Strafed at Pearl Harbor, airman went on to fight in Korea
By CRAIG T. NEISES | The Hawk Eye | Published: December 4, 2016
WEST BURLINGTON, Iowa (Tribune News Service) -- Larry Lepic awoke to the sounds of war exploding just outside the window.
It was Dec. 7, 1941, the place the Hawaiian island of Oahu, and before the day was over, the Wisconsin native would be strafed, bloodied, made witness to the horrors of battle and determined to fight back against the Japanese as a U.S. Army Air Corps pilot.
He could not have then known it would be the only fighting he would see through the nearly four years of war that would follow. Military bureaucracy kept him out of the fight, first standing in the way of flight training, then delaying its completion until the war was nearly won.
Lepic would go on to pilot bombers in the Korean War, become a part of the United States' nuclear deterrence during the Cold War and retire from the Air Force with a major's rank.
But at 95, he is one of a dwindling number of aging veterans who were there at the moment, 75 years ago this coming Wednesday, when America was thrust into World War II.
"I'm the last one surviving, that I know of, around here," Lepic said.
He spoke about his service at Pearl Harbor during a recent interview at home in West Burlington, where the walls of his office are covered in memorabilia of his career in the Air Force, and the officer's uniform that hangs from a hook on the door still fits.
Lepic grew up in Chicago, where he attended a technical high school and was trained as a mechanic and machinist. In 1939, he enlisted in the Army Air Corps because his family couldn't afford to send him to college, and the Great Depression meant jobs were scarce. Serving in the military, Lepic said, was "a shortcut to more education."
It was a somewhat meandering shortcut, one that led first to aviation machinist school, then to aircraft and engine school, followed by a duty station at Wheeler Field, Hawaii. At the airbase several miles north of Honolulu, Lepic was a P-40 crew chief before a reassignment that October sent him to Hickam Field, at the entrance to Pearl Harbor. Awaiting him there was a job rebuilding B-17 bomber engines, and a chance to go to college.
Classes were to start in January 1942, but the Japanese Imperial Navy had other plans. That day 75 years ago, as it did for so many others, changed the direction of Lepic's life.
The night before, however, he was just another unattached serviceman "going to whoop it up" on a balmy Saturday in early December. Instead of returning to their barracks, Lepic and his two friends found a place to stay outside the base. In the morning, they were shaken from their sleep by the sound of explosions. At first, after "a pretty big night," they cursed the pilots they assumed were making practice bomb runs.
Then someone looked out the window. They got their first glimpse of a Japanese Zero fighter plane.
It was a truly rude awakening.
"'Holy s---,'" Lepic recalled thinking, "'we're at war.'"
They watched another Japanese plane fly in low and drop a torpedo. The radio told them what they already knew: Pearl Harbor was under attack. Seeing their hangar at Hickam had been bombed, the men left their quarters, climbed into a station wagon they had use of, and took off for Schofield Barracks at Wheeler Field, where another of their party was stationed.
But Schofield, and Wheeler, were under attack, too.
Turning the car around, they were strafed by a Japanese fighter. Lepic stopped the car and climbed underneath until the plane went away. He would later discover he had suffered a minor shrapnel wound to his belly. It left a scar, but the retired pilot scoffs at the idea of a Purple Heart. Back on the road to Pearl Harbor, a motorcycle cop pulled them over, then led them to a hospital, where they and the car were pressed into service ferrying wounded to the hospital.
Their first trip was to Hickam Field.
"'Quit bringing me dead ones,'" the doctor chastised them on their return, Lepic said. The serviceman they picked up died on the way.
"We must have looked pretty green, because (the doctor) gave us each a shot of whiskey," Lepic added. "We kept doing this all day." For hours, they saved lives and saw horrors, like severely burned sailors crawling out of oily water, then trying to climb through a barbed wire fence to safety. After the initial attack, they helped transfer the injured to hospitals around the island.
All day that Monday, too.
It was Tuesday before Lepic returned to the B-17 engine he had been working on before heading out on the town the previous Saturday. He found it undamaged.
Shock and anger followed the attack. Lepic learned a friend was killed in the attack. His assistant, who was Japanese, "was hauled away," he said.
The attack only cemented his desire to be a pilot, which started when Lepic joined in with a friend who hired a tutor to prepare for the test to get into flight school. Testing took three days. He passed, only to flunk the physical because a of bout of scarlet fever at 13.
That was in 1941, before the attack on Pearl Harbor. In 1942, when the Army Air Corps came looking again for pilots, it wasn't so picky.
It took until September that year for Lepic to get out of his old job and secure orders to return to the mainland for pilot training. Through a series of bureaucratic snafus that saw him working again as a mechanic, then getting shanghaied in a variety of duty stations even after got a second crack at flight school, it would not be until April 15, 1945, that Lepic would complete pilot training.
Germany surrendered to Allied forces less than a month later. Japan capitulated in September. With additional training to fly bombers, Lepic never got back into the fight.
When he ended his service in 1947, it was not as a pilot but a maintenance officer. And then, the Air Force only let him out on a promise to serve five years in the reserves.
Not quite four years went by before he was called back, this time to fly B-29s in a dozen combat missions over Korea. His fledgling, post-war business interests dashed by the January 1951 recall, Lepic chose to stay in the Air Force for the long haul. Before retiring in December 1965, he would fly B-36, B-47 and B-52 bombers, spending the last seven years of his career in the latter, circling above the Arctic Circle in aircraft carrying a nuclear payload and ready at a moment's notice to fly over the North Pole, bound for the Soviet Union.
He retired, but didn't leave aviation.
Lepic flew for pleasure, and took a job managing the airport in Bellingham, Wash. After his first wife of 55 years died, he met Marjory, who is from Iowa, and moved West Burlington. In July, they survived being rear-ended by an 18-wheeler on U.S. 34. Though mostly unscathed, Larry Lepic uses a walker now instead of the cane he carried before the wreck.
The couple plan to observe the 75th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor quietly at home.
Today, like every Sunday, they will listen to Frank Balvanz on WMT-AM 600, broadcasting from Cedar Rapids. The Lepics will look forward to hearing a couple of special songs Larry planned to request for the occasion: "Aloha, 'Oe (Farewell to Thee); and the "Hawaiian Wedding Song" by Alfred Apaca.
(c) 2016 The Hawk Eye. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.