Kurt Piehler: This begins an interview with Kurt G. Leuser on October 27, 1994, at Rutgers University in New Brunswick with Kurt Piehler and ...
Jim Bongi: Jim Bongi.
KP: I would like to begin by asking you a few questions about your parents. Your father and mother came from Germany.
KL: Yes, so did I.
KP: Why did they come to the United States?
KL: Well, because life was very bad, very, very poor in Germany at the time. It was after World War I, the country had never quite recovered, and, of course, you must remember that the streets in the United States were all paved with gold.
KP: Your family believed that you would have a much better time in America.
KL: Yes, yes, and we did, thank God.
KP: How old were you when you left Germany?
KL: Seven, I'd just turned seven. It was in April, March, I guess, that we sailed, [in] 1927. My father had come over a year before. My mother and I joined him, then, in the spring of 1927.
KP: What do you remember of growing up in Germany?
KL: Okay, I remember we lived in a house, a rented house, a large, brick house, that had been the estate of a wealthy family in the town of Wetzlar, and, at that time, housing was very short, and everybody was required to make available whatever housing there was, so, my parents rented the place. It was a haunted house, complete with a genuine ghost. There was a haunting that happened almost every night. It seems that, backing up just a little bit, sometime before, which might have been months or years, I don't know, someone from the family that owned the home had killed himself, with a pistol to the head, in a room upstairs. That room turned out, later on, to be my nursery. I do have a recollection of standing up and looking over the edge of a crib at the floor, where there was a dark stain, irregularly-shaped, dark stain, they rubbed the oak flooring with pumice blocks, on the pumiced, oak floor, a dark, irregular stain that, eventually, turned out to have been the spot where the man had done himself in. Every evening, at about eight o'clock, or sometime in that general vicinity, remember, I'm going now with the memory of a kid under six years old, came the haunting, which was a series of sounds, the sound of the old switches. In that house, there were the old, turn switches that had to be turned 180 degrees, and then, suddenly, they either opened or closed with a loud, clacking noise. It was this sound, then. Again, in this old house the steps going from the first to the second floor creaked in sequence. Every step had a different creak, and the creaking did continue in absolute sequence. If there was anyone in the hallway at that time, the haunting didn't occur. If anyone went into the hallway, it stopped. The lights never went on or off when the sound came, but, it just was a matter of sounds, the light clacking, the stairs creaking, the steps creaking all the way up, and then, that was it for the day. We never found any explanation for it. We were never frightened of the ghost. We had a sense that it was a friendly kind of a ghost.
KP: That is one of your distinct memories?
KL: That's one of my distinct memories, one of my earlier memories.
KP: As a seven-year-old, did America seem like a very new place to you, with all the skyscrapers and new buildings?
KL: I don't remember that. I don't have a memory of it being new. I know I was seasick for the two weeks that we came here, and I know that people kept telling this little, seven-year-old boy, "Children don't get seasick," and I didn't believe them, and they said, "You can't be seasick." When we came into New York Harbor, this I do remember, we came into, I guess, New York Bay. I was in the cabin, in my bunk, I was sick, and my mother insisted that I come out, and I came up on deck, very reluctantly, just about as we were approaching the Bedloe's Island, at that time, Liberty Island, and the Statue of Liberty, and I do have a recollection of the Statue of Liberty being the first thing that I saw. We did not go through Ellis Island. We disembarked in New York, and my father and relatives met us there, and we took a taxi over to New Jersey, where my father had rented an apartment.
KP: You already had family in the United States.
KL: Yes, yes, a brother of my maternal grandfather lived in the town of Woodcliff, New Jersey. In fact, my father rented an apartment from him and we lived there the first six months that we were in this country.
KP: Your father served in the German Army during World War I.
KL: Yes, he did.
KP: Where did he serve? Did he ever tell you about his experiences?
KL: Oh, yes, he served in the infantry and went through Belgium, I guess, into France. He earned the Iron Cross, first and second class. In fact, he was the first enlisted man to be awarded the Iron Cross, first class. Prior to that, it was awarded only to officers. He was injured and was out of the running for a while, until he volunteered for the Air Corps, the German Air Corps, the fledgling German Air Force. He went through flight training in the city of Hanover, where he became enamored of my mother, and he got through the flight training. He was flying as an observation pilot, the pilot of an observation group, and, while he was waiting to be assigned to a forward unit, why, his aircraft, on takeoff, wouldn't take off, or wouldn't fly. [He] got about one hundred feet off the ground, the engine in those old things quit, and he was injured seriously, came within a hair of losing an arm, but, he didn't, and then, in 1917, he was discharged, and my mother and he were married.
KP: Did he ever talk about what combat was like for him? What did you learn about the First World War from what your father told you?
KL: Emotionally, very little, in other words, very little of the emotion of combat. On one occasion, he was involved in digging a tunnel, a mine. What they did, in World War I, is that they would mine under the enemy trenches. He was involved with that when there was a direct hit of a shell on the end of the tunnel. They were buried, and he and several others were buried, and they dug, and they dug, and my father was the only one who was still alive when he dug out. So, I mean, that left quite a scar on him. Later on, it was on Christmas Eve, 1914, they were under attack from the French. His unit had abandoned its positions and left him, with a few other men, behind. Why? I don't know, but, he was left behind. A machine gunner was knocked out, was shot, and he took over the machine gun, and, in the process of that, he and another man kept the gun running. They were able to turn back the enemy attack. That's where he won his Iron Cross, first class. That's pretty much the extent of what I remember.
KP: Ralph Schmidt's father also served in the German Army. He has a very distinct memory of his father taking him to see All Quiet On The Western Front. Did your father ever see that movie or take you to see it?
KL: I saw it. My father saw it. It was an emotional thing for him, too.
KP: Did the movie remind him of his experiences?
KL: I think so, yes, yeah. I don't remember the movie. I don't remember too much of what happened there, what the reaction was, but, yes, it was not a pleasant memory for him.
KP: I guess he did not talk about the war very often.
KL: No, no, he would talk about it, but, in an offhand way.
KP: What did your father do in Germany?
KL: He was in sales. He worked for a steel company in Wetzlar, Buderus, B-U-D-E-R-U-S. He worked for Buderus. He was in sales. He had been trained in business. He'd gone to business college, and then, I know he had an office at home, but, I don't know too much more about that. I know we had an automobile. We had a car. It was a Hanomag, H-A-N-O-M-A-G, and that's as much as I remember about the car.
KP: When your father came to the United States, what line of work did he go into? Did he have plans before he came here?
KL: He came here looking for a better life. See, at that time, also, there was a new element moving into prominence in Germany, this was 1926, when he came over here, and that, ultimately, turned into the Nazi movement, and my father was very much opposed to that. So, when he came here, it was also partly to get away from that.
KP: When you say that your father was opposed to the Nazis, was he opposed to them politically? Was he a Social Democrat?
KL: He was not politically active, but, he was a man with a conscience, and he was a man who could not keep his mouth shut, so, he was far, far better off coming here than staying in Germany.
KP: What did he think of the rise of Hitler in the 1930s?
KL: Totally opposed to it, totally opposed to it. Everything that Hitler did and said was wrong. In other words, he thought then as we do today.
KP: In the German-American community of the 1930s, there was a large German-American Bund.
KL: Oh, yes, including Rutgers, including Rutgers. We had some people here who were very staunch supporters of the Nazis.
KP: You are not the only person who has mentioned that. Did your mother ever work outside of the house?
KL: Yes. She worked as a secretary. As a matter-of-fact, at the time that she met my father, that my father was flying, she was secretary to the local medical society in Hanover, the Arzteburo. Do you know German, Kurt?
KP: Just a little.
KL: Do you mind if I call you Kurt, by the way?
KP: No, please do.
KL: Please, call me Kurt. When you call me Mr. Leuser, I think you're talking about my father, but, no, she was a secretary there, and, a little story connected with that, there was a visiting surgeon who happened to come from Vienna. Now, for many years, the great surgeon from Vienna, [in German accent] was the greatest doctor in the world. Well, this man was there, was visiting. He was from Vienna and was a marvelous surgeon. He was an orthopedist. My father, when he crashed, I think it was his left wrist, shattered about two inches of bone at the left wrist, and, when he crashed in his aircraft, my mother was notified and she met him at the hospital. Transportation was [at] such a premium at that time that my father, who was able to walk, was put on a trolley car and told, "Go to the hospital." They didn't have ambulances available, or didn't have gas for ambulances, whatever. So, he met [my] mother there and the surgeons examined him and said, "Oh, yes, we'll amputate." Mother, who was all of four feet eleven, said, "Ain't no way," the German equivalent, "ain't no way you're going to be able to amputate his arm." So, she got busy, she got a hold of this surgeon, and he put my father in traction. In fact, within the last couple of years, I saw an item on TV about a brand new technique where they were removing the shattered bone, and then, using traction to gradually pull the bone apart to the normal position and allowing the bone to grow in-between. My father had that surgery done in 1917.
KP: Your parents had met already.
KL: Well, they had known one another, because their parents, my father's father and my mother's mother, had been very good friends.
KP: Your mother and father knew each other before this accident.
KL: They knew each other before the accident. In fact, they were engaged before the accident.
KP: There was a long-standing tie between the two families.
KL: Yes, yes.
KP: After your mother came to the United States, did she work outside of the home at all?
KL: No, she didn't, not at all.
KP: Did you have any brothers or sisters?
KL: No, I'm an only child.
KP: You grew up in Englewood.
KL: No, we lived, first, well, for a very short time in Woodcliff, then, in Union City, from 1927 to '34. In 1934, we moved up to Ridgefield. We lived there, well, until my parents died, in '55. They lived there [until then].
KP: In Ridgefield?
KL: In Ridgefield, but, Ridgefield didn't have its own high school, so, I went to high school in [Englewood].
KP: What did your father do for a living in the United States?
KL: He went to work for a company called Keuffel and Esser. They made drawing-surveying instruments. They had military contracts. They were involved in the development of the Norden bombsight. They were building height finders and range finders for the military and the Air Force. In fact, let me diverge a moment there. [I've] got another story for you. This is October and there are still some of these rather large, not particularly handsome spiders spinning their large webs outdoors and hanging in the webs. Well, those spiders were instrumental in our winning World War II. It seems that, in the defense industry, they had not been able to get thoroughly accurate cross-hairs in their optical instruments. They couldn't engrave them, and they discovered that the web of these spiders, first off, was very strong, secondly, was absolutely perfect in diameter, and they used that. They pulled a couple of spider webs across the eye piece to give the cross-hairs. Well, there was a woman working for my father by the name of Mary, and I cannot recall her last name at the moment, who collected spiders. Every fall, she would pay the kids, the plant was in Hoboken, she would pay the kids in Hoboken ten cents a-piece for spiders. Kids would go out, and they would go out with the little matchboxes, the rigid boxes, not the folding match covers, and they would collect spiders, one in every one of the boxes, and Mary collected them. Then, she would take the spiders, and she had a rack that she turned, or a series of racks, where she would attach the spider web to a part of it, and then, turn it, so that the web unwound on that, and those were stored, so that she would collect a year's worth of optical cross-hairs every fall, from September through October.
