National Guard Militia Museum of New Jersey Thu, 13 Aug 2020 17:22:34 +0000 en-US hourly 1 National Guard Militia Museum of New Jersey 32 32 Wiedmann, Carl M. Thu, 13 Aug 2020 17:03:55 +0000


World War II

Carl M. Wiedmann

World War II Oral History Interview
US Army, 34th Infantry Division
Date: October 25, 2002
Interviewer: Carol Fowler
Summarizer: Cole Snedeker
Veterans History Project


Carl Wiedmann was born in Newark, New Jersey in December 1916, and raised in Irvington and South Orange, New Jersey. The World War II veteran’s initial assignment after basic training was as a ground-based artillery observer, but he had a chance at transferring to a more interesting position, an aerial spotter. Wiedmann had the proper credentials, but the potential for airsickness concerned him. (Seasickness plagued his youth.) Anxious, he prepared carefully and dieted. Wiedmann told the interviewer that: “The pilots didn’t like it if there was an observer sitting behind them barfing on their necks,” he laughed. Fortunately, his fears were unfounded; and, he won the competition to become an air observer.

Aerial missions were flown in a Piper Cub (also called the L-4 Grasshopper in military service) and usually lasted an hour to an hour and a half long. Wiedmann used a coordinate map to direct artillery fire onto targets. These missions were much safer than ground ones, as typically the enemy did not attack his plane. Wiedmann made no mention of aircraft threats, presumably because of Allied air superiority; in the likely event that ground fire missed, he could direct artillery onto their revealed position. He flew 57 missions, but was attacked on just six of them. Nevertheless, Wiedmann could fly the plane if the pilot were incapacitated. In the 15-minute runs between the airfield and frontline, the pilot often let Wiedmann take control for on-the-job training.

The Grasshopper.

Wiedmann displayed several pictures of his service on the Italian front. One depicted a USO visit, which he enjoyed (though he did not see any famous performers). Another showed one of his command posts, tucked into a railroad bridge culvert outside Naples. Most dramatically, Wiedmann took an aerial photo of bombed-out rail yards near Bologna.

Wiedmann also shared several anecdotes. On one occasion, he was directing 155 mm fire on a crossroads transited by German vehicles. As the guns prepared to shoot, the column finished crossing, prompting Wiedmann to call a ceasefire. The artillery crew replied, “We’ve got one gun loaded, are you sure you don’t want to shoot that one?” Wiedmann instructed them to remain alert as his plane circled overhead. Suddenly, a German motorcycle sped down the road. Wiedmann called for fire; the shell impacted about 50 meters from the target, felling the rider. That was the only German he ever knew he killed. “I often thought about it later,” Wiedmann lamented. “What his family must think of that.”

As the war’s conclusion neared and Wiedmann’s unit advanced into northern Italy, his most memorable mission of the conflict occurred. Approaching the Po River near Piacenza, he and his pilot encountered navigational difficulties. Flying higher than usual to locate the frontlines, they spotted a river barge. While closing to identify it, a new target drew their attention: a group of foxholes, located in front of some woods adjacent to the river.

The plane remained within visual range of ground command, who ordered Wiedmann to circle lower in order to identify the position. At 500 feet from the surface, a German anti-aircraft battery began firing. As shells exploded overhead, with showering shrapnel, the pilot rapidly dove the plane before levelling just above the trees. Fortunately, the plane was already pointing towards friendly lines in the circle pattern, making escape easier.     

How they ever missed us…I never should have come home from that.

The ground commanders called on the radio, but Wiedmann was too shaken to speak. After composing himself for a couple of minutes, he finally replied. The commanders were surprised, as they believed he had been shot down. Wiedmann found their next message comical: “Can you still identi – no need for further identification! Can you adjust fire?” Thus, he returned to position and directed the entire artillery battalion, sinking the barge, setting the woods ablaze, and suppressing any enemy forces in the area. “How they ever missed us,” Wiedmann said about the enemy gunners, smiling and shaking his head. “…I never should have come home from that.” 

As the war progressed, Wiedmann moved up through the ranks. He noted that he was only a sergeant for one day. It was a formality, as Wiedmann was granted two ranks, and received promotion to staff sergeant the next day. After the war, he was offered a battlefield commission as an officer. As his rotation was nearly up, Wiedmann declined, to return home.

The war ended as Wiedmann reached the Italian-Swiss border. On his final missions, he flew from an Italian Count’s airfield. (Unfortunately, Wiedmann did not stay in the Count’s nearby castle, but in a hangar.) After V-E Day, he received orders to fly to Sanremo in the Italian Riviera. Once there, Wiedmann landed at a newly-built but yet unused cemetery, where he used the mausoleum as a makeshift base. While waiting for his rotation to return home, he flew more missions to earn extra money, as part of his pay was per flight.

Three days later, Wiedmann travelled by truck to Milan, and then Naples. “I thought I was on my way home,” he said; yet, upon arriving at the reception camp, he found 30,000 other men waiting. After three weeks of waiting, Wiedmann finally departed via B-17 (with removed bomb racks for transport) to Casablanca. After four days there, he took a proper transport plane to Jacksonville, Florida, with refueling stops in Brazil and French Guiana.

Wiedmann anxiously sought to talk to his fiancée, who he had not seen for over three years. The telephone lines at the nearby USO building were busy, so he waited for his call placement. As there were civilians sitting alongside, Wiedmann discussed etiquette regarding interaction with them, explaining that he could not accept food or drink.

“We were supposed to be nice to them,” Wiedmann added. “[But] they wouldn’t understand us sometimes.” This point illustrated itself as he began a conversation with a woman next to him. “I’m gonna be out of this business in about three days,” he told her. She responded, “I don’t understand that. I’m here to say goodbye to my little boy… he knows nothing. And they’re letting you, that have all this experience, go home.” Wiedmann was angered and walked to the other side of the room. “This is how we are appreciated,” he thought.

Wiedmann travelled to Fort Dix and was discharged two days later. Two weeks later he married his fiancée. They had four children, a grandson, and great-grandson, who Wiedmann dedicated this interview to. Remembering the mission, he “should not have returned from,” he realized his descendants should hear the story, all of whom would not exist if he had not been so lucky.

Wiedmann earned a Distinguished Service Medal from the State of New Jersey for his service. Subsequently, he enjoyed an “interesting” and successful business career, became Commodore of the Manasquan River Yacht Club, and indulged in many hobbies, notably golfing. Importantly, Carl Wiedmann felt that his military career laid the foundations for a “very happy” life.

Carl M. Wiedmann passed away at his home in South Carolina on March 31, 2009, at the age of 92.

Von Spreckelsen, Henry E. Mon, 10 Aug 2020 12:14:09 +0000


World War II

Henry E. Von Spreckelsen

World War II Oral History Interview
US Navy, USS Indianapolis / USS Mississippi
Date: September 22, 2004
Interviewer: Michelle Carrara
Summarizer: Cole Snedeker
Veterans History Project


Henry E. Von Spreckelsen

Henry E. Von Spreckelsen graduated from New Brunswick High School in January 1943, at the age of 17. Though the attack on Pearl Harbor angered him, he always wanted to join the military anyway. “I definitely wanted to go in and do something for my country,” Von Spreckelsen said.

After working as a civilian at Camp Kilmer, an army processing center, for several months, Von Spreckelsen visited a recruiting station in New York. Though recruiters badgered him to join the different branches of service, he was already set on the navy. Von Spreckelsen’s father served on a submarine chaser in World War I, and his ship was credited with sinking a submarine near Gibraltar. Sharing this tradition, he often took Von Spreckelsen and his brothers to naval museums. His family even had a shore house and owned a boat.

After passing his physical, the navy gave Von Spreckelsen 30 days to “clear up any business.” “I’m 17 years old,” he joked. “I don’t have any business to clear up!” On May 20, 1943, Von Spreckelsen officially enlisted, his parents signing the required papers without issue.

Von Spreckelsen attended seven weeks of boot camp in Newport, Rhode Island. With years of outdoor experience as a Boy Scout, he said “It wasn’t bad.” The 80-man barracks saw “a lot of bruised rear ends and casualties from falling out of the hammocks at night.” There were gas drills, swimming classes (where, ironically, some people “had problems” because they could not swim), classroom activities, and a “happy hour” of physical activity every afternoon. “I enjoyed it,” Von Spreckelsen said of his experience, comparing it to the events of the movie An Officer and a Gentleman.

When they told me that I was gonna go to fire control school, I thought I was gonna become a fireman!

After a week’s leave to visit home, Von Spreckelsen returned to Newport for fire control school. “When they told me that I was gonna go to fire control school,” he laughed, “I thought I was gonna become a fireman!” Through twelve-hour work days, Von Spreckelsen studied manual operation of fire control systems. He also spent a week at a gunnery school elsewhere in Rhode Island, practicing at the rifle range and learning to operate naval anti-aircraft guns and artillery. In their free time, the students ran across the Rhode Island beaches and saw dummy torpedoes washing up from off-shore training. Occasionally, they also ran across the lawns of the millionaires living along the shore!

Von Spreckelsen completed his training in December 1943 and was told to arrive in Pearl Harbor in 30 days. He spent a week at home before taking a troop train from Newark to San Francisco. With no change of clothes and terrible food, the five-day trip was miserable.

Arriving in San Francisco, Von Spreckelsen awaited a ship to report to. For several days, he explored the city and slept at a YMCA before boarding the USS Indianapolis. A band played “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” on a loudspeaker as the ship passed underneath the San Francisco bridge, causing him to cry. “It broke my heart,” Von Spreckelsen said. During the subsequent voyage, he slept in the room where the atomic bomb parts were transported during Indianapolis’s fatal 1945 cruise.

Heavy winter storms beset the three-day voyage, making Von Spreckelsen seasick. He compared the calmness of Pearl Harbor to going “from winter to summer.” An officer asked him to join Indianapolis’s fire control crew, but Von Spreckelsen declined, now knowing his seasickness would bode poorly on such a light vessel. He bunked in barracks overlooking Pearl Harbor for several days before being assigned to the battleship USS Mississippi in the “F” (fire control) division.

Mississippi, Von Spreckelsen explained, was launched in 1918 as one of three sister ships of the New Mexico class (whom she generally served alongside), and had since been overhauled twice. During the attack on Pearl Harbor, Mississippi was in Iceland supporting trans-Atlantic convoys; the next day, she sailed for the Pacific. Through 1942-43, the ship operated in the Aleutian Islands, and just before Von Spreckelsen enlisted, the Gilberts.

