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.
Upon beginning to compile this information I realized that there was much more information in these interviews than I could use in my original book idea, yet I find this information to still be very interesting and valuable to both the historian and history buff alike. Therefore, I’ve decided to publish one or more of these interview transcripts here as well as provide all 33 interviews to both the Wisconsin State Historical Society and the Waupun, Wisconsin, Historical Society for their archival use.
What follows are two of these interviews – a husband and wife, both of who lived through the war years – which are expressed, whenever possible, using the exact words and colloquialisms spoken by the interviewees. As such, as is the prevailing custom, I have chosen to insert ellipses whenever the interviewee halts his speech or leaves a sentence or phrase partially or wholly unfinished. In addition, only slight alterations or additions have been made, when in not doing so would have made it difficult for the average reader to easily follow. These will appear, as is customary, in brackets, or in the case of short corroborative text, in parenthesis. The later solely to help the reader understand locations and other non-readily apparent subject material. My interview questions and comments, and those of Mr. James Laird of the Waupun, Wisconsin, Historical Society, who attended the interview and also asked a few questions, appear in bold. Any miss-quotes of the interview, misspellings of personal or place names, or editing, spelling, or punctuation errors are solely my responsibility. As such, I most humbly apologize in advance for any such inaccuracies.
Although a military history site, I chose to include not only Charles’ interview, a WWII veteran, but also his wife Nova’s interview since hers also relates to life on the American home-front during the war.
Charles and Nova (Wagner) Vellema
Charles and Nova (Wagner) Vellema were interviewed at the Union-Congregational Church in Waupun, Wisconsin, starting at 08:45 a.m. on 4 March 2006. The interview lasted a total of 112.69 minutes. Charles and Nova sat, each at one end of a couch so only one was in the camera view at a time, listening and at times assisting each other during their separate interviews. Mr. James Laird of the Waupun Historical Society assisted the author in conducting these interviews asking several questions of both Charles and Nova. At the time Charles was eighty-six years old, Nova was eighty-five, and both were alert and articulate and proved to be very willing to talk about their experiences in or during the war. Charles was interviewed first.
What is your full name? Charles Vellema.
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’d imagine at home. In the town of Springvale. In the country.
That’s Springvale, Wisconsin? That would be Brandon, Wisconsin, for an address. Springvale is a township…, our house was in. (Springvale and Brandon are approximately ten miles northwest of Waupun.)
(Author’s note: It should be noted that when stating “miles from Waupun” throughout these pages, this is an indication of direct miles, i.e. as a bird would fly between points A and B on a map, not actual miles it would take to drive from point A to point B using the current road system.)
What date were you born? May 5th, 1919…, 5th or 6th, something. My mother always said I was born on [the] 6th. Then I needed a birth certificate and I got a hold of one, then it was the 5th. For about fifteen years it was [the] 6th and after then…, family says 6th, and legally it is 5th, so.
Who were your parents? Pete and Tina Vellema.
Do you have any brothers or sisters? Two sisters.
What were their names? Ellis and Florence.
Were they older or younger than you? Younger.
Were they born the same place you were? Yes, I would think so.
Where did you go to school? Westbrick School, in the town of Springvale. I went to Willowcreek too, in the town of Waupun.
Both were rural schools? Both rural.
Where was the Willowcreek School in Waupun? On Highway 26, north. There’s a house there now. (Highway 26 bisects through the eastern part of Waupun from north to south.)
These were one room schools? Yup.
Did you go to high school? No.
What is the highest grade that you graduated from? Eight.
And you had no college? No.
What was growing up like for you? Lived on a farm, worked on a farm. ‘Till I was about eighteen worked with my dad. And then, I think, [I] went to the shoe factory, Ideal Shoe Factory in Waupun. Worked for room and board at home and worked in the shoe factory from 8:00 (a.m.) till 4:00 (p.m.), whatever…, 13 cents an hour. No, $13 a week was paid.
What were you doing in the 1939, 1941 timeframe, basically just before Pearl Harbor? First, I had to register for [the] draft, in ‘38 I guess it was, and then I was drafted in July of ‘41 to 1945. By that time (the Pearl Harbor attack) I had basic training in Fort Bragg, North Carolina. When Pearl Harbor was done, or whatever, was attacked, then I worked in Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
So you were actually drafted before the war started? Yup, ‘41. I was drafted. July 29th, ‘41.
Do you remember what you were doing when you first heard that Pearl Harbor was attacked? Yup. I was in the barracks. It was on Sunday about 4 o’clock in the afternoon, North Carolina time. We had an old radio. The barracks were new, but they were built like a barn. They had like a beam [that] ran from end to end about six, eight inches wide, and [we had an] old radio. The plastic cover was all off [of it], we just had the tubes. And most everybody was gone on Sunday. I remember being in there, and then news came over that Pearl Harbor had been attacked. So that kind of changed the picture because the next morning all these older men, about thirty-four years older and up that were in service, they had their bags all packed, and they were going to go home Monday morning. So they were released for home. So that was quite a commotion. I guess eventually they didn’t leave, but I don’t know, they were released after maybe a year or so.
So they released all the older people from service? Yeah. Most of them were Regular Army.
What were your thoughts and feelings about hearing that Pearl Harbor was attacked, that the United States was at war? Oh, offhand I just..., it was hard to believe that something like that could happen, I guess. I guess we didn’t think too much of what we were gonna have to do. But offhand I can’t think just what we did think, unless I was thinking I was going to go to home pretty soon. But that changed that picture.
When you were drafted you were drafted into the Army? Yeah.
Did you have a choice where you went to after you were drafted; the Army or the Navy, the Marine Corps, anything? No. I was drafted, like I said, on July 29th. There were three, four boys from Waupun that went from Waupun to Milwaukee. Do you want the names? (Milwaukee, Wisconsin, is approximately sixty miles southeast of Waupun.)
Yes, please. Glen Towne and Ben Loomans and Ken Kohlman. And I went by bus to Milwaukee. And there we were examined and had to passed [a] physical. And Kenny Kohlman, who was probably the one that wanted to go in the service the most, he didn’t pass the physical, so he went back home to Waupun. And the rest of us went.
So three of you went to the Army then? (Charles nods his head yes).
Did you all go to boot camp together? No. We went to Camp Gant, Illinois. They were just going to determine what branch of service you were going to go in. But I was in the Infantry, so I went to the infantry training. I think, maybe, Ben Loomans, he became a policeman when he came home, maybe he was in the police in the service too. And Glen Towne must have been a truck driver, because he was a truck driver back in civilian life. He was driving a truck.
How old were you then when you were drafted? I must have been twenty…, no twenty-one—July 29th, 1941, and yes, I must have been twenty-one.
And Glen and Ben and Ken were also basically the same age? I imagine we were all the same age.
When you were in the Army, what rank were you? I got to be a staff sergeant.
And your specialty was infantry, or was there any other specialty you had? Well, I was more in charge of a group of men always…training. Towards the last, after I was wounded, then we stayed in England and trained recruits as they came, came across…. And then—this is probably when the Battle of the Bulge was on, now, I suppose. Now we’re getting ahead of myself. Well, after I was wounded in Europe and went back to England to recuperate, then I was, what did they call it? disabled category. So then I didn’t have to go back. Otherwise if you were not disabled you could go back and fight some more.
There were six of us sergeants and a lieutenant, and we were in charge of a…, like a replacement center. Now we got all the eighteen year olds. Some of them just were in service and came over there, and we had ‘em six weeks and we flew them right into Belgium. This was in the winter, the Battle in the Bulge. So I was kind of fortunate that I had over a year of training before, and some of them had never had a rifle in their hand or anything—they went right in.
