In the bloody battle of Leyte, it was Howard Lahr’s job to make sure that supplies made it from the beach to the front lines, where American soldiers were fighting foot by foot to retake the Philippines from the Japanese.
On one of his supply runs after the troops first hit the beach, on Oct. 20, 1944, he and his unit returned to the sea-side supply depot to find something unusual.
“It was kind of a small beach and they were bringing supplies in,” recalls Lahr, who has lived in Napa since the war, “and they had lights, flood lights all over the beach, and we asked ‘what the heck happened?’ He said, ‘well MacArthur’s coming.’ And he came wading in.”
A photo of Gen. Douglas MacArthur wading toward Lahr and his supply depot, returning to the Philippines two years after he was driven off by the Japanese, became one of the defining images of the war.
MacArthur’s troops, including Lahr’s 184th infantry regiment, won the battle, but at the cost of more than 3,500 killed and 11,000 wounded.
Lahr, a retired auto mechanic, will turn 100 on Nov. 30. He believes he is the last surviving member of the headquarters company of the 1st battalion of the 184th, a California National Guard unit that had been called into full time Army service in March of 1941.
Lahr never saw direct combat, but his regiment took part in some of the most challenging campaigns of World War II, including the icy effort to evict the Japanese from the Aleutian Islands, the only part of North America occupied by Japan. The unit went on to take part in the textbook-defining amphibious invasion of Kwajalien Atoll in the Marshall Islands, the Battle of Leyte, and finally the fighting on the Japanese island of Okinawa.
This wasn’t the life Lahr had expected. He grew up on a quiet ranch in Vallejo, more of a farm boy even though he was in the city.
“We lived on a ranch on Benicia Road,” he recalls. “We had our own vegetables and things like that … we had had rabbits and chickens and everything.”
“After high school was out, in ‘39, there were no jobs anywhere so joined the three Cs,” the New Deal’s Civilian Conservation Corps, which provided jobs for young men doing outdoor projects, including building infrastructure and fighting fires. “I was with them for 6 months, came out and I joined the National Guard, the California National Guard.”
Although the U.S. was officially neutral, tensions were running high in Europe and the Pacific, so the federal government called up the National Guard in early 1941, more than half a year before the attack on Pearl Harbor. The 184th became part of the regular Army on March 3.
On Dec. 7, when the Japanese attacked, “I was in San Francisco on leave when the big thing came on the radio, all troops go back to where you belong.”
The 184th spent a year on guard duty on the West Coast, starting in San Diego and moving up the coast to Washington. After returning to California for training at Fort Ord in Monterey County, the 184th got orders to move out.
“They threw us on a train and brought us … to Fisherman’s Wharf where the train came and from there onto the troop ships that were stationed in the harbor,” he said. “So we stayed out there in the bay for about three days” without knowing their eventual destination.
Instead of heading to the South Pacific, however, the ships turned north, to the Aleutians to be part of what was expected to be a brutal fight to retake the island of Kiska.
The invading Americans found that the Japanese had withdrawn already, so there was no fight, but it left Lahr with an indelible memory.
“The boats landed somewhere in Alaska, in one of the coves,” he recalls with a laugh. “We were on regular army rations so there was a pretty good size creek coming off the island and there were these salmon in there. We had some of our grenades. We dropped them in there, they come floating up and we skinned them out and had salmon dinner.”
Problem is, such living off the land was against regulations.
“Most of the guys had salmon for dinner and one of the officers found out we were having salmon,” he said, shaking his head. “I just about got (demoted).”
Lahr doesn’t talk much about the hard fighting after that, but he does recall his closest brush with death, on the island of Okinawa.
“We were in a place where we stored ammunition and I don’t know what hit the ammunition dump, but anyway, it blew up. It blew me,” he said, gesturing with his hand to indicate flying high up into the air. “My troops say I was gone for three days, didn’t know where I was going.”
He says he has no memory of where he went or what he did for those three days. All he knows is that when he came to and returned to his unit, his ears were ringing.
“Of course, something that close to you, your ears were ringing like heck,” he said.
Shortly thereafter, most of the 184th was sent to Japan for post-war occupation duty, but Lahr and some others had been at war long enough to earn a ticket home.
