CENTER FOR U.S. WAR
VETERANS' ORAL HISTORIES
Robert Peter Dolan was born in East Orange, New Jersey, in February 1943. Growing up in the 1950s, he enjoyed the freedom of childhood, when the biggest concerns were “being home in time for dinner and getting our homework done.” Dolan spent his days collecting and redeeming soda bottles and coat hangers for a nickel and penny each. The funds paid for 25 cent Saturday matinees (with popcorn and soda costing just another dime). He clarified, however, “Nobody had money to spend during those years.”
Though enjoying such simple pastimes, Dolan had a tough upbringing in other ways, which prepared him for military life. He often helped his father, a plumber and handyman, on weekends. Working with steam boilers, coal, and piping, Dolan often returned home with clothes so dirty that he had to change outside the house. “So then going into the military and crawling through mud,” he explained, “it was like cheesecake.” The strict, though not excessive, parenting Dolan received trained him to follow orders. Referring to his father’s trade skills, he quipped, “I can tell you how many times I felt it on my backside. His hands were very good. He was a very good educational teacher, by force.”
In addition, Dolan lived in a neighborhood teeming with feuding street gangs. Once while going to the movies, he witnessed a gang member shoot someone. Such incidents scared Dolan, who (with his father’s support) enlisted at just age 17 in order to escape town. It was a wise decision; he returned years later to find that “more than half of those guys had already seen the iron bars.”
Dolan’s large military family also influenced his enlistment decision. His father did not serve (with three children, he was ineligible for the draft, unless circumstances became dire), but many other relatives did. His grandfather helped capture a German cruise ship in World War I; he later died after being torpedoed in the Atlantic. One uncle landed in the second wave on D-Day, and another served in Military Intelligence. A third earned a special ribbon for fighting in both the European and Pacific theaters of World War II, the Korean War, and later the Vietnam War, rising from the rank of private to warrant officer grade W-4. Finally, Dolan’s brother-in-law fought in the Korean War. “And with all of them being in the army,” he laughed, “if I would have gone in the Navy, they would have probably beat me to death when I came home!”
Before moving on, Dolan talked about his Uncle Frank, a World War II veteran. His wartime service was stressful for not just Frank, but also his family, who anxiously awaited the “cold” telegram indicating his death in combat. Fortunately, it never came. Frank returned from Europe “happy-go-lucky,” but perhaps shocked after witnessing the horrors of war, including the liberation of a concentration camp.
Dolan enlisted in 1960, quitting his senior year of high school. He travelled to Fort Dix, New Jersey, for basic training, and then Fort Knox, Kentucky, for armored training. Though everyone could be a tank driver (as if you crashed into a tree, it would simply fall, he joked) or loader, Dolan also successfully tested for eligibility as a gunner. (A moot point, as he was ultimately made a driver.) Dolan did not envy the infantry trainees, who marched up steep hills, while he motored in the comfort of a tank.
Lacking a high school diploma, Dolan needed to earn a General Educational Development (GED) certificate through classroom instruction. His teachers were strict but praiseworthy. He commented on a fantastic instructor at Fort Knox, who was “more than just a gentleman” and would “tear the book apart” to help students. Dolan soon deployed, however, and had to complete his training and take the exam overseas. Unfortunately, circumstances abroad again hindered his efforts. Due to poor communication by his officers, he was in the field during the first test date. Then, the Berlin Crisis induced the Army to recall overseas instructors for stateside personnel training, cancelling his second opportunity. Dolan did not clarify if he ever took the GED test.
Dolan departed Oakland, California with the transport USNS Barrett, on a trip to Korea he described as a “world tour.” After passing through Hawaii, he stopped at Midway, where the color of the coral reefs was “better than a rainbow.” Dolan took a photograph, but could not capture the vibrancy with his black-and-white camera. This reminded him of the general leap forward in technology from the 1960s to the present. Back then, he noted, one had to find a payphone to communicate; now, everyone can “instantly” correspond with cell phones.
