Dickinson County

Bob Ulrich



Former Park Youth Was On Aircraft Carrier Lexington

Bob Ulrich, son of Mr. and Mrs. Fred Ulrich of Toddville, formerly of Arnolds Park, spent two hours in the water after the battle in the Coral Sea when the air craft carrier Lexington was abandoned. The youth is a brother of Mrs. Albert Heick of Spirit Lake. His 20 year old brother, George was reported missing after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The brothers were shipmates at that time.

The following story from the Cedar Rapids Gazette tells graphically of Bob’s experience following the abandonment of his ship. The story was related to a Gazette writer during Bob’s furlough visit with his parents in Toddville, near Cedar Rapids.

NOTE: The USS Lexington (CV-2), “Lady Lext,”lost during the Battle of the Coral Sea after sustaining several torpedo hits.  Not to be confused with USS Lexington (CV-16).
 ~ wikipedia.org/USS_Lexington_(CV-2)


Eighteen-year-old Bob Ulrich of Toddville can’t swim a stroke, but he spent two hours in the water when the blazing aircraft carrier Lexington was abandoned in the Coral Sea.

A fireman aboard the carrier, Bob didn’t see the Japanese attack which left the Lexington helpless.

But when the furious 18-minute assault had ended, Bob’s work was just beginning. In temperatures that ranged about 125 degrees, he joined with other crewmen in the determined but futile attempt to extinguish the blaze deep within the ship.

Son of Mr. and Mrs. Fred Ulrich, Bob lost a brother, 20-year-old George, his shipmate during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Another brother, Herman, is with the navy on the east coast.

Fighting, mad, Bob was transferred to the Lexington Dec. 13. He went through three engagements before the pioneer carrier was mortally wounded May 8.

40 Miles Away

“We were at general quarters when they told us over the phone system that enemy planes had been spotted 40miles away,” Bob said. “The next we knew, they were only 10 miles away and the Lexington’s guns had opened up.” That was the last news the men below had until the attack was over.

The first torpedo to strike the carrier knocked Ulrich’s fire room – one of several – out of action. Bob huddled with other members of the crew in the air intake, listening to the sounds of battle without knowing fully what they meant.

He’s noncommittal about his part in the fire fighting, except to say that “it was awful hot.”

“I didn’t see anyone seriously hurt,” he says. “I got a few minor burns on the arms and back but they didn’t bother me much.

“We just couldn’t seem to make any headway against the fire,” he relates. “We used chemicals and salt water under pressure, but just as we’d get the blaze driven back a new explosion would start it all over somewhere else.”

Before the order to abandon ship, Bob went up on deck and ate some chocolate ice cream. He soon wished he hadn’t. A few minutes later he was slithering down a hemp line, and the amount of salt water he swallowed, combined with the rocking motion of the waves, played tricks with his stomach.

Watched For Sharks

“I didn’t do any swimming – just kept drifting around in my Mae West [lifejacket]. I was close to another fellow most of the time, but I never did find out who he was. We were both scared of sharks and we were too busy watching for fins to talk much.”

Bob was philosophical about his inability to swim. “Those jackets,” he says, “will hold a man up for 24 hours.”

In the two hours before he was picked up by a destroyer, Bob drifted well away from the Lexington, still shaken by repeated explosions. She was on his way to port when she finally was sunk

This is Bob’s second visit at home since he joined the navy just a year ago. His leave is nearly over, but he’s ready to go back. He has a personal stake in the war.

He wants to avenge his brother.

Source: The Spirit Lake Beacon, Spirit Lake, Iowa, Thursday, July 16, 1942, Page 2

70 years later, Pearl Harbor survivor reflects

He is 87, turning 88 next week, a living witness to the "Day of Infamy", the day America's World War II started 70 years ago on Dec. 7, 1941. Going to get gas masks that day saved his life.

Robert "Bob" Ulrich was born in Okoboji, Iowa, in 1923, and at age 14 his parents moved to Cedar Rapids. He graduated from Franklin High School in the spring of 1941. That summer he went to U.S. Navy boot camp at Great Lakes, Illinois (North of Chicago)and in September reported to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, to become a crew member on the battle ship USS California (BB-44). He was 17.

Ulrich, a resident of Lisbon since 1976, enlisted in the Navy to join his brother who had gone into the service a year before and who was also a crew member on the California. "My brother, George, shared the same birthday, Dec. 4, he being two years older. Out of boot camp I was taken to Pearl on the USS Oklahoma (BB-37) as a passenger to my duty station. I was assigned to the engine room as a Fireman, the same division George was in. We also ate in the same ship's mess at the same times. So I saw him every day."

For the first two months he was aboard, California would go out to sea each week for gunnery practice.

Not knowing America's peace time days were numbered by mere hours, they celebrated their birthdays together Dec. 4, 1941. George turned 20. Bob turned 18. A ship's cook had made two cakes.

World War II in Europe had started two years before on Sept. 1, 1939. Asked today if he thought war was imminent when he joined the Navy he said, "There was talk of war. Some people thought there was no way the Japanese would attack us. I know my brother was a firm believer in that. I was on the other side. I always claimed they would. We actually did sit around and discuss it. No one ever thought there would be a sneak attack."

And here is his tale, 70 years later.

The USS California was berthed on Battleship Row at Pearl Harbor. "I was sitting on the deck listening to the news on the radio. They sounded general quarters and I jumped up and looked out the port hole, and just as I looked out, there was a plane that flew horizontal right along side the ship with a big red meatball on the side and I yelled 'It's the Japs'. I had no sooner said that when they dropped a bomb on the dispensary on Ford Island (along side where the ship was tied up). And I've always remembered I looked at the clock and it was 12 minutes of eight and now the history books recognize it as 5 minutes of eight when hostilities started. I went to my general quarters station, which was one compartment aft and one compartment down. It was the central station for the fuel oil transfer that kept the ship in balance."

