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Tribute to WWII heroes takes flight


Trio of East County veterans tour Washington, D.C., hear thanks from grateful Americans

Three comrades-in-arms, strangers until recently, have come to share more than simply a zip code.

Leland “Lee” Johnson, Vernon Keiper and Richard Leibham, all World War II veterans and East County residents, were part of an Honor Flight that left Portland on Thursday, May 16, bound for Washington, D.C.

by: COMPOSITE IMAGE FROM CONTRIBUTED PHOTOS - Three local WWII veterans joined a group of 50 fellow vets selected to spend four days sightseeing in Washington D.C. as honored guests of the Bend Heroes Foundation and Honor Flight of Portland.

The trio joined a group of 50 WWII vets selected to spend four days sightseeing as honored guests of the Bend Heroes Foundation and Honor Flight of Portland. They also were recognized during a ceremony at the World War II Memorial, which was dedicated in 2004 as a tribute to those who paid the ultimate sacrifice for their country.

World War II veterans are a unique lot.

Their service to the country is a closed chapter in their lives they rarely discuss. Yet as their numbers dwindle each year, along with their stories and experiences, the business of recording their lives is important. Not only from a historical perspective, but also because their brand of stoic patriotism is a model still emulated by all the others in uniform who have followed them.

The Honor Flight experience was eye opening for these three veterans, who didn’t — and still don’t — consider their actions heroic. They expressed awe at the thousands of gold stars in the World War II Memorial representing those who didn’t come home and honored their sacrifice.

But Johnson, Keiper and Leibham also found that others still honor them.

“It really was a world war, but when it was over, they just opened the door and pushed us out,” said Leibham, 85. “We just did what we were asked and didn’t expect anything. But (during the trip) when grade school children said, ‘Thanks,’ and other people wanted to shake our hands, I was amazed. It was very touching.”

We were just doing our job

Lee Johnson was a freshman at Oregon State University in the fall of 1940. The Gresham High School grad was working his way through college in the men’s dorm cafeteria, making 35 cents an hour. He also was a rookie recruit in the Army Reserve Officer’s Training Corps on campus. That's when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.

“A buddy and I were in the Army infantry and decided we needed to get out of that outfit,” Johnson said. “So, we hitchhiked to Portland and joined the Navy.”

Johnson was assigned to an LST, (landing ship, tank), a vessel the length of a football field and designed specifically for amphibious operations. by: CONTRIBUTED PHOTO - Johnson

LSTs carried vehicles, cargo and landing troops, which could be offloaded directly onto unimproved shore areas. It carried a crew of 61 enlisted men and seven officers — Johnson among them, who served as Gunnery Officer.

On their way to Mindoro in the Philippines, Johnson’s ship encountered Japanese suicide bombers, who were aiming for American ships carrying ammunition and supplies. The crew used 20mm guns to shoot down three enemy aircraft in about three minutes, Johnson said, thwarting the enemy attack and saving the convoy.

Johnson’s ship participated in six invasions during his enlistment — four in the Philippines and two others when they delivered Australian troops to the island of Borneo. His brush with Kamikaze pilots was one of the few times he questioned whether he would return from the war.

“My parents gave me everything I needed to be an independent soul, but I never thought to thank them,” he said. “I’d seen enough to know by then, that I may not make it back. So, I wrote them a letter, thanking them for everything they did for me. I sent it to my sister and told her not to open it unless I didn’t come home.”

When Johnson returned home in April 1946, he tore up the letter he’d written earlier and verbally thanked his parents instead. He also married the love of his life, Mary Lou Welsh, on June 30, 1947. The couple raised four children in the home on Blue Lake where they still live.

Johnson went on to become a teacher. He taught chemistry and physics in Sisters and Ashland, before taking a job at David Douglas High School in Portland. He retired from teaching in 1981 after 27 years in the classroom.

He also stayed on with the Navy, as a member of the reserves for 23 years, before being formally discharged as a Lt. Commander.

“I enjoyed the Navy,” Johnson said. “Our ship got home at the end of the war with our entire crew alive. That was due to our captain and executive officer. I was proud to be a part of it.”

The “Latecomer

Vernon Keiper refers to himself as a “latecomer” to World War II because he didn’t enter boot camp until 1945. The Fairview resident had four brothers ahead of him, who were split between active service in the Navy and Army. When his time came, Keiper said the Army’s wilderness lifestyle held no appeal.

