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Cecil Stecher video interview on experiences in World War II (transcript)

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The World War II Years:

An Oral History Interview with Cecil Stecher



Note: Ellipsis (…) indicates incomplete or fragmentary utterances. [Unintelligible] indicates inaudible or unclear portions of the tape. Square brackets enclose transcriber-added material. When the accuracy of a portion of the transcription is in doubt, that portion is marked with a preceding question mark and enclosed in square brackets.   


Cecil Stecher: Are you interested in the railroad at all?


Interviewer: Yeah, very much so. Yeah.


Cecil Stecher: I lived out here. Do you realize that when the railroad went in, they used Chinese labor?


Interviewer: No!


CS: And when they died, they buried ’em. Way out on my place there is a mound, and the Barkleys always said that there was some of ’em died, and they were buried there. He said, “We was always gonna take our shovels down there and dig into it, then we got to thinkin’, what would we do if we got a bone?” I’d leave ’em there. But it’s a mound from here to you wide, ten to twelve foot long, piled up probably about this high behind the railroad track. Then southeast of the railroad track, comin’ down the hill, is the old road that came from Ottawa to Baldwin. The ditches are still visible. It was there in 1940. That’s when we moved there. And it’s still there. I’ve never done nothin’ with it. It’s grown up with trees, but it’s still visible, if you’re interested. Okay, now what?


I: Let me just get the date in today. Today is June twelfth, 2007. I’m Deb Pye, and I’m talking to Mr. Cecil Stecher. We are in Baldwin City in the American Legion Hall. Now, could we start with when you were born?


CS: June fourteenth, 1925. I’m two days old!


I: You’re two days old! And where were you born?


CS: Southwest of Baldwin, a fourth of a mile north of where I live right now. Back in those days, nobody could afford a hospital. So Mildred Barkley delivered me.


I: So you were born at home.


CS: Yeah.


I: What’d your father do?


CS: He was a farmer.


I: How about your mother? What’d she do?


CS: Oh, raised all them kids! There were four of us. I’m the youngest.


I: And were the others boys or girls?


CS: I had two sisters and one brother. One sister is deceased.


I: Did you go to school here in Baldwin?


CS: Yes. We moved from there southeast of Baldwin, and I went to Spring Creek School. Then in March I moved back into the Prairie City neighborhood, and I graduated from Prairie City in grade school, then I went to Baldwin High School.


I: How many people were in your class—in your graduating class—in high school?


CS: I think there were forty.


I: Forty. Which is a pretty good-sized class, actually.


CS: Yeah. It was then.


I: What did you intend to do after you graduated from high school?


CS: Well, the war started, really, to us in 1941. Everybody was wantin’ to get out of school to go war.


I: Did you want to?


CS: Oh, yeah. I enlisted February the 27th of 1943.


I: So you were…. Let’s see….


CS: I was seventeen. The Navy had a program where you could enlist, and when you gra[duated]…. They wouldn’t take you until you was eighteen. So I enlisted as a[n] aviation cadet in the Navy, but they had so many of us that they kinda put us on hold. Then in ’44 we had a chance to transfer into the air crew, and I ended up in torpedo bombers. I was a gunner on a torpedo bomber. My pilot—the first one—got night torpedo, on which the gunner didn’t go. And then the next one…. But they kept me in Florida for a long time. 


I: Whereabouts in Florida?


CS: Miami. And then later we went to Fort Lauderdale.


I: Those were rough places to be!


CS: Now, did you ever hear the story of the gold of [the] Bermuda Triangle?


I: Mmmm, yes. Where ships go down?


CS: We flew that all the time, and didn’t know about it.


CS: Did you ever hear of the five torpedo bombers that disappeared December the fifth, 1945?


I: No.


CS: Well, the whole squadron disappeared. And I was there that day. But I was scheduled for the invasion of Japan. The A-bomb saved my [life], along with thousands and thousands of others.


I: What did you think when you heard about the A-bomb being dropped?


CS: I think we probably thought it was terrible, but yet it saved our lives. ’Cause my brother had just come back from Germany, and he was scheduled to go over there, and I knew I was scheduled to go, so think of that.


