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Interview with Louis Harold Erwin [3/14/2003]

Michael Willie:

Today is Friday, March 13, 2003. March 14. I'm sorry. And this is the beginning of an interview with Louis Harold Erwin at the Erlanger Health Link Plus Office, 975 East Third Street, Chattanooga, Tennessee. Mr. Erwin was born on March 1, 1925, and is now 78 years old. My name is Michael Willie, and I will conduct this interview. Mr. Erwin, could you state for the recording your name and its spelling, please? LOUIS

Louis Harold Erwin:

Louis Harold Erwin, L-o-u-i-s H-a-r-o-l-d E-r-w-i-n.

Michael Willie:

And during which war did you serve?

Louis Harold Erwin:

World War II.

Michael Willie:

And which branch of the service?

Louis Harold Erwin:

U.S. Navy.

Michael Willie:

And what was your highest rank attained?

Louis Harold Erwin:

Coxswain.

Michael Willie:

Okay. Where were you born, Mr. Erwin?

Louis Harold Erwin:

In Rhea County, Dayton, Tennessee.

Michael Willie:

And explain where that is in relation to Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Louis Harold Erwin:

It's about 40 miles up Highway 27.

Michael Willie:

Okay. Just north. All right. And tell me about your family. Do you have any brothers or sisters?

Louis Harold Erwin:

I have one brother.

Michael Willie:

And what's his age relative to yours?

Louis Harold Erwin:

He is 80 years old.

Michael Willie:

Okay. So he's two years older than you?

Louis Harold Erwin:

Yes, he is.

Michael Willie:

All right. And tell me about your parents. What did you dad do for a living in Rhea County?

Louis Harold Erwin:

My dad, he left Rhea County and he moved to Chattanooga, and he went in the beer business.

Michael Willie:

In the beer business?

Louis Harold Erwin:

He was a salesman, route salesman in the beer business.

Michael Willie:

Okay. Now, you say you were born in Rhea County. Did you move with him or were they -- were they separated?

Louis Harold Erwin:

My mother and father were separated.

Michael Willie:

They were separated, so you grew up in Rhea County then with your mom?

Louis Harold Erwin:

No. I just -- till I was about eight years old. Then I come to Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Michael Willie:

Gotcha. Okay. Did your brother come with you?

Louis Harold Erwin:

Yes, he did.

Michael Willie:

Okay. So primarily then, from about eight on, were you raised here in Chattanooga then?

Louis Harold Erwin:

Went to school here.

Michael Willie:

Okay. And graduated high school?

Louis Harold Erwin:

No, I didn't -- never did finish. I --

Michael Willie:

Okay.

Louis Harold Erwin:

I --

Michael Willie:

How old were you when you left school?

Louis Harold Erwin:

I was 17 years old.

Michael Willie:

Okay. And why did you leave school?

Louis Harold Erwin:

I joined the U.S. Navy.

Michael Willie:

Okay. Any particular reason you joined the Navy?

Louis Harold Erwin:

Well, things wasn't getting along too good, and wasn't too much going on, and my brother, he had already joined the U.S. Marine Corps.

Michael Willie:

Um-hum.

Louis Harold Erwin:

And I thought it would be best, why, I'd just go ahead and join the Navy.

Michael Willie:

Okay. Did you particularly like the water or something about the Navy; anything in particular that attracted you to the Navy?

Louis Harold Erwin:

Yes. I've always liked being around the water.

Michael Willie:

Okay.

Louis Harold Erwin:

And I just picked the Navy instead of -- I wanted a bunk to sleep in and not a foxhole --

Michael Willie:

Not a foxhole.

Louis Harold Erwin:

-- like my brother.

Michael Willie:

I understand that totally. And your brother you say was in the Marines?

Louis Harold Erwin:

He was in the First Division Marines. He -- he had a rough time in there. He was in the Solomons, and...

Michael Willie:

All right. Now, how long had he been in the service when you joined the Navy?

Louis Harold Erwin:

He had been in a little over a year.

Michael Willie:

Okay. Were you hearing much from him or was he basically still training?

Louis Harold Erwin:

No. He had -- he had all -- already went overseas.

Michael Willie:

Okay.

Louis Harold Erwin:

And --

Michael Willie:

They did have a pretty rough time in the pacific, in the Merchant Marines.

Louis Harold Erwin:

Yeah. And another thing, I thought if I was in the Navy, why, I might run into him.

Michael Willie:

All right. Um-hum. So you joined the Navy at age 17. And did your dad have any problem with that?

Louis Harold Erwin:

Well, it wasn't my dad. It was my mother. She did.

Michael Willie:

Um-hum.

Louis Harold Erwin:

You had to -- she had to sign a release for me to go in.

Michael Willie:

She didn't want you going in?

Louis Harold Erwin:

No, she sure did not. So -- but finally I convinced her.

Michael Willie:

Okay.

Louis Harold Erwin:

It was the best thing for me.

Michael Willie:

All right. So you joined the Navy at age 17. And where do you go for -- well, just walk us through it. Did you go to an induction of a sort?

Louis Harold Erwin:

I went to San Diego, California.

Michael Willie:

Okay.

Louis Harold Erwin:

And I went through boot camp, took 13 weeks, and from there, why, I went aboard the USS Bunker Hill, and they shipped me to Hawaii, Pearl Harbor, where I went aboard the USS Indianapolis.

Michael Willie:

Okay. Well, let's -- before we get too far in now, you say you went to boot camp, like, for 13 weeks?

Louis Harold Erwin:

13 weeks.

Michael Willie:

What was that like for you? I mean, was it extremely tough or was there any time in there when you thought I've made a bad decision?

Louis Harold Erwin:

Oh, many times. Many times that I wished I was back home, but it would get a little better, and it was pretty rough in boot camp.

Michael Willie:

Okay. What about friends. Do you have any friends at this time during boot camp that you were able to keep up with later on?

Louis Harold Erwin:

No.

Michael Willie:

Not necessarily on the ship but later on in life?

Louis Harold Erwin:

No. Not in boot camp, but after you once get aboard ship, which I was aboard ship for over two years.

Michael Willie:

Okay.

Louis Harold Erwin:

The Indianapolis was my home, and I met a lot of friends there.

Michael Willie:

Okay. Now, boot camp, and then they put you on the USS Bunker Hill; is that the ship on which you went to Hawaii; is that what you're saying?

Louis Harold Erwin:

Yeah, that was just for transportation over there.

Michael Willie:

Okay. How long did it take you to get out to Hawaii?

Louis Harold Erwin:

Around five days.

Michael Willie:

Okay. Did you have any problem with seasickness?

Louis Harold Erwin:

No seasickness. I wasn't bothered too much with it.

Michael Willie:

Okay.

Louis Harold Erwin:

Maybe every now and then get woozy a little, but very little. But some of my shipmates, oh, they'd get awful seasick.

Michael Willie:

I've heard some bad stories. Okay. So you end up -- end up out at Pearl Harbor. And let's see. Is this then the end of '42, around the end of '42, or is it --

Louis Harold Erwin:

This is the first part of '43.

Michael Willie:

First part of '43. How does Pearl Harbor look at this time? Have they -- is there still remnants of what had gone on a couple of years earlier?

Louis Harold Erwin:

Yeah, it -- the ships was still on the bottom there, the Arizona, some more -- it was awful bad, that -- you could just look around and see all the ships was just -- been destroyed.

Michael Willie:

Okay. Now, at this time, do you have any idea what's going on? Do you keep up with what's going on in the Pacific Theater, updated on what's going on out there?