KP: You were telling us about the spiderwebs.
KL: Yeah, well, I think I pretty much finished that story, but, you had asked me what my father did. He came to this country and he got a job with Keuffel and Esser. He got a job in their engraving and dividing departments. Engraving, of course, is a process with which they have rotating tools, and they engrave numbers, names, etc., in, at that time, it was mostly metal, and dividing is where something is divided into extremely precise divisions of inches, or meters, or millimeters, whatever, and he was engaged in that, and he, eventually, wound up as a department head for the engraving and dividing department.
KP: Did your father work for this company during the war?
KL: He worked for them through the war, yes.
KP: Being German-born, did he have any difficulties in terms of getting security clearance?
KL: No, no. The company itself was of German origin. In fact, this was one of the old, paternalistic companies. I think the initials were W.L.E. Keuffel, [who] was the founder, president, great man in the company. I worked there for a short while. I remember him with a beard. He knew every worker by name, a very paternalistic operation, organization.
KP: Your father did quite well there.
KL: Well, yeah, yeah.
KP: How did your family fare during the Great Depression?
KL: We survived, we survived. I think his work week was down to two days, might have been three, possibly. In order to keep food on the table, he also took a job as a night watchman with Keuffel and Esser and we survived. Newspapers, at that time, were three cents. We gave up our daily newspaper, because we could not afford the three cents a day. That strikes me. That's the one thing that emphasizes the Depression to me.
KP: You have a very distinct memory of giving up the daily newspaper.
KP: Your father's company chose to reduce their employees' hours, rather than lay people off.
KL: Yes. There were many companies that did that, many of the better companies, well, not necessarily everyone. At least they kept a basic crew there that allowed them to expand again.
KP: You grew up in several different communities. Why did your parents settle in Ridgefield? You mentioned that you also grew up in Union City.
KL: No, I had grown up in Union City. They had lived there and it wasn't the ideal community. It was a community of macadam and concrete. In fact, I used to play with a nephew of Al Capone, to show you what kind of a neighborhood it was. His father had the beer concession for northern New Jersey. When there was a mysterious fire in the entire block that he had fenced in for his trucks, he took the trucks out of there, and he parked the trucks in various streets, and we used to have a truck parked right in front of our house every night, so that they were decentralized, and the people who didn't like Capone weren't able to get all of his trucks in one swat, but, in Ridgefield, my parents, first, were able to rent a home, and they, later on, build a home of their own.
KP: In Union City, were you renting an apartment?
KP: Was Ridgefield a more suburban community?
KL: Oh, definitely, very definitely. Union City was a city. Ridgefield was, and still is, a suburban community. It's a community of, basically, one-family homes and apartment houses, of course.
KP: How did your father commute to work?
KL: He drove.
KP: You went to Englewood High School. How many students from your high school went to college? What kind of expectation was there among the student body regarding college?
KL: At that time, the expectation regarding college was, number one, "Can we possibly swing the money for it?" At that time, tuition and fees at Rutgers were 400 dollars and that was more than most families could swing. Let's say, when I first came down here, in my freshman year, my allowance for the week, to cover lunch, to cover meals, to cover an occasional movie and a glass of beer, on occasion, was five bucks a week, and I managed on it. Meals, you could get a nice meal for thirty-five cents, a complete meal. A hamburger was a dime.
KP: Would you say that most people in your high school could not afford to go to college?
KL: Most people couldn't. There was a great deal of anti-Semitism at that time, too. Probably the brightest student, scientifically anyway, in the scientific area, in my high school was a friend of mine, whose name, again, escapes me, but, he didn't even want to try for any scholarships. "Why should I waste my time going to college for four years? I'm Jewish. I won't be able to get a job anyway." That was his conviction and it's a pity. We've come a long way since then.
KP: You were quite active during your high school years. You were on the student council, in the German club, the glee club, and you were the manager of the football team. What do you remember most about your high school?
KL: That's a hard question to answer. I hadn't thought about that and I'm beginning to realize that there really are no outstanding recollections. I was interested in chemistry. In fact, I had a job that paid a small amount, with the NYA, the National Youth Administration, and this was in setting up and cleaning up experiments in the chemistry lab, the consequence [of which], I got to know the coach, Pat McKinley, at the time, and Pat just automatically decided that I was going to be his assistant football manager, and, later, the football manager. So, here is this skinny, 110-pound kid who was football manager, who was walking around with a sweater with a varsity "E," for Englewood, on the sweater. Yes, I legitimately wore a varsity football letter.
KP: Did your parents expect you to go to college?
KL: Yes, yes. I think they would have stopped eating to make it possible for me to go.
KP: Was it a financial struggle for them?
KL: Fortunately, I was able to get a scholarship. I went through Rutgers on a state scholarship, let's say, 400 dollars a year, [which] covered everything but room and board.
KP: Without that state scholarship, would it have been more difficult for you to go to college?
KL: It might have been more difficult. I applied to a number of colleges. I was accepted at Columbia, with a 150 dollar a year scholarship. I was accepted at the American University in Beirut, if you believe that, with full tuition and fees paid, provided I could get there, and I turned both of them down in expectation of getting a state scholarship, which, today, I would not have the courage to do, because the state scholarship had not been awarded yet, but, I did get one.
KP: Why did you pick Rutgers over, say, Columbia?
KL: Do you want an honest answer?
KL: I picked Rutgers over Columbia because Rutgers would pay the bulk of my tuition.
KP: You were concerned that you would have a bigger gap to fill at Columbia?
KL: There would be a big gap, yes. It would be a big gap, and, besides which, living in New York, in New York City, at that time, or commuting there, was much more difficult and more costly than living on campus at Rutgers.
KP: Do you consider living on campus to have been a positive experience?
KL: I think so, yes, and, in fact, I thought so as far as my own three boys are concerned, because, when it came time for them to go to college, I felt very strongly that they should go away to go to college, the, "My father sent me to old Rutgers and resolved that I should be a man." I simply resolved that my boys should learn to be men wherever they went.
KP: You mentioned earlier that there were Nazi sympathizers on campus. You are not the first to mention this fact. How prevalent was the pro-Nazi sentiment on campus?
KL: I didn't have too much contact with it. There's, of course, the professor at the women's college who was rather famous, I don't recall his name, but, I mean, he was very definitely a Nazi. We had a man in the German Department who had very strong leanings toward the Nazism, and he was a fine man otherwise, but, he was a Nazi, and I believe he left shortly after I graduated. He left the university shortly after I graduated and I think he might have gone back over to Germany.
KP: Were there any students who were sympathetic to the Bund or who joined the Bund?
KL: I'm sure there were, but, I don't recall any.
KP: Did you know of any organized, Bund-type groups on campus?
KL: I knew of none.
KP: Do you remember any interventionist or anti-interventionist organizations?
KL: No, no. I was, and still am, very much of a non-political person.
KP: However, you were aware of the pro-Nazi elements.
KL: Oh, yes. In fact, before I came to college, I had been bitten, and still am, by the photographic bug. [I] had a little camera, and my father came over on a German ship, the SS Resolute, it was the Hamburg-American line, and that ship was docked in Hoboken. I went down there to take some pictures of the ship, and, in the process of doing that, I got to talking with the American, I guess it's immigration service, guard on the gangplank, and [I] wondered whether there was any chance of my getting to see the ship. So, he called on the intercom telephone, and the, I guess, second officer came down, and he made a date for me to come down there on another day and visit, and he took me through the entire ship. She was tied up here, waiting to go on a world cruise. He was very nice to me, very nice to the little, fourteen-year-old kid, and took me through, of course, with the, "Heil Hitler," the hand salute, and all of that, which I acknowledged with a nod of the head, and Ziegler, Walter Ziegler, was his name. Well, I told my father about it and my father said, "Well, if this man is far away from home and family, he was very nice to you, we should invite him out to the house." So, my father made a formal invitation to him, mother cooked a beautiful, German dinner, and the doorbell rang, and, I guess, we all rushed downstairs to the door, and opened it, and here was Walter Ziegler, standing there in his full regalia, the merchant marine uniform, which is very close to the naval uniform. My father opened the door and Ziegler's hand came up, "Heil Hitler, I'm Walter Ziegler." My father's hand came out to be shaken [and he] said, "How do you do? I'm Richard Leuser." Well, this duel lasted throughout the dinner, and, finally, a very awkward Ziegler got up, and excused himself, and went home. I never heard from him again after that. He later wound up as, I guess, first officer on a dirigible known as the Hindenburg, and he was one of the survivors when the Hindenburg burned in Lakehurst, so, my father wired him an invitation to come stay with us. The man didn't have the courtesy to respond. He did, however, apparently, get in touch with some people over in Germany, because, oh, within days, one way or the other, of my eighteenth birthday, I received a very official looking letter, which I don't have any more, I wish I did, from the German military command, advising me that I was now turning eighteen and that, "At eighteen, all Germans are expected to report for their military service," reminding me that Germany did not recognize [the] citizenship of German nationals in other countries, and giving me the time frame during which I was to report. I did nothing. I got a second warning, second reminder, let's say, and, finally, I got a letter advising me that I had not reported. I, now, had the opportunity, the final opportunity, to report by such-and-such a date at the very latest. If not, I was considered to be a deserter from the German Army, subject to whatever penalty. I think they even mentioned, I'm not sure, the firing squad. So, I was a German deserter, but, later on, when I got into Germany, nobody said a word. [laughter]
KP: You mentioned that there was quite a duel between your father and Walter Ziegler during this dinner. Do you remember any particular topics that came up?
KL: No, no, it was the usual, polite conversation, one way or the other. I do have a sense that my father was himself, that he would needle a little bit. There was news that came out of Germany about some of the less attractive things that the Nazis were doing, and my father was quite prone to mention those, which did not endear him to Ziegler at all, but, there was no direct confrontation.
KP: However, it was a very awkward dinner.
KL: Very awkward. I think my father enjoyed it, much more than Ziegler did. [laughter]
KP: Going back to Rutgers, you majored in chemistry, initially, but, then, you switched to English literature.
KL: Yes, yes.
KP: Why did you switch majors?
KL: Well, I was having some problems with math, mathematics, specifically, calculus. I, apparently, got lost in about the second week of, what's the first one, differential or integral? the first week of the first semester of calculus, and never was able to make up the ground again, and I came to the conclusion, "If I can't learn this, [I'm done for]." See, it can be a great blessing and it can also be a great curse to be able to master knowledge easily. I was able to master it easily and it's a curse when you consider that, when things come hard, you're not able to cope with it.
KP: Had high school been very easy for you?
KL: Oh, yes.
KP: However, college was a lot harder for you.
KL: No, college was easy. I didn't consider college to be too difficult, but, this one course, I didn't know how to cope with the fact that I was sitting in the class and I couldn't understand what the heck was going on.
KP: Did you ever consider joining a fraternity?
