Interview: Veteran Leon Forest Herring, American Hero

I recently had the privilege of meeting with Mr. Leon Forest "Red" Herring in his home in Macon, Georgia. As I pulled up to his house, I noticed two things that immediately made me grin. The first was the square dancing bumper sticker stuck to his truck bumper. Apparently, at 97 years old, Red still has moves on the dance floor. The second was that he was in his back yard turning wrenches on his lawnmower. He had to get it fixed because, as he put it, "when I hit a bump, the steering wheel turns. I need to get the play out of it."

He is one of the few who can still recall what it was like to be in the service during the Second World War. I asked him some questions to better understand what it was like. It was a conversation I won't soon forget.

Could you explain what your job was while in the service?

I was a First Class Machinist’s Mate on a naval destroyer. My job was in the auxiliary gang.  We took care of all auxiliaries from stem to stern.

How did you join the military?

Well, I was in the Navy before the U.S. entered the war. I joined the Navy after working from the railroad. My father had died and my mother was living by herself so I started to feel like I wanted to return home. I had gone through boot camp in Virginia and I recall sitting in a church on a Sunday morning. The pastor stopped preaching and made an announcement. He said that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. Now, of course, the sailors started raising cain wanting to get back to duty. I didn’t realize entirely what was going on and still wanted to get out of the Navy. In the morning, I went to the doctor, who had written a survey on my behalf, and he said he would send it to Washington for approval. If they approved it, I’d be out of the Navy and if they reject it, they’d send me back to duty. It was then that I realized that we were going to war and I knew what was going on. I said “send me back to duty” right then and there. I went back to duty in Charleston to board the ship on Christmas day. Our first meal on the ship was Christmas dinner. We left Charleston to Norfolk to gather supplies and ammunition and later headed to San Diego.  From there, we went straight to Pearl Harbor. When we got to the Pearl, there was still oil covering the surface of the water and bodies were all around. They were recouping bodies from the water and we patrolled the waters in our destroyer.

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Did you ever think that the USA would enter the war?

Oh, no. I didn’t think anything about going to war. That was the reason I was getting out because we didn’t think anything of it. Once the Japanese struck at Pearl Harbor, that was when everything changed and we knew we were at war. That changed everything for me.

What can you tell me about the attitudes of your fellow sailors and yourself before and after Pearl Harbor?

All the guys who were young enough were scared. The guys who had been in service for a while were excited to get in the fight and kill the Japanese. Me? I was scared.

How did you keep in contact with your mother during war?

I wrote her letters. After we started operating in the Pacific, I had a name for each ship I was with. She knew where we were at all times and we would correspond through letters.

What are your fondest memories from the Navy?

Well, I happened to get into a job that I was familiar with. I was in engineering or machine shop all the time and I operated the motor whaleboat. When the Japanese were signing a peace treaty with the U.S. we were patrolling the waters in one of their harbors. We were seeing how large the harbor was for ships to enter. The captain said we were going to go to the bank and each of us would step out of the boat and touch Japanese soil. That way, we could say we were among the first to touch down on Japanese soil. That was a good moment.

There were really many instances that I was proud of.

One time we were escorting a seagoing tug boat and they had an accident on board in which a man was injured by a snapped cable. We had a doctor on board our ship so we transported him to their boat. I remember the huge swells at sea would take you up high and down so low you couldn’t see your ship only a block away. We go to the tug, loaded the injured guy and transported him to our ship so he could get medical treatment.

What was the toughest part of being in the service?

Witnessing the people killed. I was assigned a pallbearer to bury the dead. We would bury them at sea. We buried a skipper at sea. It wasn’t a pleasant job at all.

Once, we took a suicide plane. It was horrible. I did get to stay on a hospital ship for a while and was treated well. My battle station was alongside the control room, where the radio equipment was kept. My room supplied power to the ship. I was not at my station when we took the plane. But, when I arrived at my station after it hit, I cleaned up the water and I found pieces of a human body. Walking through the alleyway topside, I remember seeing dead bodies. I remember seeing Gary was floating in the water with his body twisted around. He was without any clothes on and blown half in two. I went up to the deck and was laying there with a kid who had his feet blown off. I had a little bit shrapnel, but that was all I could tell. My friend Pete and I started trying to help the guys laying on the deck. We gave them shots of morphine to help them. I later found my immediate chief laying under a gun with his foot laying across his chest and his arm was gone. I remember taking my belt off and making a tourniquet for his arm to stop the bleeding. Reagan, the chief engineer electrician was laying on the number one hatch and I picked his head up and told him we were doing all we could to get help. He rolled his head, looked at me, and said, “well, I guess I’ve acted like a baby hadn’t I, Red?” That was the last thing he said..

How would you describe the experience to someone who wasn’t there?

I don’t know of any words to do that.  You do your routine work as long as you are alive, knowing that you could be killed in a flash.

We call your generation “The Greatest”. How do you feel about that?

I'm proud of that. I’m proud of the time I spent in the service and I’m thankful that I was able to do what I did and come home.