National Guard Militia Museum of New Jersey Wed, 07 Oct 2020 20:58:13 +0000 en-US hourly 1 National Guard Militia Museum of New Jersey 32 32 Bilby, John G. Tue, 06 Oct 2020 14:47:20 +0000


Enduring Freedom

John G. Bilby

Operation Enduring Freedom Oral History Interview
US Army, New Jersey Army National Guard
Date: April 12, 2013
Interviewer: Carol Fowler
Summarizer: Joseph Bilby
Veterans History Project


John Bilby in Afghanistan.

John George Bilby was born in Point Pleasant, New Jersey in August 1984, and grew up in Wall Township, New Jersey. He attended Saint Rose of Lima elementary school in Belmar, Saint Thomas Aquinas High School in Edison, (where his mother Patricia was a teacher) and Rutgers University.

As a freshman at Rutgers, Bilby sought an extracurricular activity to participate in. He looked at fraternities but was not impressed. Bilby came from a military family, as both of his grandfathers had served as enlisted men in World War II, as well as his father, a graduate of Seton Hall University, had been commissioned through ROTC and served as a lieutenant in Vietnam. He decided to join the ROTC program, believing it gave him a chance to serve his country as well as provide a valuable experience, and provided college credit as well.

As an ROTC cadet, Bilby was sent to Fort Knox, Kentucky between his sophomore and junior years for leadership training. Then, between his junior and senior years, he went to Fort Lewis, Washington for another summer training period. Bilby graduated from Rutgers as a Phi Beta Kappa student with a major in history in 2006. He was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Transportation Corps.

While in college, Bilby had served in the National Guard in a program designed to recruit new officers to the Guard.  As a lieutenant in the New Jersey National Guard, he was assigned to the 253rd Transportation Company, located in Cape May Court House, New Jersey.

While a member of the 253rd, Bilby participated in one weekend drill a month leading a platoon that worked on truck maintenance and trips to the range at Fort Dix, along with two-week summer training.  On one of the two-week sessions, the unit was sent to Southern California, and had to travel north to San Francisco to borrow trucks to haul wooden barriers to the border to hinder drug traffickers. In 2007, he transferred to the 117th CSSB, a battalion level organization headquartered in West Trenton, where his brother in law, Jarrett Feldman was the S-3.  Bilby was appointed Transportation Officer, which involved organization and supervision of convoys. He was promoted to captain in March 2012.

Jarret Feldman (left), John Bilby (right).

In his civilian life at the time, Bilby was studying for his MA degree in history and teaching in New York City.  The 117th was ordered to mobilize in 2011; they received a brief state training session before being deployed to Fort Hood, Texas for additional training. Following the training, the unit left for Afghanistan.  Captain Bilby and Captain Feldman were in the advance party and flew to Baltimore, Germany, Kuwait and Kandahar, Afghanistan.

Bilby was not initially impressed with Kandahar.  The first thing he recalled were the odors, from burning garbage and the “Poo Pond,” a receptacle for the camp’s sewage. A greeting banner at the gate read, “Welcome to Kandahar.” It was decorated with allied and Afghan flags, but more than a tad threadbare, and with a few bullet holes.

The 117th was a battalion headquarters with four companies under it. They included National Guard units from Ohio and Alabama, and regular army companies; there was occasional friction between these units. It took the 117th about a month to get up to speed in its assignment. After that, one regular army sergeant said they were better than the regulars.

The battalion was in direct support of the 82nd Airborne Division, carting supplies to the unit’s Forward Operating Bases (FOBs). They also removed material to send back to the United States as the Division prepared to return after taking part in President Obama’s surge deployment.  The 82nd was replaced by the 2nd Infantry Division.  At one FOB, soldiers sank to their calf muscles in the sand. The convoys would travel at five miles per hour, with Engineer troops out front on the lookout for explosive devices. Some vehicles were Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP), with V-shaped hulls intended to disperse bomb blasts. One MRAP was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) which penetrated the hull and wounded the crew. Sometimes children from Afghan towns would run along by a slow-moving convoy and steal some stuff from the back.  Weapons and ammunition were secured.

There were some interesting cultural events with our NATO allies.  The French celebrated Bastille Day, and each French soldier got a glass of wine.  Americans were not allowed to drink any alcoholic beverage while in Afghanistan. The British celebrated the Queen’s birthday, which was another interesting occasion.  Canadian soldiers had created a hockey rink, although it was only operable in the winter.

Communications from home were much easier than they had been in any previous war.  Using computers and Skype, John was able to speak to his wife Carol every day. Packages of treats from family arrived frequently, and included a family favorite – Turnstile Coffee from Turnstile Coffee Roasters of Belmar, New Jersey.

John did not take a lot of photos, as he is more of a writer than a photographer. He had two articles published in the New York Times (see links at end of summary).  Bilby also was selected, due to his MA degree and teaching experience, to teach a course there on US History I to soldiers seeking a degree from the University of Maryland.  Once the class was interrupted by a rocket attack, but he recalled that there were “no students better motivated than deployed soldiers.”

Bilby’s father sent him a “Short-timer calendar.” It was a copy of his original calendar from Vietnam.  The “calendar” was a drawing of a helmet sitting on two combat boots.  The helmet had 100 small patches to cover in, one day at a time, cataloging the soldier’s last 100 days “in-country.”

Bilby, again assigned to the advance party, recalled that it “felt wonderful” leaving Kandahar. When they left Afghanistan, the pilot announced, “Praise Jesus we are out of Afghanistan.”  They landed in Kyrgyzstan and spent a few days there. For the first time in eleven months, they could drink beer.  Unfortunately, one of the selections was Russian Baltica #9, which was far from wonderful. They made their way back to Fort Hood from Kyrgyzstan, and, eventually, West Trenton, where they were greeted by their families.

Since his return from Afghanistan, Bilby received his discharge from the National Guard, worked for the Social Security Administration and went to Rutgers Law School part-time. He earned his law degree and passed the New Jersey Bar exam. Bilby is currently working for the Department of Justice. He, his wife Carol Mendez and their children, Angelica and Joseph, live in Bergen County, New Jersey.

Links to Bilby’s New York Times articles: article:

Rischmann, Robert A. Tue, 15 Sep 2020 12:33:42 +0000


Vietnam War

Robert A. Rischmann

Vietnam War Oral History Interview
US Army, 139th Engineer Company
Date: April 19, 2004
Interviewer: Carol Fowler
Summarizer: Jeff Bryant
Veterans History Project


Robert A Rischmann served in the US Army from December 1965 to December 1968. He joined the army at age nineteen, the first in his family to serve in the military. Prior to his military service, Rischmann worked at a Grand Union store in New Jersey as a grocery clerk. He never wanted to go to Vietnam, as the thought of fighting there terrified him. In fact, rather than waiting to get drafted, Rischmann enlisted voluntarily, in the hope it would decrease his chances of being sent to the war.

Rischmann entered the army with four of his high school classmates. When they were asked where they would like to be stationed, he was the only one out of the group who specifically requested not to be sent to Vietnam. Ironically, Rischmann ended up being the only one out of his friends who ended up there!

During the initial two years of his three-year term of service, Rischmann first went to Newark for induction, then to Fort Dix for Basic Training, followed by Fort Belvoir for advanced individual training in the Engineer Corps, where he became an “engineer parts specialist.” After training, he worked with engineering supply units in Columbus, Ohio before returning to Fort Belvoir to perform the same duty.

Rischmann went to Vietnam in July of 1967, where he was assigned to the 139th Engineer Company. He recalled that every soldier who traveled with him was enthusiastic about seeing the war; yet, he personally feared for his life. Rischmann arrived at Tan Son Nhut Air Base in South Vietnam, where he remembered the odor coming from the corpses of troops killed in action.

While in the south, Rischmann and his comrades lived in “hooches,” which had infrastructures made of wood, screening, and tin roofs, and were hidden within trees. When he and the engineering company transferred further north, they lived in bunkers composed of sandbags. Rischmann recalled that the bunkers were unbearably hot, to the point where soldiers slept outside on the roofs at night.

When Rischmann’s unit traveled north, it was assigned to Cua Viet River Base, near Quang Tri. Upon arriving there, he immediately perceived it as a dangerous place where he did not want to be. Rischmann sighted a ship with cannons guarding the camp, additional artillery dug into the sand, and the mountains of North Vietnam off in the distance, which indicated he was close to the enemy’s border. He quickly realized he was right, as rocket attacks from the North fell on the base every night.

Area of operations.

During the day, Rischmann traveled upriver on a barge to get supplies, with battles and skirmishes occurring daily. He believed the people in charge were disorganized and irresponsible. Rischmann also detected  a lack of motivation on the part of his fellow soldiers, which he felt as well.

He believed the lack of motivation was because the men ignored what was happening around them. Furthermore, “friendly fire” incidents among troops working the night guard were common, because there was a lack of communication between the units. Rischmann himself was fired at while sleeping, but uninjured.

Rischmann next moved to Quang Tri Province, where one village two to three miles away from base had been previously overrun a couple of times.

During the Tet Offensive of 1968, the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces delivered a major strike on the 139th Engineering Company. Rischmann remembered standing near a gun jeep shot up during the offensive. An enemy rocket also almost hit him at the American base. He said everyone panicked and rushed into the bunkers, from where he remembered seeing an enormous tower of smoke resembling a flower. Rischmann was also aware of the destruction in Saigon and other communities throughout South Vietnam, both by the enemy and the American Air Force.