USS Indianapolis

Perhaps accidentally, appropriate to the ship’s namesake state, most sailors were southerners. Most were also volunteers, though there were many draftees as well. Nineteen was the average sailor’s age; “You were an old-timer if you were 25,” Von Spreckelsen said.

Von Spreckelsen reported as a replacement for a sailor killed in the Gilberts campaign. His first station was below decks in the plotting room, controlling main battery firing. His tasks were menial: entering information into the fire control computer and communicating with the bridge staff.

Though protected by the 14” armored deck, Von Spreckelsen did not like his post’s claustrophobic nature, and he feared being trapped should the ship begin sinking. Thus, through conversation with his CO, he transferred to the “sky aft” position. Atop the ship’s mast, Von Spreckelsen controlled the rangefinder for the operators in the plotting room. He much preferred this post, though he mentioned that a friend who felt the opposite remained below decks.

Mississippi primarily served in a shore bombardment role, her twelve 14” guns capable of firing 18 miles inland. Dropping anchor eliminated calculations for the ship’s movement, making fire direction simpler. Von Spreckelsen commented that for the ship’s “excellent” gunnery crews, who constantly trained. “everything was always practice, practice on the ship,” he said.

Von Spreckelsen’s first mission aboard Mississippi was to support Marine landings in the Marshall Islands. In the preceding invasion of Tarawa, standard naval gunfire tactics proved ineffective at suppressing subterranean Japanese defenses. Thus, Mississippi anchored close to the beach to deliver as direct gunfire as possible (The ship was so close that Von Spreckelsen heard Japanese rifle rounds hitting the hull.) This method was much more effective, such that the infantry named a beach after Mississippi in appreciation.

Afterwards, Mississippi anchored off the New Hebrides for several weeks. The ship’s rifling had worn out, causing shells to wobble in flight. New Mexico was scheduled to travel to Washington for barrel replacement, but the more pressing state of Mississippi’s guns meant that she was transferred instead. Meanwhile, her sister ships took leave in Australia. “They had a wonderful time there, which we missed out on,” Von Spreckelsen laughed, “but we did get back home.”

Mississippi drydocked in Bremerton, Washington for two months, with renovations progressing constantly. Though the crew had some leave, they also assisted in the “tremendous job” of overhaul. As a precaution, each welder was accompanied by a sailor with a fire extinguisher. “If that guy had a twelve-hour shift, you were with him for twelve hours,” Von Spreckelsen said. In addition to replacing the main armament, the ship received new anti-aircraft guns, engine facilities, and radar. He attended school to update himself with new equipment. Von Spreckelsen also partook in firefighting training, run by New York City firefighters, on a mockup-ship.

At the end of her overhaul, Mississippi conducted a brief shakedown cruise, with some civilians remaining aboard to finish renovations. Von Spreckelsen commended their work: “They understood there was a war to go to, and they were willing to pay the price.” Especially with civilians on board, things were “loose” in home waters. In contrast, operations in the “war zone” were straining. Each day, Von Spreckelsen stood two two-hour watches and woke up a half hour before sunrise. He rarely slept well. Some days Von Spreckelsen constantly remained at general quarters, eating sandwiches on post instead of mess hall meals.

As supply ships could take a month to cross the Pacific from the US, much of the food came from Australia. Von Spreckelsen did not like it. “We always thought we were eating up all the kangaroos and sheep and lamb,” he said. “So, it was horrible meat… You take it in your mess tray, so you wouldn’t get served it again, and when you get down to the end of the aisle you throw it in the garbage can.”

Even so, food shortages frequently occurred. Conflicts over supplies between Von Spreckelsen’s 7th fleet and the 5th fleet (led by William Halsey) often left the former lacking. Nevertheless, in such situations, simpler meals could still be served: rice, canned meat, bread, dried vegetables, oatmeal, and candy bars.

Occasionally, sailors could go ashore with two cans of beer or soda to relax. They could buy food from the natives, though necessarily remaining wary of tropical diseases. Anything with a skin to peel, such as a banana, could be safely consumed.

For entertainment, games between ships’ crews (such as baseball matches) were held. Von Spreckelsen notably mentioned boxing competitions, known as “smokers.” Interestingly, one smoker in the Philippines was run by Von Spreckelsen’s PT instructor from boot camp, a professional boxer.

Peleliu ended up being a terrible tragedy, all the men lost really for nothing.

Her overhaul completed, Mississippi travelled to assist landings at Peleliu, aimed at supporting the future invasion of Leyte in the Philippines. “That was a mistake,” Von Spreckelsen said of the invasion; Peleliu held little significance and could have been bypassed. In fact, he explained, an American fighter pilot had been downed over Leyte several weeks before. Linking up with friendly Filipinos, he reported no heavy Japanese defenses. This revelation prompted plans to cancel the Peleliu operation as unnecessary, but unfortunately it was deemed too late to alter course. Thus, as Von Spreckelsen said, “Peleliu ended up being a terrible tragedy, all the men lost really for nothing.”

The morning of the landing, Mississippi bombarded the beach for about half an hour. Around daybreak, the shelling ceased, and Marines immediately landed. From his position, Von Spreckelsen constantly watched the beach, close enough to observe the battle clearly. Though his ship was not threatened by Japanese attacks (neither coastal artillery nor airstrikes), the same could not be said for the Marines. Some landing craft prematurely struck coral reefs, and infantry “drop[ped] like flies” as they landed. To avoid revealing their positions, Japanese defenders did not open fire until the Marines hit the beach. “It was a slaughter.”

As the infantry advanced, Mississippi’s fire control crew collaborated with a Marine officer to provide support with 5” dual-purpose secondary guns. All night long, every two minutes, star shells were fired to reveal enemy positions. Japanese snipers, perched in coconut trees, harassed advancing forces. To deal with them, Mississippi fired proximity-fused shells, blasting the tops off trees across the island. Von Spreckelsen also directed fire in support of specific objectives, such as “Bloody Nose Ridge.” After the battle, he received letters of gratitude from some infantry who assaulted that position.

After Peleliu, Von Spreckelsen sailed for the invasion of the Philippines. Mississippi arrived off Leyte three days before the landings to bombard the beaches. A common tactic was to sail slowly just offshore, enticing the enemy into firing on the ship. Their positions revealed, Mississippi would use her superior firepower to suppress them. The invasion was massive, with over 500 ships involved, but resistance on Leyte was light.

About a week later, Von Spreckelsen’s fleet received a report of approaching enemy warships contacted over 100 miles away. With five other battleships (all but herself being Pearl Harbor veterans), Mississippi headed into the Surigao Strait. The ship’s three spotter seaplanes were removed (to prevent interference with the rear turrets) and moored alongside several other seaplanes off a nearby island. Unfortunately, a Japanese bomber later found and destroyed them all! Weeks later, Von Spreckelsen chuckled, “like you order something in a grocery store… they ordered some new planes.”

Having entered the Surigao Strait, the American fleet slowly sailed back and forth along its width. Around 2 am, ten approaching enemy vessels were contacted. They were harassed by PT boats, destroyers, and cruisers for 8-10 minutes before the American battleships opened fire. Mississippi targeted the second battleship in line, “Yamoto.” (Presumably, Von Spreckelsen meant Yamashiro.) Within 15 minutes, the enemy force was decimated.

Despite the battle’s one-sided outcome, Von Spreckelsen mentioned several mishaps. The PT boats attacked ineffectively, launching their torpedoes prematurely under fierce enemy fire. During the battle line engagement, Mississippi nearly collided with another battleship, and she only fired one salvo. (A second salvo was loaded but never launched. These shells could only be removed by firing; thus, after the battle, an impromptu wooden training target was towed behind a destroyer for practice.)

The US fleet held position until daybreak. Most Japanese survivors refused rescue, and one even knifed an American sailor attempting to save him. About a week earlier, a Japanese submarine had machine-gunned American sailors after sinking their ship. Remembering this incident and facing such stubbornness, the Americans made little further recovery effort. Very few Japanese sailors ultimately survived.

Around 9 am, Von Spreckelsen’s fleet received reports of a large surface group attacking a small American force (Taffy 3) just 50 miles to the north, off the island of Samar. His fleet was ordered to respond, and they would be in gun range within half an hour. However, as Von Spreckelsen explained, Taffy 3’s resistance was so stubborn that the Japanese admiral believed he was fighting American fleet carriers, and thence withdrew.

The first kamikaze attacks of the war occurred at this time. “You couldn’t believe it,” Von Spreckelsen said of the tactic. “It was a hard thing to accept.” Standard bombing runs preceded the attacks; and, it took several minutes to realize that the suicide strikes were deliberate. Mississippi was not hit, but many other vessels were. Even hospital ships, deliberately separated from warships, were targeted. “They’re marked,” he explained. “They’ve got a red cross on each side of the smokestack… on the decks, fore and aft… You cannot miss a hospital ship… They had complete disregard for that.”

Von Spreckelsen visited many atolls across the Pacific. The sheltered interior of an atoll made an ideal fleet anchorage, and the surrounding islands could host airbases. At this time, Mississippi sailed into Ulithi Atoll, which was 15 miles across and could hold “the entire fleet.” While anchored there one day, an explosion tore through the ammunition ship Mississinewa, just 1000 yards from his ship. “It just evaporated,” he recalled. Panic ensued, but the assailant escaped undetected. Evidently, despite facing submarine nets and destroyer patrols, a Japanese submarine had infiltrated the atoll to torpedo the ship.

At the end of December, Mississippi escorted an invasion convoy to Lingayen Gulf, preceding landings on Luzon in early January. With no friendly carriers supporting, Japanese aircraft harassed the convoy “morning, noon, and night.” In addition, the convoy traversed narrow straits, allowing Japanese planes to use the islands to approach unmolested by anti-aircraft fire. Von Spreckelsen constantly remained at general quarters.

Finally reaching the gulf, things initially remained “quiet,” and the warships began bombarding the beaches. Then, more enemy aircraft approached, and “all hell broke loose.” A kamikaze, diving out of the sun, struck Mississippi just after noon. The plane missed its target, the bridge (the left wing grazed the superstructure) and struck several anti-aircraft positions. The plane carried a 500 lb. bomb, which fortunately exploded outside the ship.

