CENTER FOR U.S. WAR
VETERANS' ORAL HISTORIES
World War II
World War II Oral History Interview
US Army, Signal Corps
Date: March 11, 2016
Interviewer: Carol Fowler, Dean Medina
Summarizer: Dean Medina
World War II proved to be the biggest and bloodiest war in all of human history. The war deeply touched the lives of many millions of people in the United States and abroad. Millions of stories emerged from battlefields around the world, each one the unique narrative of the man or woman who experienced it. One such tale is that of Corporal John Kane, a chief field telephone operator for the U.S Army Signal Corps, who served from February 1942 to December 1945.
John Kane was born in 1918 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and later moved to New Jersey. After graduating from high school at the age of 16, he found himself in the midst of the Great Depression, a time of economic turmoil and financial tragedies. Kane worked at a series of temporary jobs doing whatever he could to earn a living, yet he didn’t find stable employment until he was 22.
Shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Kane sought to enlist in the United States Marine Corps, but he was rejected by both the Marines and then the Navy after a physical screening revealed he was color blind, a condition he did not realize he had. He wasn’t turned away from service entirely, however; he was later drafted into the U.S Army.
Kane and around ninety other recruits were sworn into the army at Fort Dix, where they took an Officer Aptitude Test. A score of 110 or higher was required to apply for Officer Candidate School (OCS). He was not confident in his ability to do well on the test, but later discovered that he had scored 135, one of the highest among that group of recruits. Although Kane did not opt for OCS, his high score resulted in his assignment to the Signal Corps, while most of the rest of his peers were sent to the Infantry.
Kane was initially assigned to Camp Edison, the New Jersey National Guard base at Sea Girt leased by the federal government in 1942. From there, he and other recruits marched seventeen miles to Fort Monmouth. There were occasional stops along the way to check for blisters or other foot injuries, and soldiers who were disabled were driven by truck the rest of the way. Kane was a determined young man and was the first to walk through the gates at Fort Monmouth. Once there he was placed in a sixteen-week training course, which he completed in twelve weeks. On one afternoon off, Kane took a stroll on the boardwalk at Asbury Park, where he met Ethel, the woman he would marry. They were wed shortly afterward, while he was still a trainee.
After completing his training, Kane was assigned to the 810th Signal Service Battalion at Fort Hancock, New Jersey, located on the Sandy Hook peninsula. Much to his dismay, he discovered that the equipment he had trained on at Fort Monmouth was not available at Hancock. Kane recalled that on one occasion during his time at Fort Hancock, leave passes were cancelled for no apparent reason. The next day he complained to the chaplain, a major, about the issue, who had it resolved the following day. The incident did not make Kane a favorite with other officers on the base, however.
Shortly afterward, Kane was shipped out to England as part of the buildup for the D-Day invasion of Europe. On the ship on the way over, he spent twelve hours on deck, and then twelve hours sleeping, alternating with another man with whom he shared a hammock. The ship docked in Scotland; and, after landing the soldiers took a train down to southern England for further deployment. During the train ride, the men were presented with freshly made sugar doughnuts, something Kane remarked as quite an accomplishment, considering that there were thousands of soldiers on the train, “To think someone made that many donuts,” he said.
As a Signal Corpsman, Kane was in a combat support position and did not take part in the actual landings on D-Day. He did, however, land in Normandy shortly afterward from a vehicle transport ship.
Kane’s unit established a telephone communications center at Octeville, to ensure that telephones, signals and communications in general were running smoothly. While at Octeville, he and the men in his unit befriended a young French boy named Andre, who stopped by the signal station occasionally to talk to the American soldiers. Andre learned English quickly, and was a favorite visitor who helped raise spirits and morale. Years after the war, while on vacation in France, Kane was reunited with Andre, by then a young man.
Kane was eventually transferred to Rouen, where he stayed in a mostly undamaged hotel and slept in a large, comfortable room. He continued serving as a chief telephone technician. Kane witnessed enemy fire for the first time in the war, as the area around Rouen was subject to occasional artillery barrages. He recalled that shells hit all around him and shook buildings that he stayed in, but never really came close to hitting him. Kane jokingly remarked that: “If they were close to me, I’d move somewhere else; I’ve got a happy life to live!”
Kane remarked that his roommate at Rouen, a soldier named Ralph, was quiet and suspicious, and one day Kane discovered a carton of cigarettes in their room and concluded, correctly, that Ralph was selling them on the black market. He confronted Ralph and threatened to reveal it to the company commanding officer if the cigarettes were not gone within the hour – the cigarettes disappeared. Kane heard later that his roommate was discharged from the Army in Europe, and that he got rich off the money made from dealing with the black market.
Kane was subsequently transferred to Charleroi, Belgium, where he spent the remainder of his time in Europe. Occasionally there were calls for men to volunteer for infantry duty, mainly to replace casualties incurred in the Battle of the Bulge. He did not volunteer, but several men in his unit did, including a cook who had not fired a weapon since basic training. Kane saw the man again three weeks later, with a Silver Star medal for heroism pinned on his jacket. Kane was never a direct combatant during the war, but he saw its effects in all its aspects, including some combat veterans crying, and others laughing and cheering.
As the war drew to a conclusion, Kane, who had quit smoking, somewhat ironically started selling his ration of cigarettes to local civilians who otherwise had no access to them. By the time he went home, he had made almost $3,000 in his side business, and had sent most of the money home to his wife, who wrote to him almost every day. Kane remembered one occasion when the mail was delivered to his unit, and there were two equally large piles of letters – one for the unit, and the other for him!
With the war ended, Kane left France for England, where he was shipped home in December 1945. The captain of the troopship he traveled on did his best to get the men home before Christmas, but due to traffic and transport problems after landing, Kane did not get home in time for the holiday. In war, emotions run high for a number of reasons, most of them relating to combat. For Kane, however, one of his most emotional moments came on the day of his discharge, when he ran several errands while in uniform. The hash marks on his sleeves revealed his length of service in the war. Kane remembered that not a single person had greeted him or thanked him for his service that day, that is until he boarded a bus in a predominantly white area, where the only person to thank him for his service was a black man who said, “I’m glad you got home safe” – a gesture that brought him to tears.
In the years following Kane’s service, he settled down with his wife, as well as fathered two sons, both of whom completed higher education and served in the military. In retrospect he remarked that his service in the military straightened his life out. Kane was “just a kid” before he joined the army, and when he came out he was disciplined and ready to take on whatever the rest of life would bring.