Andrea Manoiu: This is an interview with Colonel Robert Lauffer. The date is March 15, 1995, and the interviewer is Andrea Manoiu. I guess, to start off, I want to ask you a little bit about your parents. Where did they work? What did they do?
Robert Lauffer: My father was a banker, and my mother was a housewife, a good bit of the time, but she also worked in a seminary, the Bloomfield Seminary. She was the comptroller financial officer. After my brother and I went to high school, and then to college, she down to the seminary and worked there for quite a few years.
AM: You were born in Newark and then you moved to Passaic.
RL: I was born in Newark, and I moved to Passaic when I was about five years old.
AM: Okay, so you were really young.
AM: How did the Depression hit your family? How did that affect you?
RL: It hit us quite hard. The bank closed where my father worked, and he was out of work for quite a while. That necessitated my working my way through Rutgers.
AM: Did you work at all in high school, or just in college?
RL: Yes. … I worked in a textile plant for a couple of years during high school.
AM: What about during college, what kind of work did you do?
RL: I worked in the cafeteria daily during my four years at Rutgers. In addition, I performed labor on the college farm and compiled statistical data on records at the poultry farm to pay for my room in the attic of the agriculture building. During my senior year, I worked evenings from 2200 to 0600 at Fink Meat Packing plant. The job consisted of carrying meat carcasses from the freight train to the packing plant and paid a most desirable one dollar per hour.
AM: In high school, you were very active in athletics. Were you thinking of sports as a career?
RL: Yes, well, I played professional baseball later on.
AM: What was Rutgers life like?
RL: There was a much smaller population than there is now. … It was pretty small and you knew everyone …
AM: I wanted to ask you, where were you when you first heard about Pearl Harbor and what was your reaction to that?
RL: I was in my room, and I heard it over the radio. The next day my roommates and I went down to enlist.
AM: What made you decide on the Marine Corps as opposed to the other armed forces?
RL: It was the toughest.
AM: I understand you were in the officer training program. How were you selected for that?
RL: Well, initially, when I signed up, you had to have a certain time in college, and I was accepted.
AM: What about your roommates? Did they also go into the Marine Corps?
RL: No, we went in different paths …
AM: What was training camp like?
RL: Very tough.
AM: What were the sergeants like?
RL: … They were tough, pretty tough. There was a lot of profanity …
AM: You were an athlete. Did that discipline help you at all?
RL: Oh, yes. I was a lot heavier then. I weighed around 210, no fat. I was able to do pretty well.
AM: About how many of the men who went into the program came out?
RL: You mean completed it?
RL: I would say about twenty-five percent dropped out.
AM: It was a tough program.
AM: I understand you were also trained with the First Airborne Battalion at Camp LeJeune, North Carolina.
RL: That was brief.
AM: What did that involve? I'm not too familiar with it.
RL: Basically, I was with the infantry …
AM: Tell me a little bit about that. Was your first mission in the Marshall Islands? Was that your first assignment?
AM: What was that like? Tell me a little bit about that.
RL: We were fortunate. It was a relatively easy operation in comparison to the ones we did later on. It only took three days to secure the area. We sustained mild casualties.
AM: How did that feel? I mean, what were your expectations of the war before you went in and then after your first assignment?
RL: Well, we were trained and prepared to experience heavy casualties. Part of our training was when one man was hit, or dropped down, the next man moved up and took his place. You had to be ready to accept the responsibilities.
AM: I understand that happened to you at Iwo Jima.
AM: How close were you to the major? What was your relationship with him? On Iwo Jima, I understand, he was killed a few minutes after the attack started, and then you took over. You had just been promoted to captain.
RL: Actually, he was severely wounded shortly after landing but died later aboard the hospital ship.
AM: What was that like?
RL: We landed on Beach Yellow Two, which was in between Suribachi, on the left, and high ground, on the right. The volcanic ash made it difficult to traverse the area. Our phase line projection for the first day had an objective of about one-third of the island, which was not achieved. We were pinned down and had diffficulty reaching the end of the first air strip before dark.
AM: How did you feel being in charge of that for four weeks?
RL: Several days after the landing, we were in such bad shape, we were just trying to reorganize and get squared away. I got a call from the battalion commander, who said, "You are going to go up and take over the Love company, the Third Battalion, Twenty-third Marines." He said, "They only have a second lieutenant up there," so I went up and took command of the company, and they were ready to jump off in ten minutes in an assault.
