Harland ‘Rink” Emler has spent most of his life in the Potosi area, but in the 1940’s Emler spent his time crisscrossing the Atlantic and Pacific taking part in the important, and very dangerous job of keeping the front lines supplied during World War II.
While he had a deferment because he worked on the family farm, Emler felt a call to duty. “Everybody else was away in the war, I thought I should be too.” Rink, along with friend Virgil Adrian, decided it was time for them to enlist, which is what they did in September of 1943.
They were going to be Marines – well that was Emler’s intention, anyway. When the duo traveled to Milwaukee for enlistment and assignment, however, the government had different plans. “They sent us down this hall. I went in one door, my buddy in the other. When my friend came out, he was a Marine, and I came out I was in the Navy.”
After basic training at Great Lakes Naval Base in Illinois, and a brief assignment in New Orleans, Emler was assigned to the S.S. Earl Layman, a liberty ship. The liberty ships were an important part of America’s war effort, bringing supplies to the theaters in both the Pacific and Europe. Nearly 2,800 liberty ships were used during World War II, manned by a combination of Merchant Marines, who handled the operation of the ship and the cargo, and a group of 20-25 members of the Navy, who handled the armaments.
“We took everything from candy to bombs,” Emler said of the cargo. The ships could hold 10,000 tons.
The ships were neither nimble nor fast, traveling at a speed of eight knots. Assigned to the Atlantic, Emler said the ship also had to deal with the ship drawing 20-foot waters during the crossings. “That Atlantic would buck,” Emler noted.
The first trip Emler took was part of one of the largest operations of the war – a fleet of thousands of ships bringing supplies for the upcoming Normandy invasion. Emler recalls the sight – ships 500 yards on every side of the Earl Layman, with ships extending into the horizon.
Emler, and the rest of the Navy’s job, was to man the guns on the ship, including five-inch 38 gun on the stern of the ship that could fire into the ocean, looking for German U-boats which wanted to cut off the supply lines to the Allies. It took seven men to operate the big gun. “That baby would fire,” Emler noted. Rink had four-hour shifts manning the armaments of the ship, which also had to deal with the Luftwaffe as they came closer to the continent. When on the guns, Emler had to be in full dress, which included leggings and a 45 pistol. If they were not manning the guns, there were duties like painting the ship or other tasks, but the important thing was always to be ready.
“You worried all the time,” Emler recalls of the missions, noting that his ships were lucky enough never to be directly hit. “We had schrapnel fall into the tubs a few times.”
Emler recalls one voyage with a newbie from Minnesota that was suffering through seasickness. Emler’s response to a question showed how alone they were out at sea. “He kept asking if we were close to land, and I said ‘yes.’ He asked which way, and I said ‘two miles, straight down,” adding that one of the captains he worked with would always say “the name of the game is survival.”
What he never wanted to see was his ship assigned to one of the corners of a group, known as coffin’s corner since that was where they placed the tankers, which were a highly targeted group.
Lurking in the dark waters close to England, the U-boats would attempt to pick off the supply ships. Emler recalled during a crossing a tanker was hit, causing the 165,000 barrels of fuel it was carrying to go up in flames. “It took a torpedo around midnight, and when we passed around 5 a.m. it was still burning.”
Tanks, bombs, food, you name it, the liberty ships hauled it. They also hauled two special passengers Emler and a friend of his decided to bring along – two dogs. The two thought it would be interesting to bring the ‘mascots’ along, and when they landed in Europe, brought the dogs ashore. They never saw them afterwards, as the two dogs ran off.
While the Merchant Marines unloaded the cargo, that was the time Emler got to see the destruction of the war up close. “You cannot imagine the amount of destruction,” Emler said of Europe during the war, noting seeing it up close was far greater than seeing it in the newsreels of the day.
After several trips back and forth over the Atlantic, Emler was assigned to the Pacific campaign. That assignment was short-lived because things were about to come to an end. “We pulled into Honolulu right when Japan surrendered,” Emler recalled. So with safer waters ahead of them, Emler shipped into Manilla, as well as Tokyo, continue to handle supplies. While in the Phillipenes, Emler did run into a friend from home, and they spent part of their ime exploring the island nation.
When Emler left the Navy, he brought back with him a number of photos of his time, as well as several tattoos which adorn his arms. “I had to get tattooed, its sort of a Navy thing,” Emler noted, adding there would be one for each port. There is the hula girl on his arm from his time in Honolulu, his name, something from New Orleans, as well as a black cat on top of the number 13. “I am not superstitious.”
During a trip to Manilla, Emler learned he would be getting out of the Navy, and was discharged in April 1946. He returned to Potosi, met his future wife for the first time, despite the fact that they lived only 10 miles apart throughout their lives. “Funny how you can travel all over the world and never have met until then,” Emler quipped. They have been married for 60 years.
The first years back were years of adjustment for Emler, much like they are for most of those who served and saw the level of destruction that took place, but like most vets of that era, began raising a family of three children, and become a member of both the American Legion, and VFW.
Emler said that looking back at the memories of service, its something to be proud of, but something you never would want to do. “You wouldn’t take a million dollars for the experience, but you wouldn’t give a nickel to do it over again.”