Kurt Piehler: This begins an interview with Mr. Morton Kernis on April 8, 1996 at Rutgers University, New Brunswick, New Jersey with Kurt Piehler …
Jason Riley: Jason Riley.
KP: I guess I'd like to begin by asking you a bit about your parents and growing up in New Brunswick. Your father was born in Russia.
Morton Kernis: Yes, and so was my mother.
KP: And what brought them to the United States?
MK: Their relatives here in New Brunswick.
KP: And what did your parents do growing up, what type of work?
MK: Well, since my father passed away when I was four, I really have no recollection of what he did except that he used to drive a truck early in my childhood. My mother worked at many things, mainly when I knew her as a grown-up, she was a customer saleslady, which meant she went from door to door with dry goods, and later on, when I grew up a little further and was able to help her, we had a candy store, or an ice cream parlor as they called them in those days. I helped her with the store and also delivered newspapers and that sort of thing, after which, she became ill and, worked no longer. So, most of my adult life, she wasn't well.
KP: Yes. I imagine your father's death at an early age really disrupted the family.
MK: Yes, it did. My mother became the chief architect and the wage earner at that time until my sister was old enough to go to work, really. I'm the baby of the family.
KP: How big was your family?
MK: Three, I have two sisters, both older than I am and both living, as of now. My older sister became the chief wage earner as we went along.
KP: Where did your big sister work?
MK: She worked in the New Brunswick News Agency, which is no longer in existence
and then she worked in a retail establishment, in the buying office of a retail establishment.
KP: With your father having passed away and the Great Depression was not an easy time even for people that had their, had a full family.
MK: As a matter-of-fact, we lived in a cold water flat, but then the stove had to be made everyday and we took a bath in the kitchen and it was a very bad time and we were quite poor at the time.
KP: You went through the New Brunswick school system.
MK: Yes, I did.
KP: What are your most distinct memories of growing up in New Brunswick?
MK: Well, in the first, in the elementary school, I used to love a teacher by the name of Mrs. Kessler. That was in fifth grade. And Mrs. Conover, who was in the first grade, became my mentor, actually, and that was in Lincoln School in the Sixth Ward of New Brunswick. And junior high, at that time, was called the Roosevelt School and it had the seventh, eighth and ninth grades. I'm not quite sure they work it this way anymore.
MK: And the New Brunswick High School, of course, was separate and it was in New Brunswick High School that actually we developed whatever talents we had to develop to go to college, Rutgers University. And there, New Brunswick High at that time was a very good school and very good teachers and my recollections there are of my math teacher, my French teacher, and my English teacher, all of whom were excellent teachers. In French class, of course, we had the teacher who used to close her eyes and recite poetry in French and she also closed her eyes when we took tests. So we always used to cheat a little bit. [Laughter] At that time and our greatest recollection of that particular class was that she found out that we all cheated only because all our answers became the same and she mentioned all our names in class and embarrassed us all, of course, and from that day forward, we never cheated again.
KP: So it sounds like you have both unpleasant and pleasant memories about growing up in New Brunswick, that ...
MK: Yes, the more pleasant memories came from when we entered the higher echelons of school. Of course, then our poverty wasn't quite as distinct at that time. I was never rich, as a family, we were never rich during those days but we, at least, did well enough to eat and dress nicely.
KP: But when your father died, when you were six, seven, eight, it sounds like it was a very hand-to-mouth struggle.
MK: It was a struggle. But I was too young to realize the struggle until I became ten, eleven at that time.
KP: Did you ever work? You mentioned you worked in your mother's store.
MK: I always worked.
KP: Yes. How old were you when you started?
MK: I started working, well, I worked in my mother's store when I was twelve and
delivering papers and I had a paper route after that and then I used to work for my sister's news agency. I used to go into Jersey City Saturday nights to get all the Sunday papers and, during the day on Sunday, I would deliver the papers for my own route. And then, of course, when I came to Rutgers, I worked my way through Rutgers working on summer jobs: bell boy in the mountains, elevator boy, bingo boy down the Shore in the summertime, usher at the Rutgers football games, which used to pay us a big dollar for that Saturday afternoon, and that's the type of thing I used to do in order to get through school. I also borrowed a few dollars here and there from Rutgers, I might add.
KP: Did your family get any help from your extended family? Because you mentioned your parents came over, in part, because of family.
MK: That's correct. Our family did get some help, but not actually in cash funds. It was help in the sense of taking them out, entertainment, seeing that we got hand-me-downs in the way of clothes and that sort of thing. But never in cash, that I can recall.
KP: How did your mother get the money to open up the store or how did she scrape the funds together to open the candy store?
MK: I don't know.
MK: That is one thing I never knew.
KP: How observant was your family growing up? Did you belong to a synagogue?
MK: Always belonged to a synagogue though we didn't belong in the sense that we paid for it. That's another facet of the help that we got from the extended family. I used to go to synagogue with my cousins who could afford to buy the seat. As a matter-of-fact, I was bar-mitzvahed on a Thursday because we couldn't afford to be bar-mitzvahed on a Saturday or have a caterer and that type of thing and I was bar-mitzvahed with another boy, who could afford to buy the herring. Thursday is a holy day in the Jewish religion and if you weren't well-heeled enough in order to buy a caterer's food, the synagogue would let you bring in herring and wine, and so forth, and that's what you would give the parishioners who attended your bar-mitzvah and that was the extent of my bar-mitzvah at age thirteen.
JR: I'm just curious, where was the candy store that your mother owned?
MK: Sixth Ward, right nearby here, actually, it was on Easton Avenue near the St. Peter's Hospital, about three blocks away.
JR: What's there now? Have you seen it? I'm just ...
MK: Yes, I think there are offices there now. It's a brick building and next door to it was an A&P at the time. I've been there a few times. There's art decorators right down the block. My mother used to work in the dress shop right, as a matter-of-fact, on Easton Avenue, owned by my aunt and we used to live in the back of the store at one time. Again, that was a tough go because it was in back of a store, number one, it was a cold water flat, number two, and my aunt wasn't too gracious, number three. She was the boss. I had an uncle who used to beat me with a Sam Brown strap as I had no father at that time and he was a disciplinarian. So, if you made a little bit too much noise he would come in and slap you around with the strap. Those people are deceased now.
KP: It sounds like not having a father was tough in your era.
MK: Very difficult.
KP: Did your parents, did your mother and family expect you to go to college? What were their expectations regarding education?
MK: I had to go to college. I was the only boy in the family and I was the baby of the
family and, of course, college was the only way I could be successful in their mind. It's not necessarily true, of course. But, that's the way it was and, and in those days Rutgers was the only place to go because I used to roll out of bed and go to school and I couldn't live at school. I didn't have enough money for that. Tuition in those days at Rutgers amounted to four hundred dollars a year, as an in-state commuter. So, the four hundred dollars was scraped up from my sister and from my working summertimes. Thus, I managed to go to school. But, it was a question of what I was going to study when I came to Rutgers. I entered the School of Engineering. But again, in those days, engineers who were of the Jewish faith found it difficult to get an engineering job. So, after one day in the engineering school I switched to the business administration school. I got a BS in business administration, majored in accounting.
KP: Do you think if there hadn't been anti-Semitism in the profession that you might have ...
KP: ... might have stuck with engineering or your ...
MK: I may have, except that I, the first day or two, I think I was even there two days. It left a rather bad taste in my mouth. I think it had to do with the professors, or the courses, or both. I don't remember exactly why I switched so quickly. I may have been looking for the easy way out. I'm not quite sure. I was pretty good in math and that was the reason that I went in that direction.
KP: Had you tried to get a scholarship to another school or was it just simply that Rutgers was the easiest option?
MK: Rutgers was the only option. A scholarship from another school meant going away from home, and that wasn't in the cards.
KP: You mentioned you were the baby of the family. Was there any thought of your second sister going to college, or even the oldest …
MK: Not the oldest and not the second, no. No, again in those days, women or girls or females, whichever way you would like to put it, did not go to college that often. It was only the very wealthy that went to school. At least that's the way it appeared to me at that time. My cousins went to college, who were the same age as my sisters. They went to Douglass, which at that time was NJC, New Jersey College for Women, and, but they were fairly well-to-do. Also, they were very smart, Phi Beta Kappas, both of them. Both of my sisters had to work, basically.
MK: And any thoughts of going to school were driven aside by that fact.
KP: What was it like to be staying in New Brunswick and going to college?
MK: It was like an overgrown high school. I was a neutral here in school because it didn't make sense for me, first of all, to join a fraternity was out of the question, again, because of funds. Secondly, nobody rushed me and thirdly, I didn't care for fraternities because I thought they were a little too supercilious in their ways, again, in those days. I'm not quite sure how they operate today.
JR: It hasn't changed.
MK: The same way?
JR: It hasn't changed.
MK: It hasn't changed, right, and they all thought they were rather big shots on the campus and I couldn't stand that type of thinking. So we became neutral and Howard Crosby was my leader in those days. Howard Crosby passed away, too, not too long ago, I believe.
KP: Several years ago, yes, but fairly recently.
MK: Yes, in the scheme of things it wasn't too long ago and he was the head of the neutrals [not actively anti-franternity] and he was quite a man. So I followed his lead.
KP: So it sounds like you knew him. You hung out a lot with Howard Crosby.
MK: I didn't hang out with him because Howard was too active for me. He was a very active fellow and I was not that active in school activities because I had to get home most of the time much more quickly than most people and Howard lived here on campus and, but I knew him quite well. We knew each other quite well but we didn't hang out together.
KP: Yes. You mentioned that college, for you, was in many ways, an extension of high school. What activities did you take part in, were you able to take part in? Did you ever get to any of the dances?
MK: Yes. Here in school?
MK: Sure, we went to all the dances. At that time I was courting my future wife. We went to the sophomore prom, and the junior prom. The sophomore hop, I guess they called it. Military ball, because you had to take ROTC here in school for two years. But I didn't take advanced ROTC, I couldn't stand it. And, so we went to all those and then there was a senior prom, which was held at the Molly Pitcher Hotel in Red Bank, which is still there, by the way, the Molly Pitcher Hotel.
MK: And in fact, it was just redone recently. So, I did attend the dances, yes.
KP: And you mentioned you worked the football games.
MK: Yes, I did.
KP: And so, it sounds like you all went to the games.
MK: Yes, we've been going to the games until the last few years. Dr. Copleman, incidentally, is my cousin, was my cousin. He was the doctor for the Rutgers football, Rutgers athletic teams for fifty years and, in fact, he's in the Hall of Fame over at the stadium.
MK: So we went to the games quite regularly until he passed away, I guess about five years ago. Still interested in Rutgers athletics but don't understand why they went big-time. Can't understand it, not under the circumstances, anyhow, that they find themselves in.
KP: You also played freshmen soccer.
MK: I played freshmen soccer only because Professor Seiden, who was my dear friend, [who in later years became head of the French Department], was on the soccer team and he was a terrific runner. I played freshmen soccer for not too long a time because I got bounced on the head once and they knocked me out and that was the end of my soccer playing days. But I played freshmen tennis for a while since you had to play something, you know. I don't know if school requires it now, do they?
JR: No, you can actually go here and do nothing if you want to.
MK: Many students do, I would assume.
JR: Yes, it's not ...
MK: But we had to take an athletic activity when we went into school. So I chose soccer only because Milt Seiden chose soccer because I didn't like soccer and I couldn't run half as fast as he could. But I was a pretty good tennis player, but not good enough to make the squad. I made the squad for a week or two, until somebody else came along that was better than I was. But I played tennis most of my life.
KP: Did you play any other sports or take part in any other activities while you were at Rutgers?
MK: No, just the neutral meetings and Ping-Pong, which was related to tennis, but nothing organized. Intramural sports, we fooled around with basketball a little bit, things like that.
KP: You mentioned you thought the fraternities were a bit supercilious. What about the class competitions, the freshmen, the rules that were applied to freshmen and that …
MK: That really didn't bother me that much because I wasn't around enough …
KP: To really ...