KL: Not really, not really. I had been approached by a couple of them, but, I preferred to stay away. In some respects, I'm a joiner, in other respects, I am not, and I don't know where the line of distinction lies.
KP: You had been quite a joiner in high school, and then, in college, you were less active.
KL: I didn't do too much in college, no.
KP: Where did you live on campus?
KL: The first year, I lived up in the Quadrangle.
KP: In one of the Quadrangles?
KL: In one of the Quadrangles, and, the last three years, I was in Ford Hall.
KP: What did you think about mandatory chapel?
KL: Well, it was one of those things that was necessary, that I had to do, and I went to chapel.
KP: Did you have any encounters with Dean Metzger?
KL: Yes, yes, I did. I had a roommate named Ed Kaufer. He was a freshman, I was a sophomore, and, somehow or other, somewhere or other, Dean Metzger got word that I had taken Ed to some local house of ill-repute. Neither of us had ever seen the inside of a house of ill-repute, but, Dean Metzger was convinced. We had quite a time convincing him that we were as innocent as we wanted him to believe.
KP: Where do you think he heard this story?
KL: I have no idea.
KP: He just called you into his office and accused you of corrupting your roommate.
KL: Oh, yes, oh, yes, definitely. This was a major production.
KP: Did you date often while you were in college?
KL: Not a great deal. I did some dating. I would date some girls from home. Most of my dating was when I went home on weekends.
KP: Did you go home to Ridgefield often?
KL: Well, yes, once or twice a month.
KP: Everyone I have interviewed thus far has had a Vinnie Utz story. Did you know Vinnie Utz?
KL: I knew Vinnie. I was never that much of a friend of his. No, I don't have a Vinnie Utz story. I've got a story for you. This is a William the Silent story. At one time, an extremely large pair of ladies panties appeared in the dormitory. Well, those panties went through all kinds of different adventures from one room to the other. They finally wound up in Ed's room and mine. We didn't know what to do with them, until, one day, we had an inspiration. On a Saturday night, late, Ed and I went out to the statue of William the Silent. We climbed up on the pedestal. Now, William the Silent stands there very sternly, with his finger out in admonition. The following morning, when the people from Holy Hill, from the seminary, came walking down past William the Silent to go to chapel, here was William, standing there, with his finger extended in a very distasteful way, holding a pair of the largest ladies panties you've ever seen. [laughter]
KP: That is a great story.
KL: The campus maintenance people were hiding in doorways along the way, until everybody from Holy Hill was down. Then, they came up with a pole and took them back down.
KP: When did you become a naturalized citizen?
KL: I became a naturalized citizen when my father was naturalized in the '30s. However, I got my own naturalization papers after I had joined the Army. I'd applied for my own papers and they came through when I was in the Army. I guess I was a corporal, not a corporal, a T-5.
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KL: I was notified that I was going to be given my own papers. I was called into New York, to the swearing-in ceremony. I went, of course, in uniform, because, during the war, we were required to be in uniform at all times. Even when we were on leave or furlough, we were not supposed to be out of uniform. So, I appeared there, and there were many people, I have no recollection of how many, and we were all sworn in, in a courtroom, and raised our hands, "Do you," etc., etc., and we all do'ed, etc., etc., and then, I was the only man in uniform there, and the judge made quite a thing out of it, and called me up to the bench, and made quite a thing out of the fact that, "This brand new citizen is now, already, a soldier."
KP: How did you and your parents feel about America entering the war against Germany?
KL: Well, we were Americans, period. There was sympathy for the people in Germany, for our relatives, for our former neighbors, for our friends, but, we were Americans now. There was no thought, no hint, of any disloyalty there.
KP: Before Pearl Harbor, did your father think that the United States should go to war with Germany or do you think he would have preferred that the United States not get involved in the war?
KL: My father was a pacifist, as most people are who have been in combat, so, at almost any cost, he would have preferred to have seen a war avoided.
KP: Despite his distinguished war record, he did not want another war.
KL: No, there was no glory for him in war. The reason he joined the German Air Force was so that he would not have to go back into the trenches.
KP: Where were you when the attack on Pearl Harbor occurred?
KL: Well, I happened to be on the steps of the Capitol in Washington, DC, at the moment that the Japs hit Pearl Harbor. I had been invited [down] by a high school friend who was going to Martha Washington College in Fredericksburg, Virginia. She was attending Martha Washington College. They had a dance. I was invited down there for the weekend, for the dance, and that was on Saturday. On Sunday, one of the boys, one of the young men at the dance, had a car, and he took us all into Washington, and, first, we went into Washington itself. I remember the time, I don't know why, but, I remember the time, which is one o'clock, or one-thirty, the precise time that Pearl was hit, and we were actually on the steps of the Capitol at that time. Then, we went to the Washington Zoo. It was dark when we came out of the zoo. We were in a car [with] no radio. Radio was a luxury in a car, still, at that time. We were wondering why the newspapers were being hawked. At that time, there was still paperboys, newspaper vendors, and they were running around, shouting, "Extra, extra, extra," and, I guess, finally, we picked up a paper and we discovered that we were at war with Japan.
KP: You were actually at the Capitol when the attack occurred, but ...
KL: It was later that I found out.
KP: What was Washington like that day, after you found out what had happened? Did you see any crowds gathering?
KL: I didn't see any. I don't know. I didn't know Washington, still don't, really, and all that we could see from the car was what appeared to be [the] normal hustle and bustle and the newsboys shouting.
KP: What was your reaction to the fact that we were now at war? Did you assume that you would be going into the military?
KL: Of course, of course, it was taken for granted. Somehow, we knew that everybody would be in it. Going back on the train from Washington, I guess that night, the train was loaded with soldiers, officers strutting up and down, many of them self-important second lieutenants, questioning people, "Are you a soldier? Are you in the Army," and so on, but, the first year was very confused and confusing.
KP: You would be assigned to limited service because of your eye-sight. Were you in the ROTC at Rutgers?
KL: No, I was excused. My eyes checked, as they do now, at 20/200 without glasses, and, at that time, the feeling was that, without your glasses, you're, for all intents and purposes, blind, so, what happens if you lose your glasses somewhere on active duty? You're out of it. So, they figured that we wouldn't go into the service.
KP: Did you try to enlist after Pearl Harbor?
KL: I enlisted.
KP: You did enlist.
KL: I did enlist. Well, after I graduated from Rutgers, I went looking for a job and wasn't too successful, because of my age and because of the fact that, automatically, everybody was classified 1-A, which is "available for duty," and I got my notification to go for a draft physical, which I did, and they rejected me as being 1-B, which means that there's a limitation, and I left the recruiting station, one of these strange coincidences, walked up to Penn Station in Newark, picked up a newspaper, headline, "1-Bs To Be Drafted." [laughter] So, as a consequence of that, I spent the next couple of weeks looking for jobs, and, again, I was in exactly the same boat as before. So, finally, an announcement was made that the Army was accepting enlistments for limited service by people who had been classified 1-B. I had a talk with my parents, went out to Hackensack, and enlisted. On the first of August, I was inducted. I was sworn in on the first of September, either [as] the first or certainly one of the first people to enlist with the limited service status. In fact, when I went through the physical in the recruiting station in Newark, I got all through it, and the sergeant at the end of the line picked up his rejected stamp, was ready to stamp it on my papers, and I told him, "Hold it, Sergeant. I can enlist now." He said, "You can't." I said, "Yeah, I can." He called the officer in charge, and this guy finally went rummaging through forty War Department bulletins, whatever it was, and came up with the answer, "Yes, he can." So, at least at the Newark Recruiting Station, I was the first 1-B to enlist, for whatever that's worth.
KP: If you had not enlisted, the draft might have skipped you.
KL: I would have been drafted later. See, I spent the first year in the Army at the Fort Dix Reception Center and some of the people who were being drafted, who were coming through, were pitiful. Men with one eye, men missing fingers, with other disabilities, so that there's no question that I would have been drafted. This way, I had some choice in the matter.
KP: You wrote to us and said that you were given two weeks of intensive training. So, you did not go through the same basic training that other inductees went through.
KL: Yeah. [When] I came to Fort Dix, I was assigned to the permanent party at the Reception Center and they gave us two weeks of basic. No, not basic, they called it "intensive training," which was anything but intensive. We got a few of the basics. We were each given a Browning, I was trying to think of that before, when I was talking to you, Jim, a Browning Automatic shotgun, and it was with that that we trained. The shotgun was just a little bit too short to do a decent manual of arms, and it had a plastic stock on it, so that anytime you hit the dirt, you were a little bit afraid to come down with it, but, we trained with them. They were pretty much the basic armament of the Reception Center. I recall, later, standing guard with a shotgun. They were treacherous weapons, because the safety is right on the trigger guard, and, if you're carrying the shotgun at right shoulder arms on a cold day, the collar of the coat knocked the safety off. Of course, you're not supposed to be carrying a round in the chamber, but, who knows? There was one occasion that I was on guard duty, and I was not exactly the tallest guy in the outfit by any means, but, somebody who, to me, struck me as a little guy, came up to the sergeant, after we had unloaded the weapons, after guard duty, and said, "Sergeant, I couldn't get all of my rounds out of the gun." "Give me the gun." He walked into the guardhouse, slapping the butt down on the desk, and there was a hole this big in the ceiling, [laughter] because those guns were loaded with buckshot. Another time, a MP who was standing guard inside the finance office was armed with a shotgun, and he was taking it easy, and he leaned back in his chair, and the chair slipped and fell, and he fell down, and, in the process, squeezed off a round, blew the front door right out of the finance office. Go ahead with your question.
KP: After your two weeks of intensive training, you spent a year at the reception center.
KP: What was your job?
KL: Well, first, I was told, "Leuser, we're going to send you to firemans' school," and I thought, "Oh, hey, this sounds interesting." I had visions of myself riding across the post on the back of a fire truck. So, I reported to firemans' school and they said, "And, now, you take your shovel and you shovel the coal into the furnace." So, for a good deal of that time, I was in charge of keeping the homefires burning in the barracks furnaces. They used pea coal, very tiny coal, and the furnaces had an air blower, a fan, to create a draft, and you had to be very careful how you handled that, because, in fact, I had one, there were dust explosions. Are you familiar with dust explosions? You have a very fine dust. Even though the dust is not flammable, not explosive, if it's fine enough and at just the right mixture with air, it can blow up. One time, I was shaking down a furnace and this fine dust was settling inside the furnace, with the air, and, apparently, a spark dropped down. There was a blast. All the doors were blown off the furnace. The dust went all through the barracks. [It was] a little embarrassing, but, no, I was mail clerk, and that's not necessarily a difficult job, but, there's an awful high volume there, because most of the men were less than a week in the reception center. They would come in one day, be processed on the second day, the third day, they would finish their processing, have uniforms, and they could be on a train out to their assignment the same day. So, there was a lot of mail.
KP: You had to reroute it to where they could get it.
