Molly Graham: This is an interview with Lee Casper. The interview is taking place in Gladwyne, Pennsylvania. The interviewer is Molly Graham and I am accompanied by ...
Edwin Cholula: ... Edwin Cholula.
MG: Lee, I would like to start at the beginning. Can you say when and where you were born?
LC: Yes, I was born in Philadelphia, December 27, 1925.
MG: How old does that make you today?
LC: Well, I'll be ninety this year.
MG: Tell me a little bit about your family history, starting on your mother's side.
LC: Yes. My mother was born in an area of Philadelphia called Grays Ferry. At the time, Grays Ferry was kind of a notorious area. It was the home of a number of very prominent Irish gangs, minor gangsters, no big-time crime as we know it today, but they were considered, in those days, tough, tough guys. My grandmother, my mother's mother, was widowed at an early age, with four children, two daughters and two sons. She was a tiny, little woman and only in this country a short time. She was born in Riga. I forget if Riga is Latvia or Lithuania, or maybe it was Estonia. So, you'll have to look. [Editor's Note: Riga is the capital and largest city in Latvia.] Anyhow, that's where she came from. She and her husband had operated a tiny, little store in Grays Ferry, a general store, a variety store, I guess you'd call it. When her husband died, she continued to operate the store to support her children. The head of the leading Irish gang was so taken with her courage to do this that he became her protector. No harm ever came to that store, because it was known that he looked after her. Subsequently, as the kids got older, she saved a little money and bought a larger house at 57th [Street] and Chester Avenue in West Philly, which was reasonably, not affluent, but a middle-class neighborhood. She converted part of the house into a much larger store and, eventually, her two sons ended up operating the store. The two girls, my mother and my aunt, were married and went off, but that's what happened on that end.
MG: What is in that space today?
LC: I've been by there. The store is still there. It's on the corner of Alden [Street] and Chester, which is 57th and Chester. There's not a whole lot of difference in the neighborhood, [laughter] I don't think, and was at that time. It hasn't gentrified, nor has it gone downhill. So, that's that side of the story. My mother went on to go to secretarial school after she got out of high school and she became an expert typist, if you remember what typing was. Speed was all-important and she was very good. She got a job at the start of the First World War in the Arsenal, the Frankford Arsenal. The Arsenal is still there--it's a commercial development--but, at the time, it was one of the major arsenals for the United States, for the federal government. She worked for the guy who was in charge. She was his secretary. She maintained that skill. She typed letters for as long as she lived, long letters for all her relatives, because it was so easy for her. She could talk to you and crank this stuff out.
MG: What about the family history on your father's side?
LC: My father had six brothers and sisters. They came from Vitebsk, Russia, [currently in Belarus], which is the birthplace of Marc Chagall, the famous artist. They settled in South Philadelphia. My grandfather was a bricklayer and he caught on very quickly. They came here in about 1901. My father was born in 1899, so, he was two or three years old when they came here, but my grandfather raised his family on the strength of his bricklaying skills. In fact, he was so good, he was very shortly in business for himself and he became a major bricklaying contracting company. He was in competition [with]--and friends with--Jack Kelly, Sr. Jack Kelly, Sr., was Grace Kelly's, the movie star, father and he became a very famous Philadelphian, as you probably know. So, as I say, my grandfather was the Jewish bricklayer and Kelly was the Irish bricklayer, but my grandfather had an Irish foreman and Kelly had a Jewish foreman. So, it was very ironic. [laughter]
MG: What precipitated their immigration to the United States?
LC: I think, generally, pogroms, the occasion of pogroms [violent, anti-Semitic riots] that occurred in those years in many parts of Russia. I know that was the cause for my former wife's [family's immigration]. My wife and I, that I mentioned to you [before], divorced a few years before she died. We remained friends. We just couldn't get along any longer and decided to part company, but we socialized together, and so forth, and I was very close with her family. Her family positively ran away from Russia. One of her uncles, a young uncle, was killed by the Cossacks right in view of the whole family. So, they had good reason to run. They came from Odessa.
MG: Do you know how your parents met?
LC: Yes, they both worked in the Arsenal. My father was too young for the Army at the time, and so, he was working in the Arsenal, as was my mother. They met there and, in a couple of years, they were married.
MG: Did they tell you anything about living through World War I?
LC: Yes, they told many stories. My father was a high school graduate. He did not go to college. He graduated from Southern High in Philly [South Philadelphia High School]. By coincidence, there were a lot people, in the sports world largely, who became quite famous, nationally, from that Southern High. One of them was the fellow who founded--actually, he started--the National Basketball Association. He originated that and he owned the Warriors. They were called the Warriors, the early team. Suddenly, his name escapes me; I know it well, but he was a buddy of my father's. [Editor's Note: Mr. Casper is referring to Eddie Gottlieb, who helped found the Basketball Association of America, a forerunner of the NBA, and managed the Philadelphia (now Golden State) Warriors.] There were a number of fighters, poor kids who were strong and gravitated towards the various sports in those years, even more so, or as much as, happens today. A lot of these kids were boxers. I remember, when I was a kid, boxing with Benny Bass. Benny Bass was lightweight champ, for a very short time, of the United States. I guess I must've been four years old when that happened, but I still remember it. Lew Tendler, who was another famous fighter and had very successful restaurants in later life, both in Philadelphia and Atlantic City, everybody knew Lou Tendler, he was another, even more famous than Benny Bass, had many famous fights. Anyhow, all these fellows were buddies of my father. So, I had an exciting boyhood, because my father would take me to all these events. At an early age, my father had a nightclub on Chestnut Street, near 40th--Club Normadie, which became a well-known nightclub. So many entertainers, who later were early comers in Hollywood as they got more famous and/or on Broadway, knew my father because they had acts that worked in his club. We would go places when I was a boy and people would wave from the stage to my father. I got such a kick out of that, but that didn't last. My mother could not tolerate that kind of business and he shortly got out of that and became a builder. [laughter]
MG: Do you remember any of the acts that would come through?
LC: Sure. There was--you would never know it, but they were famous then--an act called Block and Sully, Jesse Block and I think it was Eve Sully. It was a typical husband-and-wife kind of wise guy, back-and-forth, standup comedy act. They went on to go to Hollywood. Of course, they're long forgotten, but they were somebody in those years. Magicians were a big deal in those days. There were many men who became famous, nationally, internationally. Blackstone was one of them. Of course, the most famous was Harry Houdini--he was head-and-shoulders above the rest of them--but these others emulated Houdini's act and they were all very good and very successful. So, I knew a number of them. The one I remember was Blackstone [Harry Blackstone, Sr., also known as "the Great Blackstone"].
MG: That must have been very exciting to have in your life as a kid.
LC: Yes, it was. I remember Blackstone because we went to see him once. Of course, we were seated down front and he needed a young assistant and, of course, he picked me. I went on stage and did whatever I had to do. It was exciting for a kid.
MG: About how old were you when your father had the nightclub?
LC: Oh, I couldn't have been more than four or five, maybe six. Yes, then, he had just gone into the building business when the Depression really hit and things were so bad, the lack of work for anybody, but in particular builders. Somehow or other, he found something in Newark. He began commuting to Newark, driving up on a Monday morning and coming back Friday night. My mother stood for that for about three or four months and said, "We can't do this," and we all moved to Newark. That's how my New Jersey connection occurred. I was seven then, my brother was three, when we moved.
MG: I wonder if you can talk about how moving to Philadelphia was a unique experience, because it is sort of the city of firsts--the first bank, the first library, such a historic city.
LC: Yes. Well, I have to say Philadelphia was not a greatly admired city by the general public in those years, [laughter] because they had the blue laws in effect then. You know what the blue laws were? Well, they were so prohibitive of all the little kinds of entertainment and recreation that people could hope to afford, they were so restrictive in that area, that it did not attract outsiders to come in. There were no decent restaurants, other than eating clubs, in Philadelphia, wasn't a place to eat in Philadelphia other than the few eating clubs that existed and, of course, you couldn't get a drink at all on weekends. I'm going to say when things got better, after Prohibition, these laws still existed in terms of Sunday restrictions on drinking. The fact that I keep mentioning drinking makes it sounds as if it's so important, but it was. It did play a big part in the Philadelphia social fabric. On a Saturday night at eleven-thirty, the traffic on the Ben Franklin Bridge from Philadelphia to Camden was like rush hour, people going over to Jersey in order to get a drink, because, at midnight, that would shut down in Philly. That went on for years--something I hadn't thought about for a while. [laughter] [Editor's Note: The era of Prohibition began on January 17, 1920, with the enactment of the Eighteenth Amendment to the US Constitution, set in motion by the Volstead Act. It ended with the ratification of the Twenty-First Amendment to the US Constitution on December 5, 1933.]
