Category Archives: Veterans Stories

Stories from interview with WW2 and other combat veterans from Caldwell County, Texas

L.C. “CHUCK” FORESTER – From covert missions to refueling B-52s

  forester-one-as-sgt chuck-forester-cropped



By Todd Blomerth

Chuck Forester was born on November 23, 1931. He was the son and middle child of Charles Forester and Myrtle (Belt) Forester. His dad was a roustabout for Magnolia, and the family lived in the shotgun housing provided to the company’s workers near Stairtown. His older sisters Maxine (Beyer) and Margie (Beyer) have passed away. Younger brother Bill died in 2014. The youngest of the family, Charles Jr., lives in Canyon Lake.

The post-war National Guard accepted Chuck well before he left high school or turned eighteen. “The War had gutted the 36th Division,” he says. “Maybe that is the reason I was able to enlist so young.” The $30 a month he earned was needed by the family, and he enjoyed the comraderie of Luling’s Company I, 141st Infantry, 36th Infantry Division. He also thought highly of the unit’s commander, Captain Bob Allen. Chuck graduated from Prairie Lea High School in 1949 and  he and three buddies decided they were going to make their fortune on a seismograph crew near Saskatoon, Saskatchewan Province, Canada. “That lasted until the first cold weather,” he recalls. The four (Chuck, Jerry Sanders, Louis Green, and Ray Griffith) decided to head south and join the US Air Force, which they did. Chuck enlisted on July 1, 1950. It was a time of great uncertainty and no little amount of fear. North Korea had invaded the south, and a patchwork of United Nations forces, overwhelmingly American, were trying desperately to avoid being pushed off the peninsula. The Soviets had infilitrated the American atomic bomb program at Los Alamos, created their own nuclear weapon, and exploded it in Kazakhstan. Mao ZeDung’s Chinese communists had pushed the Nationalists off mainland China and onto the island of Formosa, and were in the process of killing and enslaving millions of their countrymen. In Europe, Stalin had instituted a reign of terror in the occupied areas of Eastern Europe. All in all, a most ‘interesting’ time, and an exciting time for a young man to be in the US military.

Chuck’s assignments were much more interesting than most. Afterb29a-580th-aerial-resupply-squadron   initial training at Lackland AFB, he was sent to gunnery school in Colorado, and then gunnery maintenance school at Randolph AFB. He then became a waist gunner on a B-29, America’s largest bomber of the time. Soon, he wound up at Wheelus AFB in Libya assigned to an Air Force unit innocuously termed “580th Air Resupply and Communcation Wing – Air Resupply and Communications Service.” Created in 1951,  it was nothing like its title. In his book “The Praetorian STARShip: the Untold Story of the Combat Talon,” Jerry Thigpen writes:

 In July and September 1952, the 580th ARCW…embarked its support personnel by way of ship to North Africa for its initial deployment overseas….Life at Wheelus AB [in Libya] was Spartan, at best, for the first six months of operations. Personnel lived and worked in tents enduring the sweltering summer heat of North Africa….A primary customer for the 580th was the 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne) which was garrisoned at Bad Toeltz, Germany, in the Bavarian Alps. Tenth Group personnel would deploy to Libya for parachute and desert survival training.

Various Air Resupply Communication units were stationed in Korea and Southeast Asia as well. Psychological warfare, aid to anti-communist guerillas, insertion and extraction of military units, spies and defectors were all part of their role in the increasingly Cold War.

As described in “Twilight Warriors: Covert Air Operations Against the USSR” written by Curtis Peebles:

The B-29 was the only aircraft able to drop rangers and their supplies into the USSR. The aircraft had a range of four thousand nautical miles, a minimum payload of four thousand pounds, and the ability to fly low-level, long-range missions.


Suddenly, a newly minted Air Force sergeant was involved in something few of us have ever heard of – covert missions skirting the Iron Curtain countries. As he puts it, “We weren’t ‘supplying’ anybody!”                      

 Chuck found himself as a de facto jumpmaster, using the B29’s bomb bay as a jump door. The modified bomber, using a Norden bombsight, determined drop points instead of bomb release points. Chuck tells of getting the “go” sign from the cockpit and hitting each soldier on the helmet signaling them when to fall through the open floor of the plane. Amazingly heady stuff for a young man to be sure! After a fifteen month tour in the blazing heat of North Africa, Sergeant Forester rotated back to the United States.


     Chuck (back right) and Crew – B-29                                   Wheelus AFB – Early 1950s – Libya

During a trip home to Prairie Lea, Chuck attended a play performed at the high school He spotted a beautiful woman seated a few rows ahead of him. “She saw me in my dashing uniform, and that was all she wrote,” he chuckles. They were soon married at the Prairie Lea Baptist Church. Beverly (Nivens) and Chuck have been married for sixty-five years. They are the parents of  Marshall Bruce, Rodney Bill, Tommy Doak, and Charles T.

