This past May, when I had the honor and pleasure of attending the Battle of Midway Commemoration, I noted that some of the Midway warriors in attendance were very frail:
The President of the Mess asked each veteran to stand (or wave) as his name was called. He then told the assembled gathering the role that the veteran had played in the Battle of Midway. Each had a tale of derring-do, heroism, ingenuity, and commitment. Each man, unsurprisingly, went on to serve long after the battle was over, some merely for the remainder of the war, and some for the rest of their careers. Some of these men were hale, and some so frail they looked practically transparent, but each managed to stand proudly to hear his accomplishments read to the assembly. Each then received a well-deserved standing ovation.
One of those frail men, Richard C. Epps, sat at my table. His manifest fragility did not prevent him from gathering with his comrades to honor the living and the dad.
Sadly, Commander Epps passed away the other day.
In his heyday, Commander Epps was anything but frail. He entered the Naval Reserves in 1940, while he was at the University of Kansas. Not long after, he was on active duty in a wartime Navy. He ultimately ended up on the USS Aylwyn. The following, which I’ve copied from the lovely volume given attendees to the “Battle of Midway Celebration 2010,” describes the Allwyn’s and Epp’s role before and during the Battle of Midway:
The AYLWIN saw action in February 1942 while escorting USS LEXINGTON (CV-2) in raids near Bouganville, and again in May in the Battle of the Coral Sea in company with USS YORKTOWN (CV-5). The LEXINGTON was lost in that battle, and the AYLWIN rescued 129 of its crew.
While returning to Pearl Harbor from the Coral Sea, the AYLWIN’s fathometer failed. The fathometer was very necessary when approach port, so Apprentice Seaman Epps was ordered to fix it — the captain thought Epps’ prior training in radar repair qualified him to work on the fathometer. He got it fixed, inspiring the captain to immediately promote him three pay grades to Radioman3/c!
Upon arrival at Pearl Harbor, the AYLWIN immediately went into drydock due to minor damage sustained from a near miss in the Coral Sea. While repairs were being made, Epps took notice of the carrier YORKTOWN in the adjacent drydock, on which the repair activity seemed to be especially frenetic. The reason for that soon became clear as both ships were quickly floated and promptly proceeded on their next mission, the defense of Midway Atoll. The AYLWIN’s assignment in the forthcoming battle was to serve as screen and plane guard for the USS ENTERPRISE (CV-6) in Task Force 16.
AYLWIN was largely a spectator to the dramatic events of the first day of the battle, as the ENTERPRISE launched and recovered its planes and the YORKTOWN fought for its life on the distant horizon. On the second day, an SBD dive bomber returning from a mission ran out of gas and ditched well astern of the carrier. AYLWIN came to the rescue, bringing aboard a pilot and gunner from Scouting Squadron 8 who would live to fly another day. Through the battle, RM3/c Epps manned his battle station in the AYLWIN’s radar console.
Commander Epps went on to serve through the War, continued to serve in the reserve during the post-war peacetime Navy, and action saw active duty in the Korean War. For those interested, there are a few available copies of his self-published book describing his experiences, Life on a Tin Can: The Pacific War. RIP, Commander Epps.