Interview: World War II Veteran
By Robert C. Daniels
In preparation for writing a book, tentatively entitled “World War II in Mid-America,” I have conducted oral interviews on 33 people of a small mid-western American community that had lived during and through the war. These people represent a wide and diverse range of those living in that area at the time: male, female, military, civilian, adult, children, farmer, factory worker, etc. These interviews were designed to gather information on how World War II affected the interviewees’ lives. As such, questions were asked during the interviews about their lives prior to, during, and after the war.
However, upon beginning to compile this information I realized that there was
much more information in these interviews that I could use in my original book
idea, yet I find this information to be still very interesting and valuable.
Therefore, I've decided to write not one, but two books using this information:
my original idea and a compilation of the entire interviews—word for word in a
question and answer format, just as was spoken by both myself (the interviewer)
and the interviewee. This book will tentatively be entitled "Voices from
Wisconsin," since the small town I have chosen to conduct the interviews in is
in Wisconsin. What follows is the tentative Prologue, to set the stage, so to
speak, and one "chapter" from this manuscript. I hope you find this interview
as interesting as I do.
The Second World War had a profound impact on everyone it touched, whether
those it touched actually fought in the war or held down the home-front. The
citizens of the Waupun, Wisconsin area were no different. This is their story.
The story of how the Second World War impacted a typical, small, mid-western
As will undoubtedly be noted by the reader, the interviews in the following
chapters represent a wide variety of individuals and occupations; from
housewives, to shop owners, to factory workers, to grade school and high school
students, to teachers, to soldiers, airmen, sailors, and marines—all with
differing levels of education and backgrounds. Some of the interviewees were
born in or around Waupun, others moved to the area during or after the war, but
all are in some way connected to the Waupun area.
Why the Waupun area? This area of the country was chosen simply because it is
the town the author grew up in, it is a community he is familiar with. But it
is also a community that readily represents many thousands of other rural,
small American towns throughout the country.
The following interviews are expressed, whenever possible, using the exact
words and colloquialisms spoken by those who witnessed the accounts. As such,
as is the prevailing custom, the author has chosen to insert ellipses whenever
the interviewees halt their speech or leaves a sentence or phrase partially or
wholly unfinished. Only slight alterations or additions have been made when in
not doing so would have made it difficult for the reader to easily follow.
These will appear, as is customary, in brackets. Short corroborational text
inserted by the author, as deemed necessary, appears in parenthesis. Longer
corroborational text will appear in footnotes. The interview questions and
comments made by the author and other interviewers during the interviews will
appear in bold.
It should be noted that the average age of those interviewed is 86. As with
many types of interviews, there are times when memories are jogged, resulting
in instances with an interviewee jumping ahead or backwards to fill in areas
remembered. When this occurs, with an attempt to maintain unaltered as much of
the interviewees' spoken content as possible—although it is fully realized that
this can tend to make it somewhat difficult to follow—the author chose to keep
the contents as they were actually relayed instead of attempting to re-arranged
their placement to a better location within the interview.
For consistency, each person was asked a battery of very similar, pre-prepared
questions; one set of questions for those who were in the service during the
war and one set of questions for those who held down the home-front—although at
times one or more of these questions were altered, deleted, or added to on the
spot according to the particular situation. The first few questions of each
interview are meant to set the stage: who the individual is, their age, their
parentage, their family, their schooling, and their life experiences before the
war. The bulk of the rest of the questions are meant to deal with how the
individuals heard about the Pearl Harbor attack, their reactions to the news of
this attack, and their ultimate experiences in or during the war. The final
questions are meant to summarize the interviewees' lives after the war up to
the present time—it is felt inappropriate to leave the reader wondering what
happened to the interviewees after the war. Some questions and comments made
during the interviews that do not pertain to the war or the subject of this
book have been purposely omitted for relevancy.
In closing, what is represented in these pages of interviews are the
interviewees' stories in their own words. It represents how they spoke during
the interviews and what and how they remember experiencing and living their
lives during the war years, with no apologies made nor intended to conform to
the modern concept of political correctness. Any miss-quotes of the interviews
or misspellings of personal or place names are solely the responsibility of the
author, who humbly apologizes in advance for any such errors.