"There was a lot of gunfire and all of a sudden there was a terrific lurch of the ship, an explosion. It's quite a thing to move a battleship. It was a torpedo. (History tells us the ship sustained three torpedo hits.) One sailor said, 'I wonder if they'll have gas?' I said 'I'll go up to the compartment and get the gas masks. We had a gas mask locker. So I went up to the compartment and there was a lull. I broke the lock off the lockers and got an arm load of them. I just got back down below when, boy, there was a terrific explosion. And then we had another hit from below. Another explosion was from a thousand pound bomb."

His brother, George, and 75 to 100 other sailors were passing ammunition when that bomb exploded.

"Right where I had been sitting was where that bomb hit. There was a dent on the protective deck and it blew everything up. The steel was just peeled up on the main deck. Bob was told later, that George had stayed in the battle station area until water was up to their knees and he thinks George went back up to the compartment, where they had been, and began passing ammunition when the bomb hit. "Later we took pieces of about 60 men out of there."

"Finally they gave orders to abandon ship. We went up topside and there was a wall of flame coming down the harbor approaching the bow of the ship. We were all going off the ship on to Ford Island when the flame some how dispersed and we went back on board ship to try and save it."

The ship sank up to it's super structure.

They continued to work on the ship for five days. They slept in a hangar on Ford island and would go back to the ship every day to man pumps trying to get water out of the ship, which Bob says turned out to be a futile gesture. He was transferred to a receiving station on the island. "My brother was missing and I checked all the hospitals in those five days, the last being at Aiea. At ten that night they called my name on the P-A system at the receiving station that said I was being transferred to the aircraft carrier USS Lexington (CV-2)."

Both Bob and California would return to fight the war. The battleship was raised in March 1942 and for two years received repairs and modernization and returned to the fleet to be in battles in 1944 and 1945.

When Bob joined the Lexington he would be out to sea for 18 days and check on his brother again still thinking he was "missing." "We went out to sea again, this time for 92 days and we went through two battles. In March of 1942 I got a letter from my folks saying they had received word that George had been declared dead." George Ulrich was one of 159 members of the California's 1,200 man crew that died in the three hour Pearl Harbor attack. (What were believed to be his remains was brought back after the war and buried in Bakersfield, California.)

"I had a friend who found George's clothes locker that had been blown three compartments forward. He found his glasses and some pennies he had in there and gave them to me. But I would lose them when the Lexington went down. (In May, 1942)

Reflecting 70 years later, Bob says, "I just don't think it was my time to die. Later on the Lexington I came even closer to death. It just wasn't my time."

Bob spent two hours in the water in his Mae West jacket after the Lexington was attacked, abandoned and sunk in the Battle of the Coral Sea. He survived to continue to serve for the duration.

Bob Ulrich came home to live a long and happy life. He married Byrdena Hepker of Toddville on Febuary 6, 1945, in South Mills, North Carolina. (They would be married 66 years before she passed away last June). They had two children: Jeffery Ulrich who now lives in Marion (with wife Sue) and who is retired from Iowa Electric/Alliant energy working there for 43 years. Daughter Nancy (Archbold) lives in Bloomfield, Nebraska. Bob is happy to say he has 6 grand children and 9 great grand children.

After the war Bob and Byrdena returned to Cedar Rapids where he would become a carpenter by trade, first for a small, local contractor and then hired by Linkbelt FMC for 33 years where he would be a carpenter, then foreman and retiring as General Foreman at the Bowling Street plant.

An artist, Byrdena was best known for her life-sized painting of the Last Supper that is part of St. John the Baptist Church in Mount Vernon.

They moved to a new home in Lisbon in 1976 where he still resides today. "I wanted more elbow room, out here in the country."

Today Bob lives with his little dog, Skipper. "She's my friend." He has macular degeneration and no longer can drive but says otherwise he feels fine. "I have very caring neighbors. My grand daughter comes every week and gets groceries for me and checks the house.

So does Pearl Harbor seem like 70 years ago? "Sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn't. I've lived a lot of life. I suppose it's just the mood I'm in. The Pearl Harbor Survivors Association is disbanding this January 1st. All of our proceeds we've transferred to the Museum of the Pacific which includes the USS Missouri, USS Arizona Memorial and the hangars on Ford Island. They are going to continue putting out our three times a year newsletter."

There are about 3,000 Pearl Harbor survivors left. Over the years Bob was active and served as Iowa chapter and 5th district president of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association. "I really enjoyed it."

He has visited Pearl Harbor at least three times in the last 20 years. "It has changed so much over the years. It is just unbelievable."

And his message to all who have been born since then is: "All I can say is we should stay alert and watch all these other countries.

It's a different world we live in today and I don't really know what to think of it any more. Hopefully we've learned again from September 11th, 2001. "I've always hoped we would have peace in the world."

"I do think we gave our kids and grand kids and those who have followed a better life after winning World War II. Maybe we gave them too much of a good life. Many don't know hardship or what real hard work is and what our freedoms mean."

Does he want to reach 90 or 100? "Sometimes yes, sometimes, I don't know. Longevity runs in my family. There were 12 children in my family. It's my youngest sister and me that are left."

Since he can no longer drive, Bob is home a lot these days. He's in the book. Give him a call and thank him for his courageous Navy service.
Source: The Marion Times, Marion, Iowa, Thursday, December 01, 2011, Page 1