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Thursday, April 24, 2003 02:20 pm

War stories

Charlie Erp

"War is Hell," according to William Tecumseh Sherman. Ovbiously, he knew what he was talking about. Watching the invasion of Iraq on television, writer John Jermaine wondered about the naivete of the young soldiers under fire. What did they expect before they entered battle? He decided to visit with three older veterans of foreign wars to ask them what it was like to be in combat.

On the West Virginia

Charlie Erp lives in a nursing home in Taylorville. A machinist mate stationed aboard the battleship West Virginia, Erp was 20 years old when he witnessed a shocking moment in history: the attack on Pearl Harbor.

"We had been in Pearl for a month or two, anchored in 30 some feet of water. Everyone was happy to be there. We were all taking advantage of the wonderful weather and the nearness of Honolulu, Hawaii. I spent a lot of time partying there myself (laughs). No one suspected we would be attacked right there. Most of us believed we had safety in numbers.

"On the morning of the attack, an explosion knocked me out of my bunk. I don't know if it was a bomb or a torpedo that threw me to the floor. But it was about 8 o'clock in the morning. I quickly picked myself up and went topside to see what had happened. Once I reached the upper deck, planes were coming in from both sides. Some were dropping torpedoes in the water, while others bombed and shot their machine guns at vessels. The deck moved beneath my feet, as bullets were bouncing all around.

"There were already bodies dead on the deck, but no one panicked. The men did what they were trained to do. I think our gun crews shot down several Japanese planes during the two attacks. And there we were at anchor--a sitting duck among a flock of sitting ducks.

"After the first bunch of planes had gone, I went down to the engine room to see what I could do. After all, a machinist mate belongs below deck. Some thought it was a lost cause. But we did get the engines started just a few minutes before more planes arrived. The first attack had lasted about 10 to 15 minutes. The second group arrived 20 to 25 minutes later. I heard the sounds of new explosions nearby, then I heard some coming from the West Virginia. The second attack did more damage than the first one. Water rose below deck, trapping a number of the engine room crew. I was one of the lucky few that escaped.

"Close friends died right before my eyes that day. I had trained with many of them two years earlier. A bomb or two had set fire to the West Virginia, the water near us was covered in flaming oil, and torpedo hits made the ship list. Many port holes were also open on that side, allowing water to come in even faster. But someone flooded the other side and prevented the ship from turning over. In a short time, the vessel had settled into the mud and water covered most of the bow. The skipper gave the order to abandon ship and died shortly after that. Two officers and 102 crewmen were lost onboard. It was a very sad day for the Pacific fleet. A year later, the West Virginia was ready for action again. I had moved on to fill a vacancy aboard another battlewagon: The Tennessee. Thank God I didn't see much action aboard that."


The river rat

A 70-year-old man named Tony sat alone at a table in the Taylorville American Legion Post. He didn't want to reveal his last name, but he was willing to talk about his service in Vietnam. At that time, he was already in his mid-30s. As Tony recalled the details, his gruff exterior gave way, his eyes welled up, and he had to stop speaking to keep from crying.

"I enlisted in the Navy in 1949 and gradually decided to become a career military man. They sent me over to Vietnam around 1966 or '67. Those were the early days of the war. They put me down south on the river patrol in the Mekong River Delta. So I was what they called a 'river rat' or 'brown water sailor.' We ran up and down the rivers and waterways on medium-sized boats armed with machine guns. Then we carried our own weapons with us, M-16 rifles, so we were always ready for action. We officially worked for the Army. They gave us orders where to go, what to do, and that kind of stuff. Their main logic was to keep the rivers clear of large items and piles of floating debris. It was easy to booby-trap logs and debris with explosives, turning it into floating mines. Since the Mekong was a fairly dirty river, it was not unusual to see a lot of big stuff floating around in it, including dead animals and sometimes human bodies.

"At night, 'Charlie' would sneak down the waterways in little wooden boats. They used hit-and-run guerrilla tactics as they tried to blow up anything the U.S. Army was constructing. It became our duty to seek out large floating items, or masses of debris, and fire into them from different angles. If the mass did not blow up, it was safe and free to go (laughs). We were nothing like those river rats depicted in Apocalypse Now. In fact, you wouldn't want to put your big toe in that water, let alone water ski in it. It was just too dirty.

"We had a few skirmishes with 'Charlie' down there. Our group moved men over to the Cambodia-Laos border areas, when the Vietcong were busy staging a number of attacks. They hid across the borders safe and sound, struck when you least expected them, and off they'd go to their sanctuaries.

"The weather was always steamy hot. You had to wear a shirt to keep from getting a bad sunburn. When I first got over there, I got burned so badly that I was in Sick Bay for 3 days. Then we had to deal with the rain. Sometimes it would rain on one side of the river, and not rain at all on the other. 'Charlie' enjoyed venturing out and doing his thing when the weather was bad. So we patrolled in all types of weather.

