Wartime During Peacetime

 

The following interview with Jerome Wszola, World War II Veteran and my grandfather, was taped over the phone on March 13, 1999. At the time, Mr. Wszola was enjoying the warm climate of Gulf Shores, Alabama with his wife Geraldine ... a far cry from the harsh Michigan winters found at their permanent home in Dearborn, Michigan. My goal was simple: to remove a person during 1999 peacetime and place him back into the chaotic, war weary years of World War II ...


 

Briefly, state your name, your background ... a brief biography.

You mean as far as the background in the service?

Starting from where you were born until right now.

Okay. Well, this is Jerry Wszola, and I was born in Detroit, Michigan on July the 24th, 1926 ... and I come from working class parents ... and went through Catholic grade school and high school ... and I joined the Navy at age 17 in World War II and served for two and a half years before I was discharged in June of 1946. And after that, I was stationed ... during my military career I was stationed in San Diego. I was stationed in Treasure Island, San Francisco, and Tiburon, which is in California ... and I was in the Medical Corps. And I was also stationed at Corona, California, which today is, I understand, a woman’s prison now. And then I was pulled back into the service in 1950 and I was shipped to the Philippines, in Subic Bay ... during the Korean War. Then I was discharged because I was a sole survivor of World War II.

Oh really?

Yeah. My older brother, who was killed in the Air Force in World War II. He was reported missing and they never did find his body. And they discharged me after the Korean War. And until this day, I mean ... I got married, had a family, and of course you’re one of my grandsons. And I worked for all the years as a pipe fitter. And then I became a superintendent ... and I worked construction jobs, whether it be a blast furnace or a coke oven, or just commercial buildings and commercial plants. And that brings us right up to this date. And I have ... well, for a while there I moved to Canada after I retired and lived there for fourteen years and found out how another government and place worked and how it worked to live in ... and that’s about it.

Okay. You said you were seventeen when you joined the Navy?

I was seventeen years old when I enlisted in the Navy.

What prompted you to join the Navy?

Well, everybody else -- all my friends -- were all in the service already ... and it got pretty lonely in the neighborhood. Everybody was gone and I figured, "Well, what’s the sense in stickin’ around?" For the simple reason that I joined the Navy was when the government had passed a law in January of that year that ... if you weren’t enlisted in the service or anything, you were gonna’ end up as a foot soldier in the Army, and I didn’t want that. I wanted to go in the Navy ... so I enlisted in the Navy.

This is before World War II when you enlisted?

No, no. This is during World War II.

During?

America got into the war on December the 7th when the Japanese bombers bombed Pearl Harbor. And that’s when America got into the war. The war had been going on since 1939 and ... America got into it in 1941.

Do you remember where you were when you heard the news about Pearl Harbor?

Yeah, I was listening to the radio ... which was, I believe, on a Sunday night ... around 10:30 at night when I heard President Roosevelt come on the air and say that Pearl Harbor had been bombed by the Japanese and that a "state of war" was gonna’ be set between the United States and Japan ... and the Japanese envoys were in Washington at the time, trying to figure out something to do. But they had ... the Japanese had joined Germany and Italy, called the Axis, you know?

Right.

Then that automatically put America in the war against Germany and Italy and Japan.

How did that make you feel ...

How did that make me feel?

Yeah ... some of the people we have read have expressed that it made them sort of feel differently toward the Japanese ...

Well, I think I felt just like any other American! You felt bitter, and you wondered why did they have people in Washington trying to settle something between the United States government and the Japanese? And in the meantime, then go ahead and bomb and kill all these people without any warning. So I think I felt just like anybody else ... bitter toward the Japanese ... and towards the Italians and the Germans, you know, as to what they were doing throughout the world.

Do you think there was a perceived different attitude towards the Japanese? Different then from the Germans or Italians?

Well, I think between the Germans and the Japanese, the feeling was the same. The Italians, they [we] kinda’ figured they were just, more or less, a pawn in the war. But the Germans and the Japanese, of course, everybody ... they couldn’t figure out all the atrocities that were taking place throughout the world. Like all the American prisoners that they took in the Philippines ... they had the Death March of Bataan. And then, of course, all your concentration camps in Germany and Poland ... and all over that Germany had started, and were trying to annihilate the Jewish race. So, this became a big part as far as the feelings of all other people throughout the world.

Do you think that racism was a key factor in the war ... on both sides?

Well, it was a genocide, as far as the Germans were concerned. They wanted the ultimate race of what they wanted ... blue-eyed, blond Germans. And the Japanese, they just wanted to conquer the world. They started the war with China and that was still going on when World War was going on.