MG: Did those Prohibition laws impact the nightclub in any way?
LC: Well, yes, sure. I can't say this for a fact, because, of course, I didn't observe it first-hand, but I know that they had bootleg liquor. I mean, everybody did. John Kennedy's father, Joseph Kennedy, was the world's biggest bootlegger. I mean, that's where his fortune came from, wasn't even a secret. Prohibition was so abhorred by the public at large, even though it continued to exist, because people in Congress didn't have the stomach to be the one to stand up and say it should be repealed, until, finally, it happened. It did give rise to a whole kind of gray world that was against the law, but was, in a sense, tolerated.
MG: What was the cultural and ethnic makeup of the neighborhood you grew up in in Philadelphia?
LC: Well, at that time, it was a new neighborhood. We moved into 59th and Warrington Avenue, which is at a junction where Cobbs Creek Park comes in. Cobbs Creek Park is a very pretty, very old and very large park, one of the major parks in Philly, and it was considered a fancy place. [laughter] It wasn't. The people who lived there thought it was. It was sort of aspiring, high-end middle class, that's what it was. It was mixed, maybe predominantly, that area, Jewish, but, no, I would say Jewish, Irish, Italian, Polish, but a higher percentage of Jewish people who sort of upgraded from South Philadelphia, where their parents originally settled. This was the new area they went to. Really, people went there because it was a new area. The houses were all new.
MG: Would you attend services all together and celebrate holidays, things like that?
LC: Yes, there was a very significant, for the area, synagogue there, out on 58th and Warrington Avenue. My aunts and uncles all lived in that area.
MG: Was it unique that your father had a car to get back and forth to Newark?
LC: Well, fortunately for him, he had it remaining from before the bust. We actually had two cars before things went bad. We had a big, old, red--old, then, it was new [laughter]--we had a big, red Buick and he had a Ford Model A that they called a touring car. It had a rumble seat and, in the spring and summer, my father would ask us in the evening whether we wanted to take a ride in the country. We would pile into the little Ford, because of the rumble seat. My brother and I would sit in this. The rumble seat was where you presently might have a trunk. The lid opened from the top and flipped back and became the back of the seat and inside were two seats and you sat in there, in the open. We would drive to the so-called "country." By the country, he meant Darby and Yeadon. Darby and Yeadon are two little towns adjacent to Southwest Philly, but, in those years, they were largely farms and that was considered "going out to the farms."
MG: What other memories do you have of growing up in Philadelphia?
LC: That's about it, because we moved right when I was seven. So, I certainly didn't have a large social life. I had a lot of friends, a few of whom are still around, but we had just started school, and so, we didn't have an extensive friendship in the area.
MG: What were some of the early signs that the Depression had impacted your family?
LC: Well, the fact that we had to move in order for my father to have enough work for us to live on. The Depression was everything that you read about it, that I remember very clearly. The pictures and stories you hear about men standing on a corner selling apples, they really did that. I mean, I remember that. I remember my father had a small home improvement company--he had a contracting business--and he had plumbers and electricians and carpenters working for him. He would go out and get a job and put each one of them to work on them. He was not capable at all with his hands; he was absolutely not capable. He didn't want to be, but he knew how to manage the others. I remember him, I can remember clearly, being on the phone on a Friday night talking to his men and crying, because he couldn't pay them that week and, if they would keep going, he'd pay them next week, which he did, but it was seriously bad.
MG: Was there anything extra that you or your brother had to do during those years?
LC: No, no, while everybody was poor, but we were spoiled and my father never stinted. He acted as if things were fine, as far as his wife and his kids were concerned. He went without, but we always had whatever we needed. I grew up in Newark, in that Weequahic neighborhood that the Ershow Family was in, and that was, again, everybody was poor, but they were perhaps more than a little bit better off in that most of them were either working or they were entrepreneurs, had small businesses, and so, were getting by. [Editor's Note: Mr. Casper is referring to the Rutgers Oral History Archives' interview with Walter Ershow.] When I went to high school, the Depression was largely over. That was 1939, when I went, started in Central High [School]. While I lived in the Weequahic area, Central High was seven or eight miles away in Downtown Newark, where Weequahic was on the western edge. I saw such a difference. The kids who went to my high school were at a different level, that is, their living standards. I was one of the only kids that had leather shoes when I went to Central. The kids all wore Keds. Do you know what Keds are? A lot of people, Keds were the only sneaker made at the time, K-E-D-S, but all the kids wore Keds, because Keds were ninety cents a pair and a pair of [leather] shoes were three-and-a-half dollars or whatever. So, I was sort of like a rich kid, although we were not, [laughter] but relative to many other people. When you read and hear about recession today, I am confident that I'm correct, it has never hit the level that the depths of the Depression went to.
MG: How was life different for your family when you moved to New Jersey? What changed?
LC: Now, the mode of living in Newark was a lot different than Philadelphia. [In] Philadelphia, even though people were poor, they owned their homes. The bulk of Newark-ers did not own their homes. Where Philadelphia is a city of row houses, Newark is largely freestanding houses and the typical house, throughout Newark--neighborhoods differed in styles--but, throughout Newark, the homes were largely three-story homes, where one story would be occupied by the owner and the owner would rent out the second and third floor to a second tenant and a third floor tenant. Thereby, he could afford to own that house, but that was commonplace. That was the case before the Depression; that didn't happen because of the Depression. That was just the difference in the style of living there, but I would have to say, thinking about it now, that it was a more enjoyable way to live, in that all of these houses usually had side and rear yards, where you did not have that in Philadelphia. So, the living conditions were more pleasant, I guess, for lack of a better word, in Newark, and I realized this even at an early age. Newark, in those days, was a wonderful, wonderful city. Despite the Depression, we had a wonderful library system and my friends and I lived in the library. [laughter] We all appreciated the library so much and utilized it. Newark had a great museum and still does, Newark Museum, you probably know, still a wonderful museum. We had a great park system, had four prominent parks--Weequahic Park, Branch Brook Park, West Side Park--all well-kept, well-maintained through the Depression. It was kind of a make-work kind of thing for the public servants, but it did offer all these free things that made life worth living during that period. Transportation was a marvel. For five cents, for a nickel, you could literally go anywhere in North Jersey. The buses would take you anywhere, good bus lines, all over the city, and you could get a transfer at the end, a paper transfer, to get on a Suburban for this same nickel. [laughter] When you think of it now, it's hard to believe, but it was wonderful and kids used the buses and trolley lines. There was not the same fear of crime that there is today in the use of a lot of public transportation. It was a remarkable area. The best way to illustrate how remarkable that area was, or Newark is, and you may know of it, this Weequahic High School that I've mentioned to you, Phillip Roth, Phillip was in my brother's class at Weequahic. That school, the graduates of that school now have a paper that they publish, that several of their members publish, every Friday on the Internet. If you read this, people write in whatever on all kinds of subjects--sports and current events in Newark and the old restaurants and the old gangsters and sports of the time. People today, graduates of that Weequahic High, write in like it's still their neighborhood, raving about what used to be. Now, it cannot just be a coincidence that so many thousands of people find it in their memory to have been a wonderful place. It was, it simply was. [Editor's Note: Pulitzer Prize-winning author Philip Roth often draws upon his background in Newark's Jewish community in his works.] Of the few odd friends that I have from North Jersey who are in this area, when we get together and talk about it, my lady friend can't stand it, because she thinks we're all crazy when we talk about the wonderful times that we had in Newark. [laughter]
MG: Do you ever get a chance to go back to Newark?
