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Interview on experiences in World War II

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WW II Oral History Project


Barber County Kansas


Barrel Rhea


2006 David Fasgold, Interviewer Kevin Noland, Cameraman


O.K. But I won't talk too much about that. After I got assigned to a ship, I was just a civilian employee.

That's fine I'm not military.

Tell me, when and where were you born?

I was bora hi Sawyer, Kansas September 1st 1928. The old doctor Bucklin, who was a family physician delivered me. My folks lived on a farm out between Sawyer and Isabel. So I lived, we lived on one farm until I was six years old and then we moved about a quarter, about a mile and a quarter to another farm home. Well you know, people moved a lot. Moved around a lot back in those days. Then I was only half a mile from the school, the grade school. And I went to Sand Creek school, grade school. I went there for two years. Incidentally about 5 or 6 years ago, Jacob and I were up at the Miss Kansas Day Parade. After it was over we went to the church, the Methodist Church up there, cause they had homemade ice cream and sandwiches. Jacob was pretty fond of that. He loved parades. He'd go with me any time. While we were in there, I ran into my first/second grade teacher in grade school. And, so I came home and related that story to Mary. And she said good heavens, how old was she? She must have been a hundred years old. And I said no, actually she wasn't. She just died here last year. She was 93. But you know back in those days they could teach right out of high school. All they had to do was go take an exam with the, I think they called them a county Superintendent of schools. And if they passed it they could teach. So she started teaching when she was young. So we, it was a nice experience to meet her. And all. And then we moved from a farm over there, we move over to a farm a mile west of Isabel. So I started school there in Isabel. And I went to school there for the rest of my time except when I took off to go in the Merchant Marines.

What are some of your memories of growing up in Barber County during the depression? Oh, I remember how poor we were. Very poor. And I also remember everybody else was you know. I guess it's not like today. You know, there's a few different classes. It seemed like back in those tunes there was just one class, you know - Poor. There were a few people that had money but most of us didn't We went to school, took our lunches and everything. Used to swap around a little bit with out lunches. Somebody had something that looked better than what we had, we could trade with them. And a. Oh, you know, I had a farm life, a farm kids life. I used to be out working - shocking feed or maybe pitching bundles or working in a field with a cultivator. I drove horses when I was ten or twelve I was twelve years old when I first drove horses. And, I'd be out in the field and see the kids go by from Isabel on their bicycles going out to the creek. You know, boy I envoy that life. I wished I could do that. But I didn't. I worked on the farm, a typical farm kid. We milked a lot of cows, about 15 cows. And there were, I had 5 sisters and 2 brothers. Some of them were older of course. We were all two years apart except for my younger brother and he was 5 years younger. Incidentally, he was the first one to die in our family. I'm the only one left out of all of them. But we used to, my sisters mostly would go down and we'd milk the cows. If I was going to play basketball that night, I'd go milk first and all. But we had one cow that we had trained. We could milk her on both sides. And whoever got through, two of us that got through first we'd milk that cow from both sides. Then we had to run the old separator, crank it by hand and separate the cream from the milk and all. But we worked hard. It was hard work. You know, afterwards, I didn't want anything to do with the farm life. I didn't. I just didn't. I guess I didn't enjoy it that much. It was a good life. We always had plenty to eat.

Were you able to go all the way through school or did you have to stop at some point to go to work? No, I never did have to do that. Only time I stopped was when I went into the Merchant Marines.

Lets talk about, you told me the story about the day the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor. Tell me about that Well, I'll tell you. A friends of mine and I were hunting. We were out hunting on his folk's farm down south of Isabel. Had our rifles, of course. We were rabbit hunting. Back in those days there was an abundance of rabbits. In those days, as a matter of fact, they had so many rabbits; they used to have rabbit hunts. And kill them. A lot of them. Shipped them back to New York. People ate them. It was a delicacy. If you can image that. They were big old jackrabbits. They were thick. So we were out there with our rifles and after we got through hunting, we got in the car and started home. We heard the announcement on the radio that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. And we looked at each other typical young kids, we said when we're old enough we're going to join the service and

fight for our country. Well, we never did abandon that idea. And the friend of mine, he was a year older than I was, he went in the service before I did. He went in the Army became a paratrooper. When I was sixteen, I decided that I still wanted to do that. So, I talked my folks into signing for me. You had to have their permission at 16. And incidentally, there were quite a few 16 year olds that went through this maritime academy because their philosophy was you know a little younger, a little dumber, and we train them and they made a pretty good seaman. So that's how the idea transpired. And sure enough I talked my folks into letting me do it. Went into Wichita...

Were they hesitant?