MK: ... to really get into that sort of thing. I just wore a freshman beanie cap and you
knew I was a freshman then. But, actually nobody bothered me too much with that.
KP: Having grown up in New Brunswick, then going as a student, what did you think of the relationship between Rutgers and the community?
MK: At that time, it was excellent. Because New Brunswick has gone downhill in the many years since then. But the community supported Rutgers quite well, I think, much more so than they do today. Because today Johnson & Johnson is the bulwark of the support that comes from New Brunswick. But the people I'm not quite sure of anymore.
KP: Did you go to Rutgers football games growing up?
MK: Yes, I used to sneak in. Growing up, Rutgers used to let in the young people of New Brunswick in the back. They had a stadium, separate section at Nielson Field. Nielson Field, at that time, was Rutgers' stadium and if we couldn't get in, if their quota was finished, they didn't have any room, we used to sneak in the back fence, you know, that sort of thing. But, we were always in. Nielson Field was our favorite place to be on Saturdays. Also, they played the high school games there, too. New Brunswick High played at Nielson Field. Andy (Beano?) was an all-state and so on, was in my class when we went to New Brunswick High and we watched him play at Nielson Field. Nielson Field was about, I think five blocks from where we lived.
KP: Did you ever use the library before coming to college?
MK: Oh, I'm not sure I remember. I used to be in the library constantly only because I lived here and the only place to study was in the library. I couldn't study at home so I came to the library to study. But, I don't think I used it before I came to Rutgers.
MK: I don't think so. But there was a public library in New Brunswick that I used, Livingston Avenue, which was right near the school, the high school and the junior high. I don't think I used the Rutgers library.
KP: You mentioned you knew Howard Crosby well. Did you have any contact with Dean Metzger?
MK: Just by sight. I knew him and I thought he was a great man.
KP: What about chapel?
MK: Well, being Jewish, I never went to chapel.
KP: You never went. How did you, in a sense, get out of chapel, because it was mandatory?
MK: To go to chapel?
KP: On the Thursday chapel, the mandatory.
MK: I don't recall that. But I was very seldom in Kirkpatrick Chapel.
MK: I know it was mandatory now that you mention it. I realize it was mandatory but I just don't remember why I never attended.
MK: I say never. I could have been there a few times because I know the inside of the chapel. But they used it for other affairs besides prayer.
KP: You mentioned, you, like everyone else, you were in mandatory ROTC and I take it you weren't crazy for it.
MK: I hated anything that required you to be, what's the word, I can't think of the word. But the word is being like everybody else. You were just a cog in a wheel and you had to be disciplined and you had to do exactly what everybody told you and etcetera, etcetera. And, can you think of the word?
MK: Conformity, right. I didn't want to conform. Nor did I like the Army, particularly. I'm not a militant.
KP: Did the ROTC spur a lack of interest or were you even uninterested in the Army and military affairs before and after ROTC?
MK: Always uninterested. Uninterested in the sense that, again, I'm not military-minded in that sense. I know that we need it and all that sort of thing, but I'm not William Archibald, for example, who became a big shot in the military and whom I met a few times in various functions here at Rutgers. Also at the State Theater I met him one night. Do you know anything about William Archibald?
KP: I believe he's a Rutgers general from World War II if I remember.
MK: He was a general.
KP: Yes. But, I haven't met him yet, so …
KP: Growing up, yours would be the last pre-Pearl Harbor class, but there was a lot of debate, for example, in the 1940s the peacetime draft and also the debate over lend-lease and others debated about American intervention. What do you remember of those debates, both within New Brunswick, the larger community, but also at Rutgers?
MK: I remember the debate going on both in newspapers, but at Rutgers itself, I don't remember too much of any debates at Rutgers. I remember the political debates going on during that particular period, but on a federal level, rather that the local level. So, I can't remember anything at Rutgers.
KP: So, you don't remember how your classmates came out, in a sense, came out against American intervention?
MK: No, I do not.
KP: What about Wendell Willke's visit, do you remember ...
MK: I remember that very well. I attended that visit and it was in the gymnasium and Wendell Willke was in shirt sleeves. It was very hot and the gymnasium, in the summer time, was always very hot. You know, there was no air conditioning in those days. He just rolled up his sleeves and he was a dynamic man and very attractive, and I think, at that time, I sort of fell in love with him as a man and wanted him to be President at that time because he was head and shoulders above everybody else during his day. At least that was our opinion. I think that was most of the student body's opinion.
KP: Yes, how did you feel about Roosevelt and the New Deal?
MK: I thought he was a great man. I'm learning differently, of course, as time goes by. At that time, I think we all thought he was a great man.
KP: So, it sounds like Wendall Wilke's visit really made you, at least in that election, question some of that.
MK: Absolutely, absolutely, during that time, yes. But, when we entered the war and Roosevelt, well, before the war, when Roosevelt took us out of the Depression he assumed an aura of greatness that no one really took the sheen off until later on. And in today's world, of course, when you read history and go back as to what he didn't do and so forth, then of course, you get a little disillusioned. But, aren't we all disillusioned, by all men, as we look back, even George Washington, the great father of our country.
KP: You mentioned that you changed from engineering to business. What did you, when you entered the college, what did you expect to do with your business major, or what did you hope to do?
MK: Well, I took accounting and I hoped to become a great accountant, which never happened, incidentally. I became an accountant, which is true, but I never became certified because the war interrupted, actually. I graduated in 1941 and after getting out of school, I joined the radio school here at Rutgers. One of the reasons was in an effort to avoid going into the Army, actively, right away. For a couple of reasons. One of them was because I didn't want to go in the Army and get killed and the other was family. I had to help with the family at that time. My mother wasn't well, so I had to work and make some money. But I entered radio school because I wanted to get into the Signal Corps, rather that the infantry, or artillery, or anything of that nature. The radio school turned out to be a way into the Signal Corps, as it happened. But, that interrupted my accounting. But I was an accountant during my stint in the radio school. I was an accountant for the contractor that built Camp Kilmer. His name was Johnson, as a matter-of-fact and I was also an accountant. My first job was for eight dollars a week and I worked for a CPA, as soon as I got out of school. I worked for him for about eight months and then when the job for Johnson came along and they started building Camp Kilmer, it became a hundred dollars a week. So, I thought that I was getting rich in a hurry and I worked Camp Kilmer until I was inducted into the Army.
KP: Anything, I've been very curious about Camp Kilmer because it basically doesn't exist anymore ...
MK: No, it doesn't.
KP: ... except for some of the buildings.
KP: I've been told that Camp Kilmer was put up in a hurry.
MK: It was put up in a hurry.
KP: And doing the books, was there anything you recall, from being the accountant for that, for part of that project.
MK: I wasn't the accountant for that. I was the cost accountant in those days. I was in the field. We used to sit by a barrack that was going up and we used to keep time on a carpenter crew, for example. How much time they would spend putting up studs and things like that. Then we would hand in time sheets and it was really a time study thing that we were doing.
KP: How efficiently or inefficiently was Camp Kilmer erected?
MK: As inefficiently as every other camp was.
MK: All they did was make the contractors rich, because it was a time-plus job, whatever they put in, then plus, and they put in a lot of plus.
MK: Whether they put it in or not there was a lot of plus. So they made a
fortune and the Camp Kilmer barracks weren't bad and they were fairly substantial. But there were shacks across the street that they put up, and again, in those days, it was segregated and the blacks, unfortunately, were in the shacks. I didn't go out of Camp Kilmer, but I watched a lot of people come through them and that's what it turned out to be. It was an embarkation point, not an embarkation point, actually, they called it something else. Embarkation was at the water. This was a gathering point, but they called it, there was a name that went with that. Do you know it?
KP: I can't, I can't think of it.
MK: I can't remember it.
KP: Yes, I know what it is, but I can't ...
MK: Yes, there was no training going on here.
KP: Do you remember where you were at Pearl Harbor when you got the news and how much of a surprise was Pearl Harbor?
MK: I know exactly where I was. I was in Metuchen riding horseback with my cousin, Dr. Copleman. Again, I was his guest and we were riding home from that horseback ride at noon and he had a Buick, a nice new Buick. He had the radio on. He turned it on and we heard the news going home from Metuchen to New Brunswick. That's where we were.
KP: And it sounds like your initial desire was not to enlist right away.
MK: Never was, never. But, I was drafted, actually.
JR: What was your reaction to the news?
MK: Shock, absolute shock. I couldn't believe it. Nobody could believe it, I suppose. I don't think anybody really expected that type of thing. We expected to get into the war, but not in that manner. We expected to go into Europe.
MK: Dr. Copleman, my cousin, enlisted. He went through North Africa and so forth and was wounded, but he would come out of it okay even though he became a prisoner. But, after that, of course, that they started drafting in a hurry and I entered the war in 1943.
KP: So you, except for taking the radio school, you really were waiting for your number to come up.
MK: That's correct.
KP: Had you tried to get an exemption from the draft because of your family situation?
MK: I think we tried but it didn't work because in 1943, things became rather sticky as far as the war was concerned and they were taking everybody, men with children, families and so forth. So, it was very difficult for anybody to get exempt unless they were not physically able to go in. There were punctured eardrums. Many men were puncturing their own eardrums. That happened to be the truth.
KP: Did you know anyone who ...
MK: I didn't know anyone personally but I knew of people.
KP: Then it wasn't an unheard of thing for ...
MK: Not at all, not at all.
KP: The radio class that you took, where were the classes actually held? Was it right at Rutgers?
MK: In this quad in Voorhees Hall.
KP: Oh, really.
MK: I don't know where we are. I don't know where we're facing. We're facing the quad here?
KP: No, the quad faces the other way.
MK: Well, it was across the street. It was about two buildings down from the library, towards Seminary Place, that's where I took it.
KP: And who offered it? Was it a military instructor or Rutgers?
MK: [Sighs] It wasn't a military instructor. I'm not quite sure it was a Rutgers instructor. It was just an instructor hired by the military.
KP: But there was no commitment to serve in the military by taking this course?
MK: No. Again, it was an entry into the Signal Corps, and we took the radio course, which was worthless. They taught you all about a radio. I don't know anything about a radio anymore, except that when you turn the knob it goes on. But, in those days, they taught you about tubes and the makeup of the radio and the physical attachments, etcetera.
KP: And none of that proved useful?
MK: No, not at all. It's a year's worth of waste. But then again, that's normal, as far as the Army was concerned.
KP: When you were drafted, where did you report initially?
MK: To be drafted, I reported to Newark, New Jersey. After the draft we were shipped to Fort Dix for indoctrination. After a few weeks, I guess we spent a month, two, or three months at Fort Dix as I recall. We stayed around there for awhile, and then I was shipped to Camp Crowder, Missouri, which is near Joplin, Missouri.
KP: I've interviewed someone from Camp Crowder before but I can't place who. But, it's come up a few times.
MK: At Camp Crowder we used to die in the morning from the cold and the dampness and die in the afternoon because it was too hot and then you start dying again at night, because it got cold again.
KP: Yes, it's very similar, it's not too far from Tulsa, I believe ...
MK: Tulsa, Oklahoma?
MK: I think it could be far from Tulsa. It's near Joplin, Missouri, which is the biggest town. Now there's a small town near Camp Crowder whose name I can't recall. But, that was the town where everybody went to drink beer, except me. And, but Joplin was a bigger town. That's where they went to entertain themselves. But Camp Crowder was where we got our basic training and my outfit left without me only because, after my basic training, which took, let me see, I got in Camp Crowder in the end of September, I should have gotten in there sometime in October or November and went overseas in February. So I was in Camp Crowder for three or four months. I was detached from my outfit because I got an infected finger at the end of our training and we were waiting to be shipped overseas at that time and they kept me in the hospital for a little while. Then my outfit left. I don't know what ever happened to them. I just don't know. I went on KP for two weeks. I became the best potato peeler in the Army because that's all I did for two weeks was peel potatoes by hand! Peel potatoes, until my finger healed up and then they attached me to this outfit that I ended up with, the 32-, what is it, 3250th Signal Service Company.
KP: Were you in Signal Corps from the beginning?
MK: Right from the beginning.
