Monday, March 22, 2010

WWII Interview - 1

HistoryMikePhD has a thought provoking, inspirational post here, about doing an interview with a WWII survivor.  This will be increasingly hard to do these days, as many of the survivors are no longer with us.  However (comma) my father served in World War II, and from the time I was old enough to pester him for war stories, I did so, and I kept it up until I was in my twenties.  For one thing, Dad's war stories were a lot more interesting and informative than the local news (Cuban Missile Crisis) and the show COMBAT! was on TV, and this was a time when little boys could play Army and kill imaginary Japs and Krauts all day without fear of contracting a politically incorrect complex of some kind and ending up on medication.  Little boys got medicated back then, but it generally didn't involve prescription drugs.

As an aside, we had a neighbor back then with a distinct German name - Von Westernhagen - and I asked him if he was in the war, then I asked him which side he was on.

Anyway, here's an interview with my father as reconstructed from my own memory, from years of conversation.

WWII Interview

Q: What were you doing during the war (military service, civilian job, school)?
I was in the Coast Guard during the war, in the mounted patrol.  I was a radar operator, radarman second class.

Q: (For civilians) What were some of the restrictions and shortages you faced? In what ways did you contribute to the war effort?
Mom: We couldn't afford to get our hair cut, so we wore it long.  We didn't have much money and it was hard getting enough to eat. I was in college, and back then I could work all summer and pay for one year of school, including books.  I didn't have anything left over and I had to make do with whatever I had, but that was how it was.
[Author's Note: Think about this: Living at home (rent free), you can work all summer at menial labor, that is to say unskilled labor, and make enough money to pay for college the rest of the year.]

Q: (For veterans) Where were you stationed? Did you serve in a combat role? How did combat affect you?
I was in the Aleutian Islands on isolated duty.  They had radar on these landing crafts, these LSTs, and I was ordered to serve on one of them but I came down with ptomaine poisoning.  I'll tell you I was never so goddamn glad to be sick in all my life.  Jesus Christ was I sick.  Anyway, they changed my orders and I went to the Aleutian Islands on a radar base there.  I didn't see any combat, but we were all afraid that the Germans were going to invade and we patrolled the beach on horseback.  That was a miserable goddamn business.  I got so cold I couldn't even shoot my pistol, and I wanted to.  We had these attack dogs with us, which was stupid because the horses could see more than the attack dog.  Hell, you'd be riding out there in the goddamn freezing rain, you'd get soaked and have to keep riding.  The real fear was that the Jerrys would land in a U-boat and invade.  They could have done a lot of damage if they'd taken the Aleutians.

Q: What do you most want people to know about World War II?
Well, we fought the enemy, the goddamn Japs and the Krauts.  They were the enemy, and now these dumb sons-ah-bitches want to give the goddamn Japs a medal or something because they were discriminated against during the war.  Any time you think the Japs are any good, you just take a good look at the way they treated the American prisoners of war over there.  Hell, they're the enemy.

Q: What would you have changed about your war experience if you could?
Oh, I don't know.  Not much, I guess.  I'll tell you one thing, I got stuck in the Aleutians for six months because I missed my ship that was supposed to take me out of there, and I'd sure change that.  I had this no good son of a bitch officer that didn't tell me my ship was leaving [from the listening post in the Aleutians] and I missed getting on the ship.  We had radio silence then, so we couldn't radio the ship or anything.  I'll tell you I could shoot that son of a bitch today and get a good night's sleep right after.  Can you imagine that?  I was on isolated duty for 12 goddamn months and I had orders to go home and this son of a bitch didn't tell me the ship was leaving, and he was on it.  I'd change that part.

Q: Did you have doubts that your side (Axis, Allies) would succeed in winning the war?
Sure we had doubts.  England and France were already invaded, and we couldn't count on the Russians for anything.  Those goddamn Italians (pronounced Eye-Talians) weren't any goddamn good.  Yeah, we were afraid.  If they won Europe and got their conquest solidified, we would eventually be invaded and taken over.  We did have one advantage though, and that's that everybody over here that had a gun could fight, and that's what the Japs were really afraid of.  Now the government has this gun registration business so they know who's armed and who isn't, and if we are ever invaded or we needed to fight, the government could just come along and collect up all the guns.  That's no joking matter, and some people think it is.