            During the 1950s, Chuck was transferred often. Perrin AFB in Sherman, Texas; Sheppard AFB at Wichita Falls, Texas; and Dyess AFB in Abilene were three of the bases where he served.  Chuck was steadily promoted while he was part of the Air Force’s massive nuclear deterrence program – the Strategic Air Command. The Cold War’s possibility of turning ‘hot’ with nuclear strikes by the Soviet Union,  and the fear of a sneak attack, caused the United States to keep strategic bombers and reconnaissance aircraft continually airborne, both near the Soviet border, and over the North American continent. “Operation Looking Glass,” with nuclear armed B-47s, and then B-52 Stratofortresses, became part of the grim concept of Mutually Assured Destruction. Chuck became an aerial refueling specialist. Fueling a fast flying aircraft was and is tricky business. He started out as a boom operator on a KC-97 Stratofreighter, propeller driven aircraft that mostly refueled jets. As the KC-97 was phased out, Chuck transitioned to the KC-135, a jet powered refueler, which is still in use today.

            Chuck’s assignment as a boom operator was one requiring great skill, and occasionally, nerves of steel. A KC-135 is a flying gas station, which, when fully loaded carries over 200,000 pounds of highly volatile jet fuel. A thirsty fighter or bomber (called the “receiver”) must carefully maneuver up to a boom which will act as a straw


M/Sgt L.C. Forester, SAC

from which to drink. The boom operator (“boomer”) has multiple responsibilities: he (and I am using the male pronoun here for simplicity, but certainly Air Force personnel can and are both males and females) has to communicate with his pilot and the pilot of the receiver, to ensure that safe closing speeds and protocols are being followed; he must use his “ruddervator” (a small wing-like structure on the boom) to ‘steer’ the fuel nozzle into the appropriate position while looking through a sighting window; he must ensure that the coupling is proper; he must control the flow of jet fuel into the receiver, usually at 6000 pounds of flow per minute; he must ensure that his refueler’s tanks are emptied in a balanced manner so that the tanker doesn’t become unstable; and he must disengage the boom and retract it after the fueling is complete – all while both aircraft are five miles in the sky, and flying at over three hundred miles an hour.


Boom Operator about to Refuel a Thirsty B-52 Bomber



K.I. Sawyer AFB, near Marquette, Michigan, and Barksdale AFB near Bossier City, Louisiana became the home bases for Chuck and his family in the late 1950s and 1960s. However, Chuck’s duties often took him far afield. One trip very nearly cost him his life.



Chuck’s Pictures of refueling a B52, an RF4, and a B58 “Hustler”

            On May 10, 1965 the 11th Air Refueling Squadron, with its newly supplied KC-135 Stratotankers, received orders for temporary duty to Okinawa. At 0030 hours (12:30 a.m.) on June 18, the crews were rousted out of bed and told to report to the base operations center. Some thirty bombers, each with its KC-135 tanker, were going to participate in the first massive B-52 bombing of Viet Cong concentrations in the Binh Duong Province northwest of Saigon. Given the complexity of the operation, and an impending typhoon, Chuck, like many others, felt that “this was going to be one hellacious fiasco.” Dubbed Arc Light One, the original mission had been laid on in February for an attack of North Vietnamese air defenses near Hanoi. Delays caused by many things, mostly political, resulted in a compromised mission with limited goals. The approaching typhoon caused problems with the timing for refueling. Lumbering B-52s flying from Guam were spaced at five-hundred vertical intervals, much too close. The bombing “cells” consisting of three aircraft, were also in too-tight horizontal intervals. It was a recipe for disaster. Timing for re-fueling was critical, and the first cell of bombers, pushed by the typhoon’s tailwinds, arrived nine minutes early at the refueling point. Rather than swinging out of the way, the lead aircraft led his cell directly back down toward the oncoming formation – and directly into the path of other bombers and tankers. When not refueling, Chuck would sit in the instructor’s seat in the cockpit. He and the pilots spotted red and green lights off the nose in the distance. It turned out aircraft were coming toward them!  He went back to his station. His B-52 receiver, some eighteen miles behind him and just below was coming up fast. He visually picked it up at some five miles away. As the receiver approached his boom, Chuck saw something that gives him nightmares to this day. The back-tracking B-52 lead aircraft collided with the B-52 some 300 feet below him, shearing off the top of the plane, and losing its own right wing. The closing speed was probably 800 miles an hour. “I can still envision those boys being sliced to pieces,” he says. “[The collision and ensuing explosion] lit up the whole damn sky. How the other planes avoided collisions I’ll never know.” His pilot took the KC-135 to 46,000 feet, dumping 120,000 pounds of jet fuel as it went and turned toward Okinawa – it had no one to refuel. Chuck’s receive plummeted into the South China Sea. There were no survivors. Four men on the lead plane survived.