Author's note: I interviewed Walter Riel at the Union-Congregational Church in
Waupun starting at 12:30 p.m. on 2 December 2005. The interview lasted 30.28
minutes. At the time, Walter was 82 years old, very alert, and articulate. He
also brought along written notes with which to refer.
What is your full name? Walter Riel, Senior.
I know a lot of people born in the early twentieth century were not born in a
hospital, but at home. Where and when were you born?
I was born in
Waupun. In June 8th, ‘23.
In a hospital or at a house? At home, on 800 East Franklin
Who were your parents? John and Winnie Riel.
Do you have any brothers or sisters? Well, I had ten of ‘em.
Wow! Ten. Where were you in there? Right in the middle.
In the middle. Yup. I was the middle one.
Where did you go to school? At Brandon. We lived in the
country until I was in about the sixth grade and then we moved to Brandon. And
then I went to school there for a couple of years. I didn't even finish the
eighth grade of school. At that time my dad hired me to a farmer and says, "Get
to work." That's the way it was in that era.
So you did not graduate from the high school? Not even from
the eighth grade.
What was growing up like for you? Well, it was kind of tough.
We lived in the country most of the time, no electric, no telephone, no
newspapers. It was during the depression, and things was rough. But we
always had enough to eat. My mother was great at preserving things in those
days. That's when that big crock pots came about, you know. Preserving and
canning, she'd can everything she could get a hold of. So we always had
something to eat along the way. Other than that, well, with a big family, there
was always something going on, you know. I did lose a little sister. She was
two years and eight days old. I was about eight or nine years old, something
like that. Other than that, they all grew up. And of course I, like I said
before there, when I was eleven years old, I had to work for a farmer in the
summer time. Fifty cents a week. Dad took the fifty cents to help buy
groceries, but I got my meals with it, then, see. I was leading the horse on a
hay fork, and clean the horse barn, clean the cow barn, feed the chickens,
stuff like that, for my neighbors. But it give me something to do. But I think
all in all, the whole upbringing was…, helped to mold my life in later years.
You learned to take care of yourself. Nothing was handed to me, see. So I guess
it was a good way to manage.
And you grew up on farm? Yes.
Your father was a farmer? No. We was out in the country,
though. But then, like I said, after I was thirteen years old, I had to work by
the farmers until I was seventeen or something like that, or eighteen, then I
went to the factory. It was a shoe factory. Then I went to the National Rivet,
it was a defense factory.
During the 1939, 1941 timeframe, just before the war, what were you doing?
I was working at the farmer's at that time, right before the war. And the big
wages at that time were $25 a month. Then, let's see, I forget just what year
it was I met my wife, or girlfriend at that time. And later on, I quit on the
farm with the farmers and went to the shoe factory for, I don't know, about
nine months. And then I worked at the National Rivet.
What was the name of the shoe factory? Ideal Shoe Factory. It
was right near the National Rivet, there. It use to be. It's all gone [now].
What were you doing when you first heard that Pearl Harbor had been
attacked, do you remember that?
Well, all I can remember is, I
came home that night and my dad told me about it. I'd been out on a date that
night with my girlfriend. All we had was a battery radio, no electric where we
was at. No newspapers. So I didn't know anything was going on in the world,
really. Just that we knew that there was a war someplace, but just not by us,
you know. So it really didn't shock me because I didn't know what it was all
about. I didn't know what was happening in the world. See, we were just…, well
Fond du Lac (Wisconsin) was the furthest I ever got before I went into the
service. I never got any further than that, so it was a small world we was
Did you have a car? Yeah, I had a car. Well, when I was, let's
see, seventeen years old…, I had been working with the farmers since I was
thirteen years old…, and of course, very seldom got home at all. When I met my
wife through a cousin of mine when I was seventeen, I started dating, double
dating, and the boss used to let me use his car. That was nice of him. That was
in '39 and he had a ‘37 Chevy. It was quite a thing. Anyway, then I wanted a
car and my dad wouldn't let me have one. But I'd looked at a couple of ‘em. And
it ended up that one day I was doing chores and the farmer came in the barn and
said, "Wally, there's someone here who wants to see you." Here was a car dealer
with a ‘31 model A, which I had looked at. Well, it was $75, but that was three
month's wages, you know. I said, "Dad wouldn't let me have one." "Well," [the
farmer says] "do you like it"? I said, "Yeah." "Well," he says, "I'll buy it
for you." He gave it to me. That was pretty nice of him.