LC: I have and, in fact, I was sort of active for, oh, maybe [until] ten years ago, in helping revitalize an area. There's a Catholic priest in Center City Newark--names are starting to give me trouble--who we sponsored. One of the nonprofits that I have been a member of and supporter of is called the Reinvestment Fund. It was founded in Philadelphia by a friend of mine and I was on their board until very recently and was their so-called "technical advisor" in the building area. Anyhow, we sponsor affordable housing, largely, but we also sponsor neighborhood businesses, and so forth. It's a lending [firm]. We're a financial institution, but we lend money to people who could otherwise not obtain a loan, not because they don't have any credit, but because they don't have any equity to support the [loan] that a bank would require. We assess them and, based on our judgment, we take a chance and we've been very, very, very successful. Anyhow, we helped this priest get started. He's very capable and he's been on his own for a number of years, but he's a guy who redeveloped the whole area of High Street in Newark. He built several mid-rise, low-rent homes for senior citizens. He built a whole section of affordable housing for lower-end working people. He started a big printing business. He ended up doing the printing for Newark, the medical school up there. He started one of the most successful ShopRites in [Newark]. He was a real entrepreneur and he attracted subsidization from people inclined [to help], after our time had passed, the Hartz Family. Hartz Mountain Company, they're very philanthropic and they have been big benefactors of his, but they've rebuilt a major part of Newark. So, I was part of that maybe ten years ago.
MG: I know you were involved in the Boy Scouts for a time.
LC: Yes, I was a Boy Scout, but, other than the fun I had, it was not a significant time. I had friends then and they remained friends for the rest of their lives with me from the Boy Scouts, but it wasn't that important to me.
MG: What about other extracurricular activities while growing up?
LC: I aspired to be a basketball player for my high school. I was good enough to be on the squad, never good enough to start. I was a substitute. I was on the cross-country team. We had a championship cross-country team and I continued to run until just a few years ago. So, sports were important to me, but I guess the most significant thing that happened to me, whether I realized it or not at the time, was going to that Central High School. Central High was a wonderful school, as Weequahic was a wonderful school, in terms of its academic accomplishments. Central was a technical [school] and, I guess, I can't remember what they called it, but it taught secretarial skills to, largely, women. There were a few men that took the secretarial courses, but it was Central Technical and something or other, Commercial High, and Central offered a college prep course, which you had to select. The kids who picked Central to go to were largely thinking of one of the manual trades or a secretarial career, but, if you wanted to go to college, as I did, you could pick out English, French, Spanish, Latin--no, Central didn't teach Latin--had a wonderful Math Department, but everything required for college prep, as well as taking the technical courses as the minors. So, I did take a college prep course, plus the various minors, and the technical training there was just wonderful. Again, at the end of the Depression, this would be 1940, if you graduated from Central with a grade score of--they used "A," "B," "C," "D," then--of I'm going to say a "B" or "B+" up, you almost automatically got a job at any of the Newark industries. Newark was loaded with heavy industries at the time. There's nothing there now, but they were all there. GE was there. Tung-Sol made--they're no longer in business--but they're one of the biggest lamp makers. Edison was there, Westinghouse was there. At any of them, if you went in with a Central diploma, you got a job, a technical job, as a kind of a junior-junior engineering something, and the girls immediately got a job at Prudential. Prudential was the insurance company headquartered in Downtown Newark and women, the female workforce in Newark, largely worked at Prudential. It was enormous and, all of our girls, that's what they [said], "Oh, we're going to go to Prudential."
MG: What did they do at Prudential?
LC: Clerical work. The smarter, brighter, more accomplished ones went on to be administrators, and so forth, but the instructors at Central--Central was right next door to Newark College of Engineering. Newark College of Engineering is now Newark something, Newark Institute Technical [New Jersey Institute of Technology], but it's a very good engineering school. Our instructors taught high school in the day, the electrical instructors, the physics instructors, and, at night, they taught night school at the college. I mean, so, we had top instructors and they were just marvelous. When my kids were small, I taught them that everything I knew of any value, I learned at Central High, [laughter] but I did pay attention. I loved school. It was a fascinating place to go to.
MG: Do any of your teachers or instructors stand out?
LC: Oh, yes. In their day and in their own fields, some of them were quite famous. The head of the Math Department was a Dr. (Skolnik?) and he wrote several of the textbooks that were used all over in math. The shop teachers taught also at the college and I admired and respected them all. Teaching was, I guess I have to say, generally, the profession was respected a little more than it generally is--I'm talking about that level, at the grammar school and high school level--than I see and read and hear about today.
MG: What were you hoping to do when you graduated high school?
LC: I was going to be an electrical engineer and I actually started on that road. By 1941, when I was still in school, we were at war in December of '41 and I still had two years to go. [Editor's Note: Japanese forces attacked the American naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941, thrusting the United States into the Second World War.] I knew and felt, I remember just thinking that, "I'm going to be in the Army or Navy," but I wanted to. That war was so threatening to our world that the attitude towards being in the Army or Navy was a lot different than it is, has been, for Vietnam, Korea, the two latest ones. So, I skipped a couple of grades in grammar school, so, the kids in my graduating class were generally maybe a year or eighteen months older than I. A lot of them had enlisted in their last year of high school. The Army and Navy wouldn't take them until they left school, but, nevertheless, you could sign up and you were in, except you didn't have to go until you graduated. So, I wanted to do that and my mother and father wouldn't let me. I was sixteen. Finally, at that time, as Ershow says in his interview, the Army and Navy started a V-12 and V-5 Program. The V-12 Program was going to be a program where they took high school kids who passed a rigorous test and who passed it, they would take them in when they graduated from high school. They'd be in the Army or the Navy. This was strictly a Navy program, V-12. They'd be in the Navy as apprentice seamen, the lowest that you could be, but you'd go to college and the course was somewhere between eighteen and twenty-four months. They were going to get you through the school by compressing the courses and the training in that length of time. When you came out, you would be commissioned an ensign or, if it was the Army, it would've been the equivalent of a second lieutenant. So, you'd be a commissioned officer and you would be constrained to stay for the length of the war or maybe it was--I forget, there was some little time thing that you had as an obligation for having done this. So, I talked my mother and father into letting me take the test. I took the test and I passed the test. [laughter] I signed up in the Navy in Christmas week of 1942. When I graduated, about six months later, in June of '43, I was in the Navy. They sent me to Cornell. I had picked Cornell and they sent me there. Generally, what you picked is not usually what you got, but they sent me to Cornell. I was going to be an electrical engineer, and so, that was the start of my inclination towards that technical world.
MG: What do you remember about finding out about the attack on Pearl Harbor?
LC: Oh, sure. I paid attention to the news all through my early--I'm going to call it early adulthood, pre-adulthood--but I paid attention to world events, and so, I followed the news closely on the radio. I remember that Sunday morning, listening to the news and hearing them announce the attack on Pearl Harbor. My brother was listening with me and I said, "Howie, we're in the war." Well, you know what happened thereafter.
MG: Were you aware of the events leading up to the attack or what was going on in Europe at the time?
LC: Yes, the news was full of the negotiations that had been going on with the Japanese diplomats, and so forth, and the so-called double dealing that was occurring on their part, we think--who knows?--but there's no question that it was a sneak attack. We were aware of the tension that had been building in that regard. Yes, that was in the news. [Editor's Note: The United States and Japan held peace talks in Washington, DC, from November 20, 1941, to the day of the Pearl Harbor attack on December 7, 1941.]
MG: What about what was going on in Europe with Hitler?
LC: Yes, that had been frightening for a long time and we were all concerned with that. People were very active in "Bundles for Britain" and I forget what the Russian effort [was]. We helped the Russians. There was a slogan, something like the "Bundles for Britain" effort. Of course, Roosevelt was torn politically as to the right way to go. He was trying to find his way and, finally, sort of grudgingly, we gave Britain, I recall, fifty destroyers, old, old, four-stack destroyers, which was a big thing, a big step towards our finally getting involved. [Editor's Note: The "Destroyers for Bases" agreement was a deal between the United States and United Kingdom to trade fifty World War I-era destroyers for land-rights to British bases in the Western Hemisphere, made in September 1940.] Of course, once Japan attacked, that changed the whole thing and we were almost automatically in it.
MG: In the material you sent me, you said you were chomping at the bit to get involved in the war. What was the year before you turned seventeen like for you, when the war began and you were eager to go?
LC: Yes, well, a lot of my friends had already gone and I was getting letters from overseas and it just killed me that I couldn't be doing something. It's hard to put into words today, but people wanted to fight.
MG: Did you still feel that way when you saw stars going up in windows and people were being lost in the war?
LC: Yes, because everyone knew how imminent disaster was if we failed, and so, it didn't take a lot of thought.
MG: Before we talk about the V-12 Program, Edwin, did you have questions about growing up in Newark or going to school?
EC: Just the sentiments; your parents, how did they feel about the war and your eagerness to go?
MG: Were your parents supportive of you entering the V-12 Program and getting involved?