            Chuck’s crew was de-briefed by a high ranking officer, who did not like what was told him – that the planning and execution was poor, had cost eight men their lives, and could have been much, much worse. Two days later, Chuck and crew, with oral orders only, flew to Bangkok. For the next two months, their KC-135 flew 13 refueling missions all over Southeast Asia. F-4s, F-105s, and any other aircraft needing a drink used their services. Arc Light One still bothers him. “Yesterday [June 18],” he told me on Sunday, ‘was its anniversary. I think about it all the time. I can still envision those boys [in his receiver] dying.”

Returning to the U.S. Chuck and family made their last transit to Barksdale AFB. For the next three and ½ years, he flew to SAC bases all around the world with the 1st Combat Evaluation Group, inspecting and evaluating re-fueling specialists.

I asked Chuck, “Why did you retire from the Air Force?” “I got tired of flying,” he told me. Besides, he had a family that needed him. Master Sergeant L.C. Forester hung up his spurs. He and Beverly had purchased a house in Prairie Lea in anticipation of retirement, and moved there in 1970. Chuck could not stay idle long. He went to work for the Texas Agriculture Department, first as an inspector, and then supervising a fire ant eradication and control program. Then Chuck decided to really stay home, and supervised the Tri-Community Water Supply Corporation in Fentress for fifteen years. He then ‘retired’ for good, although keeping up with over a dozen grandchildren can hardly be described as sedentary.

Chuck’s life has come a long way from a roustabout’s shotgun house near the oil fields in Caldwell and Guadalupe County. And it has also come full circle, as he now lives not far from where he was raised. He will be the first to tell you that he continues to enjoy it to the fullest.

(A good book to read on the mid-air collision in 1965, written by Don Harten, co-pilot of the back-tracking B-52, is Arc Light One, Turner Publishing Company, Paducah, Kentucky 2003)

Bobby G Balser – What a life it has been


  Lt. Bob Balser – F4U Combat Pilot – Korea 1952                        



    Bob Balser – 92 Years Young – 2016


From a Tough Childhood to the Best Life of Anybody-

And What a Life It Has Been

Bobby Balser is the third of four sons of Edward and Nora (Schulz) Balser. His oldest brother Clarence is 94. Older brother Stanley and the youngest of the four, Charles, have passed away. Bob (as he is also called) was born on a farm six miles northwest of Lockhart in 1924. Soon thereafter, his father bought a 250 acre farm in Karnes County, Texas. Tragically, in 1930, his mother and father died within six months of each other – Nora from tuberculosis, Edward from pneumonia.  The four Balser boys were raised by their grandmother and a maiden aunt, Lonie Shulz in a house at 633 Pecos Street, just two blocks from the high school they would attend. Summers were spent working on various family members’ farms.  He recalls the tough times of the Depression. Bobby’s childhood was not a very happy one. “No one had any money,” he says. “I don’t have too many ‘good’ memories” of that time he recalls. Perhaps not, but he was an honor roll student in school. In 1938, Bobby “Speed” Balser drove his “White Comet” to victory at “Dump Hill” in Lockhart’s first Soap Box Derby race, besting his life-long friend Jack Forrest Wilson. Deeply affected by the loss of both parents, and somewhat unsure of himself however, by the end of his schooling, Bobby was anxious to find his niche elsewhere. There were no jobs, and food was scarce. He graduated from Lockhart High School one month before his 17th birthday, and with Aunt Lonie’s permission, enlisted in the United States Navy. It was June of 1941. Less than six months later, America was embroiled in World War II.

After completing basic training, he became a Pharmacist’s Mate 2nd Class, and wound up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania assisting with physical exams at a Navy recruiting station. It was not something his enjoyed. The Navy needed pilots, and, though doubting he had much of a chance at being accepted into the flight training program, he applied. Much to his surprise, he was accepted. Even better, he breezed through flight training, and gained an huge dose of self-confidence, which has stayed with him to this day.

New aviation cadets with little or no college had to receive some burnishing, so that they could eventually, if lucky, be called ‘officers and gentlemen.’ Bobby spent the next several months taking courses at, among other places, the University of Washington, St. Olaf College, and Minot State Teachers College. Because of the rubber band effect of too few young men in pilot training, and then too many, what should have been a six-month training regimen lasted almost a year-and-a-half. Bobby qualified at Minot, North Dakota in a Piper Cub. Next stop – the University of Iowa for pre-flight training. Then, Naval Air Station (NAS) Grand Prairie, Texas, for primary flight training. Then south to Pensacola and Melbourne, Florida, where he transitioned to more complex aircraft, the Vultee BT-13 (nicknamed “the Vibrator”), and the much beloved SNJ “Texan.” Finally, he moved into the Navy’s primary carrier fighter in World War II – the tough Grumman F6F Hellcat. On October 12, 1944, the Lockhart Post Register reported that Cadet Bob Balser was now Ensign Bob Balser. The newly minted officer had 300px-hellcats_f6f-3_may_1943discovered his life’s calling.

