Larry Epping – The Navy Years/Presidential Unit Citation

The Navy Years

Larry (2014)
Larry crossed the bar in October 2015

On December 7, 1941, my life, as well as the lives of most people in the world changed. The Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, our largest naval base. President Roosevelt declared war on the Japanese and uttered his famous words, “This day shall live in infamy.” 

At that time I was a junior at Mt. Angel College. In those days there was no doubt as to one’s duty. Patriotism was strong. Most everyone had a huge respect for our country and our government. It wasn’t long until I signed up in the Navy. After the recruiters evaluated my status, they determined I should finish my college degree and then go to Midshipmen Navy School to become an Ensign in the U.S. Navy. While I finished my 1-1/2 years of college, I was required to take some specific courses to prepare for the Midshipmen school. During this time I heard about all of the naval battles in the Pacific. I was anxious to get out there and “Give the Japs the hell they deserved.”  

Mt. Angel College is located in Mt. Angel Oregon and was an accredited college operated in conjunction with Mt Angel Seminary. Many of our classes were composed of seminarians studying for the priesthood and day students like me. I was elected and served as Student Body President during my last school year ending June 1943. So between those duties, my expanded class schedules and my employment to pay tuition, I was kept busy to say the least. At our graduation I was elected class valedictorian. My folks were mighty proud of me and forgot all the rowdy things I had done as I was growing up. My employment during those years included many assorted jobs such as, picking strawberries and other berries, working in T.B. Ender’s service station and fix-it shop, peeling chitum bark trees, waiting on tables for the seminarians early breakfasts, washing their dishes, cleaning the college rest rooms, hoeing corn, picking hops, hoeing hops, training hops, working in canneries, hay bailing, picking onions, working in the Portland Post Office, and carpenter work in VanPort between Portland and Vancouver. I even helped the mortician, Ed Unger, a few times with his corpses.  

My next older brother, Fritz, had already been put on active duty in the South Pacific. He was stationed on Guadalcanal and was mechanic on the plane of the famous navy pilot, Pappy Boyington. My oldest brother, Chuck, had joined the Merchant Marines. My next younger brother, Jeep, was in the navy as an instructor of recruits at the San Diego Naval Base. My younger brother, Bill, also joined the navy and was assigned to a CVE (escort air craft carrier). So my folks were proud of their five sons in the service. It was normal during the war to display a star in the window for each son or daughter in the service. My folks made sure everyone could see their five stars for their five sons.

Epping - 5 Brothers

After graduation, I was assigned to Columbia University in New York City for three months of intensive indoctrination and training in the Navy midshipman school. In fact the title given to us for this three month school was “The 90 day Wonders.” While attending Mt. Angel College I played in the orchestra, playing either the drums or French horn. At Columbia there was a band. I learned if you played in the band you didn’t have to do the extensive marching and drilling, so naturally I signed up to play the French horn.  

Japanese Admiral Yamamota, Commander in Chief of Japan’s total fleet and Japan’s greatest naval strategist, had likened the U.S. to a “sleeping giant, that was vulnerable while slumbering, but once awakened, a terrible force to be reckoned with.” By 1943 the Giant was fully awake.  

Needless to say, the 90 days were hectic and busy. We did get evening and weekend leaves and enjoyed the difference from our small town, Mt. Angel, to New York City. We did get to some dances and functions where we were able to meet some of the pretty N.Y. Irish lasses. We also got to see some of the era’s big bands at Radio City Music Hall. 

After graduation from Columbia I was assigned to a “damage control” school in Philadelphia. It was there that I saw my first television in a store window. It was in its experimental stage in 1943. I got to see my brother, Jeep, at that time also. He was in training in Maryland. I was also able to visit Washington D.C. and see our national capital building. A great thrill. 

