CENTER FOR U.S. WAR
VETERANS' ORAL HISTORIES
World War II
Thomas F. Cain was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in January, 1921. In 1939 he joined the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and was initially assigned to New Mexico on a soil erosion project. Later on Cain worked in other locations for the CCC, maintaining automotive parts and supplies.
By 1941 Cain was a production expediter for the assembly of turbine generators on navy ships built in the Philadelphia and Camden shipyards. There was much talk in his family about current affairs, including the war that had been going on in Europe since 1939. Cain was attending a football game with his fiancée and his brother, after which he planned to officially announce his engagement at a dinner at his mother’s, when radio news announced the Pearl Harbor attack. When Cain was drafted on December 28, 1943 he chose the army, since that service allowed him more time at home before he had to report for duty. Assigned to the ordnance corps, Cain completed six weeks of basic training and another eight weeks of technical training on automotive and armament subjects before being sent to Lima, Ohio for automotive training, after which he classified as an automotive parts clerk.
After ten days leave, Cain left for the west coast, where he boarded a troopship which sailed for four days to British Columbia, Canada, then to Dutch Harbor, Alaska, and then on to the island of Attu in the Aleutians. On the way, his ship picked up the floating survivors of a merchant vessel sunk by the Japanese. When Cain landed on Attu in the middle of a snowstorm, he was told that, although the island had been recaptured from the Japanese, some still held out in the hills. He stated that even though American aircraft had bombed Attu heavily, the Japanese were well dug in on high ground, and the rain and fog that predominated in the Aleutians favored the defense, resulting in a bloody battle with many American casualties.
After Attu was secured, US Navy Seabees constructed Quonset huts for the American garrison. Cain, a member of the 3062nd Ordnance Service Company, was assigned to the Ordnance Supply shop to train others on automotive subjects. Other men headquartered in the hut moved ammunition, worked with radios and aircraft maintenance and maintained ordnance records. P-38 fighter aircraft were parked on a nearby airstrip. The weather remained problematic and, on one occasion, a snow avalanche covered the Hardware and Ordnance Supply Quonsets, killing three members of Cain’s unit. Although combat ceased with the capture of Attu, some men couldn’t stand the boredom, lack of family connection and dismal living conditions, and they committed suicide. There seemed no way off the island, and Cain was even denied leave to attend his mother’s funeral.
As the war went on, however, life on Attu improved. Marksmanship qualification every six months with M-1 rifles and carbines provided some relief from boredom, and food delivery from merchant marine ships, including steaks and whiskey, together with a new mess hall, a base hospital, an Attu newspaper, and Armed Forces Radio broadcasts monitoring the progress of the war elsewhere, helped to raise morale considerably. Extra steaks available from the merchant marine were cooked on a hot plate in the Quonset hut barracks, and oil heat kept the troops warm. Recreational outlets also became available with the construction of a large gym, providing venues for basketball, bowling, softball games and USO celebrity appearances, including famous boxer Joe Lewis, who acted as referee for several army boxing matches. By 1945 Attu, while still boring, was not the worst place to be stationed. Cain, who entered service at 150 pounds, weighed 200 pounds by the time he was discharged.
At the end of the war, Cain recalled that troops from the European and Pacific theaters received priority transportation home over the Alaskan garrison. Eventually, though, after consolidating his unit’s weapons and boxing them for shipment back to “the States,” he boarded a troopship for Seattle, Washington and then a plane east, back to New Cumberland, Pennsylvania for thirty days home leave. Returning to duty after his furlough, Cain spent six weeks on duty at a Richmond, Virginia POW camp housing German prisoners, and he was honorably discharged at Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania with the rank of T-5 on February 15, 1946. A civilian again, Thomas Cain bought a house with a Veterans Administration GI home loan and went back to work.
Cain showed the interviewer some of his Aleutian Island photographs, arranged in a nicely organized album. Among the photos were images of a cemetery where 425 American soldiers were buried, and a place he referred to as Gilbert’s Ridge. He mentioned that there is a group of Aleutian veterans who return to Attu for periodic visits, although he has never joined any veterans’ organizations himself. He read a greeting to a World War II soldier, prepared by President Harry Truman, for the interviewer.
Thomas Cain was awarded the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign and American Theater Service medals and the WWII Victory and Good Conduct medals, as well as Rifle Marksman, and Carbine Sharpshooter badges.