The farmer did? The farmer did. Then of course, I started
dating my wife regularly. And we went together for two years before I went into
service. Then I came home on leave thirteen months later and we got married.
And she came with me.
And she went with too? Yeah.
When did you get married? Let's see, we have been married
sixty-…, you've got me almost stumped here. Let's see, it was '42 when I
enlisted, '44, January of '44. See, I went into the service in December '42. It
was a year and thirteen months, or thirteen months later, I should say, when I
What is her name? Catherine.
What was her main name? Vanderwoody.
When did you decide to join the military? Well, I can't say a
specific time, but then a buddy of mine from Randolph at that time, friends of
my wife's folks, their son, and we decided that we'd be going in January anyway
in the draft ‘cause I was nineteen years old, see. And we decided, well, maybe
we'd like to join the Air Force and, "Yeah, that sure sounds good to me." So
that's when we decided to go. So we went to Milwaukee and enlisted in the Air
Force on December 7th and was inducted on the 9th of December (1942).
And that was the Army Air Corps at the time? Army Air Corps,
Did they have a separate enlistment station than the Army or did you go to
the Army enlistment…?
That I don't even recall. All I know
was that I went to Milwaukee. I mean there was not a man that come see us, we
went to see him, see, because we knew we'd have to go in a month or so anyway.
And what was your rank in the Army Air Corps? Sergeant.
Did you have a specialty? I was in communications, telephone
So you actually learned how to use the teletype machine? Right.
And of course telephones are all together different than they are today. There
you had to string a wire from one to the other to get communications. There
wasn't such a thing as wireless phones. But then when they landed on this one
island, the first island that we landed on after the Marines, then the
lieutenant says, "You're gonna have to get these generators going." Well then I
said, "I don't know anything about electricity. I never went to high school or
anything like that." He said, "I don't either." But, you see, they didn't have
an MOS for that, and that's why it fell down to me. Because I could string
telephone wires, maybe I'd have to string them too. I didn't know what 110 or
220 [amps were], but I sure got an education there. But that is how I learned,
you know. And I had to take care of them (the generators). And actually, my MOS
only called for a corporal as the telephone operator and an installer. But
because of what I was doing he saw to it that I got an extra rank, because he
says, "You're doing an awful good job," he says, "you deserve one." So he got
me an extra rank, which was nice of him.
So you operated the generator also. Generator and the
switchboard, and took care of the telephones and everything.
And where was this ? It was in Pacific.
And that's the theater of war you went to? Yes, Asiatic
Where did you go to school at? Boot camp and your school? My
basic training was Atlantic City (New Jersey). That was an Air Force training
camp. Then they sent me to Camp Crowder, Missouri. That was a Signal Corps
[school]. That's where I said, "What am I doing here?" Because I enlisted in
the Air Force to be a mechanic. They says, "Quit your bitchin'," and handed me
a wrench and a telephone poll. But that's the way it happened at that time,
see. And I tried to get out, but no way. And from there we…, after I go through
with school, they assigned me to a Signal Corps, 930th Signal Corps in
Gainesville, Florida. And there I tried to get out, go to the Air Force.
"Tough!" [they said].
Then we got up to maneuvers, up in Oregon, and a buddy of mine in headquarters
says, "Well," he says, "an Army regulation came out that all men that are
miss-assigned can be reassigned by request." So I put in my application and
about three weeks later I was transferred to the Air Force. So, I was the only
one with my MOS in our outfit, see, because I had to take care of all the
telephones, which turned out alright. So I was satisfied with all that. I
didn't get to be a mechanic, but in a way, I was. I got a good education and I
was an electric man, because it helped me when I got home, then I went to G.I.