It was hell to pay.

Von Spreckelsen was in the mess hall when he heard the tremendous explosion a deck above. Rushing to general quarters, he passed the carnage on the way. Upsettingly, Von Spreckelsen recalled stepping over a casualty whose legs had been severed. 42 sailors were killed, with three more missing in action and dozens wounded. Several 5” and 40 mm guns were destroyed. “It was hell to pay,” he said. Von Spreckelsen displayed a metal fragment from the plane he salvaged in the aftermath.

As there were no refrigerators to preserve the dead, burials took place at sea. They were typically conducted at night in open water. Bodies were wrapped in canvas and placed on mess tables at the stern. After saying a prayer, the table was lifted to allow the canvas to slide overboard A 5” shell was placed with the body to facilitate quick sinking and prevent sharks from eating it. “They had a lot of lunch after that battle,” Von Spreckelsen said, attempting to find some light in a “very, very sad” event.

Mississippi received temporary repairs from her own crewmen. Winches were hung off the battleship’s rear gun turret, supporting a three-foot wide coffer dam. Air was pumped into the box, and repairmen lowered in to patch the hull. The battleship then headed to Pearl Harbor for further repairs, and to receive updated radar and guns, thus missing the Battle of Iwo Jima.

Von Spreckelsen’s final combat missions took place during the Battle of Okinawa. “Okinawa was a bloodbath,” he said. “Horrible, horrible, horrible.” Mississippi arrived late to the battle, after the northern half of the island had been captured. To protect the south, the Japanese organized a defensive line centered around Shuri Castle. At a Marine officer’s request, Mississippi’s captain agreed to shell the castle before an infantry assault. The battleship moved closer to the beach to close the range. There were many uncharted shoals nearby, however, and she advanced very slowly to avoid beaching. A small boat motored ahead, equipped with a heaving line to detect obstructions.

A nearby destroyer (possibly the USS Longshaw) paid for not taking such precautions. The brand-new warship, captained by a junior officer, beached itself on a shoal within range of Japanese shore batteries. Mississippi covered the stricken vessel by suppressing the enemy artillery. Once the batteries were silenced, a tugboat arrived to tow the destroyer. Attempting to free the ship tore open its hull, however, and it was declared a loss. As Japanese divers might arrive at night to steal documents or equipment from the wreck, Mississippi destroyed her with 14” shellfire, leaving “nothing but pieces.”

The next day, Mississippi commenced bombardment of Shuri Castle as spotter planes directed fire through the clouds. The first day of shelling did little damage, but after two more days the castle “had disappeared.” (Von Spreckelsen later displayed a kill marking card which included the castle as credit!) Marines subsequently captured it with no casualties, finding dozens of enemy soldiers killed by blast concussion in the ruins. They also discovered lengthy tunnel networks running from the castle, which had allowed the enemy to safely move troops across the island.

After three weeks off Okinawa, another kamikaze struck Mississippi. The plane hit the ship’s stern, killing a chaplain and injuring several mess boys. Mississippi sailed to a floating drydock in Leyte Gulf for repairs. These completed, she patrolled north of the Philippines in search of vessels attempting to retreat to Japan. Not only were no enemy vessels contacted, but no land was sighted for the entire 52-day voyage.

It would have been a bloodbath. I really thought I’d never live to see it [through].

With the capture of Okinawa, angst brewed for the invasion of Japan. “It would have been a bloodbath,” Von Spreckelsen said. “I really thought I’d never live to see it [through].” News of the atomic bombings produced gaiety among the sailors, who “knew they had a chance that they’re gonna go home.” Their chance was realized several days later with the official cessation of hostilities. Displaying a photo of the celebrations, Von Spreckelsen described seeing “the largest fireworks in the world, bigger than any Fourth of July I ever saw.”

Following the ceasefire, Mississippi sailed to cover the landing of occupation troops at a Japanese airfield. Afterwards, she sailed into Tokyo Bay, as Commodore Matthew Perry had done with the first USS Mississippi in 1853. A Japanese pilot came aboard to guide through the minefield. A minesweeper led the way, and Marines lined the deck to shoot any sighted explosives.

A Japanese tugboat approached, with the crew asking for fresh water. The 40 mm guns trained on the boat while an interpreter explained that the crew did not have water. Water conservation, Von Spreckelsen explained, was very important; Mississippi had a distillery, but the fresh water produced was needed for the engines and crew, and could not be spared.

There were also fears that suicide divers would break the truce and plant bombs under the ship. At night, a small boat with anxious Marines patrolled around the battleship. “The Marines on the ship were shooting anything floating by,” Von Spreckelsen laughed. Soon after, he sailed south to Yokohama, where the final surrender took place. Mississippi anchored at the edge of the fleet, but MacArthur’s voice at the ceremony played over the loudspeaker for the crew to hear.

With the war over, Mississippi sailed to Okinawa to shuttle servicemen home as part of Operation Magic Carpet. Around 1,000 extra men came aboard the battleship, sleeping in the crew’s bunks during the day. For the first time overseas, the ship kept its lights on and was “lit up like a cruise ship.” Some feared that a Japanese submarine, unaware of the ceasefire, would target the vulnerable ship, but fortunately these worries were unfounded.

After dropping off men at Pearl Harbor, Mississippi sailed through the Panama Canal toward New Orleans. To reach the city, she had to sail 100 miles up the shallow Mississippi River. To lighten her displacement, ammunition (except for the main battery shells), aviation fuel, and miscellaneous “junk” were dumped into the Gulf of Mexico. Along with nine other ships, Mississippi then sailed up her namesake river, only troubled by an occasional mud patch that shook her violently. The governor declared their arrival a state holiday, and schoolchildren lined the levees to wave.

Von Spreckelsen shared several images and documents from his service. Among them was a notebook from the captain’s assistant, who recorded all orders carried out. The notes would later be transferred to an official logbook. Von Spreckelsen noted that some of the “bad stuff” in the notebook never made it into the official log.

Von Spreckelsen left the navy in 1946. He worked at AT&T, serving twelve years as an hourly employee and twenty as a supervisor. After age 58, Von Spreckelsen accepted an early retirement offer. Meanwhile, both of his brothers joined the navy, serving on the aircraft carrier USS Tarawa. During the Korean War, one of them redeployed to Rhode Island per the Sullivan rule, which prevented siblings from serving on the same ship in a warzone.

Several years later, Von Spreckelsen revisited Mississippi, now an anti-aircraft training ship, in New York. He asked if there were any World War II servicemembers left, and one man was brought forward. Evidently, this sailor had joined Mississippi in New Orleans, just as Von Spreckelsen and most other wartime crewmembers left. Mississippi was decommissioned and scrapped several years after.

Remaining a lifelong member of the American Legion and the VFW, Von Spreckelsen attended many reunions. Notably, he recalled a ceremony on the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Surigao Strait in Mobile, Alabama, where he found himself “treated like royalty.” The veterans were scheduled to have a ride on an aircraft carrier, but it was called to support an intervention in Haiti. Instead, they toured a modern frigate, which Von Spreckelsen remarked as a “good time.” The next year, he saw the Blue Angels perform at another ceremony in Pensacola, Florida.

If he could ‘go back,’ Von Spreckelsen said, he would reenlist in the navy, but only under the circumstances of the time; he would not want his children or grandchildren to enlist today. “It [WWII] was a complete different war,” he explained. “Today it’s so political… and you’re not fighting for a purpose… and the people don’t appreciate you; they hate you over there. It’s a terrible mess we’re in.”

Nevertheless, Von Spreckelsen felt that his service left him a positively changed man. “You grew up and matured,” he said simply. Von Spreckelsen also felt that the military provided a unique path: “I don’t think it’s something you can teach a person. It’s something that you have to experience.”

Henry E. Von Spreckelsen passed away on June 27, 2011 at the age of 86.

Additional Resources:

Baker, Richard W. Fri, 07 Aug 2020 15:52:25 +0000


World War II

Richard W. Baker

World War II Oral History Interview
US Army, 4th Infantry Division
Date: September 30, 2003
Interviewer: Michelle Carrara 
Summarizer: Cole Snedeker
Veterans History Project


Richard Baker

Richard Baker was born in 1920 and, at the outbreak of World War II, worked for an oil refining company in Philadelphia. He did not remember details of the attack on Pearl Harbor and the subsequent hysteria, but was sure that he was outraged. In 1942, at the age of 22, Baker was drafted into the US Army. Though he had expected it was coming, he recalled that his family was devastated.

Baker traveled to join the 4th Infantry Division’s 12th Infantry Regiment at Camps Gordon and Wheeler in Georgia, and then to Fort Dix in New Jersey. He was trained to set up, sight in and fire an 81mm mortar and fire and maintain his sidearm, a .45 caliber automatic pistol. Baker did not recall many details, but remembered that training was tough. While participating in maneuvers in Georgia, he contracted pneumonia and was hospitalized for a month. Baker was subsequently given a brief leave before being sent overseas.

Baker sailed on the transport USS George Washington to England as part of a large convoy. Some sailors suffered from seasickness, though Baker was unaffected. The men were anxious, yet spirits were high. They gambled, played cards, and “did the things that GIs do.” After an uneventful eleven-day voyage, the ship arrived in Liverpool, England. 

4th Infantry Division

Baker and his comrades traveled by rail to Exmouth, a port town in Devon on the English Channel, where training continued for another six months. In April of 1944, he participated with Exercise Tiger in preparation for the D-Day landings. The exercise proved to be a fiasco, with “friendly fire” casualties and attacks by German E-boats which penetrated the naval screen and torpedoed several LSTs. Fortunately, Baker had already landed on the beach before the ships were hit. He and his associates knew that it had been a debacle, but the news never went public at the time, as the Allies did not want to give the Germans propaganda material.

Living conditions in England were good for Baker. Air raid sirens sometimes blared, and planes could be heard overhead, but no bombs ever fell near his unit. Rather than being housed in barracks, the men were quartered in villas on a large estate. Baker was fortunate to meet up with a friendly family while in England. They had several young boys, who would often offer money or shoe-shining in exchange for flour, sugar, coffee, and other goods. Baker kept in touch with the family for years after the war; on the 40th Anniversary of D-Day, he was able to track down the boys and see them! At the time of this interview, he was still in correspondence with them.