I: Can you tell us a little bit about your training: about how you were trained to be a torpedo bomber, and what your training involved?


CS: Well, we had our choice where we could go to aviation mechanics school, aviation ordinance school, or radio. I chose ordinance. I think it was eighteen weeks’ training in Norman, Oklahoma; then gunnery school was six weeks in Miami, Florida. Operational training was…. I don’t remember, but I think it was three, three and a half months. This was when you actually got in a plane, and where you dropped a couple of practice torpedoes. You dropped bombs, and you did strafing and air-to-air and air-to-land and air-to-sea. [Shows picture] This right here was my wings. We had another pair of wings. I doubt that would show up.


I: What did the air crew wings signify?


CS: That I was in the air crew of a plane, an aircraft. Now, radar had just come into [use] about that time. When I was at Norman, Oklahoma, we had two weeks’ training on the operation of radar. We didn’t get into how it worked. We knew it sent a signal out, and it bounced back. We learned how to operate it; that’s about all. But…. No, it’s not on there. I thought maybe it was. When you get through with school, they give you a little patch. Of course, I had several patches.


I: [Referring to a picture] You know what I’m noticing? You don’t have a military haircut there. You know, today the guys have really, really closely-shaved heads. Did anybody have that, or was it just the custom to have long hair then?


CS: Well, I wouldn’t call that long hair! Now, in boot camp they would give you a G.I. haircut. Well, I joined the naval air corps as an aviation cadet, so I didn’t have boot camp. I bypassed all that.


I: What were your quarters like where you stayed?


CS: Well, when I went to school in…. See, I went to school at the College of Saint Thomas, in Saint Paul, Minnesota. There was two of us in a room. Double-deck bunk. Bill Steiner and I, we were up on the fourth floor. We went to a mess hall, where you went down the line, and they…. You held your tray out, and they threw food on it. But it really wasn’t all that bad.


I: It wasn’t that bad?


CS: No. Uh-uh.


I: So you were there for…. I can’t remember what you said. Was it three months or six months?


CS: Four months.


I: So it was a good long time.


CS: Well, then we went to Corpus Christi, Texas. We were plane captains, and we had little courses to take. Then after that we went to Monmouth College in Monmouth, Illinois. Everybody wanted out because the Army had washed out 36,000 when we…. And the Navy says, “We’re gonna follow ’em.” They finally let us transfer out into general service. You see, when I enlisted, I enlisted in what they called V-Twelve.


I: Yeah. What was V-Twelve?


CS: V-Twelve was goin’ to school.


I: So that was the training program that you were in?


CS: Uh-huh.


I: What happened to people that washed out? They went to the regular Navy? Or what’d they do?


CS: Well, instead of washin’ us out, I transferred into this air group program. And then when I got into Miami…er, Fort Lauderdale, a classmate that went to school here come, and he said, “I wish that I could find somebody that needed a radioman.” I said, “I need a radioman.” We did. So I took him down to the office the next morning, and the WAVE lieutenant, she signed him up to our plane. His dad was treasurer of Baker University. I went through high school with this kid, so…. Then we got to…. I got to California, and they say, “Hey, you got enough points for discharge?” I went to Chicago and got out.


I: What were the planes like that you were in?


CS: Well, ours was a single engine. It had two rows of nine cylinders—an eighteen cylinder—and it developed 3200 horsepower on take-off.


I: Is that pretty fast?


CS: The plane was awful slow. You see, we were so heavy…. You see, we carried a torpedo that weighed 2200 pounds. We dropped two of ’em in practice. They go just as straight as a string. They’re beautiful. In practice they’re set to go under the ship.


I: So you’re dropping the torpedo probably on a submarine, something like that?    


CS: No, on a ship. You drop ’em from six hundred yards, and it’s kind of risky, but….


I: It sounds like you had to go pretty low to do it.


CS: Two hundred feet.  Yeah. And then when you’d dropped the torpedo and banked away, my job was to strafe the ship. Do all the damage you could do. Now, dive-bombin’ one day, we was practicin’…. You pushed over at ten thousand feet. I was callin’ off the altitudes that day, and [at] 2500 you holler “Mark!” and the pilot’s supposed to start his pick up—his pull out. We was still goin’ down at 1500 [feet], and I…. I used a little cuss words: “Pull out! Pull out!” When we got pulled out, the water was right there.