According to Rischmann, one could never tell what side a Vietnamese was on. He noticed civilians, especially children, searching for food in the dumpsters where the military dumped their trash. The children would even jump on the truck Rischmann drove to search for garbage. As a solution to the scenario, troops would hire these children to fill sandbags for them, and in return would give them rations. They removed the food from the cans before giving it to the children to prevent them from potentially using them as mines.

Rischmann never took R&R (rest and recuperation) leave while he was in Vietnam. He worried that if he had done so, he might never return to the war. Rischmann knew a couple of soldiers he was close to who took R&R in Australia and never returned. Neither of them was ever heard from again, which influenced Rischmann to never undertake such a getaway. He did, however, recall how he had some fun while in Vietnam, and formed bonds with people who went through similar circumstances.

The main diet of a Vietnam War soldier, as recalled by Rischmann, was canned food referred to as C-Rations.  They contained several different types of food, meats, pastas, and vegetables, which were easily poured out and quickly cooked. He also ate large white cookies, which were shipped from Korea. Rischmann was hospitalized for two to three days due to a back injury. He temporarily could not straighten his back, but was able to do so by the time he was discharged from the hospital. Rischmann remembered the temperature in Vietnam going up to as high as 120 degrees Fahrenheit. He said soldiers developed large red rashes on their skin because of severe sunburn. Rischmann also spoke of how people needed to take salt tablets due to excessive sweating.

When May of 1968 arrived, it was time for Rischmann to go home. He first flew into Tacoma, Washington, before returning to New Jersey. Rischmann was advised not travel in uniform when he returned to the United States, due to the increasing antiwar protests. He worked several months in Maryland at an ordnance facility until his term of service expired, when he was discharged in December 1968. After moving back home, Rischmann worked maintenance at the Old Country Store. He referred to it as a very pleasant job, working from 9am to 3:30pm and often visiting Laurel Racetrack with his co-workers.

Rischmann said the hardest part about his entire experience in Vietnam was that there were moments when he felt alone, despite being around people. Alongside his periodic loneliness, he feared for his life when being out on the frontline. Rischmann stated how war is not something anyone ever forgets. The experiences remain in one’s mind throughout his or her entire life. He himself went through a period of eight to ten years where he relived horrendous moments from his war experiences. However, Rischmann would eventually live out the rest of his life without any severe trauma. At Manasquan VFW Post 1838, he serves as Chaplain.

Morgan, Raymond B. Wed, 09 Sep 2020 18:42:57 +0000


WWII / Korea / Cold War

Raymond B. Morgan

World War II / Korea / Cold War Oral History Interview
US Marine Corps, 3rd Marine Division
Date: August 16, 2013
Interviewer: Carol Fowler and Vincent Gonzalez 
Summarizer: Cole Snedeker
Veterans History Project


Raymond B. Morgan in 1945.

Raymond B. Morgan was born on August 1922 in St. Louis, Missouri. In 1941, the effects of the Great Depression still lingered; and, for a fresh high school graduate like him, there were “no jobs to be had.” At least it was so in the civilian sector; military service, in contrast, offered stable employment. Thus, he enlisted, expecting to serve several years. At the recruitment building, Morgan chose the Marines for a straightforward reason: “The Navy was on the eleventh floor, and the Marine Corps was on the first floor!”

Morgan also had a cousin in the Marines. At the outbreak of war, he had been captured by the Japanese in Tientsin (Tianjin), China. Though made to do forced labor in Japanese mines, the cousin did survive the conflict. While in captivity, he helped a fellow marine with food rations; and, after the war, that man repaid him with a job at his father’s business!

Of course, everybody at that age was a little homesick,” he noted, “but the Marine Corps doesn’t permit that!

Enlisting in July 1941, Morgan first traveled to the Marine Corps recruit center in San Diego. “Of course, everybody at that age was a little homesick,” he noted, “but the Marine Corps doesn’t permit that!” Morgan enjoyed meeting recruits from across the country (an exciting opportunity considering the economic inability of most Americans to travel at the time). Service itself, he explained, “was like an everyday job. You trained early in the morning ‘till late at night. Then you were free to go on liberty, if you had the money.”

Morgan was at Camp Elliot (near San Diego) when the attack on Pearl Harbor occurred. (He had heard of Pearl Harbor; but, like most Americans, he did not know its location.) Alongside the few personnel on Sunday duty, Morgan was sent “into the field.” Perhaps, the troops were marshalled to counter Japanese landings… but they had no ammunition! “No one knew what was going on,” he said.

For the next few days, Morgan loaded .30 and .50 caliber machine gun belts and test-fired the base’s small arms (some of which had been stockpiled for years and had to be replaced or repaired). Afterwards, he hiked with his unit, the 3rd Battalion, 9th Marines, to nearby Camp Pendleton for mobilization. Meanwhile, daily news reports told of marines being overrun in China, the Philippines, Guam, and other places across the Pacific.

In May and June, the unit conducted amphibious training at La Jolla, north of San Diego. The troops gathered at their debarkation station to crawl down nets into landing craft. There was a sense of urgency, but no strict time limit. The men stepped on the vertical ropes, and grasped the horizontal ones, so as to not tread on each other’s hands. To eliminate the choking hazard for those who fell overboard, they did not buckle their helmet straps. Mortars and heavy weapons were lowered down with ropes.

Of course, the troops also trained for the landings themselves. Though modern landing craft featured dropping ramps, troops had to disembark over the gunwale on some older boats. Morgan felt that the training made everyone “well qualified” for real assaults.

Morgan joined a mortar platoon, first as a gunner, then as a forward observer, and finally as a section leader. In the latter position, he led two mortar teams, with ten crewmembers and ten ammunition carriers between them. Promotion had been sped up considerably during hostilities; a private first class at the outbreak of war, in April 1942, Morgan became a corporal, a jump which took four to five years during peacetime.

After amphibious training, in September 1942, Morgan returned to Camp Pendleton for reassignment to the 3rd Marine Division. He then headed for New Zealand on a twelve-day voyage. His troopship, a former cruise liner, sailed briskly at 30 knots and did not travel in a convoy. New Zealand had been chosen for a training environment partly because of its climate, similar to that of embattled islands in the South Pacific that the men would subsequently visit.

Raymond Morgan (second from left) at the Museum luncheon in 2013.

The camp, housing 1,000 Marines, primarily served as a physical exercise center. The men lived in three-bunk wooden sheds and received one liberty day out of every eleven. There were only three showers, so Morgan would wake up extra early to gain access to the hot water. Every day consisted of training, except for a sixty-plus mile hike once a week. At the end of the hikes, the men were called into double time to push their limits.

After training, Morgan travelled to Efate in the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu). Conditions on the troopship were cramped – the men waited hours in the chow line, and slept in beds three to four bunks high. There was little to do onboard, and soldiers passed the time by playing cards, reading, or simply resting. They remained below decks at all times.

In July 1943, Morgan arrived at Guadalcanal. Coming ashore via Higgins boat (LCVP), he passed the anchored American fleet: “As far as you could see was [sic] ships.” Though by now the Japanese had fully evacuated troops from Guadalcanal, they maintained aerial bombardment operations. Stray bombs targeted at Henderson Field there sometimes landed around the adjacent camp where Morgan stayed. One night, two Japanese planes were caught above the airfield by searchlights. A P-38 Lightning fighter aircraft shot both down, inducing cheers from personnel across the island.

Though Morgan’s unit suffered no casualties from the bombings, disease did claim lives. The jungle teemed with malaria-infested mosquitos, which made living conditions miserable. At night, men tucked their long-sleeved shirts into their trousers, spread vanilla oil on their hands and face, and wore black head nets. Large nets were also placed around their tents, and sentries would patrol and wake people up if their legs were touching the net. Though not universally effective, the proliferation of Atabrine medication reduced fatalities for those who caught malaria (though it would turn a man’s teeth yellow, making him appear to have jaundice!).

Morgan’s first direct combat service came during the Bougainville campaign. On November 1, 1943, he landed in the third wave of the amphibious assault on the island. The heavy surf overturned seventy approaching landing craft, but fortunately, for those who made it ashore, the beach itself did not extend far inland. As the troops landed, a strafing Japanese plane flew over the beach, with an American fighter chasing, and another Japanese fighter in tow. The American plane was damaged, supposedly by friendly ground fire, and crash-landed on the beach, fortunately out of the way of friendly infantry.

Morgan was attached to a rifle company as a mortar observer, and moved with its command post. Whenever a platoon needed fire support, he would travel to a position several hundred yards ahead of the frontline for observation. Morgan brought along a radioman or operator with an EE-8 telephone to communicate fire direction.

The experience on Bougainville was not enviable. “Bougainville was one of the worst places I have ever been in my life,” Morgan lamented. “It rained constantly… Guadalcanal was considered a paradise compared to Bougainville.” The water led to many soldiers, including him, suffering from an ulcer condition known as “jungle rot,” as well as bacterial conditions which turned one’s toes purple.

Even with the incessant precipitation, potable water “was a premium” on Bougainville. It was one of the three important supplies referred to by the acronym “WAR” – water, ammunition, rations. In the field, soldiers cut bamboo stalks with machetes, and then used them as straws to suck water out of notches in the rock.

On the Marine Corps birthday, hot chow was served on the beach. Unfortunately, attendees had to walk several miles with a sixty-pound cloverleaf (pack of three tubes) of ammunition, or a jug of water. Instead of participating, Morgan and two other soldiers found a 10-in-1 ration (meant for ten people!) and had a full meal.