So during the Battle of Bulge you were in England, convalescing? Yeah.
Besides boot camp, did you have any other schools, military schools that you went to? Well, training everywhere.
The infantry training? (Charles nods his head yes.) And we went to camp Wheeler. From here (Waupun) we went to Camp Grant, Illinois. From there I went to Camp Wheeler in Macon, Georgia. This was in the end of July so you can imagine the temperature in Macon, Georgia, at that time. I think we all lost a few pounds in a hurry. We sweat day and night (he smiles). There we had a lot of close order drill and we finally got to use the rifles and all that.
Did they teach you to use all different types of arms? I know you had the .45, you had the M-1 Garand. Yeah. We had [the] ‘03 first. Bolt action Springfield, like they used in World War I.
Did they teach you to use machine guns also? No. I was in a rifle…, we were mostly [a] rifle platoon. We had three rifle platoons in the company, and then the last company had larger…, they had a machine gun, .50 caliber machine gun and some mortars. In a rifle platoon we just had rifles and revolvers. That’s when the Garand came out—M-16, now that was quite a little different (referring to the modern M-16 rifle used in Vietnam and later). We had lots and lots of target practice. All day long we could…, had a box of ammunition, you could just shoot all day long at targets. We really learned how to use a rifle.
This was all before Pearl Harbor? Oh, yeah, this was in July of ‘41. From Camp Wheeler after…, when we had how many weeks I don’t remember. Everybody had the same amount of weeks of boot camp, or what we would…. It wasn’t boot camp for us, that’s Navy, I guess, boot camp.
Basic training? Basic training, there you go.
Can you give us a review of your service? What happened? Where you went in the war after Pearl Harbor? First I got to Fort Bragg, North Carolina. After we had basic training, then we were gonna be…, let’s see, what did they call it?—in half-tracks, motorize infantry or something.
Fort Bragg was [an] artillery training camp for World War I. It was a great enormous acres of wasteland. In this area where we were the sign said, “Motorized Animal Area.” So we still had horses or mules that pulled the caissons. So the sign said, “Motorized Animal Area.” So there were still animals there in Fort Bragg when we were there.
And when we first got to Fort Bragg we had to guard the airport, and all we had was a broomstick, we didn’t have rifles yet then. That was just for training, learn how to…., you had your password and you had to use the password back and forth. That was quite a thing.
But the main thing what I never realized from coming from up north, segregation was still on there, so we were in one area and the colored boys had a whole other area with the camp. When we went to town…, I never knew that the back of the bus was for the colored people and the front was for white people. I think one time I probably walked (indicating with his hands to the back of the bus) because there (meaning in Wisconsin) usually you had to go to the back of the bus. So when you got down there, then you had to stay in front of the bus. That was something new to me.
So did you see the segregated water fountains and stuff? Did they still have those back in the towns, in restrooms, and the…? Yeah, they had segregated restrooms.
So after Pearl Harbor what did you do then? We stayed at Fort Bragg, we kept training in Fort Bragg. By that time we were put in divisions, Regular Army divisions, and Fort Bragg was the 9th Infantry Division. That’s where I was in, the 47th Infantry Regiment, I guess they called it. Then the 9th Division was the whole thing and included all the rifle and artillery…, tanks. We had lots of training because first we thought we’re gonna be in half-tracks. This was before Pearl Harbor. Then they switched us from that to…, ah, oh…, landing…, what did we called it? Landing craft. So we had the big rope ladders on the fifty-foot board wall. We had to climb up and down that ‘till you could do it pretty good; up and down, up and down. ‘Cause that is the same thing that we had when we got off the ship. So we did lots of training. We went through Virginia, the beaches off Virginia, in what is the Chesapeake Bay.
Little Creek Amphibious Base (in Virginia Beach, Virginia)? (Charles nods yes.) Go from Fort Bragg on a ship and get off in landing craft. Then practice going to the beaches.
When did you actually go overseas? November of ‘42.
You went to England? No. We went to…, most people don’t even realize that there was a war in North Africa.
So you went straight from the United States to North Africa? You didn’t stop over in England on the way? No, not straight. It took us twenty-one days. And what they did, this was the whole army, all the equipment that we needed—all the supplies that we needed, for I don’t know how many days, all the ammunition, all the food—was on, I think it was some two hundred ships, that was in this flotilla. And this was right in the thick of the German submarine warfare that was going on. And we could go…, like all day long we’d be going into the sun; get up the next morning, then all day long we’d go with the sun behind us. They just did that, they said we zigzagged for twenty-one days so the enemy never was sure where we were gonna end up.
And every now and then they had to shut everything off because they had detected the submarine in amongst us. And it must really have been something to see all that many ships, all sizes. We had little ships there smaller than a destroyer, and what they call a smaller one? They’d go zigzagging through there, and then everything would stop and they would drop depth charges. Then we would take off again.
Could you hear the depth charges going off? Oh, yeah.
Were they successful in sinking any of the convoy? They got one ship. But every kind of a ship there was. There was one that was kind of slower than all the rest. It was a car ferry and didn’t have a good bow on it. It was flat in the front where they loaded railcars in front of it. And that poor thing, it kinda lagged back, and I don’t know if they picked it off or what. I know they did get one ship.
That was something. That was all planned and all the gasoline and everything, food supply, everything else, you know. (This last sentence Charles is talking of the convoy’s cargo in general.)
Did they have aircraft carriers in the convoy? No. Not with us.
(Task Group 34.10, designated as the Southern Attack Group of Task Force 34, which Charles’s regiment was a part of, did have one small escort aircraft carrier, the USS Santee [CVE 29], capable of carrying only between twenty-five and thirty-two aircraft, assigned to it. However, this aircraft carrier was designed more for fleet defense than land support. Therefore, the aircraft carried onboard would have been designated to protect the ships of the landing force more than the landing forces themselves.)
Now this was in the North Africa. Most people don’t know there was a battle of North Africa.
You actually…, did you go through Gibraltar? That’s afterwards. Where we landed, I think, must be that Hitler wanted control of the Mediterranean Sea, and our particular landing was in Safi, French Morocco. That’s on the Atlantic side. There was two other companies and us landed in French Morocco, in Safi. The rest of them went through to Algiers and Casablanca, landed all along the….
Then you actually landed on the West part of Africa. French Morocco is on the West, isn’t it? Yeah, correct. That is where we landed. And there was that French Foreign Legion, because France was under German rule at that time, so our enemy was the French Foreign Legion, partly.
Did you actually fight against them? That’s what was there then. And there was Italians. And we were really fortunate; the Germans had just had maneuvers in that area and they left about a day or so before we got there. And when we landed…, I don’t know, I didn’t tell you how when we were still on the boats going over, when we got a day or so where we were supposed to go…, then our ship went off by itself, and that’s when we learned how to use the landing ladders, the rope ladders.
We went from our troopships. We threw the ropes over the side. And we had ground swell. I don’t know if you ever saw ground swell, if you were in the Navy you saw it. They would be like forty feet high, and our ship would go up on there, and the landing…, and the destroyer, we loaded onto destroyers. The little thing (the destroyer) would be down here, we were up there (Charles shows with his hands), and when the two would get together then Navy sailors would grab a hold of us and pulled us onto the destroyer. And then we would go back up and down. But they didn’t lose a man.
There was two destroyers, L Company on one, K Company on the other. It was day when we loaded. Then early in the morning or at night then—it was dark—then our battleships was firing. I think we had red or green. Anyway, there was red shells going one way and the green shells was going the other way, and we were underneath because from shore they were firing out at the battleships, and we were going underneath.