KP: The unit that you were detached from because of your illness, where did they go? Where did they end up?
MK: They ended up, I believe in the same place I did, it was a different company. Those companies were set up in Camp Crowder as specialized companies. There were four of them, the 3251st, second and third, and the 3250th, we were the 3250th. They were all the same size, somewhat over a hundred men, with a cadre. Our cadre was the Southern National Guard. They were very difficult to deal with, the Southern National Guard, in those days. I say "in those days" so often because times have changed considerably since then, that time, and Southerners, again, were looked down upon by Northerners and the Southerners hated the Northerners and, but they were part of our group. They were the cadre, they used to drive the trucks and they used to do the tough work. But they came right out of the National Guard and they were tough hombres.
KP: What made them so difficult and so tough and so ...
MK: Well, for one thing, they resented the rest of the company because the rest of the company had it easy as far as they were concerned. Because, we were, I don't know if you'd call us an elite group, but more or less, a sort of a step above. When they took our IQs, we were a step above the rest of them. We weren't snobbish. I don't like to give you that impression. We weren't snobbish at all. But, amongst the group there were a lot of professors, a lot of teachers, and mostly college men, college graduates. In contrast, the cadre, were, many of them never got out of high school, hence, the great divide in the mess hall and the cooks and the trucking. We had all of that. We had a regular Army outfit, but a small one. It was in miniature. It wasn't like a battalion or a big company.
KP: But you had all the different specialties you would have in a bigger unit?
MK: Had to have truck drivers, you had to have mechanics. You had to have people feeding you, except when you had C rations and K rations. Then they tossed it out there.
KP: Backing up just a little bit, you reported to Camp Kilmer and you very well might have been placed in infantry or artillery, or in …
MK: I didn't report to Camp Kilmer. I worked in Camp Kilmer.
KP: I mean, excuse me, not Camp Kilmer, Fort Dix.
MK: Fort Dix.
KP: How was it that you were placed in the Signal Corps, which, in a sense, you had some training that you never used?
MK: Well, because that was on my ...
MK: It wasn't a resume, it was a record, I guess they'd call it. Yes, and since that was there and my IQ was fairly high. They tested for that and they also ask for your preference, which I suggested would be the Signal Corps. That would not have gotten me there, necessarily, because if I had a preference I would have gone to New York in an office someplace. But, then that's how I got there, because of the Signal Service School, right here at Rutgers.
KP: In a sense, the Army, it sounds like, in your case, really got it right or at least ...
MK: They tried.
KP: I've heard stories of people who, in fact, had gone to the school and end up in a branch that totally is different. People have told me countless mismatched specialties and ...
MK: Absolutely, sure. Well, actually, Professor Seiden, for example, went to Fort Monmouth. He ended up in the antiaircraft, and he became an officer. He went to Hawaii and stayed there during his army tenure, which is great.
KP: [Laughs] Had you ever applied for Officers Candidate School? I mean, you had a college degree going into the war.
MK: Yes, I did.
KP: And often that meant officer status.
MK: Right, I did, but they didn't want to take me because they wanted me to go overseas in a hurry. They didn't have time for it at that time. I got in too late, by the way, it was 1943. The war had been going for two years by then.
KP: It has here the date of enlistment November 4, 1942, but you hadn't …
MK: That was in this school here.
KP: This school ...
KP: So you, in a sense, enlisted in the school, then they didn't actually take you until September of 1943.
MK: Into the active duty, right.
KP: You mentioned you didn't like conformity and you, I mean, you didn't even like the conformity of the ROTC. What was your reaction to the initial conformity at Fort Dix?
MK: It was very distasteful. I didn't like the Army ever. But, your mindset changes because here you are amongst this group of hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of men and they're all doing the same thing anyhow and you have to do your part or else you get flogged. If not actually, then verbally by the sergeant, so, you conformed. I mean, one does what they have to do under those circumstances. There is no way out of the Army. Once you're in that kind of a spot, that's the way it is and you have to make the best of it, and you try to do your best. At least, I tried to do the best I could without falling on my face many times.
KP: What did you like least about the Army, at least initially? Was there anything in particular?
MK: I disliked everything about the Army.
----------------------------------END OF TAPE ONE, SIDE ONE----------------------------------------
MK: First sergeants in the Army in those days were difficult men.
KP: You mentioned just before we were cut off by the phone call that you disliked knuckling down to people who you thought ...
MK: Not because I thought they were inferior per se, but in the Army they called it, I believe, "chicken shit." You must have heard that phrase before and it's hard to take, especially from some guy who looks like he just come up from the gutter someplace, telling you what to do with nothing. But, again, as time went on, you learned how to deal with that, and that was part of the Army.
KP: So how did you deal with chicken shit? Where did you learn how to deal with a sergeant who was giving you chicken shit orders that ...
MK: If you didn't want to get punished, you dealt with it and you became a very nice man. I guess you were a boy until you became a man later on in the Army or else you couldn't survive. You learn how to survive is what I'm really saying and the only way to survive is to take what they hand out and become a man.
KP: What did you learn in basic training, in Signal Corps Basic?
MK: In Signal Corps you learned nothing in basic training. [Piehler laughs] Are you talking about Camp Crowder?
KP: Yes, Camp Crowder.
MK: Actually, your basic training had nothing to do with the Signal Corps. Your basic training had to do with taking hikes and getting into shape. Climbing ropes, shooting your gun, and that sort of thing and the hikes used to knock hell out of you. But, you didn't learn too much about the Signal Corps. You learned a little bit about encoding, cryptography, and things of that nature, but I believe it's like any other job, until you get a job, you really don't know your job until you work at it and until we got overseas, we didn't really work at our job.
KP: What were your, you mentioned you didn't like the hiking very much, what else, it sounds like you didn't enjoy basic training in particular.
MK: Well, because it was very physical. I'm not a very physical fellow. I was a pretty good athlete and I never fainted on the hikes, or anything like that, like many people did. They used to fall like flies in Camp Crowder. Right in front of me, "Plop," and the jeep used to come along, pick 'em up and take 'em to the infirmary. But I was pretty good at that stuff. But it's nothing like when you jog today for exercise, like I did just now to get my bag, that's different. When you're forced to do it, it becomes a different story. Then it becomes work. It's no longer fun.
KP: It sounds like you didn't enjoy camping in the great outdoors, so to speak.
MK: I still don't enjoy camping in the outdoors, I never did.
KP: It sounds like being outside did not ...
MK: No, and yet, overseas, we slept outside all the time. I slept in a truck rut because it was pouring and the only place that kept you dry was the rut of a truck. It's amazing that I sit here and tell you this now because if I had to do anything like that or think about sleeping in a muddy rut, it's hard to believe.
KP: What do you remember about your first drill instructor and your first unit because you sort of had, you had this unit you were doing basic with and a sergeant and then they shipped out without you?
MK: You're talking about in Camp Crowder?
KP: In Camp Crowder.
MK: I don't remember faces at all, nor people in Camp Crowder. I do remember the KP sergeant because I was with him for two weeks [Piehler laughs] and he handed me bushels of potatoes every day. But, the men were faceless. I can't remember their faces at all because they didn't mean much to us and they changed, too, in Camp Crowder, as I remember. You know, one would take you on the hike and then one would take you to the gun, to the rifle range and things of that nature. Others would take you to the hurdle course.
MK: So I really don't remember the men in Camp Crowder. I chose to forget, anyhow. I think the Army makes it so that you can't wait to get out of a particular place to get overseas to fight the war and then when you get overseas to fight the war you can't wait to get home and it's always a question of getting it over with in the Army and Camp Crowder became that sort of a place. You couldn't wait to get out of there. But once out of there and you realized that you were going overseas to fight a war you realized that you made a mistake. You should have stayed there and peeled more potatoes. [Piehler laughs]
KP: You were put in a new unit and in a sense, what stage were they? Were they a fully complemented unit or were you put in with a cadre and then trained as a unit?
MK: My unit was established overseas, actually. We didn't go as a unit.
KP: So you went over as a replacement.
MK: More or less, yes. We went into England and we docked in Liverpool and the unit
was formed in England.
KP: So it wasn't formed in the United States.
MK: No, but the outline was formed in the United States.
MK: Then we got together and people like Garrity and Spielvogel and ...
KP: Spielvogel? Is he from New York?
MK: No, he's from Millburn. He's one of the older men. He's ten years my senior.
KP: What did Spielvogel do after the war? Did he ...
MK: Spielvogel? After the war?
KP: Yes. Because I've heard that name before, I'm thinking if it's the Spielvogel …
MK: Spielvogel owned a Christmas tree ornament factory in Irvington and they made medicinal ampoules for the Army during the war. But he wasn't involved in it because his partners were. He was with me fighting the war and trying to get out of the unit because he was too old. But, anyhow, the unit was formed overseas. We all got together overseas.
KP: So you, after being pulled out of Camp Crowder, you were sent to a replacement depot. How did you get transferred?
MK: We were sent to a replacement depot in, I forgot the name. But it was in Ohio, the Ohio-Pennsylvania border. Chingango, does that sound familiar?
MK: Hell-hole. A real hell-hole and we were there for a little while and from there we went to Orangeberg, New York. Orangeberg was an embarkation point and then we were shipped overseas from Orangeberg on a Liberty ship. Great trip. Every first day that I was on a ship I got sick. I walk up the gang plank, I would get sick, seasick. But after the first or second day, I was okay. We were on that Liberty ship for, oh, it took, I guess it took about ten days to two weeks to get to Liverpool. We went to the North Atlantic and, of course, hit a storm and I thought we'd never make it out of the Liberty ship. We docked at Liverpool and we stayed in England for awhile. You want me to continue?
KP: Actually, I think Jason has a few questions about your training and pre-England experience.
JR: Yes, I was just curious about the amount of tension between your company and the Southern National Guard. You mentioned that ...
MK: This was overseas.
JR: That was overseas?
MK: Yes, this was overseas. That'll come up later.
JR: Okay, I guess we can talk about that later then. Another thing was the Liberty ship, was that your first experience out at sea?
JR: How was that?
MK: Well, again, I think that when you're with a group and you're not too old, you manage to take it. You're a little frightened. After all, you're on a strange ship and you're going to a strange country and you've never been on a ship before and you're puking your guts out. So you're not too happy. But, after awhile, I recall on that ship, during the height of the storm, I was on the deck when the ship was wallowing on these ten foot waves and it was almost fun, getting soaked and so forth. But, then you develop a rapport with certain people on that ship and you can't play cards because the boat was making too many motions or anything like that and it was difficult to eat, too, because the trays used to slide up and down, as you've seen in the movies, I suppose. When the ship turns over the tray would slide down and it was true. So, I think I lost a bit of weight on that trip but, other than that it wasn't that bad of an experience. We came into Liverpool at night and I think that was worse than being on the ship, because we couldn't see. Foggy London was foggy Liverpool. Liverpool was a dirty, dirty, cold town. But after that, we went to another replacement camp over in England where they were gathering the troops.
MK: And there, one of the things I'll never forget were the toilets which were big waste pipes that you would see in the street, sewer pipes and they went the length of the meadow or, I don't know if it was a meadow, but it was a lot of land, and, every so often there'd be a wooden seat with a hole and that's what you would sit on. You'd talk to your neighbor, [laughing] if you weren't too busy at the time and water would run constantly through this sewer pipe and that's where you went to the john. And that was the replacement camp. We used to go on trips. We went down to "sunny Devon." Now sunny Devon was in the southern part of England and it used to rain every half an hour in sunny Devon. That's what they called sunny Devon and we trained there. It was on the beach and we were training for the invasion in those days, that's why we were there. This was 1944 and they started to train for the invasion. This was in March that I got there. The invasion was in June, so they were training quite a number of months, and they would take us down to sunny Devon to the water and show us the ocean, the barbed wire and that sort of thing and we weren't a fighting outfit, obviously. We were an intelligence outfit. But we had a captain who was assigned to us by the name of Captain Brownfield. Does his name ever show up?
KP: No, no.