Bill of Rights school to be an electrician. It all turned out good.
Please give us a brief review of your service, including the theaters of
the war and possibly any campaigns you were in?
Well, of course,
let's see. I didn't get into any hand to hand combat like the infantry. But we
had some trouble there with the Japs on this island, infiltrating all the time
and air raids. But see, we were in photo-reconnaissance, in intelligence.
That's what our airplanes were for, P-38's. Well, we took care of, oh let's
see, the Philippines, Borneo, and what's the one I've got here…? (He briefly
looks at his papers.) Indonesia I think or something like that. Well, anyway
it's in there. Oh, here. New Guinea, Borneo, and the Philippines, that's it. My
memory is getting a little short sometimes. It's good, but short. When you get
my age, it happens.
What was it like being in the war? It was nerve-racking, very
nerve-racking. We'd get these air raids and I'd have to shut down the generator
because we couldn't have any lights. Visibility, you know. And I had to keep
the telephones going. You could say you had to sleep with your ears open and
your eyes shut, see. Air raids or any Japs infiltrating, it was nerve-racking,
that's what it was. I was a nervous wreck when I came home.
Were you? Oh yeah. Terrible!
Did you sleep in tents or on the ground? Tents, yeah.
The telephones, where they sound powered phones or did they have
electricity going through them?
What do you mean?
Did they operate on sound or did they have electric current going through
Current. We had to ring ‘em. And it was battery operated,
see? It's a field phone, they called it. It was about like this (shows with his
hands), see. And that was the only telephone we had.
So you had to change batteries once in a while? Yeah.
Did each phone have its own battery? Yeah. Yes. But you had to
string a wire between them or they wouldn't work. And that was one of my jobs.
Kept it all going.
What was the name of the outfit that you were in? 38th
Photo-Reconnaissance. It was intelligence is what it really was, see. They took
photos before, during, and after the raids, up ahead, see. And our planes
didn't have no guns at all. Just four P-38's.
What was it like when you heard that the war was over, you were coming
Oh, boy! It was great! We just whooped and yelled. All the
search lights went on, see. In those days they had search lights to detect the
planes so they could shoot them. All the search lights were on and everyone was
just a yelling and whooping. But we had an inkling already because we had
everything all packed up because we were going to move further to the front. Of
course we didn't know where. And they dropped the first A-Bomb. Well, they
suspected they might give up. Then they dropped the second one, then they
cancelled our orders, and of course the war had ended. That's when they shipped
us to the Philippines to come home, from the Philippines. I was there for three
months, then they shipped us home. Then I landed in San Francisco Christmas Eve
of '45. No '44, no '45, ‘45.
What was the trip home like for you? Well, it was on a liberty
ship, I don't know if you've heard of them.
Yeah. I was on one of them. It took us seventeen days to get
Did you get seasick? No. But going over I got seasick. Oh, was
I sick, most of the time. Finally, I got up on the…, I got in with the crew. It
was twenty-eight days going over. And we stopped in New Zealand, Australia, and
New Guinea, see. And I worked in the kitchen then, and they let me sleep up on
deck. Well, that made a lot of difference. I wouldn't be down in the hole where
you can't see nothing, it was just…, and everyone was sick…it was terrible! And
the toilets weren't working good and the crap [was] all over, running. Good
thing is they had little berms there that the water didn't run right onto the
ship from the toilets, they ran over. It was a mess. Terrible! But what can you
say. You're in it, and you do the best you can.
What was the Waupun area like when you came home?
different from when you left?
Well, I came home to Randolph,
that's where my wife was from.
Was that different from when you left? Not really. No, you
kind of pick up like from when you left, you know. For myself it wasn't that
way. I mean, up here (pointing to his head), see. You try, but it didn't work
that way. I had an awful time when I came home, to adjust to it.