KL: We had to forward it, yes. So, it kept me busy and, ultimately, that assignment was changed. As an NCO there, we'd get the recruits, (by the way, we called them "jeeps." Have you heard that expression, the jeep for the recruits?), we'd get the recruits, we'd line them up in the morning, and then, send them out on various details.
KP: You saw large numbers of recruits go through Fort Dix. You mentioned that, initially, you saw a lot of people that looked unfit for duty.
KL: I wouldn't say unfit. They had limited capabilities.
KP: However, it surprised you, given that you had a hard time with your eyesight.
KL: Well, the cream had been skimmed, and the Army still needed warm bodies, and at least some of the bodies were still warm. [laughter]
KP: What impressions do you have of Fort Dix? Do you remember anything about the groups of men that went through? Did you see people from all over the United States at Fort Dix?
KL: No. Fort Dix served as reception center only for the Second Service Command, which was New York, well, not even New York so much, mostly from New Jersey.
KP: They were mostly from New Jersey?
KL: Mostly from New Jersey, yes. New York processed their men on Long Island.
KP: Did you ever run into people from Rutgers or your local community?
KL: Yes, I'm sure that I did. I can't bring anything to mind now, specifically. Everything was routine. These things moved rather quickly and though we weren't instructed to do so, we kind of separated ourselves from the men moving through.
KP: You were very distinct from the inductees.
KL: Oh, yes, oh, yes. We had privileges. The food was probably not quite the worst in the Army. I saw trucks unloading steaks which were delivered as rather tasteless stew to the troops, to the men. So, after lights out, the permanent party would go out to the mess hall. There weren't too many [of] us there. We would go out to the mess hall and we'd have a decent meal then.
KP: How large was the permanent party at Fort Dix, roughly?
KL: All I can speak for is a receiving company. There, we had probably twenty men. I may be high on that. Basically, it was one man to a barracks. Each of us was a barracks leader.
KP: I guess you were the first Army person these raw recruits had any dealings with.
KL: Probably, yes. We were important. What made us important was the green braid on our caps. Green was the braid of the DEML, which did not stand for, "The Dumbest Enlisted Men Living," as some people insisted, but, rather, Detached Enlisted Men's List, meaning we weren't attached to any particular unit, but, no, for somebody who had a large ego to satisfy, it was a great job. It would have been a great job.
KP: How difficult was your duty, leading a barracks, especially when you had new people coming in every two or three days?
KL: These people were, for the most part, intimidated, so, they were no problem, but, probably the toughest part was when you had your details filled for the day and you still had two or three hundred men who had nothing to do. Then, you would take them out on the parade ground and drill them, and, on a windy day, it can be challenging to make your voice carry so that three hundred men could hear you sound cadence.
KL: Did anyone ever try to run away from the reception center?
KL: Oh, yes, oh, yes, these things were all routine. One man lived in New York, a recruit. He was there for quite a while. Every time he went home for a weekend pass, I don't think he slept at all while he was home. He would get on a train and fall asleep, wake up in Philadelphia, get back on the train, fall asleep, and wake up in New York. So, he would go back and forth three or four times before he finally got off in Trenton, but, the Army could make things uncomfortable for people like that.
KP: What happened to those recruits who did not seem to be adapting well?
KL: Mild punishment. Somebody would call up whoever it was that was making the assignments and this fellow would wind up in an infantry division, infantry training center.
KP: Did you have any input in terms of assignments?
KL: Assignments for after Fort Dix? No, no, not at all.
KP: So, your responsibilities were confined, mainly, to the barracks.
KL: Yeah, the barracks, taking care of the men.
KP: You mentioned that the Army could make life difficult. From talking to several people who went through Fort Dix and other military receiving centers, I get the sense that the Army was very intelligent about the way they assigned people, but, sometimes, you sort of wondered about the military's logic.
KL: The logic was, if a man was a cook, they sent him to truck drivers' school. If he was a truck driver, they sent [him] to cooks' and bakers' school. No, I had nothing to do with that at all.
KP: Did you have any sense of the complications this system created?
KL: Seriously now, as nearly as I can reconstruct it is that, if there was a requisition for X number of men to go to infantry school, then everybody on the list would go to infantry school.
KP: Your assignment could be determined by when you actually arrived at Fort Dix.
KL: Oh, yeah, oh, yeah. What you did, where you were assigned during your military service, depended on what the priority was at the instant that your name came up on the list. If the clerk doing that, generally a private or PFC, if the clerk making the assignments had time, yes, he would go through the records and he would try to assign you to something that was in line with your background.
KP: If he did not have time and there was a requisition ...
KL: He'd have to fill it. He had no choice but to fill it.
JB: After Fort Dix, where did the Army send you?
KL: Well, I was at Fort Dix for about a year, then, I went to Pine Camp, which is now Fort Drum, up in Watertown, New York, where there was an Italian POW camp. I was in the headquarters there, the administrative office, and I was Charge of Quarters one night. Charge of Quarters is the non-commissioned officer who is in charge, he sleeps in the office, and who is there to answer questions and take care of any business that comes up. I was CQ one night when the camp commandant walked in and he wanted to go into the compound. I recognized him as the commandant. Yeah, POW camps have a commandant, rather than a commanding officer. He walked in and said, "Corporal, I'd like to get into the compound. Give me a pass." "Fine, yes, sir." I started to write it out, couldn't think of the guy's name. "Colonel, would you spell your name for me, please?" "Certainly, Corporal. J-O-N-E-S." Nothing more was said. The man was rather frigid, but, the following morning, the CO called me into the office, and he mentioned this, and he said that the colonel had been rather unhappy about the fact that I had let him in, apparently, simply on the strength of the eagles on his shoulder. So, he said, "We're going to have to move you out of here. We're going to have to transfer you out. Where would you like to go?" "Where would I like to go? Rutgers has a nice ASTP unit." [He] said, "We'll see what we can do." A couple of days later, orders came through, "T-5, Leuser, Kurt G., transferred in grade from such-and-such SCSU Pine Camp, New York," to whatever the SCSU here is, "Headquarters and Headquarters Detachment, ASTP unit, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, New Jersey." So, the next six months, I spent here.
KP: How long were you at Pine Camp?
KL: Oh, probably three months, thereabouts. I have a record somewhere at home, I wasn't able to find it after I talked to you, that showed where I was assigned, for how long, giving the unit numbers, and so on.
JB: You were sent to the European Theater.
KL: Later on, yes.
JB: What was your duty there?
KL: Personnel Sergeant Major.
JB: Were you in Germany at all?
KL: Yes, I was in Furth, just outside of Nuremberg, and then, I went to the Asiatic-Pacific Theater. I was in Japan and I was Personnel Sergeant Major at the Quartermaster Depot in Nagoya, Nagoya Base.
JB: You saw quite a bit of the world.
KL: Oh, yes, oh, yes, in a relatively short time. [laughter]
KP: Backing up to Pine Camp, New York, how did the POW camp operate? What surprised you about it?
KL: Well, I guess that, yeah, that was my first exposure to a POW camp.
KP: Were you exposed to another one?
KL: Yeah, yeah, but, the POW camps, of course, were laid out with a double fence around the area, or areas, of barracks. The fences were fifteen or twenty feet high, barbed wire, double fences, my guess is, about ten feet apart. There were guard towers every so far, armed guards with automatic weapons. They were armed with, usually, automatic weapons, which means a Thompson sub-machine gun. They had a light .30 caliber up there. They also carried either sidearms, or a carbine, or both, and the area between the fences was usually raked, so that you could see whether somebody had gone through there. Security was relaxed but strict. No firearms of any kind at any time inside the compound. Anybody going in would have to leave his weapons outside. There was an administrative unit inside the compound and an administrative unit outside. The prisoners were pretty much on their own inside the unit. We didn't have guards harassing them or anything of that sort. They had the barracks in which they slept. Incidentally, I'm combining Pine Camp, my limited knowledge there, with my knowledge of the POW camp at Fort Dix.
KP: When you were at Pine Camp, it was still early in the war, relatively speaking. Did you have any contact with the POWs?
KL: None at all. I was outside the camp.
KP: They were very distant.
KL: They were just figures in the background.
KP: Were there any escape attempts at Pine Camp?
KL: I have no knowledge. I know nothing about that at all.
KP: Were there ever any concerns expressed among the staff about escape attempts?
KL: These were Italian prisoners. They never had it so good. That was the impression we had. "Hey, Charlie, leave the gates open. They're not going to run."
JB: My father was an Italian prisoner of war.
KL: Oh, he was?
JB: Yes, at Camp Kilmer. I do not know if both camps were run the same, but, on Sundays, here, they allowed Italian-Americans who lived in the area to come to the camp and bring food to the prisoners and talk to them. Was that allowed at Pine Camp?
KL: No kidding? I don't know. I know nothing about Pine Camp, there, in that respect, no, and this was early in the war, yet. Don't forget, in the beginning of the war, backing up a little bit now, in the very beginning of the war, we expected air raids. We had air raid drills and we were prepared for air raids. When I first got to Fort Dix, into the reception center, right after I was assigned there, I was assigned to a machine gun squad. We spent hours taking the heavy, water-cooled machine guns apart, and putting them together, and in the light, in the dark, and whatever, and we'd run the gun out. There was an old foundation, somebody had stuck a pipe into the ground, and that pipe was just the right diameter, so that we could put the mount of the gun into that pipe, and, at the first sign of an air raid drill, each of us had an assignment. One man would grab the gun and he would run to the emplacement. The other people would carry other things. I was in the group that was assigned to handle the ammunition box. We'd grab the ammunition box, and ran like hell to the mess hall, fill it up with oranges, and bananas, and apples, and ran to the emplacement, where we would sit down and eat our oranges, and what have you, because the supply sergeant refused to allow ammunition to go out to us, and one man was always assigned to watch for the officer of the day. That's how seriously we took it.
KP: There were also blackout restrictions along the coast.
KL: Oh, yes, oh, yes, definitely.
KP: Do you remember people painting their automobile headlights half black?
KL: I don't remember ever doing it to any of our cars, but, I know we had the little blackout slit on the headlights of our vehicles, the military vehicles.
KP: You came back to Rutgers as part of the ASTP program. You were in the military, but, you spent a good part of the war in New Jersey. How did the war transform New Jersey? You left Rutgers in 1942, but, then, you came back in 1943. Were there any changes that you could see?
KL: Not really. The gym was the mess hall for the ASTP. Our headquarters was in the gym and we operated out of that. There were no quarters for the troops, so, I was on commutation of quarters and rations. I got a certain number of dollars each month to cover the room that I rented from a woman. Ellen Genung was in the bookstore and I rented a room from her over on Guilden Street. It was a nine to five job. I came to work for nine o'clock, left at five. We went out for lunch. We did not eat in the mess hall where the ASTP people ate, though I remember, there was, recently, I think it was in one of the alumni magazines, an article about the food poisoning that hit Thanksgiving. It was here at the time. Most of the ASTP guys were out of the running at that time, though the rest of us, those of us who were assigned here, who were in headquarters, we had eaten in restaurants.