MK: Well, Captain Brownfield used to walk around with a western bullet belt on his hips and two holsters. He was a two gun man and he swaggered. He was younger than everybody in the outfit, almost. He was, I think at that time he was about twenty-four, twenty-five years old. Very ambitious; he didn't want to be a captain. He wanted to be a colonel. He wanted to be a lieutenant colonel first, and then a colonel, and then a general. Captain Brownfield at any given time would volunteer us for anything, anything! We were a signal outfit but that didn't seem to matter to him. We would shoot our way through anything he felt and so, we would go on these various trips. Actually, we spent a month with the Navy through Captain Brownfield. Because, we got onto a ship called the Ancon. Now the Ancon was a ship that was in the Italian service and it was a communications ship and it was the lead ship in the invasion, actually. It was through Captain Brownfield's good efforts that we were on the lead ship and our duties there was to communicate with the crews that were in back of us that held all the generals. Eisenhower, of course, was not there. He came later and neither was Winnie. He came with Eisenhower later on. But there were quite a few important generals on that ship, including our good friend, who was the general of the 1st Army, Clay ...
KP: Lucius Clay?
MK: Yes. He was on that ship and a few admirals and so forth. What they used to do when we went in was that we'd train on that ship for two weeks before the actual invasion because it was a dry run. At that time, I think if you read your history of the war, you know that they were trying to fool the Germans at the time, into thinking that we were going to invade a month ahead of time and, we were part of that, too. So you had to get on a ship with all the gear and all the junk and everything else and stay there for two weeks. But the best part of staying on the Ancon was the food. Navy food versus Army food was excellent.
KP: Even on a ship that ...
MK: Oh, the ship, it was excellent. We used to have a breakfast that was, well, if you were at the finest hotel today you wouldn't get a breakfast that was as good as that. Especially for the price. Corn bread and bacon and eggs. Now eggs was not verboten in those days. Cholesterol was not known about so we used to eat all the eggs we could. So, it was fine.
KP: Just backing up a bit because I'm finding these stories fascinating. You were in this intelligence unit and what was it supposed to do? But it sounds like your captain, as you said, Captain Browning was looking to volunteer you ...
KP: Brownfield, excuse me, was looking to volunteer you...
MK: Yes, he did, but he would volunteer us to go up to the front, no matter what. We had to be within a mile of the front lines at all times. I think that was his idea and he had a very good friend in V Corps. Now V Corps was the fifth corps, Roman numeral V, and the colonel in charge of V Corps, I think it was a lieutenant colonel, whom I knew. He didn't know me, but I knew him and they used to get together and decide what we were going to do. And actually, our outfit was an interceptor outfit. That was a unit which intercepted all messages that went from the Germans to their particular units and it was translated by us. I was in the communications end of the outfit where we would take their messages that were translated into our truck and send it on, to V Corps. We would encode it with various devices. There was a teletype machine and there was a board that we used to encode in cryptogram and they would send it to V Corps, which in turn would sent it to First Army headquarters. But our main purpose was to intercept messages going back and forth. For example, we knew when the Bulge was coming at that time but nobody believed it.
KP: Did you, in a sense, you said knew ...
MK: We knew that they were massing troops.
KP: And you were expecting something, I mean, men in the unit would say, something's ...
KP: So when the Bulge ...
MK: When the Bulge came, it was no suprise to us. A lot of our men got killed and I was wounded during that particular period. But, the V Corps and the First Army paid very little attention to it, as it turned out, and that's why they got sucked in, as they did in Bastogne, and all over the place. But we knew it because we knew of the massive troop movements that were going on with the Germans.
KP: The reason I ask is because I've interviewed some who've been in intelligence, or encoding, and some people, literally, they just took the code, which was in code. They wrote a lot of mumbo-jumbo down and had no, except for the volume of messages, no idea, whereas it sounds like you had a pretty good picture of the war.
MK: Oh, absolutely.
KP: And how the war was going, compared to a lot of people.
MK: Yes, we did. Because we were in Eupen at the time, which was in Belgium, but very close to the lines and we knew what was going to happen, or we didn't know what was going to happen but that something was going to happen and it happened. That was our mission, but nobody up in the hierarchy believed it.
KP: Going back to England a bit more, did your unit do any training in England in preparation for the invasion and post invasion?
MK: We did our training on the Ancon.
KP: Yes. You mentioned that, was there any additional ...
MK: And we did our training in sunny Devon, which was raining all the time, and we weren't there that long. We were only there about two months. So there really wasn't that kind of time to do a lot of training. We didn't do any rifle training. We did a lot of physical training because you had to keep in shape. You had to learn how to eat K rations and C rations. You did training opening cans of C rations and I'm not being flip, it's true. I assume you know what K rations consist of and C rations, of course, were mostly beans.
KP: It sounds like …
MK: It was a noisy place.
KP: You didn't particularly care for Army food.
MK: Well, you couldn't care for K rations or C rations.
KP: But what about regular Army?
MK: Well, if you had a good cook, he could turn powdered eggs into something that taste like eggs, for example. Occasionally you would get meat, but it was seldom. In fact, in one of my pictures as I was reading yesterday, we hadn't seen meat until we got to someplace in Germany I think and, no, I'll take that back. It was in Belgium and one of the farmers gave us some meat. We swapped. Kids would come with eggs and they would give us eggs and we would give them bread from the mess and things like that.
KP: So, in a sense, the Navy ...
MK: The Navy lived high off the hog.
KP: From a food perspective.
MK: Absolutely. They lived beautifully. I don't know about the submarines but I wouldn't want to eat my food that far down below in water. [Piehler laughs] Unless the big ships, the cruisers and ships like that, I guess, I don't know about destroyers, but they used to take a beating. But the big ships, they ate very well until they got blown out of the water and then, of course, it was all over.
KP: What else did you notice in the training, in your experiences on the Navy ship? Were there any other differences you noticed between the Army and the Navy? Did you, for example, think, 'Well, maybe I would have been better off in the Navy.'?
MK: Oh, absolutely. We would have been better off in the Navy right from the get-go.
MK: If you could take it.
MK: If you could take the sea in the Navy, of course, you were hemmed in by the ship and, of course, in the Army, you were hemmed in by the Germans and everybody else around you. But, at least, you could breathe a little bit more freely but if you're on a ship, if you didn't get claustrophobia, the Navy was the place to be because their life was far better. It was clean. There was no mud. There was no dirt, no snow, no nothing. It was just water and they were very clean. They had showers every day and they had good food and things of that nature. We didn't have that stuff. I used to shower out of my helmet. I washed my clothes in my helmet and, well, defecate out in the field some place with your little spade and things like that and the Navy didn't have that stuff. They had toilets and they had clean living. I guess, you could sum it up like that, clean living and good food. But they were subject, I suppose, to a more dangerous life because a few bombs, or a few pieces of artillery shells, hit a ship and it was all over. Whereas, in the Army, you could scatter a little bit.
MK: I used to run pretty good, the other way [laughs].
KP: I'm curious, this might be a good time to follow up on Jason's question about, because it sounds like in England, you mentioned that that's where you came in contact with these Southern National Guard.
MK: Actually, it wasn't until our outfit was formed that we came in contact with the Southern National Guard and my first recollection was all they did was drink beer and curse. Every second was the f-word and I had never been subject to that sort of thing. I wasn't a goodie-goodie but I just couldn't stand the talk. Well, in today's world when you go to the movies, it's all over the screen and I'm a little older now, just a little. So, it doesn't bother me that much anymore. But in those days, it bothered the hell out of me. They cursed the chow. They cursed the trucks and they cursed the, well, they cursed the captain, but so did I. He was just an ambitious type of fellow, who cared very little for his outfit as people. He cared for them as his robots. They had to do what he said and he used to swagger around. But Judge Garrity, on the other hand, made a very dear friend of Captain Brownfield because Judge Garrity was a judge, even then. He knew how to get around this particular man. He was terrific and he was an interesting man.
KP: What was Judge Garrity's rank?
MK: He was a T4 or T3, he had one stripe underneath, actually, he was a staff sergeant without being staff. He was a technical staff sergeant, which I became when I got out of the Army because they raised you one notch when you left the Army. I was a T4 until I got out and then I became a T3, which made my pay better but, that's why they did it.
MK: To give you an extra bonus, not because they wanted to make you too important. [Piehler laughs]
KP: People have said that the Southerners, much more than the Northerners, were refighting the Civil War. That ...
MK: That's true. They still are in certain areas, that has never changed.
But, in the Army, they assumed a certain arrogance, especially in our outfit, again, because they resented us. They resented the lives, theoretically, that we were leading, versus what they were supposed to have been doing, which was the dirty work and we were the clean livers. We had trucks that we worked out of. They were in the open air all the time and they were in tents all the time. We didn't sleep in the trucks, we worked out of them. We slept in tents, pup tents, side by side with Judge Garrity, Spielvogel, for example, in a tent about this big. It wasn't a single bed, by the way, it was about a quarter-sized bed and you slept on cardboard. With the containers from the chow, from the C rations, we used to make a mattress, especially in the snow.
KP: Your captain, who, I'm, I guess, where did he come from, Captain Brownfield?
MK: Brownfield came from the South.
KP: Was he a National Guard?
MK: No, but he wasn't a Southerner, as such. He came from the northern South. I think he came from Virginia. We had a lieutenant who when we got into France drank Calvados every day. Now Calvados was pure alcohol, practically speaking, and it was made by the people in Normandy and this fellow, this lieutenant was scared from the day he entered the war, I suppose. And he drank Calvados until we got to Guttenberg and then he went out of his mind, literally. Some artillery shells came over one day and they were landing fairly close by and he would start running around. He used to build bunkers wherever we went. He would build, not a slit trench like everybody else. He would build a bunker and he'd have everybody bring rails to him. So he'd crawl underneath and one day he went out of his mind. It was the day that we picked him up from out of the gutter. Spielvogel, Garrity and I were coming back from some position, I forgot which, and he was laid out, full of Calvados, and the next day he ran around that field while we were being shelled, which is hard to forget, because here's a man that went berserk and they carried him away. We never saw him again. One of Captain Brownfield's boys.
KP: Was there anyone else that couldn't take it?
MK: There were a couple of enlisted men, yes, that couldn't take it. A fellow by the name of Schulman, who was an older man, he was a lawyer and he was drummed out. The outfit did get hit. We lost ten or twelve men. We were only a small outfit and when you lose ten, twelve men, that's a lot of men.
KP: Your captain, I guess, maybe that's getting ahead of my story, but did he ever get any promotions, Brownfield?
MK: To my knowledge, no.
KP: For all this ambition?
MK: No. Our outfit got a lot of promotions on the field. The men who were in the interceptor truck were professionals, the teachers, the professors and so forth. They were promoted on the field. The lieutenants became first lieutenants. The first lieutenants became captains and that sort of thing. Brownfield became just the company commander.
KP: At the rank of captain?
MK: At the rank of captain. I don't think he became anything else. [Piehler laughs] I
think he got a new gun.
KP: You mentioned that you did all this training for D-Day, but were you in the communications ship on D-Day?
KP: So you were at the big ...
MK: We were at the big D-Day, yes.
KP: And the lead ship, what are your memories of that day?
MK: Very vivid. D-Day dawned cloudy and I think you've read they weren't sure they were even going to go in on that day. But, being the communications ship, anyone who went in had to circle our ship and the command was given from the communications ship to go in or not to go in. Only because whoever was in the cruiser behind was the commanding general and he would radio to us, not to our outfit, necessarily, but to the Ancon and the Ancon would then tell the people on the LSTs and the tanks, and so forth, to move in or not to move in, as the case may be. Then the bombs were coming down from the German aircraft at that time.
KP: Which beach were you off of?
MK: We were on Omaha.
KP: What did the men from your unit on the Ancon do and what did you do that day?
MK: I was just watching.
KP: You just watched the whole ...
MK: Yes, I just watched the whole panorama. I was on the rail. But the men downstairs, who were working the teletypes, they were communicating with the people who got onto the shore.
KP: What's your most vivid memory of watching this entire ...