Waiting for him there in October of 1945 was his wife, Amelia, who he had married in 1942. They had met in high school and were dating when he was training at Fort Ord.
“I had a little car and we’d come from Fort Ord; I’d come up every weekend and we’d spend the weekend together,” he said. “We were driving somewhere and she said ‘I think we should get married.’ You’re just driving a car and someone tells you that?”
So what did he say?
“I was pretty quiet for a while and it finally dawned on me … a pretty good idea,” he said.
Granddaughter Vickie Fuller says Lahr still talks about the day he got home.
“My grandpa said the best day of his life is when he got out of the war, he was coming home, he got off the train and seen my grandma standing there,” she said.
After the war, he took a job at the shipyard at The Basalt Rock Company, now known as Syar Industries.
“We lived in a place they called Shipyard Acres,” he said of the houses thrown up during the war south of what is now Kennedy Park. “… they were like a chicken coop. They weren’t much of a house. Plywood on each side and that’s about it.”
After Basalt closed its shipyard, he worked as an auto mechanic in various dealerships around the Bay Area. He and Amelia, who died in 1990, had two children, three grandchildren and today 12 great grandchildren and three great-great grandchildren.
One thing kept bothering him, he said, and that was the ringing in his ears from the ammunition explosion. Instead of getting better, it just kept getting worse as the years went by.
“I don’t know how I stayed a mechanic so long, it finally got so bad with the ringing,” he said.
Finally, less than two years ago, he met with a representative of the Department of Veterans Affairs, who helped him apply for a service-related disability. Today, he’s on a 100% disability payment.
At the time of the blast, however, he didn’t report it as a major injury.
“He told me he never said anything to anyone about his hearing because back then, in those days, you just didn’t tell anyone anything … He said that back then they just didn’t do that,” granddaughter Vickie Fuller said.
Before Amelia’s death, the couple traveled the West going to dog shows, where they showed the German shorthaired pointers they bred and raised.
Now on the cusp of 100, “I can’t do a heck of a lot,” he said. But “all my helpers are here,” gesturing to a crowd of family who sat in on his interview with the Register, on Veterans Day.
Since around March, daughter-in-law Nancy Lahr said, the family has been rotating to make sure someone is with him 24 hours.
“Prior to that he lived independently … we were always here a lot but still he was living independently up until like March … driving, going to church every day, always active, raking leaves, and cleaning up his walnut stuff,” she said. “Just very, very active, kept busy his whole life.”
Lahr says he thinks back on his service “once in a while.”
Since most of the men in his unit returned to California after the war, “every 10 years we’d have a reunion. Everybody showed up, man and wife and kids. We had a pretty good group … It was sort of nice.”
But no more. “In fact, I just lost my last buddy that I was in the service with … two years ago” he said.
Asked about how he thinks about his service now, almost 80 years later, he thought a moment and shrugged.
“Once you’re in there you keep going,” he said. “You got to get through the darned thing.”
Watch Now: WWII Veteran George Pellegrini describes service in the Philippines
Check out They Served With Honor
Napa Valley Register presents "They Served With Honor" 2019
“They Served With Honor” is a 10-part series honoring local veterans.
The Register begins its new "They Served With Honor" series with a profile of Vietnam veteran Chris Rubio, looking back 50 years at his experience of war.
A former Navy nurse from Napa reflects on serving in WWII and evacuating the wounded during the Korean War.
Harold Bunnell’s invasion of France started at the wheel of a two-and-a-half-ton GMC truck, plunging off the back of a landing craft into the surf off Omaha beach.
Louis and Sheila Daugherty of Napa reflect on their service in Vietnam, he as a field surgeon and she as a nurse at a hospital in Saigon.
Marine aviator Mike Beguelin reflects on his service in the Gulf War at the controls of the supremely powerful, but temperamental jet known as a Harrier.
Editor’s note: This is the seventh of a 10-part series profiling veterans who live in Napa County. This week’s story was sponsored by The Mead…
Leah and Dominic Heil of St. Helena reflect on their dual service with the Army in Iraq.
Bob Nance of Napa recounts his wild year at the controls of a powerful helicopter gunship in Vietnam.
The Register concludes its They Served With Honor series with the story of Albert Freitas, 98, who was shot down over France in World War II.
You can reach Sean Scully at 256-2246 or firstname.lastname@example.org.