KP: I have an undergraduate, Linda Lasko, who wrote a paper on the ASTP at Rutgers. She noticed that there was tension between the ASTP men and the Rutgers undergraduates. Did you notice any of that?
KL: No, but, it's to be expected. The ASTP men were soldiers. The others were either children or they were dodging the military service. So, there's got to be that tension and, with the guys in ASTP, they were looking for a better career in the military. They were training for military government, for Military Intelligence. In fact, when I left here, I asked for assignment to the military intelligence training center in Camp Richie, I think it's Fort Richie, now, Camp Richie, Maryland, and, again, I put my foot in it. The CO got a very strong letter from Governor's Island, wanting to know how I knew about this top secret installation, the Military Intelligence [Center], and I had probably assigned several hundred men down there, because, at the time I was here, they were reducing the ASTP, the first step towards eliminating it. A lot of the men who were here, who had trained for military government, and so on, wound up in infantry divisions.
JB: I would like to move ahead a little. Where were you when Germany surrendered?
KL: Let me think for a minute. I was in Germany on V-E Day, but, the surrender, I might have been stateside. I know I was at Camp Kilmer when Roosevelt died.
JB: When did you go back to Fort Dix?
KL: I had been at Rutgers for I don't know how many months, six to eight months. It was a long time in one location. I had been here for a time and the directive came through, loud and clear, that any man who had not been overseas was to be assigned to a unit overseas. So, I left here. I was assigned, from here, to a Military Police Escort Guard company, the 647th MPEG Company. We were supposed to go overseas, pick up prisoners of war, escort them back to the States. In other words, these units would be traveling back and forth from the other theaters into the USA. We were over our ears transferring men out of the ASTP unit, so, the unit didn't want to let me go and I was several weeks behind. Finally, they released me. I reported to the unit at Fort Dix there. They were stationed at the POW camp. They were temporarily supplementing the guard unit at the POW camp. I walked in, I reported to the commanding officer, "Oh, my God, I had almost given up hope about your ever getting here. Put down your duffel bag. Report to the supply sergeant. Draw your gas mask and tin hat." The unit was that hot. Before they could assign me to a barracks, they had to get me the gas mask and the tin hat, which was only used by troops going overseas, and we stayed.
JB: When did the German prisoners first arrive?
KL: There were prisoners there. They were Wermacht. No, no, no, I'm sorry, yes, there were some Wermacht prisoners there. There were also Afrika Korps. Rommel's Afrika Korps was in one part of the compound and there were some Wermacht prisoners in the other part. I'm not aware that there were any SS or any of the elite troops. There were no officers.
JB: Did you speak German?
KL: Yes, though I was not assigned inside the compound.
JB: Not at all?
KL: No, not at all.
KP: Once again, you had no real contact with the prisoners.
KL: Not really.
KP: How well do you think the POWs were treated?
KL: They were treated well. The POWs were treated well. They got rations equivalent to what we were getting. They had their own messes, mess halls, their own cooks.
KP: Did they have a lot of autonomy?
KL: They had a lot of autonomy. They were here, they were prisoners, they were confined, but, they had a good deal of autonomy. I don't know how the work details were determined, but, they would work, for example, at the post laundry. We had a detail that went, daily, down to the post laundry, the German prisoners, these were the Afrika Korpsmen, where they would work, and then, go back to the barracks at night. They had, as you say, a good deal of freedom. I happened to be in the CO's office on Hitler's birthday and the commanding officer asked me to stay for a little while, to see the show. He took me to the window, and we looked out, and they have this large exercise yard, let's call it a parade ground, on one end of the barracks, the prison area barracks, with a double fence separating it from the exercise yard, or the parade ground, and I don't remember whether they were singing or whistling a martial tune, probably the Horst Wessell song, and, in very precise formations, came marching out of the barracks area into the parade ground and paraded around, very formal. They were allowed to do that. I don't consider that to be coddling.
JB: Were any of them evaluated as being either pro-Nazi or anti-Nazi? Were they separated?
JB: They were not?
KL: They were not, because there were no Nazis. Do you understand what I'm saying? In the same way, when I was in Japan, later on, Japan was totally populated by Koreans. "No Japanese, Korean, Korean." That's beside the point. Go ahead.
JB: Did you have any Russians there? I know that there were some at Fort Dix.
KL: Not at that time. Yes, yes, I talked to them. I interviewed them.
JB: Did any of them try to commit suicide?
KL: Not then. You're talking about the Russians, that was much later on. That was much later that they killed themselves.
JB: You were not there then?
KL: I was not there anymore. You bring up the Russians, should I tell you about them?
KP: Yes, please.
KL: As I said, I was assigned to the MPEG company. I became company clerk, because their company clerk had been assigned to a school somewhere. He was away at school, and we were expecting orders any day, and, lo and behold, the orders came through, assigning us to be permanently assigned to the prisoner of war camp. Later, we found out this was because a decision had been made to invade Europe, and that they expected large numbers of prisoners from Europe, and the POW camp at Fort Dix was being prepared for the European prisoners. So, I transferred over the however many men, I don't remember how many it was, from that company into the POW camp unit, and, eventually, the job grew into Personnel Sergeant Major. At the time, all ratings in the service command were frozen. If you were a corporal, mister, you stayed a corporal. [laughter] I was Personnel Sergeant Major by assignment, by duty. The assigned grade, the authorized grade, for Personnel Sergeant Major was Tech Sergeant, Technical Sergeant, which is equal to sergeant, first class, today, and I was a corporal. As the unit grew, we had new people coming in. I had non-coms assigned to me who had been overseas. I had several staff sergeants, some tech sergeants, and a few master sergeants working for a lousy, little corporal. [laughter]
-----------------------------------END OF TAPE ONE, SIDE TWO--------------------------------------
KP: This continues an interview with Kurt G. Leuser on October 27, 1994, at Rutgers University in New Brunswick with Kurt Piehler and
JB: Jim Bongi.
KP: I wanted to re-ask that question.
KP: Who staffed the prisoner of war camps? When you were at Pine Camp, where were most of the men drawn from?
KL: All of the men were, well, not necessarily limited service. We had people who had spent the last ten, fifteen, twenty years in the Army and we also had new people coming in. They were not necessarily limited service. [It could be] almost anybody who happened to be available for assignment.
KP: These were men who happened to be in the induction center at the right time.
KL: Yeah, yeah. Well, that's what the Army was. It's a matter of chance.
KP: You noted that, at Camp Kilmer, they rotated in people who had been overseas in combat.
KL: That probably started to happen about 1944. Troops who had been overseas were being rotated back to the States, and former combat soldiers were coming into the prisoner of war camp as POW guards, and you take a man, now, who has been shooting at, and been shot at by, Germans, now, he's sitting up in a guard tower, guarding the German prisoners, he won't hesitate to let a round fly at them. Our Afrika Korps boys decided that they wanted to go on strike one day. I don't know what they wanted, better rations or some simple thing like that, and the commandant simply said, "No." So, they decided to go on strike, they let us know, six o'clock one morning. At 6:05, the gates opened and the big six-by-six Army trucks pulled in. They pulled by the mess halls. They emptied every crumb of food that we could find into the trucks and drove out. We locked the gates and said, "Okay, boys, strike." They lasted quite a while. The other compound, with the Wehrmacht troops in there, the regular German Army, felt sorry for these guys that were hungry and they tried to get them some food. Now, remember, these compounds are separated by double rows of barbed wire some ten, fifteen, twenty feet apart, whatever it was, and the wall wire was high. So, what the people did in, let's say, the free compound is that they made up sandwiches, wrapped them up in bags, so, they had Bundle, oh, probably eight or ten inches in all dimensions. People would hide between the barracks, where the guard towers didn't see them, and, apparently, well, not apparently, there was a signal, and one man from the free compound would run towards the fence while a man from the striking compound ran towards the separating fence. The guy from the free compound had this bunch of sandwiches, ran over to the fence, heaved it over. The other fellow stood up there, waiting for it to come down. This is the first Bundle. As he closed his hands on it, there was one shot. A .45 caliber round from a Thompson went through the sandwiches, didn't hit him. That was it. No, it didn't break the strike. They didn't quit until they were good and hungry.
KP: Did you ever talk to any of the German POWs?
KL: Only when the new prisoners came in after D-Day, yes. At that time, we got in quite a few hundred prisoners and everybody who spoke German in the unit was detailed to help interview them. I spoke German. I was interviewing prisoners.
KP: What did you ask them? What did you learn?
KL: Well, you know, the usual, "Name, rank, and serial number. Where are you from?" etc., etc. I mean, strictly routine questions.
JB: Did they ever ask you anything?
KL: Oh, yes. We had, on both sides, the freedom of conversation. There were men who came in wearing dungarees and leather jackets, submariners. They were the most arrogant [laughter] bastards that you ever did see, and then, there were rather stooped, unhappy, Slavic-type people who turned out to be Russians. These were Russian soldiers. I must have spoken to any number of them. I'm not going to make a guess as to how many, but, I interviewed any number of them. They spoke broken German, but, they had learned German while [they were] prisoners in Germany. Their story was this. They were in a prisoner of war camp, and the rations and treatment in the camp became worse, and worse, and worse, and, finally, one day, a German officer came into the camp, and spoke to the men, and said, "Now, I can promise you treatment equal to that of a German soldier. You'll get the same kind of rations, the same kind of quarters, everything the same as a German soldier. We can't give you anything more than we give our own troops, because we don't have it. All you have to do is volunteer for work battalions," which they did, some of them. These people that I interviewed did that. They volunteered for the work battalions. They had been guaranteed that they would never have to take up arms. They would be behind the lines. They would never be in the front areas, the forward areas, and, lo and behold, they arrive where they're going and they are issued German uniforms. "But, we're Russian prisoners. We can't wear German uniforms." "That's all we got. Wear them or go back to the POW camp." They wore them. These guys were transported up to the Normandy coast and they built machine gun nests. They built fortifications on top of the hill in Normandy. They didn't have any choice, and so, on the morning of June 6th, they were rousted out of their barracks. They had built trenches at the top of the hill. They were rousted out of their barracks and ordered into the trenches. They're standing in the trenches and they are given rifles. The way these guys told the story is that they refused to touch them. They were handed the rifle, they didn't touch it. The rifle just fell onto the ground, and I think it might have been raining, I'm not sure, and, after the rifles were issued, the German officer went behind, said, "Pick them up." They didn't. A second time he went by, "Pick them up." The third time he went by, he had his pistol in his hand, and I believe the way they told it, and this was probably not a concocted story, because I got the same story from any number of different ones, every tenth man who didn't pick up the rifle was shot through the head, "Boom." Next time, they picked them up. "Fire." Again, the same thing, and, when the pistol shots started to go off, they began firing, but, "We only fired over their heads, believe me." Again, the same story, but, they were taken prisoner in German uniforms, bearing arms against the invading Allied soldiers, so, they were prisoners of war. They were model prisoners. There was never any attempt to escape. Whatever you wanted them to do, they did, and some of this comes, of course, from my friends who were inside the compound.
