Will Lehner

Wisconsin Public Television has removed the interview with Will Lehner's "Wisconsin Stories". We present the transcripts here.

Will Lehner

Will Lehner Transcripts.

The legacy of December 7

December 7 has a double meaning for Will Lehner. He describes the kamikaze attack against his ship, the USS Ward, three years to the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor. On December 7, 1941, it was the USS Ward that sank a Japanese midget-sub an hour before the actual bombing of Pearl Harbor. Researchers from Hawaii's National Undersea Research Laboratory confirmed the sinking of the Japanese sub in late 2001. In 2002, Lehner visited the USS Ward at her final resting place, 1,200 feet below the surface.

Lehner: We had action all the time. I think we had 26 engagements all together. That was action for us all the time. For a bunch of young kids, it made us into veterans in a hurry.

When we finally got sunk, in Ormoc Bay, we were going in on a landing behind Jap lines. We pulled out the 6th of December from Leyte with our troops, the Rangers — I think it was the 6th — Army Rangers that we had. And they were to land and cut off the Japanese forces here.

They were gonna land behind them and then our troops were on the other side of them. And then they were going to squeeze 'em in. And we didn't — unbeknown to us, the Japanese were landing reinforcements also that day. They had a big troop. I think they had about 11 troop transports that were coming up, landing troops for them. And they had the big air force coming in, giving them cover.

We had landed our troops already. And then we see all these Japanese bombers and fighters, and all that coming in. We could see in the distance that they were attacking some of our other ships, some of our destroyers. We saw one that got hit before we got hit. They dove right into it. Exploded. It was a newer destroyer. And then we see some of these planes coming over and they were going to make a bombing run first.

One of the guys that was laying up on the after-deckhouse — [of] course, we were on general quarters. I was on a No. 4 gun; that was my battle station then. I was first loader on No. 4 gun, and we were standing by to fire at any planes that we could. And these planes flew over, and this guy says, "Hey, drop one here," he says. "Then we can get back to the States." 'Cause we had been out there so long, not having any recreation other than the two 10-day times we had in Australia. We were looking for anything to get back to the States.

They went over and they made their bombing runs and then later on they turned around, and they started picking out ships and making their suicide dives on them. Three of the twin-engine bombers took a bead on us. They started coming down, and that's when we got to fire at them. And they were coming down from the stern and we were firing right at them and they were coming right down at us.

That lead plane, we could see they were going right through the wing, and he just kept coming. We didn't explode him or anything, you know, but he just kept coming. I don't know whatever happened to the other two, but we were zig-zagging and we were doing about 25 knots, zig-zagging back and forth.

Luckily, we were just making a turn, and this guy had his sights set — I think he was dead then, and he had his controls set and he was coming right down. He came right into the troop space, right at the waterline at the troop space, hit us and exploded. And the one engine from the plane went right on through the other side of the ship. Of course, there was fire on the ship. Ammunition up there was exploding in our ammunition locker.

I was on the after-deckhouse and smoke, of course, from the ship, the fire, and we didn't know what — we were looking for other planes to fire at; nothing else was coming around. I don't know whatever happened to the two planes behind us, they must have veered off. And they couldn't put out the fire.

And the skipper finally says, "Well, abandon ship." Well, prior to that some of the guys had jumped overboard, too. This one guy that had said, that was laying up on topside, he was, he had jumped before the plane ever hit. They figured it was going to hit the after-deckhouse and hit us.

I guess I was too excited loading the gun to do anything but keep loading. I guess I wasn't afraid then, but after it was all over, I guess that's when I started shaking. Then when we abandoned ship, of course. There was — the ammunition in the forward magazine was starting to explode, and they couldn't put out the fire. I didn't want to jump in the water, because about a month or so before that we had been going back to Hollandia and we were at drill and there were a couple of guys standing on, sitting on the lifeline. And the lifeline gave way and two of them went overboard into the water, and the sharks got one of them. And I thought, "I don't wanna go in the water and have a shark get me, because the Japs didn't get me yet and I don't want the sharks to get me."

So, I stayed aboard and finally, one of the Higgins boats that was in the water came alongside, and I just went in the after-screw guard and walked down and got in the Higgins boat without even getting my feet wet. Everything that I had below deck was gone. That went down with the ship.

Unbeknown to us, the destroyer O'Brien was there; and who was on that but W.W. Otterbridge, who was skipper of the Ward December 7th. And he was skipper of the O'Brien.