The 4th Infantry Division was slated to land on Utah Beach on D-Day. The tension built as the fleet crossed the Channel in complete darkness to conceal their presence. During the voyage, the ship Baker was on collided with another vessel, prompting him to don his lifejacket. Though little damage resulted, he was already fearful, wondering if he would even make it to the beach.

BG Theodore Roosevelt Jr.

Baker recalled that on D-Day, the navy dropped the 4th Division somewhat off course, but the Deputy Commander of the 4th Infantry Division, Brigadier General Teddy Roosevelt Jr., (who went ashore in the very first landing craft), decided to “start the war where they were.” Baker himself landed on Utah at H-hour +1. He expected that they would land right onto the beach; instead, when the ramp dropped, they plunged into armpit-level water. Baker was part of a three-man mortar team; each man carried one of the three parts of the 81mm mortar on his back. The weight of the mortar parts dragged some of the men under water, forcing other soldiers to assist them to shore.

Baker was shaken up by what he saw on the beach. The riflemen from previous waves had already cleared the beach of German defenders, but dead and wounded soldiers lay in the sand, while German artillery continued to shell the beach. Baker prayed that he would make it off the beach alive. Fortunately, he was able to do so unharmed.

On June 11, Baker and the two other members of his mortar team stopped for the night and dug a foxhole. Each man took a two-hour guard duty shift. Baker finished his shift, took off his helmet, and went to sleep. Suddenly, the Germans began to shell the field, and a shell landed on the side of the foxhole. The two other members of his team escaped the hole, but Baker was buried in dirt. Miraculously, his helmet had fallen across his face and left an air pocket for him to breathe. When his fellow soldiers dug him out, they saw he was in bad shape. The commanding officer believed that Baker “was gone” and wanted to leave the field, but a medic stepped in and said he could save him. After resuscitation and a blood transfusion, Baker’s condition was stabilized, and he was evacuated to a hospital. Baker stated that he “wouldn’t be here today” if not for the actions of that medic. Baker had met the medic, named Churchill, on the voyage across the Channel before D-Day. Baker had promised that, if the medic had saved his life, he would find him and “kiss him.” Unfortunately, despite searching, he never met Churchill again. Baker remembered very little from his time at the hospital. He wrote letters to his mother, but they have since been lost. After a month of recovery, Baker was sent back to the 4th Division.

Richard Baker

Baker was one of the first Americans to enter Paris when it was liberated. He recalled how the citizens of the city welcomed the Americans with hugs, kisses, and offers of food and drink. To spend the night, Baker’s team dug a foxhole in the park across from Notre Dame cathedral. He could hear firing in the distance and was always wary of snipers, but fortunately never encountered any enemy forces. Baker never used his mortar in Paris, instead carrying an M1 Garand rifle that he had picked up along the way. He noted that it was a nice change from his .45 pistol, which he jokingly claimed might be more useful for throwing at the enemy than for firing!

Baker’s unit stayed only one night in Paris before moving on, and advanced through many small towns before arriving in the Ardennes. The unit participated in the Battle of the Hurtgen Forest, which he described simply as “tough”. The snow made it difficult to dig foxholes, and he was especially afraid of “tree bursts” – the Germans would fuse artillery to detonate upon hitting the treetops, showering a rain of shrapnel across large swaths of forest. His unit suffered many casualties before it was redeployed to an inactive front for some respite.

A few days after, Baker arrived at the town of Echternach, Luxembourg, as the Germans began to shell the town. He felt lucky that his division was in the town, as everyone was able to rush into houses and take shelter in the basements. Other divisions were stationed in fields and were not so lucky.

Baker recalled that he received a package from his brother’s wife: a small Christmas tree, which he had placed in the house he was staying in. After everyone had taken shelter in the basement when the shelling began, one of his comrades suddenly ran back upstairs before returning a moment later with the Christmas tree. “He was nuts,” Baker stated, though according to the fellow soldier, it would not have truly been Christmas without that tree.

Baker happened to be facing the southernmost German thrust of their Battle of the Bulge offensive. The Germans subsequently ceased shelling and surrounded Echternach. They fired into the town, but were unable to enter in the face of American resistance. Baker’s unit captured three or four German prisoners, who they treated “very nicely”. The logic, he said, was that if he happened to be captured, hopefully the Germans would treat him with respect in kind. After a week of enduring the siege, as Baker’s unit was beginning to run low on ammunition, it was finally relieved by the 101st Airborne Division.

After the battle, the 4th Division continued to advance east. Baker could tell that the war was ending, as his unit increasingly faced less resistance. He did not recall where he was when Germany surrendered. Baker received two Bronze Stars and two Purple Hearts for his service during the war. His brother also served, based in England as a ground support member for the USAAF.

Baker spoke a great deal about his day-to-day life and regular responsibilities in the army. When asked about the weapons he used, he noted that they were “very good.” His mortar consisted of three parts – the baseplate, the tube, and the bipod – and was crewed by three men supported by two ammunition carriers. Baker’s mortar was usually positioned about a mile behind the frontline. As one of the gunners, he would receive coordinates to fire on from a radioman on the frontline. Baker would then aim the mortar to hit those coordinates and fire one shell. The radioman would radio back the results, giving him corrections if need be. Once a shell landed on target, he would start firing continuously.

Baker also had a high opinion of the German arms he faced. He especially remembered the Nebelwerfer, a rocket launcher firing what he referred to as “Screaming Mimis” due to their distinctive sound. The nature of this noise, though ominous, allowed him to know if the rockets would land near his position or away from it.

In the field, Baker ate C rations and K-rations, although he was treated with hot meals while in England. He was supplied with a heavy overcoat to deal with the winter weather; and, an extra pair of socks came in handy as his feet would often get wet.

Baker said that he did not receive any unusual assignments while in the service. Army life had been much of what he had expected it to be. Baker never had direct contact with German forces, save for snipers, nor did he ever interact much with German prisoners (save for Echternach) or civilians. Morale among the men was generally high.

Following the cessation of hostilities in Europe, Baker was sent home for a thirty-day leave. Subsequently, he would have been retrained ahead of an invasion of Japan, but fortunately Japan surrendered during his leave period. At this time, through the army’s “point system”, Baker was three points short of a discharge. However, after speaking with the medical department, he was able to receive a Purple Heart (worth five points) for a minor injury he had suffered during an artillery attack, thus giving him enough points to be discharged.

Baker decided not to continue in the army as a career. He married and used loans provided by his GI benefits to buy a house for his family. Baker became a member of the VFW after retiring, as well as he attended reunions with his former soldiers, most notably a large gathering in France for the 50th anniversary of the D-Day landings. It was a “very gratifying experience”, he remarked, to see so many people together for the ceremony.

Baker often visited schools to tell his war stories. He hoped that younger generations would “get along with everyone and the other countries” to prevent future conflicts. Baker recommended that youth enter the service for three years after high school to see what it was like. He said that he himself would serve again if he could go back and do it all over.

Additional Resources:

Lepre, Robert Thu, 06 Aug 2020 21:10:21 +0000


World War II

Robert Lepre

World War II Oral History Interview
US Navy, USS Wilkes-Barre
Date: March 16, 2017
Interviewer: Carol Fowler, William Elwell, Kristine Galassi
Summarizer: William Elwell


Robert Lepre

Robert Lepre was born in 1925 in Newark, New Jersey. He described himself as a “neighborhood kid” who worked as a carpenter’s apprentice for his uncle after dropping out of high school. In 1943, at the age of seventeen, Lepre tried to enlist in the Navy, rather than wait to be drafted. The initial physical exam revealed that he “had flat feet;” and, he was rejected, but he demanded to be reexamined. After a re-examination the following day, Lepre was accepted for service. He attended Navy boot camp at Naval Training Center Newport, in Rhode Island. Upon graduation, the recruits were asked for their pre-war profession, presumably to help determine their military specialty. After replying “I’m a carpenter,” however, Lepre was told by the officer in charge, “Great! Cooks and Bakers’ School.”

Lepre would serve as a cook from 1943 to 1946. Once aboard the light cruiser USS Wilkes-Barre (CL-103), his duties included making meals for the crew, as well as auxiliary duties as a laundryman and cobbler. His cooking specialty included anything with pasta, due to his Italian heritage. To that end, “whenever [he] was on duty, [the crew] could expect noodles.” Lepre made fresh pasta with Italian expertise, and he told the other cooks to “save the sauce from the meatballs” to increase the flavor.

USS Wilkes-Barre

On May 11, 1945, while supporting the invasion of Okinawa, the USS Bunker Hill (CV-17) was hit by two Kamikaze planes within the span of thirty seconds. As an escort ship, the Wilkes-Barre arrived on-station to take wounded aboard. The Bunker Hill was supposed to be towed back to San Francisco by the Wilkes-Barre, but was able to make it under its own power to Ulithi Atoll and then home. Captain Porter of the Wilkes-Barre told his crew, “Well, gentlemen, since you did such a good job, we’re not gonna tow it home!” Lepre remarked: “about six hundred guys sighed relief.”

The Wilkes-Barre moved into Tokyo Bay on September 3, 1945, following the Japanese surrender. She was appointed as flagship of the naval force involved in overseeing Japan’s demilitarization, and Lepre and his shipmates settled in to a life of occupation duty. The ship then spent time in China, where Lepre visited the Great Wall while on shore leave, as well as Korea, where the sailors wanted to see the native water buffalo at work.

Robert Lepre with his fiancée.

Lepre and the Wilkes-Barre arrived in San Francisco in 1946. He recalled: “What was special about it? We got off the ship!” Discharged, Lepre was given the option to remain aboard for a return trip to Philadelphia, but he opted instead to make it home faster on land, as he was eager to see his fiancée. Hitchhiking and hopping seven different freight and passenger trains, the trip took him five days. He stopped home to visit his family, checked to see if he still had a job as a carpenter, and then visited his fiancée, who was doing “war work” in a defense plant. Women on lunch break called out “Hey, sailor, come on up here;” but, Lepre continued into the plant, where he surprised his fiancée. He recalled that she thought she looked “a mess,” and asked some other women for lipstick amid cheers from her coworkers. To Lepre, “she was the most beautiful woman [he] ever saw.”