This at Safi…, had a big breakwater and big long piers because at her piers ships loaded and unloaded. And we went out because they must have had, what did they call them? gates or whatever.
Submarine nets? Yeah. So then the frogmen…, somehow they got that all cleared and we went all the way in behind this breakwater. And they just ran (the destroyers), speeded up and ran us right into the sandy shore. We jumped off in front of the destroyer.
Our mission was to protect the power plant. And it was kind of dark when we got there. And I don’t know how many men I had with me, but that was our mission, was so they wouldn’t destroy power.
And there was a tent, and there must have been eight or ten Arabs in that tent. Well, they didn’t know us and we didn’t know them. All we had on (for identification) was a U.S. flag sewed onto our clothes, so they knew what that was for. I didn’t know whether to shoot ‘em or what to do with them. We just sort of went in there, and they mumbled and we mumbled; we just kept them from doing any harm. Then we got them all outside.
And the other guys were all fighting, we could hear their rifles—we didn’t have to fire a shot.
You mentioned L Company and K Company? Which company were you in? L.
That was L Company, the 47th Infantry Regiment? Yeah.
The 9th Infantry Division? Yeah. But then there were some fighting further away—we could hear them—where the French Foreign Legion was. But they said what happened; the officers of the French Foreign Legion knew that there was going to be a landing, and they had a big party the night before so most of the soldiers were so drunk they didn’t know what was going on that morning.
And then, after we landed, we had to have trenches, and they had trenches already there. But then the Arabs used that as their restroom or whatever you wanna call it. So the next morning before that, they (the U.S. commanders) said if you hear an airplane it is not ours because we don’t have any, not at that particular time. So the next morning, sure enough, here we heard an airplane. We all dove in this (he laughs). Yeah, what a mess!
But then they dropped bombs—and there was steel sheds a ways from where we were—and the plane went right over us. I could see the plane just as clear as could be. And they dropped the bomb, and my best buddy was killed. He was further back. He was our first sergeant. He was from Fond du Lac (Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, is approximately eighteen miles northeast of Waupun and the county seat of Fond du Lac County). He kind of watched over me before we ever got over there. But then he was killed that day. The shell fragment hit him, and the bombs went off pretty close to us, but close enough that all the shell fragments flew away. But that is what they said, “If you hear an airplane, that is not us.”
Was it a German plane? This was an Italian. It was real low. You could see the…, just the bottom of it just as nice.
Was it a bomber or fighter, or…? Mostly bomber. Had doors that opened up.
(The Battle of Safi was a part of Operation Torch, the invasion of North Africa by a combined Allied army consisting of Americans, English, and Free French forces. It was also the first real offensive test of Americans in the war. Operation Torch consisted of three task forces: the Western—designated to land in French Morocco; the Center—to land in Oran; and the Eastern—landing in Algiers. Charles’ Company was part of the Western Task Force’s Southern Attack Group, which came ashore at Safi, French Morocco, south of Casablanca. Upon establishing a beachhead and securing Safi, the Southern Attack Group was to push north towards Casablanca. The initial landings occurred in the early morning hours of 8 November 1942.)
So that was our first experience in seeing any action. And after that…. We stayed there maybe a month because when we started in December we started walking. And then we only had one truck, and the kitchen was loaded in the truck.
They had a general of our Italian—or whatever, 47th Infantry, yeah—he said, instead of hauling all of us, he says, “You walk from now until March. You’ll be hardened in and you’ll be ready for action.” So that is what we did. And we couldn’t walk across Spanish Morocco because they were neutral, so he loaded us in trucks to get us through there. They wouldn’t allow us to walk across Spanish Morocco.
And then what happened, while we were walking that’s when the bazooka came out, so they said they needed six sergeants. They picked up from the regiment, and I happened to be one of them lucky ones. So they loaded six of us with a ton of rocket ammunition and a rocket launcher (the bazooka and its ammunition) in a DC-3 Plane.
(The Bazooka is a re-loadable, hand-held rocket launcher that, held at the shoulder, launched a small anti-tank missile. It proved to be a valuable weapon throughout the war. Improved versions were to see service in both the Korean War and the Vietnam Conflict.)
The 1st Army Division (1st Infantry Division, the Big Red One) that had been fighting with Rommel—a German, he was [a] pretty famous general, he fought all the way in Africa against the British—and he was coming. (German Field Marshal Erwin Johannes Eugen Rommel.) So they loaded us up and…, that was the 1st Army Division that was fighting Rommel at the time, and they pretty near got wiped out completely because they had the old tanks that had the turret on the side that was stationary, and they (the Germans) just wiped them out completely. And then that’s where we went up there with this bazooka that you had to get in about a one hundred and fifty feet of the tank to knock it out. And all you could do was, you had to be sure to shoot ‘em on this flat side of the tank between the tracks, on the top and the bottom of the track, and get it right in through there you could probably…, the bazooka would go through there.
So we got up there and we had to demonstrate how to use the bazooka. They flew us and we stayed overnight. Landed one night on somewhere in the desert. We were right in the desert. And the next day they landed a little closer, but they never shut the engines off on the plane. We got out and as quick as we could get to the ground the plane was gone. And then there we were with no other transportation, except…. I don’t know, right at that time I don’t know how we did get from there to…. I suppose what whatever the unit had been fighting in that area they must have had transportation for us. We loaded our rocket ammunition up and….
When we were flying on the DC-3’s we flew through the mountains and valleys between the mountains because they had fighter planes around then, and it was so crooked that a fighter plane couldn’t fly straight through there, so we flew below the mountain peaks with the DC-3.
I don’t know what happened one time…, if there was such a change in the air pressure or what, but the plane dropped. It dropped faster than the cargo in the plane and there was quite a crash when the ton of ammunition boxes hit the (he laughs) bottom of the plane. And we thought the thing would go right down through.
And then that night when they landed…, the Arabs [were there] to help you [and] sell you something. They told us we weren’t that far from a little town.
Now, their word for eggs was erfs (spelled here phonetically), and we got to know that. So when they mentioned erfs we followed them and walked to that town in the dark and then back to the planes in the morning, and had some erfs and wine. And the next morning we took off and went up to the front lines. (This later paragraph is mostly the author’s paraphrase of what Charles said.)
Then after we got done up there (instructing the use of bazookas) then we got to get back to our unit, so then the officer says, “You got to get on this train. It’s an old forty and eight.” It means eight mules and forty men can ride in this little box car. Forty and eight. You see that, I think, when you have some [American] Legion things doing now you have the forty and eight (meaning that many of the American Legion posts have Forty and Eight signs posted in them). He said, “You stay in this car and eventually it will get you back to your unit.” We didn’t have any…, not much food. A few K-rations or whatever, and straw in the bottom of the thing. I don’t know what we used for a restroom because it was just a railcar, unless they had one corner or somewheres or something.
So what you were doing is going up and training other people to use the bazooka? Yeah.
And you had enough bazookas with you, you handed it to them? You had a lot of ammunition and stuff on the plane with you? Just that ton.
So you actually gave them the bazooka and the ammunition as you trained them? Yeah. What they did with it or how it went…. ‘Cause we just got out of there, and I don’t know how many days it took us on the train. And it was cold, too. It was in December, and no heat.
That was 1942? Yeah. After, yeah, after we landed in ‘42, then this was in the winter of ‘42, from December until March (December 1942 through March 1943). So then . . ., first I flew up to the front lines and then back on the rail car, and then I walked over the same territory again to get back to the front lines.