MK: My most vivid memory of course, was the fact that these boats would, LSTs, whatever, they called 'em all sorts of Ls and they would circle the ship and go in and then get blown to bits and then they would start coming back. Later in the day, they were coming back with all the wounded and the dead people. Again, they would circle the ships, our ship and [were] then told where to go and deposit their wounded and they'd go to the hospital ship and so on. There was a hospital ship, of course, standing by. And we went in D plus one, again because of mister, captain, I call him mister but, Captain Brownfield. There was no need for us to go in on D plus one. But when we went in, we had to, we went in on an LS, it wasn't an LSM, but it was for humans rather than for tanks and that sort of thing. And we had to wade through bodies floating in the water and there were barriers that were still there; metal barriers that the Germans had planted, and the beachhead had not been quite secured. It was secured, up to a point, but not quite. We had to build, now this is a signal unit. We had nothing to do with shooting, couldn't shoot to save our necks anyhow, but we had to dig trenches, slit trenches and sleep in 'em. Scared the hell out of us because every time I saw a shadow, I was waiting for something to hit us and that's what we did until the third or fourth day. We got off that beach, then we hit the hedgerows, the famous hedgerows of Normandy, and it went very slowly from that point forward.
KP: You were volunteered to be put on Omaha but, when did you finally do something that you'd been trained to do?
MK: Once we got moving, then our truck started to operate.
KP: But when you landed that first, D plus one, did you have your trucks with you?
KP: So, in other words, you were just on the beach, basically, waiting for the trucks.
MK: Waiting for the trucks to arrive, sure. We didn't have trucks with us for quite a number of days.
KP: What kind of weaponry did your unit have? [laughing] You mentioned, most of you couldn't shoot ...
MK: We had the small, what-do-you-call-it rifles.
KP: So you had no M-1s or BARs or ...
MK: No, we wouldn't know how to use them.
KP: There wasn't a platoon in your unit?
KP: So you were pretty under-armed.
MK: Well, we were circled by bigger companies.
KP: Yes, but still, internally, in your own company ...
MK: We couldn't shoot ourselves out of a paper bag if we had to. Maybe Brownfield could, he had two guns! [everybody laughs] But, no we were just a service outfit. Actually, what the outfit was named, that's what we were; a service outfit, not a fighting outfit at all.
KP: So, in a sense, Brownfield was really putting you in harm's way without adequate means for your company to defend itself. I mean, even if you ...
MK: Well, that was his schtick. He had to put us in harm's way. He wanted to become famous. I often wonder what he, how famous he did become, because he's younger than I was.
KP: And you were fairly young. I mean, you were ...
MK: Oh, sure. I was twenty five.
KP: When you got to, deployed to the hedgerows, what was your mission? I imagine it's intercepting traffic, but does anything stick out in terms of, and especially, you said you learned your job as you were doing it. How did you learn your job as you were doing it under very difficult circumstances?
MK: Well, actually, when the trucks arrived, we'd go into the trucks and there we would do our encoding and decoding work. So that's how we learned our jobs, by actually doing what we were taught to do at one point during this whole thing and when they start intercepting is when the trucks arrived. So, as we went along, communications went along with us. Don't forget, until we got moving, communications, which were put up by a special communications unit, had nothing to do with us. It had to do with the infantry, which had communications. They would put up poles and wires, and so on. They wouldn't have communications at headquarters for a number of days, that was land headquarters. The ship, yes, but not land headquarters. So that we would have to communicate with them first, then get to the ship, which was directing traffic from offshore. Once we got into, started moving towards Saint Lo, which was a very big communications town, because all roads went into Saint Lo at that point, then we started to work and that's how we started learning. But we didn't work the same shifts because there wasn't time to do that and we didn't have equipment to do that. So, basically, we would hang around a lot during the hedgerow period.
KP: But really, it sounds like your unit wasn't really used very much.
MK: Not initially, not initially. It was only when we got deeper into France that we started being used, more towards Paris.
KP: The hedgerow fighting was very ....
MK: It was intense.
KP: And you were close to the front.
MK: Too close.
KP: How many times had you been shelled?
MK: Every day. We weren't shelled as a unit.
KP: Yes, they weren't aiming for you but you ...
MK: No, they were going over our heads. Well, they were shelling the infantry and sometimes they'd go over our heads, sometimes they'd land in front of us, and then they'd try to shell the ships, which were still anchored out on the water. So, most of the time you'd hear the whir of the shell and if you could hear it, you were doing all right. Once you didn't hear it you were dead.
KP: How soon did your unit take its first casualty?
MK: We took our first casualty during the Bulge.
KP: So you didn't in this initial, in the hedgerow country?
MK: No, no casualties. It was during the Bulge. We sent a group down to Malmedy.
Now, you've heard of Malmedy. That was an infamous little town where the Germans committed all sorts of atrocities down there and the whole unit was wiped out, ten men, which was a detachment. That was when we took our first casualty and then we were bombed while we were in Eupen, and then we took another. I was standing next to a man who was standing guard duty and when we heard the bomb come over, the plane come overhead and the bombs start coming down, he ran. I guess, I was too scared to run at that time. He ran into the bomb. We found his shoe and then I started running. I ran that way and he ran the other way. I was hit in the back by shrapnel, but he ran right into the bomb and my colleague, who was in the truck, whom I was to relieve was sliced up because the truck was bombed. There were three men in that truck and he was the one casualty.
KP: The hedgrerow fighting was particularly difficult but it also had one of the great friendly fire incidents, I mean, one of the most tragic friendly fire incidents of the war. Do you remember that at all? I believe it was even near Saint Lo, when the American, I forget the general's name, who was killed and a number of people, and I forget the number of the division right now, were killed. Do you remember that incident at all?
MK: No, not while we were there. I think they kept it kind of quiet from the troops. Read about it but it might have been the Ninth Division, I'm quite sure. I think we had the Ninth Division with us at that time.
KP: After the breakout it sounds like your unit was used more.
KP: What was the most extended period of, first extended period where you really were, your mission, you were accomplishing a mission that you were ...
MK: That was at Eupen, Belgium.
KP: So not until really Eupen were you really ...
KP: Moving in trucks and hurrying up and waiting.
MK: Right, right. That's exactly what we did. The Army: hurry up and wait. But Eupen, after that, of course, the Bulge came after Eupen and then we went back into Belgium to lick our wounds, so to speak. I was in the hospital for a week with this back because they operated and tried to find the shrapnel. They never got to it. It was too close to my stomach so ...
KP: So you still have the shrapnel.
MK: Oh, I have it, that's a memento. Little triangular thing in there. Every time a doctor takes an X-ray, "What's that?", which in my later life, is quite often now. We went back and we stayed in Limbourg for awhile and then we start moving into Germany from that point forward, actually we went to Guttenberg after that and then into Germany. We moved rather quickly after we got over the Rhine and our outfit was always on the move because the infantry was moving fast then, that's when the Germans started crumbling. After the Bulge, everything started to crumble for the Germans, as you know. We moved right into Czechoslovakia and that's where we ended up. We ended up in Pilsen, Czechoslovakia, where the beer comes from. Pilsner beer comes from Pilsen. That was another jolly place for a lot of the men.
KP: It sounds like, in some ways, it just sounds like it was a very strange war until the Bulge. That you really, you moved a lot and it was a hard life in a sense, where you slept and you would often be shelled but that you really weren't doing anything often that useful.
MK: Well, we were always in contact. The outfit was always intercepting messages but the quantity was never great unless you stopped completely and made camp, so to speak. But we moved an awful lot, once the Bulge was over with, which was in December of 1944. Once that happened ...
-----------------------------------END OF TAPE TWO, SIDE TWO--------------------------------------
KP: This continues an interview with Mr. Morton Kernis on April 8, 1996 at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey with Kurt Piehler ...
JR: And Jason Riley.
KP: Just a summary. We sort of cut off at the end but it sounds like the full capability of your unit only came into play after the front froze in November and December of 1944. That when the movement stopped, your unit really ...
MK: I never gave it much thought but you're absolutely right.
KP: But in between you saw a lot of things happen, even though you didn't take much of a hand, for example, in the liberation of Paris. You had shown us pictures earlier.
MK: It was wonderful. The liberation of Paris was the most thrilling thing we ever did, outside of eating breakfast on the Ancon, [Piehler laughs] because there the people were so overjoyed. They just grabbed you and it was a sensation that you never experienced, really. People loving people; when do you see that outside of your home? But, there it was a lovefest. They just ran up to the trucks and grabbed your arms and tried to kiss you and we handed them Hershey bars. Hershey bars were the thing. They handed you food plus other things for chocolate.
MK: Or their bodies for chocolate, if you could use their bodies, it was fine. But, it was absolutely thrilling and Paris itself was a thrill, just being on the streets of Paris. My wife wants to know why we never went back to Paris, well, I saw it, I don't have to go back. [laughing] That's my excuse.
KP: So you've never been back to Paris.
MK: No, I've never been back to Europe. I'll take that back, I've been back to London. But not to Paris. If there can be a thrill in the war, that was it, for me, anyhow. I think for most of us. I don't know about Captain Brownfield.
JR: I have a quick question. Going back to the hedgerows, how did you work your way through there because I've read that a lot of units made all sorts of different rigs on tanks to cut through the hedgerows and I was curious if you had trucks with you at that point and how you got through?
MK: Well, we didn't because we weren't of that kind of class. Our outfit just followed the leader, or whoever cut the hedgerows, then we went through it.
JR: So, you were behind.
MK: Right, the tanks did cut it and that's how they cut through the hedgerows but, there was a lot of aircraft that were bombing ahead of the tanks, too, and the ground was pretty well bombed out, including the hedgerows.
KP: You mentioned earlier when you showed us pictures, before we started the interview, you had a lot of contact with French and then later Belgian civilians.
KP: And you mentioned there was some trading. Any other contact? Did you, I don't know, you mentioned you lived with families but did you get to know other French or Belgians? It sounds like it was a very haphazard contact.
MK: Well, it was because we were moving so quickly. The only time we stayed put was the two weeks we stayed in Limbourg and that's when we saw this Belgian family and we got to know them quite well. My wife used to send me care packages. She used to put oranges in paraffin, and send them over along with canned chicken and stuff like that. Well, this Belgian family never saw stuff like that at least during the war, they certainly didn't. They could kill a chicken when there was no war on. So, we used to raid the mess hall, such as it was at that time and get bread and we'd have dinner with them. I'd give them the cans of chicken and I'd tell my wife to send some more. She wasn't my wife at that time but she was kind enough to do all this. We'd give them some oranges, but a lot of the oranges used to come over rotten because they'd be in the hold of a ship and the paraffin would melt and, you know, they'd come out moldy and all that. But, so that contact was the main contact that we ever had with people. But along the way, as you went through Belgium and France and Guttenberg and those countries, people were friendly and they were happy. They were happy to be relieved. But, in Germany, it was a different story. In Germany, they wouldn't look at you. First of all, they were beaten down to hell, their cities were ruined, they had no homes and they weren't happy to see us at all.
KP: But you got a sense that the French and the Belgians were really happy to see you?
MK: Overjoyed, not just happy, they were overjoyed.
KP: You showed us a picture from Paris with you and Judge Garrity and others seeing the first woman you'd seen in apparently weeks who was wearing no underwear. [Laughs]
MK: Well, only because she was wearing a blouse, no bra, and somebody noticed that she was wearing no pants. [Piehler laughing] Now, I don't often notice that, but, she was wearing shorts. Maybe she sat down. But, sex was rife outside of Paris, throughout the Army. As a matter-of-fact, I became the VD sergeant. Do you know what that consisted of?
KP: So you did short arm inspections.
MK: No, I didn't do that, no,no,no,no. I wasn't a doctor.
KP: But you made sure that they ...
MK: They had condoms and I would count out the condoms and see what they brought back, whether they used them or not, because they had to use them. Now, in those days, now this goes back fifty some odd years, condoms were the thing to use. There were no AIDS, but there were all kinds of diseases, gonorrhea and syphilis and that sort of thing, that were going around and these women were fairly loose, especially in France.