Louis Harold Erwin:

Not too much. You're -- you're just waiting to get aboard and see what division you're going in and see what your duties are going to be. You don't have too much time for keeping up with things that might be going on.

Michael Willie:

Okay. So you go to Pearl Harbor. How long do you have to wait there before you got onto the Indianapolis?

Louis Harold Erwin:

Probably a week, week and a half.

Michael Willie:

Okay.

Louis Harold Erwin:

The USS Indianapolis had been up in Attu and Kiska, and it come down to Pearl Harbor and took on supplies and some servicemen.

Michael Willie:

Okay. About how many of you guys added on there? You're basically in there with the crew that's already been out there; right? Is that correct?

Louis Harold Erwin:

That is true.

Michael Willie:

All right. And had they seen much action up to this point?

Louis Harold Erwin:

Not too much. Just up at Attu and Kiska, other than that. But after we started in the South Pacific, the USS Indianapolis has ten battle stars, and I was aboard on eight of those.

Michael Willie:

Okay. Well, let's talk about this. Once you get on the ship, what -- what is your job? What is your specific job to do while on board?

Louis Harold Erwin:

Well, the Fourth Division is a deck division, and they maintained the eight-inch guns.

Michael Willie:

Okay.

Louis Harold Erwin:

Pardon me, the five-inch guns.

Michael Willie:

Okay.

Louis Harold Erwin:

Eight-inch is the main battery and the secondary battery is a five-inch gun.

Michael Willie:

Okay.

Louis Harold Erwin:

And it has eight mounts of five-inch guns, and I was first a pot loader.

Michael Willie:

Okay.

Louis Harold Erwin:

Then a --

Michael Willie:

Explain what a pot loader is.

Louis Harold Erwin:

A pot loader is where you take the five-inch projectors out of a box, a box over there, and you carry it over and you put it in -- in the pot, and you pull it down and then you crank it up, set the fuse on it.

Michael Willie:

Um-hum.

Louis Harold Erwin:

Then the first loader throws it in the breech, and then the rammerman, which I become later on, he...

Michael Willie:

Now, what kind of range are we talking about as far as accurately -- accurate range for a five-inch gun?

Louis Harold Erwin:

Well, it's -- I wouldn't know exactly. It's just the way you set the fuse and how long it takes to go off. But a five-inch gun will reach quite a distance, especially when you're bombarding.

Michael Willie:

Gotcha.

Louis Harold Erwin:

Aircraft carriers, mostly when you're setting your fuse, the closer they get, the closer it goes off.

Michael Willie:

Okay. All right. So you were on the USS Indianapolis, and how big is this -- how big is this ship?

Louis Harold Erwin:

This ship is 610-foot long, and the average -- in peacetime the crew is around 400, and then at this time, wartime, there were almost 1,200 men on it.

Michael Willie:

Wow. Like a city, isn't it.

Louis Harold Erwin:

Yes, it's -- of course, it's nothing like they carry now. They -- some of them carry up to 6,000, 8,000 troops now.

Michael Willie:

Okay. Now, you get out into the Pacific, and what's -- are you -- are you nervous? Are you just concentrating on your job? Is there any fear at all at this point or are you just --

Louis Harold Erwin:

Not at this time. I'm young and everything and just looking for excitement and different things. But after you -- when you get to your first island, which was Tarawa --

Michael Willie:

Tarawa?

Louis Harold Erwin:

-- was my first one, and you look out there and you see a very peaceful island, and then you start bombarding, and then planes start strafing and then the bombers come over and bombing everything, why, within three to four days, why, the island looks like it's leveled. You don't see no standing trees or nothing.

Michael Willie:

Okay. Well, talk about that. When you're -- do you head out from Pearl Harbor, do you straight -- head straight for Tarawa then or --

Louis Harold Erwin:

No. You meet up with your fleet out there.

Michael Willie:

Uh-huh.

Louis Harold Erwin:

And then it's all done through a fleet. Whatever the number of the fleet may be. This happened to be the fifth fleet.

Michael Willie:

Okay.

Louis Harold Erwin:

And after you meet up with them and all the strategy comes, and when you first go to bombarding, strafe and different things like that, then you never see no troops till -- landing gear till the morning they start to land. And you wake up of a morning, they going to land, which that is a very, very bad thing for Tarawa. We hit the coral reef and lost over 2,000 men just on the landing. So it is real hard. If you -- if you're not familiar with the coral reef, it's far way out in the water. The water's only about this deep, (indicating) and then after you drop off from that coral reef, which that's as far as the landing barge can go, and then as the men -- as the ramp drops on the landing barge, as it drops the men come off, why, when they start running towards the beach, there's nothing to protect them. They just start mowing them down.

Michael Willie:

So Tarawa was pretty -- pretty heavily --

Louis Harold Erwin:

It was real bad. I didn't think there were too many familiar with the coral reef around the island, and that -- that played a very bad part. Of course -- of course, they got worse, the landings. I was at the Marshalls, the Marianas, Saipan, Tinian, Guam, Iwo Jima, Okinawa. Okinawa we got hit with a suicide plane that took nine lives and wounded 38, I believe it was.

Michael Willie:

How do you prepare yourself when you're about to run a landing? I know -- well, first of all, with Tarawa, let's start with Tarawa. When you're coming in, you don't have any idea what it's going to be like, do you?

Louis Harold Erwin:

Not a -- not a bit. It's just -- it hits you all at once, and when they start telling you sky forward or sky aft, gives the gun captain a order to -- what to shoot at, and if you see -- whatever you shoot, but they were -- the Japanese were dug in real deep, and it was hard to -- you'd try to pick out P.O. boxes and everything like that, and it was hard to just -- to do that.

Michael Willie:

Right. Right. So I mean, but are you -- are you close enough in then when you're letting the troops off that you can actually see -- can you see faces, Japanese faces or --

Louis Harold Erwin:

No. You can just see objects, like, moving and different things. The only way that you can -- what you say a face and everything is you'd be looking through either a pointer or a trainer's sights, but not -- not binoculars. Sights on the gun thing.

Michael Willie:

Right.

Louis Harold Erwin:

Which I later on become a pointer, which pointer's the one that points the gun and the trainer's the one that goes back and forwards, unless you're set on sky forward or sky aft. Then you're on radar.

Michael Willie:

Okay. So when you're actually on ship, you're concerned, obviously, with the Japanese fighters or the Japanese suicide planes, but are you concerned also with any other weapons from shore? Do you guys catch small arms fire or are you close enough for that?

Louis Harold Erwin:

Oh, no. They -- they have heavy equipment that they will fire back at you.

Michael Willie:

Um-hum.

Louis Harold Erwin:

At Tinian, which is on down the line on closer, why, we were hit in the stacks by shrapnel and different things.

Michael Willie:

Would it be fair to say that you would probably be the primary target when -- for the suicide planes coming in?

Louis Harold Erwin:

Oh, yes. They would -- they would start just attacking the ships out there and different things, and --

Michael Willie:

Um-hum.

Louis Harold Erwin:

They -- mostly, they would really go after our aircraft carriers and things, but --

Michael Willie:

Right.

Louis Harold Erwin:

-- any large ship would...

Michael Willie:

Okay. Now, after Tarawa, can you describe the feeling afterward? As you're in Tarawa, as the landing is going on, are you pumped with adrenalin or is it a surreal moment or an unreal moment and is there a moment afterward that you kind of wake up and realize what just happened?