LC: Yes, because they thought, well, from a parent's aspect, they thought that's two more years that I'll be in school, as opposed to being overseas or in a trench somewhere. [laughter] So, as a normal parent, that protective instinct is what ruled. That's why they let me join the V-12 Program. They knew it was inevitable that I would be in, but, by doing that, it at least made two more years of my being somewhere relatively safe, but that's not what happened, however. [laughter]
MG: You were sent to Cornell University for the V-12 Program.
MG: Tell us about the curriculum and the things you did during that time.
LC: Well, I was enrolled in the electrical engineering course and I would've come out an engineer, an officer with a specialty in engineering and electricity being the specialty, but what happened was that I just didn't have the patience. I was a pretty good student and had good grades all through high school and grammar school, but I just couldn't keep my mind on the various courses. I wanted to be in the war. [laughter] I wasn't alone. There were hundreds of guys like me at Cornell who had obviously done the same thing I did, talked their parents into [signing]. So, what happened, I think I sent you that little story, we tried to ask for a transfer into the regular Navy and the Skipper, captain of the base--Cornell was then considered a Navy base, that aspect, the V-12 aspect of it--was a Captain (Chippendale?), by coincidence a former submarine commander, and he was a tough guy. When these several hundred guys had put in for a transfer, he took us all and put us in a hall and closed the door. He got up and he just reamed us out. He called us out and called us the most ungrateful so-and-sos. He said, "You don't realize what you've been offered," and so forth, "but never mind, that's a selfish aspect," he says, "you're short-changing the country. We need officers and that's why we brought you here." Of course, everything he said was right. It was true. So, he said, "So, straighten up and fly right." He says, "You're not getting out of here." [laughter] That was that. So, we went out and that lasted for about two weeks, the effect, and I decided, and so did the other guys, the only way you can get out is to flunk out, so, we just didn't go to class. Well, they caught us for that--we had to go to class. So, then, when you took an exam, we turned in blank papers--couldn't do that, you had to fill out the papers. I remember one class that I was on the verge of passing was American history and they gave us a multiple-choice question--I'll never forget this--and I had to fail that course. That was sort of the key course. I had to fail that in order to fail, because the others, even though I didn't do much, I was still passing and you had to fill out that test. It was so difficult, the multiple-choice, I couldn't find the wrong answers for sure. I was one of the last guys out, because, "Gee, that could be right," but, fortunately, I guessed right and I got the wrong answers, but I'll never forget that. I, to this day, talk with friends about it, when they talk about multiple-choice, I'll never forget that test. [laughter] Anyhow, so, I flunked out and the guys who flunked did get transferred. That's how I got into the Submarine Service.
MG: You described this group of guys as sort of "jockey."
CL: Oh, that was a further coincidence. Some of the men, about an equal number of them, I guess, maybe not, maybe a third of our whole batch that were dropped, were athletes, the guys who really concentrated on football, basketball, whatever, track. They didn't really want to fail, but they were failing and they just didn't quite make it, but they were top athletes. So, they were in this group of ours that all were discharged, I mean, let go, at the same time. They were part of my company that went to boot camp. We were sent to Sampson, New York, which was not far from Cornell. Sampson is on Lake Geneva. I don't know whether it's still there. It was largely, yes, there was a town--no, the town's name was not Sampson. The name of the camp was Sampson and, oh, it was Geneva, New York, was the town that was next to it. We were sent there to boot camp. There were several large boot camps in this country for people enlisting in the Navy. You either went to Great Lakes in Chicago or Bainbridge in Baltimore, I don't remember what the West Coast was, and/or Sampson. They were the big boot camps, so-called boot camps. We went for ten weeks, for your initial training, and that's where we were sent, this company that I've described.
MG: Had you done any physical conditioning at Cornell?
CL: Yes, yes. In that little story I told you, even the guys who were not top-flight athletes were in good shape, because we had a really strict physical training program all the time and, in particular, we drilled. We spent an awful lot of time drilling, marching, and so forth, and so, everybody was in good shape. That was not the case for the typical American male at that time. [laughter]
MG: When I think about that time, I think everyone must have had better diets than they do today and the outdoors was more a part of your life.
CL: Oh, no. Yes, that wasn't the case. In my little story, because I remember it, it was considered a sort of an embarrassing scandal, national scandal, that the typical, they called them "draftees," the typical Army draftee was in such poor physical condition. I don't mean he was dying, but he was not a big, strong guy. He couldn't do any push-ups, he couldn't do any chins [chin-ups], he couldn't run and it was largely due to the fact that people, during the Depression, you didn't go out and play ball and do all the things, the athletic pursuits that the kids have today. The diets were [poor]. Everybody, even if you ate enough to subsist on, it was not a good diet, and so, the physical condition of the average inductee was very poor. It was an embarrassment to the country and that's what gave rise to my little story.
MG: Was the group that was sent over to Sampson Naval Training Station mostly students that had dropped out or flunked out of the V-12 Program?
CL: Yes, all, and the company that we had came from the University of Rochester, all the Upstate New York [schools]. There were, I forget how many, I think there were about fifty Cornell people and thirty from the University of Rochester and forty from Syracuse--I'm making the numbers up--but that's where these almost couple hundred guys came from. Hobart was another one--Hobart, Colgate, Syracuse, Rochester and Cornell. They were all from those schools and I still have a couple of remaining friends from those days that I'm in touch with. [laughter]
MG: Did most of them flunk out on purpose?
CL: I'm going to say a large part of them, apart from those athletes, and then, there were some that just flunked out.
MG: What was different about being in ...
CL: In Sampson?
CL: Well, shall I pursue the story that I told you?
MG: Yes, I think it would be great to get it on tape.
CL: Yes, well, it was unique. We, this company of all of these fellows, were put in one barracks. The barracks housed, from memory, I think it was 120 men. I think it was a company of 120 men and they were commanded by noncommissioned officers. The Navy had a rating; a rating is what you see on a soldier or sailor's sleeve. A rating is not a rank. A rank is a commissioned officer, a rating is a noncommissioned. So, the rating that the Navy used to head groups of men was usually what's called a boatswain's mate. Boatswain is B-O-A-T-S-W-A-I-N, boatswain's mate, but the Navy ran out of boatswain's mates a long time before we got there, from doing actual [fighting], being involved in the war. So, they created a new rating called an athletic specialist that replaced the boatswain's rating and their job was to train the new recruits. It was known that the recruits were in terrible shape, "And you guys, the athletic specialists, have to get them in shape in ten weeks." So, we went out the first morning. We had a guy from Texas and I remember his real name, but I didn't use it in the story, because I despised him. [laughter] Anyhow, I called him Newman, which is somewhat near [to] what his real name was. Anyhow, he called us up. He was a tough, little guy and he called us to attention and we formed out front. He preceded to tell us--it was fall and it was already chilly, but we were in our little skivvies, skivvy shirts and Navy shorts and black socks, black socks and white tennis shoes, white sneakers [laughter]--and he instructed us as to the regime of calisthenics, not calisthenics, but exercises, that we would have to do and do regularly until we built ourselves up, and so forth, and so on. Then, he said, "Look, you get a score of thus-and-so. If you do ten push-ups and twenty sit-ups, you get a score of ten, and ten for this and ten for that." Anyhow, "Anybody who gets a score of a hundred," which he almost said is impossible, but, "anybody who would get a score of a hundred would be entitled to a half day's liberty in the town of Geneva." When you went to boot camp, you were in so-called isolation. Isolation isn't the word I want--you were restricted to the camp. You didn't get out at all for those ten weeks, no visitors, no nothing, mail and phone calls, but no visitors, family, doesn't matter, married or not, didn't matter. If you got a score of a hundred on this PT, physical training, you got a score of a hundred, you were entitled to one half day of liberty. That meant you could drink a beer--I think you could drink up to four beers--you could have ice cream, you could go to a movie. That's all. So, he preceded with the exercises and, the first thing, he had everybody fall-to and do push-ups and he started to count, as rhythm, and, remember, ten, that was supposed to be a top score if you got ten. Our guys were at fifty and he was still counting. [laughter] I looked up and I see him looking--he just couldn't believe. Anyhow, he said, "Okay, that's enough." Then, he said, "You'll do sit-ups," and the sit-ups you did by laying on your back. One partner held the first partner's ankles down and the other put his hands behind his head and did the sit-ups. Again, sit-ups, I think you were supposed to do twenty, I forget, but I think that's right. Anyhow, so, there, I don't know, we were somewhere around eighty [laughter] and he said, "Okay, stop, stop." So, we did everything way over what the requirement [was]; everybody did. So, then, he says, "Okay, now, we're going