KP: So, I'm just curious, how many condoms went out and how many would come back? Was there any percentage?
MK: Well, if I gave them four, I wanted to see two come back, for example. I mean, how much can a guy do in one night, [everybody laughs] or a couple of hours? He had to come back to sleep. [Laughter] But that was my job.
KP: Do you know if anyone in your unit came down with VD despite these efforts?
MK: No, I don't. Yes, I was a virgin so there was no problem with me.
MK: Nobody would believe me. [Piehler laughs] To this day, they don't believe me. I came home a virgin. So I didn't have to worry about that. That's why they made me VD sergeant. I was very clean. [laughs]
KP: You didn't drink much.
MK: I don't drink at all. To this day, I don't drink.
KP: And it sounds like there was some alcohol flowing in your unit.
MK: All the time, all the time. Calvados and beer constantly, constantly.
KP: Was it because you were a support unit that it was more accessible? Or …
MK: Possibly. Yes, we had some influence. Calvados was always accessible in France. The farmers would supply us, all you had to do was ... Oh, the lieutenant lost it. He had an endless supply of that stuff because he could pay for it, number one, and he had some influence, number two, he would get it through his other officers, so, there was no problem with his getting liquor. When you got to Eupen, for example, there was a bar there. As a matter-of-fact, I met my cousin, Dr. Copleman, who came in with Patton's army. He was with the Third Army and we contacted each other through our message centers. He had just finished being a prisoner. He came up and I remember meeting him in a bar in Eupen and we spoke for three hours. This is a cousin of mine who I used to see every day here in New Brunswick and here we were in Belgium. He came up from North Africa with Patton's army and we met and he had to go back to his unit and, obviously, I had to go back with mine and we both went by truck. I had to stop that truck every half hour because I wasn't a drinker and I the beer went right through me.
KP: You mentioned how unpleasant sleeping was when you were in the field and driving, how often would you get a hot meal in, let's say, a given week?
KP: So you were constantly eating K and C rations.
KP: What about the other creature comforts, like a shower? You mentioned taking showers with your helmet, but did you ever get ...
MK: No showers unless we were near a town that they would take us in by truck to take a shower. In some of the towns they would come in, commandeer a building that had showers in it, a school, or something like that and then, we'd take a shower. But that wasn't too often. We were going too fast. It was a tough, dirty way to live.
KP: And it sounds like your captain didn't take good care of you as a company, or are we blaming him too much?
MK: I think you might be blaming him a little too much. He took as good a care as he thought he should, I think. But, most of the work was the first sergeant's work. He sort of was a disinterested captain. He, too, resented the, the elite group, which I wasn't part of, but this interceptor group. He resented them, too. He thought they were too smart for their britches. Don't forget, you had men in there whose IQ was 160, 165, in that area. Part of it, there was always genius-type people that were connected with that and they weren't, again, they weren't snobbish men at all. But the aura about them was a little different than Captain Brownfield was used to and that's what the problem was. When promotions came along, not through him, through the first sergeant, they would submit names and he would stamp them "okay" and that's all. Then they'd go up to V Corps and he would hand them out. But he wasn't happy about it.
KP: I guess the Bulge was a pivotal experience for your unit. I mean, that's where you really saw ...
MK: Yes, for everybody.
KP: I guess to begin with, I mean, it was extremely cold, even before the Bulge happened, it was extremely cold. I've read that that was the coldest winter on record.
MK: Well, sure. We slept in the snow.
KP: Any frostbite? Do you remember?
MK: I remember some people getting frostbite, yes. But, not from sleeping in the snow. We covered ourselves up pretty good and we slept together. It wasn't a sex thing. You had to keep warm and you'd put as much cardboard underneath you as you could and on top of the cardboard would be a blanket.
KP: It almost sounds like it was eerie that you heard all these messages and nothing was being done.
MK: Well, we did what we had to do. We did our job and hoped that it worked out. It didn't.
KP: If you remember the date, when did you first learn that something big, I mean, in a sense, that the Germans were really doing something and it was in your sector, that it was not just someplace distant?
MK: Oh, about a week ahead of time. The Bulge was in December. I don't remember the date exactly, as a matter-of-fact, I read that book by Stephen … he writes some historic books, this fellow, Stephen Ambrose. I read his book on Normandy and he gets a little boring at times but it's interesting because I've been in most of the places he describes. But he's describing the whole panorama rather than just Omaha and, we knew about it a week ahead of time, that things were going to happen.
KP: In a sense, when did you first have enemy contact? When did the Germans start attacking your unit, in particular? What was the initial contact?
MK: Planes, overhead bombing. There was always planes above because there are observation planes. They had theirs and we had ours. But, this was just a drone type of plane. It sounded like a buzzing queen bee. It circled and circled and circled and then all of a sudden we heard the whistle of the bombs coming down. They say when you hear the whistle you're okay because they're far enough away. But, one of them, I guess we didn't hear. It landed on us. It landed on our building which we had at that time for our headquarters. It was a bombed out building but it was a building, nevertheless. We were standing guard. It was twelve o'clock at night when it happened.
KP: And that's not the time when you got injured, or was it?
KP: So you got injured even before the battle ...
MK: Oh, yes.
KP: Got started. I mean, it was just getting started and ...
MK: That's correct, right. I was in the hospital when it started.
KP: How far back were you evacuated?
MK: I was evacuated to Eupen, which had to be about five miles.
KP: So you weren't that far off the line?
MK: Oh, no. Never far off the line.
KP: And, on the one hand, did you hope for the million dollar wound, or did you feel a sense of loyalty to your unit?
MK: Well, I'll tell you what happens. Actually, I never gave it much thought as to that the wound was going to take me home, because I was mobile. It hit me in the back because I was running that way. I got shot in the back, so to speak. But, it was a piece of shrapnel. It could have hit me anyplace. It happened to hit me in the back and I was not really disabled. I was only disabled from the operation where they went in to find it. And, when you're with a lot of people for that length of time, you don't want to lose them, because I lost a unit once with my KP and I didn't want to lose this outfit. I knew I wasn't going home.
KP: You wanted to get back.
MK: I wanted to get back to that outfit. They were all my friends. I mean, the friends who I made there. They weren't all my friends [Piehler laughs] but the friends I had made. Spielvogel, Garrity, and Gaston, they were my friends. So I did want to get back, no question about it, and I did get back, because, they were pulled back, too, at the time. I just was fortunate. If they had gone ahead, I would have never have gotten back to them. Then I don't know where I would have been.
MK: Life is full of turns and twists and a little fight here and there. You stick to the curb when the truck comes on by. That's the way it goes.
KP: Your unit was pulled back. Where did you join up with them?
MK: In Limbourg.
KP: And, during the Bulge, where did your unit stay?
MK: Right there.
KP: They stayed the entire …
MK: Yes, we were of no use to them. They were actually sending messages at that time, but just to the headquarters, they were intercepting messages, but they knew what was happening. They didn't have to find out from us anymore.
KP: But, a detachment from your unit was sent to Malmedy?
MK: Right, to join Patton's outfit which was down there.
KP: And, what was your detachment designed to do?
MK: Intercept messages. They joined with another unit on this at Malmedy. It turned out that they were all killed. They were massacred down there. I think Ambrose mentioned that. He didn't mention our outfit, but he mentioned that. It was a tremendous loss. It was both a loss physically and spiritually. You can imagine, these are men that you had lived with, high caliber people, and the unit itself suffered a loss because they didn't have them anymore, and they weren't replaced, not at that stage of the game. So, that was the captain, again, it was his bravado that did it.
KP: So, in other words, he volunteered a detachment from your unit.
MK: Absolutely, sure, he wasn't liked too much after that. I mean, he wasn't liked too much from the beginning. After that, he was a little bit disturbed, I think.
KP: How much did you know about the massacre?
MK: Only what we heard. It was only after our men were killed that we heard all about it, really. Again, we got our news through scuttlebutt, mostly, Stars and Stripes, occasionally, we used to get some news and what we heard on the radio. Don't forget, we were a radio outfit.
KP: What did you hear on the radio?
MK: We used to hear what was her name, the German woman who was on? We used to listen to her all the time and we heard, of course, what was going on in-between the German troops, unit to unit, which, sometimes was very uninteresting stuff.
KP: Was any of it ever very interesting?
MK: Only the Bulge part of it. That was very interesting. But again, it wasn't acted upon in time to do much good.
KP: After the Bulge, it sounds like your unit just continued doing what it had done before the Bulge, that it ...
MK: We kept moving, yes, we moved constantly into Germany. What was the name of that city that they called the "Glass City," down below in Bavaria?
MK: Munich, and there we saw the plant Farben?
KP: I.G. Farben.
MK: Farben's plant was there and men picked up a nice bunch of cameras and things like binoculars. They had a field day there, so to speak, [laughing] and they did very well in Munich. We went through there and finally we ended up in Czechoslovakia. In Czechoslovakia we just sat around and waited because the war was over by then. We never got to Berlin and I was sent to Nice. I wasn't sent, we had a lottery. There were two men going on leave from the outfit sponsored by V Corps. I won the lottery for our unit, picked it out of a helmet, and I got to go to Nice. We went over the Alps in one of the, what was the name of that plane? That great plane, used to be a bomber. Wasn't the B-2. That's what we have today.
KP: The B-17?
MK: I'll think of it after I leave you, no question about that.
KP: No, you can put it on the transcript.
MK: Right. In any case, I went to Nice for a week and it was beautiful down there. And, after that, they shipped us out to Marseilles and from Marseilles we took the SS Monterey, which was a Pacific shipping outfit. It was a passenger ship, luxury liner. We were on the ocean for thirty two days when I landed in the Philippines, from Marseilles.
KP: You left Europe July, 1945, got there August 28th.
MK: That's how long we were on the ship.
KP: So, technically, the war really wasn't over, the surrender hadn't been signed on the Missouri.
MK: No. We passed Hawaii on the fifteenth of August and the war was over on the seventeenth and they wouldn't turn the ship around. We almost struck on board the ship. They were going to stop eating because they wanted to turn around, but, of course, we didn't and we landed in Manila from which point we were supposed to go to Japan. This is a volunteer job, too, by the way.
KP: So, your captain volunteered you to the Pacific or was that beyond his control?
MK: I think it was beyond his control. They needed a service outfit. They needed a communications outfit. We weren't the only ones.
KP: Yes. But, you were destined for the invasion of Japan.
MK: Right. Luckily, I never made it.
KP: You grew up without a lot of money and you got to see the world, admittedly, often not the most ideal experiences. What did you think you learned from? You went to Paris as few people have gone to Paris, you saw England, you saw the Midwest.
MK: I saw all the cathedrals.
KP: Yes. What was that experience like at the time? Do you think it changed you?
MK: No. It's only in retrospect that it becomes something. Actually, while we were doing that, it was interesting to see the cathedral in Chartres, to see Notre Dame, to see Paris, and what it's all about and that type of thing. But, it seemed to be part of a whole picture at that time. We had to go through this. It's only in retrospect, as I said, it's only as you grow a little older and you realize what you've seen and what you've done, that it becomes meaningful, although it was part of the whole experience. And as far as the Philippines go, I'll never go back there because all I got out of that was listening to Jo Stafford records because that's all they had to do for us. We saw movies, ate salt tablets and tried to keep the smell out of our noses. We were around a pool where they showed the movies in a stadium type of arrangement. Before the movies they would play these records of which they had a bunch of her records. I grew to love her, almost with a passion, [laughing] I might add. But, again, it was a waste of time. We were there for three months. I didn't get out of there until December of 1945 and only because I had seventy-two points. Now the point system was in effect in those days and seventy-two points was gigantic. We went back from the Philippines, not on a luxury liner, we went back on a Libery boat. It was a horrible trip, and we got back to San Francisco and then we came cross country on a train. The filthiest, dirtiest ride on a train I've ever had. I mean, there's garbage all over the place and the train stopped at God knows, every place, and it was ill-equipped. It couldn't feed anybody and things like that. It took forever to get across.
KP: Was it an Army troop train, or ...
