Estep was from the country, and country people knew what it took to survive. He was born at York, Ky., attended a two-room school on the head of Dry Run in Scioto County and then the high school at McDermott, where teacher Vernon McCall instilled even more patriotism in his mind.
All the talk of democracy and doing what’s right rubbed off on Estep, and after Japan pulled its sneak attack on the U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, and after Hitler, a madman bent on ruling the world, declared war on America, he was, as they say, tearing at the bit.
“I’m no hero, but I couldn’t wait to volunteer to get at them. I wanted to kill those bastards,” he said.
He left school and joined the Marines in 1942, but was soon kicked out when they found out he was 16.
The following year, soon after he turned 17 on April 5, he enlisted in the U. S. Navy.
“The recruiter asked me what I wanted to do, and I told him I wanted to see the world, and I wanted to shoot guns,” he said.
He got both of those wants fulfilled.
By the time he was finished, he had been awarded four bronze stars, which are given for “heroic or meritorious achievement during military operations."
“I was in fine physical shape and I volunteered for anything and everything,” Estep said.
Estep was a gunner in the Navy’s Armed Guard. The Armed Guard served on Merchant Marine ships — cargo ships, tankers, and troop ships sailed by civilian volunteers, transporting supplies, troops, ammunition and other war material around the oceans of the world to wherever it was needed to fight and win the war.
The merchant ships had guns for defensive purposes, from “pea shooters” up to 5-inchers. Estep was trained to shoot them all as he and other sailors in the Armed Guard did exactly what its name implied in protecting the ships against enemy planes, submarines and surface ships.
On D-Day, June 6, 1944, the day America and its Allies stormed across the English Channel in an invasion of the coast of France to start the beginning of the end for Hitler, Estep was at the guns on board a Merchant ship carrying troops for an amphibious landing on Omaha Beach at Normandy.
He said the events of that day and the several days that followed have never left his mind.
Young American and Allied troops with backpacks and rifles climbed over the rail and down the side of the ship to load onto the smaller landing craft that would run them into the beach a mile or two away.
Rifle bullets broke the sound barrier as they whizzed overhead. German guns in the pillboxes at the top of the hill behind the beach began to find their targets. Estep saw some of the men being blown off the ships around them.
“Some of those young boys got part way down the side of the ship and decided they didn’t want to go, they wanted to wait ‘till later. Some had to be literally pushed back down,” Estep said. “I saw it, and I’ll never forget it.”
He and the other gunners were busy pouring everything they had at the German defensive positions.
“I was as calm as I could be through it all, and that surprised some of my buddies. Some asked me later how I stayed so calm. I attributed it to my grandfather, James Estep, who once told me, ‘When your number is up, that’s when you’ll go, so there’s no use to worry yourself about it.’ I believed that.”
They went back across the channel for a second load. By the time they returned to the Normandy coast, some headway had been made by the invading infantry and the bombers and the tanks, but still they were being shot at.
“One thing you can’t forget is seeing all those bodies floating in the water, some without heads, some without legs or arms,” Estep said.
Before and after D-Day, Estep sailed on merchant ships to India, Panama, South America, Hawaii, Alaska and all points in between. He was up and down the East Coast of the U.S., spotting German submarines here and there but never taking a hit.
“I was on the bow one time and watched a torpedo coming straight at us. We were loaded down with ammunition, but the thing barely missed us,” he said.
After Germany surrendered, he served as a gunner on a regular Navy warship with the Fifth Fleet in the Pacific, off Luzon and in islands around the Philippines.
“We softened up the enemy for the landing forces. We fired a tracer bullet first, then poured everything we had on that flight pattern to the target. We could see the Japs jumping out of their holes,” Estep said.
He was serving on a mine-sweeper when Japan surrendered and the war ended.
“So the Navy filled my requests. I got to see the world and fire plenty of guns. When you’re shooting a gun you feel better. It’s the waiting for action to begin that gets to you,” he said. “I’d do it all again if I had to. I loved it.
“I mustered out of active duty in 1946 or 1947, but remained in the reserves and was sent up to Alaska on an ice cutter. I was in seven and one-half years all together.”
Disbanded following the end of World War II, the Armed Guard is little remembered today by the general public, or even within the Navy.
But without the Navy’s Armed Guard and the merchant marines, who were uniquely dependent upon one another, being literally in the same boat, World War II would have lasted longer than what it did.
Estep said there were 26 gunners, counting himself, who survived the D-Day battles, and six of them are alive today.
He had two blood brothers and a foster brother who also served in World War II. He has two children and four grandchildren.
After the war, he earned an associate degree from Ohio State University and taught university classes in Real Estate for a time.
He has been employed in the real estate business in Portsmouth for 52 years and is trying every day to retire.
He apparently has retired from shooting. He doesn’t own a gun.