Louis Harold Erwin:

Well, yeah, you begin to think, well, look here, we've made it through this and different things, and the men that didn't make it. And then you sort of set your goal, say, well, maybe the next one will be easier. Maybe it will get better. But most of the time it gets worse.

Michael Willie:

All right. So after Tarawa, do you remember where you head from Tarawa, straight from Tarawa?

Louis Harold Erwin:

I have those dates on that piece of paper.

Michael Willie:

Well, we don't need an exact date. Let's put it this way: How -- how tense or how -- are you at battle stations? Are you at general quarters then from Tarawa on? Are you ready at any moment to jump on there or do you feel like you're going to get hit, or is there a moment where you can kind of relax afterward and kind of catch your bearings?

Louis Harold Erwin:

After you secure a island, after the Marines or Army secures the island, go from one end to the other, why, then you sort of go back out to sea and you begin to take it easy, and then get ready for the next one. You do -- of course, when they secure you from GQ, general quarters, why, then you don't go back around your guns till they sound it again unless there are cleanups or something to do around that, or either gunner's mate has to work on the guns.

Michael Willie:

Okay. All right. Now, you move off from Tarawa, and then how long do you actually stay out at a time before you can actually get -- get off the boat? I mean, are you there for a long, long, long time?

Louis Harold Erwin:

It all depends. Sometime while there, you go for months and months and never -- never hits -- get you a liberty. You fuel at sea, get your supplies at sea. Tanker comes alongside of you and they will shoot the line across, and then they -- we pull the fuel lines across, and it's -- when the sea is calm, it's very easy to refuel at sea, but when it's rough, why, I've seen many a hose bust. When one ship would go one and the other one would go the other way, it would just pop that line and then you'd have to do it all over again. Of course, you have to run along the same speed that your -- your cruiser would have to run along the same speed as your tanker would, where you could refuel.

Michael Willie:

Are you hitting any bad weather during the -- during the early times when you're out there? Do you remember the first time you hit a big storm?

Louis Harold Erwin:

That was right outside of Frisco. And that is the roughest water there are. But we've been to sea many a time when you could see the water come plumb over the bow.

Michael Willie:

Does that scare you? Do you ever feel like you're just going to turn over or go under?

Louis Harold Erwin:

Yes. Many a time when that ship dips, and then when she comes up and gives a big roll, you begin to grab onto something before you -- you think you're just going over the side, that you're going to get washed overboard.

Michael Willie:

All right. Now, we're actually moving up after Tarawa, moving up to the rest of the landing, and at -- let's talk about this: During this time, you say -- well, you've been on the ship for a little while. Are you starting to make friends now? Are your main -- are your main friends or the people that you hang out with, are they basically the guys you work with in general quarters? Is that --

Louis Harold Erwin:

Mostly in your division, which there's many of divisions on there. There's first, second, third, fourth. I was very fortunate, most of my friends was in the Fourth Division.

Michael Willie:

Um-hum.

Louis Harold Erwin:

And then there's up to the Seventh. Then they become fireman's group and they're all different kind of divisions, radio, radar and all that stuff is a different division. But all your friends are just about in the -- ones you take liberty with when you do get liberty --

Michael Willie:

Okay.

Louis Harold Erwin:

-- why, they're in your own division.

Michael Willie:

Gotcha. Do you remember your first liberty?

Louis Harold Erwin:

Yes. My first one, I was in -- I'd done been overseas. I didn't even get a boot leave out of boot camp. Usually they give you a boot leave, but things was pretty rough. So it was over two -- I'd been in two years before I got my first one.

Michael Willie:

You are kidding me.

Louis Harold Erwin:

Before I got my first leave. Then I got to come home for 22 days.

Michael Willie:

Uh-huh.

Louis Harold Erwin:

And it took five days to come and five days to go back.

Michael Willie:

Uh-huh.

Louis Harold Erwin:

You'd have to catch a train to get from California to -- back to Tennessee.

Michael Willie:

Man, wow. That would probably take quite a while.

Louis Harold Erwin:

Well, I got -- out of my 22 days leave, I got to stay home 12 days. The rest of it was going to and from.

Michael Willie:

I guess it could be worse than that. Now, on the ship, is there ever, after the first landing and after the -- after you're hit with the suicide bomber at that time, is there ever a moment when you can -- when you feel totally relaxed? Or do you feel like you're on edge?

Louis Harold Erwin:

No, there's -- there's many a times that -- especially after you secure a island. They were smart in figuring this out to get to Japan. They'd done the islands by steps. They done the Marshalls, the Marianas, the Gilberts, Saipan, Tinian, Guam, Okinawa, they just took it step by step.

Michael Willie:

Right.

Louis Harold Erwin:

And each battle would seem like it would get a little harder as you got closer.

Michael Willie:

Um-hum. But you knew eventually you were working your way up to Japan; right? I mean --

Louis Harold Erwin:

Yes, so --

Michael Willie:

-- obviously that was a step.

Louis Harold Erwin:

When getting close to Okinawa where we got hit with the suicide plane, why, you was getting pretty close, which we did pull a raid or two on them. But we was getting real close. And of course, the USS Indianapolis was a flagship too, and it carried component parts of the atomic bomb which was dropped on Hiroshima. And we were fortunate enough to -- after we got out of Mary island, after the suicide plane hit us, we spent three months in drydock. We picked the atomic -- parts of the atomic bomb up, carried them back to Tinian, which is next to Guam.

Michael Willie:

Did you know what you were carrying at that time?

Louis Harold Erwin:

We did not know what we was carrying. It was sealed down and locked down and we just saw -- when they brought it aboard, of course, it took a crane to lift a couple of boxes. But most of it was put in the captain's quarter and he didn't even know what was in it.

Michael Willie:

Any admirals showing up around that time?

Louis Harold Erwin:

Oh, yeah, and they'd guard it day and night, and we put it off at Tinian, which I imagine they assemble it there, and it was put on the USS Gala, I believe the plane was.

Michael Willie:

Nola Gaya? (ph)

Louis Harold Erwin:

Nola Gaya.

Michael Willie:

Uh-huh. Now, what do you do for relaxation on the ship, especially when you're out for a long, long time?

Louis Harold Erwin:

Well, after 5:00 o'clock, you can go down to the Guidon stand.

Michael Willie:

What?

Louis Harold Erwin:

Guidon stand.

Michael Willie:

What's that?

Louis Harold Erwin:

A Guidon stand is a little place down there where you buy your candy bar or a ice cream cone or something if you're lucky to get a ice cream, but they call it a Guidon stand. It's just you -- of course, you buy your shaving supplies and different things like that, go down there and hang out. Then we'd play cards and just things like that or something in there to occupy our time.

Michael Willie:

What's the food like on the ship?

Louis Harold Erwin:

Eggs, you didn't know what eggs were. The hens didn't lay. There was no eggs or anything. Food was fairly good, except to get back to when you was bombarding on the island and no food was set up, why, you have to eat ping bars. Ping bar's a little candy bar like that, and that's about all you get for three or four days to -- before they got back out where they could set the mess tables up and prepare some food. You get a little ping bar and a little soup; that's about all you'd get.

Michael Willie:

Now, when you're out, are you missing home?

Louis Harold Erwin:

Oh, yeah.

Michael Willie:

What do you miss most?

Louis Harold Erwin:

Well, it's things that -- that you're used to going maybe -- first one thing and another that you do back home, and then missing your brother too, and --

Michael Willie:

Uh-huh. Were you able to keep up at all with what your brother was doing or were you still hoping you'd see him?

Louis Harold Erwin:

Still hoping. Each island we'd get to, we still hoped to see -- find him, see how he was doing and different things.