MK: Yes. It became an Army troop train. We came over here to Rahway and switched to go to Monmouth. I could have jumped off the train and gone home, and that's how the war ended for me.
KP: You mentioned earlier that the German civilians didn't want to have anything to do with you. What was your attitude toward the German civilians? It sounds like you had warm relations with the French, but the Germans, what were your ...
MK: They were the enemy. Pure and simple. We bombed them to hell. I think that there was some feeling of compassion. We felt sorry for them, because they were wandering through the streets like all the other civilians. They had nothing to eat and no place to sleep and so forth and no buildings to go to. But, basically, your feeling was that they got you into this thing and they deserved it.
MK: Now, again, in retrospect, even though, to this day, I think I have a feeling of, I don't know what the word is, I don't hate them. But if I were to choose a people to love, it wouldn't be the German people. And it has nothing to do with, well, I guess it has a lot to do with my background but it had nothing to do with the war per se. It just has to do with the operation, the whole Hitler period, especially when you got into their country and saw what they did. I was in Buchenwald, by the way. We stopped in Buchenwald the day after it was liberated and to see that, forgetting about what I am, personally, whether I'm Jew, gentile, whatever, it doesn't really matter. When you see that, it's something that you just can't love people for, and the people around it just ignored it. So you had this attitude toward them that you wouldn't have towards the French, and the French are known to be anti-Semitic, yet you don't have that same feeling.
KP: How shocked or suprised were you, or did you expect Buchenwald and the other German atrocities? Before you had seen the camp, did you really expect it to be as bad?
MK: Well, we knew about it. I don't know exactly when we got wind of it. But, we knew about it, obviously, we knew about these camps. We knew about it a year or two before that. But, we hadn't seen them.
MK: But, we got there a day later. When we got there, it was liberated, and it was fairly clean by the time we got there. But we did see the stoves and all the crap that goes along with it. But Buchenwald wasn't the worst of these camps. Belsen, Schindler's List, if you saw that picture, of course, that was more descriptive of what went on than what we saw.
KP: You didn't see any other camps?
MK: No, just Buchenwald. That's where we were headed. We were headed to Czechoslovakia, so we were in the southern part of Germany.
KP: The other thing I should have asked you earlier and it's out of context, but, you crossed the Remagen Bridge.
MK: We crossed what used to be the bridge. We crossed our own bridge, a pontoon bridge. The Remagen Bridge was in the water at the time.
KP: So, how soon after the Remagen Bridge had been secured did you cross?
MK: I think it was about three days.
KP: So, once again, you were very close to the ...
MK: Yes, we were always in the front. For an outfit of our type, we didn't belong there. But, there we were. We were about two miles in back of the infantry, sometimes three miles in back of the infantry.
KP: Did you have much contact with the infantry or other units?
KP: It sounds like you were very much doing your ...
MK: Yes, we were all by ourselves. All alone most of the time, except for on the ships, on the Ancon and, of course, in Camp Crowder, but, during the war, we were all by ourselves. We had contact with the other service units. I rode with messages to the 3251st in Belgium in a jeep. I was holding a gun, as if I could do much with it, for any antiaircraft, any aircraft on a road. It seemed silly at the time. [Laughing] It seems silly now. I was sitting there holding a gun. I could do nothing with the damn thing.
KP: Because it was a carbine?
MK: Number one. Number two, what are you going to hit with a carbine? Certainly not a plane. But, there we were taking messages back and forth because that other unit was within five miles of us. We had to take a jeep. I got the assignment one day. I think we sort of switched around assignments. I don't remember who drove, probably one of my southern friends.
JR: I've got two questions, one is kind of on a technical level. All these messages that you would intercept, your unit, they were obviously encrypted. I'm wondering how many different codes you came across and broke over the course of the war and how long, on the average, did it take you to break them?
MK: That's a tough question, really, because I don't know how many codes they broke. I believe ...
MK: Ballpark figure, first of all, I would say from three to five but, a lot of the codes
were not broken by us. They were shipped off to V Corps to be broken. A lot of our men worked on breaking codes but sometimes, they couldn't break the damn things. It wasn't that simple. I wasn't involved in that, I was in the message center sending that code already, that had been broken. I was sending the message that came through that broken code. But, that was their job to break the codes. They would take the message over in German. They were all very fluent in German, of course, and, then they would sit down and try to break them and there were many instances where they couldn't break them with their equipment in their truck. So, I can't really say, but, they did break a few of them and that's why they were promoted during that particular period. But, I can't give you a real definitive answer.
JR: I have another question going back to the Bulge. We were talking before about how it was such a cold winter and I've heard other people talk about how they had a real problem getting Arctic clothing because supplies were short and I was wondering if your unit experienced any problems to that effect?
MK: Well, we didn't get Arctic clothing. If you look at my pictures, well, you saw them. I just had a jacket and leggings and stuff like that, but we didn't get Arctic clothing because we were sent back to Eupen and Limbourg, which is north of Eupen, and we lived in a house at that point. But, basically, we lived in covered trucks when we were on the move. Now, the cadre, again, getting back to our southern friends, they weren't in the covered trucks. They were either in open trucks or canvas covered trucks and they couldn't keep the canvas on because you had to have access to sight of the air. So, that being the case, they had to have open part of that truck. It was pretty cold. Our trucks were pretty warm. As a matter-of-fact, I used to start smelling like body odor there in that truck because there was no fresh air. We had little windows and things like that.
JR: So, in a sense, you were very lucky as far as the cold was concerned.
MK: Lucky in that sense, yes.
JR: But you did say you had to sleep in the snow?
MK: Oh, sure, in Guttenberg we had to sleep in the snow. They couldn't get the trucks in the forest, they didn't have room to locate them. Actually, you couldn't sleep in the trucks because there was no room to sleep. There was just an office. It was about as big as this office and you'd have a teletype machine over there and I would sit over here with an encryptograph machine and things of that nature. There was room to sit and stand and then you get out of the truck and if you wanted a night's sleep, you had to get into your tent and then you would try and do the best you could. And it was a pup tent, two man pup tent, which you had to learn to put up by yourself. Very difficult, two stakes, and then you had to nail it down. [Laughs] And sometimes it leaked, by the way. A good rain and the pup tent would get soaked, [laughter] and what you had to do was build a trench around this thing. Well, the trench used to fill up pretty fast. So, don't get involved in a war. [Laughter]
KP: You spent a lot of time in Manila and people have said that Manila, after Warsaw, probably suffered the most destruction.
MK: It was ruined, absolutely ruined. Buildings were down; roads were gone. The sewage system was out and the city, of course, smelled terrible. Well, the people smelled terrible, too. All I can remember in Manila was, besides Jo Stafford and the smell, was they had these animals that looked like oxen, but they were water buffalo, and they used to have the rice paddies, and that, too, used to smell badly because they're in mud. So, the whole place was smelly, and the weather was very humid, on top of everything else. A good summer here and you're complaining about the humidity, which I do all the time, yet, you turn on the air conditioning and you're fine. There, it was so humid and so you got this mix of animal sweat and human sweat and humidity and no sewage, so, you could vomit every day if you liked. If you ate too much.
KP: Did any men in your unit develop any health problems in the Philippines?
MK: Yes, they did. Heat prostration was a common problem. They insisted you take salt pills constantly, and, of course, there was some fungus problems that they developed. Some people were taken away, but I don't think it was serious in our unit. Again, we were a compact unit. There weren't too many of us.
KP: Did you ever see a chaplain when you were in the military? Did the chaplain ever hold services in your company or ...
MK: No, not in our company. But I did go to Passover services in Bastogne, strangely enough. This was after the Bulge and they handed out matzoh. I think Garrity went with us. It was very interesting to go to services in Bastogne, but I don't remember what the service was all about.
KP: You mention Judge Garrity a lot, which ...
MK: He's a dear friend, wonderful man. He knows people. He knows how to read people and that's why he's a good judge, and he's giving. He's kind. He's just a good man.
KP: Did you expect him to have the career that he did when you were in the military?
MK: Yes. His father was a judge before him and he comes from a long line of legal people and politicians. Garrity is a politician first and foremost, but a good politician. When you say "politician," it has evil connotations, but, in his case, he's a good politician and his father was a politician. So, I expected him to be quite successful, and he was. I didn't expect him to be where he is today. He's retired, almost, not quite. He's still fooling around.
KP: Did you make any other friends that lasted past the war?
MK: Spielvogel, I still see him. He's ten years my senior.
KP: Did you ever go to reunions of your unit?
KP: Has the unit ever gathered?
KP: So you never have seen the Southerners that you ...
MK: I didn't want to see them, maybe just out of curiosity. I would like to have seen Brownfield again.
KP: Yes, I'm very intrigued. I'd be curious if he ever made it past captain and ...
MK: I would, too. I meant to ask Garrity the last time I saw him. Garrity went back to the reunion in Normandy, the fiftieth. He went and he wrote me a card from the Beach. He was at an elder hostel there.
KP: And, have you ever thought of going back to where you ...
MK: Yes, I couldn't afford it. I wanted to go back.
KP: It's a standard question, [laughing] but did you think of staying in the military?
MK: [Laughs] You could have my standard answer, of course. Absolutely not.
KP: Did you get the pitch, though, to stay in?
MK: Absolutely. Everybody got the pitch.
KP: And what was your reaction to this?
MK: "Drop dead." [Laughter] Not really. I didn't want the man to drop dead that gave me the pitch, by no means. I took their insurance policy and left. I got a ten percent disability pension.
KP: Because of the shrapnel still ...
MK: Yes. I asked them for more but I only got ten percent.
KP: I should have asked you this earlier but you mentioned that while you were at Rutgers you were courting your wife.
MK: Oh, absolutely.
KP: Where did you meet her?
MK: I met her on the beach at Belmar, New Jersey, when I was working for a living as a bingo boy, working to go to Rutgers, actually. Working as a bingo boy wasn't the most lucrative way to earn money. However, it's chief attribute was the part it played in meeting my wife.
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KP: I hate it when it cuts people off.
MK: Well, again, I wasn't very wealthy, that's understating it. I couldn't see her very often and we wrote constantly. As a matter-of-fact, I had a case of letters that we threw out recently.
MK: They were terrific.
KP: Why'd you throw them out?
MK: It's like when you save things in a garage or the basement.
KP: Because we would have loved to put those in Special Collections.
MK: Well, they were terrific. Anyhow, we wrote a lot of letters but I used to be able to save maybe a dollar a week because the rest I gave to my mother, whatever I earned. I used to work in supermarkets on Saturday, which was terrible, working with the vegetables, dragging vegetables up from the cellar, things like that. I used to work until eleven o'clock at night. After that job on Saturday nights I worked with the newspaper agency, and once I had three dollars saved up, I would visit my future wife. Well, I didn't know she was going to be my future wife at that time. She lived in Jersey City. I used to hitchhike into Jersey City on a Saturday morning, very often in a rumble seat, so that I would be pretty wind blown by the time I got there. We'd go into New York and go to the Paramount in the morning and this was a steady ritual of ours. It wasn't just a one time thing. The Paramount was a quarter in those days and you could see a stage show and a movie in the morning for a quarter, up to twelve o'clock. We saw Frank Sinatra there, for a quarter, and then we'd have lunch, which we would bring. Couldn't spend money for lunch. We'd buy balcony seats for a show, which cost a half a buck. Now, when you realize that a musical today is sixty-five and seventy-five dollars, then it was a half a dollar. So that would cost us a dollar and fifty cents for the movie, that's a dollar and a half, and then we'd eat at a place called The Champlain, a little French restaurant that gave you filet mignon for a dollar and a quarter. So that was two-fifty. So that would eat up the three dollars and change, whatever I had, and then I'd go back to Jersey City and I had enough money left over to take the train home. We went back to Jersey City for, I think the tubes [path] at the time were a dime, and that's how I courted my wife.
KP: Before you went off to war, how close was your relationship? It sounds like you were ...
MK: We were very close.
KP: Had you thought of getting married before?