Morgan noted that normal C-rations were “miserable,” consisting of stew, corned beef hash, and “something else.” Though a small heating pad was included, it proved insufficient for cooking, and the rations were eaten cold. The Marines also experimented with R-rations, which featured a sack of raisins, a D-bar (chocolate bar), and a small sack of rice. (There was rarely enough spare water for boiling rice, so it was usually thrown away.)

To gain an elevated position for observation, Morgan received special tree climbing equipment. One day, while perched among the branches, he began to feel profuse itching. Morgan was covered in red ants! “I jumped out of the tree. Of course, everybody thought I was shot!” He later found red welts all over his body.

In December, as the Allied offensive bogged down, the Marines were relieved by Army units. Before their withdrawal, they began to reinforce their foxholes into bunkers with wood and earth, though a severe earthquake delayed those operations. At the end of the year, Morgan returned to the staging area at Guadalcanal.

In 1944, plans called for Morgan’s unit to participate in an invasion of New Ireland, but this never materialized. Their next operation, an invasion of Guam in June 1944, was postponed due to heavy enemy submarine activity. Instead, they boarded an LST and served as a “floating reserve” during the Battle of Saipan.

One night, near the Caroline Islands, Morgan’s convoy was attacked by Japanese aircraft. The ship behind his was bombed and sunk; but, in turn, no enemy aircraft were downed. The next morning, six TBF Avenger torpedo bombers overflew the convoy. Despite flying low and slow and tilting their wings, they were mistaken as foe, and all six were unfortunately destroyed!

Morgan remained on the LST for 47 days before it had to return to the Marshall Islands for provisions. Afterwards, he sailed for the rescheduled invasion of Guam at the end of July. Morgan and the 3rd Marine Division were to land on the island’s west coast, near the Piti navy yard. Meanwhile, the 77th Infantry Division and the 1st Provisional Marine Brigade landed to their south, across the Orote Peninsula.

On D-Day, all landing craft were slated to leave the “line of departure” simultaneously, so as to have a coordinated landing. However, just before launch, Morgan’s amphibious tractor (LVT) caught fire, forcing him to signal another tractor (by waving his hands) to pick up their troops.

Landing with the third wave, Morgan’s sector (on the division’s right flank) was not heavily shelled, as his unit “did not offer a big enough target.” Coral, which could could cut through exposed skin (though generally not boots) posed a hazard to disembarking infantry. On the first day, his battalion was to capture positions just off the beach, before wheeling right towards Cabras Island, a coastal islet. Due to confusion, they did not complete their objectives until the following day.

Raymond Morgan, center.

Morgan’s unit suffered one casualty while taking Cabras Island. A machine gunner unwittingly set his tripod atop a mine and perished in the resulting explosion. Morgan noted that, normally, engineers swept for mines using metal detectors, or sometimes, by crawling and stabbing the grass ahead of them with bayonets.

The 3rd Marine Division advanced inland, joining the southern forces after four days. The Japanese evacuated the island’s southern half, so the American offensive pushed north, until resistance collapsed. An enemy pocket, protected by dense jungle and caves, had been bypassed; after the main battle, American forces assaulted the isolated region, killing six hundred enemy soldiers.

Morgan described the enemy as “fanatics,” recalling several representative incidents on Guam. On the first night of the battle, he witnessed a Japanese soldier use his sword to commit Hara-kiri (ritual suicide by disembowelment with a sword) in a cave. In another incident, an enemy soldier suddenly appeared and charged him. Morgan shot the man with his M1 carbine at point blank range; the body landed on the ground about three feet in front. A third event saw a Japanese officer rush a friendly machine gun nest with his sword. Despite having the use of one arm (the other having been bandaged from a previous wound) and taking multiple bullets, the man’s momentum carried him forward, until he fell just in front of the gun position. Seeing such scenes of utter zealotry desensitized Morgan to a degree. “To see a dead Japanese, a dead enemy, it didn’t faze you. But if you saw a wounded or dead Marine, you felt bad.”

In Morgan’s experience, camaraderie prevailed over interservice rivalries. Marines sometimes envied Navy sailors, who remained in the comfort of their ships rather than on the battlefield, but this feeling did not persist. Though Morgan infrequently served alongside the Army, they did have an important role in the Pacific. Sometimes, he explained, they invaded islands on their own, particularly in the South Pacific (post-Guadalcanal) and the Philippines. Other times, they fought alongside the Marines, or relieved them during battle (such as at Guam).

Marines did not enjoy proper rest and recovery periods, though during battles they periodically rotated through reserves for some respite. In addition, in between campaigns, they stayed at “rest areas” – staging bases such as Guadalcanal.

Receiving mail in the Pacific was difficult, especially for frontline infantry. Nothing could be expected during a battle. Some packages might be received during rest area stays, but even then, logistical challenges meant that, “by the time they got to you, there wasn’t much left.”

The Marines also faced salary difficulties. As Morgan detailed, they received no combat pay: “The Commandant said, all Marines are riflemen. If all Marines can’t get it, nobody gets it.” Sometimes, they also felt improperly compensated for noncombat duties. On Guadalcanal, each month, one battalion of Marines helped the Merchant Marine unload ships. Unfortunately, they received no extra salary for their toil! (Enlisting as a private, Morgan earned $21 per month; this increased to $92 when he was a platoon sergeant at the war’s end.)

Initial plans for early 1945 called for the 3rd Marine Division to invade an island in the East China Sea; but, the unit was ultimately redirected to bolster the invasion of Iwo Jima. The 3rd Marine Regiment, however, was kept in reserve, despite the insistence of General Graves Erskine, the division’s commander. 70,000 Marines were already landing and subject to enemy bombardment, and General Holland Smith (the overall assault force commander), seeking to minimize casualties, did not want to pack more troops into the combat zone.

With the other regiments, Morgan joined the Battle of Iwo Jima on the second day. A small incline rose off the beach. Though not steep, the thick volcanic ash made the ascent difficult; he described it as, “two steps forward, one step back.”

The climate on Iwo Jima was extremely hot, particularly in caves. Troops often laid blankets before sitting, to prevent burns from the sun-bathed sulphuric ground. It was so hot that a soldier could place his rations in the dirt, and in ten minutes they would explode!

The enemy commander, General Tadamichi Kuribayashi, proved to be one of the most competent Japanese commanders of the war. Despite facing overwhelming forces, and with little air and naval support, he was able to inflict a favorable casualty ratio. Morgan noted that Kuribayashi, along with many other skilled Japanese commanders, had studied in the United States before the war.

To resist bombardment, Kuribayashi sheltered his forces in an expansive cave network. A live Japanese soldier above ground was a rare sight. Assaulting the caves required close assaults from infantry, often with flamethrowers or explosives. Sometimes, troops attached dynamite to the end of a long pole. The primer cord burnt very quickly, and thus had to be lit as the pole was thrown into a cave entrance. The resulting explosion would result in smoke billowing from several other nearby places – illustrating the extensiveness of the cave systems.

Despite the ferocious air and naval campaign, Japanese artillery still posed a serious threat to the American forces. One night, Morgan’s unit took shelter inside sulfur mines. The next day, the Japanese shelled that position; Morgan’s men were very fortunate to have left just before!

The enemy also turned their tanks into small bunkers, burying their hulls and leaving the well-armored turrets above ground. Each position connected to caves via the tank’s escape hatch, so that in case of bombardment, the crew could retreat to safety, returning to the vehicle after. These fortifications were a major frustration, often requiring close-range assaults to dispatch them.

Though Morgan did not take part in the fighting on Mount Suribachi, he travelled there afterwards. (Notably, he saw the flag on the mountaintop, captured in Joe Rosenthal’s famous photograph, which had been raised on the fourth day of the battle.) Though only 554 feet high, the volcano’s slopes were quite steep.

On the mountainside sat many Japanese bunkers and cave entrances with commanding views over Iwo Jima. Morgan saw one bunker which had been ripped open by a direct hit from a 16-inch naval shell. The position featured an azimuth with firing ranges to plot accurate shelling across the island. The bunker itself was so large that an ammunition truck had been backed into it.

Thanks to the immense sacrifices of Morgan, the Marines, and other servicemembers in the Battle of Iwo Jima, the island’s crucial airbase became available as an emergency landing site for bombers returning from Japan, saving the lives of countless airmen. Within a week of the airfield’s capture, the first B-29 landed.

Morgan received a Presidential Unit Citation for his service in the battle. Afterwards, passing through a cemetery, he happened upon the grave of a man he had grown up with. Despite his search, Morgan never found out how his friend had become one of the 6,821 American fatalities of the battle.

Following the battle, Morgan returned to Guam. The island had changed much, having been “built-up” as a staging base. With sufficient combat points and time overseas, he soon rotated stateside.

I remember just about everything. I could put my glasses down – an hour later I say, what did I do with my glasses? But, then, I remember just about everything I’ve ever done in the Marine Corps.

When asked what he most remembered about his service in the Pacific, Morgan thoughtfully replied, “I remember just about everything. I could put my glasses down – an hour later I say, what did I do with my glasses? But, then, I remember just about everything I’ve ever done in the Marine Corps.”

Unfortunately, Morgan described his return home as “a big disappointment.” Arriving in San Diego with only the clothes on his back, he was prohibited from going on liberty, due to his lack of a new uniform. Finally receiving that, Morgan was placed on a troop train and sent to his hometown of St. Louis. After thirty days at home, he received orders to report to the Navy Annex in Arlington, Virginia.