Michael Willie:

Um-hum.

Louis Harold Erwin:

And -- but it never did show up. I did see on one of the islands, I can't recall, a couple of fellows that -- young boys that I did know that was in a different group. And I'd see them. I'd say oh, here's an ol' Chattanooga boy and we'd pow-wow a little.

Michael Willie:

Yeah. All right. Okay. Did they have any movies on the ship? Did you guys have a place where, like, people gathered for movies or entertainment of any special sort?

Louis Harold Erwin:

Yeah. When everything was sort of quiet at night, why, the USS Indianapolis carried two scout planes, which they have hangars that they put them in, one on starboard and one on port. And of course, the wings were put back on the planes and everything. And they was tightened down in case of rough water, but we could -- when it's calm and everything, we could push those two planes out and use each one of those hangars to set up movies and we'd have a movie or two, and -- when we was able to, but that wasn't too often.

Michael Willie:

Yeah. Okay. Okay. Go ahead.

Louis Harold Erwin:

After I went aboard ship, of course, when I went on board ship, I was a Seaman 2nd. That's what you get when you first come out of boot camp, and then you go to (Striken) for -- to make higher rates where it would make it a little easier on you. Well, I finally made Seaman 1st, and that give me a little more authority, and then --

Michael Willie:

A little more money?

Louis Harold Erwin:

A little more money too for -- Seaman 2nd didn't make but a little over $30 a month. And that didn't go far. And then Seaman 1st, you jumped on up there a little. Then I went up for Coxswain, and I made Coxswain. Then I become a little ol' straw boss. I guess that's what you'd call it. And some of these guys wasn't under me. Why, I had a good friend from California, his name was Ed Brown. And we're still friends. We see each other at the reunions and we also -- we phone each other every now and then and get a card, so-and-so. So after I made Coxswain, why, I'd have to get up work details to go out and do work when we was on the beach or carry supplies aboard or chip paint or ever what it may be. Well, every time, why, I'd always call out my buddy Brown, come to work for me. So he'd get me on the side, say, "Look, we're friends. Why don't you leave me off them work parties?" I said, "Now, look, I don't have much of a education, and I can't spell them big ol' long names and different things, and I can spell Brown. So you'll just have to forgive me." He said, "Well, okeydoke." And so that's why I would call Brown all the time. You're on the work department. We still have fun about that. And we do every reunion.

Michael Willie:

That's funny. Do you have any practical jokers on -- on the ship or people that played practical jokes just to relieve the tension?

Louis Harold Erwin:

Oh, yeah. Many, many times there'd be a lot of guys. Somebody would doze off to sleep, they'd hotfoot him. They would do just different things. And then when a new -- a new recruit come on board and everything, why, we'd send him all over the ship. We'd send him down to get 100 foot of water line. Well, how you going to get a water line. The ship's going down there, no way you can get a water line. We'd just send different things and run them all over the ship, which is --

Michael Willie:

That's funny.

Louis Harold Erwin:

-- real --

Michael Willie:

What were your bunks like? I mean, wherever you -- what did it look like where you were sleeping?

Louis Harold Erwin:

Well, let me tell you about our bunks. These things, of course, they were just little ol' wire things that come down. There's about so -- so wide and everything. (Indicating) But down below decks, where mine was and many more was, there's no way you could sleep down there. It was so hot from the engines and different things that you had to sleep topside. Of course, I'd been on the ship quite a spell, and I had me a hammock tied under 40 millimeter mount. And I slept up topside where I could get some air. But it was nothing to walk around topside at night and just see people laying all over the deck, using their life jackets for a pillow. And you just couldn't -- even though the water -- and the water fountain would be as hot as coffee. You couldn't -- when we'd been to sea a long time, you'd have to drink that for your water. Didn't have no cold water. It was -- they don't have the modern days back then like they have now. No air conditions or nothing like that.

Michael Willie:

Did you ever feel like you got comfortable there though? I mean, was there ever a time when you think, okay, now I'm comfortable, or was it a constant I can't wait to get off this boat?

Louis Harold Erwin:

Oh, no. Many, many of times you just relax out there. When you did have some time off, why, you'd go up and lay in the sun or something like that, had a little time off when you didn't have duty. And of course, you had four-hour shifts on -- on your gun every -- every day. You either had an eight to 12 or 12 to four or four to eight. You always had watch to do.

Michael Willie:

Um-hum.

Louis Harold Erwin:

After you'd do that -- but when you -- when you was up there and nothing to worry about or nothing, why, you enjoyed it; different things, you could go around, just do different things.

Michael Willie:

Right. How often did you have to clean your gun?

Louis Harold Erwin:

Actually, we wasn't the gun clean -- gunner's mate, gunner's mate always cleaned the guns. Of course, you had to -- worst thing on the gun I had to do was a hot shellman. A hot shell -- a five-inch projector has a caisson on it about so long, (indicating) and then the projector sticks out. It's a pretty good load for a guy. And after that five-inch gun -- after they fire it off, if you're a hot shellman, you got to have asbestos gloves on you up so far, (indicating) and you got to hold your hand up here, (indicating) and when that hot shell that's red hot and it comes out of there, it hits that hand, and you get it and throw it out of the pot loader's way where they won't fall over it.

Michael Willie:

Right.

Louis Harold Erwin:

And when those hot shells come out of there, you get pretty scary, but you've got to catch -- learn how to catch those. But then I finally graduated from that and got to be a pointer and then a trainer and then for many -- after then until the ship went down, I was rammerman. He's right under gun captain, which a rammerman, all he does is when the gun captain tells you to fire, why, all you do, you drop the breech, and the first loader throws the projector in there, and all you do is take the lever and shove it forward. Then when it comes out and the hot shellman gets the shell, you drop your back -- your breech again. And that was my job for -- for many, many --

Michael Willie:

Now, as you're working up, working up the islands, all the way up, explain what the -- what the process is when they -- when you're about to do another landing, land on another island. Do they tell you the night before, or do you know a couple of days in advance, or how does that work exactly?

Louis Harold Erwin:

When a fleet meets, they'll usually meet around some island somewhere that they've taken, and they'll get there. And then when you see a bunch of admirals and high brass coming aboard, why, after they have their meeting and different things, well, you can just about tell it won't be long, that they're discussing the next battle.

Michael Willie:

Um-hum.

Louis Harold Erwin:

And then you know nothing about the battle. No scuttlebutt goes on on the ship that you know anything about the battle, where you're headed. And when you get up one morning about dawn and everything, and you look out and you see this small island and large island, then you know that's where the battle's going to be.

Michael Willie:

Gotcha.

Louis Harold Erwin:

And then you will look to your starboard or to your port and you see ships forming out there, and then if you see the aircraft carriers laying back, knowing that they're going to -- after you get through bombarding, and they know they're coming in to strafe and bombing then. But you don't know -- never know where you're going from one island to the next island till you get there and see that island.

Michael Willie:

All right. Did you know anything about the geography of the area where you were? Did you guys keep up with -- pretty much on a map or an atlas or anything of where you were as you -- like I say, after you take an island, then you look on there and see where it is and --

Louis Harold Erwin:

No. To the crew and everything, you don't -- you don't even know where you're -- where you're going next. You don't know what island this is close to or this island's close to or this one and steps to get to the mainland where you're going. And you just don't ever know.

Michael Willie:

Right.

Louis Harold Erwin:

Just the steps that they -- they map out for you.

Michael Willie:

Gotcha. Are you keeping in touch with home very much?

