Blowhard, Esq. writes:
I was going through some old papers when I came across this, an interview I did with my grandfather (RIP) for a college oral history assignment. Despite my primitive interviewing skills and shameful lack of follow-up questions, there’s some interesting stuff here. At the time of this interview he was 82-years-old. He died six years later from complications caused by Alzheimer’s.
Blowhard, Esq.: Were you drafted or did you enlist?
Private First Class: Drafted.
BE: Where were you living at the time?
BE: Why did you pick the service branch you joined?
PFC: You couldn’t chose. I was assigned to the army. I had boot camp in Illinois – no, no – I was at Camp Robinson in Arkansas. After boot camp, you were given a test. And for some reason, I did good on the mechanics. How I did good at mechanics, I don’t know.
So six of us were sent to a mechanic’s school in St. Louis, a civilian school. Took the train there. It was a three-year school for civilians, but we spent three months. What we had to do, we had to pair up with a partner, take this huge engine apart – into a million little pieces – then put it back together, and it had to start. We did it, and I passed. I can show you my diploma.
BE: What was boot camp like?
PFC: Bunch of horseshit. Get a good haircut first, y’know, then do everything. Twenty-five mile hikes with big packs on your back. When you’d get a mile from the base you’d do double time, y’know, running. At the camp were these German prisoners of war, so we’d be running by and they’d be playing volleyball! We’d run by and they’d come up to the fence and they’d be “Ha, ha, ha” at us!
BE: What were the drill instructors like?
PFC: I don’t remember much about them. What I do remember is there was a first lieutenant there that was 18-years-old, the youngest in the Army.
BE: After boot camp, after mechanic’s school, where did you go?
PFC: North Carolina, Monroe. A small arms unit. We handled all the small arms. Then to Camp Toccoa – I got transferred to this other outfit. We got there right as the 101st Airborne was leaving.
BE: Why did you transfer?
PFC: When we got to North Carolina we were with all the guys from the South. Bunch of assholes. It was a few of us from the midwest and all the rest Southerners, so I requested a transfer and I was sent to the 236th Quartermaster. The 236th was a new unit. The Army got the idea from the Germans. Whenever they’d take over a town, they’d send these guys in to take everything. So our job was to find anything that could be of use.
From there we went to … I can’t think of the damned name, I can’t remember. Then we got on a train to California, up north. From there we shipped out from San Francisco.
When we went through the Pacific, we went all the way around to avoid the Japanese subs. Went to New Caledonia, in Australia, stayed overnight. Then up to Guadalcanal. That trip was 21 days.
Guadalcanal was secured already. That was the first island the Marines took from the Japs. Then we went to Emira Island, off New Guinea. They took that island in a real short time.
We were on Guadalcanal for 6 months, then Emira. Then we went to Bougainville. In a lot of these islands there was fighting going on, so we were in a combat zone. The Marines had pushed the Japs out and into the hills. On Emira the Australians had an airbase and they would run patrols to Rebaul to make sure the Japs weren’t sending more troops.
From Bougainville we got on an Australian ship and joined a convoy of 1,000 ships in the Marshall Islands. And from there we went to the Philippines. We had to come up – let’s see, we probably came up through – we landed on Luzon at Lingayen Gulf.
The Japs had been pushed back to Dagupan. We were shelling there. We took this road and followed the combat troops to see if there was anything we could use. It was about 100 miles to Manila.
BE: And what did you find?
PFC: We would wait until they gave us the OK and then we’d go in. One time, there was a rope factory with huge stacks, piles and piles of rope. We ended up giving that to the Navy. The Japs had an airplane parts factory. We found a Japanese laundry, filled with all these officer’s uniforms. We took them and gave them to the people. Everyone was walking around in Japanese uniforms! We found a lot of rice that was supposed to go to the Japanese troops and gave them that, too. A brewery! We walked into this brewery that had huge vats of beer that wasn’t ready yet. “Green beer,” they called it. Some of it was good, though, so after they tested it – to make sure it wasn’t poisoned – some of the guys would come by with huge five gallon drums and take it. And you know what? It was pretty good beer!
