KREBS, OKLAHOMA — It’s been more than 71 years, but Merle Lebbs doesn’t need his collection of WWII books and pictures to remember exactly where he was in June of 1942.
He was an electricians mate on board the U.S.S. Lexington during the battle of Coral Sea.
The old ‘Queen of the Carriers’ had been hit by a torpedo.
A series of massive explosions a few hours later doomed the ship.
“Sparks just set off a whole big blast,” says Lebbs.
He’d grown up in Nebraska.
Merle never left the state until assigned to the Lexington in 1936.
A narrow miss at Pearl Harbor, on a sinking ship at sea, Merle still didn’t think it might be his time to die.
He recalls thinking, “It could happen to you but not to me was my attitude. I must have been brought up on that because it never worried me.”
Combat situations, extreme emergencies can sometimes play out on a surreal timeline.
Some moments become crystallized forever like they’re frozen.
200 sailors on the Lexington died that day.
But the moments Lebbs remembers most clearly came just before the captain issued the order to abandon ship.
In those final minutes a warrant officer showed up on a gun deck, broke the lock on a freezer door, and started handing out ice cream.
Lebbs says, “He didn’t think anything of it because we were abandoning ship. We just figured we might as well do it.”
Merle and about a dozen others gorged on vanilla ice cream, polishing off whole containers before lowering themselves into the water.
“It’s in my mind,” says Lebbs. “I can remember that so plain.”
The ‘Ice Cream Incident’ remains Merle Lebb’s favorite wartime story, the one he tells most often now at age 96.
He shares its sweetness with family and friends, even with the neighbor’s dog who gets a spoonful every night.
It wasn’t his time that day.
Lebbs finished out 20 years in the Navy, worked at the Long Beach shipyards, and still eats a little ice cream every day recalling that other day when staying cool might have made all the difference.
Of the group that shared ice cream during the Battle of Coral Sea, Merle Lebbs is the last alive to tell the tale.
The U.S.S. Lexington held their last WWII reunion two years ago.