to do our one-mile run," and we knew he was confident that that would do us in. We go out, there was a quarter-mile track--for each group of barracks, they surrounded this quarter-mile track--and he took us out there and he started us off. Before the four laps were done, a couple guys had actually lapped him. They had passed him once around and we were all right on top of him. This guy was beside himself--I mean, he just couldn't figure it out. So, that was the end of that and we came back in and he said, okay, we would go in and shower and have chow, lunch. Then, we were going to go out and drill, march in formation. I forget, maybe that happened the next day, because somewhere in-between, he found out these were all college, ex-college, guys, because when we came back in to do the marching, he said, "Okay, yous college guys," [laughter] he caught on as to what the score was. So, he took us out to march and he marched us across the field and he did every kind of maneuver, "By the left flank march, by the right flank march, left oblique march, to the rear march," trying to get us off, to break step. [laughter] What he didn't know was that not only had we been doing this for the three or four months that were at each university, but a lot of the guys that were with us had been there a couple of years. They had been in the ROTC before they went into V-12 and they had been doing this stuff for a couple years and they were expert at it. So, about halfway through this, a Jeep had pulled up and was following us. There were a couple of enlisted guys driving and an officer, a top rank. Well, it turned out, [it] was the base commander. He had the "scrambled eggs" on his visor of his hat. He drives the Jeep out in front of us, so [that] we have to stop. The Chief stops and the Commander gets out and he asks the Chief his name, and then, he announces to everybody, he says, "Chief, I want to commend you." He says, "That's the finest piece of drilling I have seen in my," whatever number of years, [laughter] "never saw a company like it." We were sure he was going to say, "How long have you been [working]?" but he didn't, because the guy would have to say, "Two hours," [laughter] and then, the jig would've been up. So, by virtue of his not asking that, the Chief got a lot of credit for [it] and he was very content to take us back to the barracks. That was a very funny event. That was just one of the things that happened there, but I put in that story something that was, I thought, so funny and I still talk about it and that was how the Navy had built the lunch halls. [laughter] The chow hall was a Quonset hut. If you don't know what a Quonset hut was, it's a semi-circular, domed, long, tunnel-like building made of sheet metal. You still see an occasional one around, but that's how they made quick, jerry-built housing and offices during the war. So, the chow hall was a long, big, high Quonset hut and down one long wall was a long row of steam kettles and preparation tables, and so forth, where the cooks got chow ready for you, and a long aisle with a bar, railings. The men lined up and went down this long row and there was a stainless steel rack and you slid your tray along. The cook plops mashed potatoes and whatever on your tray and you come out the other end with your lunch on it. The rest of the hall was given over to the chow tables and the seating. The tables were long tables. The style is called a trestle table. If you don't know what a trestle table is, it's a table whose legs are splayed out. Instead of coming straight down, they're splayed out like that. Along each outside edge will be a plank fastened to the splayed out [legs], so [that] it makes a self-contained seat, a long, endless seat next to the table, and that's how they made all [the tables]. So, there were a couple hundred of these long trestle tables. I forget how many people were at each table, but there had to be sixteen or twenty at a table, eight or ten on a side of each of these tables. So, it's our first day and, as we come in, hanging down over each table are two poles from the ceiling and a great, big plywood sign, length of the table, "Sit opposite a man." It says on each side of the sign, "Sit opposite a man." Everybody said, "What the hell is that, sit opposite?" Everybody sits down and it took about a week before we found out what it meant. One day, three or four guys on one side got finished at the same time and stood up. The second they stood up, ass over tea kettle, the whole thing went over, [laughter] because the center of gravity was such that, unless you balanced it, the table was going to turn over. They didn't splay the legs out beyond where the men sat enough, and so, the Navy, instead of fixing the tables, did the next best thing, put a sign up, "Sit opposite a man." So, thereafter, we called that, "That's the Navy system." [laughter] Now, there's a right way and a wrong way, and then, the Navy way, but that was an early object lesson, we thought, in how the Navy did things.
MG: Were there a lot of married men at the training camp?
CL: No, oh, when I got to Sampson, there were a lot of married men who did not come with my crew. I don't think we had any married men in our crew. I do not remember that we did, but there were in the rest of [them]. Out of the general public, there were--maybe half?
MG: How would you say their experience was different?
CL: The training, and so forth, was the same for everybody. It's just that, by the coincidence I've described, ours was a funny kind of event.
MG: You were there for ten weeks.
MG: Tell us anything else that we are missing about that period.
CL: It was uneventful. It was routine stuff. I mean, they taught you stuff that you had already learned in your earlier training at the university. So, it was just the passage of time. All of the camps then had another unit away from the boot camp called OGU, "outgoing unit." You went into there while you waited to either go to a ship or one of the training schools that the Navy had. You might become an aerial gunner, you might become a gunner's mate, you might go to torpedo school, one of the Navy's specialties, if they deemed you qualified, after you took various tests in OGU to determine where best to send you. As I said before, I asked to go to submarine school and they sent me. That was a good piece of luck for me, because you didn't usually get what you asked for. [laughter] So, I was sent to New London, to submarine school, in the Fall of '43.
MG: What about being on a submarine appealed to you?
CL: Well, it was highly technical and that's what I liked. I have to say, it was a natural for me, because I did a lot of that stuff. I had done the electrical work and the mechanical work for a number of years and it was what I liked. So, the submarine was sort of a natural. That's why I gravitated towards it.
MG: Tell us a little bit about the schooling in New London and what you did.
CL: Well, the schooling, it was a rigorous, tough school. They did everything they could. Submarine school was--can't remember the length--I think it was, from memory, about six weeks and it was in New London on the submarine base. There was a submarine base there. The base had both an active area of shops--torpedo shops and gunnery shops and engine shops--that maintained the fleet submarines that were berthed there, but, additionally, a whole section of that entire compound was given over to the school. The school was a number of buildings, classroom buildings, with a lot of the special equipment and devices that the Navy had put together as part of the training, which included, you probably have seen pictures of a water tower, 150 feet high with a cylindrical tower, I guess maybe twelve, fifteen feet in diameter, sealed tower, at the top of which was a larger cylindrical house, on the very top. That was the diving tower. That's where you learned to use the escape device. There was an escape device that you had to be trained in and the tower, you ascended in that tower of water from the bottom to the top and I'll tell you about that later. That was one special building. There was another building that had a large tank which had heavy-glass windows with a couple of heavy-glass portholes in it and a heavy-glass door. About ten men could go in that chamber at a time and that was the pressure chamber. You went through that to see whether you could withstand an increase of pressure of a certain amount without it bothering you. These two things, you took these tests early on in your training, because they wanted to get rid of you right away if they knew you couldn't qualify. In retrospect, it didn't mean a thing, [laughter] because the things that you went through, you didn't experience normally in a submarine anyhow, but it was possible that you would, and so, they gave you these tests. Anyhow, the diving tests were interesting. What you did was, you were instructed in the use of a Momsen lung. Momsen is M-O-M-S-E-N. It was named for a Commander Momsen who invented it, a submarine man, and it was an inflatable bladder, a fabric and leather and rubber bag that you wore on your chest with a nosepiece and a hose and various little gadgets on it. What it did was the following. You would enter--each person, you would do it alone--you would enter a chamber at the door on the exterior of this steel cylinder. You would go in and it would be enclosed with another steel cylinder into the tank. So, you went into this little subdivided area and, in that area, there was a man who operated this device. He would charge your lung up with compressed air. He would fill that bladder on your chest with air until the pressure equaled the pressure of the 150 feet of water that was outside of you. Then, you would put, there was, like, a clothespin device that pinched your nostrils shut and a little mouthpiece, and they would instruct you to breathe in, so that your lungs now had the same pressure as was in this bladder. The scheme was that you would now go out into the water there--you would not be crushed, because your internal pressure would equal the water pressure that was surrounding you. There was a line, a rope, fastened in the floor of the tank. It went straight up and, every so many feet in the line, there was a knot, I don't know, every eight feet or ten feet. You were told that the whole trick is simply to not panic and exhale, continue to exhale as you ascend, because what you were theoretically doing was equalizing the pressure as you rose. As the