When the war ended, Morgan shifted to the Naval Communications Annex at the Nebraska Avenue Complex in Washington DC. There, he worked with the press section. Morgan displayed a photo of him touring Annapolis on a surfaced submarine alongside other Navy reporters.

In 1947, through a friend who worked for Admiral Chester Nimitz, Morgan arranged to deploy to China. In Tsingtao (Qingdao) he attended a three-week aerial observation school. Though Morgan never served as an aerial observer, the experience proved noteworthy because of an incident. As his pilot landed a twin-engine SNB-1 Kansan trainer (Beechcraft Model 18) after a mission, a strong crosswind suddenly tipped the plane’s right wing into the ground. The pilot overcorrected, causing the plane to tumble upside down! Fortunately, Morgan was wearing his seatbelt and remained unhurt.

Afterwards, Morgan moved to Shanghai to help evacuate American and US-allied (especially British) nationals from the Chinese Civil War. US troops escorted the refugees along a trail to the Yangtze River, where a boat would shuttle them to a larger vessel. While there, for six months, Morgan lived on a ship in the city’s port. Leaving China in 1949, he returned to Camp Pendleton. A new weapons company was being formed, and Morgan became its first sergeant, the senior NCO.

Morgan did not intend to stay in the military long after World War II, but unforeseen circumstances altered his path. The war had not concluded when his enlistment expired, so he renewed it. At that point, Morgan resolved to stay in until he had ten years of service, in 1951. However, the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950 meant that he would have to fight. Thus, Morgan received a battlefield commission to second lieutenant and took command of a platoon.

Morgan did not recall the names of many places he visited in Korea. He did remember seeing Seoul, the present-day capital of South Korea; Wonju, the site of three crucial UN defensive victories (and, as Morgan remembered, “where the beer was kept!”); and Panmunjom, where the war’s armistice was signed in 1953.

Walking was the most common form of transportation in Korea. The terrain, mostly hilly, was not as rough as it had been in World War II. The “main thing” Morgan remembered about Korea was the chilly climate. Initially, the troops were not prepared for cold-weather fighting, and “everybody had colds.” Eventually, better equipment was distributed.

Morgan remembered one incident where American forces occupied one hill, with the North Koreans coming over another, taller peak nearby. The Americans hid a .50 caliber machine gun and set its range to 1500 yards, the distance to the other hilltop. Whenever an enemy soldier appeared, they used the machine gun like a sniper rifle; it was accurate enough to require just one bullet to fell a man.

Returning to the United States after a year in Korea, Morgan served as an assistant base inspector for two years at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. He then became the aide of the base’s new commander, General Homer Litzenberg. While there, Morgan remembered hearing about the tragedy of the Ribbon Creek incident of 1956, where a junior drill instructor at Parris Island, South Carolina marched his unit into a swamp, resulting in six recruits drowning.

In 1959, Morgan deployed to St. Nazaire, France to work in cryptology. His new job came with top-secret clearance: “It was so hushed up, we didn’t even know what it was.” If a conflict broke out in Europe, he was to head to Spain and help with the evacuation. In short, Morgan laughed, his job was to “wait for something to happen.”

While in Europe, Morgan visited Spain, Portugal, and Germany (where he saw the Berlin Wall). It was in St. Nazaire that he married his wife, a military nurse. (Previously, he had joked, “[The] Marine Corps says, if you wanted to marry, they’ll issue you a wife!”)

Morgan retired in 1962 as a captain. “I had enough time in,” he explained. “I wanted to get out before I was too old to find a job.”

Morgan used his GI benefits to attend school for several years. Originally, while in France, he studied European history. “That was the biggest mistake I ever made,” Morgan said, “because everything was dates,” [which he could not remember!]. After returning to the US, he studied business, and later became an office manager of a beer company. Unfortunately, the owner had a heart attack, and the business was sold, forcing Morgan out of a job. Thus, he shifted to the sales industry.

Morgan’s son served in the Navy and was stationed on Wake Island, but returned to the US after an injury. He worked for AT&T and was on the 56th floor of one of the Twin Towers during the 9/11 attacks. Morgan and his wife, watching the events unfold at a bowling alley, worried for his safety. Fortunately, a Good Samaritan called them with news that their son was safe. Morgan’s son did, however, develop respiratory problems from smoke inhalation; Morgan wished he would apply for medical benefits.

Morgan did not have much to say on his officer leadership in the service: “Some good, some average, some exceptional.” He did, however, speak more about presidents. Morgan liked Truman, a fellow Missourian, for his leadership during two wars and his honorable attitude: “the buck stops here.” He also liked John F. Kennedy. His least favorite president was Ronald Reagan, who “took away all our [veterans’] benefits.”

You were frightened most of the time. You couldn’t wait for it to be over..

Morgan described his feelings in war: “You were frightened most of the time. You couldn’t wait for it to be over.” Nevertheless, he did have a general “positive feeling” about making it through, perhaps because of his good luck (which, he claimed, followed him all through life). Morgan also emphasized the importance of teamwork; backing up your fellow soldiers was “the first thing they teach you in boot camp.”

Morgan visited schools to talk about his service, but did not join the VFW. He attended some Marine Corps League meetings, but did not feel the organization was for him. “Every one I ever attended, all they did was complain. At this stage in my life, I don’t need that.”

Though proud of his military career, Morgan remained humble. When asked how he looked back on his service, he simply responded, “Somebody had to do it.”

A resident of Neptune, New Jersey in his later years, Morgan enjoyed bowling, golf, and frequenting the InfoAge Science and History Center museum in nearby Wall Township. On October 10, 2018, he passed away at age 96. Raymond Morgan was survived by his wife, Ann; and his children, Raymond, Sandra, Pamela, and JoAnn; as well as eight grandchildren and one great-grandson.

Additional Resource:


Richmond, David I. Thu, 03 Sep 2020 14:57:36 +0000


World War II

David I. Richmond

World War II Oral History Interview
US Army, 27th Infantry Division
Date: June 23, 2003
Interviewer: Michelle Carrara
Summarizer: Irving Bauman
Veterans History Project


David Richmond was born in Boston, Massachusetts, in November 1922.  At the outset of World War II, he was a student, also serving to direct hallway traffic as a NYA (National Youth Administration) employee, as well as selling papers after school. At the age of nineteen, Richmond tried to enlist in the naval air service, but was turned down. He then tried to join the Marines, yet again was rejected.  Finally, in 1942, Richmond was accepted by the army, although his mother disapproved of that choice.

Richmond received his basic training at Camp Blanding, an army Replacement Training Center near Jacksonville, Florida, and then he moved on to Advanced Infantry Training.  On completion, he was assigned to an army Hospital in Augusta, Georgia as a medical technician, and subsequently left there for his port of embarkation in Merryville. California, where he boarded a troop transport for overseas duty. It was a slow trip, and Richmond noted that he “read many books on deck.” He eventually arrived at New Caledonia, where he was assigned to the 27th Infantry Division as a rifleman. Richmond remarked that he preferred that his service was in the Pacific Theater of Operations over the European Theater.

Richmond went on to serve in Eniwetok, Saipan and Okinawa as a member of his regiment’s cannon company, a mixed arms unit of infantrymen with light artillery and rocket launchers. He spoke of engaging in maneuvers involving in towed targets in Saipan, as well as seeing Japanese soldiers jumping off cliffs on Okinawa, thus choosing suicide over capture. On the upside, Richmond spoke of receiving excellent food during his service, including frequent servings of steak. He felt that his unit was blessed with the army’s best chef as a cook. Marines serving alongside his company would often come by, asking for some of that “great army food.”

27th Infantry Division on Saipan.

Fortunately, Richmond was never wounded, although he did recall an officer in his unit standing on a ridge while giving orders to his men. The officer was shot and killed by Japanese fire. Richmond was, however, sent to a hospital for a week with “jungle rot.” His company was assigned to work with a Marine unit. He recalled that although he found his M-1 Garand rifle to be a “great weapon,” the Marines did most of the fighting. His unit was scheduled to depart for the invasion of Japan when the atomic bombs were dropped, ending the conflict.

Richmond served on occupation duty in Japan for a brief period before boarding a troop ship bound for the US.  Although the food was good, he did become seasick. The ship docked in Seattle, Washington, from where Richmond traveled by aircraft to Albuquerque New Mexico and Chicago before landing at Newark Airport. From there he took a train to Fort Devens, where he was discharged on February 6, 1946. Richmond was unemployed after his service and received checks through the GI Bill 52–20 clause for unemployed war veterans, who would receive $20 once a week for 52 weeks while they were looking for work. He gained employment as a drill press operator in a machine shop.

Richmond never joined any veterans’ organizations, nor did he speak of his wartime experiences with his family. He displayed some photos of his fellow soldiers, his Combat Infantryman’s Badge, and his dog tags for the interviewer.  Richmond also received the Asiatic-Pacific Theater Medal, the Good Conduct Medal, American Theater Campaign Medal, and the Victory Medal.

David Richmond passed away in Brick Township, New Jersey, on May 18, 2008 and was buried in Kenilworth, New Jersey.  

Falca-Dodson, Maria Mon, 24 Aug 2020 14:10:56 +0000


Cold War / Post-9/11

Maria Falca-Dodson

Cold War / Post-9/11 Oral History Interview
US Air Force, NJ Air National Guard
Date: February 26, 2011
Interviewer: Carol Fowler
Summarizer: Cole Snedeker
Veterans History Project


MG Maria Falca-Dodson

From her earliest years, Maria Falca-Dodson’s parents exemplified a strong work ethic. Her father, a carpenter-mason by trade, built his family’s house with his bare hands. The two-year-old Falca-Dodson followed him during construction; “I don’t know how much help that was!” she laughed. She connected her father’s industrious attitude to his background as an Italian immigrant: “Immigrants are an amazing group. Their tenacity and their perseverance is one [sic] of those things that really stands out to me.” 

