CENTER FOR U.S. WAR
VETERANS' ORAL HISTORIES
World War II
World War II Oral History Interview
US Navy, USS Wilkes-Barre
Date: March 16, 2017
Interviewer: Carol Fowler, William Elwell, Kristine Galassi
Summarizer: William Elwell
Robert Lepre was born in 1925 in Newark, New Jersey. He described himself as a “neighborhood kid” who worked as a carpenter’s apprentice for his uncle after dropping out of high school. In 1943, at the age of seventeen, Lepre tried to enlist in the Navy, rather than wait to be drafted. The initial physical exam revealed that he “had flat feet;” and, he was rejected, but he demanded to be reexamined. After a re-examination the following day, Lepre was accepted for service. He attended Navy boot camp at Naval Training Center Newport, in Rhode Island. Upon graduation, the recruits were asked for their pre-war profession, presumably to help determine their military specialty. After replying “I’m a carpenter,” however, Lepre was told by the officer in charge, “Great! Cooks and Bakers’ School.”
Lepre would serve as a cook from 1943 to 1946. Once aboard the light cruiser USS Wilkes-Barre (CL-103), his duties included making meals for the crew, as well as auxiliary duties as a laundryman and cobbler. His cooking specialty included anything with pasta, due to his Italian heritage. To that end, “whenever [he] was on duty, [the crew] could expect noodles.” Lepre made fresh pasta with Italian expertise, and he told the other cooks to “save the sauce from the meatballs” to increase the flavor.
On May 11, 1945, while supporting the invasion of Okinawa, the USS Bunker Hill (CV-17) was hit by two Kamikaze planes within the span of thirty seconds. As an escort ship, the Wilkes-Barre arrived on-station to take wounded aboard. The Bunker Hill was supposed to be towed back to San Francisco by the Wilkes-Barre, but was able to make it under its own power to Ulithi Atoll and then home. Captain Porter of the Wilkes-Barre told his crew, “Well, gentlemen, since you did such a good job, we’re not gonna tow it home!” Lepre remarked: “about six hundred guys sighed relief.”
The Wilkes-Barre moved into Tokyo Bay on September 3, 1945, following the Japanese surrender. She was appointed as flagship of the naval force involved in overseeing Japan’s demilitarization, and Lepre and his shipmates settled in to a life of occupation duty. The ship then spent time in China, where Lepre visited the Great Wall while on shore leave, as well as Korea, where the sailors wanted to see the native water buffalo at work.
Lepre and the Wilkes-Barre arrived in San Francisco in 1946. He recalled: “What was special about it? We got off the ship!” Discharged, Lepre was given the option to remain aboard for a return trip to Philadelphia, but he opted instead to make it home faster on land, as he was eager to see his fiancée. Hitchhiking and hopping seven different freight and passenger trains, the trip took him five days. He stopped home to visit his family, checked to see if he still had a job as a carpenter, and then visited his fiancée, who was doing “war work” in a defense plant. Women on lunch break called out “Hey, sailor, come on up here;” but, Lepre continued into the plant, where he surprised his fiancée. He recalled that she thought she looked “a mess,” and asked some other women for lipstick amid cheers from her coworkers. To Lepre, “she was the most beautiful woman [he] ever saw.”
Returning to work as a carpenter for his uncle, a builder, Lepre built his first house and then went on to build “hundreds” of houses over his career. He kept in touch with some shipmates while raising his family. At the time of his interview, Robert Lepre was living at a retirement home in Brick Township, New Jersey, where the interview was conducted with the gracious assistance of daughter, Cindy Barnes.
Robert L. Lepre passed away on January 10, 2018.