|EAST CAROLINA MANUSCRIPT COLLECTION|
|ORAL HISTORY INTERVIEW #167|
|Captain Lewis E. Larson|
|USNA Class of 1941|
|January 23, 1998|
|Interview # 1|
|[Interviewed by Dr. Fred D. Ragan]|
Lew Larson giving a history of my naval background. So, where do you want me to start?
If you would, just start telling us where you came from and then about your family. What interested you in the Navy? Why did you want to go?
I was born and raised in Kenosha, Wisconsin. I really had no interest in the Navy. I put in time at college. When I was home during the summer, the attorney general of Wisconsin, who had been my father's lawyer, called me up and asked me if I would like an appointment to West Point or the Naval Academy because my congressman, apparently, hadn't gotten around to doing his job. He asked the attorney general to do it for him, since the attorney general was a good friend of the congressman. As a result, I decided to go to the Naval Academy.
During the first two years, I was threatening to resign all the time. In fact, Lieutenant Garrett, who is an honorary member of the Class of 1941, used to come
around to our room because I had three roommates that also wanted to resign. He used to knock on the door and he'd say, “Well, how is the hotbed of revolution tonight?” Anyway, I ended up sticking it out. I thoroughly enjoyed the last two years of school. I ended up as the number one military man at midshipman, brigade commander the last year. From there, I went to Honolulu and was stationed aboard the USS MINNEAPOLIS.
Let me interrupt you. Before we get to that, would you tell us a bit about your family? What was your father involved in to know the attorney general?
Well, my father was a building contractor. Back in the 1920s, which is kind of significant, he had more than sixty houses under construction at the same time in Kenosha, which was a big thing in those days. Leo Bodril, the attorney general, also lived in Kenosha. He was Dad's lawyer for many years, so that is how I knew him. Yet, my mother and father separated when I was twelve years old and I lived with my mother most of the time, so that is about it.
Going back to the Naval Academy, upon graduation, I went to the USS MINNEAPOLIS, which was a heavy cruiser. I was assistant navigator for the first part of the time I was aboard the MINNEAPOLIS. From being assistant navigator, I moved to division officer of one of the anti-aircraft batteries. I remained at that position until Pearl Harbor, which we were just about to enter when the Japs started to perform their act. So fortunately we were not involved very much with Pearl Harbor as a result. They had too many sitting ducks in the harbor.
We were the next one in line to go into the harbor, to go through the gates. So we just missed out. We turned around and headed back out to sea. Fortunately, only one Jap made a pass at us and he missed. It was a good thing because we only had target
ammunition in the ready service boxes since we had just been out performing a gunnery exercise.
As soon as the bombing of Pearl Harbor was over, the commander at Pearl Harbor ordered us to find the enemy. So we took off with either three or four destroyers. Only the Fleet told us to go in the wrong direction, which I think was very fortunate for us. The little fleet we had with us, boy, we wouldn't have lasted very long with the Japs.
Then we operated, after Pearl Harbor, with a carrier task force out in the western Pacific in the Coral Sea and at Midway. I can't remember all the rest of the battles. When we were with the task force of just cruisers and destroyers, we were involved in just about every air battle until late 1942. We battled at Tassafaronga since Japs were waiting for us there. They really clobbered us in a night battle. In fact, a classmate of mine wrote a book about it. Rusty Crenshaw called his book The Battle of Tassafaronga, which I have at home. We took a torpedo just up from the bow, just forward of the number 1 turret. It blew the bow off because of the gasoline and everything. After the battle was over, we staggered into Tulagi and pulled alongside the beach with the help of one of the destroyers that was still operating and broadsided into the beach.
We sat there for almost a month, and the Japs never came after us, just sitting there. I think the PENSACOLA and the NEW ORLEANS were also there. We were just sitting ducks. We took and cut down a lot of coconut trees and built a bow out of coconut trees. So after about a month, when we got the bow all finished and everything, we took off. We had had to clean out all the boilers to get the salt water out of them. We went to Espiritu Santo, all by ourselves. We had no escort. Again, we were sitting ducks, but we were lucky. Sometimes when the sea got a little rough, we had to turn around back into
the sea because we knew that the coconut bow would never last. Anyway, we got to Espiritu Santo. Luckily, there was a Navy repair ship there that built and welded a steel bow in the place of the coconut bow on our ship. After that was finished, we took off for Honolulu, having to turn back into the sea many times. When we got to Honolulu, they had already built a new bow for us. They put us into drydock, put this new bow on the boat, welded it on and that was it. It was a pre-fab job and it was quite a feat. I give the shipbuilders out there a lot of credit for that.
Could we go back to the Coral Sea? Your ship was involved in the Battle of the Coral Sea. Could you tell us about that?
Well, there really isn't a whole lot to tell because we performed our job, as far as firing antiaircraft against the attacking Japanese airplanes. I don't know if we got credit for any of them or not. Those were the days before they started doing their kamikaze routine. They were doing just the standard operations of dive bombing, launching torpedoes, and things like that. Then, I guess, several other incidents happened, but most of them were insignificant until we went to Midway with the rest of the Fleet. At Midway, we had very little action from the Japs at that time, of course, which turned out to be the turning point in the war really because we caught them unaware. That was about it.