Many of Falca-Dodson’s family members were veterans. Prior to the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Italian Navy conscripted her father, Giuseppe Falca. He served in the Axis fleet until the Italian capitulation, then fought with Allied Italy until the end of the war. On her mother’s side of the family, Falca-Dodson’s grandfather, an Italian immigrant, served with the US cavalry in France during World War I. In addition, two of her uncles were American World War II veterans (one of whom received a Bronze Star for South Pacific service).

Growing up, Falca-Dodson had two goals: to serve others, and to pursue a medical career. As a teenager, she found a way to satisfy both: one day each week, she served as a “candy-striper” hospital volunteer. Attending university at Trenton State College (earning a Bachelor of Science in Nursing) and Michigan State University (earning a Master of Arts in Administration), Falca-Dodson began her official medical career in “med-surg,” or “rank-and-file” nursing. Later, she worked in the labor-delivery and pediatrics departments.

The 1970s were a turbulent decade for America, with two oil shocks having induced an economic recession. Much “push-pull” politics, as Falca-Dodson put it, surrounded military affairs. Initially, with the Vietnam War still fresh in the country’s mind, the military “wasn’t really highly thought of.” The Iran Hostage Crisis brought the armed forces into the spotlight, with special forces executing Operation Eagle Claw in an attempt to rescue the hostages. Unfortunately, that mission failed disastrously, again hurting the military’s repute.

I always sort of felt like there was a difference between the political objective and the military people, who felt in their hearts that they wanted to do something to make a difference, and that appealed to me.

The vacillating national mood did not discourage Falca-Dodson, who had always wanted to join the military. She grew up hearing stories of service about her aforementioned family veterans, as well as of a neighbor, who was killed in action in Vietnam at age 19. (The anti-military sentiment after Vietnam did not bother her: “I always sort of felt like there was a difference between the political objective and the military people, who felt in their hearts that they wanted to do something to make a difference, and that appealed to me.”) In addition, the military allowed Falca-Dodson to pursue her goals of service and medical work. Finally, she admitted that her youthful sense of adventure influenced her interest.

Falca-Dodson spoke to a military recruiter during college, but decided to delay commissioning for a few years after graduation to pursue a flexible civilian medical career. In 1979, during the Iran Hostage Crisis, she committed to the Air Force (initially the Reserves, then the National Guard), though intending to serve for only several years. Her mother, already worried about Falca-Dodson’s cousins, now feared about her daughter heading to war!

MG Falca-Dodson with her husband, Dr. Buck Dodson.

Though few ranking opportunities for women existed at the time, Falca-Dodson was able to pursue a nursing career as an officer. Joining the 108th Tactical Fighter Wing, she began drilling with her unit. “That very first weekend, I showed up in my little white nurse’s uniform with my lieutenant’s bars that somebody told me how to put on!” Falca-Dodson laughed. After several weeks, she left for an officer orientation course at Sheppard Air Force Base in Texas. Falca-Dodson had never been to Texas, though she had traveled to the southwest, as well as overseas to Italy. At the time, this was more travelling than most Americans her age had experienced.

Falca-Dodson first put her medical expertise to use supporting drill weekend exercises at Fort Drum, New York. She noted the peculiarity of her Air Force unit’s assignment to an Army base, which was part of an effort of increased inter-service cooperation. This theme would return with importance during her later tenure as a General.

From these humble beginnings, Falca-Dodson never thought she would eventually become the second-highest ranking officer in the New Jersey National Guard! “I thought I was in a slot to make major when I joined,” she said. “And I did think I was gonna get out in two years; I really did!”

Falca-Dodson emphasized that her success was influenced by great mentors, both male and female. One, Colonel Susan Quinn, encouraged her to attend school for not just support roles, such as the medical field, but also for “line-side” positions: pilots, maintenance people, security forces, and civil engineers. Officers in these fields, which constituted the core of Air Force culture, could rise to top leadership positions with greater chance of success than support personnel. Although upon Falca-Dodson’s commissioning there were many enlisted women in her unit, there was just one other female officer. Additionally, while there were many women in the medical field, few attended flight school. Thus, she had an opportunity to blaze a trail. 

Falca-Dodson followed Colonel Quinn’s advice, yet originally had “no hope” of being promoted. Nevertheless, she enjoyed line-side education, as it helped her better understand the Air Force mission and culture. Falca-Dodson also took interest in flying herself, and found a way to gain flight time.

Each Saturday, part-time pilots flew training missions from McGuire AFB, assisted by a volunteer in the back seat. Falca-Dodson showed up every weekend before the flights. Eventually, one of the back-seaters did not arrive, allowing Falca-Dodson to substitute. The crew soon trained her “like a monkey” to be a back-seater; soon she got a second flight, and then a third.

Without realizing it, through these pursuits, Falca-Dodson made herself noticed, which paved her path to promotion. But always humble, she attributed her success to “good luck, and a lot of great mentors. And really, really good people work[ing] for me. I can’t say enough about our enlisted people… They do all the work to make us look good as officers.”

In 1998, Falca-Dodson became Commander of the 108th Air Refueling Wing Medical Group. In 2002, she became New Jersey’s Deputy Adjutant General, and in 2008, Assistant Adjutant General, the first female to hold each position! Meanwhile, in 2004, Falca-Dodson was promoted to Brigadier General, becoming the first woman in the NJ National Guard to pin on general’s stars! In 2009, she again made history, becoming the first female Commander of the NJ Air National Guard, thus assuming responsibility over all full-time operations in addition to managerial duties as Assistant Adjutant General.

Through her 31 years of service, Falca-Dodson visited numerous locations across the globe. She travelled to McGuire AFB, New Jersey; Myrtle Beach AFB, South Carolina; Holloman AFB, New Mexico; MacDill AFB, Florida; Nellis AFB, Nevada; Andrews AFB, Maryland; Gulfport, Mississippi; Nashville, Tennessee; as well as Hawaii, England, Germany, Japan, and Panama, among other locations. Several times, she participated in operational readiness inspections, exercises under simulated battle conditions to ensure vigilance. These examinations took place in Savannah, Georgia; Alpena, Michigan; and Volk Field, Wisconsin.

In the 1990s, Falca-Dodson volunteered for a joint Army-Air Guard humanitarian operation in Panama, launched in the aftermath of the 1989 American invasion that deposed dictator Manuel Noriega. Her unit augmented Army civil engineers to build roads and schools. For the first few weeks, as medical director, she organized the installation of an air-transportable hospital at the camp.

Every conflict is never over until the seeds of what you sow are realized.

Though years had passed since the invasion, many Noriega supporters still resided nearby, and some continued committing acts of terrorism. Though initially the operation did not completely convince the skeptical Panamanian public of American goodwill, Falca-Dodson explained that true positive change would take time: “Every conflict is never over until the seeds of what you sow are realized,” she said. Nevertheless, Falca-Dodson lauded the Panamanian people at large as “wonderful.” Many residents did not want the Americans to leave, especially because of the economic boost that US consumers provided.

In the 1990s, Falca-Dodson also deployed to Bosnia and Kosovo during the Yugoslav Wars. She was not mobilized for the incident in Somalia (primarily a conflict in the Army’s domain), though some Air National Guard members did volunteer for service there. Falca-Dodson noted that the “mindset” of the time had changed dramatically since the Cold War’s end. “It was a simpler time”, she said, “…we at least knew who the enemy was. It was not an asymmetrical conflict.”

On 9/11, Falca-Dodson was finishing a dentist visit when she heard that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. Unable to contact her command post at McGuire AFB via cell phone, she resolved to drive there, though first she went home to put on her uniform. Though this was generally not required if not officially on duty, Falca-Dodson had a feeling she would be on base for a long time.

On the way to McGuire, Falca-Dodson saw overhead highways signs lit up (which, at the time, were only used to warn of accidents or traffic), stating that all roads to New York City were closed. She compared the “surreal feeling” associated with this sight to childhood nightmares she had of nuclear war and Cold War paranoia.

Finding the front gate of McGuire closed, Falca-Dodson called her command post again, this time making contact. She was directed to a construction gate (that she had not even been aware of previously), the only open entrance to the base. The heavy armament donned by the security forces at the gate startled her.

Falca-Dodson spent most of the day at McGuire watching the news. As more information unfolded, things became “beyond shocking.” From her medical perspective, the low number of casualties needing treatment was also disturbing, as it indicated a high fatality rate. “If you remember what that felt like to not hear planes flying overhead,” she said, “and how quiet that was, that first week, those first few days. It was an amazing thing.”

The following year, Falca-Dodson became the NJ Guard’s Deputy Adjutant General, responsible for organizational management and administration of both the Army and Air Guard. She became committed to understanding the Army’s culture and mission, in addition to the Air Force’s, and described the first years of this journey as an “odyssey.” More than just her post changed, however; mirroring the pervasive fear of terrorism and associated security measures, the mindset again changed: “The military at large, our whole way of thinking, and our doctrine… has enormously transformed since September 11, 2001.” Particularly, emphasis shifted to joint-force operations.