BE: Did you see combat?
PFC: Oh we were pretty close, I’ll tell you that. We were new to this, y’know? They’d tell you to wear your helmet, but some of the guys didn’t wear their helmet. Or keep your rifle with you at all times.
We were called into a city hall. We were called in to look at this big vault, and then we hear something go off. I look outside on the street and this officer is running towards us, yelling, “You’re drawing fire! You’re drawing fire!” They were firing mortars at us.
In Quezon we’d lay around til they called us. The Japs were in this old walled city built by the Spanish — Intramuros. Fifty thousand Japs in there, on the Pasig river. The Americans were on the other side of the river shelling. A whole lot of Japs slipped out at night and fled to the hills, so the Americans and the Australians would send patrols out there to keep an eye on ‘em or kill ‘em.
I remember these big pontoon bridges. They had these pontoon bridges because the Japs had destroyed the other ones. There would be these dead Japs in the water, and the bodies would float up to the pontoons and weigh them down, so the bridges would almost be in the water.
We went to Iloilo City in the Panay Gulf for 4 to 5 months. Then back to Manila because we were getting ready to invade Japan. Everyone had to get shots. I remember getting in line and getting two shots: one guy would give you one in one arm, and there’d be another guy on the other side. One, two. They were saying that if we invaded, 250,000 of our guys would get killed. They’d have everyone out there in the streets fighting. Kids, everyone. Even after we dropped the second bomb, the assholes didn’t wanna give up! The Emperor had to talk them into surrender.
We were attacked by kamikazes while on an Australian ship. It was a cruise ship, it was called…the Westralia. Most guys were up on the deck, like I said, it was as cruise ship, and then the alarm goes off. So we took these staircases on either side of the ship down to the lower decks. The officers, with their sidearms, are trying to get us quickly down there. We get there and we hafta put on these damned life preservers. Do you know those pom-pom guns? The Australians fire these big pom-pom guns, BOOM-BOOM, BOOM-BOOM! A wing from one of the planes hit the ship and boy oh boy did it make a racket. The guys wanna get outta there and the officers take out their sidearms, they’re standing on the only two staircases leading up, and they say, “I’ll shoot the first son of a bitch who tries to leave.”
That was scary, though, I tell ya. When we finally got back on the deck they had to push the wing overboard.
I remember on that Australian ship, over the loudspeaker every morning they’d say, “Wakey, wakey, rise and shine, you’ve had yours and I’ve had mine!” Really nice guys, though. I remember they had beans for breakfast!
In the Philippines the locals had the job of cleaning up the dead bodies. They’d walk around and stack the Japs like lumber. Then they’d go and dig a pit and bury them all. Lots of guys would get sick and couldn’t eat, but it never bothered me.
BE: What was the food like?
PFC: All the time we were overseas we didn’t have our own kitchen. We always ate with other outfits. There were always rations around.
BE: How did you entertain yourselves?
PFC: Shoot craps, play cards. Every month we’d get a beer ration. One six-pack. Some of the guys didn’t drink, so they’d sell it for a dollar a bottle. So they’d make six extra bucks, which was a lotta money back then. You get enough beer together, and you had yourself a good time!
There were cigarettes and cigars, too. Most of the guys didn’t smoke cigars, but I did of course, so I always had plenty. Cigarette lighters were tough to come by, so they’d raffle those off.
BE: What about leave?
PFC: You didn’t get no leave. I remember the officers coming by and giving us a deal: three months stateside, but when you got back it was duration plus. So, sure, you got three months but when you got back they could keep you a lot longer. There was a point system. You got so many points for every month stateside, every month overseas, and in combat. You needed something like 67 points.
BE: What did you do after the war?
