WWII pilot, an Oak Harbor resident tells war tales to South Whidbey students

Leon Sher holds up a copy of the Time Life book featuring photos he took of the aftermath of sinking a Japanese destroyer during a visit to Mark Eager’s U.S. history class at South Whidbey High School.

South Whidbey students got a first-person account of some of the toughest times of the 20th century last week from a man credited as being the only WWII fighter pilot to sink a Japanese destroyer with machine-gun fire.

Leon Sher, an Oak Harbor resident, visited Mark Eager’s Advanced Placement U.S. history class at South Whidbey High School to talk about his experience living through the Great Depression and serving in the Pacific Theater during WWII.

Sher was born in 1924 in San Francisco. His father worked as a supervisor at a cleaning plant, but eventually lost his job.

“We ate what we had — a lotta beans,” he said of that time.

His family later moved to Oakland, Calif., and started a dry cleaning business. From the determination of his mother, the store eventually brought in the profitable business to clean officers’ uniforms.

At age 13, Sher went to work at a shipyard, drawing keel plates for cargo vessels, and at the same time worked in a library, earning 35 cents per hour.

“You have to be involved and protect yourself as much as you can. You folks have to make the decision of what to spend money on.”

Sher joined the army one month after he turned 18. On Feb. 7, 1943 he was called up and sent overseas to Hawaii in the Army Air Corps, a date he will never forget.

During his Army time, Sher primarily operated a P-51 for missions lasting up to 11 hours. At 19 years old, he earned his wings and gold bars as a second lieutenant. He flew during the invasion of Iwo Jima and holds the distinction of being the only WWII fighter pilot to sink a Japanese destroyer with machine-gun fire.

Sher described the moments leading up to the event to the class. During a flight he saw a large vessel just over the horizon near Osaka.

“I thought, ‘I’ll spray ’em a little,’ ” he said.

As he got closer he noticed people moving bags of black powder to the bottom of the ship. He realized if he could start a fire it would work better than shooting.

“The whole ship went up in flames,” he said.

Sher also took photos of the aftermath that were run in a Time Life book. He was paid $750 for the photos.

Sher said he hopes the students learn from his experiences and appreciate what they have, especially when it comes to money.

“Lack of action can steer us toward another depression — it could happen,” he said. “They’ve got to be prepared and they are at the point where they’ve got to think about these things.”