"Sometimes we went up to Saigon, which was a pretty nice city. It was fairly dangerous there too. One young kid off our boat was killed by a sniper while riding in a cycle rickshaw. Another time we were just sitting on the deck at Saigon, and a sniper shot across the river and nailed the guy next to me. He was talking one minute and gone the next. Oh, we returned fire. But all we heard was just 'boom-boom-boom,' and the sniper was gone.

"The U.S. had an embassy in Saigon surrounded by 55-gallon barrels of concrete. The Vietnamese kept complaining about how bad they looked, so someone finally decided to get rid of them. That very night, 'Charlie' took a truckful of dynamite and rammed the building. Incidentally, that was the same building where U.S. helicopters landed and evacuated military and civilians in the final days of the war.

"So there you go. We controlled everything during the day, while 'Charlie' controlled things at night. The same guys you shook hands with this morning could be shooting at you later tonight. We pretty much kept to ourselves and didn't really go to the bars and the like. Maybe that saved some of our lives. But I lost two close friends over there; I was the lucky one."


The cold warrior

U.S. Army Captain Harold Davis, 37, is a good example of a modern-day soldier. He enlisted when he was 17, and has traveled to Saudi Arabia and Bosnia, where he worked in "peace-keeping" forces. Even when in a conflict, he never saw much direct confrontation. In an era dominated by carpet bombing and automated weaponry, Davis escaped wars unscathed. Now he runs an Army recruitment center in Springfield.

"I was born and raised on a farm near Weiner, Arkansas. My father was drafted and sent over to Korea. He told me it was a good life living on the farm. But in the long run, you would come out better by staying in the service. I don't know how many times he said, "Son, if I had just stayed in the Army, I would be retired." Unfortunately, he had to work till the day he died. I joined the Army when I was 17 years old, so I would be able to retire at an early age. I took basic training at Fort McLennan, Alabama, moved on to Advanced Individual Training at Fort Bordon, Georgia.

"After a while, I decided to leave military life and try things as a civilian again.

"I spent the first four months sanding furniture in a little place near Tocoma, Washington. A short time later, I returned to Georgia and helped to build the Fulton County Jail in Atlanta. But I still wasn't happy. First of all, punching a clock is not me. I like to have the time to do my job right. The second thing that I missed was just basic camaraderie. Being able to look to the left and the right, knowing that guy will give his life for me and I will give mine for him. I also didn't like doing the same things over and over again.

"I was sent to the Persian Gulf to repair telephones and switchboards. On the first night of the first war, a buddy of mine and I drove down to a Saudi Arabian port city to pick up a piece of equipment we had packed in a semi. It had just come in from Germany. We drove many miles to the port. Once there, we got to take a shower--I hadn't had one for about a month. We had been eating ready-made meals for about 20 days. These were normally cold, but you could throw them up on a heater or on the manifold of a truck to warm them up. There was a chance these people had some real food. As luck would have it, they had some rotisserie chicken cooking there that really looked good. It smelled good too. So we stood there in line for two hours while the chicken cooked. Then we ate our supper and laid down to get some sleep. We had a long drive back into the desert the next morning. I went to sleep and about 45 minutes later, a non-commissioned officer woke us up and said, "It's finally started." It was a real adrenaline rush for both of us. And we all knew the Iraqi Army would have to leave Kuwait before we could go back home--that was our ticket out of there. 'So the air war has finally begun,' I thought to myself as I drifted back to sleep. Maybe half an hour went by before I was awakened again. The alarms for chemical weapons had gone off--gas, gas, gas. From a sound sleep, I awoke and wondered if I had missed the impact of that weapon. It was the first thing that went through my mind. Then my training took over. It was step one, step two, step three, and so on. You could forget about all the stress. You did what you were told, and you did what you were trained to do during a chemical attack. Yes, there was a long-range Scud missile in the vicinity. But a Patriot missile knocked it out short of its target.

"I felt anxiety, not fear, when we moved forward, out of the fort. There was a fire fight at the border with Iraqi forces. Once the air war had started, you could see the flashes very clearly. We knew they were not very far from us. Counting the number of seconds, from the flash to the bang, you could tell we were about 12 to 14 miles away. I found out later that the bombs were hitting right at the border. There were towns along that border, and you could see the Bedouins and families coming back into Saudi Arabia by the tons. They were trying to get out of the war zone. So at any given time, the Iraqis could have crossed the border and struck at us. At times like that, you really want to know what is going on--not only for yourself, but for your buddies.

"I really didn't see much action. We actually went about 15 miles into Iraq. Then the war was suddenly over. We had to stand down. It was as simple as that. I don't know what went on in the upper levels of politics and the military, but I didn't expect we would go back there again."

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