Subsequently, the military became engaged in conflicts in the Middle East for ten years, though Falca-Dodson noted that it was the second decade of near-continuous operations for the Air Force, which had retained a presence in the Middle East after Operation Desert Storm as well as participated in the Yugoslav Wars. Thus, though there was a “climb” in operational readiness after 9/11, it was not as steep as that of the other branches of service.

Falca-Dodson noted that the Air National Guard played a significant role in helping return American commercial aviation to normalcy. During the Cold War, the 177th Fighter Wing had been assigned to air interdiction, targeting Soviet aircraft along the Atlantic coast. A few years before 9/11, the wing lost that mission. In response to the attacks, that role, now called the “Air Sovereignty Alert Mission,” returned. This is especially significant, as from their base in Atlantic City, the 177th is strategically placed as the closest fighter unit to both Philadelphia and New York City, with the ability to quickly support airspace over Washington DC or Boston as well.

In 2005, as part of the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) policy, talks floated of removing the 108th Air Wing’s flying mission. Falca-Dodson successfully fought to preserve the unit. Not only did the wing retain its capabilities, but it has since added new, important operations to its mission, such as an intelligence group, and the Air Force’s sole Contingency Response Group. “I’m just so happy for that wing,” she beamed. “They deserved better than to be sort of kicked to the curb in the way that that process lent itself.”

Falca-Dodson described the relief efforts following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita as some of the National Guard’s “shining moments.” The events of 2005 marked the first time in which guardsmen were deployed in response to a domestic emergency on a national level. Previously, in the event of disaster, the Emergency Management Assistance Compact (EMAC) was activated, mobilizing the National Guards of neighboring states. However, in 2005, many Guard units from the afflicted and nearby states were overseas in Iraq and Afghanistan. Thus, a nationwide call for assistance was made.

The lack of potable water in disaster areas posed a pressing issue. In response, the NJ Air Guard solicited requests for drinking water donations. The water was collected at the armories, palletized, and shipped on C-17s from McGuire AFB. Similar actions occurred across the country; in fact, on the whole, the Air National Guard flew more disaster relief sorties in 2005 than had been made by the Air Force during the Berlin Airlift!

Falca-Dodson personally travelled to New Orleans several times during the relief.  Crowded with aircraft and personnel hastily unloading supplies, the naval air station appeared as if it were in a war zone. Looking down the flight line, Falca-Dodson saw every single aircraft tail bearing the markings of a different state.

Though some federal Army troops were mobilized, the Army National Guard conducted most on-the-ground relief. Over 60,000 guardsmen were present in Louisiana and Mississippi to conduct rescue and law enforcement duties.

Falca-Dodson being promoted by her family.

Thanks to the efforts of the Army and Air National Guard, many lives were saved. “From a domestic operations perspective,” Falca-Dodson summarized, “the National Guard really shone through that effort. And there were good things that came out of an extraordinarily bad situation because of the Guard.”                           

Falca-Dodson found herself stumped when asked to recount an untold story. Though she had undergone cancer treatment several years prior, a unique experience from which she had tales, she could not recall anything remarkable during the interview. Falca-Dodson connected this to her work with the VA, under the War Related Illness and Injury Study Center. Many combat veterans, particularly from Vietnam, intentionally suppress negative memories and ultimately forget them.

Enthusiastic about supporting the Veterans’ Oral History project, Falca-Dodson attempted to convince the veterans in her family to participate, though unfortunately, they have been reluctant to do so. Since Vietnam, she added, support for American veterans has improved:

“We make sure that there’s always somebody standing at the bottom of the steps when they walk off an airplane… Whether you agree with the war [contemporary conflicts] or not, we’ve at least made the distinction this time about what’s right for the American military person.”

On the subject, she mentioned a recent bill allowing for veterans to transfer their benefits to immediate family members, a reform she considered almost as transformational as the GI Bill in 1944.

Falca-Dodson also weighed in on the importance of history in military school, and society in general:

“We’re taught the history of conflicts, going back to the Peloponnesian Wars, in fact! Because if we don’t learn from our history, we are doomed to repeat it. And we do repeat it, often enough, because we have people who don’t learn from our history. So, every generation has something to teach the next generation.”

Reviewing Albanian Troops.

“We come from violent roots as a civilization, but we are capable of overcoming that,” she added. The job of negotiating and ensuring peace would be left to politicians and other organizations; though,` the military could act as a “tool” to assist that process. For example, humanitarian missions and operations of international cooperation, such as the New Jersey National Guard’s partnership with the Albanian military, are important non-combat functions. In turn, Falca-Dodson outlined, the military’s duty is to respond to civilian leadership. “Regardless of what we feel politically, our mission is to serve the president and congress, and the Constitution, and that’s how we’re structured.”

Falca-Dodson further explained that the maintenance of peace requires human-to-human connections:

“You cannot build peace, and you cannot forge relationships, by Facebooking, Twittering, texting, and emailing. It’s all about talking to each other face-to-face, about seeing the body language, and the facial expressions, and the warmth—or the lack of warmth, whatever it is—that is part and parcel of forming a relationship. The relationship is not between you and a computer. It’s between you and another living, breathing person. And that only comes from experiencing that person as an individual and the country as a culture. It’s nice to stay connected for tidbits of news, but it’s not going to build a country, or a relationship. And it’s also not going to lend itself to resilience for our folks.”

Falca-Dodson also detailed her enthusiasm with military service, noting that her strongest bonds have always been with other servicemembers:

“It only took me a couple of months to get hooked on the people… You feel that there’s a sense of mission, and purpose, and accomplishment, and so many things that, I have to say, over 31 years I never really got from any civilian job. And I’ve worked for great civilian jobs with great people, but there’s a real sense of purpose in the military. All of that becomes a hook for those of us who stay in the military. We join for this vague altruism that’s out there, but we end up staying for the people. And I always say, you don’t join or stay for slogans. People don’t fight in foxholes because somebody taught them a creed or a slogan. They fight in foxholes for the guy in that foxhole next to them, or the gal in that foxhole next to them.”       

Reflecting on her service, Falca-Dodson viewed her young nursing days as the most fun and carefree, as she was unburdened by policy and decision-making and could focus on her patients. However, she affirmed that her higher-ranking career was enjoyable as well. “Every day is a great day, and every day is better than the one before, because I learn something new almost every day.”

Falca-Dodson remained proud of her service, but she explained that her military career and her country had given back more than ever imaginable: “Really and truly, I’ve gotten so much more back, I could never repay!” Maria Falca-Dodson later retired from the National Guard on October 1, 2012 at the rank of Major General.

Additional Resources:

Falls, Kenneth J. Mon, 17 Aug 2020 17:12:49 +0000


Desert Storm

Kenneth J. Falls

Desert Shield/Desert Storm Oral History Interview
US Army, 82nd Engineer Battalion
Date: February 13, 2019
Interviewer: Carol Fowler, William Elwell
Summarizer: Cole Snedeker



Kenneth J. Falls was born in August, 1970 in Brooklyn, New York. Though he was not from a military family, his grandfathers and great-uncle had served in World War II. Falls described his 18-year-old self as an “independent spirit” seeking to live alone; this attitude convinced him to enlist during his senior year of high school (in 1989). By entering the army’s Delayed Entry Program, he deferred basic training until after his graduation.

Basic training took place at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. The experience was “interesting,” though the adaption to military life challenged Falls somewhat. “I thought I knew better than everybody else; I was a very rambunctious teenager… I had a lot of growing up to do.” He exited training a changed man.                          

Acing his ASVAB aptitude test, Falls had the choice of any career in the military. However, at enlistment, he had admitted to smoking marijuana in high school. This came to bite him; six weeks into training, the army used this reason to change his career from Signal Security Specialist to Combat Engineer. Frustratingly, Falls also lost his position as training platoon leader. “Although, it was a good thing,” he added, “because I met my wife because of it.”

It’s not about you anymore. It’s about a team. When one fails, basically the whole team fails.

The most important lesson Falls took from basic training was the value of the team. “It’s not about you anymore,” he said. “It’s about a team. When one fails, basically the whole team fails.” In addition, Falls grew up in a relatively homogenous community, but basic training, and by extension military service in general, had him work with people from varied backgrounds. (In fact, Falls was the sole Caucasian man in his squad. Jokingly, they referred to themselves as the ‘Ghetto squad plus one.’ He chuckled, “You can guess who the plus one was.”) This brought his attention to both the value of diversity and the sins of prejudice.

After training, Falls took leave between Christmas and New Year’s. On January 2, he landed in Frankfurt, Germany, soon joining Charlie Company of the 82nd Engineer Battalion in Bamberg. For nine to ten months, Falls remained in 3rd Platoon, 1st Squad.

Falls spent much of his time in Germany training. His first major operation was the 1990 “REFORGER,” (from return of forces to Germany) a large annual multinational exercise. He enjoyed the first REFORGER, recalling fondly the trips through quaint German towns alongside foreign troops. Unfortunately, the scale of the exercise was reduced after the Gulf War, and henceforth it “wasn’t as much fun anymore.”

One time, Falls was aboard a bus of GIs heading to guard duty along the Czech border. After crossing a bridge, the lieutenant disembarked to ask a question, only to realize he had entered Czechoslovakia! Fortunately, this did not cause an international incident; the GIs were simply directed to turn around.

In April of that year, Falls began dating a German national, Diana, from a small Bavarian town. In August, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait; in November, Falls received word of his upcoming deployment to the Middle East. At this time, he contacted his family and borrowed several hundred dollars to buy a ring at the base exchange. Falls did not speak enough German to explain everything to Diana’s parents, yet showing her mom the ring, she smiled. With this approval, “crying my eyes out,” he proposed to his girlfriend: “I’m going to war, and I want you to know I’m coming back for you. Will you marry me?” She said yes.