Subsequently passing through Guam and the Philippines, Dolan arrived in Hong Kong, where he had to wear civilian clothes and was restricted to a certain area. Moving next to Vietnam, he bivouacked with the 413th Airwing for two weeks, before finally flying via C-47 to Korea. Dolan left the airport in a ‘deuce and a half’ truck, the rear covered with canvas until arrival on base. He remained at this installation, which was “a stone’s throw away” from Panmunjom, for a year and a half, as a member of the 1st Cavalry Division.
Dolan had deployed at the height of the Cold War. The Berlin Crisis kept everyone nervous, and affairs within South Korea were not helping; an unstable political system produced a military coup in May 1961. Most relevantly, he was stationed along the DMZ, one of the most militarized and tense locations on Earth.
Evidently, this agitation directly impacted Dolan’s everyday activities. Orders required him to travel fully armed, vigilant, and with groups, even in civilian areas. It was for good reason, as one incident illustrated. A nearby unit requested reinforcements, and the always adventurous Dolan volunteered. Their reason soon became apparent. A guard had disappeared on-duty, only to return several days later in a delirious state, wearing just underwear, and displaying marks of violence on his body. Apparently, the North Koreans had kidnapped him.
Abduction was not the primary concern of the men; more worrisome were North Korean soldiers taking cross-border potshots. Frustratingly, orders prohibited retaliation, even if a soldier was wounded. If an officer was hit, however, “the gloves were off.” Dolan emphatically disdained this system, which valued the lives of officers more than those of enlisted men.
Dolan told of one acquaintance who fell victim to such fire. Assigned to “sweep” duty, the soldier occupied a foxhole and observed enemy lines with binoculars. (Even seemingly routine movements could indicate serious activity; for example, North Korean soldiers used bathroom breaks as cover to dig foxholes.) On duty, the soldier was injured by a mortar round and medevacked to Dolan’s post, (as it hosted the nearest medical facility). The North Koreans claimed that a practice round flew astray; evidently to Dolan, the attack was deliberate.
Dolan’s career job in Korea was driving. Per his training, he drove tanks (initially M48s, then M60s). Dolan did not discuss tanking much, but he shared an anecdote about a fellow tank crew. One winter, they attempted to take a shortcut across iced-over rice paddies. Unfortunately, the ice gave way, sinking the tank completely into the mud below. Fearing a court-martial for destroying government property, the crew labored to dig out their stricken vehicle. Luckily, an engineer company arrived and took over, as the conundrum gave them a useful training opportunity. They eventually pulled the tank free with a bulldozer.
Dolan began each morning with Reveille call, before returning to his barracks to “straighten” everything up. After breakfast in the mess hall, everyone received job assignments. He frequently volunteered for transport missions, seeking travel opportunities. These missions involved driving trucks rather than tanks, but were no less exciting. “To ask me all the places I went to,” Dolan said, “…I’d have to have a scorecard.” Sometimes he piloted; other times he served as gear-shifter.
One morning, Dolan (and several others) undertook a mission to resupply a machine-gun position in the mountains. Trudging through heavy snow, the truck’s suspension failed. Because support was not immediately available, and the truck carried food and medical supplies, the men remained on guard. Dolan soon became hungry. Lacking a functioning stove, he placed a beef stew can in the truck’s exhaust pipe. Unfortunately, Dolan did not add a ventilation hole, causing it to explode! “I did not starve,” he laughed, as the food landed on the clean snow, “but I learned my lesson.” The men slept overnight in a roadside tent. They woke up the next morning to find four feet of snow!
Another mission tasked Dolan with investigating the location of a shootout the previous night. He found a deceased enemy soldier, his body baking in the sunlight. Returning to base, Dolan passed Red Cross refreshment stands. Though the scene was “fantastic,” he recoiled at seeing “Jewish donuts,” their appearance reminding him of the bloated corpse. To this day, that memory deters him from eating them.
Another significant, though usually less exciting, task was guard duty. With a surname near the ‘top of the alphabet,’ Dolan frequently received guard orders. His shifts always seemed to occur at poor times. Unfortunately, he missed Bob Hope’s USO show, and many other events, because of them.
