Bio: Erpenbach, Bill  (Honored By American Legion 2015)

Contact: Dolores (Mohr) Kenyon

Surnames: Erpenbach, Bauer, Urban, Fitzsimmons, Beyer, Dole

----Source: Clark County Press (Neillsville, Clark Co., WI) 4/15/2015

Legion Honors John Foster for Military Service (March 2015)

Erpenbach Honored by Neillsville American Legion

Bill Erpenbach, 87, of Neillsville, served in the U. S. Army Air Force, and the U. S. Air force from late 1945 to 1948. He will be honored for his military service at a special program Monday, July 6, at the Neillsville American Legion Club. (Photo by Todd Schmidt/Clark County Press)

By Todd Schmidt

The Neillsville American Legion will honor Bill Erpenbach, 87, of Neillsville for his military service during a special program Monday, July 6 following a potluck supper that begins at 6 p.m. at the American Legion Club.

The day after Christmas in 1945, at age 17, Erpenbach left his job at B & F Machine Shop in Neillsville and enlisted in the U. S. Army Air Force.

“My Uncle Eddie Bauer came home in 1945 from serving in the U. S. Army and told me I would be drafted,” Erpenbach said. “He told me to figure out a way not eat C rations and sleep in mud holes every day.”

Erpenbach headed out to Stevens Point and then to Milwaukee, where he took a written exam. Men in his unit shipped out to Ft. Sheridan Jan. 6, 1946 for further processing.

“I was just a young kid and I thought I knew it all,” Erpenbach laughed. “I found out recruiting officers stretch the truth. When I went in, the Air Force needed bodies to fill positions.”

The H.A.A.F. Squadron K, Sect. 84 Training Command was assembled at Harlingen Field in San Antonio, TX.

The H.A.A.F. Squadron K Sect. 84 Training Command poses for a unit photo Jan. 24, 1946 at Harlingen Field in San Antonio, TX. Bill Erpenbach is seated in the second row, fourth from left.

The Neillsville farm boy was somewhat of a rebel. Erpenbach knew how to tie a tie properly with a Windsor knot, and one day during roll call, a junior officer pulled hard on it. Erpenbach knocked him down, and his first experience with the orderly room followed.

Basic training lasted six weeks. The recruits did a lot of running to get in shape. They went to the rifle range once.

Erpenbach got the measles during basic training and was in the hospital for three weeks.

Erpenbach asked to be routed through schooling to be a cook and baker, but his request was denied because his IQ from testing was too high. After finishing in the top 10 in his class, Erpenbach was placed in training to be a specialized mechanic.

His military service continued with stints at Kessler Field in Biloxi, MS, Chanute Field in Illinois, and Williams Field in Arizona.

“When I was in Biloxi, I never slept in a dry bed,” Erpenbach said. “In Arizona, it was so hot you couldn’t touch the outside skin of an airplane for 30 minutes after it came down. I think it rained once in the two years we were there.”

Erpenbach became a proficient jet aircraft mechanic. He worked on the one-seat P-80, the first jet aircraft the Air Force had, and the two-seat P-84. He and others trained the pilots on the fine details of operating the planes. A pilot once took him on a test flight with gravity forces reaching 8Gs. “I was glad to get my feet on the ground after that ride,” he said.

Subsequently, the unit traveled to put on air shows in Oklahoma City, Mitchell Field, Chicago and Hawaii. Most of the men traveled in B-25s so they could fuel the planes and maintain them.

“They treated me real well,” Erpenbach said. “The food was great. Of course, being from the farm, what mother put on the table, we ate.”

In 1947, the U. S. Army Air Force switched over to the U. S. Air Force. They tried to convince Erpenbach and others to re-enlist, but to no avail. Erpenbach was honorably discharged in November 1948.

His brother, Don Erpenbach, served in the U. S. Army from 1952 to 1954.

“He served in the Korean War,” Erpenbach said. “He really went through hell. He came back with all sorts of physical ailments. He is now in the VA Hospital in King.”

Erpenbach considers himself on of the lucky ones, as he served in the military between wars.

“I would go again,” he said. “I met a lot of good people and made a lot of friends. We never had formal reunions, but we kept in touch through Christmas cards and letters. They are all gone now.”

Turning back the clock, Erpenbach was raised by his parents, Tony and Margaret Erpenbach, on Clark County farms north of Riplinger and south of Neillsville. “We were raised dirt poor, but we never knew it,” Erpenbach said.

He attended Riverside School (Town of Levis) through the sixth grade and St. Mary’s Parochial School through the eighth grade.

After his discharge from the military, Erpenbach worked as a diesel mechanic in Chicago. In 1949, he returned to Neillsville and began working for Joe Urban, Sr., as an auto mechanic for 90 cents per hour. Erpenbach was qualified for the G. I. Bill and received $28 per week.

He moved on to L. J. Chevrolet in 1950 ($1.10 per hour), and Svetlik Ford in 1951 ($l.25 per hour). He was named service manager in 1957.

In 1961, Erpenbach was hired as shop-foreman at Fel-Gross Chevrolet. He received $80 per week, which at that time was the top pay for mechanics in Neillsville. He worked there until his retirement in 1993.

He married Cecelia Fitzsimmons Feb. 20, 1950, in Stanley. They had one daughter, Sylvia and four sons, William J., Paul, Jim and John. Cecelia passed away on St. Patrick’s Day in 2012. Erpenbach now has one grandson and six granddaughters. He is a member of St. Mary’s Catholic Church.

In 1955, they moved to a house on Willow Street in Neillsville, where Erpenbach continues to reside.

He and Cecelia had a chance to travel extensively due to his Outstanding Service Manager awards. Trips were made to Las Vegas, San Juan, Switzerland, England and the Caribbean Islands. “It was the only chance we would have had to travel,” Erpenbach said. “They treated us like kings and queens.”

In 2010, Erpenbach took in an Honor Flight out of La Crosse to Washington, D. C. Fellow veteran Harold Beyer of Neillsville was his traveling partner.

They toured many places, including the WWII Memorial and Arlington Cemetery. Mail call on the return flight home was a special event.”

“It was unbelievable how many people greeted us and thanked us for serving the country,” Erpenbach said. “We took a lot of pictures, including some with retired Sen. Bob Dole, who made the trips possible. We got a big water salute in La Crosse.”

Erpenbach said when he first got out of the service he was talked into joining the American Legion. He and others got “kicked out” for a while due to ineligibility, and then were re-instated. He has served on the firing squad for 22 years.

“I contributed to the new building project, although I was deathly against it at the time it started, he said. “I began frying fish at the old place. Many of us like it there. We had some real good times, and it was paid for. It was small and not handicapped-accessible, but I thought they could have put in a ramp. They could have expanded the parking by getting land from the railroad. On the other hand, the new place is a real asset to the community.”

Erpenbach stays busy shuttling cars for Gross Motors. He finds time to play cribbage at Apple Valley, Sheepshead at the American Legion and various card games at the Senior Citizens Center. He is a longtime member of the Southern Clark County Sportsman’s Club and the Neillsville Men’s Club.

He is an avid fisherman and hunter (coon, coyote, bear, elk and deer).

In closing, Erpenbach said he respects time spent by those in military service.

“I think everyone should serve two years in the military,” Erpenbach said. “You learn discipline and how to take orders. I don’t really have an opinion on the state of affairs in the military today, other than it is time for the young guys to take care of things now.”



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