But then it was interesting. That was Christmas, and we had been up there and we was coming back by train, and we got in Algiers and I got—I know I was all by myself, because there was only six of us and when each one of us was in this box car then, of course, we were all together—but when I got to Algiers I wondered where I could go. I found a Red Cross sign, or whatever, and went there. That was a big, tall, two or three story building, and there was a Red Cross woman in there and I could spend the night there, she said. So that’s what I did, slept on a marble floor. And that was Christmas, Christmas night. The next day I went back and found the train and then got on the train and went back. And we did hook up with the outfit. That was quite an experience before we ever got to fighting.
Then, in March, we joined the British Army; then we had British rations to live on. So that’s when we started fighting in North Africa.
Did you serve under General Patton at all? In Europe.
Not in North Africa? No. No, we were under Bradley, General Bradley (General Omar Nelson Bradley). In Alexandria (Egypt), I guess, was the British general. But there was…, fighting was just as bad there as any other place, I guess. We lost lots of men. That’s where I got the Bronze Star was on....
We lost one whole battalion to the Germans, must have been just like a mountain pass, and then to let them walk into there; and that’s the last they ever saw of that bunch of men.
Was that Kasserine Pass? Yeah, it was Kasserine; it was right in that area.
(The Battle of Kasserine Pass was indeed a disaster for the Allies. Although many of the British involved were seasoned fighters, it was the first major battle for the Americans, and in the case of the Battle of Kasserine Pass, unlike that at Safi, the Allies were up against Rommel’s hardened Afrika Korps led by none other than Rommel himself. The Americans, on the other hand, were led by Major General Lloyd R. Fredenhall, the II Corps commander, who proved woefully inadequate as a general, even staying a full eighty miles behind the front during the battle.
In addition, not only were the Americans green with little formal training, but few had ever seen any actual combat prior to the battle. Added to this, the tanks used by the Americans were inferior to those used by the Germans, both in armor and in the size of the guns they mounted. The German tanks could not only outshoot the Allies’ tanks, but the Allied shells would not even pierce the armor of the German tanks. The Allies also had little if any air support compared to the Luftwaffe, the German Air Force, which quickly proved to have near total air superiority over the battlefield. If it wasn’t for the British scavenging up a make-shift task force on the flank of the Pass giving the Americans time to disengage and regroup at the rear, the disaster would have been even greater. General Fredenhall was shortly thereafter relieved by General George S. Patton.)
And then that took up until Mother’s Day of a…, well then it was ‘43…, ’42, landed, yeah, Mother’s Day we got out of Tunisia, and loaded onto the boats and went to Sicily.
And there…, a lot of soldiers that didn’t want to give up—I suppose they were German soldiers—and they just walked out into the ocean there off the beach, and our airplanes were just strafing them back and forth. There was thousands of soldiers and….
That was Sicily or…? Tunisia…, Bizerte. Dirty Girty from Bizerte (Charles smiles). So that was…, they walked right in…, it was awful; the slaughter. They didn’t want to give up. The Italians, they gave up by the thousands.
Then we went from there to Palermo (Sicily), and that night at Palermo we got bombed all night long. I don’t know how they missed . . . missed our boat. There was ships burning. Then they had little…, I can’t think of the name of them little ships that laid smoke screens. They tried to keep the fire from showing from up above.
We survived that one. Then we got off there, and then we went fighting in Sicily.
So you were on a ship during the bombings that night? Yeah. That’s when we left Tunisia, left Bizerte. Then we had Berlin Betty, she was the propaganda gal from Germany. She knew every move that we made. She’d come over the radio. She’d tell us where we were and where we were going. She’d say, “Don’t think you’re going….” She says, “You’re getting paid in Pounds.” So she knew we were going to England.
So you guys went back to England after Sicily? Yeah. We were waiting in Sicily. We were right on the airport in case they were needed in Italy. We were right there and everything was ready in an instant. We could get on a plane and fly into Italy. When everything ended there, then we were all in England. Then we knew what the next thing was.
So were you involved in D-Day? No. I had mumps about a month or so before that so I was in the hospital. So that saved me. Our unit was.
Because we had landed before and had been in Sicily and other places, we were in the back-up (the reserve forces), so we were not in the initial landing.
When you landed in Safi you landed on destroyers, and when you went to Sicily you walked off the boat. So you didn’t land in the Higgins boats then? No. We didn’t land in the landing boat. Whatever ship we were on, I don’t remember.
(Designated a Landing Craft, Vehicle, Personnel [LCVP], a Higgins boat, named after its designer Andrew Higgins, was the small, wooden, flat bowed boat—the bow would drop and be used as a ramp for the disembarking troops and light vehicles—that was commonly and extensively used throughout the war by the Allies both in the Atlantic—specifically D-Day—and on the many island hopping campaigns of the Pacific Theater to carry combat troops ashore during amphibious landings.)
So after D-Day, after you got over the mumps, then what did you do? Then, oh, we were in the hospital, and then they took us out of the hospital and put us in tents out in the country.
So then I had to get back to my own outfit. But there was lots of reception centers, or whatever you call it. And then you would go there and then they would…, they flew us over to France, to St. Lo. And our unit had gone up to Cherbourg (France) and they were on the way back to St. Lo. And the plane landed near St. Lo and I got off there. And then I got to my unit.
But that day they were…, and the war was going on and the planes were…, our planes were bombing the Germans. And they didn’t have the means we do today—they’d put markers out. Airplanes would fly in and drop smoke bombs where the bombers should drop the bombs.
Well, that day we had a good strong wind coming in inland, and where they landed me the smoke was going over us and went all the way back to our supply regiment. And they were, our planes were bombing our own men and even getting our headquarters. So I got a good reception.
But then I did hook up with my unit, and that was at St. Lo in France. And that’s when I got to be in charge of my platoon again—had a few soldiers left and some new ones.
Did they land on D-Day as back-up? Yeah. And then they went all the way up to Cherbourg and back down to St. Lo. And that’s where I met up with our regular 9th Infantry Division, the 47th, my own company and my own soldiers that were under me. A few of them had been killed up in Cherbourg, but there were some there yet. That’s where I got under Patton (General George S. Patton). There we loaded on tanks, we road on the outside of tanks. And he just said, “With your blood and my guts,” he said, “we can do anything.” So we did, we went through France. They said we had more German soldiers behind us than we had in front of us. We just cut a swath right through there.
What did you think of Patton? He was a good leader, he was some fighter. Well, he was…, some places like they didn’t like him. They said at one time, probably all of you heard it too, that he stopped the ambulances and said his tanks had to go through. Whether that was true or not, I don’t know. I imagine it was, ‘cause the ambulances were in his way so he told them to get out of his way and let his tanks through.
So then…, anyway, this was in July when we got to the Meuse River. We went through France and Belgium. And that was awful to see the…. When we’d go through these towns they had an American flag and a German flag, so when the Germans were in town or went through town they’re all waving [the German flags], then the Americans come through they were all out waving the American flags. We had lots of skirmishes there…, the bombs or shelling.
Then we got from France to Belgium and to the Meuse River separating Belgium from Germany. And we crossed the Meuse River, and that’s when I got hit. Big shells from the Siegfried Line could reach us then, so that’s when…, that was the end of it for me.
(The Siegfried Line was built, at Hitler’s orders, during the 1930’s opposite the French Maginot Line. Like the Maginot Line, it was a stationary fortress that contained more than 18,000 bunkers, tank traps, and tunnels, and stretched nearly 400 miles between Germany and France.)