AM: How did you feel about other branches of the service? How did you feel about the Army, for example? I understand there was quite a bit of friction between the Marine Corps and the Army.
RL: We had rivalry, but we didn't have too much contact with them.
AM: I also understand that your unit in the Marianas, in Saipan and Tinian, were given a Presidential Citation for being the first unit to take over an island from which Tokyo was bombed.
RL: In the Marianas.
AM: Yes, that's impressive. Did you feel proud, or was it just basically, you were doing your job?
RL: We had other Presidential Unit Citations, and we even had a citation out in Vietnam … so it makes you feel good.
AM: What were the Marianas like as opposed to the Marshall Islands? You said the Marshall Islands were a somewhat easy victory.
RL: The Marshalls was an atoll. I don't know if you're familiar with an atoll, but it's just a string of little dot islands, and it's a large coral reef. Let me show you some pictures of these to try and give you an idea. I have these books that are just over here. You can see a map here. You can see what it looks like. The main advantage of taking Roi-Namur was that you had a beautiful harbor for ships to come in that was more or less secluded by this reef around the entire series of islands. As you can see, it's just a little spit, about a half mile long.
AM: So how different was that from the fighting you did in the Marianas, in Tinian, or Saipan?
RL: Well, there's a difference. The Marianas, Saipan was roughly fourteen miles long and about six miles wide, with some extensive rocky areas and a few cane fields. On Tinian there were no cane fields. … They were just larger islands. Iwo was about five miles long and about two miles wide at the widest part. That was a hell hole.
AM: During that time, did you ever doubt Allied victory over all?
RL: Oh, no.
AM: You always knew we'd come through, no doubts.
RL: Never. Even when we were digging in at Iwo, just holding on. Never. I never felt that.
AM: What was you relationship with other men in your unit, either other officers, or men under you? What were they like? Where were they from? Tell me a little bit about them.
RL: Of course, you had a different relationship with the enlisted. You wouldn't be, you couldn't be, quite as close, but you were with the other officers. When you have the opportunity, you'd have a closer relationship. One of my oldest friends lived here in Vista. He passed away, unfortunately, a few years ago, but we spent all of our time going through the Fourth Division together. Each individual company would have its seven officers in the company, and we would be relatively close, but you didn't always have the opportunity to get together with the other officers in the battalion, depending on where you were located. But, occasionally, we'd get together when we were in the Hawaiian Islands, during our training periods and we'd had a lot of fun there.
AM: What kinds of things did you do on your time off, or in between assignments?
RL: You mean in the islands? Well, in those days you didn't have any mainland liquor as we called it, they only had the island rot gut. You could get some beer out there, but that's about all that was available. And you had a few bars out there, where you could get steak and eggs and have a few drinks, but there weren't too many places in Maui then. It's quite a resort now, but it was really out in the boondocks in those days. Beautiful, but secluded.
AM: What about the civilians in the areas where you were? What was their reaction to US forces?
RL: On the islands, you mean?
AM: Anywhere. Yeah, I guess on the islands.
RL: They were very good. Of course, there weren't that many around, but the ones who had stores were always friendly. The prices were really different. They could make more money on the troopers, but they were okay. After each operation, we went back to Maui. That was our rest area. We would get new troopers to replace the casualties.
AM: I wanted to ask you, what was your opinion of the Japanese before you went into World War II, before you went into combat?
RL: Nothing. In fact, I worked with a Japanese fellow at the cafeteria. He was a great guy.
AM: Did that opinion change at all?
RL: No. His name, as I recall was Tashio Hashizume, and I used to call him "T. Hashowitz." He was a great, wonderful guy.
AM: I've heard that's a big problem. A lot of people, who had fought during World War II, have very strong opinions against the Japanese.
RL: We hated them when we were fighting them. They were tough. They were tremendous soldiers.
AM: Did you at any time wish you were fighting other groups?