To get into the war in the Pacific Theater, new Navy fighter pilots had to be able to take off and land on aircraft carriers. This was (and is) dangerous and not for the faint at heart. In order to get the huge number of potential carrier pilots trained, the Navy improvised. Combat-ready aircraft carriers of all types were precious, so the government purchased two freshwater, side-wheel powered excursion steamers and stationed them near Chicago, Illinois. Rudimentary flight decks were added, and they were renamed USS Sable and USS Wolverine. Take offs and ‘traps’ (landings) were conducted seven days a week. Aircraft carrier landings require sufficient wind over deck (WOD). The two ships were slow, so if there were not strong enough winds on Lake Michigan, training was scrubbed, or the new pilots had to qualify in SNJ Texans, which required lower headwinds. Ensign Balser passed the tests, and by early 1945 was ready to get into the war. He would up in a replacement unit in Hawaii in March of that year. The beaches were closed, so apart from too much time at the Officer’s Club, all he and others did was fly, fly, fly. But Hawaii was far away from the islands being invaded by the Marines and Army. Bob opted for a photo reconnaissance class, in hopes of improving his chances of seeing some action. Off he went, to Guam, where he waited – again. Finally, he became of one of America’s Fast Carrier Task Forces. Stationed on various CVEs (smaller escort carriers, nicknamed “jeep” carriers), he became a member of Task Force 58. Combat and close air support missions were being flown – but Bob and others in photo recon, when they tried to ‘sneak’ out on combat missions with other squadrons, were told they were overqualified and ‘too valuable’ to be lost in combat. Basically, he and thousands of other American fighting men were expected to participate in the planned invasion of the Japanese main islands. The U.S. anticipated horrific losses of personnel when that happened. Everything changed when two atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Suddenly, the war was over.

Lt. (j.g.) Balser rotated back to the states, and after some time spent at NAS Corpus Christi, was released from active duty. Taking advantage of the GI Bill, Bob enrolled in the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, and became an illustrator for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, where he was associated with Ray Sprigle. Sprigle had won a Pulitzer Prize in 1938 for uncovering that President Roosevelt’s nominee for the Supreme Court, Hugo Black, had once been a member of the Ku Klux Klan. (Sprigle did undercover stories, and in 1948 won international acclaim for a 21 part story – “I was a Negro in the South for 30 days.” His story can be found at Bob eventually decided that being an illustrator was not what he wanted to do with the rest of his life, but one has to be envious of his experiences with Sprigle and other reporters of such quality.

Bob remained in the Naval Reserve, flying with a squadron (VF 653)f4u-korea-50 stationed in Akron, Ohio. The unit flew the gull-winged F4U Corsair. F4U Corsair was (and is) a thing of beauty. It would prove an ideal close air support fighter bomber in America’s next conflict. On June 25, 1950, communist forces from North Korea struck south, surprising and nearly overrunning poorly trained and armed Republic of Korea forces. President Truman rushed American forces to the peninsula, and eventually, American and UN forces pushed the North Koreans back – almost to the Chinese border. This brought in hundreds of thousands of Mao Zedong’s Red Army forces, and the Korean conflict settled into a proxy war of sortswinter-on-valley-forge pitting the United States and others against the communist regimes of North Korea, China, and the USSR. In the rush to downsize the military after World War II the overall ability to react quickly had reached shamefully dangerous levels. There were shortages of trained men, aircraft, and warships. The Congress authorized the calling up of reservists, including Bob’s squadron, which was assigned to Air Task Group One (ATG-1), and USS Valley Forge (CV 45), an Essex type carrier, slated for its third deployment in the icy waters off the coast of North Korea. The carrier launched Corsairs, A-1 Skyraiders, and jet-powered A-9 Panthers. Although Valley Forge had a steam-powered catapult, most of its ‘cat’ shots were reserved for its jets. Sailing from San Diego in August 1951, the ship arrived off North Korea with Task Force 77, on December 11. VF 653’s Corsairs took off from near mid-ship. They had 450 feet to get airborne. The Corsair was powered by a twin radial engine that put out over 2100 horsepower. It could carry eight bombs or rockets under its wings, and one 1000-pound bomb and drop tanks under its belly. Its armament was either .50 caliber machine guns or 20 mm. cannons in the wings. Needless to say, Bob preferred the 20 mm cannons.

Many of VF 653’s pilots were World War II combat veterans. Almost all but Bob were married. Given their anticipated duties, few had any misconceptions of the dangers they were about to face. David Sears writes:


In North Korea, the reservists would become bridge, road, and rail busters. Because that country lacked an industrial base, most of its supplies were hauled overland from Manchuria and the Soviet Union. Task Force 77 aviators specialized in the arduous, dangerous mission of destroying shipments and supply lines that coursed through the North’s rugged terrain. Day after day, they attacked railroads, roads, bridges, and the locomotives, trucks, and even ox carts moving along them.