We crossed the river in a boat and then up to some higher ground, and there was some trees. Whether the shell hit the trees or it was time set to go off in the air or what, I don’t know. We had just—something we were told [was] never to bunch up—so there was four or five of us. We got a trench or a place dug so we could sit and put our feet down. I don’t remember if there were four or five of us. Anyway, they were all killed except me. My best buddy died there. So after that…, I just got…, my whole left side was all full of shrapnel—there’s still some shrapnel in there. But it just didn’t hit any vital organs, they said.
Then there was some more that was injured and could walk. And then the officer said, “Can you remember where we crossed the river?” So then he says, “Take these two men with you and see if you can find where you crossed, and then you’ll find a First Aid station and they’ll get you back to the field hospital.” So…, I was pretty good that way about remembering, I could always remember directions and where to go. I don’t remember how we got back to the river and just how we got back across. There must have been a boat there or something—I don’t remember getting on a boat—but when I got back I had one guy on each arm. They were older fellas. And when I got back to the First Aid station—maybe they called it maybe the army hospital—when I got back to the hospital then they put me on a stretcher because I had an ankle that was injured and shrapnel in my body. In the field hospital they started operating on taking all the shrapnel out. Then I was on a stretcher, and here I had helped the other guys all the way back there and they put me on a stretcher, and there I stayed for two, three weeks, I guess, in the hospital.
Another interesting thing was when we left the field hospital, then we had to go to England. When we got to Fabroche Hospital outside of Paris, France, there was hundreds of ambulances on this airport waiting. They were all in different lines, and we were all stretcher cases in this particular ambulance that I was in. We saw that ambulances on one side of us were moving and we saw them [moving] on the other side. We didn’t have a driver in ours so we were just sitting there. And after a while somebody opens up the back of the ambulance and says, “Sprechen sie Deutsch?” he says. Here we were in…(he laughs), the dumb driver had left us in the row for the Germans because we didn’t have any clothing on—I just had an army blanket around me—we didn’t have any clothes on or any identification of any kind. But then somehow we got back to England.
I recuperated in England for, when did I get back there? in July. Anyway, we trained, trained troops; I told you earlier, recruits from the States. This was in December of ‘44, the winter after D-Day. We were training the troops.
So you trained the new troops when they came before they went over to Germany. Yes, right at that time the Battle of the Bulge was going on.
Were you still in the same outfit or did they transfer you to a different outfit? No, then I was in a replacement center. My outfit was fighting all the time. They fought all the way through to the end of the war, all the way through Germany. It seemed always to be that if they needed something done first, that’s what our outfit was. The 1st Division from Texas, they were the number one, and then we were in reserve for them. So they were better than we were all the time ‘cause they were number one. The red arrow.
The Big Red One? (Charles nods his head yes). Ours was a pretty insignia with just a round circle with red, white, and blue on it. But they were the Big Red One. That’s where all our cadre came from to train us when in the States, was from Texas. So it was one or the other that was first (referring to either the Big Red One or Charles’ 9th Infantry taking turns leading the way).
So you finished the war out then in England? Yeah.
This was a pretty sickly looking outfit, that six of us sergeants and one officer. He happened to be [a] first lieutenant, and he was from the 1st Division too, from Texas. We had good times. We were in brick buildings in England, and no heat in them. But there was some wood cupboards in there and a fireplace. So there was a fireplace but no wood cupboards left when we got done (Charles chuckles).
After that when they…, must be things were winding down or something, then we didn’t have troops.
And the last group, that was something else. They brought two hundred GI’s that had been locked up in prison for just minor things, but they were all prisoners, yah know. They brought those two hundred in one group and put them…, they stayed in…, we didn’t stay with them in the barracks, they were in theirs. And they had some good old times out there. But they minded pretty good. And we trained them, and they were good soldiers.
And when they were all done, the first lieutenant says, “Now you can all take a furlough,” and give them passes to London. And we thought (laughing) “well, that will be the last we’ll ever see of them.” I think all but one or two of ‘em actually did go and came back.
Then I was in charge of another building, which I never will know what that was. There was an officer in charge of it and he turned stuff over to me and a fellow from Pennsylvania. They all had certain jobs they had to do, but we couldn’t tell them to change jobs or whatever, they had their jobs. And I never did find out what outfit it was. And I could write the passes for them to go into London. But he (the lieutenant) says, “So and so has that job.” And we very ever saw him or anything.
But then the guys worked in the kitchen—we never had to go out for chow, either. They always brought everything we needed right to the room. So we lived pretty good there, and we could go to London every once in a while.
So from there then we came back to one reception center after another and then come home. Flew home. We were the last plane to come home because they divided us up into planeloads.
From Birmingham, England, then we went to Scotland—and Scotland is where the planes left for the States. And they had Quonset huts in Scotland. And they had a…, each Quonset had just a planeload of soldiers or any troops that were ready to go home.
So you were actually able to fly back, you didn’t have to take a ship back? No, we flew back. But then nurses and officers and…, if they had rank over us so they could bump us. And then they could go and…. Of course, then gradually everyone that got bumped got put in a different plane.
So there were only thirteen of us left. And we’d been there for a few weeks when every day at 4 o’clock in the morning, get up and go…,“No, so and so, you go back.” So there was only thirteen of us left.
Then that was on a big four engine plane. We would just jump from Scotland to, what comes next? Iceland or Greenland and Newfoundland. And then we stopped at each one when we needed fuel. But there was only thirteen on the great big four engine thing. And they said that was the last plane that was flying out from there and it was done. But the war was going in Japan by that time.
So this was 1945? Yeah.
What was is it like for you when you heard the war in Europe was over with? Oh, I guess then we were thinking we were all going home. But then a lot of them went right to Japan (the Pacific Theater) instead of going home. But because I was in England—and then in this replacement center—a lot of them got home before I did that way.
Were you able to fully recuperate after your injury? No, I’m still classified disabled, twenty percent or whatever. I have a fragment right in the bone of my ankle.
Do you get a pension for that? Yeah.
From the VA (Veteran’s Administration)? Yeah.
So you are able to go to the VA hospital then? Yeah. Medication I get from the VA. I go to Beaver Dam (Beaver Dam, Wisconsin, is located approximately ten miles southwest of Waupun).
Does Beaver Dam have a VA hospital? No. Just a…, it’s the old hospital in Beaver Dam. That’s where the rooms are. Madison or Milwaukee would be the hospital. So far I haven’t…. Every two years we have to have a physical so we can get our medication. (Madison, Wisconsin, the State Capital, is approximately, fifty-five miles southwest of Waupun.)
Did you get any furloughs during the war? No. Three years overseas—I only got home once…, that first year I guess, in December. And I never got home again after that until I got out.
Had Waupun, had the area changed by the time you got back from when you left? I really don’t recall much change. All I know, my sister graduated from eighth grade when I went in service and she graduated from high school when I come home.
(Jim Laird asks): Chuck, you went on the labor market right at the end of the Depression market here at home, you know, the Great Depression, and you said you went to work at one of the shoe factories… The Ideal Shoe Company.
(Jim Laird): …was it hard to get employment or were you able to get a job fairly easy? Fairly easy.
(Jim Laird): Because I know the CCC was during that era…. Yeah that was going on.
(The Civilian Conservation Corps, or CCC, was established on 19 March 1933 by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt as a federally funded work release program for young men designed to combat unemployment and poverty caused by the Great Depression. The CCC established camps around the country to house the men as they built roads and parks and conducted other outdoor construction work. Numerous CCC camps existed throughout Wisconsin during this timeframe.)
(Jim Laird): So a lot of the people were employed through the CCC and so forth. Yeah.