RL: Oh, no. It didn't make any difference to us. I mean, that was our job, and that was what we were supposed to do. No, it didn't affect me at all. I like the Japanese. My wife and I spent a lot time in Japan later on, and we've got some real friends, Okinawan friends. But I do say one thing. It really burns me up, this Smithsonian apology, with the plane bit. I don't apologize. I don't feel I have to apologize for anything we did. They were ruthless bastards, and I don't want to cut that out. But, as for now, they're good people.
AM: I think there's a totally different aspect when you're looking at someone in battle, as when you're looking at someone as a person, as a civilian.
RL: I like the Orientals, all of them, but they were ruthless. They were tough. So we don't have to apologize. We shouldn't apologize for what we did. After Iwo, we went back to Maui and refurbishing again. They had an order out that they wanted five or six captains who were experienced company commanders. Being an experienced company commander, I was transferred to Guam, and we went down to Guam to take over rifle companies down there in the Third Marine Division. Intelligence indicated a million casualties could occur. I don't feel funny at all that they dropped the bomb. That would have been another first wave for me, because the Third Marines, the regiment I joined, had been on reserve on Iwo Jima. They didn't land on Iwo.
AM: What was your reaction when the bomb was dropped? What did you think? I understand that you have no regrets about it, but what was your first thought? What had you heard about the bomb before August of '45? What was your reaction afterwards?
RL: Well, as soon as we heard this might shorten the war, we were very pleased.
AM: Did you have any expectations of how massive it would be?
RL: We had heard about it, but we didn't know in advance. It just came out. And when the second one blew, we had a pretty good idea. But they did a job on Pearl Harbor, there is no doubt about that. When I went out to Pearl Harbor, going in by the ship, it was still littered, sunken ships all around the area. I could see quite a catastrophe.
AM: What was your reaction to VE Day?
RL: We hoped it would help all the people over in Europe. Troops were needed in the Pacific, so I was all for it. When we left Iwo, there was no indication that the fighting would end quickly. We were just landing on Okinawa, and that was a long, hard campaign. So when they started talking about landing on the Japanese mainland, we knew how vicious that campaign was going to be.
AM: Tell me a little bit about the end of the war. Where you were? What you were doing? How did you feel?
RL: I was down in Guam with the Third Marine Division. We were training hard to get ready for this campaign at Kyushu. Of course, we were delighted, overjoyed.
AM: What was your return home like?
RL: Pretty good, really good. [laughter]
AM: Was there an adjustment period to being back?
RL: I had some good liberty time in San Francisco. In those days, I wasn't married or anything. No, I don't think there was a tremendous readjustment.
AM: You also mentioned before that you fought in Vietman. How did you get involved in that conflict?
RL: I was recalled for the Korean conflict and stayed in all the way through. I moved around considerably with a variety of assignments. Most of them were with the infantry.
AM: What were the basic differences between World War II and Korea and Vietnam?
RL: Well, it was a different type of combat. In World War II, you had certain areas in which we had to overrun beaches. They were fortified to the teeth. We had to pound them and then eject them from their positions. I was late in Korea, so I can't give you much information about that, but in Vietnam, we had an enemy who wouldn't stand up and fight normally. They would fade away when we came in to fight, so we had to use cordons. We would surround these people, and, unfortunately, we had to dig them out of the holes. So it was entirely different from the Japanese. The Japanese set up their defenses and fortifications, and then they stayed in there until the bitter end.
AM: What about the different equipment, different weapons you used between the three?
RL: Of course, the choppers, the helicopters, were the big improvement in Vietnam. We utilized them tremendously. We could cover areas that were fifteen miles, twenty-four thousand meters. We could drop troops, entire battalions of troops in a relatively short time.
AM: What about other weapons you used?
RL: Of course, the artillery we used was much improved. We still used the naval gun fire of sixteen inch guns that were used in World War II, though. They were newly refurbished. They refurbished the battleship New Jersey now. Basically, the weapons were improved but didn't change that dramatically.
AM: Going back quickly, following your return from the war, I understand you played professional baseball with Boston and with Chicago as an outfielder. What was that like?
RL: That was pretty good. It was wonderful, actually. I wanted to do it. But then I, unfortunately, hurt my leg, and it slowed me up a lot.
AM: Had that always been your dream, to play professional baseball?
RL: Oh, yes.
AM: At Rutgers, you were a husbandry major.
RL: Yes. Well, mainly poultry pathology. I would like to say, Dr. Beaudette was a very fine gentleman. He taught poultry pathology. That was my major.