I was assigned to the CVE aircraft carrier, “Gambier Bay, CVE #73. The carrier was being built in Keizer ship yards in Portland, Oregon and Vancouver, Washington. I was kept busy for several months learning all the information about our ship and getting ready to “outfit” and arrange for supplies and ammunition to be placed on board. We needed to go to Bremerton, Washington to take on bombs and torpedoes. We went down the Columbia to Astoria, where we steamed out into the Pacific Ocean during a storm. Our ballast was light so we pitched and bounced significantly on the way north to Bremerton. This was my first experience with a storm in the ocean. Just about everyone was sea sick on this trip. Many of them carried an empty can with them at all times. Luckily I had good sea legs and happily found out that I don’t get sea sick. This is a blessing, as its bad news to get sea sick. In fact, later on one of the fighter pilots on board was Larry’s Shore Leave in China chronically seasick. He told me he wished he was dead, his sickness was so bad. He begged and pleaded to go on every air mission, no matter how dangerous, to be able to get off the rolling ship. He was fine when he got in the air. Eventually he was transferred to a shore base. 

From Pearl Harbor we ferried a load of fighter and torpedo planes to the Marshall Islands which had been invaded by our Marines and were in the final stages of a mop-up operation. Two of the main islands in the Marshalls are Enewetok and Kwajalein. We then went back to Pearl Harbor and took our squadron aboard to head for the next invasion which was the Marianas. 

There was a major Japanese base called “Truk” which was west of the Marshalls. Our game plan was to bypass the major bases and then cut off their supply lines to render them ineffective. On the way to the Marianas we were attacked by Japanese torpedo planes. At that time my battle station was below decks in the bomb and torpedo compartment. I was ready to fight fires if they occurred. I realized that if there was a Japanese bomb or torpedo that hit that compartment, all of the bombs and torpedoes – with me in the middle – would go sky high. So I thought “what the heck”, I’ll just straddle one of the torpedoes during the battles. One Japanese torpedo plane did launch a torpedo that was set too deep to hit the bottom of our ship and it went directly under our ship exactly where I was sitting. It just was not my time to go. 

We next traveled to San Diego where we took on our air squadron and headed for Pearl Harbor, doing training exercises all the way. The invasion of the Marianas was a critical battle. The Japanese knew that airstrips on Guam, Tinian and Saipan could send our B-52s directly to their homeland. They assembled all of their aircraft carriers to stop us at all costs. The battle turned out terrible for them, we called it the “Marianas Turkey Shoot”. We shot down over 400 of their planes, which included the cream of their 1st line pilots. We also sank most of their aircraft carriers. On the invasion of Guam, the Gambier Bay had the distinction of being the only aircraft carrier in history to use its 5-inch gun to bombard enemy positions on the beach. 

From the Marianas we headed southwest to the Carolines and captured Ulithi in the Palau Islands. After we had captured the Palaus we were anchored in an atoll one stormy windy night. I was in charge of taking a whaleboat to a supply ship that was anchored across the bay. In the effort to stop attacks, there were no exposed lights allowed. I had a list of supplies to transport back to my ship. I was up on the deck next to a sailor from the supply ship. He was operating a winch and a boom to bring the supplies up from the hold of the ship. I could only see his outline. I was talking to him and I recognized his voice. He was Leo Traeger from Mt. Angel. I had gone to school with him. That’s a good small world story. His relatives still live in Mt. Angel. In fact, his daughter is married to Pete Grosjaques. 

The next evening some of us were invited to be guests on an aircraft carrier from Great Britain. We had a fine British meal then did some fine drinking and singing with piano accompaniment. US ships did not allow alcohol, but the British did. 

Also while in the Palaus I somehow became aware that my roommate from the Midshipman School at Columbia University in New York was on the Naval Seabees Base on Pellilu. I was able to find him and had a fine steak dinner at his base. I asked him how they were able to get such fine food. He said they had a truck that they would change names on. When a ship was unloading for the ranking officers they would put the right label on the truck and get in line, and as they were traveling back from the ship, in line with the other trucks, they would branch off and head to their base. My roommate was a genius. At Columbia he would never study, always reading fiction books instead, and ended up being graded as #3 out of a class of 800. After studying day and night I ended up as #60. 

From the Palaus we steered for Hollandia, New Guinea, and then to Manus Island. Manus  as the staging area for the big landing at Leyte Gulf in the Philippines. 