pressure outside decreased, you wanted to get rid of that pressure inside your lungs. In theory, by the time you got to the top, you'd be at normal atmospheric pressure and everything would be fine. The way you were told, if you did nothing and walked out there, you would shoot up like a cork. So, what you were doing was holding on to the line to keep yourself down. You released the line a little bit, and so, you slid up. When you hit the knot, that would remind you, "Exhale, blow out." What the Navy had was divers, just in little bathing trunks, in the water with no lungs on, nothing. [laughter] They'd be diving around, swimming around alongside you, "You're doing great," patting you on the back, "Exhale, exhale," they'd holler in your ear. I never gave a thought about, "Why don't they need a lung?" [laughter] but they were there and they would guide you all the way up. Before you did all this, there were all kinds of stories that they would tell you about guys who panicked and let go and shot up out of the water and hit the steel roof and were killed. They had painted big, red swatches all over the [ceiling, so that] when we got up there, "See, that's the guy's blood." [laughter] Anyhow, if you successfully got to the top of this thing, you had to do it twice, the second time, it was kind of fun. It was later learned, much later, and why the Navy never picked up on it, these guys, expert swimmers, had little cubicles built into the side of the tank, maybe two or three in the length of the tank. When they got tired and needed more air, they would swim over to it and duck up under and take a big gulp of air, and then, duck out and go. They only used their lungs and the Navy never figured out that, "Hey, you could just do this--you don't need this thing. You could just breathe in at the proper charge and it would work," but they didn't. So, for the whole length of the war, people still had to take the Momsen lung test and we carried Momsen lungs with us on the boat, in case a boat was sunk, which was another funny story, but I'll get to that. Then, the pressure test was simply this chamber. You would go in and sit in this chamber and they would slowly increase the pressure and that, you could feel. You had to learn, as you do on a plane, when the pressure increases and decreases, you unconsciously swallow or chew gum. The stewardess used to give you gum years ago. People now all fly, so, nobody thinks about it, but, in the early days of flying, you were instructed, "You must swallow, so that you equalize the pressure when you get up and they charge the compartment." So, that's what this pressure test was and a number of guys would fail. They simply couldn't make their muscles [relax]. They panicked enough so that they could not swallow and equalize and the pressure on their eardrums was unbearable. It was very painful and they would scream. They'd have to be hauled out and, of course, they would flunk out. Even then, we didn't do that on the boats, so, it was sort of "big-time Boy Scout" stuff, but, then, submarine school was actual training on old boats. Again, they kept some First World War submarines as the training boats and they were "pig boats." They were dirty and freezing and it was winter by now. We would go out into Long Island Sound and I almost quit. [laughter] Most guys almost [did]. It was so miserable. Everything you touched was frozen. You go to sit down for a minute and it'd be ice cold and wet and sloppy. Everything worked by hand. All the valves were lever operated. Everything was brute force, but they worked. In fact, they were called "O-boats," the letter "O," and they had a half a dozen O-boats from the First World War that they used for schooling. If you got through that, then, you went to class and you had many classes. You had to, in theory, be able to do everything on the boat that everybody else could do. You had to be able to fire a torpedo, you had to be able to start the main engines, had to be able to do everything that everybody else could do. You had to be able to identify every valve fitting. In giving you the test on a submarine to qualify you for a submarine, after you got on the submarine, they would blindfold you and take you in a compartment, put your hand on [a valve fitting], "What is that?" You'd have to tell them what it is and what you do with it. So, that was part of what was taught in the school and it was rigorous. There was, again, a chief, not a commissioned officer, but a chief who had been in thirty years. His name was Spritz, S-P-R-I-T-Z, and he ran the submarine school and the commander of the school actually let him run it. He was so tough. It was called "Spritz's Navy." When you were in submarine school, you would tell people, "I'm in Spritz's Navy," because whatever he said, that's what you did. Whatever Spritz said, that's what you did. [laughter] He was a tough guy, but he got you through it. If you got through it, you knew you had accomplished something. I started to tell you about the Momsen lung and the escape. On a submarine, in the new fleet submarines, and, in fact, today, I think they're still essentially the same, at the forward end and the after end, front and the back, there's a big hatch on the top deck. One of those hatches goes down into the forward torpedo room and the other to the after torpedo room. Between the top of the deck and that actual room, there's a big, steel container, a great, big, steel bubble, both forward and--no, just in the forward torpedo room. The hatch had a glass port, a thick, glass port in it, looking down into the bottom hatch that led into the torpedo room. The idea was, for escape purposes, if a submarine was sunk and perhaps flooded, this compartment would be invulnerable, because it would have been sealed off. Again, in theory, a man could've unscrewed the lock on the bottom lid, lifted it up, gone up into the chamber, closed the bottom lid. Inside this chamber was a coiled up rope with a buoy on it and all of the air-charging devices and Momsen lungs. You could put on a Momsen lung, charge up the lung, open the top hatch and escape. That's not exactly correct. The hatch you escaped out of was on the side--if you opened the top, the water would come in. On the side, water would only come in halfway and it would then compress the air enough in the upper half of the chamber, so that no matter how deep you were, the water could not come in, so that a man could then close both hatches with this one open, charge up his lung, duck his head out and go up, again, in theory, and escape. Then, before he would leave, from the outside, he would close that hatch, the outer hatch, so that the men left down below could open the bottom hatch, let the water come out, go up in there again, in little batches, two men at a time or three, I forget what we were supposed to do, but that's how. This was a big, elaborate thing on every submarine. I was assigned to a new submarine and we lived on it for months before it was completed, so that we knew everything about it. We take it to sea and I forget where we went to, whether it was Newport or whatever port we stopped at. The first navy yard we stopped, we're standing around, just passing the time while we're there. A bunch of welders come down and we watched them and they proceed to weld up the escape hatch, to weld it shut. We said, "What are you doing? That's the escape hatch." "Oh, well, we can't let that accidently break loose. They might drop a depth charge and it might shake it loose and the hatch would open." So, they welded it shut. So, there went your escape. [laughter] That was routine, but, again, it was the Navy way.
MG: Were there any mishaps or accidents while you were at submarine school?
CL: I'm sure there were, but, other than incidents of guys in that escape hatch and, more often, with that pressure tank, but they weren't unusual incidents--the guy just couldn't do it--no, not that I knew of. There were plenty thereafter, during the war, when we were at sea. So, that's how, and so, I was then assigned, as I said, to this new submarine, which was the Blackfin and Number 322. Incidentally, the submarine down at Penn's Landing, here in Philadelphia, is the Becuna and it's the 319 [at the Independence Seaport Museum]. Boats then were built in batches at the various Navy factories and four or five boats would get commissioned almost at the same time and, generally, operate together. So, this Becuna and the Blackfin were in the same squadron. There were five of them, five boats all beginning with "B," that were in this same squadron. So, that boat, if by chance, one day, you would visit, was identical with our boat.
MG: Can you describe how big it was, how many men it would hold, things like that?
CL: Oh, sure. The sub was 320 feet long, about twenty-seven feet in beam, width, weighs 1,500 tons, had, normally, about eighty-five men and officers, eight or ten officers and the rest enlisted men. Somebody just sent me a magazine, just to make it easier for you to visualize. Here it is--that was the typical fleet submarine.
MG: Did you feel claustrophobic on it?
CL: Well, some men were. That was one of the first things they screened you for. If there was any indication that you might be claustrophobic, you were out.
EC: How would they screen you for that kind of thing?
CL: The Navy had psychologists who--I'm not going to tell you some of the questions they asked you--but among them were questions that indicated to them whether you would be liable to freak out if in enclosed quarters. I forget precisely what they asked you. The men concentrated more on the--they were sexual questions and you can probably imagine what they asked you. We all made fun of the psychological testing, but part of it was to determine whether you might be liable to break down in close quarters. We actually did have one fellow, once, who sort of lost it, but he recovered and they did not throw him out. He had been otherwise good.
MG: What happened?
CL: We were being depth charged particularly heavily and he just sort of lost it, started to scream, but they quieted him down and he was okay.
MG: You talked about how, when you were at Cornell, you felt disaffected. You were eager to get into the war and you were feeling that this was not the avenue. Did that mood change?
MG: When you knew you were closer to getting into the war.
CL: Sure. Oh, yes, I was happy that I was moving along. Yes, I was satisfied that that's what I wanted to do.
MG: Was there any feeling of trepidation?