The rubber met the road at that point. Here I’m a 19-year-old kid, and I’m being told that I’m probably not gonna be coming back. Kinda scary.

On December 2, Falls left for the Middle East. He awoke at “zero-dark-thirty” and was fed steak and eggs, “the best meal you’ll ever have.” The first sergeant did not sugarcoat the briefing, explaining that the Iraqis had the world’s fourth largest army, and he did not expect his troops to return. “[He] scared the s*** out of us,” Falls said. “The rubber met the road at that point. Here I’m a 19-year-old kid, and I’m being told that I’m probably not gonna be coming back. Kinda scary.”

In order to deploy, each company needed full manpower, so men from the Individual Ready Reserve (former active-duty troops) were called in to fill slots. This shuffled organization, and Falls transferred from 3rd Platoon, 1st Squad to 1st Platoon, 1st Squad. He also changed roles from an M113 Armored Personnel Carrier driver to M60 machine gunner for that squad.

1st Platoon Charlie Company 82nd Engineers (Falls in the middle with M-16 gun raised in the air).

Boarding the plane was an odd experience; though stepping onto a civilian airliner, the troops were “armed to the teeth” with their full complement of weapons. They flew to Dammam, a Saudi Arabian port city on the Persian Gulf. While at Dammam they received their complement of military equipment that was shipped from German.  Afterwards, they moved to King Khalid Military City, a large compound north of Riyadh. With endless desert and matching architecture, Falls described  the landscape as a “sea of brown.”

Despite shipping in advance of  personnel, the unit’s gear travelled by sea and arrived a week or two late. The troops lived in a warehouse while waiting for it to arrive, after which they painted it desert brown. Subsequently, Falls moved to a tent city, where the bathrooms were akin to wooden porta-potties. To clean the stalls, the bottom tubs, filled with excrement, were periodically removed and their contents burned using JP-8.

Around Christmas, Falls relocated to the “neutral zone,” a diamond-shaped un-administered area along the Saudi-Iraqi border. The troops lived in squad-sized tents. Bathroom accommodations were nearly non-existent, and MREs were consumed in lieu of full meals. A chaplain arrived to deliver a Christmas Mass, which Falls attended.

At night, our whole horizon was just, constant barrage, and constant fireworks, and constant explosions.

In mid-January, Falls saw coalition aircraft and rocket artillery bombarding Iraqi border positions. “At night, our whole horizon was just, constant barrage, and constant fireworks, and constant explosions.” The ground war began in February. At Falls’ position on the front, the offensive commenced at Tapline Road, named for a nearby Saudi oil pipeline. His platoon was attached to the 3/2 Armored Cavalry Regiment and consisted of four M1 Abrams tanks, one M2 Bradley infantry fighting vehicle, and his M113 armored personnel carrier (carrying the engineers). Their regiment screened ahead of the 1st and 3rd Armored Divisions.

Falls was stationed in the personnel bay of his M113, with his M60 covering the vehicle’s left side. With their light aluminum armor, M113s were vulnerable to anything larger than rifle rounds. For extra protection, the crew riveted fencing material with sandbags to the vehicle’s sides. The M113 was also equipped with exterior smoke launchers to provide some visual concealment if necessary.

The first Iraqi positions, manned by malnourished troops, were quickly overrun. Advancing constantly at 30 to 40 miles per hour, it was three days before Falls’ unit stopped for respite. His squad and one other camped for about six hours, with tanks and Bradleys surrounding them on all sides. Falls was on guard duty first, alongside a soldier from the other squad.

Guard duty on the APC.

Falls decided to patrol jointly with the other soldier, making conversation to keep himself awake. But the sergeant interjected, telling him to patrol alone, and only around his squad’s position. In his exhausted state, Falls replied that he would do it his way. “Do I have to come down there and kick your ass!” the sergeant boomed; Falls told him to do so.

A fight erupted, with Falls and the sergeant rolling in the dirt and beating each other up. “Falls, get off me!” the sergeant yelled, awakening everyone. Falls’ squad leader could have wrought upon Falls serious punishment for disobeying an NCO’s order. Fortunately, he understood that Falls was exhausted and did not press charges. (The encounter became an inside joke among the unit, with soldiers occasionally teasing Falls by yelling, “Falls, get off me!” in jest.)

Falls continued with the offensive, which halted upon encountering heavy resistance from the elite Republican Guard. Thus, his unit waited for the 1st and 3rd Armored Divisions to catch up, before advancing en masse. The subsequent Battle of 73 Easting would see the Guard’s elite Tawakalna Division annihilated at the cost of just six American lives and 19 other casualties.

Three of those deaths resulted from an unfortunate mistake. During the Iran-Iraq War, the US had supplied M113s to the Iraqis, which remained operational into the Gulf War. Unfortunately, an M1 Abrams misidentified a friendly M113 as such an Iraqi vehicle and destroyed it with shellfire.

Afterwards, the battalion commander demanded that Falls’ captain personally collect the bodies. The captain, worried about his safety on the still-contested frontline, refused. This angered the troops, and Falls henceforth refused to salute the captain, believing he was no longer worthy of such respect. The captain was relieved within a few months of returning from the war.

Falls was lucky, as the casualty was the M113 he had been assigned to in 3rd Platoon, 1st Squad. He also noted that the incident was brushed aside, with much misinformation spread. Falls read a book about Gulf War casualties published by USA Today, which had incorrect dates and causes of death for the three deceased tankers.

The war progressed, with Falls’ unit advancing north through the desert. Reaching the Euphrates River, they looped east and then south, entering Kuwait from the north. The sight and smell of oil wells left burning by the retreating Iraqi Army pervaded. “All you see is tons and tons of black smoke, and these fires raging all around us.” He did not enter Kuwait City, though he saw the buildings and lights in the distance.

Though the Gulf War was known as the first conflict in which GPS was used, Falls explained that night vision technology was what really won the day. (Or more accurately, the night!) “They [the Iraqis] gave us a good fight during the day,” he said, “but at night they had no idea what the hell hit ‘em.”

At this point, the war ended. For several days, Falls processed Iraqi POWs, his duties consisting of separating the enlisted men and officers, and guarding them. Interrogators and translators dealt with the prisoners further.

Afterwards, Falls conducted demolition missions to disarm Saddam Hussein’s military. “Every day, nonstop, for at least a month,” he entered Iraq during UN-specified hours. Falls destroyed munitions, oil trucks, tanks, planes, depots, an ore-mining facility, as well as spent coalition ordnance left on the battlefield; “Everything that we could possibly find that was militarily-related.”

These operations were conducted so often that “the rulebook got thrown out the window.” Engineers smoked cigarettes near the ordnance, and blasting caps rolled loose on the floor. “We didn’t care anymore!” Falls laughed. (He also noted that Jordan had lied about supplying Iraq, showing a picture of Jordanian ordnance he had destroyed as proof.)

Falls in the city of Ur.

Falls had some chances to interact with the people and culture of Iraq and Kuwait. He remembered driving through a small Iraqi (or possibly Kuwaiti) town, where jubilant children greeted them with small American flags. “That’s why,” Falls added, “when OIF, OEF was happening, it was so confusing, ‘cause now they hated us again.” At one point, he also visited Ur. The men received a day off to explore the ancient Sumerian city, and Falls showed pictures he took of the Great Ziggurat and the remains of Abraham’s biblical house.

In early April, Falls’ unit relieved the 101st Airborne. At 50 to 60 miles southeast of Baghdad, their position marked the furthest advance of coalition troops during the war. Temperatures soared over 100 degrees Fahrenheit every day. Inadequate logistics precipitated a water shortage, and each soldier was rationed just 1.5 liters per day. “It was supposed to be the best well-fed military in the world,” Falls exclaimed. “We still had our MREs, so I guess I shouldn’t complain!”

Falls had received two sets of Desert BDU uniforms before the invasion began. He spared one as a clean uniform for his wife to see upon his return. To keep it neatly pressed, he slept atop it each night. On the other hand, this gave him only the other uniform to wear, which, as expected, soon became very smelly!

At the end of April, Falls finally received orders to depart. Flying to Germany, the stewardesses and crew gave the troops a heroes’ welcome. Soon after, he returned to the United States and partook in a ticker-tape parade along Manhattan’s Canyon of Heroes. (His mother was part of a military support group, whom Falls walked with.) While home, he also attended his sister’s wedding.

After flying back to Germany, Falls received an extension of his two-year tour overseas in order to accommodate wedding plans. Diana had always wanted to marry a man in uniform; yet, she did not like Falls’ standard-issue dress greens. Thus, he surprised her by buying his own pair of dress blues for the ceremony!

As a combat engineer, Falls held licenses for a plethora of vehicles and equipment. The vehicle he drove during his final year in Germany was a Heavy Expanded Mobility Tactical Truck, or HEMTT [HEM-it], a large eight-wheeled truck with a rear crane. (The vehicle was so tough, Falls mentioned, that it once bounced down a hillside with minimal damage.) One day, he resolved to deliver flowers to his wife as recompense for a fight they had had the previous day. Though lacking a civilian vehicle, Falls had his HEMTT.

Falls visiting the museum.