Returning to work as a carpenter for his uncle, a builder, Lepre built his first house and then went on to build “hundreds” of houses over his career. He kept in touch with some shipmates while raising his family. At the time of his interview, Robert Lepre was living at a retirement home in Brick Township, New Jersey, where the interview was conducted with the gracious assistance of daughter, Cindy Barnes.

Robert L. Lepre passed away on January 10, 2018.

Frattin, Walter Sat, 01 Aug 2020 12:24:59 +0000


World War II

Walter Frattin

World War II Oral History Interview
US Navy, Radioman
Date: June 4, 2018
Interviewer: Carol Fowler, William Elwell
Summarizer: Vinny Colacchio


Walter Frattin

Walter Frattin served in World War II in the US Navy. He was born in Union City, New Jersey in July 1924 and spent most of his life, both before and after the war, in Long Branch. Before the war, Frattin was a high school student who enjoyed hanging out with his friends and playing sports. In high school, he ran track and was on the swim team. Frattin enlisted in the Navy the day after he graduated from high school.

When asked about his time in boot camp, Frattin recalled his time there as “real funny” overall. He remembered that many of his civilian friends were classic “wise guys” and figured he would be better off in the Navy, because he was always near the water and got three meals a day. As Frattin progressed through boot camp, he complained about a plethora of things, but his biggest grievance was how bad the food was. He also recalled the time he needed to get a tooth pulled, and how the procedure took three men and many hours to complete. Frattin was left in immense pain and could not open his mouth for several days.

Boot camp ended in six weeks, and Frattin went off to radio school in Boston, Massachusetts. Interviewers Carol Fowler and William Ewell were particularly impressed with the fact that he still remembered Morse Code, as well as other skills he learned in that school. After completing his course, Frattin was sent to Norfolk for destroyer crew school. In Naval terminology, a destroyer is a fast, maneuverable, long-endurance Warship intended to escort larger vessels in fleet, convoy and battle group work, as well as defend them against powerful short range attackers.

Frattin eventually joined a destroyer crew in New York after completing his time in what he described as a “disgustingly hot” destroyer school. His ship escorted a convoy to Algeria, in support of the invasion of North Africa. He got his first real taste of combat when he and his crew had to shoot down a German plane.

Draft Card

Frattin was later transferred to the USS Franklin, an aircraft carrier in the Pacific. The crew would get up and prepare at 4:00 AM every day in anticipation for Kamikaze attacks. One day, a bomb hit the Franklin. Frattin saw people flying through the air, and others running around on fire. He himself was in good enough condition to try to help his shipmates; he instinctively jumped in the ocean, en route to helping roughly 60 men to safety. The captain of the Franklin considered charging those who jumped overboard with abandoning ship, but never followed through with his threat.

Frattin also said he spent a lot of time off Okinawa. There, he recalled, his biggest challenge was fighting off Kamikazes. One day, a huge typhoon hit the fleet and almost wiped out the whole ship, which was guided to safety by the captain. The interviewers, Fowler and Elwell, showed pictures of the typhoon that Frattin went through, as well as pictures of Frattin as a young Navy lad. This brought a smile to his face as he laughed about his “ridiculous outfit.”

Although Frattin experienced some traumatizing moments, he remembered many good times during his service. For instance, he got to see Bob Hope when he was working on the SS Louisville in Pearl Harbor. During free time, Frattin and his shipmates would play baseball with sticks and stones. He was also given shore leave early in his career, and got to hang out at Huntington Beach, California, for some time.  

Returning to New Jersey after the war, Frattin worked for his father and a contractor. He continued to work small jobs until he was 63. Not too long ago, Frattin went to a ship reunion to see his old shipmates. Although he said he did not recognize anybody and nobody recognized him, Frattin said he still had a really good time chatting with everyone. And to put the cherry on top of his colorful and decorated career in his war service and his home life, he helped open the first beach for surfing in Long Branch.

Frattin was involved in an interesting postwar incident in Long Branch. In 1960 he, his 13-year-old son and several of his son’s friends went surfing off Matilda Terrace. At the time, surfing was illegal in Long Branch. When the police arrived, the adolescents fled, but Frattin remained, was arrested and held briefly. That incident resulted in the opening of much of Long Branch’s waters to surfing.

Additional Resources:

Rybarczik, Walter Mon, 27 Jul 2020 19:24:27 +0000


World War II

Walter Rybarczik

World War II Oral History Interview
US Army Air Corps, 2nd Long Range Photo Recon
Date: December 27, 2017
Interviewer: Carol Fowler
Summarizer: Cole Snedeker


Walter Rybarczik

Walter Rybarczik was born in Perth Amboy, New Jersey in July 1921 into a family with a history of military service. His father joined the Imperial German Army in 1890, and served in the cavalry before his family emigrated to the United States. After the outbreak of World War I, he was ordered by the German government to return to Europe to serve in the army. Rybarczik Sr. ignored this request, as well as another letter requesting his return to serve in World War II – this letter he defiantly tore up.

In 1942, Rybarczik himself received a draft notice to serve in the US army. Though willing to serve his country, he wanted to be in the air corps rather than on the ground. Thus, Rybarczik went to the draft board and lied, claiming that he had not received a notice for the army, and instead asked to join the air corps. When asked by the recruiter what he wanted to be, Rybarczik said “pilot”. However, in the words of Rybarczik himself, “I don’t know anything about an airplane. I’ve never been near an airplane.”

After taking an entrance exam in Trenton and a physical at Fort Dix, Rybarczik headed to Nashville for orientation. One day, his group was called together and told that they would all be radio operators. Evidently, he did not know “anything about a radio either, or a code.”

Walter Rybarczik

Rybarczik was sent to Scottfield, Illinois for training with coding and building radios. Soon he was able to code at a rate of more than 20 words per minute. Then came gunnery school in Yuma, AZ, where the trainees were given shotguns and tasked with shooting clay pigeons while standing on a moving truck. This turned out to be quite challenging. “Nobody ever hit one of them that I saw,” recalled Rybarczik. Proceeding next to aerial gunnery practice, he was taken up in a plane and required to shoot “big white sheets” being towed by another aircraft. Learning to time shots ahead of the target, or leading, Rybarczik successfully completed this stage of training and earned his wings.

Rybarczik remembered running into difficulties with managing his finances. He briefly made a foray into card-gaming before losing $20 and quitting. Rybarczik also left much of his money in his coveralls on the clothesline, which unfortunately was then stolen. The criminal was eventually caught, discharged, and sentenced to four years in prison, but the associated trial consumed all Rybarczik’s leave time.

Finally, it was time to begin training for actual bombing missions. Rybarczik joined a bomber crew with diverse geographical origins. He was assigned to the roof gun turret, behind the cockpit. Initially missions were flown with a pilot instructor, and all went smoothly. On the first mission without an instructor, however, the plane’s gas cap was left unsecure. After it blew off mid-flight, gas began to gush out and hit the side of the plane. Fortunately, the skilled pilot dealt with the situation handily and landed the plane without further issue.

Walter and Hall of Famer Mike Piazza

The crew was next sent to Mountain Home, Idaho, where they “still dropped a few bombs,” and then Oklahoma, where they conducted long-range photoreconnaissance at 30,000 feet, as well as mapping training. During one flight, while walking to the middle of the plane, Rybarczik’s oxygen bottle ran out. His parachute then became caught on something, and he fell over trying to free himself, tearing the ligament in his knee in the process. He declined to inform his officers of his injury, as he knew that doing so might result in his service being curtailed.

Following the conclusion of training, Rybarczik’s plane was supposed to be sent to the Pacific Theater, but twice it had to turn back for California due to engine trouble. “But it was alright,” he said, “because every time we came back, we got $2 a day extra pay just for coming back.” On the third trip, the plane finally made it to Hawaii, after which it proceeded to Canton Island and then Tarawa. Rybarczik recalled the grisly scene at Tarawa; the aftermath of the battle for the island three weeks earlier had not yet been cleaned up. He next went to Morotai, where he coincidentally met a man who had sat next to him in homeroom during high school!

Citi Field Jumbo Tron

Rybarczik’s plane, a B-24F7A, soon began to fly actual reconnaissance missions. With two canisters of film, each able to hold 500 photos, and supported by two 500-gallon fuel tanks, missions typically lasted at least ten hours long. Flights were conducted at 30,000 feet up. The temperature was so cold that water in canteens would freeze, and the airmen wore many layers of clothes to stay warm, including plug-in heated suits.

The altitude, supposedly too high for enemy Zeroes to operate at, led to missions being flown without fighter escort. According to Rybarczik “Zeroes could go up to 30,000 feet, but it was too late now!” He remembered how he recorded his mission count with marks on a smoking pipe, which he retains to this day.

As the radio operator, Rybarczik was responsible for making a position report every half-hour: “The navigator would tell me where we were at, and I would put it in code and send it back.” Though promptness was important, he typed slowly to avoid making time-consuming errors. Rybarczik also recalled that his crew listened to “Tokyo Rose” quite often.

While running missions, Rybarczik travelled to many places, from New Guinea to Palawan. He even got a chance to see General Douglas MacArthur in the Philippines. There was not much entertainment overseas, but the people Rybarczik ran into were generally hospitable. In New Guinea, he was approached by a young native boy. Though providing some candy, Rybarczik was unable to gift the government-issued shoes that the boy coveted.

Rybarczik returned to the United States on the first ship arriving in Seattle after the bombing of Hiroshima, and he was discharged in November 1945 as a staff sergeant. After the war, he did not use his GI benefits, but instead was employed by the post office for 40 years. Rybarczik initially did not associate with the VA and did not attend reunions, but recently has become more active. In 2009, he contacted his former pilot and began a relationship between their families. At the time of this interview, Rybarczik was a member of the American Legion’s Trenton post.

In the end, Walter Rybarczik reflected on his service years fondly: “I’m glad I was in it. I really had a good time in the service, I really enjoyed it.”

Kieffer, Reinhardt J. Mon, 27 Jul 2020 16:35:55 +0000


World War II

Reinhardt J. Kieffer

World War II Oral History Interview
US Army, Counter-Intelligence Corps
Date: September 30, 2003
Interviewer: Michelle Carrara
Summarizer: Cole Snedeker
Veterans History Project


Reinhardt J. Kieffer (also going by his initials RJ) grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Immediately before he entered the service, he worked at an ordnance depot in Savanna, Illinois. On December 7, 1941, Kieffer was listening to the radio while practicing stenography, when he heard the news of the attack on Pearl Harbor. He was shocked and expected to be drafted for the military. The ordnance depot wanted to keep Kieffer as an employee; they deferred his draft twice; yet, in October of 1942, Kieffer was finally slated for conscription.