(Jim Laird): And when you came back did you go into farming immediately? Yeah, started right in where I left off.
(Jim Laird): Did you go on your parent’s farm? Yup.
(Jim Laird): Was your parent’s farm electrified, did they have electricity there? No. For some reason or other Highway 26 didn’t have a high line until in the ‘40s.
(Jim Laird): In the southwestern part of the State where my home is, all of the farms and things did not have electricity until the late ‘40s early ‘50s. So then farming was very, very different pre-electrical days. Oh, yeah. Hand milking, turn the separator by hand, pump water by hand.
(Jim Laird): Did you still have horses instead of tractors? Oh, yeah, sure. I guess as far as that goes, times haven’t changed. They were pretty rough when we were gone with rationing and everything, so.
(Jim Laird): Were you married before you went? No, I’ll let Nova tell about that (looking at his wife, Nova, who is sitting just off camera from him, and laughs).
So after the war you came back and started farming your dad’s farm, your parent’s farm? Yeah, with my dad.
And you eventually took that over? Yeah.
When did you get married? About as soon as I got home (he chuckles). I got home on what? July 31st, I guess, I got home, and we got married the fourth of August, I guess.
Who did you marry? Nova Vellema, Nova Wagner.
And that was 1945, so that was actually before the war was over then, before the Japanese surrendered. So you were out of the Army then? Yeah.
Did they discharge you because of your wound? No, they were discharging people at that time. Quite a few.
Did you have any children? Now we have.
How many children do you have? Four children.
Boys and girls? One boy, three girls.
Did any of them serve in the military? Yup. Son did. Dennis.
What branch of service did he serve in? In the Army. Then he got into truck driving. He was a truck driver in Germany. He didn’t go to Japan, or the South Pacific, he went to Germany.
So he was in the service around the Vietnam time? During Vietnam (nods his head yes).
But he didn’t go to Vietnam? No.
How long did he stay in, just a few years? Two years probably, I don’t know. (He looks at Nova for assistance who then states, “Probably just the two years.”)
Do you have any grandchildren? Yeah. (Nova states: “Ten great-grandchildren.”) Grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
How many of each? (Nova states: “I have to count.” They spend a minute or so counting them all. We finally, all laughingly, come up with and agree to eight grandchildren and ten great-grandchildren.)
Was there anything else you would like to tell us? No. I guess it was a good experience. I learned a lot.
Did you join any of the VFW (Veterans of Foreign War) or (American) Legion or any…? Legion. They just gave me a sixty-year certificate this last week. (Charles pauses in thought.)
It was rough, but it was interesting. Something we’d never do otherwise. Saw a lot of country when you put down all the countries I was in. All the things we saw.
(Jim Laird): You were in some pretty tough battles. Yeah. I never thought I’d come out of it. I prayed a lot, I’ll tell you that. I wasn’t a church go-er before; I didn’t know what praying was like. But I just prayed anyway whether I knew what I was doing or not.
I can still remember some of them nights in Europe. You could hear the tanks rolling around and the other guys was trying to dig a hole to get down in; some of that ground was so hard. I was more or less—maybe I got reckless—I didn’t dig anymore. You know, you couldn’t get deep enough.
I remember that one night when…, I knew they weren’t our tanks, you could hear them rumbling along during the night. And then that…, whatever happened, it must have been a shell—I never heard that noise in my life—whistle through there. I didn’t hear the blast or the muzzle blast or anything. That was the awful-est noise. I always remember that. I know I was praying pretty good when I could hear them. And these other guys; I could hear the other guys’ shovels scratching and digging and trying to get in a hole.
When we were with Patton we rode on the tanks—mainly to protect them from infantry attacking them—so at night everybody got as far away from that tank as they possibly could because that’s what drew the artillery fire. I always remember that.
Could you tell the difference between the sounds of a German tank and an American tank? I would think so. The guns are the main thing. Ours go bop, bop, bop, bop; and puuurrrrp, puuurrrrp, you’d hear the German’s (the puuurrrrp being the German machine guns).
Did you ever use a BAR (Browning Automatic Rifle)? Yeah. We had one…, that was another thing, that was M Company…, or no, one soldier in every company was a BAR man. That was something to carry that big thing around and then ammunition for that. That would fire faster. Otherwise our machine gun, .30 caliber, just seemed to hop along.
(The M1918A2 Browning Automatic Rifle [BAR] is a hand held or bipod supported, .30 caliber, light machine gun designed in 1917 by John Browning and used extensively throughout the Second World War and after.)
(Nova then hands Charles his shadowbox containing his medals, including his Bronze Star, to show. Charles explains that he did not know he received the Bronze Star until a few years ago when he asked for and received replacement discharge papers, having lost his original copies. His new set of discharge papers included his receipt of the Bronze Star Medal for bravery incurred during the Battle of Kasserine Pass.)
Is there anything else you want to tell us? No, I sure don’t regret it. Of all the countries I’ve saw…, not when you see on TV things…, you know, when I was there, like in Sicily—we didn’t talk much about Sicily—but I saw Mount Etna, the lava covered grounds in Sicily. And the Sahara Desert.
(Nova states to Charles: “You didn’t mention when Rommel’s outfit moved out you were sent….”) Yeah, that was in North Africa. Then I probably wouldn’t have been here. That’s when I got this star here (pointing to his Bronze Star Medal). We were on this great big…, more or less a mountain I guess is what it was, but it was chalk. Whether there is such a thing as chalk mountains or…, it wasn’t stone, it was chalk. We tried to dig in that, and finally we did get about deep enough we could lay in. And we were on that for weeks. We could always hear these tanks in the distance. And we had like wadis we called them, like washouts. Only they’re quite deep, thirty feet deep, sometimes maybe twenty feet.
We saw a lot American tanks—this was in the Kasserine Pass—where they had fought, and U.S. tanks were down in there ‘cause you couldn’t tell there was…, it just looked like level ground but went straight down (indicating that the tank crews couldn’t see the wadis and just drove into them). And we were on the back of this hill, you know, mountain, and every day about 4 (o’clock) in the afternoon then they start dropping mortar shells, because not being flat trajectory they couldn’t get in there because we were on the back side. But mortar shells; they could drop them down in there. And every day somebody would end up with a mortar shell in beside them. Once in a while a mortar shell wouldn’t go off and he’d wake up with a mortar shell lying there beside them. But I survived that one.
But then to get this Bronze Star; that day they said we were going to take off and make a sweep around to the…, go back and come around on the side, to see if we could get through. We no more than started to this first wadi and they just dropped shells galore. And that’s when a lot ‘em were killed. And that afternoon everything was quiet, and the rest of our company stayed on the—we didn’t all go—they stayed on the hill. And I went back from where we were pinned down, all the way back to where the rest of the company was. And then I told them (laughing)—and there wasn’t a sole stirring, I could have walked in there and shot the whole works, they were all down tight—but I found my way back there and reported to the company commander what had happened. And he said, “Well, wait ‘till tonight and then we will go back and get the wounded and the dead.” That’s where I got this Bronze Star was that I went back. And the officer that told me, he says, “I’m putting you in for a Bronze Star;” well, he was killed that night. So that’s why I thought I’d never get the Bronze Star. But then he must have somehow had it written down somewhere, so I got the Bronze Star. So I was pretty lucky.
Thank you for the interview.
* * *
What is your full name? Nova Etta Wagner.
Where were you born and when? On a farm in Green Lake County…, about all I know about it. (The southern most part of Green Lake County, Wisconsin, is approximately eight miles west of Waupun.)
What day? August 19, 1920.