I: Yikes!


CS: We was twenty to thirty feet, I’m guessin’, above it. This was…. But you have so many close calls, that that’s just another day in the week.


I: I don’t even like to think about that.


CS: Well, I’ve had many lives. When I was three years old I ate poisoned corn. When I was in third grade I fell…. At what is now the old Baldwin lake, I fell off in ten foot of water. Reached up and pulled myself out. I couldn’t swim a stroke. Now, I don’t know what made me reach up. I don’t know. But I wish I would’ve kept track all through the years how many close calls I’ve had. There was a bunch of ’em.


I: Could you tell us a little bit about the crews that you were with? Was it one group of people you were always with, or were you assigned to different groups?


CS: No, we had the same pilot and the same radioman. There was only three of us on each plane. And there was five in a squadron. That’s about all I can think of right now.


I: Who was your pilot?


CS: Don Harris from South Dakota.


I: What was he like?


CS: Oh, he was a little guy. We called him “Harry.” You really never got a chance to know him, because enlisted men were not supposed to fraternize with officers. We did a little, but….


I: And the other…. Who was the third guy on the plane?


CS: Well, his name was Bob Wood. He was a radioman. He was from Baldwin. I can’t remember who my first one was. I just can’t go back that far.


I: Was there anyone that stuck out in your mind as a…just someone that was a memorable character?


CS: Well, you know, when I was seventeen—I’d been workin’ for a neighbor for a dollar and a half a day—[I decided], “I’m gonna go quit and go to Sunflower [Ordinance Works in De Soto, Kansas] and get me a job,” ’cause they paid ninety cents an hour.  So there was four of us went up. We stood in that union hall for three days, and couldn’t get hired. I went home. We had an old neighbor. I never did know what he did. He said, “What you been doin’, kid?” “Nothin’. Went up to Sunflower and tried to get on, and they won’t hire us.” Pretty soon he said, “Who’s the union boss?” I said, “Louie Buckmeier.” He said, “You go up there in the morning and tell him I said to put you to work.” So up there we go, and [at] eight o’clock he raises his little window. I said, “Hey, Louie, my neighbor told me to tell you to put us four guys to work.” [Imitates a gruff male voice]: “Who’s your neighbor?”  And when I said, “[Bert Churchill],” his face lit up. I’d said the magic word. Bert Churchill was a charter member of the carpenters’ union in Kansas City years ago. He said, “Stay right here.” We were hired just like that.


So I soon learned that it’s not what you know; it’s who.  That kinda paid off for a friend of mine from here. He went through pilot training. Now, if you got three downs, you were washed out. He had two of ’em. He looked me up, and he said, “Boy, one more down, and I’m washed out.” I said, “Well, are you in our squadron? Ours is Twelve Dog.” He said, “No, I’m in Twelve Charlie.” I said, “Well, I know an instructor over there. Let me see what I can do.” So I went over, and I said, “Hey, Bill, have you got Morgan for a student?” “No, So-and-so’s got him. Why?”  “Well, I went to school with him.” We talked a little bit, and he said, “I’ll see what I can do.” He went ahead and got his wings. He got through.  So I mentioned that to him at his fiftieth alumni [reunion], and he got mad: “Nobody helped me get through.”  So there’s some people you can help, and there’s some you can’t.


I: I hope he was grateful to you for that.


CS: Well, he didn’t think anybody’d helped him. But when we got ready to ship out, the commander lined us all up. He said, “If any of you guys ever get back here, you look me up personally, and I’ll see to it you get your wings.” That’s how sincere he was. He would have, but none of us ever made it back. I mean, there was…. Well, when the Army washes out 36,000, the Navy says, “We’re gonna follow ’em.” But I knew of one guy out of the whole bunch of guys commissioned. But most of us washed out.


I: Were you married at the time? You were kinda young.


CS: Oh, no. You can’t be married and be in the Naval Air Corps. That’s a no-no. Hey, too many is lost.


I: So you didn’t have any close family that was anxious about you? I guess your mother must’ve been anxious.


CS: How do you mean?