While there I received a message from a destroyer that was also anchored at Manus. The  message was from a friend of mine, Virgil Gooley. Virgil was the gunnery officer on his  destroyer. We got together and had a great visit. We are still friends. He lives in Mt. Angel and is one of our Memorial Day Parade marchers. 

The US task force of 800 ships to the Philippines was awesome. Ships were visible in all directions for as far as the eye could see. 

By this time I had been promoted to Lieutenant (junior grade) rank and had been assigned to 4-hour watches as Officer of the Deck. In other words, unless the Captain was on the upper bridge I would be in full charge of our aircraft carrier. While I was on the bridge I would throw out “what ifs” as part of training. For example: We sight a torpedo coming in at 20 degrees to starboard – what do you do? 

We invaded the Philippines at Leyte Gulf on October 21, 1944. General MacArthur, one of our greatest warriors, waded ashore and said, “I have returned”. He had said, “I will return” at the first part of the war when he was forced to retreat to Australia and to Hollandia, New Guinea. 

The greatest sea battle of history was about to happen. On some of the following pages there are some technical reports of this greatest sea battle. 

The night before the Gambier Bay’s part of this battle saw me on the bridge running the ship as Officer of the Deck. I had the 12 to 4 a.m. watch, known as the mid-watch. When scheduled for that watch I usually did not go to sleep until after eating breakfast at 4 a.m. 

So, at 6 a.m. on October 25, 1944, I had not slept for 22 hours. On the 12 – 4 mid-watch things were calm. There was an US PBY plane that flew over us around 3 a.m. This had startled us some. I felt elated at the young age of 23, and with only 10 months of sea duty, that I was fully in charge and running this fighting machine, a USA aircraft carrier. 

At around 6 a.m., I was still not in the sack when General Quarters was sounded. My battle station for General Quarters was Assistant Officer of the Deck on the command bridge. Also on the bridge were the Captain, the Navigator and the Officer of the Deck, so I was 4th in command on the bridge. I arrived at my battle station and was told about the huge Japanese task force being led by the largest battleship in the world, the Yamato. They were on the horizon and heading for us. It was not long until the Yamato used its 18-inch guns to attack us. Each shell that hit us or came near us showed a different color. Each of the Japanese battleships or cruisers had their own color – red, blue, purple or green. This would show each ships crew where they needed to make adjustments. We ended up getting hit 31 times before we abandoned ship. 

A rope was let loose from the bridge to go down to the water level. When I got about halfway down there was a sailor who had emotionally frozen and would not go any further. I gave him a boot and got him to move on. As soon as I entered the water I swam as fast as I could to get away from the awful suction of the big ship going down.
Gambier Bay - Under Attack

The rafts were not very “deluxe” and there was only room inside the ring for the wounded. So the rest of us on my raft hung onto the sides. Sharks would appear at various times. A young sailor in my division had both of his legs torn off. After a day night or more some people started going insane. Some would swim away, some would drink saltwater as we had no fresh water supply and only a few cans of Spam to eat. We had sulpha and morphine for the wounded. The ranking officer on my raft went out of his mind. I got him down in the bottom of the raft and hit him so hard with face blows that I knocked him out. After that he was quiet, the important part is that he survived. For years after the war he would call and write me to thank me for what he claimed had saved his life. 

After 44 hours in the water, just before daylight, we saw the outline of a ship against the light of the moon. We did not know if the ship was Japanese or one of ours. We were

so desperate we had to take the chance. We fired off a flare gun. The ship came alongside of us, we said hello and a sailor with a big southern drawl said, “How you all doing down there?” 

One of our sailors still had a sense of humor. He said, “Well, if he is from Japan its from the southern part of Japan.” 

The small ship was called an LCI. It had been 44 hours since we had sunk and 68 hours since I had slept onboard the Gambier Bay. 

From there we were transported to Hollandia, New Guinea, where we boarded the Lurline, a Matson ocean liner. From there we steamed to Australia for a few days of R &R, and then on a straight line with no escort to San Francisco. They claimed the ship was so fast that the Japanese subs were not much danger. From San Francisco we were given some leave to go home. 

Warriors coming home from battle were treated extremely well on the home front. Everyone was anxious to treat you well and hear about how the war was going. 

