Keep Oral Histories coming through your tax-deductible donation now.

Dr. Leo M. Karpeles (1920-2016)

Seaman Leo M. Karpeles circa 1945Based on an interview conducted by Paul Stillwell on 30 May 1995, the volume contains 63 pages of interview transcript plus an index. The transcript is copyright 1996 by the U.S. Naval Institute; the interviewee placed no restrictions on its use.

A 1941 graduate of the University of North Carolina, Karpeles that same year became a contract physicist for the Navy's Bureau of Ordnance. In that capacity he specialized in the degaussing and deperming of ships to provide protection against magnetic mines. He also was involved in measures against acoustic mines. He worked initially at the Boston Navy Yard in early 1942, then went to Pearl Harbor in April of that year. Karpeles continued in that work until 1945, becoming a civil service physicist in 1943. He was drafted into the Navy as an enlisted man in May 1943 and subsequently served as an electrician's mate in the battleship USS Alabama (BB-60) until discharged in July 1946. Subsequently he was a physician in addition to teaching physiology and biophysics at the university level.


An index to this volume can be viewed here (.pdf).




Paul Stillwell: I wonder if you could please start with a little background at the beginning on your education and what you had done before you got involved with the Navy.

Dr. Karpeles: All right. When I got involved with the Navy, I was 21. I graduated from the University of North Carolina with a bachelor's degree in physics in June of '41. Then I went to Carnegie Tech as a teaching assistant and had been there a few months when the United States entered the war. I had all the patriotic fervor of a 21 year old, but I didn't imagine that somebody with a degree in physics ought to go and enlist in the ground troops. I lived in Washington at the time, so on my Christmas vacation I very naively just sort of made the rounds of the military offices in Washington. I said, "I’ve got a degree in physics, and I think I ought to be doing something in the war effort."

Paul Stillwell: Was this a few weeks after Pearl Harbor was attacked?

Dr. Karpeles: Yes, and most of the people I talked to were recruiting sergeants or somebody like that. The typical reaction was, "What's a physicist? Never heard of that."

Paul Stillwell: What was your draft status at that point?USS Alabama (BB-60)

Dr. Karpeles: I don't remember for sure, but I was probably on a student deferment because of my work at Carnegie Tech.[1]

Paul Stillwell: Were you pursuing postgraduate education there?

Dr. Karpeles: Yes. I was involved in some work in infrared and some work with molecular beams. This work probably had no military application, but my mentors at Carnegie Tech were very distressed to hear I was thinking of finding war work. They assured me that it would be only a matter of months before Carnegie Tech would be getting military contracts, and they would need me there. Somehow it seemed to me that they were telling me that I didn't need to change my life-style at all. I could ride this war out just fine right where I was, and that didn't feel right to me.

Paul Stillwell: They had a selfish motivation for wanting to keep you there.

Dr. Karpeles: Of course they did, and yet they may well have been right. It's quite possible that one way or another I could have done more for the war effort if I had just sat tight. I could have helped with whatever research contracts they would have gotten from the military and also advanced my own skill above the level of a bachelor's degree.

Paul Stillwell: Did you go to all the services or just the Navy?

Dr. Karpeles: I know I went to the Army Signal Corps, and I probably was just kind of using the phone book or something to look for places to go. I wasn't clever at all. I went into one of the old temporary buildings that had been built down on D Street during World War I. They were still functioning for World War II. By this time, I was getting sort of uncomfortable about going into these places and applying, but I walked in and said I was a physicist and looking for a job. Suddenly I got the "Right this way, sir" treatment.

Paul Stillwell: What was the source of your discomfort at that point?

Dr. Karpeles: That people seemed to think I was some kind of a kook. I suppose there were a lot of guys going into recruiting offices and volunteering, and there were a lot of guys trying to figure out how to make a fast buck. But all I was doing was trying to figure out how to use my skills to the advantage of the military operation we were getting into.

Paul Stillwell: Were you proposing to go in uniform, or did you want to do this as a civilian?

Dr. Karpeles: I was just proposing to go. I didn't think they wanted me just to enlist in the ranks, but I would have gone in any uniform.

Paul Stillwell: But essentially you were suggesting you could be more useful in the physicist's role.

Dr. Karpeles: Exactly. So finally, I came to this place where they knew at least something of what a physicist was. I inferred that they must have had some kind of directive to latch on to anybody that looked like a physicist, because there just wasn't any discussion about it. They didn't ask to see transcripts or recommendations or anything that said I had a degree in physics from the University of North Carolina. They said, "Do you want to go to work?"

I said, "Well, that's why I'm here." I was introduced to a Lieutenant Kirtley, who was assigned to the Bureau of Ordnance.[2]

Paul Stillwell: Was this at the Main Navy Department Building on Constitution?

Dr. Karpeles: No, that was a big white-front building. The War Department and the Navy Department were side by side. Then, on down Constitution Avenue—as I recall, it was D Street—there were these low, gray stucco buildings that surely had only been intended to stay up for only a few years. But nobody had ever found the time or money or whatever to get rid of them, and so they were back in use.

Paul Stillwell: Did you have a feeling for why Lieutenant Kirtley was more sympathetic or more interested in your suggestion than the other offices you tried?

Dr. Karpeles: Well, as I said, I just got this sense that he was hiring anybody that even looked like a physicist.

Paul Stillwell: You had finally managed to make a connection with the right office.

Dr. Karpeles: I finally got into an office where they had an idea what a physicist was. What he was doing was lining people up to go into degaussing work. I don't really know this at all, but I suspect his function was just to find people and get them on the payroll, because after he had me on the payroll he didn't have anything for me to do. They hired me on a procurement contract rather than an employment contract.

Paul Stillwell: Did you have to go through any Civil Service screening or tests?

Dr. Karpeles: No, no. It was a procurement contract. As I gathered, it was the same sort of thing they would have written if they were buying 100 typewriters. The contract said that I would be paid $7.00 a day. This was a concession because I had a little graduate work. If I hadn't had any graduate experience, it would have been $6.00 a day, but I didn't care.


(Note: Due to edits, corrections, and/or amendments to the original transcription draft, there are some inconsistencies between the recording and the text.)

[1] Carnegie Institute of Technology, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

[2] Lieutenant Charles A. Kirtley, USN (Ret.).



Conferences and Events

WEST 2019

Wed, 2019-02-13 - Fri, 2019-02-15

Sharpening the Competitive Edge: Are We Ready to Compete, Deter, and Win Globally? Wednesday, 13 February - Friday, 15 February...

2019 U.S. Naval Institute Member Event

View All

From the Press

23 January - Book Talk

Wed, 2019-01-23

9 February - Presentation

Sat, 2019-02-09

Why Become a Member of the U.S. Naval Institute?

As an independent forum for over 140 years, the Naval Institute has been nurturing creative thinkers who responsibly raise their voices on matters relating to national defense.

Become a Member Renew Membership