Well, I am sorry to interrupt you, but let's go back to Pearl. You had this pre-fab bow.
Yes. About that time when we were on the way home to Pearl Harbor, I got orders to submarines.
This would have been what year?
1942. No, it was early 1943. January or so. I didn't want to go to submarines. I wanted to go to aviation. It turned out our skipper at that time was Admiral Rosenthal, who was Navy's lighter-than-air man. He was the foremost man in airships and dirigibles in those days. So I went up to see him. I said, “Skipper, can you get me to flight training instead of submarines?” He said, “Well, you write a letter asking them to change your orders and I'll put a good endorsement on it for you.” Almost immediately, I received a change of orders to go to flight training.
So, after Pearl Harbor, we took the ship up to Bremerton in Washington where they completed all the finishing work on the bow, which included putting in all the electric wiring and getting everything else hooked up with the facilities of the ship. Then I got detached and went down to San Francisco on my way home. While I was there for a few days, I asked my wife to marry me. She wasn't my wife at that time. She said, “Yes”. So I flew home and saw my parents for a short time, flew back to San Francisco, and got married. By that time, the MINNEAPOLIS was down in San Francisco. So all the ship's officers came to our wedding, which was really great.
Then I headed for Dallas, Texas, where I went through primary training. I traveled from Dallas to Pensacola for standard operation, graduated from flight training, and received my wings on the seventh of December, 1943, the second anniversary of Pearl Harbor. So from Pensacola, I went to operational training in VPs, which was the Navy's anti-submarine patrol plane at that time.
After training for VPs, I was sent up to Lake City, [Florida?], where I, being a full lieutenant at that time, didn't really have enough flight hours in order to be sent to an operating squadron. So, I stayed there in Beaufort, [South Carolina?], as an instructor for
about a year. Just as I figured I was going out to the Fleet, I got orders to Navy PG school in Annapolis. I went through a year of preparation for various academics before going up to M.I.T. to get a graduate degree in aerospace engineering. I graduated from M.I.T. in 1946. I left Annapolis in 1945, and went up to M.I.T. in the fall of 1945 and graduated in 1946.
Then I came down to work in the Bureau of Aeronautics in Washington and was head of the branch that was doing the research and development on all the Navy bombing systems at that time: dive bombing, horizontal bombing, toss bombing, and that sort of thing. Next, I went to Point Magu where I was involved with some of the early development of missiles, such as the air-to-air missiles and target missiles. We did a lot of work with an inventory of V-1 and V-2 bombs that we had collected from Germany after the war was over and used them for research. They were ahead of us in the missile business at that time. So we learned quite a bit from operating the V-1s and the V-2s. After that, I went to work as operations officer of Fleet Airborne Electronics training unit, where we trained radar operators, who were primarily enlisted personnel, and some junior officers to use the radar in detecting various submarine signals if the submarines were on the surface. Just generally we were improving their techniques, not for any of the shipborne operators, just aviation operators.
Now this would have been about 1948?
It would have been about 1948. Because in late 1949, I received orders to commanding officer of a squadron at Guam. We had headquarters in Guam and detachments at Itazuke-kuko and Tachikawa in Japan during the Korean War. I was out there for about a year and a half. Then, I got orders to Whidbey Island in Washington, up
in the middle of the Puget Sound as commanding officer for the Fleet Aircraft Service Squadron. This is where we did all the heavy maintenance of the squadrons that were stationed there at Whidbey. There were some of our early attack planes with nuclear capability and VPs at that time.
That would be about 1951.
Yes. 1951. I was there in late 1951 through 1952. I received orders to the Armed Forces Industrial College in Washington, DC, I was there for a year. From there, I went to the Bureau of Naval Weapons, as it was called, which was the merger of the BUAIR and BUORD. With the job I had, I was responsible for the logistics for the support of all the naval aviation facilities, but just the aircraft, not the bases themselves.
You were there for how long?
I was there for two and a half years. About that time, I was placed on limited duty for health reasons. I received orders to go up to M.I.T. to be the head of the Naval ROTC there and also head of the naval graduate program that we had at M.I.T.. We had about sixty officers, including some from Brazil. Most of those officers were involved in the naval architecture program.
In 1963, being on limited duty, I decided my future was over as far as the Navy was concerned. I retired for health reasons. The professor that I had studied under at M.I.T., while I was up there, offered me a job in their division of scientific research. I went to work on that and I worked on the Apollo program for thirteen years, where we developed the guidance system for the command module and the lunar module. The last two years, I worked on the guidance system that was used in the Poseidon missiles for the nuclear subs.
Then you stayed at M.I.T. from retirement in 1963 on. How long?
For fifteen years. Thirteen years on the Apollo program and two years on the Poseidon program. Then about that time, I decided I would just call it quits entirely. I resigned from that job and moved to Florida. Since then, which was 1978, I have done not much except enjoy myself, play golf, and that sort of thing.
That sounds like a good way to conclude a very interesting story.
Well, that's about it, unless you've got any questions.
I don't have any unless you would want to drop back to some of these points and fill in.
I hadn't given too much thought to this until you guys lassoed me last night. I think that maybe it would be better for me to wait until he gets around to sending me the draft of this. Then I can sit down and probably put some extras in there when I think about it a little bit more. Just talking off the cuff like this, you can forget a lot of things.
[End of Interview]