I: Well, did you have people writing to you and sending you cookies?


CS: Oh, yeah. Yeah. Yeah, we’d get letters. Back there [unintelligible] in place of cookies. And you’d write [on] it “Free.”


I: Free?


CS: That was our stamp.


I: Could they write free to you, too?


CS: No. Uh-uh.


I: I guess we should follow out your career, here. You heard about the A-bomb getting dropped; then what happened? When did you get out of the service?


CS: May the second, 1946.


I: Did they ask if you wanted to stay in?


CS: I wanted to stay in; my dad didn’t. But I would have had to change rates and draw. I was a third-class ordinance[man], and I would’ve had to went back to a second-class seaman second.


I: Why? Why would you have had to have gone back?


CS: You don’t understand the Navy, do you?


I: Not at all.


CS: This is the way it is: they didn’t need ordinancemen anymore. You see, I’m a machinegunner. I knew bombs and guns and all that kind of stuff.


I: Okay, that makes sense. Did your airplane have…? Did they have names? The ones that you flew, did they name them?


CS: No. No. They had numbers. We had…. They was all lined up. There was rows of ’em at Fort Lauderdale. I don’t know how many was on the base.


I: Nowadays, you think of Fort Lauderdale being those big hotels—a tourist destination. What was it like then?


CS: There was some…. Miami, Miami Beach, was…. That was the high-rent district. That’s where your New Yorkers all come for the winter—Miami Beach. They had a racetrack down there where they gambled on the horses. I think they had dog races, too, but I never did go to them.


I: Were you given time off so you could go off to the beach?


CS: Yeah, we had…. It varied. Some places you worked twelve [days] and got two days off. Most of the time when I was in V-twelve you got out at twelve noon and didn’t have to be back until Sunday night at six o’clock. When I was stationed at Corpus Christi, we used to go to Mexico—take the bus.


I: What was your favorite place of all the ones that you were stationed [at]?


CS: Well, they were all pretty good, really. [At] Corpus Christi there was…. Can you imagine a town of sixty thousand, and a hundred thousand sailors there? They were…. We was everywhere!


I: Yeah, you must’ve taken over the town.


CS: Yeah. We did. Fort Lauderdale was…. Oh, there was USO clubs. They sent us to Glenview Air Station north of Chicago for reclassification. You’d go down to the USO, and they’d give you a ticket to go to a show. In there I saw Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey, Charlie Spivak, Betty Hutton, Stan Kenton. I’ve seen Jimmy Durante in those stage shows. You probably don’t remember these.


I: I know the names. 


CS: Do you know the names?


I: Yeah. Most of them. Certainly Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey—I know the names of them.


CS: Well, they were two brothers, and they had separate bands. That’s about all that I can remember on that.


I: When you got out of the service, where was it? Where were you discharged?


CS: Great Lakes [Naval Training Station]. Up at Chicago.


I: And where’d you go? After you were discharged, where’d you go?


CS: I met my dad up at the little town of Ellettsville, Illinois. He had a sister livin’ there. Then him and I come back together on the…I think the train, if I remember. But then I went to school in the fall. [Addressing a man entering the American Legion post]: Hello, Junior.


 Man in Legion: Hi, Duke.


CS: My brother and I went to school at Pittsburg [Pittsburg State College in Pittsburg, Kansas]. He quit after the first semester and transferred here to Baker [Baker University in Baldwin, Kansas] because he wanted his degree to be at Baker. My dad says, “Why don’t you start farmin’?” “Okay.” I didn’t like school anyway. Well, then I stayed on the farm.


I: Did you farm at your family’s farm, or did you have to get your own place?


CS: Well, I got married in April of ’47, and we had…. We lived on eighty acres, and we rented the ground. He financed me a new tractor. I kinda forget now, but he made me a darn good deal—a deal I couldn’t say no to.


I: You started out by telling us a little bit about the railroad where the Chinese workers were buried. Which railroad is that?


CS: It’s the one that’s in west Baldwin, that goes to Ottawa. It’s a tourist train now. Did you ever hear of Thomas the Tank [Engine]? That was here last weekend or the week before.


I: My kids know all about Thomas.


CS: Well, I never even heard of it until they started to have it over here. Are you originally from Topeka?