Q: What mistakes do you think the military made (if any) during World War II?
I don't know.  Just think about who won the war and then tell me about mistakes.  (As I remember this, the old man was mixing a martini and throwing ice cubes into the cocktail shaker while he thought about it)  I'll tell you one thing, some of the men that were officers had absolutely no business being an officer at all.  I mean no goddamn business at all. None. (Interviewer: They didn't?) Nope, not a bit.  To begin with, they didn't know how to manage men.  Hell, they didn't have a goddamn clue.  (Interviewer: Were any of them any good?) Oh sure, some were.  When I finally got a ship back from the Aleutians the skipper of the ship was in the Merchant Marine and had sailed those waters for 30 years, and he was retiring.  This was his last voyage, so when we stopped at the various ports he'd give us a lecture on the area and what was there and so on.  He was real good.  [Dad laughs] They had these Navy guys on board who were trying to navigate, and they'd shoot the sun and plot our position.  Hell, they'd have us 50 miles inland, and the skipper knew right where we were all the time.

When we boarded that ship [off the Aleutian Islands listening post] the waves were real high and it was cold and raining like a son of a bitch, and you had to grab hold of this goddamn landing net and climb up it.  We were in this life boat, it was a self-bailing, self-righting life boat, and the waves would lift it up, so right when it was highest you had to grab the landing net on the side of the ship and climb up.  Hell, if you fell in the water that was it.  You left your gear in the life boat and it came up when they raised the boat on the divots.  Anyway we got up there on deck and the skipper comes on the PA system and says “All men boarding the ship report to the officer's mess”  So we looked at each other, wondering “Now what the Hell...”.  Well, we went down there and the skipper comes in and says, “Give these men a beer and a shot.”
Q: Do you think the war could have been prevented?
No, I don't.  They [the Germans; Germany] wanted to rule the world and the Japs invaded us.

Q: What changed and/or what was different after the war?
Well, you just came home and did what you had to do.  [Dad laughs] I'll tell you, old Uncle Tom [personal friend, not his real name] was laying down in his bunk just sicker than anything, just moaning and groaning about how sea sick he was and we'd been tied up at the dock for thirty minutes.  I went down and asked him how he was, and he said he was so sick he didn't think he'd make it.  Then I told him we were tied up at the dock and he perked right up.

Q: Do you remember any wartime propaganda? Do you recall any propaganda that could be considered racist or demeaning to ethnic groups?
No, we didn't have anything like that.  Now they have these goddamn people that say we shouldn't have dropped the atom bomb on Japan, and they want us to apologize to the Japs and give them all kinds of money.  Why, Hell.  In the first place, the Japanese were the enemy, and in the second place, what about paying the United States for Pearl Harbor, and all the men that the Japs killed, and the American POWs?  Those sons of bitches don't know what they're talking about. 

Q: What do you think is the biggest misconception about the Second World War?
That it was wrong to drop the bomb on the Japanese.  The Japs weren't ready to surrender, they didn't want to surrender.  We dropped one bomb and when that didn't achieve the desired affect, we dropped another one and that was it.

Q: Do you remember any anti-war protesters? If so, how were they treated, and what were your opinions about them?
I don't remember any.  There might have been a few, but I never saw them.  [Dad laughs] If there were any, they sure as Hell wouldn't be around long with the fellows I knew.  They'd be pushing up weeds somewhere.

Q: Do you think the Second World War was worth the human costs?
What else were you going to do?  A lot of people got killed and went through real rough times, but what else would you do?  We didn't have any choice in the matter.

Q: What important questions did I forget to ask you? Are there other details you’d like to share?
Dad would no doubt continue to rail against anyone who evidenced the slightest sympathy with the Japanese or Germans, or suggested reparations of any sort that did not involve dropping another Atom bomb on Japan.  Hey, if two is good, three is better.  He really did hate the enemy.

My thanks to HistoryMikePhD for providing me with inspiration today.


bobthedad said...

The handful of times I have asked WWII vets for their take the usual response has been to avoid answering and change the subject. You don't get information like this in a history book.

Mad Jack said...

Truth. I found that most men and women will tell you what they did during the war but don't volunteer any war stories. One of our neighbors (now deceased) worked for the Belgium Intelligence during the war, as did his wife. The work they did for the allies was so valuable that they were offered citizenship in the United States as a reward, which they accepted.

While they were overseas and working separately, the Nazis began to suspect his wife who fled back to allied territory in the nick of time. Close friends of theirs were captured and interrogated by the Nazis.

He became a success in the banking industry and she was a homemaker.