Memories of a World at War
Wednesday, June 11, 2014 11:00 AM
Jefferson County native Elmer Kleopfer knew the United States was headed to war during the early 1940s, and he planned to be one of the soldiers fighting in Europe.
Elmer Kleopfer now lives in a comfortable home in Hanover, but he says that the memories of his time fighting in the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Fleet during World War II are never far from his mind. Kleopfer is quick to tell stories of watching Kamikaze pilots heading straight for his ship or the time he and his crew captured several Japanese fighters who were adrift at sea. (Staff photo by Ken Ritchieemail@example.com)
But the U.S. Navy had other plans for him.
Although Kleopfer served his country during World War II, he never stepped foot on European soil. Instead, he and other shipmates served aboard destroyers - primarily in the Pacific Ocean.
Kleopfer's journey into military service and what he witnessed first-hand during the war isn't something he's forgotten more than 70 years later.
The first time Kleopfer went to military offices in Louisville, recruiters turned him away.
"They said go home and get a few more pounds on you," he said.
Kleopfer, then 122 pounds, vowed to go back and enlist in the U.S. Navy before getting drafted.
"I knew we were going to be in the war at that time," he said.
He didn't want to be assigned to the Marines or the Army. Instead, he wanted to be on the water.
"I didn't want to crawl through those jungles," Kleopfer said. "I wanted to get on a ship that would take me to Europe."
A year later, he joined the Navy on June 12, 1940, signing on for a six-year term and beginning a journey that had him serve on three destroyers - the USS Selfridge, the USS Coghlan and the USS Wesson - during his military service.
Kleopfer first went to basic training at the Great Lakes Training Station in Illinois. Then he received orders to go to San Diego, Calif.
After orders to go to the East Coast came through, Kleopfer expected to be placed on a ship to be sent to Europe. Instead, he and his shipmates helped to launch the USS Wesson from New Jersey in October 1943.
After a brief journey to Bermuda and back, the crew set off for the Pacific - traveling through the Panama Canal before arriving at Pearl Harbor.
The destroyer and crew didn't stay long in Hawaii.
The crew headed toward the Marshall Islands to provide additional security to the area. On the voyage to the islands, the crew found a small Japanese boat with several Japanese soldiers aboard.
Kleopfer wrote about finding the Japanese boat and capture of 11 soldiers during the event in 1944, providing a first-hand account not often found about war-time captures.
"After some speculation, we decide they might possibly be (Japanese) escaping from one of the small atolls in the vicinity. We had recently taken over several of the nearby islands," Kleopfer wrote. "Then the executive officer passes the word to the Repair Party on deck. They are to make preparations for receiving the foes on board. The Repair Party is working feverishly breaking out tommy guns, rifles, bayonets, heavy lines, grapnel hooks and any available material which will aid in the capture..."
Kleopfer wrote about the size of the weather-beaten sailboat - 25 feet long - and of the Japanese soldiers' attempt to avoid capture. The Japanese soldiers were thought to have been from a larger ship that had sunk elsewhere.
"The ship is commencing to swing toward the small craft. As the (Japanese) see this, they hold up their hands indicating a desire to surrender," he wrote. "Even the two handling the tiller are lifting their hands, leaving the tiller and rudder swinging aimlessly from side to side. The ship now stops its swinging to starboard and it is starting to make way astern. As the (Japanese) see this, they quickly start to hoist their main sail in an attempt to flee. The wind catches their sail and they come about. The boom swings to the opposite side allowing the sails to shut out our view..."
Even to this day, Kleopfer remembers Navy crew members shooting the Japanese boat's sails and breaking the boat's main mast as the Japanese soldiers attempted to flee the much larger American vessel.
The Japanese crew continued to fight off the U.S. ship by firing guns at sailors aboard to keep from being captured. Others jumped over this side of the small sailboat into shark-infested waters to avoid capture.
In the end, the U.S. sailors took the surviving five of 11 Japanese soldiers prisoner and brought them aboard the Navy ship. Kleopfer, a chief torpedoman on the ship, was assigned as a guard to one of the Japanese soldiers who had taken a bullet to the shoulder during the capture.
"He looked like a kid," he remembered. "Maybe 16."
The Japanese prisoners were turned over to U.S. Marines in Roi, Kleopfer said, and the USS Wesson and crew members traveled on for other patrols. Kleopfer doesn't know for sure what happened to the soldiers, but he has suspicions they died during the war.
Kleopfer also remembers other battles and close calls in the Pacific with Japanese fighters and suicide planes.
"We'd heard about (Japanese Zero planes)," he said, but the USS Wesson wasn't equipped with highly specialized systems to watch for them. "We didn't have the right type of radar to pick up planes."
Just hours after receiving word of the destruction caused by the Kamikaze pilots, the USS Wesson and the crew found themselves being targeted by the Japanese fighter planes.
"I saw a wing with a big red dot land on the deck," Kleopfer said.
The damage from the exploding planes and the gunfire to the USS Wesson was extensive.
"I didn't have a battle station," he said. "It was gone."
Even with the destruction during the battles they faced, only seven crew members of the USS Wesson died in action.
Yet today, very few of the hundreds of sailors who served on the same ships as Kleopfer survive.
Kleopfer, now 92, finds it important to share his memories and pictures from his service in World War II with others. He wants to leave his memories behind for his family and future generations.
"I saved about everything I run across," Kleopfer said, including newspaper articles and photos from the war.
Most of those items - much like the first-hand accounts of World War II veterans - are becoming rare finds.
"Aren't too many guys left anymore," he said.