Although age eighteen was the minimum for the draft, when a World War is raging and you live in Newport, enlisting in the U.S. Navy at seventeen was not uncommon.
Helo J. LaChapelle, always known as “Frenchy” because of his grandparents’ coming from Quebec, was among those volunteers and in August 1942 he was crowded onto a troop ship to begin an Atlantic crossing. Their departure had been delayed in waiting for a convoy to be formed and to say conditions were unpleasant is an understatement.
“I went up on deck and counted 76 ships and we were moving in a V-formation,” he recalled. That, however, was also during devastating attacks of German U-boats, operating in what were called “Wolfpacks”.
They had particularly honed their ability to target convoys and the one LaChapelle was in was no exception. After the disruption, he found himself in Newfoundland at the Canadian airfield at Goose Bay. That was where he became a gunner for the PBY aircraft – a Patrol Bomber. The last letter indicated the manufacturer and the airplanes were used for anti-submarine warfare among other missions. With multiple guns mounted and bomb racks, anti-submarine patrols were a vital part of the war.
In what he didn’t know would be two extremes of climate he would experience, LaChapelle was stationed in Iceland.
“We were credited with sinking seven U-boats.”
Even though the U-boats’ early successes had been responsible for loss of 175 Allied warships and more than 2,800 merchant ships, tactics and skill such as those displayed by PBY crews ultimately prevailed for what was approximately a 70 percent casualty rate of the U-boat fleet.
LaChapelle was then sent in a series of southward movements through Scotland and South Wales into England until he was in Devonshire. The B-24 was his next aircraft and they flew patrols and bombing runs leading up to the momentous invasion of D-Day. In returning to Roosevelt Field in Long Island, NY LaChapelle was to be among thousands who were shifted to the Pacific Theater of War. May 8, 1945 was a day of euphoric celebration of Germany’s surrender in Europe, but bloody, high casualty fighting had not ceased against the Japanese.
Less than three weeks after VE Day [Victory in Europe], the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff approved Operation Olympic, the plan to invade Japan in the late fall; a plan which meant continuing to take island after island in the Pacific. In early June 1945 Japanese Premier Suzuki made it clear Japan would refuse unconditional surrender as the battle for Okinawa entered another brutal month. LaChapelle, having made his way through the West Coast and Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, was now a gunner in the TBM, a carrier-based torpedo bomber. “Okinawa was tough. I almost bought the farm there. Kamikazes were all over the place. We were next to an ammunition ship and the Captain got us out of there as fast as he could. We went to Kerama, but it was worse.” The final toll from the battle that did not end until June 23, 1945 was estimated at 49,000 U.S. casualties including 12,520 killed and approximately 110,000 Japanese soldiers killed. Tens of thousands of Okinawa
citizens died as well. The final planned push into Japan did not occur as the war ended August 14, 1945 after the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshma and then Nagasaki.
“We went into Guam and put as many bunks as could fit onto the ship to carry guys back to California. I got a big shock though because I was called in and told to get off the ship. I had so many combat points from being in Europe, then the Pacific I had to get out. I went home for a while and didn’t know what I wanted to do. A friend, Monk Russo, was in the Merchant Marines, so I did that for about a year. The Navy notified me I could come back in and I did for another few years and even got my private pilot’s license.”
The U.S. Air Force was created in 1947 from the previous Army Air Forces, and by 1949, they were looking for enlisted men. “My brothers and I went in and I was a gunner in the B-29; that was a beautiful aircraft.” For all LaChapelle had been through, the assignment to Rapid City, South Dakota and flying in the experimental XB-36 was enough. “I thought that plane might kill me.” In 1955, he returned to the sea in a private capacity. A license to captain freighters and a willingness to travel took him to well-known and far-flung ports alike. “When I was a kid, I never expected to go all the way around the world,” he said. Florida became his choice to settle and he actively worked until his late 80s when the boat captain he was working with was emphatic he retire. “Forty-five years on the water is probably enough,” he acknowledged. He enjoys woodworking among other activities now and as a regular at the Arrant-Smith VFW Post 127, he shares the camaraderie of other Veterans of Foreign Wars.
In the words of his friend Rusty Balletti [Vietnam veteran], “This man is a national treasure – they all were – the ones who did what they did. If it weren’t for them, we wouldn’t be here today.”