On duty, Dolan was often stationed overnight in a hilltop tower, with a field telephone connected to headquarters company, the guard post, the main gate, and the battalion commander. Freezing cold (lugging heavy winter clothes up the tight ladder was impossible) and extremely bored, he felt urged to ring the phone, wake the receivers, yell “boo!” and immediately hang up. Dolan resisted temptation, as such mischief would inevitably bring trouble.
Sometimes, Dolan patrolled on foot alongside a guard dog. His golden retriever companion, Topper, was “beyond smart.” He responded promptly to commands, but did not need orders at changes of shift, as he immediately knew to follow the new guard. Dolan wished to bring Topper home and lamented their parting.
While guarding an ammo dump one night with Topper, Dolan suddenly heard several “twings” of cutting barbed wire. The dog’s hair stood up “like a porcupine,” and he viciously growled, but remained by Dolan’s leg. (For restraint, dogs were to attack only if an assailant approached their master.) Regulation was to order, “Stop or I’ll shoot,” but in the moonless dark, Dolan took no risks, firing his M1 Garand’s full magazine towards the noise. Several dozen other guards rushed to his position as the target retreated. he had destroyed a 4×4 post, but there was no blood trail to credit a target hit. Thus, a frustrated Dolan had to replace the post personally.
In addition to base guarding, Dolan also served as an armed escort. He once accompanied a doctor into town to help a woman in labor. Dolan arrived just in time to witness the birth, comparing the scene of the baby tumbling across the dirt to a tootsie roll rolling across the floor. “It was beyond an eye-opener,” he summarized.
Besides these acts, Dolan once took a more offensive role against the North Koreans. He posted at a hilltop encampment in visual range of enemy positions, with tanks and machine guns supporting. However, the whole charade “was a joke” to confuse the enemy. The heavy guard presence meant nothing, and the radio communications that the station broadcasted were “bull.” Though the plan was clever, Dolan lamented “sweating to death” on the hill for little practical significance.
Dolan remembered a particular character present on that mission, a sergeant nicknamed “Killer.” Killer had been knifed across the face in the Korean War and was “back for retribution,” known to kill any North Korean he saw carrying a gun. When Killer called in a food airdrop for the encampment, however, it became evident that his logistical skills did not match his battlefield prowess; he gave the pilots the coordinates of the wrong hill! By the time they reached the drop, it had been completely looted.
Dolan also received some medical training, which proved helpful during one tank mission. His gunner silenced a harassing sniper with a white phosphorus round, but the barrel breech crushed his fingers. Dolan closed the man’s hand around a stick and wrapped it up before taking him to the hospital. Told by superiors that the man’s situation “turned out alright,” Dolan, as usual, wished for more information.
When not occupied, Dolan helped at the first aid station. He remembered one man who received a seemingly fatal bullet to the neck. Surprisingly, as Dolan bandaged the man, he began to joke, asking Dolan not to choke him. The patient’s good humor presaged his fate; he did survive the ordeal. Dolan’s medical service also triggered a negative memory, however. Later in life, his wife underwent surgery. Watching her in the hospital bed, he lamented his inability to assist, despite his training. “I felt so helpless, I just cried.”
Dolan spoke much about his base and displayed several pictures. Though one latrine building served the entire complex, there were few waiting lines, except during the summer, when many men took cold showers in their clothes. One mess hall also served the base. Though the waits there were long, the cooks were “fantastic,” as were the logistics personnel behind the scenes.
The mess hall offered rabbit, chicken, and hamburgers with rice and cucumber. Dolan mentioned Christmas dinner, where he had “never seen so many turkeys cooked.” The one thing he craved was the “good old American hot dog.” (There were occasional Saturday afternoon hot dog meals, but Dolan missed many because of guard duty.) He often took food home to eat behind the barracks. (Eating inside the barracks was prohibited, to not attract large mice or other critters.) Though generally praising the cuisine, Dolan noted that “you had to be careful” with some foods, as the poor facilities in Korea meant that hepatitis was a risk.
The numerous attempts of civilians to obtain food from the Americans outlined the impoverished state of South Korea. Several times, Dolan accompanied missions to retrieve food, milk, and mail. Armed guards supported the trips, as people often tried to stop the trucks and raid them. There was also need to post military police at the front gate and mess hall to deter theft.