AM: You worked at Penn State and other universities. What exactly did you do as a poultry specialist?
RL: Well, I utilized what I learned from Dr. Beaudette and a few other professors. As a matter-of-fact, when I retired from the Marine Corps, I managed a large ranch right out here, a few miles away. At the time, it was the second largest in the world. There were three million birds. It was something to do after I retired.
AM: I guess you enjoyed that.
RL: Yes, I did.
AM: What brought you to California?
RL: The climate. The beautiful weather. It's beautiful out here. … My wife is coming in.
Louise Lauffer: Hi.
RL: This is Andrea … Louise.
LL: Oh, hi.
AM: Nice to meet you.
LL: I'm a frazzled shopper. [laughter] You didn't have any trouble finding us out here in the country.
AM: No … got here okay.
LL: Good. Well, at least you gave her something to drink. I'd hoped you'd remember your manners from Rutgers. Well, I left a few things in the store, not much.
RL: You did?
AM: You said you and your wife have returned to Japan since.
RL: I was stationed out in Okinawa. We've been back to Japan a couple of times since then. But I was stationed out in Okinawa, and I brought my wife out for two months. I took some leave out there, and we toured around Japan and some of the areas. And she came back, and she lived with an Okinawan family for the rest of the time she was there.
AM: What was that like?
RL: She could probably tell you more about that, but it was interesting. The individual was a contractor. He did some work for the Marine Corps, and I had approached him about getting a place for my wife to stay while she was there, and he said, "No problem. I think I can arrange it." So I didn't look anymore. When it came up to the time that he was going to provide the place, he said, "I don't have any place, but I want you to move in with my family." So he built a little space for my wife and I to stay, and we had a wonderful time. His wife didn't speak English, and my wife didn't speak Japanese, but between the two of them, they had a great time, and they both learned a little of each other's language.
AM: What about your other trips back to Japan?
RL: I went back. I was the Marine representative on the Olympic team in 1964. The games were held in Tokyo. I went back then. We led the military marching, and one of my assignments was to coordinate the marching into the stadium. Now they don't march anymore. They just sort of fall out together. They had quite a few Marines on the boxing team, and I worked with them a little bit. As a matter-of-fact, the boxing coach was Freddie Lynn, a master gunnery sergeant. So I worked with them a little bit, something to do with sports, so it was interesting.
AM: Anything else? Any specific memories?
RL: Not really. My wife and I have been fortunate enough to do a lot of touring after I retired. We traveled the world quite a bit.
AM: Where have you gone?
RL: Well, she can fill in …
LL: About ninety countries we've travelled around since he retired.
RL: We've been to places like Sri Lanka, New Guinea. I went back to Vietnam and Cambodia and Laos.
LL: Japan, we like the Far East. Any place that we were allowed to go. And [we went to] China twice. We made two extensive tours of China. The first one was in '79, when they first opened the door, and then we went back again in '86. We went all the way, cross country, to Urumche, where you can spit to Russia and Afghanistan. You're right on the border of those two countries there. That was an experience. [We were in] in South America, Europe, Russia. The only place we haven't been in Europe is Norway. We almost got caught in Iran when the revolution started. We were in the air, ready to land. We took a 747 PanAm, and they diverted us because that's when they had captured the 747 and they weren't allowed to leave. And we were the next plane coming in. Of course, we didn't know the reason. They just announced that we had to be diverted to Frankfurt, Germany, and then we continued on. Then we went back to Turkey, and then we got to Yugoslavia. It's a shame because of what's happened to that country. So then Greece, and then we got into Bulgaria. That was an experience in itself. And in the British Isles, we had so much fun. Of course, New Guinea, he picks very unusual places to go to.
AM: That's wonderful, though, to see so much of the world.