Oh, yaw. They were. As a matter of fact, my dad said I don't think that's a good idea. Really. And I said Dad, that's just been a dream of mine ever since I heard the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. And that's something I want to do. I want to fulfill that. Well, if you're bound and determined to do it, your Mom and I will sign for you. So we did and went to Wichita and got all the papers signed and everything. Went to Kansas City for a physical then went to Sheep's Head Bay New York. Got in to a training program up there. Pretty rigid. But I adapted to it well. I guess I just wasn't any smarted than I realized. That's what I needed. Probably needed that discipline too. But my folks had been good parents. And I'd worked hard. But I just had those... I just had a dad gum adventuresome spirit. Yes, I knew that I had to pursue that. And it was beneficial to me. I saw a lot of things. Had a lot of experiences. I learned then you know. I'm not really very smart. I needed to get some education. So, then afterwards, I did pursue my education.

The Merchant Marines you, after Kansas City then the Coast Guard training for their boot camp correct? Yaw Sheep's Head Bay New York. And of course it was military and you adhered everything. And you got the Coast Guard training. You got it all, lifesaving, swimming, boat, handling boats, and ... well typical training - boot camp. And worked a little bit in the kitchens, scrubbed the barracks. Had polishing cloths we had to put on our feet and polish those floors all the time. First time I ever tried to sleep in a bed without a pillow. I remember that. They never had pillows.

Was that a bit of a culture shock for you to end up in New York from Kansas? Yes, it was. It was awesome. Yaw, it was. See those big tall buildings and all.

What'd you think the first time you saw those?

It was just awesome. I was just awe struck. Something I'd read about and all. Just to see that and experience that Of course you know we were just being shepherded in there. There was quite a group of us. I think everybody for the most part was that way. Because you know it was an awesome place for a young farm kid to go to. But we learned to get around up there. We learned to get on those subways. But you know back in those days, course that was in 1944, it wasn't a dangerous place. It wasn't too dangerous. You could go anyplace and felt comfortable.

You finished up your training October 20th of '44 and then what was the ship you were assigned to? The SS Susan B. Lukenbauk.

Long name for a ship.

Yaw. They all were that. The SS was something or other. And this was a sister ship that belonged to Lukenbauk

steam ship company, And they were an agent for the wartime shipping administration. It was established during

WWII.

Was it a big ship?

No. It wasn't a huge ship. It was a refrigerated ship. We hauled perishable stuff on it.

Caring food and things applies to the troops?

Yaw. I'll tell you what We all ate good. I worked in the mess hall quite a long while. For one reason I volunteered for one because it seemed like the people that worked in there, well, some of them would get seasick and couldn't work. Well, if you had., it was like., it was just a civilian job. If you work overtime you got paid for it. You got lodging allowance and a meal allowance. And if you lived on a ship you didn't have to pay for it. But you got an allowance. So I volunteered for it. I worked in there for quite a while. I did KP and served meals. But they were good cooks. Yaw, good food.

Did you travel in convoys or were you a lone ship?

Well, it's normally alone until you got someplace where if you were getting in a danger zone you usually got in a

convoy,

Did they give you an escort of a destroyer?

Yes. Aircraft too. Cause Merchant Marines was just wasn't too safe. You know, you were kind of a sitting duck out there. You didn't have any big guns. Just antiaircraft guns on our ship. They had Naval gun crews. Now of course they were Navy personnel. And they had their own officers. That's another thing. They were subject to all military rules and all and the Merchant Marines wasn't But we had captain and officers. We knew what kind of latitude we had.

Did you go to Europe and the Pacific or just to Europe? Yes. Europe. We were in the European theatre.

At that point in the war, was there much of a threat from U boats still at that tune?


Oh, yaw. That you know. I think it was a threat right up till May the 8th. But, VE Day. Of course the Normandy

invasion things started slacking off after that and all. I don't know. We were never real fighting. After that I was

fighting more of the    
than I was... But it was a heck of an experience. Especially for a young kid.


When you went into Europe did you go to England? Is that where you guys took your supplies? Yaw, Yaw

Was it always to the same place or different ports?

No, We went there once. I went up and down the coast two different times. They made coastal trips. You see back in those days they didn't have, they hadn't concentrated on military cargo airplanes much. And then they started of course after the war, a heavily concentration on fighter planes, submarines, destroyers, and you know little PT boats and all that. They didn't concentration so much on the big cargo carriers or aircraft that they have now. So they relied a lot on Merchant ships to deliver supplies. So sometimes you'd go up the coast with them too.

Did you get to go ashore and get to see England and see the sights?