There are just some people that we read that have said that ... in some respect ... the Americans might have had a slight racial tendency toward the Japanese ...

Oh yeah ... in the respect that all the Japanese Americans that lived on the West Coast ... of course, they interned all of them into camps. And took whatever they had for fear that these Japanese were gonna’ be spies in America during World War II.

How did you feel after you heard that the Germans surrendered and the Japanese continued to fight?

Well, they [we] figured the Japanese were gonna’ fight because they were voracious fighters during World War II. When you’d read stories about the various islands and the way the Americans were goin’ at it, island by island ... they [the Japanese] wouldn’t give up! They didn’t give up ‘til the atom bomb was really dropped on Japan. And when they found out that this had happened, then their own troops just laid down their rifles. They didn’t want their own homeland destroyed.

Right ... which is what was happening.

That’s what was happening ... in Osaka ... and Hiroshima when they dropped the atom bomb. It just obliterated two entire cities.

Did any of your feelings towards World War II influence how you perceived Vietnam or Korea?

Not really. I felt like General MacArthur did ... that when in Korea, they could have ended it had they let him go all the way up to the Yellow River. But they didn’t. They made him stop at the 38th Parallel. It seems funny, anymore than Korea, er, rather Vietnam ... that America just was, like, playing a game. And not really wanting to win the war. And they couldn’t do this, or they couldn’t bomb, or they couldn’t do anything. And yet, our people were being killed. There was a bitter feeling as far as a lot of the veterans, who felt that, why send these guys over there [Vietnam] if they can’t fight the war the way it should be fought?

A few more questions about the war. You were discharged after two years?

Two and a half years.

What was the reason behind that?

Well, they went on the "point system" after they were cutting down on the military. You had to have so many points ... in other words, for every month that you were in the service, you got so many points. And how long you were in, you got so many points. And if you were married, you had so many points. For all the children ... if you had ... each child was worth so many points. And that’s how you got discharged. By the point system.

And you were serving in the Pacific?

Yeah.

Could you briefly describe your experiences there?

Well, it was different ... as far as the living standards, and the people, and just the island itself. A lot of poverty.

Which island are you talking about?

Uh, well, the Philippines, for one. And some of the other islands, there was nothing left on ‘em ... after the war, after they had cleared the Japanese out of there and the Americans left ... it was just an atoll, then. There was nothing there, except in the Marianas, where they were testing the atom bomb.

So you were there after the war was completed?

Yeah. And there was a lot of, like, landing craft ... like these little LCM’s and all of that ... just wrecked on a beach and left there. You know, the Americans never went back and got it. It was all left there.

Did you take part in any of the American invasion of Japan after the war?

No.

Any combat duty?

No ... very little.

Very little?

Yeah.

Just scattered on the water, I would assume ...

Yeah. I sailed on what they called, "the Military Sea Transport." We transported the Army and any Navy personnel that were goin’ into the islands ... and we would make "the round robin" of the Pacific. Hit all the ports, all the way, and then come back the same route.

Describe how it was when you returned to the United States. What was the attitude on the homefront like?

I don’t know. I think the people, after the Korean War ... I think they were more complacent. The feeling for animosity wasn’t there, as far as ... like during the Vietnam War, where you had all these people getting in these protest marches and all of that. For some reason or other, during the Korean War, they didn’t do that. And nobody knows why or ... I guess it was just the "hippie" culture, or whatever it was ... the "flower kids" during the Vietnam War that started all the uprising.

So the attitude after World War II ... you think was similar to after Korea?

Uh, yeah. I would say so. The public wasn’t so outspoken during the Korean War as they were during the Vietnam War. They just thought, "Well, we’re there for a reason ... to patrol something and help somebody else." What they were scared of ... that the Chinese would get into it and we’d have the same situation that they had with Japan and Germany.

I’m just concentrating on after World War II ...

Yeah.

The whole country was mobilized ... there were War Bonds ... it seemed that there would be a greater adjustment after the war effort was completed.

No, I don’t think ... it seemed to me, at least this is my own opinion, that America ... the transition period after World War II just went along real smooth. They went from war to peacetime manufacturing. Likewise prior, when the war started, they went from peacetime activity to wartime activity ... and they seemed to marshal the whole country as a whole, to get everybody goin’ ... like War Bonds and the plane factories and the shipbuilders. Everything just skyrocketed.

Especially in the Detroit area.

Well, not only Detroit area, but on each coast ... as far as the shipbuilders ... and even down around Texas. Wherever the sea ports were. [Henry J.] Kaiser opened ‘em up, and he was throwin’ out troop transports one after another.