Falls told his NCO he was going to bring the vehicle to the wash rack (it wasn’t particularly dirty, but “that’s what the military just does anyway,” he chuckled). Instead, however, he got onto the Autobahn, picked up flowers at the florist, and then delivered his gift to his wife’s workplace. “Needless to say, I got some serious brownie points that day,” Falls exclaimed, “…but I could have been in jail!” Shortly before this interview, he told the story to his former platoon leader, asking if he would have been arrested. “According to my mood that day!” he responded, “…but probably not. I probably would have had you on some serious extra duty though!”

During his last six months in Germany, Falls served under a CO whom he got along with “very well.” Failing to convince Falls to remain in the military, the CO assigned him an easy final job of handing out basketballs at the base gym.

Diana, a practicing Catholic, induced Falls to explore the faith. In Germany, he began attending Mass on post. Through this, Falls became friends with a chaplain (a major or lieutenant colonel), one of the few instances of fraternization he experienced with an officer. Regarding this subject, Falls took the opportunity to mention Lieutenant Mead, his platoon leader, “an officer I would follow anywhere.” Interestingly, Mead was from the family who ran the namesake notebook company.

Just before his term’s end, Falls used the month of leave he had saved up to travel with his wife. With a Honda Civic, a tent, and two dogs, they drove across Europe.

Falls did suffer some personal setbacks while overseas. Unfortunately, Diana suffered a miscarriage. In addition, after leaving the military, he did not wish to remain in Germany (and likely become a factory worker, the trade of most American expats there). Falls’ wife initially had misgivings about leaving her parents and moving to the US, which strained their relationship for a time. Fortunately, things worked out.

Before leaving Germany, Falls arranged to become a reservist drill instructor in New Jersey. His training was to take place immediately after returning home, but upon reporting to Fort Dix, the military cancelled the plans. He explained that he would leave the army if the deal did not progress, but they refused to budge. Thus, regrettably, Falls retired. “I think it would have been fun,” he lamented. “I would have probably done the 20 years that way.”

Just after retiring from the service, Falls sought to join the VFW group in Port Monmouth, New Jersey. Unfortunately, the member who he talked to, a grumpy Vietnam veteran, discouraged him. “He basically said I didn’t fight in the war. So it kind of left a bitter taste in my mouth.” (Falls understood the man’s animosity, as Vietnam veterans had been “spat upon,” while Gulf War Servicemembers were hailed as heroes.) Though he never joined a group since, Falls noted that he is “more open to it now,” believing that things have changed.

Falls has not participated in many reunions. He did plan to attend a 2018 Memorial Day March in Washington DC, but cancelled because many former unit members could not make it. Nevertheless, Falls has remained in contact with dozens of fellow soldiers. He noted an in-person meeting with Jeff Anderson, a soldier who had been in a different platoon of his company.

Falls proudly mentioned the planned construction of the National Desert Storm and Desert Shield War Memorial in Washington DC. He believed the monument’s location next to the Vietnam Memorial would be fitting, as many Gulf War NCOs had served in Vietnam.

Entering the civilian world, Falls and his wife began saving money for a house. Diana worked at a daycare, and Falls was employed by a contractor as a nighttime alarm monitor. In addition, he worked another job part-time, and used his GI Bill to attend school at Brookdale Community College full-time. They had their first child, a daughter, but lacked medical insurance and worried their efforts could be nullified by an emergency. Thankfully, their fears proved unfounded, and they bought a house a year later.

After earning associate’s degrees in electronics, engineering, and mathematics at Brookdale, Falls transferred to the New Jersey Institute of Technology. He only attended for three more semesters, leaving to start his own business with his wife. “I even missed my college graduation ‘cause she went into labor with Kenny, our second [child],” Falls added. “Which is pretty cool, it’s a good thing to miss it for!”

Falls representing New Jersey.

Though never injured in combat, Falls experienced strange physical ailments soon after returning from the Middle East. He discovered burns on his gums and vomited blood, but did not connect these issues to anything at the time.

Years after his discharge, Falls noticed he felt more fatigued than the people surrounding him. When hiking with his sons in the Boy Scouts, he would quickly become exhausted, while the scout leader, a Vietnam veteran in his 70s, would remain active all day. In addition, his best friend, despite being twice his weight, always had much more energy. “I feel like an old man trapped in my body,” Falls said.

Initially, Falls ascribed these conditions to aging. Talking to his former unit members, however, he discovered that many experienced similar symptoms. Seeking answers, Falls visited the War-Related Illness and Study Center in East Orange, New Jersey, and then Georgetown University Medical Center.

It became apparent that Falls suffered from “Gulf War Syndrome,” a multisymptomatic disease still not fully understood. “A bunch of weird things,” afflict him. He does not process oxygen normally, has an unusually small brain stem, and suffers from eczema. Other members of his unit suffer from brain cancer, liver cancer, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, and irritable bowel syndrome.

My dad is 75 years old. My dad can do more than I can. There’s something wrong with that.

Falls participated in a four-month dietary study with American University, which revealed that he should become gluten and glutamate free. These dietary changes have had a major impact, reducing his pain from a “6” to a “4 or 3” out of 10. Still, this “new normal” has remained troubling, and in some ways, has exacerbated with fatigue and age. “My dad is 75 years old. My dad can do more than I can. There’s something wrong with that.”

What angered Falls the most, however, was the effects of the illness on his children, who all have “little weird things going on.” Most significantly, his daughter was born with a coarctation of the aorta; as a result, she suffered through pneumonia and multiple surgeries. One day, googling her ailment, he found a paper of a study done on Gulf War veterans. The correlation between the war and her condition was the most prominent point. “That had me angry… Why does she have to suffer from something I did?”

Falls encountered much difficulty with receiving assistance from the VA. He had to prove that his symptoms were consistent over many years. Falls was denied entrance into the VA system because his income was too high. In addition, he was unable to receive benefits for his daughter’s condition, finding that the VA only allowed such for Vietnam veterans.

Falls expressed his frustration on a Desert Storm veterans’ Facebook group. (Networking on Facebook consistently proved valuable for him during his tough times.) This got him into contact with a high-up VA official, who directed Falls to tell his local VA group that he was classified as “priority group 6” and could not be denied aid because of income. He did just that, which “rang a bell somehow”; finally, he would be receiving assistance! “And they still screw it up,” Falls exclaimed. “They put me in as a Vietnam veteran with Agent Orange!” Despite these difficulties, he did ultimately “luck out” by corresponding with an excellent VA physician.

Understanding the institutional troubles he faced himself, Falls has done all possible to help fellow soldiers afflicted with Gulf War Syndrome, such as writing “buddy letters” and assisting with receiving financial or medical aid. Some veterans were receptive to his help, while others were not.

The cause of Gulf War Syndrome is still unknown, though Falls listed a number of possibilities: anthrax vaccines, malaria pills, depleted uranium ammunition, or even chemicals blown about by sandstorms. Whatever the source, he attributed the syndrome’s impact to a lack of attention regarding the health and living conditions of soldiers. “There was no planning, it was like the Wild West,” Falls said. “…I talked to OIF, OEF guys, and they even say, ‘we have camps.’ We didn’t have a camp… we were just in the middle of the desert.”

Falls did not serve alongside women in combat. He did note that there were some female pilots, as well as many women in medical and support roles. Though explaining that his thoughts may have been influenced by the standards of the time, as well as the circumstances of serving in poor desert conditions, Falls expressed reservations about women serving in combat roles. His main concern was for the potential of sexual assault against the women. “Some of these guys are animals,” he lamented. “I hate to put it that way, but just, no respect even for themselves… They were thrown in the military because they had to go to jail or go to the military. And they acted like it.” Falls also worried about favoritism for women showing itself during combat, as well as the handling of personal hygiene on the battlefield among a mixed-gender unit.

7th Engineer Brigade

Falls enjoyed showing patches from his service. During the war, he wore the patch of the 7th Engineer Brigade. There was also the patch of the 3/2 ACR, the parent armored unit he was attached to. (He felt “very proud” to serve alongside their tankers.) He also displayed the patch of the 3rd Infantry, the division his unit reported to just after the war.

Falls earned a number of medals for his service: Army Commendation, Good Conduct, National Defense, Kuwait Liberation (one each from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait), and Southwest Asia Service. He was awarded a number of unit badges, including one equivalent to a Silver Star. Falls also had challenge coins, as well as unit crests sporting Paul Bunyan’s blue ox, Babe. (His unit’s cheer was, “Blue Babe, sir!”) Finally, there were his dog tags; interestingly, one was colored red to indicate he had a bee sting allergy.

In addition to his awarded commendations, Falls showed an Iraqi gas mask he had received by trading away his military-issued winter coat (which was useless in the desert). He also unsuccessfully attempted to bring home a captured AK-47.

Having seen battlefield casualties first-hand, and suffering from the debilitating effects of post-war illness, Falls knew too well that warfare was not like the glory and glamour of Hollywood portrayal: “There’s nothing like that.” Nevertheless, he remained proud of his medals and the service to his nation that they represented. “I definitely enjoyed the job I was doing,” Ken Falls affirmed.

Quilt of Valor

On March 31, 2019, Kenneth Falls was presented with a Quilt of Valor by Rebecca’s Reel Quilters Guild of Middletown, New Jersey. The event was held at the National Guard Militia Museum in Sea Girt, and in attendance were the Falls’ nine children as well as grandchildren and other relatives and friends. Quilt of Valor presentation footage taken by his daughter.

Falls was proud to be awarded the Valorous Unit Award. The Valorous Unit Award is the second highest United States military unit decoration which may be bestowed upon a military unit after the Presidential Unit Citation.

Kenneth Falls with his entire family.
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.