Reserve Lieutenant Joe Sanko, married with one small son and another child on the way, wrote home that his chances of getting shot down would be “much greater than in the war with Japan.”  Further, if he had to ditch, it would be in waters where “temp (sic) gets so low that a pilot can survive only five to eight minutes without a submersion suit.”  Lt. Sanko would be killed when his aircraft was shot down by anti-aircraft fire on May 13, 1952. He never got to see his newborn daughter.

VF 653’s tour coincided with the horrible Korean winter of 51-52. Takeoffs and landings are dangerous at best. The squadron’s aircraft often came back with shot-up hydraulics, or ordinance that failed to release under the wings.  Pilots would fly mission after mission, then the carrier would rotate to Japan for ten days of R&R. Then it was back into the grind of daily danger.  Fortunately, in the words of Sears:

the squadron was skippered by a hotshot Navy aviator named Cook Cleland, who, during the Pacific war, had flown Douglas Dauntless SBD dive bombers from the decks of the carriers Wasp and Lexington. After the war, Cleland, based in Akron, took up pylon air racing, initially flying production models of the Corsair but switching to a better-performing version of a Goodyear-manufactured Corsair purchased as surplus. Flying three of these muscular Super Corsairs, each sporting a 3,000-horsepower Pratt & Whitney R-4360, Cleland’s team snatched a record-setting 396-mph victory in the 1947 Thompson Trophy Race. Beaten by Army aircraft the following year, Cleland’s team bounced back to sweep first, second, and third places in the 1949 race.

VF 653’s pilots had the flight helmets painted red with white polka dots. Then, because he was an illustrator, Bob recalled, “I had the job of sketching out a template for a grinning clown. The template was then hand-painted on the side of each pilot’s helmet. Because Ray Edinger was XO and was in charge of squadron discipline, his helmet got painted differently. His was a frowning clown.”


Smiling clowns belied the reality of VF 653’s existence. Pilots were killed or badly wounded. Pilots crash landed. Some were rescued. Some were not, and spent the remainder of the war in a North Korean POW camp (James Michener was imbedded with the Task Force, and efforts at rescue helped inspire his novel, The Bridges at Toko-Ri). Ground fire was an ever-present danger. Bob recalls, “We sometimes would attack behind the jets, which arrived at the target area first. We knew what we had to attack because we could see the antiaircraft bursts ahead of us!” Planes and pilots were lost to ack-ack and small arms fire. “I flew sixty combat missions,” Bob tells me. “My ship came home damaged in twenty of them.” Again, David Sears:

VF-653’s Korean War losses—13 pilots missing, killed, or severely injured, about 46 percent of the number first deployed—represented almost half of those sustained by ATG-1. As measured by total sorties flown, the results are equally stark: ATG-1’s airmen flew a combined 7,113; VF-653’s rate of losses per missions flown was twice as high as the air group’s overall rate.



Remains of a North Korean train – from Lt. Balser’s F4U Camera

The losses got to them all. “What was hardest was that we had flown together. I knew most of these men very well. It was very painful when we lost one. I lost two of my wingmen. Both bailed out and were captured.”

ordeal-squadron-pilots-631-jpg__800x600_q85_crop-wowThe squadron pilots pose on Valley Forge in July 1952, with 13 flight helmets for their fallen colleagues. Among the survivors are Cleland (back row, middle), Edinger (to his immediate left), and Balser (to Cleland’s right). (US Navy)

VF 653 rotated home in mid-June 1952. Its war was over. Lt. Bob Balser spent a year or so at Kingsville NAS, and was able to visit home. The Post Register of 25 December 1952 reported that the Balser sons had gotten together at Clarence’s house in San Antonio, and that “[t]his was the first time in about six years the family had been together.”

balser-men-1Bob applied to Trans World Airways in 1953. He started out as a $250-a- month co-pilot on a DC-3. He mandatorily retired in 1984, at age 60. By that time, he was a captain flying Boeing 747s to several continents. Belying the archaic FAA age rules, Bob continued to fly until he was 90. He sold his Cessna 177 two years ago.

220px-l-749a_constellation_n6022c_twa_heathrow_09-54Bob married at thirty-three to Jacqueline (Jackie) Geffel, a beautiful Italian-American from Pittsburgh. They eventually settled in Scottsdale, Arizona. They had two sons. Jeffrey died 220px-twa_boeing_747sp_fitzgeraldtragically in a vehicular collision in 1977. Stephen has followed in his father’s footsteps. He flies for American Airlines. Jackie passed away in 2015. Fortunately, Bob’s son and daughter-in-law Eileen live nearby. Bob is blessed with four grandsons. Don’t think he lets grass grow under his feet. After ‘retirement’, his group of friends tested every whitewater rafting area they could find. When you talk to him, you sense his spirit of adventure is still alive and strong.  He is a joy to visit with. However, if you go too long, he will borrow his brother Stanley’s expression to sign off: “I’ve already told you more than I know.” His life exemplifies the courage and honor of the best of the Greatest Generation. Caldwell County should be mighty proud of Bob Balser and his achievements.