How did you feel when you heard the atomic bomb was dropped?

Well ...

I know in hindsight you probably look at it differently, but ...

Everybody ... I think when that happened, they felt sorry for the people, but by the same token, they were glad that this was gonna’ end the war. Often the discussion was, they [the bombs] killed a lot of people, but I think they’d [the Japanese] have killed more had the war kept on goin’.

If you agree with the use of the atom bomb, then why drop two?

That’s a good question, as far as why drop two. I think their thinking was that they could kill their fleet in one city, and harm another city which was a big seaport that kept exporting their troops and all of that ... this would help end the war in a hurry. And the thing is ... they were warned. They were warned that either they stop the war or else they would be obliterated. It wasn’t that they just went and dropped it without tellin’ ‘em. They were told weeks ahead of time.

But it appears that no one knew the exact consequences of the weapon they had used.

Well, no. But they knew it was gonna’ be ... you know, probably thinking that, uh, when somebody says, "Oh, I’ve got a weapon of mass destruction," you kinda’ let it go by the wayside and think, "Well, they’re just blowin’ steam," or something like that. But the people, like at Los Alamos in New Mexico where they tested this bomb long before they dropped it ... they knew what the result would be by dropping this thing.

Do you think a part of the American psyche was remorseful after dropping the bomb ... and this led to some of the atomic, Cold War hysteria over the bomb and whether the Russians would use it on us?

I think it affected a lot of people ... when they seen what had happened. I think everybody was remorseful ... that, "Jeez, why did they have to do it?" I don’t think it was a question that everybody was just sittin’ back, sayin’, "Well, that’s good. They deserved it." I think a lot of people, especially your older people and religious groups ... they all felt, why annihilate an entire city with one bomb? So ...

How do you feel about how Roosevelt handled the war? Do you think he did a good job?

Oh, I think he did an excellent job. He did an excellent job in the way he got the people together and just told them, "It’s something that you [the American people] got to fight for. Because if you don’t, we’re gonna’ lose everything."

It appears to me that this was probably the last time in American history where the entire country was so unified as one ...

Oh yeah. Definitely. Definitely because, when the war started, I mean, they [Americans] were just standing in line to enlist -- women as well as men. Everybody ... the women, if they couldn’t go in the service, went and worked in the factories. Like in the airplane factories, and the tank ... like Detroit! All your tanks were built in Detroit. All your bombers were built in Ypsilanti. It was just everybody pulling together.

Do you recall any specific films making a distinct impression on you during that time? Whether from Hollywood or ...

Most of these films that were produced were produced about the war. Depicting what was going on at the front ... like Movietone News, at the time, which showed just clips of various things, like, the war in Italy, and North Africa with Rommel, and all the troops ... when they landed D-Day in France ... and all of that.

Did you find any of these films useful?

Oh yeah. I thought they were. In fact, one of the best films that I think I would like -- and in fact, I think you can still buy it today -- is called Victory At Sea.

I think I’ve seen it.

They used to show that every Sunday afternoon after the war, and I think it was one of the best films ever made ... as far as depicting the Navy end of it ... of the war in the islands and also in Europe.

Do you remember any specific Hollywood films? I know a lot of people who were in World War II usually laugh at a lot of the John Wayne or Gary Cooper films that came out at the time.

Oh yeah, like ... I guess the film [The Sands of] Iwo Jima was a big one. I can’t specifically name names ... there were so many films that were made about the war. I mean, they were just good films to see. What it was, was a deal to upspur [sic] the patriotism and get people really goin’.

Do you remember specifically what types of films they showed you as training for the Navy?

Oh yeah. They would show you, like ... when you were gettin’ ready to ship out overseas, they would show you various films about the people that were there ... where you were gonna’ be going. And also the various diseases that you could contract over there ... and how to treat these people ... and different things if you want to ask for something.

So they showed you a lot of films in training?

Oh yeah. Quite a few.

Quite a few?

Yeah. Quite a few. And then, of course, you had your films that you’d have to identify aircraft and ships. They’d show you silhouettes of an aircraft and you’d have to study it. And then they’d flash ‘em on the screens and show you what type of ... whether it was a Japanese Zero or German Focke Wulf ...

Right ... it’s funny that you mention that. I think I’ve seen that actual film with Ronald Reagan in it! A young Ronald Reagan. ...

Yeah, uh-huh!

A funny film ...

Right.

Did you bring back any relics from the war?