Who were your parents? Edwin Wagner, and my mother’s name was Clara Belle Hare.
Do you have any brothers and sisters? Four sisters. I had two older and two younger. I was the middle one.
Where did you go to school? My first grade was started in Brandon School in the village. Then we moved and went to a country school for all eight grades. I graduated from that school and then went into Brandon High School.
You graduated from high school? From Brandon. And from there I went to Green Lake County Normal for two years.
Was that a college? When I think of college I think of a four year stint. Then it was the Green Lake County Normal.
(Jim Laird): During this era it was very common that just about every county ran ‘normal’ schools, and two years was enough to become a teacher. My two sisters before me both went to the same county normal, and so the three of us are teachers.
(Normal schools, based on and named after the French concept of École Normale [normal school], which in turn were based upon German teacher schools, were first created in the United States during the nineteenth century. They were designed to train teachers to teach in the primary, or elementary schools—first through eighth grade—and, as such, were normally only two-year schools. Some normal schools, most all of which were located in rural areas, would go on to evolve into four-year teacher colleges, some even eventually into universities.)
What grade did you teach? All eight grades, one through eighth.
Where did you teach? I started at Monroe Country School at Alto Township. (Alto, Wisconsin, is approximately six miles west of Waupun.) I stayed at Monroe for three years and then I moved to another country school (near Brandon) for two years. And my last job was teaching first and second grade at Oakfield (Wisconsin, approximately ten miles east of Waupun). That’s what I was doing when he (pointing at Charles) came home.
When you went to the country school, from first to eighth grade, was that a one room school house? A one room school.
And the schools that you taught at, were they one room schoolhouses, some of them? Two of them, then at Oakfield [it was multiple roomed].
Now, the Monroe school in Alto, that’s not there anymore, is it? No, they tore it down. That was my favorite school. The parents were so wonderful and just a great…. I’m still in contact with some of them.
I know some of the one room schoolhouses they turned into houses. Yeah, I think so. Where I went to school it was a red brick country school, and they tore that down too.
What was is like for you growing up? Oh, I had a good family. But we were very poor. My dad farmed only because that’s what my mother wanted him to do. That “The only place to raise a family was on a farm.” And yet he was not a down-right farmer, but he did it for her. And the last farm we lived on was just out of Brandon.
I know we walked to high school. My mother was so much for education that she wanted her girls to all get an education, and my dad saw to it. We walked to school on the snow banks in the winter to get to school.
How far was that, do you remember, that you walked? (Nova looks to Charles for assistance, who says, “Two, three miles, maybe, one way. She walked to high school too.”) Yeah, I mean, I walked to high school too. We always walked to country school.
What were you doing in the 1939, 1941 timeframe, just before the war? Teaching school and keeping house for my dad. My mother passed away when I was sixteen. So we kept house.
So you lived with your father then. Yeah, and he was a good insurance agent when he died. That was his work. He gave up farming after our mother passed away. Then we moved into Brandon.
I did a lot of babysitting for people in Brandon. I worked in a restaurant. What else did I do in Brandon (thinking)? That’s in the summer when I wasn’t teaching. I always kept busy.
Did teaching pay much back then? Well, to me it was a lot of money because we grew up without money, and then to think you could earn your own, it was…. I remember my first car.
(Charles asks her: “How much did you get a month?”) It started out, I think, with $90.00 a month, and then the next year they give you $5.00 more, so it never was…, in those day it probably was big money, but today they frown at it.
Were there male teachers back then? Yeah, there were two boys in my class at the county normal, and they were both teachers. Do you know Bill Finland (asking Jim Laird); he ended up here in Waupun. He died of a heart attack. And the other one moved out to California and I don’t know what became of him.
Do you remember what you were doing when you first heard that Pearl Harbor was attacked? Just routine housework and teaching. I remember it so vividly.
Do you remember hearing that Pearl Harbor was attacked? Yeah, that’s all there was…, everybody was talking.
(Charles asks her, “Where were yah?”) At home with you and dad.
Did you hear about it on the radio? I don’t remember, exactly.
What were your feelings when you heard that? Scared! I just knew it would mean more young men would be called on and I had brother-in-laws, my sisters were married, and both of them were in the Japanese War. But they both came home.
Do you remember what other people were saying about the attack? How they were feeling? The overall, I guess, opinion? I don’t know how to express how they felt. I talked with a lady in Markesan who lost a son in Pearl Harbor. And when you talk to those people, it was tough. It’s still no different than when he left (motioning to Charles). (Markesan, Wisconsin, is approximately twenty miles northwest of Waupun.)
You knew each other before the war? Yeah.
How did you meet? My next sister to me was teaching school in his school district on (Highway) 26, and once in a while on his way home from work he’d stop and visit with my sister at the school after school, and she really connected us. I went to a PTA (Parent Teachers Association)…, yeah, that’s what they called it…, a parent teacher…, and my sister asked me to go along with her to her meeting, and that’s where I met him and his parents. From then on it just materialized into our life together.
(Charles: “But we didn’t date then.”) No, our first dating didn’t…, they had what they called…, what did they call it? (Charles: “Citizenship Day, when you became…, must be eighteen.”) Twenty-one (replies Nova). (Charles: “County-wide, they had [a] parade and floats. But when they had the war all that disappeared. But anyway, her sister Dadilay was the same age as I am, and she was on the…, we were getting ready to build a float to be in the parade in Fond du Lac.) So my sister encouraged me to go along with her to help build the float. It was on a farm out of town. And he was there, and he asked if he could take me home. And that was the first time that we ever did any much talking, and it just grew from there.
(Jim Laird): Were you both in the Grange? We didn’t join the Grange until after we were married. His folks were good Grange members. My big thing at that time was the 4-H club. I was general leader for that and I did a lot of work for them. And I enjoyed every bit of it.
What did you do during the war? Well, teach school. And then summer time when I had vacation I worked in a factory in Milwaukee that was making the cores for Walkie-Talkies. That’s what I did, was help make batteries for Walkie-Talkies one summer. Another summer I worked in Ripon [in] a factory that was making shells for the Army (Charles interjects: “Casings.”). (Ripon, Wisconsin, is approximately twenty miles north of Waupun.)
It was interesting that there was a factory here making shells, shell casings. (Charles states: “Speed Queen, the washing machine factory.”)
I forked cans for the canning company one summer too, in Brandon.
Do you remember rationing cards and using them? Oh, yeah, gasoline, sugar. And, of course, our home didn’t have a mother doing the usual cooking and baking, we girls managed everything. But we didn’t blend much with sugar so I turned some of my rations over to his mother (motioning to Charles). So that we helped everybody out, so.
Were you engaged then? We became engaged when he came home for a weekend from the camp.
I always donated blood for blood banks when they were around.
Was that the Red Cross? Red Cross (nodding her head yes).
Was there anything in the Waupun area that you noticed that changed during the war? Rationing, that was the big thing. Then there were so many items you couldn’t purchase that you were used to…, clothing.
I remember someone telling me about nylon stockings; it was very hard to get nylon stockings. Oh, it was. That was a big thing. My dad would even…, he wasn’t the kind that would just go out and buy stuff for his girls, but he somehow managed to get nylon stockings once in a while, and that was such a treat.
(Jim Laird): Were they nylon or silk at that time? Well, must have been silk. I don’t think we had the nylon then.
(Jim Laird): Did you have electricity in your rural school that you taught in? Yes.
(Jim Laird): But did you have a furnace or did you have a stove? I had to build fires, we had a center stove.
(Jim Laird): It was in the center of the room? No, mine was always in the back corner.