No. Set right out there in the bay. Never got off. So however later on then, when I was old enough in the Air Force I was stationed in England. And my kids, grandkids, illustrated the need to pursue their studies, pursue their education, and then pursue their adventures. I land of did that in reverse. Fortunately I woke up to the fact that I needed more education. And that was the foremost thing in my mind, really.

In Europe your ship, when you guys went to Europe, that was February '45. Yaw.

How long until you came back home and... ? We used to be out about 30 days.

When did you get out of the Merchant Marines?

I left there in May lets see, it was after VE day which was May 8th. And, we happened to be in port up in New York at that time. When that was announced then I knew I wasn't going to sign up for any more trips. I was headed home. I guess it was right at, I don't remember the exact day, but it was around in the middle of May. I came home. Came home on the bus. Took about two days.

You come back to Barber County?

Came right back to Isabel. Came in to Wichita. Came to Kansas City, then I changed buses. Came to Wichita.

Then I took the little train, Santa Fe train to Isabel.

How did you end up in the Air Force again later?


Well I'll tell you. At that time I was going to school at Dodge City. I was just near my 21st birthday and of course had to be registered for the draft. So I checked with my draft board every once in a while to see where I stood so I could kind of plan on what I was going to do about school.


Was the Korean War going on yet or was it before?

No. That was in 1948. So I checked with my draft board and they said well you unfortunately your coming up next to be drafted. So I thought well you know. I've had a little experience. I don't think I want to go into the Army. I think maybe the Air Force or the Navy sounded good. But, cause I'd some naval experience. But a Md from Isabel and I he wanted to go in the Navy, went up and had an examination for the Navy. I couldn't pass my physical cause I had tonsillitis. So, he got in the Navy and he went on and I had to come home. They said you go home, get your

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tonsils taken out and then we'll take you. Well, I came home and got my tonsils taken out. Heck of an experience. I was 21 years old. Made me sick. I had a sore throat for about two and a half weeks. Couldn't swallow anything. And I remember Dr. Wayland over at Nashville gave me Aspergum to chew all the time. That's all I had. Aspergum. Tried to relieve the pain. So, after I got over that I got to thinking I don't have anybody that wants to go in the service. So I visited with another kid and he wanted to go in the Air Force. So, we went to Wichita and joined the Air Force. Went back to Kansas City again and then they transferred us to San Antonio, Texas for basic training. When we got down there, the first time we went out on the parade grounds to march, to learn how to march; well I'd already done that. And, so they lined us up and I made the mistake and that Sergeant said has anybody in here had any experience with marching. And I said yaw I had. And he said well, you're going to be the number one squad leader. I said well o. k. I was number one squad leader. I did have an embarrassing moment one time. We were out on the parade grounds getting ready to participate in a parade. And we had a big group; a group of basic trainees was 144 people. And we were out there. And he gave us a dog gone movement. And I thought, I misheard it. And I thought he said left oblique and it was a right oblique. So, I made a left oblique. And we hadn't got on the parade grounds yet. And that old first Sergeant hollow at me. Rhea,yessir. Well he put us at ease first. Rhea. Yes sir. I wish you'd look around and see where you are at. Well I knew was at cause I didn't hear those footprints anymore behind me. And that was embarrassing. But, you know, we had a good group and we participated in all basic parades. We won that one time. And as a result we got to go off base. The only time I was ever off the base in 13 weeks. We got to go downtown to a rodeo. And the first thing we got to do was go out to eat. Boy, we had a couple three drinks. We hadn't had that in a long time. We had a ball. But then we went to a rodeo and it rained. And we got muddy. Course we had on our dress uniforms. Black boots, and got back to the barracks must have been about midnight. Spent about 3 hours cleaning up our uniforms and polishing our shoes. So we were never too sure that we earned anything or not. But it was good to get off the base. We were there for 13 weeks. Then I went, from there I went to Cheyenne, Wyoming went to a tech, administration tech school. I hated Wyoming, Cheyenne. It was cold out there and we had to march to classes everyday. And the dad gum wind, pick those little old pebbles up, pit in your face, and oh, it blew all the time. And it was cold. As a matter of fact, one of my buddies up there, had lived in Denver. We used to get passes up there, you know, get off the base. So we went to Denver one night. Joe Moyer's this kids name. Went there for a weekend. And I said Joe aren't you going to Denver with us. No, he said, I'm not a going. I said well why not. He said, if I ever get off this base, I know I'll never come back. He said I'm not leaving this base until they ship me out someplace. He never did go and he lived there. So, but it wasn't too bad. We had our experiences there. But then in March I got transferred to Castle Air Force Base in Merced, California. And when we left Cheyenne it was colder that the devil. There's snow there still came there in the early part of fall the year before. So we had on our uniforms, our OD uniforms. This was before they had Air Force blues and all. And had a big old heavy overcoat. Heavy as heck. But we had to have it, They wouldn't let you off the base unless you had it on. So, we left then. Got on a train. Went to California. Got off the train out there in Merced. It was about 80 degrees. Ah man, this was heaven. And I liked that it was a good place to be. And so, I was stationed there for about 3 and half years. And, but they'd sent us to England, Oh, I got the dates in there. They sent us to England on a training mission. I was in an organizational maintenance squadrant and all repair maintenance people. I was a personnel specialist. They sent us over to England. We were one of the first ones to go and activated a base that hadn't been used since WWII.