No. Some of the guys did, but see ... what they would do when you were comin’ back ... they would go through all your gear. And really, you weren’t supposed to bring anything back. And if they [other servicemen] did bring it back, they snuck it back ... because a lot of the guys, like from Germany, were bringing the German Lugers back ... the handguns. And some guys would bring home part of a German, uh ... what do you call it? ... German uniform. And in the Pacific they were bringin’ back these Japanese rifles.

Really?

Uh-huh.

And then selling them?

Well ... they were cuttin’ ‘em down to use as deer rifles and stuff like that.

Did you see either Saving Private Ryan or The Thin Red Line?

No, I haven’t. I’d like to see it, but I haven’t seen it.

Why do you think that there is ... these two films are getting a lot of attention right now ... why do you think there’s a renewed interest in this subject matter right now, today? In peacetime ... ?

Well, I don’t know. I mean, whether they’re tryin’ to make people aware of what war is really like ... or they’re tryin’ to show them [us], "Look. If we happen to get into a war, this is what’s gonna’ happen." I think it’s just forewarning people of maybe something to come.

Are there any films specifically you can think of that ... regardless of when they were made ... that truly reflect the experience of either a country at war or your experiences in the Navy?

Uh, yeah. I would think the one that was with Frank Sinatra and uh ... I’m tryin’ to think of the film ... it was filmed in Hawaii. It was just about general life ... in general. About how it [the war] affected certain families and certain people ... but I can’t think of the name of the film that he was in. It was an Academy Award [winner] ... that the picture itself. From Here to Eternity!!!

From Here to Eternity?

Yeah. That was the one. And I think that gave a pretty good picture of what was goin’ on.

Are there any images, or places, or songs, or anything in the present that immediately transport you back to some of the experiences you had during that time?

Uh ... probably ... when you think of some of these songs ... like The Andrews Sisters’ "Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition."

Right! I’ve heard it ...

That was one. And there was one that Jo Stafford made, and I can’t think of the name of it right now ... a song that would bring back memories of World War II. The one that Glenn Miller made ... some ... a patrol ... I can’t think of the other name of it. Those were the songs that would bring back memories. The minute they’d play ‘em, you’d think, "Well, that was in World War II."

In conclusion, what do you think we can take away from your experience from World War II ... and the many other soldiers ... people at the homefront? What do you think we can take away from that war for our future?

What can you take away from that?

Yeah ...

Well, mainly just the mass killings! Bombings and all of that. And of course, the patriotism. I don’t think it’s there today like it was during that time.

Which is sad ...

Well ... yeah, it is sad. People today think nothin’ of burning a flag and all of that ... whereas, during that time if you did that, you ended up in jail. I mean, that was sacrilegious to even do that or even think of it.

It seems to me a much more cynical country now than it ever was ...

Yeah. I think people are more cynical now ... toward government ... than they were. But of course, maybe government has brought that on themself [sic]. People ... they’ve lost a lot of trust in government through the years. They don’t believe that everything they do is right ... anymore than what our president went through now. We know he lied and all of that ... and yet, he got away with it. Which is wrong. I know his personal life is his own personal business, but when he lied about it, then he should have been punished for that.

Well I’d like to thank you for ...

One more thing you may want to write down ...

Oh?

Yeah. In California ... the German and Italian prisoners were brought over. They [United States] didn’t bring any Japanese prisoners to the United States. But the Germans and the Italians ... there was a camp in California [part of The Desert Training Center: California-Arizona Maneuver Area]. And they had all these German and Italian prisoners of war ...

What was the name of ...

... And my God, they were givin’ ‘em liver to eat ... that they could go out ... and some of the women would rather go out with them then with American servicemen. [The camp] was just, oh I’d say, around Riverside, California, at the time. It was an Army base and it was a prisoner of war camp. But they [the prisoners] got treated sometimes better than the American servicemen did.

What was the purpose of bringing them back there?

Well ... I don’t know. And of course, I didn’t tell you I was a First Class hospitalman [sic] ... in the Navy, I was in the Medical Corps. So, maybe that’ll help you. And I used to see some of these guys that were comin’ back, you know, from overseas. The way they were mangled and hurt in the hospitals ... so I got a bird’s eye view of all of that.

Must of been terrible.

Well ... it was. It was shocking to see the way some of these guys came back. But yet, they weren’t bitter.

Interesting.

They weren’t bitter at all. They just took life the way it was ... there may have been some that were bitter, you know, but they never showed it.

An experience like that ... you would assume you would get a different attitude towards life ...

Oh yeah. Oh yeah. You value it more. When you see something like that, you wonder why. When you see some of these guys come in with no legs or one arm blasted right off. Makes you wonder why ...