The story of Bob’s time in Korea comes from interviews with him, as well as Smithsonian Air and Space’s article of January 2013 – “The Ordeal of VF-653: From a Navy Reserve pilot’s letters home, a picture of the darkest days of the Korean War” by David Sears



LW Mooneyham 1942 Boot Camp

LW Mooneyham 1942 Boot Camp

LW Mooneyham 1950 Korea-1 smaller
Mooney In Korea


Mooney in 2015
Mooney in 2015



BY Todd Blomerth

                On February 26, 2015, Leonard Mooneyham turned 90 years old.  His mind, memories, and wit are as sharp as ever, although his body is letting him down. “Mooney” is fighting cancer, his fifth go-round with the disease. He doesn’t allow it to interfere with visits from friends and family, or with a nosy judge who comes by asking him a load of questions about a most interesting life. Like with so many of his era, my biggest regret is not getting to know him sooner. Mooney is the father of three sons – Wesley Ray, Bobby, and Mark, who died of pancreatic cancer. He is also the proud step-father of Ed Theriot and Debbie Rawlinson. He married their mother Frances Faye Stanford in 1972.

                Leonard was born in 1925 (that’s his story and he’s sticking to it) in Black Oak, Arkansas, the son of a lawman who became Chief of Police in Hope, Arkansas. His parents divorced and his mother, Sylvia Fischer, remarried. His step-father, Chester Warmbrodt, at one time a test pilot for Stinson Aircraft, found work in Oklahoma. The family moved to northern Oklahoma when he was young. He attended a one room school named Chimney Rock School, and then attended high school  in Bartlesville, essentially a company town for Phillips Petroleum Company. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 stirred most young men’s patriotic zeal. Mooney was no exception. Quitting school, he and some friends, fudging their ages a bit, enlisted in the Navy. Gifted in mathematics and with excellent hearing, Mooney didn’t get his first choice of assignments – as a cook and baker. Instead, two weeks into basic training, he was assigned to sonar training. Sonar equipment was an absolute necessity to protect ships from submarine attacks, as its soundings allowed for underwater detection. After training, for a time he and five other young sailors were given Thompson submachine guns to stand guard as secret electronic equipment was installed on destroyers outside of San Francisco. Mooney still chuckles at what must have been a scary sight – young men, some barely shaving, lugging around fully loaded automatic weapons they were untrained on.

 Mooney was then transferred to the USS Ammen, a Fletcher class destroyer with hull designation DD527. He remained a member of  Ammen’s crew for the remainder of World War II.

                Laid down in November of 1941, Ammen was commissioned in March of 1943. After a shakedown cruise, Ammen headed to the frigid waters of Alaska to take part in the Aleutian Campaign. Little understood and rarely discussed, the Aleutian Campaign was one of America’s most difficult efforts in World War II. It was a miserable place to fight a war, and Ammen, slated for the Mediterranean, did not have the cold-weather gear for her 350 man crew. Heavy seas took a toll on the 2000 ton displaced ship. “It is sixty-nine feet from the bridge to the waterline,” Mooney says. “There were many days when I saw green water [not just spray] come over the bridge!” A sailor was washed overboard – the seas were too high to attempt to effect a rescue. He was never found. Fog was often so thick sailors literally could not see more than five feet ahead of them. Ammen was part of the invasion of Attu. American soldiers and sailors suffered mightily from the foul weather. Eventually the Japanese garrison was wiped out. After screening convoys to Adak and Kiska, Ammen shepherded small craft to Pearl Harbor. During that journey, seas were so rough that often lookouts would lose sight of other ships in the troughs. Keeping the ships in close proximity required lookouts to chart their locations with grease pencils when the small vessels came up onto the crests of the huge waves. When Ammen finally arrived at Hawaii, its crew, now properly clad in cold-weather gear, nearly burned up in the tropical sun.

                Ammen’s next nine months was in the Southwest Pacific. It supported landings at Cape Gloucester and provided antisubmarine and antiaircraft protection for the larger ships. It also provided suppression fire onto Japanese coastal defenses. The same went for landings on Los Negros. It participated in anti-shipping sweeps off the coast of New Guinea, and then gave protection to assaults on Tanamerah Bay and Hollandia. Biak, Bosnik, Noemfoor, Sansapor, Morotai – odd sounding places now, but in 1944 they were all part of the Americans’ advance toward the Japanese home islands. Often attached to Australian naval task forces because of the Americans’ superior radar, Ammen went out ‘in the dark of the moon’ to limit tell-tale phosphorescence in the ships’ wakes. And men took liberty in Sydney – something the American sailors loved.

