Navy vet recalls typhoon, kamikazes of World War II
By BRIAN ALBRECHT | The Plain Dealer, Cleveland | Published: September 23, 2017
CLEVELAND, Ohio (Tribune News Service) — John "Jack" Ehrbar saw the skies explode with blasts of antiaircraft fire directed at Japanese kamikaze aircraft.
He rode out a typhoon in a ship that had all the seagoing capability of a cork, as he described it.
He sailed the Pacific from Bora Bora to China, as a U.S. Navy radio operator during World War II.
He wouldn't take a million dollars for the experience, but he also wouldn't take a nickel to do it all over again.
All in all, it was often the best of times in the worst of times. And Ehrbar, 95, of Rocky River, looks back on most of it with a smile.
His service unofficially started when he and a few Lakewood High School buddies were hanging out at a confectionary store, and news came over the radio that the Japanese had just attacked Pearl Harbor.
"We all knew, right then and there, that at some point in time we were going to be in it," Ehrbar said.
He was determined that if he had to go to war, it wouldn't be in the Army. "I just didn't want any part of it," he recalled. "I just wanted to sleep in a clean bed."
After training that included instruction as a radio operator, capable of typing 50 words a minute in code, Ehrbar was assigned to a group of LCIs (Landing Craft Infantry) that the sailors derisively called "Lousy Civilian Idea."
The LCIs were lightly armed amphibious assault vessels that landed troops in beachhead assaults. (Actor Alec Guinness commanded one for the British navy during the war.)
Ehrbar's LCI was the flagship of the four-vessel flotilla that sailed out to join the war in 1944. One of their first stops was Bora Bora, now a tourist resort island that shows up as a game show prize, to Ehrbar's amusement. "When we were there it was nothing," he said.
The voyage across the Pacific was Ehrbar's first experience at sea, and he loved it. He recalled being struck by the ocean's wide-open vistas, "like going to see the Grand Canyon, it's just so vast."
And deadly, as he found out when his ship joined the late 1944 American amphibious invasion of the Gulf of Leyte in the Philippines.
Ehrbar remembered watching as the sky overhead blossomed with antiaircraft bursts as Navy ships directed their fire against a suicidal wave of Japanese kamikazes.
"One kamikaze came in through the ships and hit the conning tower of this one cruiser," Ehrbar said. "I saw this destroyer come in, it had been kamikaze'd. There wasn't much left of it.
"Yeah, they were crazy," he said of the attacks.
Was he nervous? "Oh yeah," Ehrbar confirmed.
The Battle of Leyte Gulf is probably best remembered for the iconic photo of Gen. Douglas MacArthur wading ashore to fulfill his "I shall return" pledge to the Philippines (after he was forced to leave in the Japanese invasion of 1942).
Ehrbar, however, remembers a different task associated with the general's return. "Our job was to take 50 cases of Canadian Club (whiskey) ashore to the officers' club, and they're standing there, counting them to make sure they're all there," he recalled with a smile.
As if the man-made threats of kamikazes weren't scary enough, Mother Nature piled on more anxious moments when Ehrbar's flotilla went to Okinawa and sailed into a typhoon.
"They told everybody to go out to sea, we went out to sea and we managed to survive," he recalled.
The LCI was definitely not built for heavy seas, according to Ehrbar. "It felt like a cork," he said. "Just battened all the hatches, but we managed.
"Some of the destroyers didn't get out to sea, we got back and they were on the beach," he added.
Fifteen merchant cargo ships and three destroyers were grounded, and more than 200 other military vessels were swept up on the beach or severely damaged by the storm.
Ehrbar never considered whether or not he would survive the war. "You know what, I never worried about that part of it," he said. "I just thought and I was fortunate, had a good crew and decent food."
Not as decent as his mother's home cooking, which Ehrbar sorely missed.
"My mother was an excellent cook," he said. "Once in a while the beef would be a little tough for my father, and he'd say, 'Well, the gravy's tender.'"
On the plus side, "Probably the best part was when we went on liberty and had a little fun," Ehrbar said.
After the war, some reminders lingered.
Ehrbar had a buddy from the neighborhood who fought in the Pacific theater. One day, "his mother was walking up the street and I asked her how Tommy was doing. She said he was killed at Iwo Jima," Ehrbar said. "I felt like . . .oh man, what the heck."
Ehrbar resumed working at East Ohio Gas, where he had a job before the war, married twice (both now deceased), and raised a combined family of nine children. He retired in 1984 and became an active member of Veterans of Foreign Wars.
He did go back to sea on a cruise to Bermuda. "I'd recommend it to anybody," he said.
And the vastness of the sea that captivated him on his first voyage still endures, according to Ehrbar.
As does a certain fondness for his days of service.
Glad you did it?
Ehrbar smiled and said, "Oh yes, very much so. No regrets."
(c)2017 The Plain Dealer, Cleveland
Visit The Plain Dealer, Cleveland at www.cleveland.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.