In addition, people sometimes attempted to coax the military into bringing supplies to them. Civilians once invited Dolan to a dance in town, hoping he would bring food. “I don’t blame them,” he said. In fact, the mess hall paid many of its Korean employees in leftover food, which was worth more than money to them.
Morale among personnel remained generally high. Dolan socialized over dominoes, backgammon, and cards, and he enjoyed evening movies at the NCO club. Serving alongside men of many ethnicities, he did not notice any racism. There was some friction between enlisted and commissioned men, however. Frustratingly, officers often did not disclose the context or motive of their missions until after the fact. Dolan also noted some officers who “played God – you did exactly what they said, or else.” Envy even spread to some enlisted men, who clearly “polished their [the officers’] shoes.” His bitterness towards such favoritism remained a theme throughout his career.
Dolan occasionally received packages from home. At his first Christmas overseas, he obtained a large shipment of knitted clothes, cookies, candy canes, and cake from his mother. Dolan shared his treats with the men, attracting nearly two companies of soldiers to his barracks! He also snuck a half-gallon of milk from the quartermaster, joking that he could not be charged, as the theft took place over seven years ago. The whole event made Dolan very popular: “I could have probably used it to do a lot of bribing,” he said (though he never did).
Asked about his most memorable experience overseas, Dolan initially mentioned the loud, distinct clicking noise produced by removing the safety from an M1 rifle, familiar on eerie night-time patrols. To this day, whenever his wife or daughters click the latch on their house door at night, he jumps wide-awake.
Considering the question further, Dolan referenced his relationship with a nearby elementary school. He often delivered bubblegum to the children and took them for rides in his truck, developing a mutual fondness with them. Dolan also assisted them during bad times; he was once called to help some students who were robbed “down to their underwear,” by unknown assailants. When Dolan’s deployment ended, his heart warmed as the kids waved farewell to his passing truck.
Dolan’s departure from Korea occurred quickly. “You can’t believe how fast we loaded that ship,” he nodded. Again, sailing on the USNS Barrett, Dolan reunited with many people he met on the voyage to Korea, whose deployments coincided with his.
Dolan returned stateside with about a year of service left. As he was officially a driver, yet also had experience with demolition and small arms repair, he transferred to the Seneca Army Depot in upstate New York. The climate presented “an experience” itself. With storms regularly dumping two to six feet of snow, he learned to operate massive 4×4 foot snow blowers.
The depot additionally served as an ICBM repair site, with heavily escorted missile trucks occasionally arriving. “Those trucks had more guards than a cookie would have ants in a picnic field,” Dolan remarked. Although they lived in the same barracks, the missile repairmen were prohibited from discussing their activities with him.
Whenever something needed to be destroyed, the men called for “Sparks,” Dolan’s nickname. Most memorably, he once destroyed a missile guidance system. Using shaped charges and C-4, Dolan detonated it in a field. The pieces, completely unrecognizable, were gathered and exploded again to completely eliminate evidence. “It was unbelievable,” he chuckled. “Maybe there was a good reason for it, but after the first bang, there was nothing left.” Dolan experienced some hearing loss from his demolition work, but nothing excessive to prevent him from “having [his] fun.”
Unknown to residents of the nearby town of Geneva, the depot also hosted a missile battery, the first line of defense against Soviet attacks over Canada. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, the installation’s anti-aircraft missiles were uncovered as a precaution. The rockets were visible from outside the base, shocking the public who had been oblivious to its importance. “That town of Geneva changed,” Dolan said. “It was never the same.”
According to Dolan, “the one good thing” about the base was the nearby winery, which lay along the road between his post and the quartermaster building. He sometimes stopped to “say hello to mother nature,” discreetly stealing grapes to make wine. The unfiltered drink would leave him with reddish lips the next day, revealing his mischief and earning chastise. Dolan was not alone in his illicit actions; other men stole from the winery, and Dolan occasionally made secret deals for ammunition and grapes with a particular MP. Though an officer would never agree to such activities, Dolan felt they were justified. “Being the guy who’s like the eraser who can be thrown away… we did what we had to do to keep everything going smooth.”