Was there any help for you, VA or anything like that? Not at
that time. They didn't have the PSD or whatever, Post-Traumatic Stress
Disorder, at that time, see. They gave us the three hundred bucks and you were
on your own, see. No, it wasn't until the early ‘80's, I think, that I first
got good help. I'd been going to the VA before that, but they never did
anything about that, see. I know when I came home I just had, I had an awful
time. I'd hear a little noise and jump out of bed, you know…, hit the fox hole,
you know. I had one time a guy throw a firecracker when he was working. Oh, I
jumped and said, "Don't you ever throw one again!" But half hour later, he
threw another one. I grabbed him around the neck and I said, "You SOB," I had a
hammer in my hand, you know, I was hanging wire, "you do that again I'm gonna
kill you." And I was going to hit him on the head. You know, that's your
reaction, you're taught that way. Good thing I didn't hit him because I'd have
probably killed him, hit him on the head with the hammer, you know. But that's
the way it was, your reflexes. And nightmares, nightmares always thinking the
Japs was coming in or bombs were dropping. Oh yeah, it was…
You got bombed a lot over there? Oh, yeah. We'd hear ‘em.
"Well, I guess that one didn't have our name on it," you know. You kind of
humor a little bit to, you know. But just lay in that fox hole and just, just
hope that the next one won't hit you, that's all. But it's one of those that
you just go through it, and pick up again when it's over and do what you have
Were any of your brothers in the army, in the war? No. Well,
they weren't in the war. My brother Garrett, he was drafted towards the end of
the war and he ended up in Germany with the occupation forces. He's four years
younger than me. My oldest brother was drafted right away in the beginning when
the draft started. But then he got 4-F for some reason or other. And he
worked at National Rivet. And my next brother, Don, he worked at National Rivet
and he got deferred there, so he didn't get in either. I could've I guess, if
I'd have stayed at National Rivet, but I didn't want to, [I wanted to] fulfill
my duty to go.
And you got married during the war? Yes.
Did you have children? Yes. Well, let's see, a year later then
our son was born, in January, a year after we was married. In fact, he was a
year old before I seen him. In fact, he was two weeks old before I knew he was
born, that's how mail was at the time, you know. We didn't have such things as
cell phones and emails that they have today, but that's the way it goes.
You had just one son? One son and the one daughter. Now our
son was in the…, let's see, I was in sixty years ago, forty years ago my son
was in the Army, and twenty years ago my daughter's son was in the Navy.
So your son was in the Army and your grandson was
in the Navy?
In the Navy, 20 years apart.
Was your son in Vietnam? No, he was in Germany during that
time. So he got credit for the Vietnam Era. And our grandson was in during the
Lebanon Crisis. He was in the Navy then, he was down there.
And you said that you took advantage of the GI Bill. Yes.
How did you do that? Well, I got paid so much a month, I think
$90 a month or something like that. And I went to school one afternoon a week
in Beaver Dam, under the G.I. Bill of Rights to be an electrician. 
And you worked in the National Rivet Company? Not after the
war. Then I worked for Vans Electric in Randolph as an electrician.
Did you retire from there? No. No, I ended up in…, was in
California for five years, or three years, and I worked there as an
electrician. Then we moved to Waupun; I didn't like California. It was good
but, I didn't like the busy-ness. It was rough. So then we moved to Waupun, and
I worked for Mink Brothers at that time. And I ended up managing the store,
doing the selling and buying and everything. So I worked there for eighteen
years. Then we had a fire, and it took everything. Then I worked for Waupun
Supply for eight and a half years, retired from there.
When did you move to Waupun, what year? ‘59.
And you lived here ever since? Yes.
What did the Waupun Supply do? Wholesale plumbing.
Is there anything else you would like to tell us about the war years, or
before or after?