PFC: For a while I didn’t do nothin’. Illinois was one of the few states that gave you a bonus, so I got an extra $300. When they let us go there were all these cabs to take the guys home. I took a streetcar. When I got off, your uncle Frankie was walking right towards me. I didn’t recognize him! It had been, oh, three years and if he didn’t talk I wouldn’t have known who he was. When I got home he was wearing practically all my clothes! That $300 came in real handy.
I went to the doctor one day because I looked in the mirror and noticed my back was all red. The doctor, he said, “Go to work.”
I worked on the railroad. You know, Elmer was an engineer. I was on the extra board, so I only worked on Saturday and Sunday, switching cars. I got sick and tired of that job. When I quit, my uncle, he got real mad, “Stick it out, it’s a good job!”
Then I worked at the union depot in Chicago. The boxcars would come in fully loaded and I’d unload them. The National Tea Company, a chain of food stores in the midwest. My mother worked for them during the war.
BE: Anything else?
PFC: I had malaria, you know. There were lots of mosquitoes over there. I had the sweats, then I’d get really cold. They sent me to the doctor right away. The doctor said, “Happy birthday, you have malaria.” It was my 22nd birthday.
It was terrible, you’d be sweating, sweating and the next minute you’d be all cold. Dizzy, couldn’t sleep. But it didn’t matter anyway, because they’d wake you up every three hours to give you ativirin. Quinine was hard to come by, so they gave you ativirin instead. I was in the hospital for a couple weeks. And that ativirin, it makes your skin yellow, looks like hell.
I was at Hiroshima. We got there about October and they dropped the bomb, when?, in August? We were stationed about 12 miles from there, everyone wanted to see what it looked like, so we got a Jeep and drove down. Boy, to think that one bomb could do so much damage! One building, the outside was still standing but the insides were completely gone. We didn’t stay long. I remember seeing clumps of glass, melted glass, all over the ground.
One random (to me) guy tells his average story and it’s really damned interesting. What a war! As my old man (who also served non-combat in the Pacific) used to say, “It was the biggest thing that ever happened”. He never got over it: the variety of human types he met, the plane crashes he saw, the crazy interactions among soldiers and, like Blowhard’s grandfather, the piles of dead Japs. Thanks for posting.
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Lucky PFC, staying out of the worst of it.
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Excellent stuff, and what an adventure to have lived through. My dad was an Army guy in Europe during WWII and though he lived a good middleclass life afterwards I don’t think he ever really got over the experience. I loved hearing his stories, and wish I’d had the sense to interview and record him talking about them.
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That discharge letter signed by Truman is interesting, particluarly the bit about “we now look to you for leadership and example in further exalting our country in peace.” I wonder if discharge letters nowadays have a similar passage.
My grandfather served in WWII under Patton and was there for D-Day, the Battle of the Bulge, and some others. Band of Brothers type stuff. I can’t imagine what he went through. He rarely mentioned it in my presence. My brother once asked him if he killed anybody and he said, “Well, that’s an unfair question.” He was attending St. Mary’s College in Moraga, CA studying to be a high school teacher when the war broke out. After the war, he never went back to school and ended up working as a milk truck driver for the Carnation Milk Co. for 40 years. I heard two stories about what would be described as PTSD nowaways. My grandmother said he’d have terrible nightmares and would scratch and claw and kick her in bed, totally unbeknownst to him while it was happening, of course. Also, my parents took him to see Kelly’s Heroes when it came out in the late 60s. There’s a scene where a sergeant sends a private into a minefield and the private gets blown up. During this scene, my grandfather started shaking and breathing hard, and had to leave the theater. It turns out he, as a sergeant himself, had sent a young man into a minefield with the same results.
He and my grandmother were the two best people I’ve yet to meet in this life, and most likely ever will meet. I’m not one to lionize a group of people and get turned off on the whole “greatest generation” thing. But goddamn, those two people were stellar.
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Not Patton, it was Bradley. My grandfather once said if he had served under Patton, he wouldn’t be here.