Leaving home was no problem for the newly drafted Kieffer, as he was 28 years old and had lived at a seminary for some time. He was initially sent to Camp Grant, Illinois, where he took an army IQ test and earned an exceptionally high score of 131. After ten days, a train took him to Camp Barkeley, Texas (now Dyess Air Force Base), where Kieffer was assigned to the 90th Motorized Division, later reorganized as the 90th Infantry Division. Following four weeks of training, he was assigned to the G-4 staff in the division headquarters, which oversaw the unit’s logistics.

An announcement was posted on the bulletin board asking for volunteers to join the Army Specialized Training Program (ASTP) to become German interpreters. Kieffer, who had studied German in school and was relatively fluent, took the opportunity. He passed the preliminary German test and was sent to the University of Missouri, where he studied German language, politics, geography and culture for six months.

In April of 1944, the ASTP was dissolved, as the program’s members were needed to fight in Europe in preparation for the upcoming invasion of Normandy. Kieffer was sent to Fort Robinson, Arkansas, and then Fort Rucker, Alabama, where he trained with the 66th Infantry Division as a crewman on the M1 57 mm anti-tank gun. He noted that the conditions were extremely tough, especially at Fort Rucker, where several people committed suicide because they lacked the mental capacity to continue training. Much of the training had to be conducted at night, due to the sweltering heat and humidity. Kieffer attributed his ability to get through training to his dedication and proactive attitude.

In October of 1944, Kieffer was placed in a 200-man “packet” of soldiers organized as a replacement group for men who had left their units due to illness, wounds, death, or other reasons. He journeyed across the Atlantic on the SS Nieuw Amsterdam. The voyage took thirteen days, as the lone vessel zigzagged to avoid possible torpedoes fired by U-boats. Some men suffered from seasickness, but Kieffer ate only dry food and escaped any trouble.

Kieffer landed in Glasgow, Scotland, and traveled by train to a camp in England, where he remained for ten days. He then took a landing boat across the English Channel and landed in France. Travelling to Belgium, Kieffer was assigned to the 104th Division. Initially, he was ordered to maintain statistics on the status of the unit’s men from the daily morning reports usually submitted by company first sergeants. The statistics detailed who was present, who was absent, who had been wounded or killed, who was sick, etc. Kieffer, however, had not been sent overseas to just do desk work. He was soon tested on his German language skills, as well as underwent a background check; Kieffer was assigned to the 104th’s Counterintelligence Detachment.

As Kieffer’s unit moved into a captured village, tables would be set up in the center of town. Every male resident in the town was required to register at the tables, where they would be questioned by Kieffer and his associates. The counterintelligence men were most concerned with finding and interrogating Nazi representatives in the towns. If enough allegations were collected against a Nazi, then an arrest might be conducted, but Kieffer’s unit was not responsible for conducting any investigation beyond preliminary interviews. Upon leaving the town, the information they gathered would be passed onto other units, who would continue the investigations.

Kieffer continued this work until the end of the war, when his unit had just entered Holland. At that point, he was approached by a woman seeking help. Her father had been murdered, along with two French informants. Kieffer and his associates investigated and, through photo identification, found the perpetrator to be a Ukrainian man. They visited eight or ten refugee camps searching for him, with no luck, only to discover that he had been living with other refugees in a house right next to Kieffer’s base camp! The culprit was apprehended and turned over to Dutch police.

As part of a second line unit detachment, Kieffer never came into direct contact with German forces. One time, while based in a boarding school in Belgium, a V-1 flying bomb flew overhead. Its engine stopped just above the school, and Kieffer saw it impact about a mile away in a field. His unit was involved in the liberation of the Nordhausen concentration camp, and he remembered it as the “most disgusting site” he ever saw, climbing over dead bodies on the stairs and smelling the odor of burned ashes near the crematorium.

Following the end of the war, Kieffer was appalled at what he had seen. He decided that it was his duty to remain in the service and help with Europe’s recovery. The army kept him in Europe for several years; and, in 1947, Kieffer attended the army’s Russian language school. While on leave in Italy, he met his future wife. Kieffer remained in the army and rose through the ranks to captain in 1954. After leaving the army, he got a degree in Sociology from North Carolina State University. In 1968, Kieffer moved to Philadelphia and worked for the Army Electronics Command for five years.

Kieffer was involved with several veterans’ organizations in the postwar era, as well as visited schools to share his experiences. When asked if he would go back in time and “do it over”, Kieffer confidently said that he didn’t “regret a moment” of his service. At the time of his interview, he was living in Cape May, New Jersey. Reinhardt J. Kieffer lived to the age of 98, when he passed away peacefully at home on November 8, 2012.

Hodes, Frank R. Mon, 27 Jul 2020 12:14:23 +0000


World War II

Frank R. Hodes

World War II Oral History Interview
US Army, 80th Infantry Division
Date: December 14, 2005
Interviewer: Carol Fowler
Summarizer: Cole Snedeker
Veterans History Project


Frank R. Hodes

Frank R. Hodes was born in August 1919, in Newark, New Jersey. He was raised in nearby Springfield as the youngest of eight children (three brothers and four sisters) and worked as a purchasing agent before World War II.

The attack on Pearl Harbor shocked Hodes. “It made us realize,” he said, “that things were rather serious, and that eventually I would have to come into the military.” To help the war effort, Hodes worked at the Brewster Aeronautical factory in Brooklyn, while going to night school. After three years, however, the facility closed, and with that his draft exemption, so he decided to enlist. “All my friends were in the military,” Hodes explained, “and I felt that, ‘If I have to go in, I have to go in.’”

Enlisting in March 1944, Hodes travelled to Fort Dix to receive his uniform, and then to Camp Roberts, California, for basic training. At age 25, among mostly 18 and 19-year-olds, he was one of the oldest trainees. Hodes did meet one older soldier who had been conscripted in his 30s; this “old man” received library work at Fort Meade rather than overseas assignment, which Hodes felt “very good about” considering his age.

Hodes’s two senior brothers, both National Guard veterans, shared advice about what to expect, but the transition to military life still posed challenges. Hodes had travelled little from home during in his youth, and the sudden move to the West coast proved stressful. His loneliness lessened, however, after his wife Mildred, who he had married in 1942, followed him to California. She rented a one-room apartment and shared it with another Newark servicemember’s wife. Mildred got a job as a secretary, and he visited her on weekends. One of the couples typically rented a motel room to give the other privacy, though Hodes recalled one time where both had to sleep in the same room!

Hodes was assigned to Easy (”E”) Company of the 317th Infantry Regiment, 80th Infantry Division, as a rifleman, replacing a casualty of fighting in Europe. At Camp Roberts, he befriended several other men from Newark. Overseas, they served in the same unit, but were separated among the companies. One notable friend, Moe Goldberg, served on the very ridge where Hodes was wounded. Goldberg himself later lost an arm during the Battle of Aachen.

Travelling to Fort Meade, Maryland, Hodes conducted gas training and received his rifle. Afterwards, via Camp Kilmer, New Jersey, he embarked on the RMS Queen Mary II, a cruise liner converted to a troop transport. Its high speed provided defense against U-boats, so it did not travel in a convoy. Being torpedoed would have been disastrous, however; the ship, built to accommodate 1,500 passengers, carried 15,000 troops! Fortunately, this Atlantic crossing proceeded uneventfully, the only notable occurrences being dolphin sightings.

After arriving in Clyde, Scotland, Hodes took a train to Southampton, England, where he boarded a landing barge. Crossing the English Channel, he disembarked at Omaha Beach, 90 days after D-Day. Blockships held back the waves for smooth debarkation, and troops exited the beach via steps dug into the cliffs.

Coming off the beach, Hodes passed a cemetery described as “beyond vision. All you saw were markers for graves.” Soon after, he saw the bloated body of a German soldier in a ditch, as well as deceased cattle. Though not broadly crushing to morale, these sights constituted a “very sad experience” and did frighten some men. Several “went bananas” with fear and were returned to England.

Hodes joined his squad and headed east through northern France. In one town, he entered a barber shop. On the wall were pictures of Doughboys visiting the village decades earlier; Hodes noted that the appearance of the town had not changed “one iota.” He also visited a nearby bakery, but was initially denied service, as he lacked a ration card.

Soon after arriving at the front, Hodes received his baptism by fire. His unit dug foxholes on a hill, overlooking a German-occupied walled village. Previously, two companies had failed to capture the town, suffering heavy casualties.

The Germans ineffectually bombed the American positions overnight. The next morning, around 11 a.m., Hodes’s company assaulted the village. Approaching the wall, the unit received fire from the front and both sides. Unable to locate the enemy, he went prone and fired blindly at the wall.

I always resented the fact that we were just fodder. We were expendable.

Suddenly, Hodes felt several “bangs” in his leg – he had been shot. He lay on the ground, unable to speak for fear of passing out. A medic bandaged his leg and administered morphine. Hodes soon fell asleep, and fellow soldiers later carried him to safety on a raincoat. Only 20 of the company’s 120 men returned from the attack, and Hodes regretted how his company had been employed. “I always resented the fact that we were just fodder,” he said. “We were expendable.” A month later, the town fell to another attack, this time with air, armor, and artillery support.

Hodes passed through a MASH (Mobile Army Surgical Hospital) outfit and a field hospital in Nancy, France, before arriving at a hospital in South Pool, England, for long-term recovery. He had been hit four times, at the knee and below. Two bullets passed through his leg, while surgeons removed another two. (Hodes retained the latter as mementos.) The injuries were not life-threatening, though they did produce osteomyelitis, a bone disease. He received bone-scraping treatment for this ailment. Hodes also remained uncomfortably confined in traction to keep his injured leg from settling unnaturally. After three weeks, a visiting colonel liberated him, deeming the treatment unnecessary.

Frank Hodes and his wife, Mildred “Millie” Applebaum Hodes.