“I knew with the Navy, I’d get a good meal every day and have a roof over my head,” said Keiper, now 85.

Born in Wisconsin, Keiper enlisted in Winona, Minn., where he grew up. Following boot camp at Great Lakes, Camp Robert Smalls, he boarded a “smokey coal-fired ancient passenger train” bound for Pier 91 in Seattle.

by: CONTRIBUTED PHOTO - Keiper “We didn’t stay in Pier 91 for long,” Keiper said. “The next day, we were headed for Oregon. I was told we were going to Swan Island. Being a Midwesterner, I thought we were to catch a ship in Portland and head out to in the Pacific to Swan Island. It was kind of disappointing to land there.”

Eighteen months later, Keiper was assigned to the Leonard F. Mason, a Fletcher-class destroyer. The ship took up residence near a Naval base in the North China Sea, where Keiper, an electrician, repaired generators on U.S. destroyers. While stationed in Tsingtao, China, Keiper received unexpected news when a seaplane tender, the USS Salisbury Sound, anchored nearby.

“That was my brother’s ship,” Keiper recalled. “My skipper told me to call the ship and make sure he was there. So, I took the mail boat over to meet him. I hadn’t seen my brother in four years and here, I met him in the North China Sea.”

In October 1947, Keiper’s ship left Tsingtao, headed to the Philippines. A few days out, the Mason was slammed by a typhoon in the South China Sea and badly damaged. After a month in Hong Kong for repairs, the ship was back on course for the Philippines.

But on Nov. 25, 1947, en route to Borneo, the Mason crossed the equator. Keiper and those aboard who had never made the crossing, endured the traditional Navy initiation/hazing ritual for all first timers, regardless of rank.

“They really put us through a lot,” he said. “I was in good shape then, but I didn’t get out of bed for four days after that. I was all black and blue.”

Keiper was discharged on July 3, 1948, as a Seaman First Class, on Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay. He married two weeks later and raised two children with his wife, Janice, before she died in 1996. Keiper returned to the Portland area after the war, against his family’s wishes back in the Midwest, and eventually, went to work for Portland General Electric. He retired in 1988, after 40 years with the company. Keiper and his second wife, Judy, have been married 15 years and spend their winters in Arizona.

“I never regretted being aboard ship or in the Navy,” Keiper said. “And I never got seasick. But I did say a few prayers during that typhoon.”

We just did the job for our country

Richard Leibham remembers seeing newsreels of World War II combat at the movies as a teenager in Minot, N.D.

Raised to be independent by his mother and step-father, Leibham collected scrap metal to earn money to go to the movies with friends. He hadn’t even finished high school when the military came calling. by: CONTRIBUTED PHOTO - Leibham

“In the Navy, you could sign up at 17,” Leibham said. “If they needed people, which they did at that time, they put you through the induction process quickly. There were a lot of young people in the military then.”

Leibham was inducted in Minneapolis in 1944 and assigned to the USS Pecos, a tanker, as a gunner’s mate. On their way to the Pacific Theater, the Pecos had its first encounter with the enemy.

“We had to fight a war just to get where we were going,” Leibham said. “The Japanese would sink everything they could. You never knew if they were coming right at you and if they were going to hit you. You did what you had to do to defend yourself.”

As a youngster, essentially in a grown up world, Leibham learned early that surviving a war meant following orders. The times were “hard-core back then,” he said, and “you didn’t ask any questions.”

And he also learned quickly the USO was a safer place during liberty than hanging out with seasoned sailors.

“(The USO) was a nice friendly place to go, especially if you didn’t have a lot of money,” Leibham said. “It was better than other things, like having the shore patrol take you back to your ship.”

Leibham moved to Portland following his discharge in 1946 — as a 19-year old. He worked in the home remodeling business, owning his own business for several years, before retiring in 1989. He and his bride of 60 years, Alice, bought a home in Gresham 10 years ago, where they now spend time with their three children, eight grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

Leibham fulfilled his dream of flying aircraft in his 50s, when he took flight instruction at Troutdale Airport, even soloing once. But like so many World War II veterans, Leibham doesn’t talk much about his time in the Navy and hardly views his service as “heroic.”

“We just did the job they wanted us to do,” he said. “My world has always been about going forward — never looking back.”