JB: Were they separated from the Germans?
KL: I can't answer that. I don't know. They certainly were not in with the Afrika Korps.
KP: Did you keep the Afrika Korpsmen separate?
KL: Oh, yes, oh, yes, they were in a separate [area]. Generally speaking, the POW camps enclosed individual company areas, so that a large camp might enclose two, or three, or four, or more separate areas, each one of them separated by wire, so that if anything happened, it would be limited to whoever was in that area.
JB: Were the prisoners allowed access to mail service?
KL: As far as I know, yes.
JB: Were they allowed to have newspapers or periodicals?
KL: Sure, why not?
JB: What about newspapers with war stories in them?
KL: Sure, why not?
JB: Did any of them think it was merely propaganda on our part?
KL: Of course, of course. They always thought it was propaganda. They'd been brought up on propaganda. Remember, practically, I had no contact, for practical purposes, with the ...
KP: With the current prisoners?
KL: Yes. This was the only time that I did any interviewing, because there was not a turnover of prisoners. Once the camp was full, I mean, that was pretty much it.
KP: Why were you not assigned to the compound?
KL: Because that was not my strength. I was a personnel man.
KP: Did they have German speakers?
KL: Oh, yes. In fact, the Sergeant Major inside was a corporal named Gus Kapolka, who spoke German.
JB: Was there entertainment for the troops? Let me read something to you, "The band at Fort Dix, New Jersey, was renowned for its dance music, entertaining prisoners and camp authorities alike. Even though at dances, the prisoners were not allowed female dance partners, the one favorite number was 'Pistol Packing Mama.'" Do you remember any of this?
KL: No. I'll say, with some reservations, that's not true. I don't recall any entertainment for the prisoners. [There was] certainly no mingling with the prisoners.
JB: Do you remember the band?
KL: No. We would go into Wrightstown for the USO dances.
JB: Were any of the German prisoners allowed to leave their insignia on?
KL: Again, I can't answer that. Off hand, I would say, probably, yes, but, I can't give you an authoritative answer.
KP: When you were interviewing prisoners, you seemed to believe the experiences of the Russians.
KP: Were there any other impressions that you had about the prisoners? From what you said, it sounds like the Afrika Korpsmen were still very gung ho, as well as the submariners.
KL: Yes, well, the submariners were arrogant.
KP: Arrogant. [laughter]
KL: (Illegitemati?), is that the word?
KP: Did you get the sense that many of the other Germans were glad to be captured?
KL: I didn't have enough contact with the prisoners. We did not mingle with the prisoners in any manner, shape, or form.
JB: Were they allowed to handle their own security, in terms of dealing with fights inside of the camp?
KL: Oh, if they had problems, that was their problem. That was their problem. We had the guards. We had security. We had security of the camp. We had the inside administration unit.
JB: I asked you a question before about the Nazis and the anti-Nazis. Was there ever a fight between them?
KL: Not to my knowledge, no. Let me phrase that differently. I have no knowledge of anything of that sort.
KP: You were not involved with the internal administration.
KL: That's right.
KP: You were, in some ways, looking in.
KP: Except during your interrogations.
KL: Well, that's really the only time that I had any direct contact with the prisoners, other than, one time, when I was on pass [to] Trenton and I missed the last bus going from the gate out to the camp, that was, I think, about a five mile walk, when the prison detail, the guard detail, well, the changing of the prisoners took place from the post laundry, and I flagged down the sergeant of the guard's jeep. He slowed down, I jumped aboard. Meantime, the lead truck had speeded up and was giving the sergeant of the guard a hard time. All of the vehicles had governors on them, fifty mile an hour maximum. Consequently, it was nip and tuck as to which would go faster. We're barreling down the road, the jeep, with me on the back, at the maximum fifty mile an hour speed in the left hand lane, the truck full of prisoners with their POW driver in the right hand lane. The driver decided that he might have some fun if he could drop the jeep into the ditch on the left hand side of the road, where there was a deep ditch, and the prisoners standing up in the back of the truck were kind of egging him on. So, he was starting to force us over. The sergeant of the guard, of course, was armed with a .45, and about after the guy had been ordered to slow down, pull back, and ignored it, why, he made signs of, "They didn't understand." Everybody knew he was kidding. The sergeant pulled out his .45, forced back on the slide, and held it up. Well, the muzzle of that gun was no more than this far away from the driver's head. That truck slowed down just like that. We got a salute from him, and the convoy fell in line behind us, and everything went along fine. That was about the only other contact I had with them.
JB: At Camp Kilmer, some of the Italian prisoners of war were used as workers at the Raritan Arsenal. Were German prisoners of war taken out of camp to work anywhere, maybe on some of the farms down there?
KL: Not in that immediate area, but, we had a separate group of, oh, I think it was six hundred prisoners who were working in the farms in South Jersey, tomato farms, that area. I don't know exactly where or what they were doing. They were part of our unit, but, I had no contact with them at all.
JB: Were they paid?
KL: They might have been. In fact, now that you mention that, I think, probably, the prisoners working in the laundry were paid, too, you know, token wages.
JB: I think they got eighty cents a day.
KL: Yeah, something like that.
KP: You lived near your parents during much of your military service. How did your parents feel about that? Were they glad that you had not been sent overseas?
KL: Oh, yes, oh, yes.
KP: Did you have any relatives in Germany that you were worried about?
KL: We had many relatives, but, communication was non-existent during the war.
KP: Did you ever try to contact them through the International Red Cross or the American Red Cross? You had no idea what was happening.
KL: No, [we had] no idea what was happening, other than from the newspapers.
JB: At the outbreak of the war, there were almost 1,900 Germans in this country that were placed in interment camps, like the Japanese. Were they ever worried about this? Did they ever speak to you about this?
KL: We weren't Germans. We were Americans.
KP: Your father must have been very proud of the United States for taking on Hitler, after war was declared.
KL: Oh, yes, oh, yes. We were, one hundred percent. My family was one hundred percent behind the American war effort.
KP: After V-E Day, where were you? Were you still at Camp Kilmer?
KL: No, I was not at Camp Kilmer. I was at Fort Dix.
KP: Fort Dix, excuse me.
KL: No, in May, right around V-E Day, I was transferred overseas. I was transferred over as a casual, wound up in a number of Repple Depples, which are replacement depots, and, ultimately, wound up on a long ride in a Red Ball Express [truck]. Have you heard of the Red Ball Express?
KL: One of the Red Ball Express trucks came to pick us up from a depot in Belgium and ran nonstop, except for five minute break every four hours, straight through to Nuremberg, to Furth, outside of Nuremberg. In fact, I was born in the city of Wetzlar, and we ran through the city of Wetzlar, I think down the street, past the foot of the street, where I was born, never slowed down.
JB: You never got to tour around or visit the places where you lived.
KL: No, never had the freedom while I was in Germany.
KP: What was your assignment in Germany?
KL: I went into the 53rd Quartermaster Base Depot as a replacement Personnel Sergeant Major. I still had two stripes, doing the work of a tech sergeant, but, of course, over there, they had their organization set up, so, there wasn't an opening, and the officers wanted to keep the ratings available for the people that they had. So, I was in Germany for a relatively short time, moved from there down into Camp Lucky Strike, outside of Arles in Southern France, where we spent a couple of months, then, six weeks at sea to Manila, finally, up to Japan.
KP: Most people did not get to go to both theaters.
KL: I didn't volunteer for it. [laughter]
KP: You left Germany as a very young boy. Coming back to a defeated Germany as an American citizen, what were some of your reactions?
KL: I was in a war zone, in a war area. I mean that, honestly, is the reaction. There was no reaction of any personal relationship, not home. Yes, I spoke the language.
JB: Did you talk to any civilians?
KL: Oh, yes, oh, yeah.
JB: What were some of their thoughts about what had happened?
KL: Well, let me take you into Furth, tell you a couple of stories over there. We were quartered in a building, I guess it had been an office at one time, set up bunks over there, but, there was also some civilian housing there. I was approached by a woman [who was] desperately trying to find out about her husband, Major So-and-So. "What do you know about him? Is he really dead?" He was the guy who had been in charge of the bridge at Remagen. So, his wife was trying to find out. She didn't have word, and, of course, I couldn't help her with anything. The 53rd QM Base Depot administered the Red Ball Express. They had twenty-three Russian girls whom the Germans had taken, quote, "prisoner," unquote, during the Russian campaign and they had been working in the various offices, etc., etc., there. They were originally housed in a furniture store, because furniture stores have beds and mattresses. They set up the beds and mattresses in the stores for the girls. They had a German guard, German sentry, on the door. When the American troops moved in, I understand, within a half hour after the German sentry left, the Americans had a sentry outside the door of the girls' quarters. Later, we moved the girls into the Grand Hotel in Furth, which was used as a bachelor officers' quarters, officers' quarters, and they were cooks, they were waitresses, they were maids, etc., in the hotel, but, there were only two of us in the unit who spoke German. So, we spent a good deal of time with the girls and we were probably the only GIs in that part of Bavaria who were authorized to ride around in a jeep overflowing with pretty, young girls. These girls had been taken in the Ukraine, when the Russians retreated. The Russians had a scorched earth policy where, in effect, anyone left behind was a deserter. So, these girls stayed behind. They were workers there. Some of them worked in munitions factories in the area.
KP: What ever happened to them? Do you know?
KL: Yeah, they were repatriated, more or less. We had information from our American intelligence that these girls had been tried as deserters. [They] would be told, which they were, that they were going back to their own village, put on cattle cars, the forty-and-eights, and moved straight out to Siberia to serve anywhere from five to twenty year sentences. Their gathering point was in Czechoslovakia, and, every so often, we would get a request to send a girl over there. The girls would not believe us and they happily went to their unhappy fate.
KP: Did they get sent to Siberia?
KL: No, no, I wasn't there long enough. I don't know exactly what happened to all of them, but, I know that this was the fate.
KP: The Germany you saw was in rubble.
KL: Yes. Well, it was war time.
KP: Did you get in contact with any of your family members?
KL: No, I didn't. No, communications were non-existent.
KP: Did you want to stay in Germany?
KL: No, no. I had the opportunity to stay there.
KP: You would have been a logical choice for military government.
KL: Yes, but, that also would have meant longer service, a longer time in the service, and I did not want that. In fact, I had an opportunity to stay there. A colonel in the military government very much wanted me to be his driver and interpreter, but, I turned him down.
KP: I get the impression that you wanted to get out of the service as quickly as possible.
KL: How did you ever get that idea? [laughter]
KP: You also went to Japan. Did you see any differences or common threads in how the two countries dealt with being defeated?
KL: I mentioned before that Japan was populated by "Koreans." Germany was populated by Germans. We, and I'll talk now about the entire unit, were impressed by the fact that the Germans, particularly the German women, were always clean, as compared with some of the French, who stayed as far away from soap as they could. They were both clean, as far as they were concerned, personally. Their clothes were clean, much of it threadbare, patched, but, clean, washed, pressed, which was quite in contrast with the French. Belgians were almost as clean.