CL: No. It's not the nicest thing to be using to describe this kind of a time, but there was an excitement. I can't deny there was an excitement. When we would go on an attack, I can't say we would be bloodthirsty, but we would be aggressive. Each man, while he wasn't doing the whole thing himself, you did feel like this is your team and you were really intent on prevailing, on winning. So, there was, apart from the war, the excitement of the chase and the pursuit and the evasion and all of that. Yes, I have to say that was always present and my guess is that's what kept a lot of people going.
MG: What was your first assignment after submarine school?
CL: I was assigned to the new sub. We went on it and, as soon as it went in commission, it went in commission, I think in May of '44, we went to sea. [Editor's Note: The USS Blackfin (SS-322) was launched on March 12, 1944, and commissioned July 4, 1944.]
MG: Were you able to go home before you went off to sea?
CL: Yes. At New London, I had weekend liberty fairly frequently, while the boat was being built. My girlfriend from Newark would meet me in New York. We would hitchhike. People picked up hitchhikers then; it was automatic. We would hitchhike from New London to New York on the old Boston Post Road. Yes, that was routine.
MG: Could you walk us through the Blackfin's course?
CL: We put it in commission at New London; it went into the water at New London. It was built--at the time, it was called Electric Boat Company, it became General Dynamics and is now something else--but it had been an old, long-time builder of submarines and other ships, boats. So, we put it in commission in New London. We did various testing runs in Long Island Sound for a couple of weeks, tested torpedoes, tested all of the systems on the boat, tested our own proficiency in diving it and surfacing. Then, [we] just headed south to Panama and crossed the Canal there to Pearl Harbor. From Pearl, we went on our first war patrol, so-called war patrol, meaning in the active zone. We were in the Philippine Invasion. The Fall of 1944 is when we made the major push to retake the Philippines and we were in all of that. That's where we did all our initial fighting, and so forth, and that's where that story occurred, where we picked up those guerrillas. Yes, so, that was the first patrol and it was a so-called "successful patrol." A successful patrol is when you either accomplished some special mission that the Navy might've had for you--picking up downed aviators, making this rendezvous with the guerillas--and, largely, sinking enemy shipping. By this time in the war, the focus for the Navy, or at least for the submarine navy, was on trying to destroy the enemy's merchant fleet, the theory being that Japan depended on imports of everything, food, most important, fuel oil. They had none of that themselves in native Japan. They needed stuff from Dutch Indonesia, they needed stuff from all over, to function, to keep the war machine functioning. So, the Navy focused on [that] and, actually, I'm sure our skippers were instructed, "Do not go for the men of war," not primarily. They didn't mean avoid them, they meant, "Try to get the shipping, that's what we need done," and that's what we did. We sank, on this first patrol--our skipper then was the son of an admiral. His name was Laird [George Hays Laird, Jr.] and he was a full commander. The bulk of the submarine skippers were a little bit younger, not much, but a little bit younger than he, and they would've been more likely lieutenant commanders, not quite as high in rank, but he was a full commander. He was a very good shot. We sank our first merchantman, I think it was something like a seven or eight-thousand-ton merchantman, in the Philippines at the full extent of the torpedo's run. In other words, it was more than two thousand yards away, but he was such a good shot that he sank this thing with it and we were very happy with his abilities. [laughter] Thereafter, we damaged another tanker and, in-between, we made this rendezvous with these guerillas.
MG: Yes, I think that would be a good story to get on the record as well.
CL: Well, okay, the reason I wrote the story, as I said in the beginning of it, was because of the two Army captains that were involved in it. We got a message during the time of the Philippine Invasion, a radio message, that we were to rendezvous with a group of guerillas off the Island of Mindoro. Mindoro is one of the smaller islands and it's just south of Luzon, which is the big island, but it had a big [Japanese] Army installation on it. What happened was--shall I tell the story the way I told it?
CL: On the loudspeaker one day, while we were submerged, the Captain got on and he called out a list of names of men that were to immediately report to the control room. Control room is the central room in the ship and, as it sounds, it is the control area for the ship, that together with the conning tower. Anyhow, this group of men, I forget how many there were of us--I suppose there were two dozen all told--he got on the little, steel toolbox in there and he stood up, so that we could all see him. We were jammed in this little control room. He said, "We're going to do a special mission, but, before we do it, you have to know that this is an absolute secret. [When] we get to port, if I hear anything about this, what we are about to do," he said, "I'll find the guy who leaked it and I'll get him. It'll be curtains for him." I mean, he really made it very, very clear that this was an absolute secret, top secret. So, what we were supposed to do was rendezvous with a group of Filipino men, guerillas, native soldiers, who had organized and been harassing the Japanese by sneaking in and stealing stuff, bombing them, tearing up railroads, doing whatever they can. The Filipinos, as you could imagine, hated the Japanese, because the Japanese were the invaders. So, while we weren't officially allied with these guerillas, we were certainly on the same side. Anyhow, it turns out that these guerillas had become highly organized because two [US] Army captains, who had escaped from the Bataan Death March--when the Philippines fell, when we lost Corregidor, which was one of our strongholds, our forts there, in the Philippines and the other installations, the American prisoners were herded together and, again, herded north to, well, it was going to be to the Bataan Peninsula and that became an infamous so-called death march, because the Japanese were merciless in the march and wounded men were allowed to just drop dead and there wasn't food, there was terrible treatment. It was a terrible event, a blot on Japan's history. Anyhow, these two Army men had escaped from that march and the night we were to meet with them, they told us, was the one thousandth night since they escaped. It was not quite three years before that this Bataan Death March had occurred and these two guys had somehow gotten to the Island of Mindoro, where they had heard that there were guerillas, and they organized or reorganized these guerillas into a real fighting force. [Editor's Note: The Bataan Death March took place following the surrender of US and Filipino forces on the Bataan Peninsula in the Philippines in April 1942. Over seventy-eight thousand POWs were forced to march to Camp O'Donnell over six days with little to no food and water while enduring constant cruelty from their Japanese captors. Thousands died along the more than sixty-five mile route to the POW camp.] They were doing a lot of real damage to the Japanese. Anyhow, they had somehow captured a Japanese gunboat just the week before and, by good luck, before the Japanese sailors had a chance to scuttle the boat or destroy anything, they got hold of a whole set of codebooks, the Japanese code, that could decipher the code that they were using on their radio messages. They got these books and our purpose was to pick these guys up and pick up these codebooks, but, in addition to the codebooks, during all this time, these men had been mapping all the installations on Mindoro, all the gun emplacements, all the troop housing, everything. They had everything mapped out. So, we were to meet with them at night, on a certain night. That afternoon, we approached the Island of Mindoro and this batch of men, group of men that I described to you as having been called up, all had some small specialty. The two other lookouts and myself, I was a lookout, had been picked because we had been to Navy night vision school. The Navy sent you to school for a week or ten days and taught you how to use your eyes in the dark to see much more efficiently, see better. There are tricks and I still use them. So, we were the lookouts and that's what we were to do in this operation. Some of the other men were gunner's mates, they carried submachine guns, some of the other men were seamen, men who were good on deck with lines, and so forth, and then, a group of officers who were to be part of it, part of this little party. Anyhow, as we got to the time, we surfaced in the late afternoon, it was supposed to be evening. When you surface normally, the submarine tries to come up very fast. We go fast and we blow the water out of the tanks. The ballast tanks that make you heavy, that keep you down, you blow the water out of them, so [that] you're like a cork. So, that, in addition to your engine speed and the controls, the planes, the control planes, take you out of the water and it makes a lot of noise and you burst out of the water. Well, we didn't do that this time. We kind of sneaked up near the surface and, as we just broke the surface, we didn't blow the water out, we just pumped enough water out of the tanks, silently, with electric motors, so that we broke through the surface of the water. Soon as we got through to the surface, we ran with--they call it "the deck's awash"--the top deck was just flush with the water's surface, so that all that was sticking up really was the conning tower. We all ran out of the hatch and went to our positions, a bunch of the men strung out along the deck and the two other lookouts and myself were up. We stood in what's called the periscope shears. Where the periscope comes up through the conning tower, there's a steel housing, which rises up so many feet above the conning tower, and welded to that housing, that periscope housing, were little steel platforms that the lookouts climbed up on and stood on, so that we were as high up as we could possibly be. It had a little railing around it that contained you, that you could lean on, and then, the three lookouts did the following. If I was the starboard lookout, which I was, that meant I was on the right side of the boat and I was to look from straight ahead, dead ahead, zero, to 120, 120 degrees. The guy at the back was standing on a little deck behind me, would look at from 120 to 210 and the man on the portside would look in the remaining sector. So, there were three sectors that you looked in. When you got to the end, you went back and you scanned it.
