When it comes to patriotic service, Clarence Howard Licht modestly says his family “was well represented” in World War II.
At 17 years old after graduating from Tonawanda High School, Licht followed his 19-year-old brother’s example and enlisted in the armed services. Allan Licht was in the Army serving in the Pacific battling the Japanese.
“I wanted to serve my country, too, and I joined the Navy,” Clarence Licht said.
The examples of Clarence and Allen inspired their father, Clarence Herman Licht, to join the Navy’s Seabees.
“My father had been too young to fight in World War I, and he wanted to defend the country, and so he enlisted at 40 years old for World War II,” his namesake son explained.
But there’s a little more to it than that.
Margaret Licht, the father’s wife and mother of the two sons, had died in the early 1930s, prompting the maternally orphaned family to move in with her parents in the City of Tonawanda. As a widower, the older Licht had no domestic ties, which freed him up to join the military, where his sons had already found a home. The dad served in Hawaii.
But patriotism extended beyond the immediate family.
The extended Licht family had numerous uncles and cousins also serving in World War II. In fact, when Clarence Howard Licht enlisted, his cousin, William Koepsel, also joined the Navy.
“We went in together. We served in boot camp over at Sampson Naval Base on Lake Seneca,” Licht said. “Then we went to radio school at Bedford Springs, Pennsylvania.”
After that, Koepsel ended up on a submarine in the Pacific. Licht headed to the Atlantic, assigned to a Navy tanker in Portsmith, Va., with duties of refueling escort vessels in convoys bound for Africa.
“We also made trips to Venezuela and Texas to pick up oil. We’d load up and go back to our port, and then fuel the escort vessels in the convoys.”
It may not sound like a glorious task of war, but carrying a million gallons of crude oil in the belly of their ship made them and other Navy tankers prime targets for German submarines.
“If the German subs could take out a tanker, it crippled the entire convoy. The escort vessels needed the fuel to keep circling the convoy. They protected as many as 50 ships, all kinds of ships, often carrying supplies and troops, from the submarines. The escorts used their sonar to try and pick up the subs and then get them with depth charges before the subs got to the convoy,” Licht said.
Fortunately, he added, his tanker, the USS Kennebec, escaped the dreaded torpedoes of the Germans.
In fact, Licht was part of a task unit in the only World War II capture of a German submarine in June 1944.
“One of our destroyers spotted the sub above water during the day off the coast of Africa in the Atlantic. The destroyer rammed the submarine, and Navy crewmen started shooting handguns at the enemy on the sub’s deck. When the Germans realized they were going to be captured, they tried to scuttle the sub letting water in, but our guys got on the sub and were able to stop that.”
The name of the enemy sub was the U-505.
“We towed it to Bermuda, and we kept it under wraps so that the Germans would not know we had captured it. We got all their secret codes, and that made quite a difference in the war in the Atlantic. We were able to find out what their activities were.”
When the war ended in Europe, Licht’s tanker headed to the Pacific Theater by way of the Panama Canal and continued to Hawaii.
“We were supposed to join a huge task force that was going to be part of the invasion of Japan, but on our way to the task force, the United States dropped the atom bomb on Hiroshima. After they dropped the second bomb on Nagasaki, Japan surrendered.”
Even with the war over, Licht’s tanker continued providing fuel for mine sweepers on waters off Japan. He at last was discharged on April 23, 1946. He, his brother, and their father had plenty of war stories to share back home in Tonawanda.
And while it was quite exceptional that a father and his two sons served in the war, Licht said, “We didn’t make much of it. Everybody at that time had served.”
Years later, Licht said he satisfied his curiosity and traveled to the Chicago Museum of Science, where the captured German submarine was on display.
“I went inside it and it was surprising how small it was. I don’t know how they could serve on it. I have claustrophobia.”
Even more important to Licht than his memories of the submarine capture, he says, is “remembering all the friends I made in the Navy. Some of them have been lifelong friends.”
Clarence Howard Licht, 87
• Hometown: City of Tonawanda
• Residence: North Tonawanda
• Branch: Navy
• Rank: Petty officer
• War zone: World War II,
European and Pacific theaters
• Years of service: January
• Most prominent honors:
European, African, Middle
Eastern Campaign Medal,
Asiatic Pacific Campaign
Medal, Unit Citation
• Specialty: Radio operator