LL: Well, we kind of thought that after thirty years of the Marine Corps … When he retired, our daughter graduated from college the day after he retired, so it kind of coincided. And his parents were still alive and well enough to care for themselves, so we had about ten years when we could do what we wanted to do. So that's what we decided, to see what there is to the world. We went down to Borneo and to Malaysia and New Guinea. And we had birthday party on the Sepik River. The Marine Corps, if you're not familiar, they have their birthday party the tenth of November. It's a very traditional thing. So we got forty passengers on that ship and very few Americans and, of course, only one Marine, so I talked to the tour guide, and I said to her, "Happy birthday." And she said, "Is it your birthday?" And I said, "No, it's the Marine Corps' birthday." She said, "What's that?" So I explained to her the traditions of this Corps' birthday. So, not telling him, I put the words of the Marine Corps Hymn down for the captain of the ship, who played the organ. He had like a piano-organ in the bar, and so I hummed it for him, and he could pick it out. Then we had cake, with the Marine Corps colors on it, and we didn't have a sword, but we had a big knife. And we cut out tin foil to make the sword. So that evening, we had just come out of the jungle, and it was wet and raining, and I said, "Go put on something to freshen up." But we couldn't wear shoes on the ship, so we wouldn't drag in anything from the jungle. Everybody else knew about this, but my husband was sitting up there, and pretty soon, the captain of the ship came in. And he looked at me, and he started playing the Marine Corps Hymn, and he jumped about ten feet in the air. And our crew members had gotten a drum in the jungle that afternoon, a tom-tom, a native drum, and they did have an American flag, so the whole crew lined up and they marched through the lounge. And he was playing the Marine Corps Hymn. And the few Americans, who were there, they were singing the Marine Corps Hymn. And so my husband said it was the first time he stood at attention in his bare feet. But that night, we had a very nice dinner, and they brought in the cake. And the tradition was to cut the cake and give it to the oldest member of the crew, and then the next piece goes to the youngest member, so the tradition continues. The oldest member of that crew was a widow on that ship, so we did the whole thing. We had a good party that night. It was fun. People who don't know about Marine Corps tradition don't understand that it's a very special thing to the Marines. The other services don't have that kind of a tradition. So we've had Marine Corps birthday. We had one in the Borneo, too, and different places. We always try to do something, but that was the best one, on that ship, in the middle of the jungle. So that was fun.
RL: I have to show her the picture of the cutting of the cake.
LL: Oh, they have to see the war room. It's got all of his momentos from the Marine Corps … in the war room out there. Are you … at Rutgers?
AM: … I am.
LL: I used to work in New Brunswick, at Middlesex Hospital there. I lived in Edison. Are you from New Jersey?
AM: I'm from New York. Actually, I am originally from Europe, but I grew up in New York.
LL: Our daughter lives in New York. She works for HBO. She loves New York City.
AM: Where in New York City does she live?
RL: West 106th Street.
LL: Right off of Riverside. She likes it. That's what's important.
AM: Does she come out and visit often?
LL: Yeah, usually at Christmas.
AM: I guess, since you are both here, tell me a little bit about when you met.
LL: I met him in church.
RL: Not very exciting.
LL: I met him at a church dinner. I was working in Massachusetts … They said they had good church dinners at St. Philip's, all you can eat for a dollar. So he went over there for this dinner-dance and saw me there, and he asked who I was. He asked his landlord if she knew me, and she was a member of the church, so that's how he tracked me down. It's not very exotic, the way things are done these days, but he was determined. That's how we met. We were married about six months after we met. I was finished with school, plus he was out of college by the war, and the war came, and I graduated from nursing school.
AM: Where did you go to school?
LL: The Memorial Hospital, Worchester, Massachusetts. It seems kind of far fetched … Right now, I'm working for a plastic surgeon. I should retire.
AM: If you enjoy what you do, that's what's important.
LL: It doesn't restrict us too much. I can get off whenever we travel. My boss does't mind. But he's from Worchester, Massachusetts, also, so that works out pretty nicely. We can come and go as we please, which is pretty nice.
AM: Are you planning any big trips coming up?
LL: Well, we've been looking.
AM: Is there any place left that you haven't seen?
RL: Nothing that appeals to me right now.
LL: Well, the only place I'm looking, and he doesn't want to go there because it's cold, is this trip up the regional coast to the Antarctic Circle, a steamer that puts in at all the different ports. But he's kind of unsure. A friend of ours wanted to go to Antarctica, and he said, "No way am I going down there."