JB: When you left Europe and headed for Japan, do you remember what ship you were on?
KL: Sea Flasher. I don't know whether it was an Army or civilian transport with a Navy gun crew.
KP: You had a long voyage. Do you have memories of your voyage?
KL: Oh, yes.
KP: Did you get seasick again?
KL: No, we got our sea legs.
JB: Did you go through Panama?
KL: We went through the Panama Canal. We were led to believe that our ship was the last transport on that, you know, route going from Marseilles to Manila, the last transport to go through the Canal. Other transports would get to the Canal, then, be diverted to New York, or went directly to New York. In fact, a friend of mine, locally, I was only talking to him last week, he was on one of the ships that went straight up to New York, or was diverted at the Panama Canal, but, we went on through. It was a long voyage. It was a very long voyage.
KP: You were not a commissioned officer. How comfortable were your quarters?
KL: Well, they were just as comfortable as they were for any private or PFC.
KP: Did you sleep in hammocks?
KL: No, they weren't hammocks. The Navy used hammocks. They had racks. They were pipe racks, maybe seven feet long by two-and-a-half feet wide, with a piece of canvass strung across them. They could fold up to be out of the way. They were stacked, oh, four, five, six, high, depending on the height of the ceiling in the area. We were in the cargo compartments of the troop transports. There were probably twenty-four inches between the bunks. You couldn't quite sit up in the bunk. You'd have to dangle your feet and lean your head out.
JB: On arriving in Japan, what was the attitude of the occupational army in Japan, as opposed to Europe?
KL: In Japan, we were in a totally different environment, different world, and everything was new. So, there was the element of novelty there. The people were much more subservient in Japan than they were in Europe, but, oh, in Germany, the people, the merchants, were ready to give you anything that they had. We were in uniform and they had been taught a fear of uniforms, so, I imagine anybody who had a tendency to be a bully would have a field day over there, but, we went into a store to check on something over there and the proprietor was ready to give us the store. He didn't know what to expect. It was still fairly, you know, close after the end of the war. [They] didn't know what to expect.
JB: This is in Germany?
KL: In Germany, yes. No, in Japan, too.
KP: One man I interviewed said that he was on Red Cross detail, and, occasionally, he would be fired upon late at night. Another person said that, when he drove along the Autobahn, the bridges had been bombed out and barricades had been put up.
KL: Oh, yes.
KP: People would often remove those at night, with the idea that you would fall into the river. Did you observe any vandalism or ill feeling expressed towards American forces?
KL: No, I'm sure that that went on. Well, we used the Autobahn when we went from Dijon, in Belgium, to Nuremberg. Why, yes, each time we'd come to a bridge, well, we'd have to go down into the brook, either ford the brook or take a bailey bridge across the stream, and then, up on the other side, but, ill feeling, no, partly because I was able to communicate. One of the big questions that I was asked over, and over, and over again is, "How is New York after the bombing?" [laughter] Did you hear about that? You didn't hear that New York was bombed?
KP: What would you say to people? They probably trusted you more, because you spoke the language.
KL: Oh, yes, I spoke the language. They trusted me. They believed me, but they couldn't believe it. In 1944, or '45, Adolf Hitler decided he wanted to bomb New York in the same way that Jimmy Doolittle had bombed Tokyo. They set up a plan, a complete plan, where aircraft would fly from Germany, they would be refueled at sea, bomb New York, and then, ditch in the sea off New York, where they would be picked up by submarines. Then, somebody, I have no idea who, came up with the idea that they could save a good many lives and a good deal of equipment if they did this all on paper. Consequently, these fastidious Germans took that original plan and they worked it out to the last dotted "i" and crossed "t," the names of the squadrons that were flying over, names of the fliers, the submarines, the names of the submarines. They decided who the survivors were going to be. Everything was worked out to the last dotted "i" and crossed "t." They manufactured photographs, which were published in the newspapers, and I saw the papers, because everybody in Germany had a relative in the US, and New York was symbolic of the USA. Consequently, many people cut these things out. I was one of the people who could communicate and was authorized to communicate with the Germans in that period, in the time of non-fraternization. So, what they had done, they had photographs from the air, very, very good, realistic photographs, showing [the] destruction of the bombing. Some of them were supposedly taken from the aircraft, others from reconnaissance aircraft afterwards, some of them were claimed to have been smuggled out by Nazi sympathizers in New York, showing all kinds of damage, very convincing. I saw photographs of fliers being helped off submarines, that had been picked up and brought back in. It was a complete story. There was no truth to it at all, and, of course, the question is, "How is New York after the bombing?" "What bombing?" "Well, New York was bombed." "It was not." "Oh, your propaganda is hiding it," you know, that sort of thing. "Listen, I was in New York two months ago. It was never hit. I was never far away from New York. It was never hit. There is no damage." They believed and they didn't believe, but, that is what propaganda can do.
KP: How did you think de-Nazification would go? What were your hopes for the new Germany?
KL: I didn't hope, I believed it, because, in communication before the war, in the early part of the war, afterward, the people we knew were generally not Nazi sympathizers, and Germany was not, and I still believe that to this day, Germany was not, primarily, a Nazi nation. The Nazis were a group of men who took advantage of the country, but, this was not a Nazi country. Most of them were not Nazis. Most of them wanted to disassociate themselves from Nazism.
KP: You mentioned earlier that you had a good friend in high school who was Jewish. When you were in Germany, after the truth came out about the concentration camps and death camps, how did you feel? What do you think the average German thought about this?
KL: The average German was shocked. The average German was in disbelief that these things could happen. Yes, there were concentration camps, they knew that, and, yes, not everybody who died of pneumonia actually died of pneumonia. I mean, this was taken for granted, but, these death camps were unbelievable.
KP: In terms of the scope of the mass killing, it was shocking.
KL: That was shocking, and the mere fact that these people were deliberately [killed], and that they were deliberate, planned killings.
KP: Do you think that their disbelief was akin to the, "No Nazis," statement?
KL: No, no, no, no.
JB: What did the Germans think happened to all the Jewish people in town?
KL: Don't forget, everybody lives in just one neighborhood. So, the Jews, in their neighborhood, were in some concentration camp somewhere. You know your neighborhood, you know yours, I know mine. If something like this happens, especially where there's a news blackout, you only see your own neighborhood. So, how many could there be from your neighborhood, unless you lived in a ghetto? Half a dozen families, perhaps, and then, there were those who got away. After I came back, I had a man working for me, in New York, by the name of Rothschild, Alfonse Rothschild, small man, very German, happened to be Jewish, but, a broken man. I think it was on his wrist, no, it was on the inside of the wrist, he had a number tattooed. I got to know him fairly well. He'd been taken to a concentration camp, not a death camp, and he was allowed to leave Germany. He was in a camp. His wife was in a different camp. He was told, "You and your wife are both being released. You have twenty-four hours to get out of Germany. How you do it is up to you. Get out, otherwise, you're going to be shot." He left Germany. He never said what happened to him in the camp, but, there wasn't much of him left upstairs. The man had been an owner of a steel processing plant. He worked as a mail boy and was grateful for the job.
KP: The war against Japan was quite bitter.
KL: Oh, yes.
KP: What was the attitude of the occupying troops? Was there a lingering bitterness?
KL: Kurt, that depended on the ...
KL: On the individual. If you talked to someone who had been in combat, in active combat, against the Japanese and had any contact with the Japanese soldier, it was extreme bitterness. Those of us who had not been in direct contact didn't have that bitter feeling.
KP: You were sent to Germany, but, you had grown up there and you were familiar with their culture. Was the Japanese culture a shock to you?
KL: I wouldn't say it was a shock, it was a surprise. It was interesting. It was interesting to be in the Philippines, outside of Manila and in among the rice paddies, to see the "whoopie" wagons carrying their loads of "fertilizer" from the city out into the big, round "swimming pools" in the fields. You know what I mean by the swimming pools, where they kept, yes, the sewage. It was a surprise to see people working with a water buffalo. This was mostly in the Philippines. In Japan, they had the same things that we did.
-----------------------------------END OF TAPE TWO, SIDE ONE--------------------------------------
KL: In Japan, there had been bombing. They used incendiaries to destroy the houses and high explosives to destroy the water supply, which was very effective with the flimsy wood and paper houses that they had in the Nagoya area. In some areas, you could see for miles, just open land with a few streets laid out in between and, here and there, a hand pump sticking up, no chimneys, nothing else, just that where the land was cleared out. They had stores like we had here, different merchandise.
KP: What about the diet? Did you eat any Japanese food or did you stay mainly on base?
KL: Well, we stayed on base, because there wasn't too much else to do. We were under strict orders not to eat Japanese food for two reasons. Number one, there wasn't enough for the Japanese, and, number two, the Army did not know, or the Americans did not know, the extent to which the human fertilizer would be apt to spread disease and other ailments. So, we stayed away from it.
KP: How long were you in Japan?
KL: Landed in October of '45 and left in, I guess, January of '46, November, December, January, four months.
KP: You traveled a long way back. [laughter] How did you finally come home, in terms of points?
KL: Yes. Staying in the United States, you don't get many points and I happened to get into Germany just before the end of the Battle Of Central Europe, so that I was given a battle star for the Battle Of Central Europe, which was very valuable, because it was worth five points towards discharge. [laughter]
KP: You obviously did not want to make a career of the military. I take it, without asking, that you were looking forward to being discharged.
KL: Oh, yes.
KP: How was your voyage home?
KL: One day out of Nagoya Bay, we had a case of smallpox on board. You've probably both read stories about the plague ship, with the yellow flag flying from the masthead. We had the yellow flag flying from the masthead. They had no vaccine on board. They couldn't turn back, because there was not enough vaccine in Japan. So, we were supposed to go into Seattle. Instead of heading for Seattle, we headed to Pearl, Pearl Harbor, and we stood off Pearl Harbor while a launch came out and brought out crates of vaccine. Our unit was one of the first to get the shots. We were getting our shots while the last of the crates were still being hauled on board, and then, we took a leisurely cruise, I think it was ten days or two weeks, from Pearl Harbor up to Seattle.
KP: Did anyone die onboard?
KL: No, no. There was one case and it was probably smallpox, because there was an epidemic of smallpox in Nagoya when we were there. It was a particularly virulent strain of smallpox. A few of the troops did get it. There were areas that were off limits. Those happened to also include some red light districts, which were visited by some of our troops, and a few of them came back with us. As a consequence, some of the graves registration units, the guys that were responsible for burying them, also got the smallpox, and there were some casualties there, so, it was not very pleasant, that part of it. That's another reason why we didn't fraternize.
KP: Were you concerned about disease?
KL: Well, particularly the smallpox.
JB: After you arrived in Seattle, how did you get back to the East Coast?
JB: Was it a long ride?
KL: No, five days. [laughter]
KP: You majored in English literature at Rutgers. What did you think you would do after college while you were at Rutgers? Had your experience in personnel changed what you thought you might want to do?