While in South Pool, Hodes received a visit from a childhood friend, Joe Todres, whom he lauded as the “greatest guy in the world.” Serving as a chef at another army hospital in England, Todres appreciated his non-combat position. (Joe was such a talented cook, Hodes noted, that it “would have been a big mistake” to send him to fight.) He brought along an entire duffel bag of food (generously including a bag of chocolates sent by his wife, which he had not opened!), but Hodes could not consume much, his appetite having tanked since his injury. He lost 25 pounds in the hospital.

Hodes missed the Battle of the Bulge, thankful to be in his clean bed rather than one of “those poor guys out there, in the mud and the slop.” After six months in England, he endured a “terrible” 16-day journey via converted freighter back to the US, and then transferred to a hospital in Butler, Pennsylvania. From there, Hodes was eventually released on furlough and returned home, still wearing a leg brace.

His leave concluded, Hodes convinced the army to post him at Fort Dix instead of returning overseas. Though in service again, his recovery had not yet completed; he continued to undergo occasional surgeries in the coming months. In total, through 17 operations, Hodes spent nearly two and a half years recovering.

Hodes’s leg healed in a slightly bent position with an immobile joint. Though often able to walk without assistance, he still experienced pain and discomfort, and sometimes needed a cane. Due to his lengthy period of inactivity during recovery, Hodes also developed kidney stones and arthritis in his ankle. These afflictions made working very difficult for him. After 15 years, he finally received 100% disability status from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

In addition to his combat injuries, Hodes suffered many setbacks through his personal life. While serving overseas, his wife suffered a miscarriage. Then, while he recovered in the US, his second child passed away at nine-months-old due to complications from a birth defect.

Hodes was discharged from the army in 1947, with a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star for his sacrifice. Aside from his friend Joe Todres, he did not keep in contact with fellow servicemembers. After meeting a fellow 80th Division veteran after the war, Hodes did attend one reunion, but unfortunately, knowing none of the attendees, he found the experience boring. Though not participating in activities, he supported several veterans’ groups by paying dues: Disabled American Veterans, the Purple Heart Foundation, and Jewish War Veterans.

Hodes spoke at length about his experiences during the 1985 Achille Lauro hijacking. Along with Mildred, he was a passenger on the namesake Italian cruise liner’s eleven-day journey through the Mediterranean. While off Egypt one day, Hodes went ashore for sightseeing. Meanwhile, other passengers, including his wife, sister, friends, and many other American nationals, remained aboard. Suddenly, armed Palestinian terrorists stormed the ship, taking its passengers and crew hostage. A frightened Hodes heard of the hijacking after an hour of waiting for the overdue vessel to arrive in port. 

Service Medals

Fearing for Mildred’s safety, Hodes anxiously waited for what seemed like years.  After four days, with great relief, she and the other hostages were finally released. Unfortunately, the terrorists had executed one hostage, Leon Klinghoffer, a good friend of the Hodes’. A New York resident, Klinghoffer had a beach condo in Long Branch and spent summers with Hodes. Additionally, based on a random draw of the hostages’ passports, Mildred had been slated to be the next executed hostage, and may not have survived had the crisis not been defused.

In addition to the stress of his wife’s well-being, Hodes contended with “unbearable” press hounding. When the ship returned to port, hundreds of photographers and journalists blocked his path to the pier. He did, however, agree to several interviews with cable news. For an interview with NBC, Hodes was brought to a studio (which he noted, looked like a “dump” on the outside but was beautiful indoors) in Cairo, but satellite communications issues cancelled it. On the other hand, Mildred declined to speak about her experiences, instead wishing to forget them.

In exchange for freeing the hostages, the Egyptian government, claiming no jurisdiction over the Palestinian nationals, provided them a plane with orders to leave the country. Subsequently, American fighter aircraft forced the escapees to land in Italy, where they were detained.

Before returning to the US, Hodes and the other former American hostages were brought to Italy to identify the hijackers, who were imprisoned and later released on parole. “Looking back now,” he said of the whole incident, “it was an interesting thing, if it weren’t for how sad it was, the tragedy of it.”

Despite facing many difficulties in both military and civilian life, Hodes enjoyed a successful post-war career. With a degree from Newark College, he ran his own insurance business for over sixty years. Hodes also helped found the Men’s Club of Temple Beth Ahm in Springfield, NJ, remaining active at the synagogue for decades.

Though proud and honored to defend the nation in World War II, Hodes closed with a different tone regarding contemporary conflicts:

“I think that we’re led like cattle by our government, by our politicians. I feel terrible about what’s going on in Iraq now. The waste of lives and all the horror and the suffering going on. The subterfuge that was involved, setting up this private war… I hate to see these kids over there… it could be my grandson. It’s a tragedy.”

Frank R. Hodes passed away at age 91 on February 21, 2011. Predeceased by Mildred in 2006, he was survived by a brother and two sisters, a son, Steven, a daughter, Carol, and two grandchildren.

Additional Resources:

Hughes, Mortimer M. Wed, 22 Jul 2020 18:47:27 +0000


World War II

Mortimer M. Hughes

World War II Oral History Interview
US Army, 7th Armored Division, Ex-POW
Date: September 30, 2003
Interviewer: Carol Fowler
Summarizer: Macartan McCabe
Veterans History Project


Mortimer M. Hughes

Mortimer Hughes was working as a farmhand in Cape May County, New Jersey, when he was drafted on April 23, 1944. He did not mind being drafted, because his friends had already entered the service; and, he felt guilty about not being called up. After arrival at Fort Dix, Hughes was assigned to basic training at Camp Croft, a World War II US Army Infantry Replacement Training Center located near Spartanburg, South Carolina, after which he was sent overseas. He first went to Scotland, then he was sent to France, where he was assigned to C Company of the 23rd Armored Infantry Battalion, a unit of the 7th Armored Division.

The 7th Armored Division, part of General George Patton’s 3rd Army, had landed at Omaha Beach in mid-August 1944, and was driving inland across France when Hughes joined the unit. The 7th took part in the liberation of much of France and the Netherlands. The division then moved to Belgium, and was reassigned to the 9th Army during the Battle of the Bulge. On the 4th day of that fight, the Germans launched an offensive which overran Hughes’ position. He was in a foxhole with another solder when a grenade landed and exploded. The explosion destroyed their rifles and severely injured both men — Hughes had over 30 pieces of shrapnel in his legs. He tried to aid his foxhole mate, who suffered even worse wounds. The Germans surrounded the foxhole and captured both men.

7th Armored Division

Hughes was transported to a field hospital, where his wounds were bandaged by German medics. He was then moved to a hospital in Germany, where he remained until the allies bombed the hospital, inflicting heavy German casualties. Hughes managed to get out of the hospital building with the aid of local civilians, who used a ladder to assist trapped patients. He then was sent to several camps in succession, either by marching or in a railroad box car. The German guards who escorted him and other Americans POWs were unarmed, and only carried a stick with a white flag; they were prepared to surrender to the allies at any given time. The guards also warned the prisoners that, although they could run off and not be shot, it was not a wise idea, since they might run into the SS, who would shoot them, no questions asked. This travel ordeal lasted for around three months.

Hughes was liberated while he was hiding underneath a barn in Germany. The area had been routinely bombed, so he had to seek cover until the bombing ended. While hiding, Hughes heard the noise of tanks and marching, which he assumed were Germans moving through the area. As they got closer, he realized they were Americans. Hughes remembered running to the street and shouting at them that he was an American. In a state of delirium, he chased after a half-track, shouting at a lieutenant that he needed to get on the vehicle. A total of 1,500 American POWs were rescued that day. The German guards did not resist and were taken prisoner. The Americans had no idea what to do with the released prisoners, who had to wait until planes were available to take them to France to be treated. Hughes, due to the poor conditions he had lived in, weighed a mere 87 pounds on his liberation, and remembered being covered in dirt and lice. It took him three months to be rehabilitated in a French hospital.

After the war, Hughes returned to his home in Cape May, where he found out that he had been listed as missing in action. He was a POW for 97 days. When Hughes first returned to America, he never discussed his service. At the time of this interview, he enjoyed talking about it, as well as went to schools to give talks about what he did in World War II. Hughes was a proud member of the South Jersey Chapter of the Veterans of the Battle of the Bulge and the American Ex-prisoners of War of Cape May County.

Mortimer Hughes earned the Combat Infantry Badge, the Purple Heart, Prisoner of War Medal, Good Conduct Medal, and the Victory Medal for his service. He passed away in Atlantic City at the age of 92 on November 28, 2012.

Boylan, John V. Wed, 22 Jul 2020 16:56:04 +0000


World War II

John V. Boylan

World War II Oral History Interview
US Army, 357th Harbor Craft Company
Date: February 13, 2002
Interviewer: Carol Fowler
Summarizer: Cole Snedeker
Veterans History Project


John V. Boylan, Left

John “Jack” V. Boylan was born in August 1924, in Newark, New Jersey. His family moved to Brick Township, New Jersey, in 1938. He had military precedent in the family – his brother (17 years older) served in the National Guard until 1936 – but it was the developing situation of World War II that convinced him to join the military. “It was the right thing to do at the time,” Boylan explained. “All my friends were going into the service, and I felt that I should be with them.” He had to wait a year to be old enough to serve. Halfway through his senior year, Boylan received a “wartime diploma” to graduate high school, enlisting in November 1942.

Initially, Boylan visited Fort Dix to receive his uniform and shots. He slept in a tent, participated in “regimented” activities, and “learned an awful lot, fast.” Though considering himself (at times) a “rebel,” Boylan had little difficulty adapting to military life. His poor eyesight disqualified him from combat, and by extension, basic training. Thus, he travelled directly to his first assignment at Camp Shanks in Orangetown, New York, the country’s largest army embarkation center. From the camp, troops boarded riverboats bound for New York City, where they transferred to trans-Atlantic transports.

Boylan’s brother had told him two things: “never volunteer; and, always say ‘Sir’.” The former advice did not help Boylan, however, who languished with kitchen duty. To break the monotony, he broke doctrine and volunteered to be a “runner.” Receiving a Jeep, he delivered messages for the base’s transportation officer. His barracks’ mates, seeking to exploit Boylan’s newfound transportation capabilities, soon ingratiated themselves with him! After “six or seven months,” he became a colonel’s driver. Soon after, Boylan again switched positions, leveraging childhood boating experience to become a small boat operator. In this position, he sailed around the piers to spot possible obstructions for departing river transports.