Louis Harold Erwin:

With -- repeat that.

Michael Willie:

Are you keeping in touch with home, communicating with home through mail?

Louis Harold Erwin:

Oh, yeah. Yeah. We write letters and receive letters. Of course, you get free mail back in. All you have -- didn't put no stamp on it or nothing. And then how you receive your mail, the ships would come by and you'd get your mail bag off, and then you would gather up there where they have mail. When they all had mail call, you'd get up there and pray for a letter. Not all the time you got one, but thank goodness my mother, Sheila did.

Michael Willie:

Now, at the time -- now, you were -- you were 17 when you left, so you weren't -- were you in any relationship? Was there anyone in particular or a special girl you were keeping in touch with or were you just a (inaudible) guy?

Louis Harold Erwin:

No. Later on, later on, why, I met a girl, which I've been married -- soon will be 57 years.

Michael Willie:

I'll be darned. That's not bad.

Louis Harold Erwin:

Nah, that's -- that's -- MRS.

Louis Harold Erwin:

Do you want to know the secret?

Louis Harold Erwin:

After we -- see, I come home on my first leave, I believe I met her, and we've been together ever since just about. We got married after I got out of the service.

Michael Willie:

Okay. So talk about -- let's see. You're moving up, moving up the steps, basically, and then do you -- you come back then on leave, your first leave. How does that work? I mean, how do you -- how do you get a leave? Is this after the ship is sunk or is this --

Louis Harold Erwin:

No. After we got hit at Okinawa --

Michael Willie:

Okay.

Louis Harold Erwin:

-- that's -- that's when I got my first leave.

Michael Willie:

Okay. Well, let's -- let's talk about Okinawa, because at Okinawa, I understand there were a lot of the -- the suicide planes, or the -- a lot of the kamikazes --

Louis Harold Erwin:

Um-hum.

Michael Willie:

-- coming in. Like, I mean, was there a big -- a big bunch of them coming at you guys? Explain what went on in Okinawa.

Louis Harold Erwin:

Yeah, when you're under air attack, they're not only hitting at your ship, you just don't know which one's coming that way, but they're going towards all the ships, especially aircraft carriers. They're trying to knock out the aircraft carrier. We were along the USS Franklin, which is a heavy carrier, and it got hit off of -- it's not in my mind, the island it got hit off of, but they lost a lot of men. They lost over 600 men on that. And the ship just kept blowing up, and we were off the port side of it and very close to it and could just see it keep blowing and everything. But the way those planes, they just come out of nowhere seems like, and radar picks them up or either they get so low that radar can't pick them up, and first thing you look up, why, they're pretty close on you, and then you're firing your five-inch weapons at them and your 40 millimeter mounts and your 20's. The eight-ounce guns are just for far off, bombarding and different things --

Michael Willie:

Um-hum.

Louis Harold Erwin:

-- at other ships. I'm going to have to wipe my nose. Have we talked about when we took the atomic bomb on there?

Michael Willie:

Okay. Was that -- at what point was -- well, let's move on back to that, because that's Saipan Tinian; right? MRS.

Louis Harold Erwin:

They took part of the atomic bomb.

Louis Harold Erwin:

That's -- MRS.

Louis Harold Erwin:

A part of it.

Louis Harold Erwin:

After we got hit at Okinawa --

Michael Willie:

Uh-huh.

Louis Harold Erwin:

-- then we come in, spent three months, and after we had a shakedown cruise, then --

Michael Willie:

Did you say -- did you come into San Diego then?

Louis Harold Erwin:

No, come into Mary Island, which is -- you got to come under the Golden Gate Bridge and go up San Francisco, up in there to Mary Island.

Michael Willie:

Okay.

Louis Harold Erwin:

That's where we spent three months in drydock.

Michael Willie:

Okay.

Louis Harold Erwin:

After we had the shakedown cruise, which that's you go back out there and see if everything's all right. Takes about four days. You come back in. Then that's when they brought the atomic bomb on.

Michael Willie:

Um-hum.

Louis Harold Erwin:

And we left there and did a speed run to Tinian, which when you get to Tinian, Guam is sitting right here and Tinian over here. You just go in between them, and they took the atomic bomb off of there and put it on the island. MRS.

Louis Harold Erwin:

They took part of the atomic bomb.

Louis Harold Erwin:

Yeah, not the whole thing, compartments of the thing.

Michael Willie:

Right. Now, you say you made a speed run out there. Were you in a convoy then --

Louis Harold Erwin:

No.

Michael Willie:

-- or did anybody keep up with you?

Louis Harold Erwin:

No; alone.

Michael Willie:

Okay.

Louis Harold Erwin:

And then after we dropped that thing off, we'd go back over here to Guam, which is right here, and we'd take fuel on. Then we head to Leyte in the Philippines, and that's when we got sunk.

Michael Willie:

Gotcha.

Louis Harold Erwin:

That's when my four days and five nights come up in the water.

Michael Willie:

Okay. Well, before we get there, we kind of jumped ahead. First of all, let me ask you this: At what point did you find out that you had part of the atomic bomb? Was this after the war you found out or --

Louis Harold Erwin:

After we had done spent four days and five nights in the water, it took us back to Peleliu. Doctored it up a little, put us on the USS Tranquility, which is a hospital ship, and then took us to Guam.

Michael Willie:

Um-hum.

Louis Harold Erwin:

And on August the 16th, we was in the hospital on Guam. That's when I knew we had the atomic bomb on.

Michael Willie:

Gotcha. How did that make you feel, kind of odd?

Louis Harold Erwin:

You never heard such a cheering that we was over. MRS.

Louis Harold Erwin:

They had guards on it.

Louis Harold Erwin:

Oh, yeah, all the time. We didn't know what was on it.

Michael Willie:

I bet that was something. Now, before we jump ahead now, let's -- we're -- I want to talk about when you went on leave. Okay. And we kind of sketched over it, but you go on leave, and is this from -- while the ship's in drydock?

Louis Harold Erwin:

Yeah.

Michael Willie:

Is that when you go on leave?

Louis Harold Erwin:

Yeah.

Michael Willie:

All right. And then you come back to Tennessee; right?

Louis Harold Erwin:

Come back here for 22 days, what -- what I got.

Michael Willie:

Okay. Now, how did you meet your wife? MRS.

Louis Harold Erwin:

Your father introduced us.

Louis Harold Erwin:

Yeah, let's see. How did I meet you? MRS.

Louis Harold Erwin:

Your father introduced us.

Louis Harold Erwin:

Yeah.

Michael Willie:

Okay. I mean --

Louis Harold Erwin:

That's --

Michael Willie:

Do you remember the first moment you saw her? Did you know you were going to marry her when you saw her?

Louis Harold Erwin:

Well, it looked pretty good at the time, but -- MRS.

Louis Harold Erwin:

Don't ask him if he (inaudible).

Michael Willie:

I'm not going to ask you if you ever regretted that decision. MRS.

Louis Harold Erwin:

Not really. No. We met as a friend -- I was a friend to his father at the time.

Michael Willie:

Okay. MRS.

Louis Harold Erwin:

And he said my son's out at -- in the -- at sea in the Navy. I'd like for you to meet him when he comes in on leave, when he came in on leave. He got his --

Louis Harold Erwin:

I don't remember all that, so you better not ask me all that. MRS.

Louis Harold Erwin:

That's how it started off.

Michael Willie:

(Inaudible) So did you keep in touch with her after that then? I mean, did you write her after that or was that just the beginning?

Louis Harold Erwin:

We had -- we -- three or four letters, something like that. MRS.