The personnel had some interaction with the outside world. Dolan often took the military bus into town, returning by the 11 pm curfew. The base also found an unconventional way to give back to the community. Occasionally, deer electrocuted themselves on the base’s electric fence. Personnel would skin the deer and deliver the meat to a nearby orphanage. (Sometimes, however, they ate it themselves.)
Dolan visited home quite regularly, living just four or five hours away. To cut travel costs, he carpooled with other men who lived along the way. Asked how such trips were organized without cell phones, Dolan affirmed, “You had to be there at 6 ‘o clock or you were S.O.L.”
At the conclusion of Dolan’s commitment in 1963, the Army unsuccessfully attempted to keep him in. He explained his reasons. While overseas, his superior replaced him because, “Evidently, I wasn’t polishing his boots good enough.” Within six months, his successor was promoted; meanwhile, Dolan never received commendation for his hard work. Similar practice continued stateside. Just the month before, he took an oral exam to receive promotion to corporal, but unfortunately did not receive his stripe. Conversely, the next man in line scored lower, but received promotion because of a friendship with one of the testing clerks. This favoritism frustrated Dolan (still a private first class) and was the primary impetus for his departure.
Fortunately, Dolan left the service before the Vietnam War escalated, though three years after discharge, he mistakenly received a draft notice. His upset mother mailed a copy of his discharge papers, and they “never heard from them [the government] again.”
Dolan described the Vietnam War as an “open book”; information was controlled, but one could watch events unfolding on television and “decide for yourself, is it good, bad, or indifferent?” He personally believed that “in a way we should have been there,” yet he criticized the running of the war by elites. Dolan disdained interference in military operations by the executive branch, as well as the operations of corporations. He knew a soldier who could not fire at enemy troops in a rubber plantation because Michelin did not want their property damaged. After returning home, the troubled man was arrested multiple times for slicing Michelin car tires. Finally, Dolan regretted the use of Agent Orange. Though his relatives in Vietnam were not affected, it claimed his son-in-law’s father.
After leaving the Army, Dolan worked for Industrial Bolt and Nut in East Orange, New Jersey, until his friend found him work at a TV rental company. Unfortunately, more favoritism induced him to leave this job as well. He then joined the Wilbur B. Driver Company (a wire-maker) which his brother worked for. Initially employed in the shipping department, Dolan later worked as an electrician. He did not use the GI Bill, as the company paid for his education at several technical schools. Adding crane operation, electrical work, welding, and plumbing to the talents Dolan knew from his youth, he was “just about set for life.”
Dolan hardly spoke about meeting those he served with after discharge, coldly saying he saw them “in the hospital.” Though explaining little, he implied that many suffered from self-inflicted wounds, grappling with unresolved physical and mental issues from their service.
Dolan did, however, join several veterans’ organizations, most notably the American Legion. He served as vice-commander of his post (Post 185 in Newark), and he took over for one year in lieu of the commander. Dolan’s leadership was commended by some, but disdained by others for his lack of favoritism. In addition to these official tasks, he used his utility expertise to renovate the post building. Asked if this commitment was due to his energy as one of the youngest members, Dolan quickly corrected: “Now we’ve actually got what I call babies – these are soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan!”
The post hosted event dinners in collaboration with nearby Hobby’s Deli (with excellent food, he fondly noted), owned by a D-Day veteran. He lavished praise on the owner, who sent packages to overseas troops and offered free lunches to veterans. (Dolan recalled leaving handsome tips for the waitress, as the humble owner refused any official payment!)
Dolan also joined Post 6 of the Ukrainian-American Veterans. Unfortunately, many members had passed away in recent years. Even more regrettably, he could not attend many of their wakes, as they had moved away from New Jersey shortly before death. At the time of the interview, less than five members remained. Looking on the bright side, Dolan laughed, “I am definitely the baby [in that group], at the age of 70.”
Dolan closed with words of pride regarding the efforts of veterans’ organizations, referencing a VFW tribute to a recently deceased veteran. “It was really something to see all those flags all across that bridge going down the parkway,” he said. Dolan also affirmed his own commitment to service: “I’ve had people say, ‘Sorry you did this, sorry you did that.’ And I’ve said, ‘Hell no, if I had the chance to do it again, I would do it again.’”