In time, this invited another opportunity which Boylan accepted – a warrant officer exam for small boat operators. As a prerequisite, a panel of officers at Camp Shanks evaluated him. This he easily managed: “They asked me some stupid questions, and I found out they were dumber about the boats than I was!” Next, Boylan visited the Brooklyn Army Base for the exam. The instructors took him and about 10 other applicants onto a boat in the Hudson River. Although his prior experience made piloting easy, he did once rely on luck. As a passing barge signaled with two “toots,” a confused Boylan replied in kind. Fortunately, he had given an acceptable response, which signaled right of way to the other craft. Boylan’s boy scouting knowledge also proved valuable, helping him pass the knot-tying test.

A month and a half later, Boylan received word of his promotion to warrant officer. (Additionally, he received a letter from Secretary of War Henry Stimson explaining that he was the youngest warrant officer in the US Army!) Given an $150 allowance, Boylan bought himself a uniform, which he hung next to his bed overnight. As he slept, “some nut” put a towel over his thumb, indicating that he must be awoken early for morning kitchen duty. Around 5 am, the sergeant did just that. Boylan snapped awake, “scared skinny,” before noticing his new uniform. “Sergeant!” he said. “When you speak to an officer, come to attention!” The humbled sergeant looked at the uniform and sighed, “Now I know we’re gonna lose the war.”

The next day, Boylan headed to Camp Gordon Johnston, Florida, for six months of boat pilot training. The missions were not strictly local; he often sailed on long-distance “triangle runs” from Tallahassee to Tampa to Cuba and back. Afterwards, Boylan travelled to Taunton, Massachusetts to depart for Europe on the troopship SS Manhattan.

Boylan described the many reasons that made this trip “horrible.” Due to a logging error, he was placed below the aft decks, just above the noisy propeller, instead of with the other officers. There were so many men aboard that they received just two meals each day; and, despite dining in group shifts, many sailors had no place to sit. Smoking above decks was prohibited at night, for fear of the light attracting submarines. As an officer, Boylan sometimes received orders to keep watch on the enlisted men, ensuring compliance with the rules. The ship rolled violently, causing much seasickness. The bathrooms featured troughs in the middle and on each side of the ship; nobody used the side troughs, as the ship’s rolling would splash the water – and urine – everywhere! They finally arrived in Liverpool “in one piece.” He spent just a day in England before reembarking in Southampton for France. Boylan ultimately landed at Omaha Beach three months after D-Day, climbing off the ship via net, as there were no docks.

After bivouacking nearby for three days, Boylan relocated to the recently liberated city of Cherbourg on the Cotentin Peninsula. At the time, Cherbourg was the only major northern French port available to the Allies. (It remained so until the liberation of Antwerp in late 1944.) Boylan piloted a “57-footer” tugboat with the 357th Harbor Craft Company.

The Germans had destroyed the inner harbor’s lock, leaving it susceptible to the 12’ tide differences, and preventing the docking of ships. Thus, transports moored offshore and transferred their cargo to barges, which Boylan guided into the harbor at high tide. The barges became grounded as the water receded; once the tide returned, he led them back to the transports for more cargo. The tugboats saw near-constant use in this role.

While in Cherbourg, Boylan participated in search and rescue operations for a plane that disappeared in bad weather over the English Channel. The plane had been carrying Glen Miller, “the biggest” American band leader at the time, to France for performances. “Any time he played for the troops,” Boylan said, “there was a mob there, because he was so well-liked.” Regrettably, the search uncovered no trace of the aircraft, and Miller was never found.

A lot of flame, a lot of smoke. Pieces of the ship, here, there. Bodies. Sailors alive, screaming, which we pulled on board.

In another unfortunate occurrence, Boylan witnessed the sinking of the troop transport SS Leopoldville after dark on Christmas Eve, 1944. The ship carried over 2,000 troops of the 66th Infantry Division (reinforcements hastily organized for the Battle of the Bulge). Several miles from port, it suddenly exploded. Boylan believed it had struck a mine or been hit by a torpedo from an S-boat (schnellboot, the German equivalent of a PT boat), but it was actually torpedoed by the submarine U-486. He described the grisly sight: “A lot of flame, a lot of smoke. Pieces of the ship, here, there. Bodies. Sailors alive, screaming, which we pulled on board.”

Boylan raced his tug to rescue survivors. “When you’re doing it, time stands still,” he said. Over twenty vessels moved to assist, but even this response was “never enough.” Men could not last much longer than 15 minutes in the freezing cold water. The darkness also hampered rescue efforts; the boats refrained from using searchlights for fear of alerting S-boats. Boylan made three trips, but by the last he was “only getting bodies.” Despite their best efforts, 819 people perished.

Soon after, Boylan headed to Granville, a small French port on the Channel coast. The harbor received ships from Wales, which offloaded coal to fuel military railroads. Here, he piloted smaller (40’) tugboats built in Canada. At night, Boylan patrolled between the German-occupied Channel Islands, watching for enemy naval activity. “This was crazy,” he commented. “When I look back on it now, I laugh; but, at the time, it was scary.” The small wooden tug would have been no match for an S-boat. “The only thing we had was a .50 caliber machine gun, and I don’t think there was one of us on board that knew how to use it!” Days after, Boylan left Granville. In March 1945, German minesweepers and armed barges from the Channel Islands mounted a successful nighttime raid on the port. They damaged the harbor facilities and Allied vessels, captured a collier (a ship for transporting coal), and liberated a number of German POW laborers. Boylan remained unaware of his close call with the raid until several weeks later.

Boylan’s parents worried about their son serving overseas. He maintained contact with them via Victory-mail (V-mail), a hybrid letter-microfilm military postal system. “It was always good to hear” from his family, though the messages often arrived late, sometimes a month after issue!

Next, Boylan relocated to the Rhine River, participating in the Battle of Remagen. Unexpectedly, Allied troops had captured the Ludendorff Bridge intact and were hastily shuttling troops across the river while under heavy enemy fire. Expecting the bridge to fail (which it did, after ten days), the Allies began constructing a pontoon bridge nearby. The river current was so strong that the pontoons could not remain intact without support. Thus, Boylan maneuvered his tugboat to help the engineers install engines, which constantly pushed against the water flow.

The war in Europe ended before Boylan arrived at his next post in Marseilles. Here, he piloted small boats to ferry troops from the docks to anchored troop transports, which would carry men stateside and to the Pacific Theater. At one point, Boylan relocated to a town north of the city to operate a “control post,” where he directed traffic to prevent troop convoys from “bunching up” on each other. Halted convoys bivouacked in a nearby field and were supplied with food, until Boylan received orders to let them pass. Most passing troops were Italian campaign veterans, heading to northern French ports to return stateside. “They were real good,” he said of their behavior, “for the simple reason, they knew they were going home. They just couldn’t wait to get moving again.” Famous actor and comedian Mickey Rooney happened to be travelling in one halted convoy. Annoyed at the delay, Rooney flew into a tirade. Still, Boylan refused to let him pass. Boylan found the incident amusing: “I think he’s still swearing!” he laughed.

At this time, Boylan did not have enough points in the Rating Score system to return home. With the Pacific War still raging, he departed on a ship for the Far East. After transiting the Suez Canal, however, Japan surrendered. Thus, the ship diverted to round the Cape of Good Hope, then returned stateside via Newport News. Everyone felt it was a “great thing,” to get back to the States; some soldiers even threw their equipment overboard in excitement.

Upon returning home, Boylan received 30 days of leave. Another 15 days soon followed; with an excess of troops returning, “They didn’t know what to do with us.” Finally, he received a telegram requesting his immediate return to base for reassignment. However, Boylan ignored the message for several days, in order to spend Christmas with his family. His parents’ fears about him being punished for this fortunately proved unfounded. After Christmas, he boarded a train in Newark and headed to his former Florida training post, Camp Gordon Johnston. Boylan remained there a day for housekeeping purposes, before being reassigned to San Francisco. The cross-country train ride gave him an opportunity to fraternize with nurses, WACs, sailors, and GIs. MPs patrolled the train to enforce alcohol prohibition. In El Paso, the passengers were allowed a brief break to disembark. Boylan and some other men used the time to purchase booze from a bar. Taking cups from a water dispenser and using their bayonets to crush ice, they enjoyed their illegal drinks in the concealment of the train’s berth.

Through San Francisco harbor, Boylan drove a small boat with a WAC “welcome home” band to greet troopships returning from the Far East. After two weeks, however, a civilian tugboat strike occurred in New York, and he was reassigned there to fill in. The large transport RMS Queen Elizabeth was the first to arrive during Boylan’s shift in New York. The army “always sent too many to do the job,” in this case assigning “six or eight” tugboats to dock her. He detailed the confusion that ensued: “I still swear to this day that the captain of the Queen docked the ship himself. We were pulling this way, pulling that way. Scary, you look up at this monster above you up there. We did help a little, I think. But not that much.”

Boylan was discharged in the spring of 1946. At age 21, he returned to school, alongside several high school friends, to receive an official diploma. (Unfortunately, the wartime diploma he had received was “not worth the paper it was written on!”) Boylan laughed recalling his occasional “hooky” adventures, skipping school to see Empire Burlesque performances in Newark, and attempting to avoid trouble with teachers the following day.

Unfortunately, Boylan lost several childhood friends to the war. One friend, a B-17 bombardier, was shot down over Germany, yet survived. His parachute partially malfunctioned on bailout, causing him to break a leg on a rough landing. Subsequently, he spent a short time in a POW camp before the war ended. Boylan kept in contact with him and other fellow veterans, but did not speak publicly about his military experiences until this interview.

We had to do it. If we didn’t do it… there’d be a German flag up there instead of the American flag.

Boylan commented on the uncertainty of contemporary affairs: “We’re all living in a world today where we’re either looking behind us to see what’s coming up, or ahead to see what we’re going into. It’s a terrible thing.” Nevertheless, he believed, from experience, that these challenges could be overcome. “I think America is a very proud country, and they’re gonna survive. They’re gonna survive, and be stronger.”

Boylan affirmed that if given the choice again, he would serve. “We had to do it,” he said. “If we didn’t do it… there’d be a German flag up there instead of the American flag.”

On October 1, 2008, John Boylan passed away at the Burnt Tavern Nursing Home. He was 84. Predeceased by his wife, Jeanette Delaney Boylan, he left behind a son, a daughter, a brother, and two grandchildren.