Oh, not really, I pretty much explained it in
here (he points to his papers.) Oh, there are always a lot of little incidents,
you know, that you kinda snicker about later. We'd try to make humor about it
too while we was there. You do the best you can, you know. I remember one time,
we had to help some Australians, no not Australians, we had to tear up (take
down) a tent that someone was moving out [of]. And I found…, at that time Life
Parker pen was a great thing, you know, a life-time pen. They didn't have
ballpoints at the time, and the Australians were nuts for them. So I traded it
for a bottle of gin. That night, some buddies of mine and I had a little party.
Little things like that, you know. So you make the best of it.
Where did your wife live? She lived in Randolph.
She lived in Randoph? She lived at home first with her dad
because her mother had died, so she was keeping house for her dad. And then in
October right after the war ended, he had got married and she moved to town
till I come home.
Is she still alive, your wife? Oh Yeah. We've been married
sixty-two years already. Still together.
I greatly appreciate you coming here and talking. It is just
one of those things, you know, it's…, like I said before, it's a million dollar
experience, but I wouldn't give a nickel to go through it again. I thing it
helps. I think it helped a lot of guys become self-sufficient and being a man.
It's too bad we haven't got a draft today that's compulsory that all the young
men to…, unless they have a good reason for it, you know, because a lot of them
need direction, and the Army gives it to them. I think it helped me, you know,
to learn to be self-sufficient, to take care of yourself, and be innovative and
doing things you…, to survive. So I think it's helped me throughout my life, so
it's not been a wasted time when I think back. So other than that, I'd say that
I think everybody should go through it because of the discipline part of it,
you know. And they realize what it is.
. Brandon, Wisconsin is approximately ten miles north of Waupun.
. It should be noted that during the late 1930's and the 1940's timeframe, the timeframe to which Walter is relating, many electric and telephone companies were co-ops, owned by local residents. As small companies, many of these did not connect to farms; therefore, many of the rural areas did not have even electricity, much less telephones.
. Walter is referring to Shalers National Rivet and Manufacturing Company. Commonly referred to simply as Shalers, National Rivet, or the Rivet Company by many of the local towns people, it made most if not all of the rivets used in American built warplanes during the war and is situated, still to this day, nearly in the middle of Waupun.
. Fond du Lac, Wisconsin is approximately eighteen miles northeast of Waupun.
. Randolph, Wisconsin is approximately fifteen miles west of Waupun.
. During the Second World War, the United States Air Force was still a part of the Army, and was known as the Army Air Corps, or, at times, the Army Air Forces. It wasn't until 1947 that the United States Air Force was created as a separate branch of the military.
. MOS stands for Military Operation Specialty.
. I asked this question because the Navy (even today) used telephones on board their ships that were powered by the human voice. One talks into a telephone handset, the sound waves are turned into electrical pulses, which are then transmitted through the telephone wires to be changed back again to sound waves by the receiver. All this is conducted by the use of sets of crystals and diaphragms. Therefore, no outside electricity (battery or otherwise) is required. This system is called a sound powered phone.
. 4-F is was a classification for the draft. It signified individuals who were not draft eligible. It is reported that thirty percent of those of draft age during the war were considered 4-F. This category included people with "muscular and bone malformations, hearing or circulatory ailments, mental deficiency or disease, hernias, and syphilis." The 4-F Classification for the Draft during World War II, (http://www.nebraskastudies.org/0800/stories/0801_0106.html, accessed on 25 October 2007).
. Beaver Dam is approximately fifteen miles southwest of Waupun.
Written by Robert C. Daniels. If you have questions or comments on this article,
please contact Robert Daniels at:
About the author:
Robert C. Daniels, a retired U.S. Navy Chief Petty Officer, holds a BA in History from Old Dominion University (ODU), Norfolk, VA, and a MA in Military Studies, Land Warfare from the American Military University (AMU), Manassas Park, VA.
He has written and published two books telling the exploits of both WWII era veterans and civilians: 1220 Days and World War II in Mid-America and several military history articles published on http://www.militaryhistoryonline.com.
He currently is writing a book about the Black Hawk War, and teaches U.S. History, World Civilization History, and Western Civilization History at Tidewater Community College in Virginia Beach, VA, as an adjunct professor.
* Views expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily represent those of MilitaryHistoryOnline.com.