And he got orders from commander of the fleet to sink the Ward because they couldn't save it. Bill Otterbridge said that was the toughest part, because that was his first command, and then he had to give orders to sink it with a five-inch gun. And they hit it with one shell in the after-magazine and it just blew up. And that was the end of the Ward.

Of course, we all gathered back at Leyte after that. But we had an air raid all day that day. There were planes coming all over. I thought that I'd have to jump in another boat, because we were getting planes diving on that other ship that I was on. Luckily, we got back to Leyte, and then we all gathered. And then we went back to Hollandia, where we all got together again. Then we got on one of the Matson Line cruisers, pleasure ships, and they took us back to San Francisco.

Derks: Dec. 7 has a double meaning for you?

Lehner: Yeah, it does. Yeah, the fact that it started out and saw the sub get hit, saw the sub go down. Then in 2002, I went down in a mini-sub, 1,200 feet down to look at that sub that's laying down there. And I saw that we did sink it. There was a lot of doubt. People said, "Oh, you didn't find it, so you didn't sink it." I said: "Yes, we did. I know we sunk it, I know we sunk it." Different ones I'd tell the story to, they'd say: "Oh, you just think you sunk it. There's no evidence that you sunk it." Well, now I got evidence.

I went down there and I was down there for three-and-a-half hours at 1,200 feet and I said, "Boy, I said, this is great." I took about five rolls of pictures, and I took a lot of duplicates 'cause I wanted to be sure that I saw that hole in it, and that was great.

Then the fact that [in] 1944, we were sunk three years to the day afterwards. I was still on that old rusty Ward, but it was a good old ship. When she went down I hated to leave it because that was my home. Everything I had went down with it. I got off there with my helmet on, and my clothes on, and I had a 1918 or 1917 trench knife that I got from one of the Marines, with brass knuckles on. I had that on my belt and I saved that. But the rest of the stuff all went down. It was sad to see it go down, not knowing what was going to happen next. That was kind of a closure for me.

Meeting old foes.

Will Lehner reflects on how the Pearl Harbor attack could have been even worse. Six decades after the war, he had the unusual experience of meeting WWII Japanese pilots.

Derks: When you were in the Pacific and doing all these landings, did you have much of a sense of how the rest of the war was going?

Lehner: No, not really. We thought we were winning, naturally. When the war first started at Pearl [Harbor], I think all of us figured in about six weeks or three months we'd have 'em and we'd be over with. But we found out it was a little longer than that.

You know, the only thing that really saved us, I think — Looking back in perspective, the only thing that really saved us — And I was over there last year for the 60th anniversary, and I talked to some of the Japanese that flew against us. They said that they had planned on a third attack. The third attack was going to take out the fuel depot and the submarine base. That was their idea. They only made two attacks, one at 8 o'clock and one at 9 o'clock. And then they were going to come back.

But when the planes got back to the carrier, the admiral says: "We've done enough damage now. They'll never recover from this." So they didn't make the third attack. I think that's where they made their big mistake. Had they come back and attacked the fuel depots, we would have been out of fuel. Had they come back and attacked the submarines, the submarines couldn't have gotten out as fast as they did and taken care of the Japanese fleet. And that's the only thing that really saved us. That was a big mistake. And they realize that today that they should have come back and made the third attack. But, at the time, we thought, Oh, hell, we'll take 'em. In a couple, three months, this will all be over with. It was three years, four years.

Derks: What an experience, to talk to those pilots.

Lehner: Yes.

Derks: How did that feel?

Lehner: Oh, it felt good. You know, after 60 years of this thing, we've all mellowed a lot. I could never have talked to them 10 years from then, from Pearl Harbor. It was still in me.

Maybe 20 years, 25 years maybe, I couldn't have talked to 'em. But 60, 62 years, you know, 60-some years afterwards, yeah, I could talk to 'em. And like I talked to them, you know, and I said, "Are you the guys that, are you one of the pilots that dropped the bombs on each side of my ship and missed?" And he says, "I don't think so."

But he would never admit that he missed, even if he did. But it was great to talk to these guys. And I've got the five pilots that flew against us that are still living — I got all their signatures. I think that's a great thing for me to have and to look back. And I can give it to my kids, and I can show to the kids in the high school.

I take this when I go to the high schools and talk and I show 'em this. And they said, "Well, how did you get that?" You know: "How did you get that when they were flying against you? Did you get them to sign that then?" I gotta explain to 'em that it was 60 years later that they signed this.

And that's one of my speaking pieces. The kids really enjoy that. The different things that I show them. And now that I can show them pictures of that submarine that's down on the bottom — that's another thing that they can get a kick out of.

     

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