(Jim Laird): When you got there in the morning you had to… Start a fire.
(Jim Laird): …start a fire and heat the building for the kids. But I was real fortunate to have young men living across from the school, and they would go over and build the fire for me on cool days before I got there. Both schools in the town of Alto they did that for me.
(Jim Laird): Now, I would guess that you did not have running water, you probably had a pump outside? No, the water had to be carried. Some farmer would bring the water to school. And you had these big earthen water coolers, and that’s what you put the water in.
(Jim Laird): That’s why everything was so labor insensitive but so cooperative. I would guess that the kids had to go outside for the potty? Yeah.
(Jim Laird): Now, were there two or did they share the one? They had a boy's and a girl's, they were separate. My first school the mothers would take turns making the hot dish for the school for the children at noon when it was so cold, and we would heat it on the top of the stove in the building because there was no way to plug in anything. That was appreciated.
(Jim Laird): Do you remember the School of the Air in Wisconsin? I went to a city elementary school, and there, I believe it was once a week, they’d turn on the radio, a man would come on, and that was our lesson. And he’d give instruction over the air. And that’s how we got a lot of our training and things. That was a big thing. Yeah, I used that occasionally.
(Jim Laird): How many typically would be in the room (referring to the amount of students taught in the one room schoolhouses)? I started out with eleven children in that one room. That’s all I had.
(Jim Laird): But it was over eight grades. All eight grades.
So you had brother and sisters in the same classroom? Yeah. And then the next school I went to, it was all boys but one. I had one girl. And that was probably around eighteen [students].
How big of an area did the schoolhouses cover? A township. No. (Charles interjects: “No, not a township.”)
(Jim Laird states): A section? (Charles replies: “No, more than a section. There were probably, what? three schools in a township. But they lapped over too.”)
(Jim Laird): You talked about living at home while you taught. I believe it was sometimes customary that the teachers would live with [the] parents. And I have had people tell me about their dad was on the school board, and the teacher would live in that house with them for a month and then move on to another school board member’s, and so forth. No, I never had to do that, I was able to drive to come to school.
I was going to ask you, did you have a car or did you have to walk back and forth? I remember my first car. My dad helped me purchase it. And I drove. And in the winter times; sometimes the roads wouldn’t be cleared for me to get through. And I can remember getting the chains out of my car and lying on the ground putting the chains on my car so I could get through the snow. And one time I had to walk the rest of the way, and by the end of the day my car was there. I left the keys in it and one of the good people along the road brought it up to me. They were wonderful people, all of them.
(Jim Laird): Did it have an electric starter, or did you have to crank it to start your…? No, electric.
Then in the winter time—I lived in Brandon with my dad—I rented a spot, what is now the meat market (Charles interjects that, “There was a Chevy garage there.”). That was a garage then, they rented a space for me to keep the car warm at night so I could start it in the morning.
So they took care of their teachers pretty good. They do, yeah.
(Jim Laird): They took care of each other pretty good. You know, that was the sense of cooperation throughout the country. Even to this day I see some of them first people and families. They still remember me.
(Jim Laird): Did you have a telephone in your school? My second school had a telephone. Not the first one.
Did you have a telephone in your house? Yes. (Charles relates: “The farmers owned the phones. They put up the wires and kept track of them, repaired them.”)
(Jim Laird relates): The telephone during the war until immediately after the war…, most of your phone companies were locally owned. And they talk about the man who owned that phone company in Brandon, Waupun…, had somebody that would audit…, my hometown one man owned the phone company. And eventually they were bought up and bought up and bought up until they were pretty much corporate owned. But back in those days…, I’ve been told that originally they didn’t put up poles but they actually ran the telephone lines on top of fence posts. Do you ever remember that? (Charles replies, “I don’t remember that. We had poles. Then we had switchboards, like in Ladoga, the grocery store had a switchboard. You could plug in like people from one line to another. Another one had…, between Oakfield and Waupun, she had it in the house. You call the operator and she’d plug it in from one to another.”) (Ladoga, Wisconsin, is approximately 7 miles northeast of Waupun.)
(Jim Laird): Everything was party lines.
I remember even when I was growing up we had a party line. They could listen in on us and we could listen in on them.
(Charles: “Each one a ring, one ring was…, and everyone knew whose ring it was.”)
And that was only thirty years ago, thirty-five years ago. (Charles: “Yup.”)
(Nova): I remember we became engaged that one time you came home after you were drafted.
(Jim Laird): Now, you wouldn’t have had children until after the war, but were your children born at home or in the hospital? In a hospital.
(Jim Laird): But it was probably Clark and Swhartz or was it…? No, actually Nancy was supposed to be the first baby born at Waupun hospital, that’s what Doctor Hollowood was hoping would happen, but it didn’t. She was about the fourteenth, fifteenth baby. The first two were at St. Ages (St. Agnes Hospital is in Fond du Lac).
(Jim Laird): Now, did you have inside plumbing at home or did you have to go out to the back yard? On the farm it was always the back yard. We moved into Brandon, then we had waterworks. That was quite a thrill when you lived without it all your life.
But he (Charles) only had one furlough home on a weekend; otherwise I didn’t see him for pretty near four years. But I wrote to him every day. But he wouldn’t get it everyday. (Charles states: “I didn’t get it every day, I mean, once or twice [a] month, that’s all.”)
So would you get a bunch when they showed up (talking to Charles)? Then we had V-mail.
(V-mail, standing for Victory mail, was a way of condensing the size of letters to assist the delivery of the enormous amount of mail going to and from the war-front. Written on special flimsy paper forms, the letters contained a limited amount of space for writing and then folded into their own envelopes. It was then microfilmed to be sent overseas. Once overseas, it was “blown up” to its original size prior to being delivered to the servicemen. This process greatly reduced the amount of mailbags, along with the precious amount of space and weight these mailbags required to deliver much looked for mail to the servicemen. )
(Jim Laird): Now, were you aware that he was injured before he came home? Yeah, he wrote and told us about it.
(Jim Laird): Well, that must have been quite an experience to be here and to know that he was hurt there. (Charles: “Instead of like it is now, now it’s on TV practically when it’s happening.”) I think of all those that it’s happening to now, the young people that are separated.
(Jim Laird): Did you have to go back and finish your degree? I had a two year degree at the County Normal, and then I went back for a summer school in Oshkosh because our daughter was going there, so it was convenient for her to help me get through the ropes in a bigger school. (Oshkosh, Wisconsin, is approximately twenty-five miles northeast of Waupun.) And I took a summer school, and that brought my credits up enough so I could teach in Waupun. So I taught sixth grade at Washington (Elementary) School part time; I taught half days. The principle wanted relief to do his duties. And then from there I did teacher aid work until I called it quits. But I enjoyed every minute of it.
. Samuel Eliot Morison, History of US Naval Operations in World War II, Vol. II: Operations in North African Waters, as quoted by Brad Smith, http://navweaps.com/index_oob/OOB_WWII_Mediterranean/OOB_WWII_Casablanca.htm, accessed on 1 October 2007.
. “V-Mail,” http://postalmuseum.si.edu/exhibits/2d2a_vmail.html, accessed 27 October 2009.
Morison, Samuel Eliot.
History of US Naval Operations in World War II, Vol. II:
Operations in North African Waters
, as quoted by Brad Smith,
http://navweaps.com/index_oob/OOB_WWII_Mediterranean/OOB_WWII_Casablanca.htm, accessed on 1 October 2007.
“V-Mail.” http://postalmuseum.si.edu/exhibits/2d2a_vmail.html, accessed 27 October
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.
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