MK: Nobody would let us. It wasn't a good idea. I didn't think it was a good idea either for her sake, not for my sake, really. Because I knew what I could do. I knew that I could abstain. I was almost like a priest, for goodness sakes, I would abstain and I'd be celibate and all that, that was no problem for me. It was a problem. I had hormones and all that but I could do it.
MK: I knew I could do it. I had a pretty strong will power. I still do. I'm fairly well disciplined. But, it wasn't right for her. I guess, we were in love in Belmar. But she saw other guys. I was jealous, at the time, because she used to go out with other guys, but, it was during the war and, I guess, it was unreasonable to think otherwise, that she shouldn't. And that's the way it went and when I came home she was ill with influenza something and, I guess, I got her at a weak moment, and we got married on, of all days, March the tenth. We just had our fiftieth anniversary. Just celebrated and, which is a long time, it's short, it's suprising. [To Piehler] What's your first name, by the way?
MK: Kurt, that fifty years seems like a long time to be married and it is. Fifty years of anything is a long time. But to be married to one person, that's a long time. [Laughter] I mean, but to survive it. When you look back, it's a short time. It goes like that [snaps fingers]. It's a snap of the finger and that's why you're supposed to make the best of everything you got. People say you should live each day to its fullest; but you can't. There's always something interfering with it. The traffic gets in the way, and someone gets sick and all of that and you don't live every day to its fullest. But, you try your best. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't work. I had a son who died of leukemia at age twenty-six, the prime of his life, and he was like you, [to Riley] he was a journalist and he worked for the Washington Post and he was with PBS and he was a producer with PBS and couldn't make the most of every day. But he did. He was working for four years when he had his sickness and that's when he got all of his honors. He was working for a magazine in Washington. You know what he did? He was a critic for the Washington Post for rock music, which should be right up your alley [to Riley]. [Laughter] Is it?
JR: That would be nice.
MK: Yes, and he had a record collection that was bigger than this room and I never knew what happened to it after he passed away. In any case, that's basically how our life started.
KP: You used some of your GI Bill benefits?
MK: Yes. The insurance. I went to school when I came back. I took a refresher course in accounting at Rutgers Newark for nothing. I flunked the CPA exam four times, which shows you how much good the refresher course did. [Laughter] And, but, actually, that's what I used basically. I still have the insurance policy. The best policy in the world.
KP: And what was your first job after the Army?
MK: I worked for a CPA in New York. It was New York/New Jersey, actually. I lived in New Jersey, had an office in New York, and most of his, half of his accounts were in New Jersey, which I took care of. So I was in public accounting for five years. Travel, it was okay, but I didn't make enough money.
KP: And then you switched to a ...
MK: Private accountant. I became controller of a retail shoe outfit and then I went into the chemical tank truck business as controller right here in Edison.
KP: And you were with them until relatively recently.
MK: 1989. I was with them for eighteen years.
KP: Did you like being an accountant and controller?
MK: No. I liked being a controller. I didn't like being an accountant.
KP: But the controller part you ...
MK: I was a better controller. Well, first of all, controller has much more autonomy. You can do much more being a controller, than just being an accountant all day long, and, you handle a lot of different items that are interesting. You meet a lot more people. It becomes an interesting job. An accountant, well, if I were certified, it might have been a different story.
KP: Your two sons didn't serve in Vietnam, or didn't serve in the military, I should say.
MK: No they were too young.
KP: I have a feeling you would not have wanted them to go, was that a ...
MK: I thought it was disgraceful war.
KP: Back in '65?
MK: Well, I had been through one war and I had that experience, and I read enough and I knew enough to know that it was a disgraceful war. Especially Kent State and all those sorts of things that went with it. Then these politicians, Johnson and Nixon, even Kennedy, didn't do much better, even though I loved the man. But it was disgraceful. I think it was a terrible blot on this nation along with Grenada, of course, which was, [laughing] nothing.
JR: How did you feel about the Gulf War?
MK: Gulf War? I'm ambivalent about the Gulf War. That's strictly a money deal. It's strictly oil, in spite of the fact that they try to camouflage it with helping out Kuwait, but it was strictly for the buck and I realize that economically if Kuwait went down and Iraq took over, the world would have changed and from that standpoint, I thought it was justified. But they didn't finish it. Saddam Hussein should have been gone. They're giving all kinds of stories today but I don't believe them.
JR: Looking back now on World War II, do you find that that's a ...
MK: Absolutely justifiable war. There, I had no problem with that war.
JR: Even as you were involved?
MK: Even then, yes. I had no problem even though I didn't want to go and knew I could get killed. It had to be done, no question about it.
KP: I'm enjoying your interview a great deal partly because you have a sort of very unromantic view of World War II, which contrasts with a number of your classmates and other people, and it's not just Rutgers alone. There's generally a lot of people who often give a very romantic view of their time.
MK: How can they romanticize a war?
KP: Oh, you would be suprised. I've had people who romanticized, I mean, has it ever struck you how some fellow veterans have made World War II ...
MK: Oh, absolutely.
KP: Yes. I'd be curious to hear your comments because you've given, I think, a remarkably honest ...
MK: Well, I have people around me that don't romanticize, as such. I don't think they romanticize it. But, they strut around with their veterans groups, like the Veterans of the Foreign Wars, the American Legion, the JWV, all these groups, which I shy away from. I don't understand it. I don't see what could be gung-ho and romantic about killing and being killed. I just don't see it. I mean, these are human beings that we're talking about, regardless of what they do, or they don't do. In Hitler's case, we didn't have a choice. I mean, if he overran and then started to come our way, you wouldn't have a world anymore. We wouldn't be sitting talking here, democratically, and so on. So, there was justification, hardly romantic, certainly justified.
KP: Because I'm struck because a lot of people and I just finished an interview Monday where he'd been in the 101st Airborne ...
KP: He really didn't complain at all and I just kept thinking there had to be things that really irritated you at the time. Even if they were just snafus that no one individual is picked to blame and ...
MK: The army, certainly at the beginning of the invasion, had many snafus. However, as time went on and our men became hardened to the task of becoming equal to the fighting men of the enemy. The snafus lessened the ever-growing stream of material from home - trucks, armor, planes, tanks, etc. It did eventually turn the tide. No enemy could stand such an assault.
KP: Is there any movie or novel that captured your experience of the war?
MK: Well, movies tend to romanticize the war if you want to use the word again, so, no. But I did read the book about the Ancon when they invaded Italy and that captured. I lost a couple of friends in the war, good friends, that I knew from Belmar when I met my wife, before I even got to Europe at Anzio Beach in Italy.
MK: So, but I don't remember anything that really captured the same ...
KP: There's nothing that you've watched and said "Yes, I can relate to these experiences."
MK: Only the documentaries on Channel 13. You see the ships. I tried to pick out the Ancon one time and things like that, but, a movie, no. Ernie Pyle, the columnist, wrote pretty well.
KP: Yes, Bill Malden.
MK: Right, Bill Malden was terrific, and he used to be in Stars and Stripes and so was Ernie Pyle. They captured it. Did Malden write a book?
KP: Yes, he's written several that sort of pulled much of what he wrote in the columns together.
MK: Yes, because I used to read his columns but I never read his books.
KP: When you were in France?
MK: In France, yes, overseas, and Ernie Pyle used to be quite a man, but he's gone now.
KP: And a question also out of sequence, but what was your reaction to the atomic bomb and the fact that you weren't going to be fighting? You weren't going to be on the lead ship in the ...
MK: When I first heard about it? I was elated when I first about it. But, after I saw the devastation I wasn't so happy. But I knew that that stopped me from getting into Japan. So there again, it's an ambivalent feeling. It just wiped out two cities and people, and of course, look what it did to the future of this whole world. As I sit here today, if I could have been spared without that atomic bomb I would have rather had it that way. But at that particular moment, I thought it was a good deal.
KP: Did you fear an invasion of Japan? Did you think it would be worse than what you'd seen in Europe?
MK: Yes. Absolutely, because I didn't go into Europe at the beginning of the war.
KP: Well, you were there at D-Day, so ...
MK: I was there but that seemed to be toward the end of the war and, strangely enough, while you had some fear at D-Day, you felt that it was ending. It was a feeling that this was the beginning of the end and maybe you'd get home soon. You never feel that you're the one who's going to get hit and that's true of all your daily activities. "I'm not going to get sick" and "I'm not going to get AIDS" and "I'm not going to get anything," that's the way it goes, and that's why you get AIDs and that's why you get killed and so forth. But, that's how we felt. It was the beginning of the end. So, I didn't feel that way. But, in Japan, it was a different story. There was something about the Japanese, I guess it was the kamikazes, the suicidal type of fighter that they were, that scared us all to hell.
KP: And so, before you even went overseas as you were going across the ocean, you would talk about the kamikazes and ...
MK: Oh, sure. Like getting involved in this nonsense that was going on. I wanted no part of it. We would sit on the deck of the ship. I learned how to play bridge on the deck of that ship for these thirty some odd days and we'd talk about the possible dark future. It sounded terrible.
KP: While you were waiting, you did a lot of hurrying up and waiting, particularly in France and, but also aboard the ship, how much gambling would take place? What did you do to pass the time?
MK: I played bridge. I didn't gamble because I didn't have any money. But, there was a lot of gambling going on; a lot of crap shooting, a lot of card games, a lot of poker games going on and things like that. But, again, I sound like a goodie-two-shoes, but, I'm really not. I just didn't have the wherewithal to do it. I like to play poker. But they used to have some rough games.
KP: So you would see two or three hundred, four hundred ...
MK: Oh, sure, a lot of money, because a lot of the money was black market money. They used to sell half the stuff out of the mess hall, and Hershey bars were worth a lot of money, or certainly over in France they were worth an awful lot of money. And an awful lot of men got laid with the Hershey bar, that was their payment: cigarettes, Hershey bars. Well, you've heard this story before, too, but, that was the method of payment. But my cousin made money somehow, or the other. There was all kinds of finagling going on. In North Africa there was a lot of it when Patton got there.
KP: Because one person I just recently interviewed talked about the amount of thievery that went on in his unit, particularly, when people got into Germany that anything that wasn't nailed down ...
MK: Was taken.
KP: Was taken. Did you see that a lot in your ...
MK: Sure. Guns, cameras.
KP: Any art work?
MK: Art work, well, art work is difficult.
KP: No, I ...
MK: You couldn't take a big picture and hide it anyplace. But, the small stuff they stuck in their pockets, or they sent it home. They sent a lot of money home. If you knew the right people you could get it through the censors.
JR: So you were never tempted to get in on the black market and make your own money?
MK: No, again, you had to be in the right place, at the right time, with the right amount of money, and you had to deal with certain people who were not too savory and would [laughing] shoot you, just as soon as look at you, if you should get caught. It wasn't a very healthy way to make money, but there were plenty of people around, as both of you know, that would make money that way. There are gangsters in the Army just like there are in civilian life. I don't know about today's Army, but it happens, believe me, no different.
KP: Did you, in a sense, I mean, did you lose some of your innocence by seeing how the Army ...
MK: Absolutely lost my innocence because I was quite innocent, I must confess, I was. I suppose you'd lose your innocence, eventually, anyhow, but in a different manner. You might lose it by just evolving as a man and growing up with all the right instincts and everything else that goes along with being a good citizen. In order to survive, you have got to work at it and you lose a lot of the ideals that you had as a young fellow, if you had any ideals to begin with. But I was always an idealist, when I went to Rutgers, but, that shattered. It didn't take long for that to shatter and, I guess, in a sense, that's not such a bad idea, because you can't go through life being an idealist and make a go of it, because you're going to slip along the way and get killed. In one form or another, not necessarily literally, but, you just don't make it. And that's the way life is. [To Riley] Am I giving you a lecture?
JR: Not at all.
MK: You've heard this all before. [Laughter]
KP: Is there anything, because it's getting late, I know, is there anything we forgot to ask you about ...
MK: I don't think so.
KP: Well, thank you very much for coming.
MK: Thanks for having me.
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Reviewed by Neal A. Hammerschlag 6/26/01
Reviewed by Sandra Stewart Holyoak 6/28/01
Reviewed by Morton Kernis 10/1/01 and 11/1/01