KL: Well, I had hoped to be able to continue. I hoped to be able to go for a doctorate. I hoped to be able to teach, but, almost four years, let's say, easily four years of being away from it, for a guy who has always had a sieve-like memory, would have made the graduate work a little bit too difficult. I figured it would take at least one, possibly two years of refresher to bring me back up to where I had been when I graduated. So, I was looking for some sort of administrative work.
KP: If the war had not happened, you might well have tried to go to graduate school.
KL: I would have, had it not been for the war. I would have planned to go to graduate school, yes.
KP: You had the GI Bill. Did that tempt you to consider graduate school?
KL: I got married right after I got back.
KP: How did you meet your wife? Did you meet her during the war?
KL: Yeah, I was at Rutgers.
KP: As a student?
KL: No, not as a student, in the ASTP unit, and down on Carol Place was a USO, and there was a dance there one night. A buddy and I went down there to the dance, and I started dancing with a gal and got along fairly well, so, I took her home and asked her whether I could see her again, and she agreed. Lo and behold, things developed and we got engaged just before I went overseas. I decided, "Well, now, so long that the war is winding down, I'm not going to go overseas." [I] bought her a ring and, boom, off I went.
JB: Did you stay in touch with each other while you were overseas?
KL: Oh, of course. Yeah, well, we were engaged.
KP: Did you send letters back and forth? Did you save anything?
KL: Oh, yes.
KP: As a soldier in close proximity to civilians, did it strike you how much better fed and clothed you were?
KL: Yes, yes, we were better off, bettered clothed. Well, let's say we were somewhat limited in our choice of clothing, but, as far as food was concerned, yes, very definitely. Everything worthwhile was rationed. Even liquor was rationed. The sugar was rationed, flour. I think meat was rationed. I don't really remember, but, I know, when we went on furlough, we would be given extra ration stamps to take home, so that there would be food for us.
KP: Did you ever have any contact with WACS at any of your posts? Were there any, for example, at Fort Dix?
KL: Fort Dix was the first post in the Second Service Command to get a detail of WACS, and among the women who were in that unit, apparently, were some who didn't want to be separated from men, because there were not very many men around, and they were the roughest, toughest "broads" that you could ever hope to find. If you think we had some sergeants, some non-coms, who had had considerable experience in discussing some of the attributes of the recruits who were not quite to their liking, they were like little babies compared to the language that came out of a few of those gals.
KP: What did they do on the base?
KL: Some of them were truck drivers, clerks, cooks, and bakers, administrative.
KP: They had a variety of jobs.
KP: They were not just typists.
KL: Oh, no.
KP: How were they received by the other men at Fort Dix? Were they accepted?
KL: There was official discrimination. The WACS were never wrong.
JB: Did you ever take them to Wrightstown, for the dances?
KL: Well, they were them and we were us. No, I was kidding when I said that. No, at least the people in the units I was in didn't mingle with the WACS at all. At the USO dances, at some of the dances on the post, there were women who would come in from, oh, I'd say from this area, from Princeton, from Trenton, from Newark. They would be bused in there. They'd be nice, quote-unquote, "American girls," not in uniform, and I guess there was a great deal of reserve about the WACS.
KP: Did you ever have any contact with any African-American soldiers?
KL: Oh, yes. When we went to Japan, we went on a transport that had 3000 troops aboard. I don't know the exact ratio, but, I would say two-thirds of them were black, and my impression, at the time, is that they were no different from you or me. They bled just as red, and they were no smarter than I was, and they were no more stupid than I was, but, as a whole, most were totally uneducated.
KP: You noticed that right away?
KL: Yeah, they were totally uneducated and I say that for this reason. At the quartermaster base in Japan, at Nagoya, we had a number of black units attached to us, laundry units, trucking companies, warehouse, shower units. You know, they had units that brought showers around, so that we had a great many black units there, and each unit, of course, was supposed to have a certain number of officers, administrative officers. There was a first sergeant who was expected to be able to read the English language. There was a company clerk who was supposed to be able to not only read it, but, also, translate it into the written word, preferably with a typewriter, and they didn't exist in many cases. Just simply because a man was able to read, write, and, perhaps, type a little bit, he could automatically count on being made a company clerk. I know, because I've agonized with company commanders, I've agonized with first sergeants about getting people, you know, and when the troops were rotated back, trying to find somebody who would be able to do some of this work, and just because a man couldn't read and write didn't mean that he wasn't intelligent. Coming over on the transport, gambling was one of the favorite occupations. Very quickly, virtually all of the money aboard gravitated to a small group of people and there would be card games, remember, this was 1944, '45, I guess, where the stakes would run into tens of thousands of dollars. Some of the players, some of these card athletes, were black. I made a friend of one guy. I would sit with him and I'm the world's worst card player. When I go into a card game, or when I went into a card game, I'd decide how much I was able to contribute to the cause, and, when that was gone, I'd walk away. [laughter] So, this guy was trying to teach me how to play cards and he would explain to me, you know, "You had a hand." Oh, yes, this guy could look at a hand, like that, he would give me the odds of something happening down to two, three, four decimal places, figure it out in his head, and, yet, he couldn't read and write.
KP: Was that surprising to you, that there was that innate intelligence?
KL: Surprising, no, but, let's call it a revelation, because I've known enough people who've said that, "Oh, the black just doesn't have the intelligence, doesn't have the ability. Don't try to do anything with them," and I'm not talking only of people, I'm talking about full professors at universities in New Brunswick.
KP: When you were a student?
KL: No, after the war. I mean, this was a firm belief. I never could accept it, but, this, I mean, sort of thing, okay, it's one example. I'm talking about one, or two, or three men, but ...
KP: You knew this was simply because they had not been educated.
KL: Yes, oh, yes.
KP: Was there ever any conflict between white soldiers and black soldiers?
KL: No more than normal between two different people brought up in two different environments.
KP: Did you have any white southerners with you, for example, on the voyage over?
KL: We had all varieties, all flavors, they were there, and we were a bunch of American GIs, black or white, Northern, Southern.
JB: When you were ready to leave the Army, did they offer you money to reup?
KL: They offered, yeah, yeah. I don't remember how much it was, because I'm hesitating when I'm saying that, because I went into that interview with the firm notion that ain't nothing going to get [me] back in there, [laughter] and I really didn't pay that much attention, but, yes, I think there was a reenlistment bonus, and I could stay in grade if I wanted to go into the National Guard, or the reserves, or what have you. In fact, only about five years ago, I guess I was way past sixty, I am going to be very generous on this, I got a letter from the governor of New Jersey saying that, "The National Guard needs enlistees," and, if I would go to the nearest recruiting station, they would be very happy to give me back the grade that I had held when I was in the service. [laughter]
KP: How did you get your first job? What line of work did you decide upon?
KL: There were two million ex-GIs looking for jobs and the jobs were few and far between, so, I looked for whatever I could get. My first job was an administrative assistant to a man up in Kearny who had a business of selling textile chemicals to the textile industry, a very unsatisfactory job, lasted about six months. Then, I was hunting again. Luckily, my wife was working and she was down here in Princeton working as a municipal accountant for a municipal accounting company.
KP: How did you find your next job?
KL: Well, pounding the streets and going to agencies. I went to work for a company in New York, a distributor of television and appliances, Gross Distributors, and I was there for quite a numbers of years, 'til 1960, about 1960, yes, and they had made some bad management decisions and were finally forced out of business, and, in fact, I was one of the last several people in the company working there. I managed to close down the place and sell a lot of the office equipment. Then, I spent a couple of years working for a fertilizer manufacturer down here in Dayton, outside of New Brunswick, because I wanted to come back to New Jersey, and, finally, from there, I wound up with what was originally White Laboratories, and, eventually, became Schering-Plough Corporation, in Kenilworth, and I retired from there.
KP: What kind of work did you do towards the end of your career?
KL: Administrative management, manager of administrative services.
KP: Was it similar to what you did in the Army? Obviously, it became more sophisticated.
KL: Yes, well, in some ways it was similar. The Army can be very, very simple, really. I was dealing with some finite things. In the Army, if you can become familiar with Army regulations, which is a book about this thick, and with the different directives and circulars that are issued, well, you're sitting on top of the world. As a non-com, as a non-commissioned officer, you can tell the officers what to do and where to go, within limits.
KP: None of your children served in the military. Did any of them consider going to fight in Vietnam?
KL: No, they were lucky. They were not called. None of them had the inclination to enlist, if that's your question.
KP: How did you feel about the Vietnam War? Would you have wanted them to go fight, if they had been drafted?
KL: Kurt, I'm a father. I wouldn't want my children to go to war, or my grandchildren.
KP: You were really glad that they did not go.
KL: Oh, of course. Listen, somebody could get hurt, [laughter] but, for me, that's okay. I'll take my chances, but, I don't want to expose my kids to something like that. That's an honest feeling and it still is today. I dread the thought that either of my two grandsons might someday be called.
JB: Would you have stopped them if they wanted to?
KL: No, no, no more than my father tried to stop me.
KP: How did your father feel about you going off to become a soldier?
KL: Kurt, there was no question about it, this was a war, a situation that's not existed since 1946, when we came out of the Army. The nation was at war, and you were just expected to go into the service, and we would tell each other how stupid we were to enlist, how dumb it was that we didn't get ourselves a nice, cushy, safe job in a defense industry, but, at the same time, we did, and incline to this day, to look down, somewhat, on somebody who managed to keep his tail intact by staying home.
KP: Did you think that Korea and Vietnam were very different wars?
KL: They were different, primarily because we were limited. In some ways, they were a lot the same, the fighting in jungles. Our troops did it in the Pacific islands. They did it in New Guinea, the Philippines, but, that was different. That was a war. That will probably sound like a very stupid statement twenty years from now.
KP: You had some contact with Russians during the war, Russians POWs and Russian women in Germany. Did it surprise you how quickly American policy turned from the Russians being our allies to being one of our biggest adversaries?
KL: I wasn't expecting it, but, no, I wasn't surprised.
KP: In 1945 and 1946?
KL: No, I wasn't surprised, because, in 1945, in Germany, a rumor suddenly cropped up, and that came from both the civilian and military end, this was shortly after the war had ended, that the Americans and Russians had gone to war in Berlin.
KP: This was your classic rumor.
KL: The classic rumor. Everybody believes it and everybody expresses an opinion. Generally speaking, the Germans expressed great relief. "It's great. It's wonderful. Maybe we can get rid of them." For us, hey, after four years, we didn't want to go on again, but, of course, it was just a rumor.
KP: However, it is one that you definitely remembered, like the attack on New York.
KL: Oh, yes
KP: Jim, do you have any more questions?
JB: No, I have exhausted everything.
KP: Is there anything I forgot to ask?
KL: I think you were very well prepared. You kept me going. [laughter]
KP: It was a pleasure to interview you.
KL: Well, thank you, thank you.
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Reviewed by Eve Snyder 2/22/98
Reviewed by Shaun Illingworth 5/16/00
Reviewed by Sandra Stewart Holyoak 5/20/00
Reviewed by Kurt Leuser 6/00