Early Life, Enlistment and Amphibious Training

The Invasion of Attu

A Week on Attu

Eye Openers, Japanese POWs and Heroes

Kiska and Getting in the V-12 Program

Reflections

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Edwin Henlebin was born in 1921 in St. Louis, Missouri, and lived there his entire life, except for when he was in the service. Henlebin's mother died when he was four years old, so he and his brother grew up with his maternal grandparents. The family was poor during the Great Depression but they did not know it. Henlebin was sweeping the sidewalk for the matinee at the movie theater where he worked when passersby told him that Pearl Harbor had been attacked. His father, a World War 1 veteran, had told his sons about his experiences in the Army, and the Henlebin brothers decided that when they went into the military, they would go for the Navy. Henlebin went to boot camp in San Diego, California. And it became clear to him that he wasn't going to be his own boss. Realizing that the Japanese were seizing islands that would have to be taken back, the Navy began training personnel for amphibious landings on domestic beaches. Henlebin trained to be a motor machinist, and with other young candidates from the Army, he performed daily exercises at Fort Ord, California.

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Edwin Henlebin loaded onto a troop ship in San Francisco, California. He was issued Army clothing so that he couldn't be identified by the Japanese as a Navy crewman. Once the ship was underway, its sealed orders were opened, and no one knew the location of Attu. [Annotator's Note: Attu is the westernmost of the Aleutian Islands that stretch more than 1,000 miles west from the coast of Alaska.] When they arrived, they found the coastline rugged, and the beach comparatively small, where only a few landing craft could land at a time. The terrain rose straight up from the beach, with no path to the top. The weather was miserable: fog, mist, rain, sleet, snow, and all the components of the williwaw, an unpredictable storm, that delayed their proposed D-Day. What struck the sailors most was the number of ships poised for attack. The Japanese got wind of their activities, and rained shells on the approaching army. The American guns were at their best just prior to landing, but the enemy was in caves and dugouts, and could withstand the bombardment. After a point, the fusillade had to be stopped to prevent damage from friendly fire. Landings were continuous, and Henlebin sometimes went as long as three days without any real rest. His vessel [Annotator's Note: the USS J. Franklin Bell (APA-16)] was delivering men, ammunition, food, and supplies until the troop ship was emptied.

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Edwin Henlebin described the beachhead as glutted with supplies. The problem was getting the material from the beach to where the 7th Infantry Division needed it. No vehicles could be used because of the abrupt cliff face and the soft surfaces of the terrain. Delivery was slow, tedious and frustrating. It was cold and wet. Clothing was inadequate and frostbite was the cause of many casualties. Training for the prevailing conditions was inadequate, and Henlebin found the leadership deficient. Because of the danger to the troop ships, they were withdrawn, and Henlebin was left to live on the island in a group of about 30 sailors who had to defend themselves and their supplies with machine guns and small arms. Antiaircraft fire was a constant threat and communications were poor. Over time, the tide took almost all of the amphibious landing craft out to sea. Unknown to most people, the Battle of Attu Island turned out to be one of the bloodiest in World War 2 because of the mistakes that were made and the problems the Americans encountered. Only 28 captives were taken, and Henlebin transported them to the troop ship where they were interrogated; his attempts to learn what happened to them afterward have not been successful.

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Edwin Henlebin became interested in the activities of a photographer who was taking shots of an open air, 24 hour mess line. He watched the man take a photo of three guys being served from heated kettles, then moved to the other side of the line. Just then, a shell fell on the three guys on the other side. Henlebin learned that within seconds, life could change. The Japanese he witnessed were under guard when they were transported, but he didn't have any communication with them, although he was sure they were happy to be alive. The battle [Annotator's Note: the Battle of Attu] lasted for about three weeks, and it was a few days later that they were picked up and brought to a holding island a few hundred miles away. Henlebin's injuries were limited to a hearing problem that resulted from the bombardment. Twice his group was mistakenly strafed by friendly fire, but he was not hurt. It was an experience that Henlebin will never forget, one that taught him that the real heroes are those who gave their lives. He feels everyone should be thankful for the men who serve our country, defend our freedom and protect their fellow man. He also learned that from the mistakes at Attu, we went on to victory and that no matter how bad it gets, if we persist, we are going to win.

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Edwin Henlebin went on to a secure base, where he stayed until he boarded another transport for the attack on Kiska. But to their disappointment, the Japanese left Kiska two weeks before the Americans arrived. There, the Americans lost 313 people to friendly fire, and killed no Japanese. Henlebin's ship [Annotator's Note: the USS J. Franklin Bell (APA-16)] was sent back to the United States, where he got leave, then went to the Hawaiian Islands and helped build and operate a repair shop for diesel engines. He took a test that got him into officer training, and although he would have preferred to be made a chief, he was sent to Purdue for midshipman's school under the V-12 program. [Annotator's Note: The US Navy's V-12 College Training Program was designed to supplement the force of commissioned officers in the United States Navy during World War 2.] In his second year at Purdue he became commandant of his group and stayed there until the war ended. Henlebin was discharged in Saint Louis in 1946.

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Edwin Henlebin commented on the ability of the Navy to work with the Army. He said that in a battle situation soldiers protect each other and cooperate out of necessity as well as desire. His remark earlier, he said, was in reference to the disunity in command. The war changed everyone, according to Henlebin. During the first six months of the war, the Americans were losing, and it was a very uncomfortable feeling for Henlebin, and he has not forgotten. The war opened his eyes to a lot of things; his education and his experiences have taught him to be humble. For America, he thinks we should always try to seek peace, but only with the realization that if there is no other course, we must be willing to lay down our lives for our country as many others have done before us. Henlebin thinks The National WWII Museum is highly significant for future generations because it enables people to use the museum and oral histories to learn the facts and become better at keeping peace and freedom. He was proud to serve his country, and wants to dedicate his oral history to those who didn't return.

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