JEFFERSONVILLE — Mel Kahl was just 16 years old in December 1941, when Japanese bombers began striking the U.S. Naval base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. As he listened to the news over the radio with his family, a fire lit in him to help do something about it.
"As the bombing went on, this was going on over the radio," Mel, now 94, said. "The more it went, the madder we got. We were ferociously mad. It was so strong for us guys at the time...we wanted to be part of the action."
The next day, many of his classmates signed up to serve in the military, to protect their country. By the time the war was over, 23 of the 25 guys in his class would have served, including him, though he didn't get to go as quickly as he'd hoped.
Mel graduated from high school at 17, one of the younger ones in his grade, but his parents were not keen on their oldest son heading off to war — they refused to sign the papers allowing him to enter before he was 18. After a year at Taylor University studying engineering, he enlisted as quickly as he could, and was inducted into the U.S. Army at Fort Benjamin Harrison in Indiana in September of 1943.
Mel would go on to receive Army Specialized Training at Ohio University and went through Signal Service School in 1944 before setting sail for Finchhaven, New Guinea. Mel recalls the day his team set sail on a three-week trip from New Jersey to New Guinea. But the boat, a Dutch freighter newly coated with noxious rust-resistant paint, had many of the team sick from the smell before they even left land.
"Up to two thirds of the guys got sick before they even got to sea," he recalled. "They got paint-sick."
Later on the same trip, he awoke to find the crew repairing the motor of the boat while in the middle of the ocean — they'd blown a piston.
One of the tougher things for the guys stationed overseas was the communication with loved ones back home. If he wanted to mail a letter he had to write it out, send it to another officer to be redacted for security reasons then it was photographed and sent on mimeograph sheets to the U.S. Sending a letter and receiving a response could take up to 12 weeks on average, he said.
In 1945, he landed at Kyoto, Japan in the Signal Service Unit, and served as a motor pool mechanic. He returned to the states in 1946 and joined the active army reserve service, retiring from the reserves in 1955 as a master sergeant.
His brother, Larry Kahl, would follow a similar path. Nearly eight years his junior, Larry watched his older brother prepare to be involved in the second global war.
"I wanted him to go in and be a hero," Larry Kahl said. "Go over there, pack a rifle and charge the battle lines."
But Mel, who didn't fire from the trenches, had a different role in the crucial operations of winning the war — by being part of the teams that installed communication lines. By the end of the war, the U.S. would have lines from Australia through the Phillippines and Okinawa, Japan all the way to Alaska.
"When you have a brother that's eight years older than you, he's a role model," Larry Kahl said. "You want him to be part of winning the war, so he did it."
Larry was graduating high school just around the start of the Korean War and in 1951, he joined the U.S. Navy. His contributions to that conflict were to make sure aircraft were operational, made repairs and provided maintenance on jets and planes. He did a tour off the coast of Korea, in a photo reconnaissance detachment squadron.
Next week, the two U.S. military veterans — Mel hailing from Jeffersonville and Larry from Indianapolis, will head to Washington, D.C., on an Honor Flight — a nonprofit program designed to show respect and gratitude to the nation's heroes.
Larry got the ball rolling, after he saw the effect the flight had on a longtime friend of his who'd taken it. He broached the subject with his older brother, who of course, said yes.
"I started thinking about Mel; he was in the big war," Larry Kahl said. "I'd say it's kind of interesting that we served at different times and I feel real good about two in the family being on an Honor Flight.
"And of course I look forward to the other people on the flight — probably ones who deserve such a reward maybe more than we do."
Mel Kahl is equally excited about taking the flight with his brother and lifelong friend, and is looking forward to the stories they'll get to trade with others who have served.
"I'm really looking forward to the intermingling of people that were in the service at that time and a lot of the experiences they had," he said. "A lot of those fellas had things a lot rougher than I did in the service and I'd like to hear their war stories."
Both brothers say their time in the service was one that helped shape them as men and teach them about discipline. Mel also noted how much he learned just from meeting and serving with different people from across the country — which he'll get to experience a part of with the flight the two take Sept. 7.
"We learned to help and share with all types of people," he said. "We had quite a blending of people in total — we had to learn to understand other people's communication. Even though we're all speaking English, we speak it in different modes."