This was after the war had broken out?

No. This was before. We went there for three months. When we landed over there, of course we flew over there I think in a C54. We went there twice, once in a C54, once in a C97. Transporter planes. Bucket seats along the side, piled all your luggage out in the middle.

Do you remember what the base was called that you guys were sent too? MilldamHall.

MilldamHall

Yaw, Milldam Hall Air Force Base. It was a previously an RAF base. So we activated that base. So when we flew in there you tell it hadn't been active. And the barracks, we got to our barracks. Of course we had a supply plane come in there with all our bedding and everything. So we went and checked out all that stuff. Went to the barracks. Got in there and the windows were broken out the barracks and we so, we moved our bunks around in there and that night it rained. And we were up moving our bunks around to get away from the rain all nigh long. But we activated that base. And we were there to train people you know. And, so after we'd been mere about three months, then it was the outbreak of the Korean War. Well, they pulled all their aircraft out and took it to Korea. And me not being on flight status, administrative personnel. I was left there. There was just a few of us left. We were there for 6 more months. Haven't any airplanes. We had a little C47 plane that we went down to London and picked up the payroll and everything. And we took a trip or two around to Denmark once. But we were there for 6 months, not

much to do. Finally when they brought us home they flew us home in a Pan American Strata Cruiser. Big plane. Had a nice, I'll never forget had that great big building down there. Had a bar in it. No TV or anything. It was living for a bunch of GI. So then went back to California and they had another training mission come up. Well, I liked that, so I volunteered again. And went back over for three months. I got to see a lot of England. And it wasn't bad too. It just so happened that I wasn't on flying status, so I didn't get go with the airplanes when they went to Korea. But,...

What was the Air Force Unit you were with, the squadron?

The outfit I was with was the 415th organizational maintenance squadron. It was a I guess what they call it was a

squadron of the 93rd bomb wing which was a Strategic Air Command. We had old General oh the old tuff general,

LaMae, Curtis LaMae was our General. And we kept our base       
. We spent weeks cleaning that thing up, painted

everything and all. But it was the      
I belong to the 15th Air Force, 93rd bomb wing, 415th Organizational

Maintenance Squadron. And I was personnel specialist, senior.

How much longer were you in the Air Force after you came back from the second tour? Now to long. Actually I think about 6 months. I got discharged in 1952.

What was your rank when you got discharged?


Staff Sergeant. That's about all you can do in four years time. We did have one guy that made Tech Sergeant but you had to spend so much time in grade, you know. They were going to make me a Tech Sergeant if I'd re-enlist and I said No, I'm going home. But I did serve in the reserves for three years. But I had my experiences.


You're military experiences made you grow up a lot? Oh, yaw. Made you a better person too.

What do you think about the term they apply to the WWII generation now? Now they say it's the Greatest Generation. Do you think that term is accurate? About what?

Do you think that the term the Greatest Generation that they apply to the WW II generation, is that term accurate? Oh, I don't know. I would about have to agree with that really because of the attitude of people. You know, they, it seemed like back in those days everybody was patriotic. You know, just like my self. My first thought when I join the service. And, course the guys were drafted. Now they depend on volunteers. There good people. I don't envoy them any. They have a heck of a tough job. But, I think probably that was the most patriotic time really. Everybody respected everybody. It was a sad situation when the Vietnamese veterans came home too. You know, it wasn't pleasant for all of them. Now WW n veterans when they came home, they were you know they were highly accepted. So, yaw, I think probably that's true. Not to downgrade our present military forces. There good

people. I don't envoy them a bit. I wouldn't want to go through that stress.    
That Vietnamese War I, that

_j3cared me just to think about it.

Really.

Cause you never knew where they were coming from. In WW II you usually knew what was going to happen and it

usually it did.

You knew who the bad guy was?

Yaw, you knew that. But the Vietnamese War you didn't know. A kid there six years old might be the one going to

stab you. They don't any of them have good points. That's for sure.

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