Louis Harold Erwin:

I wrote you letters and then we started back in --

Louis Harold Erwin:

Let's see. After -- let's see. After that -- this thing's not on is it?

Michael Willie:

Actually it is now. MRS.

Louis Harold Erwin:

Got married in '46 and the war ended in '45.

Louis Harold Erwin:

Yeah, we -- MRS.

Louis Harold Erwin:

So we had one year mostly.

Louis Harold Erwin:

Um-hum.

Michael Willie:

Okay.

Louis Harold Erwin:

Are you --

Michael Willie:

I'm keeping it going. They can cut out whatever.

Louis Harold Erwin:

Yeah.

Michael Willie:

Now, okay. So you meet her while you're on leave.

Louis Harold Erwin:

Yes.

Michael Willie:

And then you go back.

Louis Harold Erwin:

Yes, I go back.

Michael Willie:

And then you go on the shakedown.

Louis Harold Erwin:

Um-hum.

Michael Willie:

And then you head out to Tinian.

Louis Harold Erwin:

Well, let's see. Then I got my 30-day leave.

Michael Willie:

Gotcha.

Louis Harold Erwin:

Now, you want to discuss the -- the first leave; is that what you're talking about?

Michael Willie:

Yeah. The first leave was the 22-day leave; right?

Louis Harold Erwin:

Yeah. Yeah, that's the first one I had.

Michael Willie:

Okay. And then -- then afterwards, after that leave, you go back to --

Louis Harold Erwin:

I go back and get on my -- catch my ship.

Michael Willie:

Uh-huh.

Louis Harold Erwin:

And it's ready to come out of Mary Island up there. And we have a four- or five-day shakedown cruise.

Michael Willie:

Uh-huh.

Louis Harold Erwin:

And then that's when they bring the atomic bomb aboard, but we don't know what it is.

Michael Willie:

Right, right.

Louis Harold Erwin:

No one knows what it is.

Michael Willie:

Okay. Then you zip straight out to Tanian; right?

Louis Harold Erwin:

Tinian.

Michael Willie:

Or Tinian.

Louis Harold Erwin:

We go speed run to Tinian.

Michael Willie:

Um-hum.

Louis Harold Erwin:

The top-notch on that was 32 knots. And in fact, if -- one of those little ol' papers over there will tell you at the speed we -- 29 point something that we --

Michael Willie:

Wow.

Louis Harold Erwin:

-- run all the way to Guam to put that bomb off. MRS.

Louis Harold Erwin:

And your mother never knew when the ship sunk, until she got the telegram.

Louis Harold Erwin:

Yeah. MRS.

Louis Harold Erwin:

And I never knew anything about it. We didn't know what was going on at the time it was going on.

Michael Willie:

Right. Well, let's move on then. You go to Tinian, and then did you say you go to Leyte after that?

Louis Harold Erwin:

Well, after we get to Tinian and go back to Guam for refueling, why, our captain, Captain McVay, he asked for an escort to go on in to Leyte in the Philippines.

Michael Willie:

Um-hum.

Louis Harold Erwin:

And the escort was denied, and we did -- we left there to head for Leyte in the Philippines to catch the fifth fleet.

Michael Willie:

Um-hum.

Louis Harold Erwin:

And we'd been gone about five days, and we got sunk by a Japanese submarine. I-58 was the number of the submarine.

Michael Willie:

Wow, a submarine.

Louis Harold Erwin:

And we took two torpedoes.

Michael Willie:

Um-hum.

Louis Harold Erwin:

And it hit on the starboard side, and one of them went off, one of the torpedoes went off in the main eight-inch magazine, and it just blew the ship half in two. And our ship went down in less than 15 minutes.

Michael Willie:

Where were you when it -- when it hit; do you remember?

Louis Harold Erwin:

I'd just come off the eight to 12 watch, stood -- stood my watches on five-inch gun. And I just got in my hammock, and this big blast hit. And the ship give a big lisp, so we -- I was out of my sack, and I said this ship's going down. And we all carried these big knives on the side, and our life jackets was -- the kapoks was put in big bags up there and tied along the railings and different things, and we start -- took our knife out, cut the kapoks down and started passing them out. So we never did hear abandon ship. All the communication was knocked out. And we kept seeing a group of people in the water, so we said we better hit it or we're going down with the ship. So I run down the side. A few more of my buddies run down the side and we dove in. And the first night -- this happened about 12 minutes past midnight. All the rest of us, we heaved and lost everything we had on our stomach drinking that saltwater, swallowing that saltwater and oil. And the next morning, why, of course, I'd swam just as far as I could, and I looked around, and I just saw the tail end of the USS Indianapolis going straight down. And we tried to all gather in the water and keep ourself together where the sharks wouldn't get us, but the group I was in, about 250 to 300, after first day we'd lose a few, second day a few, just kept on. About the third day, why, looked around, just about all of them was gone. And so on the fourth day, why, this plane spotted us, and this PBY piloted by Adrian Marks, Lieutenant Adrian Marks, when he picked us up, why, he -- there was only 56 of us. They was just -- the reason he landed in our little ol' section there, he would see sharks attacking the men. So there was a few nets got off. The life rafts are very few and I never saw -- or the group I was in, me myself never saw a life raft or a net while I was in there. We spent all of our time in a kapok life jacket. After about three days, where the people would drink that saltwater and go berserk, they'd just pull off their life jackets and go down, and you could paddle around and get you another life jacket for those kapoks will get water soaked, and they begin to give out on you. And the worst part about a kapok is when you're in one and you're in the water, why, your head's back like this, (indicating) and when a wave come, it just comes over and covers you. After about the second -- first and second day, I just scooted mine off my shoulders and come back and sort of sit in it and brought my head up out of the water where I wouldn't get all that stuff. And after they come -- the ships started arriving the next morning, after -- I was picked up around 5:00, 5:30 that afternoon. We spent -- about 2:00 or 3:00 o'clock in the morning they started coming, when the ships started coming to rescue us, they took us off the wing of the plane and put us on a Cecil J. Doyle. Of course, there was all kinds of rescue ships there by then, and each one had different -- picked up different groups.

Michael Willie:

Now, what's -- what's it like? Now, when you're in the water, say, the first night, is it pitch dark out there or can you see anything by the moon or the stars?

Louis Harold Erwin:

It was -- that first night was real light. That's where when you swam as fast as you can to get away from the ship, I could look back and see the fantail of the ship going down, and you could see that. But many of the nights it would get awful dark. And of course, when the sharks attacked, that would be -- that would be earlier, feeding time, sort of time, and you could hear screaming at night or different things when they was getting someone.

Michael Willie:

Did you think you weren't going to make it?

Louis Harold Erwin:

Many and many of times I thought I wouldn't. Sharks would swim within five to six feet from you, knowing all the time that they could get you.

Michael Willie:

Uh-huh.

Louis Harold Erwin:

But a few of us made it. It would make you feel awful bad when you'd try to help somebody.

Michael Willie:

And how long did you say you were out there?

Louis Harold Erwin:

Four days and five nights.

Michael Willie:

Unreal. Okay. Then the plane comes down and gets you. Now, once you're -- once you're rescued, where do they take you?