LC: So, as I say, we surfaced--and I told this in the writing of the story--I thought, when we surfaced, that the Skipper had made a mistake, because it was broad daylight. It looked like broad daylight--it wasn't--but, in the South China Sea, the colors are so intense, the sun was just about setting and it was like a blaze of light just before it got dark. We happened to come up then and, when we come up, we're just a few hundred yards off the beach. I see soldiers marching back and forth, the Japanese. We're right off, in very shallow water, right off the beach. It's as if I'm right in your face, but the submarine, first of all, we were painted. In those days, we were grey and black. There's almost no way, in water, the waves moving, that you can see this thin, little silhouette, the conning tower is quite narrow, edge on, and that's how we were pointed to the beach. So, as I say, my first thought, "My God, they'll see us," but, in a few minutes, it was dark. So, we surfaced, and then, we did not use the engines. Usually, when you're on the surface, you used the diesel engines to run the motors, the electric motors, which then run the ship. This time, we used the batteries, as if we were submerged, so that it would be silent, so [that] you wouldn't hear. There's no noise with batteries. So, we steamed around in a big circle off the beach, back and forth, and I could see trucks coming in and out, soldiers marching back and forth, looking. We were looking for these men and we went in ever-widening circles in the area that had been agreed upon. We were there, I don't know, an hour, an hour-and-a-half, something like that. There were a bunch of false alarms. Somebody thought they saw something, I thought I saw something and even the Captain hollered once. The Captain was on the bridge. The bridge is just a little platform on the front of the conning tower, like a desk, like a high desk, and he's standing on the deck with the hatch down below his feet to go into the conning tower. That's called the bridge and he was there, in command of the vessel, gave the orders for how to head, how to move. Finally, he said, out loud, he said, "Well, we certainly have given them enough time. If they're out there, we can't find them," and we had one of my buddies, the lookout behind me, was a guy named Williams, he was the oldest man on the ship. I think Willie was forty or forty-two, was from Boston. He was a stereotypical Boston Irishman. He was a tough guy. He had no use for the Navy, but he was a very smart guy and very funny and I guess they kept him as a morale booster. Anyhow, the Captain said, "What do you think, Williams?" Willie said, "Captain, I think let's get the hell out of here." So, the Captain said, "Well, I understand your sentiments," he said, "but we'll give them a little more time," and we stayed there a little while longer and nothing. So, we slowly, again, under electric power, went way off shore, got far enough off so [that] we could start the engines. Then, we started the engines and charged the batteries overnight, and then, we dove for the next morning and spent the next day submerged off of the island, waiting. I forgot to tell you that about that time when the Captain made his remark, the quartermaster hollered up in the hatch that they had just gotten a coded radio message from the Army guys that they didn't come out because there were too many patrol boats, Japanese patrol boats, out and they were afraid to come out. "So, let's do it again, same time, same station, tomorrow night." So, the next day we spent submerged and, late in the afternoon, again, we came up the same way we did. This time, when we came up, just a little bit after dark and only a little while after we were up, we heard somebody holler, "Ahoy to submarine, ahoy to submarine." A good friend of mine was up on the bow with a boat hook to catch whoever would be coming. His name was Gunner Signore and Gunner says, "Yes, the submarine--who the hell are you?" and the Army guy said, "Captain So-and-So and crew," and he said, "Seven men," or some description of how many there were. So, the Captain said, "Come alongside," and a big canoe came up, a native canoe came up, I think it was six or seven Filipino men, mostly in shorts, some of them with cutoff jeans, cutoff trousers, and these two Army men. They came up. Gunner hooked the canoe up, tied the canoe alongside the boat and helped them up and they came up and down through the conning tower and went into the ward room, which is the officers' room, with the Captain and our other officers. Then, I found out afterwards what their discussion was. It was about the codebooks. They'd brought two big, oilcloth-covered satchels with them, which they'd lugged down below, and that, it turned out, had the codebooks in them and all of these maps that they had prepared. So, they spent some time down there and some of the men who were nearby talked with the Filipino men. The Filipino men could speak a little bit of English, obviously, having been taught over the years by the Army men, and they told us what they had been doing. The Captain went on the loudspeaker again and said, "It would be appreciated if you would all give all the underwear and sheets and pillowcases and any kind of stuff you can to these men. We're going to be in port in two weeks, so, bear that in mind." So, we did. We gave them loads of underwear, we gave them a lot of cigarettes and we gave them all of our small arms ammunition. We gave them the submachine guns and forty-fives, everything we had in the way of small arms. So, then, we had figured we were picking up these Army officers, but the two Army officers turned around and they climb into the canoe with the Filipinos. You just couldn't believe it. These guys had escaped from that death march, you knew what they had been through. They had already spent a thousand nights there and we thought they would go back to the States or back wherever, Australia, with us, but they wouldn't. They said no--these guys had become like brothers to them and they were going to see it out until the Japanese were defeated. They climbed in the canoe, they waved goodbye. We just all thought they were two of the bravest guys that we could imagine. The Captain later told us that he had argued with them and said, "Look, you guys have done ten times what the country would have expected of you. You should go back." They went back and that was that, but, then, the Admiral, I think it was Admiral [Charles Andrews] Lockwood [Commander of Submarine Force Pacific Fleet] still, gave orders that we were to meet with a Australian destroyer that wasn't far away and give the codebooks to them, because it would take us a week, ten days, to get down to Perth from where we were, Australia. They wanted to get these codebooks as quick as they could get them. So, a couple days later, we did meet an Australian destroyer and it was a job to get the [books to them]. The water was rough and it was hard to get the boats close enough together to transfer the two big packages, but we did and we got it across. Then, like I said in the story, the ironic part of it was, they gave us what they called R&R, rest and recreation, two weeks of rest and recreation at a hotel and that was standard procedure. After you made a war patrol, they gave submarine crews two weeks of rest and R&R. By the time you were done with R&R, you were ready to go back, because you were exhausted. [laughter] Anyhow, while we were there, it was Christmas Eve, either right before or right after, and Life Magazine--Life was a big, important publication then--Life Magazine came out that week with a big story about the fall of Mindoro without the loss of a single American life. Then, it went on to say that a submarine had picked up these maps, and so forth, and that made it a cinch for the Americans to attack in the right places without endangering the troops, but it didn't mention the Blackfin. So, there was our secret that the Captain had pledged us not to tell about. [laughter] It was in the magazine.
MG: How do you think the story got out?
LC: I'll never know. I did try to find that copy of Life Magazine and I could not find it. I Google-ed, I forget--I just wasn't able to get it. I'm sure it exists, I just couldn't get it.
MG: Was the Captain upset that the story had been leaked?
LC: Oh, I don't think so, because he knew that we didn't tell Life Magazine. It was there when we were there.
MG: Did you find out how those two Army guys had escaped?
LC: No, and this is another aside. The guy that sent me this magazine is a former shipmate who came onboard late in the war and who's now in Florida. He sent me this, but he maintained a lot of connections. He became a very successful brokerage dealer on Wall Street and he had a lot of high Navy connections and he did try to find those two guys. He went to a lot of trouble and just couldn't come up with anything.
MG: Do you know how they escaped from the Death March in the first place?
LC: No, I don't. We didn't get much of a chance to talk with them, but we did know that much.
MG: Tell us how you spent those two weeks of R&R.
LC: I have to say, the chief occupation was drinking. [laughter] At that time, when we first got to Australia, it changed just about when we got there, but, if I remember correctly, they brewed beer at fourteen-and-a-half percent alcohol. Beer is four-and-a-half, five, six, seven percent. They had fourteen-and-a-half percent beer and there had been terrible fights among the troops in Australia, between Australia and New Zealand--I never knew exactly why--but they were called ANZACS, Australian and New Zealand troops. The New Zealanders and the Australians hated one another. I mean, they were on the same side, but they hated one another and they would get in barroom fights. The fights would be really serious fights, like small riots, and it was largely deemed to be because of the strength of the Australian beer, and so, they arbitrarily made the breweries cut down to a standard, so-called standard, seven percent.
MG: We have been here for about four hours, so, we will let you get back to your day. I would love to schedule another session, if that is possible.
LC: Yes, sure, if you want.
MG: Thank you for lunch and all the time that you have spent with us today.
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Reviewed by Shaun Illingworth 2/22/2016
Reviewed by Lee Casper 3/18/2016
Reviewed by Molly Graham 4/1/16