WWII vet trained in chemical warfarePIPESTONE — Not long after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and set the stage for what would be a nearly four-year battle on the Pacific and Atlantic fronts, America had called its people to not only help in the war effort, but to make sacrifices because of it. Some took that call to duty rather seriously, including the Earhart family of rural Pipestone.
By: Julie Buntjer, Worthington Daily Globe
PIPESTONE — Not long after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and set the stage for what would be a nearly four-year battle on the Pacific and Atlantic fronts, America had called its people to not only help in the war effort, but to make sacrifices because of it.
Some took that call to duty rather seriously, including the Earhart family of rural Pipestone.
Oliver “Les” Earhart was still in high school when the war broke out, but his parents felt so strongly for their country that they packed up what they needed and moved with their two sons to Linda Vista, Calif., in early 1942.
There, Les’ dad helped build B-24 bombers in one factory, while his mom built PB-244 amphibious planes used mostly by the U.S. Coast Guard. Norman, two years older than Les, was hired by the Glenn L. Martin Co. to also build aircraft used in the war effort.
As for Les, he worked part-time for Consolidated Aircraft and a couple of other airplane manufacturers until he finished high school.
“I was still in school and they were getting pretty close to drafting my age bracket,” he said. “My brother went first, and I followed.”
Earhart enlisted in the Army Air Corps on April 15, 1943, in Los Angeles, Calif. He completed basic training and the engineer corps at Camp Cook, Calif. Both he and his brother, who also joined the Army Air Corps, had hoped to fly planes.
“He didn’t fly and I didn’t either,” Earhart said. “I passed my tests and all that stuff, and all at once they said, ‘We don’t need any more pilots.’
“I wanted to fly the fighter planes, naturally. Everyone wanted to fly the fighters. I just thought that would be quite a thing to do — everybody dreams about it but 99 percent of us don’t get it — we just dream,” he added with a laugh.
The Army Air Corps sent him and “a bunch of guys” to Africa.
They landed at Casablanca, Morocco, shortly after Gen. Erwin Rommel had retreated back to northern Egypt with his German army.
“Rommel just got whipped over there by the English and the Americans,” Earhart said.
After a brief delay at Casablanca, Earhart and his fellow soldiers aboard the troop ship traveled south, stopping along the way at Dakar, Senegal, and Freetown, Sierra Leone, before landing in Accra, Ghana, 62 days after they first landed on Africa’s coast.
“I stayed there for 13 months,” Earhart said of the U.S. Army Base at Accra. “I was in chemical warfare. I didn’t know what chemical warfare was until I got there.”
Earhart’s was the last of three names drawn for the chemical warfare duty. The rest of the men in the group were assigned to work on airplanes.
The three men worked in a large warehouse on the Army base, where they learned how to detect different chemicals that could have been used by the Axis to kill American troops.
“One was mustard gas — that was the worst one you could tangle with — that one smelled like horse manure,” said Earhart, still grimacing at the memory of the potent chemical.
Their job was to smell different kinds of gas and be able to identify them. There was only so much time to take a whiff before they had to get their gas masks on for protection.
Another gas Earhart remembers well is tear gas.
“It would burn the heck out of your eyeballs,” he said. “It won’t kill you, but mustard (gas) will.
“If the Germans had ever used that stuff, you better know how to detect it,” Earhart explained, adding that until the atomic bombs were dropped on Japan, chemical warfare was not used in World War II.
“The Germans hadn’t threatened to use mustard gas that I know of, but we never threatened to use the atomic bomb either,” he said. “But we did, and I’m glad.”
The atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki killed approximately 150,000 to 245,000 people.
“Then you heard arguments about how it was a rough thing to do to them poor people, but they never said anything about if we had to invade Japan, how many guys would we have lost,” said Earhart. “I have no sympathy for them at all. And when we call them Japs, that’s what their names are. It isn’t Japanese — it’s Japs.”
Earhart was working in a parts warehouse at an Army base in Cairo, Egypt, when the war was declared over. There was initial celebration, and then the wait to be transported back home. Earhart spent 11 months at Cairo, during which time he was able to get some rest and relaxation time to visit the coastal town of Alexandria, Egypt, as well as Bethlehem and Jerusalem.
Before returning home, he also took an airplane ride over Tubruq, Libya, where American troops had sunk a fleet of German ships in the bay.
“They were still anchored in place,” Earhart said. “We bombed the hell out of them. They said one ship landed on top of a submarine, but we couldn’t see it.”
It was also while in Egypt that Earhart and some of his friends climbed a “haystack” of spent brass shells.
“I suppose they were going to send them back to the states,” he said. “We were crawling around on that — two or three of us nitwits — and I looked down and there was one loaded shell down there. If that damn thing would have went off, we wouldn’t have been here to tell you about it. We got the heck out of there.”
Earhart was among the second group of soldiers to be shipped out of Africa after the war to return to the United States. In the two years he served there, he never once saw his brother, Norman, who was stationed in northern Africa.
The liberty ship Earhart boarded joined a British convoy enroute to the New York harbor. After being welcomed by Lady Liberty, Earhart traveled via train to Fort McCoy, Wis., for his honorable discharge on March 18, 1946.
A train took Earhart from Fort McCoy to Pipestone, where his parents awaited him. They had returned to Pipestone County after their services were no longer needed in the airplane factories in California, and were still celebrating their oldest son’s return from the war just days earlier.
Earhart found a job at Gamble’s in Pipestone when he returned from the war, working for 10 cents an hour. He also met the woman who would become his wife — she was working at Fecker Produce in Pipestone. They married in 1950, and raised four daughters in Pipestone.
After spending 17 years with Pan-O-Gold bakery as a route driver, Earhart switched careers and sold insurance for 22 years until he retired.
Four years ago, Earhart — then 82 — took all four of his daughters on a trip back to Cairo, Egypt, to share with them his stories of war.
Earhart is among nearly 110 World War II veterans planning to travel to Washington, D.C., later this month with the fourth and final Honor Flight Southwest Minnesota journey.