After my leave I was assigned to a newly built aircraft carrier called Kula Gulf. Another small world story is that another friend of mine from Mt. Angel was also assigned to the Kula Gulf. It was Francis “Scratch” Hauth. We stayed good friends until he died some years ago. Scratch and I both owned the Abiqua cabin “Pack Rat Inn”. 

Not long after I was assigned to the Kula Gulf I was appointed to the rank of full Lieutenant. The Captain said if I had a few more grey hairs I could have gone to Lt. Commander. It was on the Kula Gulf that a lot of poker was played. At least until the executive officer inspected our poker room and saw what he termed a “boars nest”. It was littered with cigarette butts and debris showing we were more interested in poker and fighting the war than we were with cleaning rooms. The result of that inspection was that all cards and chips were thrown overboard. It was quite awhile before we eased into another 24-hour poker game. Poker treated me fairly well. I sent enough money home to get into the building business. 

One of our cruises took us to Guadalcanal, where my brother Fritz had been stationed as one of Pappy Boyington’s aircraft mechanics. Pappy was one of the war’s most publicized fighter aces. Unfortunately Fritz had been transferred to another island just before we arrived. 

The Kula Gulf spent the last part of the war in the North Pacific until Japan surrendered. We did run into a super bad typhoon with winds of 150 miles per hour. We had to head straight into the wind all the way through the eye of the storm. It was a terrible storm. I was Officer of the Deck and running the ship on the mid-watch at the peak of the storm. The waves were so high that when we were in the trough of the water I could, from high on the aircraft carrier bridge, look straight out at a wall of water below the top of the wave. 

There were two destroyers in our vicinity that rolled over and not a single sailor from the 500 was saved. 

The storm damaged the front of our flight deck so severely that it folded back the total leading edge of the flight deck. We had to go back to Alameda to have repairs done. 

After the war’s end we spent some time at SingTow and Tientsin China, Panama City and finally mothballed the Kula Gulf in Boston. Five Epping Brother’s Serve in WWII.

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Presidential Unit Citation – Lawrence Epping

Epping - Presidential

The President of the United States takes pleasure in presenting the Presidential Unit Citation to : Task Unit Seventy Seven point Four Point Three consisting of the U.S.S. Fanshaw Bay and VC 68, U.S.S. Gambier Bay and VC 10, U.S.S. Kilinin Bay and VC3 U.S.S. Kitkun Bay and VC 5 U.S.S. Saint Lo and VC 65 U.S.S. White Plains and VC 4 U.S.S. Hoel, U.S.S. Johnson, U.S.S. Heerman, U.S.S. Samuel B. Roberts, U.S.S. Raymond, U.S.S. Dennis and U.S.S. John C. Butler for service set forth in the following: 

CITATION: “For extraordinary heroism in action against powerful units of the Japanese Fleet during the Battle off Samar, Philippines, October 25, 1944. Silhouetted against the dawn as the Central Japanese Force steamed through San Bernardino Strait toward Leyte Gulf, Task Unit 77.4.3 was suddenly taken under attack by hostile cruisers on its port hand, destroyers on the starboard and battleships from the rear. Quickly laying down a heavy smoke screen, the gallant ships of the Task Unit waged battle fiercely against the superior speed and fire power of the advancing enemy, swiftly launching and rearming aircraft and violently zigzagging in protection of vessels stricken by hostile armor piercing shells, antipersonnel projectiles and suicide bombers. With on carrier of the group sunk, others badly damaged and squadron aircraft courageously coordinating in the attacks by making dry runs over the enemy Fleet as the Japanese relentlessly closed in for the kill, two of the Unit’s valiant destroyers and one destroyer escort charged the battleships point blank and expending their last torpedoes in desperate defense of the entire group, went down under the enemy’s heavy shells as a climax to two and one half hours of sustained and furious combat. The courageous determination and the superb teamwork of the officers and men who fought the embarked planes and who manned the ships of task Unit 77.4.3 were instrumental in effecting the retirement of a hostile force threatening our Leyte invasion operation and were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.” 

For the President, James Forrestal, Secretary of the Navy