                Ammen escorted ships into Leyte Gulf for Americans’ first landings on the Philippines – part of General Douglas MacArthur’s vow to re-take the islands lost in 1942. The Japanese Navy was badly mauled at Surigao Strait and San Bernardino Strait, so it began resorting to an aerial blitz. Destroyers were the ‘guard dogs’ of convoys and moored ships. With radar and visual observers they were the trip-wires, or picket ships, guarding against attacks on larger ships with their huge crews, aircraft and equipment. On November 1, 1944, Mooney was a gun director for the Ammen’s forward and port-side quad-40 mm anti-aircraft weapon. His station was just below the bridge. In one of the earliest of the kamikaze attacks, a twin-engine Yokosuka P1Y “Frances” bomber took aim at Ammen, coming straight in on her bow.  On the bridge, the quartermaster spun the wheel frantically, swinging the picket ship to starboard just enough that the kamikaze missed the bridge (and Mooney) and crashed between the two stacks. Five men were killed and 21 wounded.

Ammen shot down two other aircraft while on picket duty, and on November 16, 1944 sailed back to San Francisco for repairs.  Patched up, she then endured the unending onslaught of kamikazes that sunk or damaged hundreds of ships and killed nearly 5000 sailors during the horrific battle to take the island of Okinawa. Destroyers took a heavy toll protecting landing forces and larger ships. Destroyers posted on radar picket patrols were the first line of defense from incoming kamikazes. As such, Japanese bombers and suicide planes took a fearsome toll on the small ships and their crews.

USS AMMENOne night a near-miss by a bomb showered the ship with shrapnel. Eight men were wounded. Along with her sister ship Bennion (DD-662) she was attacked and shot down several kamikazes during April and May of 1945. While the Americans tried to occasionally spell picket ships off Okinawa, the emotional and physical wear and tear on ships and men was often overwhelming. Imagine yourself a teenaged sailor on a small ship, sitting in the ocean, watching a determined suicide bomber coming straight at you, intent on killing you and your crewmates.  Once the suicide planes get past air cover, your only defenses are anti-aircraft shells which often appear to have no effect.

AMMEN KAMIKAZE DAMAGEAlthough Mooney’s principal job was that of a sonarman, he, like many other crewmen, had a secondary job when at battle stations for air attacks. Every time radar picked up incoming aircraft, his role as a sonarman became secondary to anti-aircraft stations. During the night of May 24/25 a Nakajima Ki. 44 ‘Tojo,’ aiming for Ammen, missed her but crashed into the nearby Stormes (DD-780). On May 27, 1945, Ammen and Boyd (DD-544) fought off eight coordinated air attacks. Finally, as Japan ran out of airplanes and pilots, the threat abated, and Ammen finished the war patrolling in the East China Sea.

                On August 6, 1945 the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. On August 9, 1945,

Nagasaki Beofre and After the Atomic Blast

Nagasaki was obliterated. Finally Japan surrendered. Ammen was ordered to support efforts to recover Allied prisoners of war from the hell of POW camps. Mooring at Depima Pier at Nagasaki on August 15, 1945, its log of August 16th noted “smell from bodies noticeable.” Mooney and others were driven all over the blast zone in open trucks while assisting in the of POWs’ evacuation to hospital ships.  Ammen’s crew was awestruck by the devastation. In the words of Bill Raab, speaking at an Ammen reunion in 2002, “You couldn’t imagine one bomb causing that kind of destruction. It seemed utterly out of some science fiction book. Everything was just leveled. There were people walking around in a daze, animals dead on the side of the road. You couldn’t imagine that it was a city at one time.” There was substantial ignorance as to the long-term effect of radiation. Japanese survivors would find out about cancers caused by exposure to the blast. Americans, perhaps unknowingly, placed their own men in harm’s way afterward. Photography was prohibited, and authorities confiscated all Mooney’s photographs of the desolation of Nagasaki. Mooney has fought five different cancers over the years. He attributes these to exposure to the radiation at Nagasaki.

                Mooney had more than enough time overseas to be sent home immediately after the war.    However he took leave one night in Japan, and a subordinate wangled a trip home for a supposed medical emergency. Mooney was declared indispensible and got stuck helping sail Ammen home through the Panama Canal to Charleston, S.C. for de-commissioning.  Ammen and her crew were warriors. The ship earned eight battle stars during World War II. It participated in 19 ground invasions, destroyed eight Japanese mines, sank three enemy ships, and shot down twenty-one aircraft.

Mooney didn’t get back home to Oklahoma until April of 1946. He enrolled in the University of Oklahoma but never got his degree. Turns out that his Navy training in electronics put him well ahead in practical terms of most of his professors. He went to work for Phillips Petroleum, and began a lifetime of work in the oil and gas industry that took him all over the world.

