PDT Staff Writer
“We were on the farm. We had been to church on Sunday morning,” Bob Estepp said as he reminisced. “And they came down to our place because we had basketball, softball, baseball, football, you name it. We were playing touch football when my brother came out of the house and said the (Japanese) had attacked Pearl Harbor.” That began the military career of just one of four South Webster veterans of World War II who get together from time to time to share their common experience.
In addition to Estepp, 88; Art Lewis, 88; Ray Mullen, 87; and Ray Kemper, 87, sat down for lunch last week at The Party Room on Ohio 140 and opened up about their proud South Webster heritage and what it was like to be part of what Tom Brokaw has dubbed “the Greatest Generation.” All either enlisted or were drafted into military service for their country.
“I said, ‘Where is Pearl Harbor,’” Estepp continued. “We had never heard of Pearl Harbor. That’s how we found out the Japanese had attacked.”
Like many young American men, it was that message that launched their military service. Each graduated from South Webster High School in 1942, and Estepp and Lewis were actually attending Rio Grande College at the time. Estepp went into the U.S. Navy, where he was subsequently commissioned in 1944. Lewis was drafted into the U.S. Army in February 1943 and went to Ft. Belvoir, Virginia. Mullen entered the Army and was stationed at Camp Hood, Texas, while Kemper was sent to Paris Island as a Marine.
“I went to Pearl Harbor. From Pearl Harbor to Guam, and then to the invasion of Iwo Jima,” Estepp said.
Shortly before 2 a.m. on Feb. 19, 1945, the Navy’s big guns opened up on Iwo Jima, signaling the beginning of D-Day. After an hour of punishment, the fire was lifted, leaving the island smoking as if it were on fire. Both Americans aboard their transports and the Japanese in their caves looked to the skies. One-hundred-ten bombers screamed out of the sky to drop more bombs. After the planes left, the big guns of the Navy opened up again. At 8:30am, the order, “Land the Landing Force,” sent in the first wave of Marines. Once ashore, the Marines were bedeviled by the loose volcanic ash. Unable to dig foxholes, they were sitting ducks for the hidden Japanese gunners. The U.S. eventually won the battle, but at a high cost in lives.
From Iwo Jima, Estepp went to Saipan in June 1945. “We were waiting for the invasion of Japan, which never occurred,” Estepp said. “We were at Saipan and they sent six of us back to Iwo Jima. I was the skipper of an LCT (Landing Craft Tank). I had 10 enlisted personnel and I was the oldest guy at 20. We were up to Iwo Jima until they decommissioned us and I got back to the States probably in March or April of 1946.
Lewis went overseas to England and was in Southampton on June 6, 1944. After the U.S., British and other Allies landed on the beaches of Normandy on June 6, 1944, they began the Liberation of Western Europe. He ended up in Normandy, Belgium, Holland and Germany, and remembers, “I was in Germany when the war was over.”
Mullen has emotional memories of the invasion of Omaha Beach.
“The 741st Tank Battalion was supposed to float in like an infantry boat,” Mullen said. “And the waves were so rough they sank. Our people had told them it wouldn’t work. (Gen. Dwight) Eisenhower bought into it. So they didn’t make it and we were supposed to be third and we became first. We were in the first American tanks on Omaha Beach. I actually drove a supply truck so we trailed behind. After the tanks got up on top of the cliff, that’s when we went up.”
He saw action at St. Lo, Normandy, with the 1st Infantry Division. There, Mullen saw something he will never forget.
“I saw American bombers bomb their own men,” Mullen said. “I could see the bomb bay doors open and the bombs coming down. And they just kept coming and kept coming. They don’t tell that story too much. It was supposed to be pinpoint bombing.”
Mullen went on to meet the Russians at the Elbe River on April 25, 1945
“I was headed for Borneo and we were all ready to go when they dropped ‘the bomb,’” Mullen said about the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, which led to the end of the war.
Ray Kemper, a radio gunner with the U.S. Marines, remembers going up into China at the end of the war to get Japanese prisoners, and he remembers their demeanor after they had been defeated. “Those Japanese guys were just as meek as could be,” Kemper said. “All they wanted to do was go home, just like us. We even gave them weapons to guard the ammo. They were really loyal to us because they just wanted to get out. There were 300,000 of them.”
That was not the end of the action for Kemper or Estepp.
“In 1950, I went back in during the Korean War,” Kemper said.
Eventually, he was sent to Portsmouth to open a recruiting office.
Three of the four, Estepp, Lewis and Mullen, all went back to college and got master’s degrees — Estepp and Lewis from Marshall University, and Mullen from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. They all went into education, where they were teachers and administrators. Kemper worked for several companies, even owning his own company, the Ray-Bob Bargain Center in Wheelersburg. For a number of years, as he moved around the country, he remained in the Reserves.
All four said they were proud of their military service, and that it was the springboard for their careers. One more thread runs through them all. Estepp lives at Rosemount, Lewis in Lucasville, Kemper in Sciotoville, and Mullen, South Webster. While Mullen is the only one who remains in South Webster, each believes the type of upbringing they experienced in that community prepared them for their military as well as their civilian lives. Jeeps they were then and Jeeps they remain in their hearts today.
Frank Lewis may be reached at 740-353-3101, ext. 232, or at email@example.com.