Louis Harold Erwin:

After they put us on the Cecil J. Doyle, they take us back to Peleliu, small island. They'd just have little ol' shacks for -- patch you up a little. We stayed there maybe a week, or less than a week, and then --

Michael Willie:

Did you have exposure or --

Louis Harold Erwin:

Oh, yes. The saltwater would -- any tender spot, like up and under your arms where the -- where the life jacket went through, this (indicating) was all solid sores. And where it would get you around the neck, all this was sores, (indicating) around your neck, and most any tender spot, in the back of your legs where that saltwater had eat you. What would make the guys go berserk is drinking that saltwater, and they'd just lose it. They'd see objects. They'd tell you they see a hamburger joint over here or the ship's come back up or something to try to get you to follow them and all. I started to one time, but I said no, I can't follow you. And they'd just pull off their life jackets and they'd go down. Then they -- some of them would begin to fight one another. Wasn't a good sight.

Michael Willie:

All right. Now, you say for about a week now you're in a -- is this like a general hospital?

Louis Harold Erwin:

Yeah. We spent seven days on the USS Tranquility, which we got clean beds and got cleaned up a little. For a week, ten days or a month, why, you could dig oil out of your ears and up out of your nose. And they took us and sort of cleaned us up. And then when we got to Guam, took us off the hospital ship, put us in the hospital over there, and we spent 30 days, the ones that were able to leave within 30 days. And I was lucky enough to do that. Why, we -- we got shipped back. Some of them had to stay much longer in the hospital. They -- some was hurt when they -- when the ship was hit.

Michael Willie:

Um-hum. Was there ever a debriefing or a situation where they pulled you together to tell you what happened, or to ask what happened, or --

Louis Harold Erwin:

Yes. We had an inquiry on Guam. And they wanted to know -- you had to write what you was doing and different things. And they court-martialed our captain. And they blamed this on our captain, which he had nothing to do with it. They got him for not holding a zigzag course and not giving the word abandon ship. Well, all communication was knocked out. We did have a Coxswain on watch, which you did have -- that was part of my job sometime to have a quarter deck watch. And he'd come around what little part of the ship he could cover, why, he'd say abandon ship, but we never heard it. We just hit the water and all. And then --

Michael Willie:

Hold on one second. Okay. Let's talk about how you were spotted. That was an important story.

Louis Harold Erwin:

The sad part about losing this ship and the crew is they did not start looking for us and we spent so long time in the water. If Leyte in the Philippines would have notified that the ship hadn't arrived, then maybe they'd have started looking for it. We were very lucky that a bomber, B -- PV Bomber come over, piloted by Lieutenant Gwynn, Chuck Gwynn, and he accidentally just spotted the heads. He was flying low. He just accidentally spotted the heads out of the water down there, and he went back to -- or sent someone back to look. His radio antenna was broke, and they happened to see these heads bobbing out of the water. And he made a run over us, and he was about to drop a bomb on us, and he looked and saw us waving and different things. So he spotted us and radioed back to Peleliu, which then that's when the PBY come and the ship started to (ravin). So thanks to Gwynn. And he would be -- he was at many of our reunions, but he has passed away now.

Michael Willie:

All right. Now, we had just talked about you said the captain was court-martialed. And did anything ever happen with that? Was that ever --

Louis Harold Erwin:

Yes. There were many of the crew called up there to testify in this thing. Finally, after 50 years, all the men together and all, we worked for 50 years and more to get him exonerated. So finally, a year or so ago, why, they exonerated our captain. But sadly, he had committed suicide in '68.

Michael Willie:

Now, all right. Now, you had gone to -- you were in the hospital.

Louis Harold Erwin:

Um-hum.

Michael Willie:

Let's pick it up from the hospital. You say you stayed there for about a month?

Louis Harold Erwin:

Stayed -- I stayed on Guam at the hospital for a month.

Michael Willie:

Um-hum.

Louis Harold Erwin:

Then I got to come back to the states. And then they give me a 30-day survivor's leave.

Michael Willie:

Okay.

Louis Harold Erwin:

So we did find out on Guam that the war was over and we had carried the atomic -- or parts of the atomic bomb. And we'd -- after I got my 30-day leave, I come home, and then --

Michael Willie:

Now, where did you take that 30-day leave?

Louis Harold Erwin:

I come back to Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Michael Willie:

You came back?

Louis Harold Erwin:

Back to Chattanooga, Tennessee. And after my 30 days was up, I had to report back to Nashville. By that time the war was over.

Michael Willie:

Um-hum.

Louis Harold Erwin:

And you got out of the -- by points. And of course, I wasn't married then, and you automatically got ten points for that. And you just got a half a point for overseas in the war zone for a month. And --

Michael Willie:

What about combat; did you get combat points or --

Louis Harold Erwin:

Only a half a point for being over there. And it took 44 points to get out. So totalling all of mine up, I only had 38 points. So they shipped me -- sent me back to Nashville for my orders. So I got over to Nashville, why, when they brought my orders around, why, my orders was to go back to Coronado, California, and to go to amphibious training. I told them I had almost enough points to get out, but I got shipped back to San Diego, where I had amphibious training. If you're not familiar with that, that's piloting those small landing craft that carries the soldiers and Marines in that land. So when I got out there, it took a three months training course to go through that. And the officer in charge out there, the captain says I would be out of the service -- or the group that was sent back out there would be out of the service before we completed our training. So we stayed out there till they shipped me back to Memphis, Tennessee, where I was discharged in January of 1946. And --

Michael Willie:

Okay.

Louis Harold Erwin:

-- in 1946 is when I met -- when I married my wife of 57 years.

Michael Willie:

Uh-huh. Now, how long did it take after you got back?

Louis Harold Erwin:

Five months.

Michael Willie:

Five months?

Louis Harold Erwin:

Yeah.

Michael Willie:

Well, you had to wait then, huh.

Louis Harold Erwin:

Yeah. It didn't take long. Yeah, a sailer that had been gone all that time, it couldn't take long.

Michael Willie:

Right. Now, what about your brother?

Louis Harold Erwin:

Oh, my brother, he -- he had already gotten out of the Marine Corps. He -- like I was saying, he was in Solomons over there. He caught malaria fever. He had that ol' malaria, had to take quinine and all for years and years and years. But thank the Lord he's still here, and he's 80 years old now, and we enjoy each other.

Michael Willie:

Great, great. Now, your wife had mentioned something about a letter, a letter to your mother.

Louis Harold Erwin:

Yes.

Michael Willie:

Let's talk about that. Or is this a good time to talk about it?

Louis Harold Erwin:

Oh, yeah, it's all right. My mother did receive a letter after I was in the hospital in Guam, after two or three weeks, 16, 18 days or whatever. Then she got a letter that I was -- had an explosion and a letter that she thought -- I don't know. MRS.

Louis Harold Erwin:

It wasn't an explosion.

Louis Harold Erwin:

Yeah, I was suffering from all that and all, she thought explosion. So we finally got her straightened out after I --

Michael Willie:

Okay.

Louis Harold Erwin:

I called and got her -- that I was still there.

Michael Willie:

Okay. Good. So nobody really -- nobody really knew that your ship had been sunk until after you were in the hospital; is that right then?

Louis Harold Erwin:

No one knew until they started radioing back that these men are off the USS Indianapolis.

Michael Willie:

Um-hum.

Louis Harold Erwin:

Which if they would have notified them, our date of arrival to be in Leyte, and they'd say look, the ship's not here, where is the ship, find out. But Leyte -- we were just accidentally spotted by that bomber, or we'd have all done been gone. They'd have never known what happened to the USS Indianapolis --

Michael Willie:

Right.

Louis Harold Erwin:

-- if they -- if that bomber hadn't come along and spotted us. Leyte had done forgotten about it, I guess, and which was their job --

Michael Willie:

Right.