But there was an interruption. In June of 1950, North Korea attacked the south, and was narrowly kept from overrunning the entire peninsula. After the surprise landings at Inchon, Allied forces sped north, pushing the North Koreans back toward the Chinese border. General Douglas MacArthur, in one of the worst errors every perpetrated by a military commander, split his command advancing into the mountains of North Korea, where there was no mutual support. Ignoring repeated warnings of Chinese intervention, he ordered X Corps to seize reservoirs in the mountains near the Chinese border. Made up of the Marine 1st Division and Army units, X Corps was surrounded and attacked. Although a ‘victory’ of sorts, the Chinese lost over 40% of their troops to the desperate marines and soldiers. Retreating while holding back hundreds of thousands of Chinese in an incredible display of valor, most of the American forces made it to the the port of Hungnam in North Korea, where they were desperately awaited evacuation.

Re-activated into the active Navy almost immediately after the invasion of South Korea, Mooney was shipped to Japan.  Despite having destroyers in the United States kept in readiness, the Navy desperately needed ships in Asia.  Several patrol frigates, much smaller than destroyers, were moored in Japan. They had been ‘loaned’ to the Soviet Union in 1945 in anticipation of its entrance into the Pacific War. Grudgingly returned from their loan to the Soviet Union in 1949, these ships were fraught with problems and skilled sonarmen were needed to help get them up and running. Mooney was assigned to USS Hoquiam (PF5). Hoquiam, after four years with Soviet navy, was, to say the least, in bad shape. Mooney and a crew worked furiously to get the 1200 ton ship operational. It was soon part of a 139 ship flotilla that sailed to Hungnam in North evacuation hungnamKorea in early December, 1950.           Historian Roy Appleman has called this “the greatest evacuation movement by sea in US military history.” 105,000 marines and soldiers, 98,000 Korean civilians, 17,500 vehicles, and 350,000 tons of equipment were taken off the Korean coast, just ahead of the advancing Chinese army. LSTs took as many of the terrified Koreans as they could. One incident Mooney witnessed was both poignant and humorous. A Korean farmer was hell-bent to get his donkey and cart onto the LST. The LST’s loadmaster had no intention of letting an animal into precious human cargo space. Thousands of desperate Koreans were being loaded. Frustrated at the impasse, the loadmaster pulled out his .45 and shot the donkey beween the eyes, then dumped the dead animal and cart into the harbor. The Korean farmer was then allowed on to make his escape.

color hungnam explosion
Hungnam Harbor Goes Up

Mooney’s ship had a contingency of Underwater Demolition Teams (UDTs – forerunners of the Navy SEALS) tasked with destroying the port facilities once the evacuation was accomplished. Hoquiam was the last ship out of the harbor after the charges were set. It was given 45 minutes to vacate the harbor before demolition charges blew. And its engines wouldn’t start. UDT members and the crew thought Hoquiam would go up with the harbor installations. Fortunately a sea-going tug pulled the ship out of harm’s way. It was another close shave. Hoquiam was awarded five battle stars for her service during the Korean War.

                After Korea he built pipelines in Alaska and Canada. His work with Phillips and Fluor and his own company took him all around the world. Mooney lived in Venezuela near the Dutch islands of Aruba, Curacao, and Bonaire. He helped build a carbon black plant in Guanajuato, Mexico. He built refineries in Spain. He built cryogenic natural gas capture installations in Borneo.

His civilian work put him in harm’s way as well.  Fluor sent him to assist in a refinery retrofit in Iran, shortly before the Shah abdicated. He worked near Teheran, and then at refinery in Isfahan. After the Shah left Iran to be treated for cancer, Mooney was able to get his family out. He went back to Iran to finish the job. The Ayatollah Khomeini came to power and shortly afterward, the American Embassy staff was captured and held for 440 days. Near Fluor’s worksite at Isfahad were men from a German company building a cement plant. Somehow obtaining German passports and intermingling with the Germans, the Americans with Fluor headed to the Teheran airport. Photos on the German passports looked vaguely similar to the Americans using them. Pretending to be leaving for a short leave, the Americans, intermingled with and emulated their German counterparts, took only small carryon luggage.  Mooney is proud to say that “nothing worked [at the Iranian facility being upgraded] when we left!”

Mooney’s life has been incredibly interesting and full as you can tell. He has combined an analytical mind with a can-do attitude. There isn’t much he hasn’t built or improved on through the years. He has raced BSA motorcycles, built dune buggies to race on the sanddunes of the Coro Peninsula in Venezuela, and was a licensed ham radio operator. While working in Borneo, Faye contacted him about buying a place to live in Caldwell County where two of her sisters lived. They bought much of downtown McMahan. While he continued to work overseas, Caldwell County became ‘home base.’ Finally retiring for the third and final time in 1993, Mooney settled down to enjoy life. Folks in the McMahan area afforded Mooney and his family many years of happiness and friendship. Selling his property in 2003, he and Francis moved to the Texas Gulf Coast. As he says, “The fishing was great!” Mooney lost his life-partner in 2011 and moved back to Lockhart, to be closer to some of his family.

Mooney is understandably extremely proud of his ship’s role in World War II. He is also proud of America’s efforts in World War II and Korea. He relishes his wonderful friends and family. He has had a wonderful life.