RL: I'm not going to pay to freeze. [laughter]
LL: He's not going to go to all this penguin stuff. The one place we haven't gotten to, we tried twice, is Egypt. His aging mother was with us, and she bacame very, very ill the first time we were going to go, so we had to cancel. And the next time, we were set to go, and Desert Storm came about, so that was cancelled again. Right now, the State Department doesn't recommend Americans go to Egypt, because tourists, not only Americans, journalists, and other tourists are fair game. They shoot them. I mean, it's as simple as that. They'll attack the buses, so we don't want to go. It's bad enough in Cambodia to get shot at.
RL: Oh, we didn't get shot at. We were there for a few rounds, a few mortars, you know.
LL: About three weeks later, they burned down the big market place and killed about thirty-four Vietnamese, and they took over the airport. It was being guarded by the police contingent of the UN, I guess. I don't think we want to go back there right now, but we were treated, even in Vietnam, there was no animosity towards us. They want the money. They want the American dollar, and they want the Americans to come back. We built them roads, they didn't have any roads. They have no airplanes. The only airport was the one built by the Americans. It looks twenty-five years old and needs to be refurbished. The bus driver said, "Come back and build us more roads." … We were supposed to fly out one day, but the plane crashed, and they didn't have another one to take its place. And it took us about, 160 miles, two days, because you only could go about ten miles an hour. But the people were nice. We felt no fear, felt no animosity. Even the Laotians, that was the biggest surprise. Laos is a very up and coming country, more progressive than the Cambodians or the Vietnamese. We thought that would be the worst. It wasn't. They go across the Mekong to Thailand, and Thailand is very booming. Then we got into Burma, but that's a very closed country … We only could stay seven days, and there are only certain places they'd let you go in. It's still that way. If you fly in, you have to fly out. If you come in by boat or by land, you have to leave the same way. It's like flying through Bangkok. He thinks of these places to go.
AM: It's got to be very interesting, though.
LL: Well, I mean, it's an education you can't get out of a book. Not when you get down in the market places, meet the people, and see the way they live and talk to them. But you have to be willing to get dirty and wear good shoes.
RL: It is not fancy living.
LL: It is not fancy living, and the accomodations are very austere. You're lucky if the water works. You're lucky … You have to be willing to put up with that type of thing. We did that in Africa, when we went down there. Kenya was very British. It still had the British influence, which was nice … [There are] no roads. You just hang on and go. But the people were nice. The Kenyan people were nice and were interesting … The Sri Lankans were the ones who wanted to know about America, about the United States. They thought we were Australian, because they don't see Americans. Because he's tall, and my hair is light, they assumed we're Australians. "We're Americans." I just said, "USA," and they'd understand we were Americans. And they said, "President." It was Reagan at the time, and they said, "Oh, yes," giving a two-handed thumbs up. That they knew from the movies. That was kind of interesting to us. Bob is quite good at picking up a little bit of language here and there, so he always learns enough words of their language.
RL: Hello. How are you? How much? Too much. [laughter]
LL: Where's the water closet, you know, different words so you can carry out a conversation. You'd be surprised how much you can do. And if you don't, you just smile and go. They don't get angry at you. He loves to bargain, and the Far Eastern countries are perfect for that.
RL: You have to.
LL: You have to bargain.
RL: For survival.
LL: For survival, for survival. We've been to Hong Kong many times. It's just a pretty good city. It will change in '97, I'm sure. He hasn't been idle. And every now and then, you've had one of your executive officers was a Rutgers graduate.
LL: Wally Heyer.
RL: Wally Heyer.
LL: We've known him …
RL: I hadn't seen Wally Heyer since I graduated. He was a couple of years behind me. And one day, he reports in to the First Marine Regiment, the regiment I was commanding. He came in as my executive officer.
LL: Then you have Vince Kramer, he's another Rutgers [graduate]. In fact, he was the head of the Alumni Association for five years. He just retired a couple of years ago. And then there's the other guy from Rutgers, a friend of ours, Nicholas Dennis.
RL: Oh, Nick.
LL: Dennis. Nick Dennis. He was from Rutgers. You know, you cross paths with people in the Marine Corps more frequently than with other services because it's small, so your duty stations cross more frequently than say …
AM: Okay, I guess that's it.
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Reviewed by Kathryn Tracy 1/22/01
Reviewed by Sandra Stewart Holyoak 1/24/01
Edited by Col. Robert Lauffer 4/2/01
Edited by Kathryn Tracy 5/16/01