Louis Harold Erwin:

-- to muster that ship in to see it was there.

Michael Willie:

Right.

Louis Harold Erwin:

And that's a sad part of what they did to our captain. And thanks to -- to the people that made it possible to exonerate him. It's just sad that he is not here today to find out.

Michael Willie:

Right. Right. Because obviously he had to have struggled, really struggled with it.

Louis Harold Erwin:

Yes.

Michael Willie:

They blamed him for those deaths, basically, is what it was I guess.

Louis Harold Erwin:

Well, one thing that beared on the captain's mind, the people that lost loved ones on the ship. There were 880 men lost. And he'd get hate mail and different things. And then them blaming him, the Navy blaming him for the things that he had no what -- control over. He had asked for an escort. We did not get it. And so, so many things that the Navy could have done to save these men's lives.

Michael Willie:

Now, let's move up to -- to January, 1946.

Louis Harold Erwin:

Do you want to cut that off a minute?

Michael Willie:

Yeah, sure. Okay. January, 1946, when you get home. What do you do the first days and weeks after you get home?

Louis Harold Erwin:

Well, my brother and I, we -- first thing, let me explain. We got $100 mustering out pay.

Michael Willie:

Okay.

Louis Harold Erwin:

And it was burning in my pocket. So when I got to Chattanooga, why, my brother and I, we celebrated in town a little bit.

Michael Willie:

Okay.

Louis Harold Erwin:

It didn't take long for that $100 to be gone. Of course, they was nice enough to give us $300 mustering out pay. You got $100 a month. So we couldn't -- we couldn't wait to spend that $100 when we got it. But within two weeks after I was out, why, I found a job.

Michael Willie:

Okay.

Louis Harold Erwin:

And I went to work for Tri-State Cigar Company; was a driver, a truck driver, and stayed that there for, oh, about eight or nine months. Then I went in the beer business.

Michael Willie:

Okay. So during that time is when you ended up marrying your wife.

Louis Harold Erwin:

Yes.

Michael Willie:

All right.

Louis Harold Erwin:

Within that --

Michael Willie:

When you were working for the cigar -- or driving the truck?

Louis Harold Erwin:

Driving a truck.

Michael Willie:

Okay. And what's your wife's name?

Louis Harold Erwin:

Thelma. Thelma Erwin.

Michael Willie:

Okay. Now, you end up getting married, and then you go to work for the -- are you driving a truck then with the beer --

Louis Harold Erwin:

I first started out driving a truck for the Gerst Brewing Company out of Nashville.

Michael Willie:

I'll be darned. I loved the Gerst Haus.

Louis Harold Erwin:

Do you remember Gerst Haus?

Michael Willie:

Gerst Haus. I'm from Nashville. We used to go to Gerst Haus with my -- with my grandfather. Now he had been there. He used to go when they had -- or his father used to go when they had the brewery down there. But they're making Gerst beer again.

Louis Harold Erwin:

Oh, are they?

Michael Willie:

Um-hum.

Louis Harold Erwin:

I knew a few of those Gerst people. But I just branch -- worked in the branch office here.

Michael Willie:

Um-hum.

Louis Harold Erwin:

And I did know some of their territory managers quite well. And I went to work for Gerst Brewing Company and stayed three years. And then I went with Ellis Strewing (ph) Company, which is Falstaff, and I stayed 35 years.

Michael Willie:

Wow. And where was -- was that a distributor here then?

Louis Harold Erwin:

They're locally, Chattanooga.

Michael Willie:

Okay.

Louis Harold Erwin:

In fact, it was Gus Ellis and Seymour Wilson owned it. Ellis Restaurant was a famous restaurant here in town for years, and it was on Market Street, in the 1400 block, right straight across in front of the Choo Choo.

Michael Willie:

All right. Now, so do you retire from there?

Louis Harold Erwin:

No. In 1984, they sell out. Well, Mr. Ellis is gone and they sell out. And then -- I don't care nothing about mentioning the liquor store. MRS.

Louis Harold Erwin:

You just retired, didn't you.

Louis Harold Erwin:

Yeah, I just retired.

Michael Willie:

Let's talk about your family then. You say you have two -- two children.

Louis Harold Erwin:

Yes. Thelma and I, we have two wonderful children. Our son, Louis Kale Erwin, Junior, and Sandy Erwin Petty. They're both two good kids.

Michael Willie:

Are they both here in Chattanooga?

Louis Harold Erwin:

Yes, they are, and we are very, very proud of them; doing very, very well.

Michael Willie:

Any grandkids?

Louis Harold Erwin:

No grandkids.

Michael Willie:

Okay.

Louis Harold Erwin:

Our son, he -- he owns a Chicamalla Marina (ph) in Gold Point, and our daughter, she works for -- she's a -- works for -- MRS.

Louis Harold Erwin:

Activity director.

Louis Harold Erwin:

Yes, she's activity director at -- what's the name of that place?

Michael Willie:

Alexian?

Louis Harold Erwin:

Alexian Brothers.

Michael Willie:

Okay.

Louis Harold Erwin:

She's activity director there. And they're both real well. In fact, our daughter lives throwing distance from us right out there. MRS.

Louis Harold Erwin:

Neither one of them give us any problems.

Michael Willie:

Lucky there. MRS.

Louis Harold Erwin:

I know.

Louis Harold Erwin:

And our --

Michael Willie:

All right. Now, looking back over your time, joining the service at age 17 and then going into the service and going into World War II, is there -- do you ever regret -- do you regret that decision at any point of joining the service?

Louis Harold Erwin:

No. I -- I'm proud to have served. And I am very proud to serve aboard the USS Indianapolis. There's one thing that I really hate. I didn't get the schooling I -- I should have gotten. But everything turned out well. Everything -- and our -- go back to our son. He spent a hitch in the Navy.

Michael Willie:

Did he.

Louis Harold Erwin:

And we're very proud of that. So in the long run, I -- I do not regret being part of the military service and serving in the U.S. Navy.

Michael Willie:

Okay. One last thing I wanted to ask you about. I forgot all about this. Reunions. Talk about reunions and the -- the -- really the organization.

Louis Harold Erwin:

We now have a organization -- well, this was started, the reunions started in 1960. Our organization began. And we have -- Thelma and I have been able to make every one of them. And we meet some of the old guys and cut up with them. And there was 316 survivors, but now we've all dwindled down to there's less than 100 of us left. Seem like each time we get a newsletter, which we get one once a month or every two months, and seem like we lose two, three or four. Since our last reunion, which was two years ago, we've lost 12 men, 12 more. So we just -- there's very few of us left. And I'd like to say something about the people in Indianapolis. They're real nice.

Michael Willie:

They made the monument there; right?

Louis Harold Erwin:

Yes. We have -- we have a monument down on canal down there. Indianapolis has donated property to us, and it took us years and years to get this built through donations and everything. The men in our organization has made up and this -- we're very proud of this monument. On one side it has a picture of the ship with a lot of history on it, and on the back it has the name of every -- of the sailing list that sailed that day that lost their lives; the ones that lost their lives and the ones that made it. You'll find the stars on the ones that made it. The ones that didn't, why, they're all back there. So if you're ever in Indianapolis, you should go see this monument. That's a picture of it over there on quite a bit of that.

Michael Willie:

Is there anything else you'd like to say that we didn't cover in the interview, any final thoughts?

Louis Harold Erwin:

No. Everything -- it's just -- I would advise any young man that would like a career or something to get in one of the armed forces. Later on in life, you'll thank yourself that you did. That's about all.

 
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  October 26, 2011
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