shoulders and a leg stopped any dreams of running the 100-yard dash.
Instead, Karr married a girl he met in Texas. Ruth and he had three sons, and he worked for the UI athletic department for 38 years.
Now 87, the wounds remain with him, not just the physical ones.
He remembers a friend he cradled in his arms. The buddy was getting sulfa drugs for one wound before taking another, fatal one.
He remembers "stepping over bodies to get anywhere." He remembers mass graves dug by Army engineers.
Of 60 local men from Company B, 130th Infantry, Karr knows of only four who made it back from the South Pacific.
"There's really nobody to talk about it with," says Karr, who also lost his wife in 2001.
Nowadays there's a diagnosis for soldiers called post-traumatic stress disorder. When Karr came back from Guadalcanal on a hospital ship, there wasn't any such label – or any welcoming parade, either, he says.
For about 20 years, Karr drove to the Danville Veterans Affairs hospital to join about a dozen other veterans in talk therapy. He'd try to talk about his experiences, but stop. He'd get nightmares, and he'd think about digging foxholes.
But old age, he says, has mellowed his traumas.
"Twenty years ago, I couldn't have talked about this," he says. "But there aren't many of us left to talk."
On July 30, 1945, a young man from Sibley was working a radar watch on the USS Indianapolis.
Unbeknownst to the crew, the ship had just delivered an atomic bomb.
At 12:14 a.m., a Japanese sub sent six torpedoes at the USS Indianapolis. Two hit, one igniting an ammunition magazine and killing most of the officers. Within 12 minutes, the ship was 2 miles deep in the Philippine Sea.
There were almost 1,200 men aboard; about 300 went down with the ship. The other 900 were left floating without food or supplies and without the Navy knowing they were missing – since the mission was top secret.
By the time the survivors were spotted four days later, two-thirds of them were dead.
Art Leenerman, a retiree after 34 years with the phone company, now lives near Mahomet on Spring Lake, calmly talking about floating for days in shark-infested waters as the lake's waves reflect light through his picture window.
Leenerman might have been the last Indianapolis sailor plucked from the sea. He had found a potato floating in the water, his only sustenance for those days. Choking on oil and fumes, he watched his shipmates drink salt water and go mad, or die, only to be eaten by sharks.
"If somebody died, you took their life jacket for someone else," he recalls.
As Leenerman tells his story, Ethel, his wife of 40 years, sometimes adds details. The former petty officer says he didn't talk about the horrific days until fairly recently.
In the 1970s, the blockbuster "Jaws" introduced younger people to the horror story aspects of the Navy's worst loss of life through the sinking of a ship.
With recent retelling, the story gets easier, Leenerman says. The Indianapolis crew started to have reunions every five years. With more urgency, the reunions are now a year apart.
Leenerman is proud of his time in the Navy – but prouder still of his friends.
"We weren't the heroes; the ones who are still out there were the heroes," he says.
When he speaks of the Hiroshima bombing, he's convinced it saved more lives than it took.
"It wouldn't have just been Americans who were killed" in attacking the Japanese homeland, he says. "They were recruiting children to fight."
Just before dawn on June 6, 1944, a young naval officer was on a landing craft dieseling for a stretch of French sand called Utah Beach.
USS Landing Craft Infantry 551 had sailed out of Brixham, England, the night before, after a day's delay because of bad weather. It was a small part of the greatest naval armada ever assembled, for the invasion of Nazi-held France.
Ralph Langenheim, now a Champaign County Board member living in Urbana, remembers the hours before dawn as quiet and subdued. He was on watch, like half of the crew, "filled with foreboding ... like walking a narrow, dark forest trail, worrying about ghosts and demons."
Langenheim was from Oklahoma, had studied petroleum geology in college and had not seen a lot of the sea from Tulsa.
About 1:30 a.m., there were some flashes of light, probably the airborne landing at St. Mere Eglise. An hour later, there were more flashes, followed by the first sounds of explosions.
Just before sunrise at 5:30 a.m., Langenheim not only heard the explosions, but smelled the cordite.
About 6:30 a.m., LCI 551 altered course toward the beach; that was when, Langenheim recalls, a mangled corpse floated by. Forty minutes later, the young officer spotted land – and the wreckage of the USS Corry, sunk by mines. For the next five hours or so, Langenheim's landing craft maneuvered off shore.
Then just before 6 p.m., Langenheim's landing craft was ordered to hit the beach. It immediately drew artillery fire.
"Shells kept plopping into the water more or less at random during our entire stay on the beach," he says
The landing craft had trouble staying on the beach. Each time it unloaded, the ship was set afloat, having to shove back to the shore, and a rising tide lifted its bow. A northward current pushed it off course, so Langenheim's crew used anchor cable to correct the motion over and over again, all while under fire.
None of the Navy personnel was hurt. But Langenheim said he felt for the infantry troops, burdened with equipment, stepping out into the water sometimes over their heads and drowning. Sailors used boat hooks to rescue their Army brethren.
Langenheim describes his D-Day experience as "small potatoes." Nevertheless, the ship spent three days off Utah Beach as American troops battled hardened German emplacements.
Ralph's letter home
Written by Ralph Langenheim, dated June 11, 1944 – five days after D-Day. (Censorship means no mention of the event.)
As usual there is little to be said that can pass through the censorship. This is very definitely a pain in the neck.
Shipboard life is much the same. However, my job is getting larger every day as the "new" wears off the ship and this part and that part successively fail. Nothing very big has gone out of commission as yet as I guess we can be thankful for that much at least.
We should all be learning much about the behavior of the human animal, as I am, from watching what is happening to this bunch as it gradually gets sick and tired of each other from being cooped up the way we are. The progressive decay of the community on board is also becoming a burden ...
I know this letter will be of little satisfaction to you or anyone else. The main reason I wrote it was to be able to put the date at the top and underline it to let you know that all is still well.