I: No, not at all. No. I live in Lawrence. I’m originally from Massachusetts.


CS: How’d you get to Kansas from Massachusetts?


I: My husband got a job [is the] simple answer.


CS: Well, you know, we had a guy here that went to Baker from Boston [imitating a Boston accent], and he married a girl that…. Her folks are very wealthy, probably Baldwin’s wealthiest. She had a brother, but he was killed in a car wreck, so she was her parents’ only heir. He ended up in the elevator over here. Well, he started right off as a millionaire. So it pays to know the right people.


I: It does. Have you ever flown…? You had your pilot’s wings; have you ever flown aircraft…?


CS: No, I had aircrew wings. Well, I had a friend come back from the…. He was in the Battle of Midway. He came back and got his wings, and he said, “Why don’t you come up and go up with me?” Did you ever hear of a PBY?


I: What is a PBY?


CS: It’s a two-engine seaplane that’s used for huntin’ submarines. Most of ’em was equipped with sonar, and they carried two depth charges under each wing. Well, anyway, I went up with him, and he had me flyin’ that thing at fifty—the easiest thing there is to fly. They cruise at 105 knots—very slow. But they’re so easy because the ocean…. You got plenty of runway there!


I: Yeah. You can always land on the ocean anywhere.


CS: Well, that’s the…. Yeah. That’s what we did.


I: So you were in a seaplane also? The planes you flew were seaplanes?


CS: No. I just went over and went up with him on my day off. The Navy wouldn’t have cared. But it was just one of those things you did.  


Technical Assistant: What was the most memorable or hilarious situation that you encountered?  


Probably when the pilot didn’t pull out at 25 hundred feet. Is this bein’ taped?


TA: Uh-huh.


Well, there’s parts of it I better leave out.


TA: Well, you can say whatever you want.


[Camera turned off.]


CS: I said, “God damn it, pull out! Pull out!” And he put the squeeze on. When you pull out, you…. There were so many G’s…. You know what a G is? One G is your weight the other direction. I think we was pullin’ three and a half G’s. That’s when the flesh on your face is pulled down. It’s flat down. That’s how bad it can be. I don’ t know how the guys in these jets stand it. They have a flyin’ suit.  The pilot never did say anything to me about swearin’ on that thing, and I never said anythin’ to him about pullin’ out. It was just best not to be said.


I: Were there any examples of ingenuity? You know, where people were pretty clever in solving problems?


CS: I can’t think of any.


I: I’m sure there were cases where people would pitch in and solve a problem.


CS: I can’t think of any.


I: Well, we really thank you for talking to us today. Is there anything else that you want to mention before we get off?


CS: No. You know, my dad told me…. He said, “Now, you memorize your serial number.”


I: Oh, what’s your serial number?


CS: 7569539. You never forget it. What makes me the maddest today is all these people sayin’, “We have no business in Iraq.” They think that freedom is cheap. My dad was in World War I; my brother and I was in World War II; my two son-in-laws were in Vietnam. Hey, you got to…. You have to fight to keep your freedom. And if we felt like some of the people do, we’d be in a pretty bad shape, I think.


I: So you had two daughters?


CS: I have three daughters.


I: Do they have children?


CS: Yeah. One of…. I have three great-granddaughters…er, [great]-grandkids. The oldest one is eighteen.


I: So he’s looking at it right now?


CS: She is…. No, it’s a her. I’ve got two great-grandsons. One is seven, and the other one is twelve. I don’t know if they’ll ever have to go or not. But when the time comes, I hope they do.


I: Thank you very, very much for talking to us and sharing your thoughts.


CS: Have you ever heard of Parrot Jungle down at Miami, Florida?


I: Uh-uh.


CS: That’s where we used to take our survival hikes. In there was really live alligators. ’Course, there’d be, I think, forty or fifty of us together in a group, but the instructor would take you in water maybe this deep. There was paths through this jungle. You were glad when you got out.


I: It does not sound good. That sounds like a really tough…


CS: Well, they teach you the…. You have to take care of yourself.  Sometimes you may have to jump off an aircraft carrier. You know, it’s a long ways down there, so we had…. In the little town of Coral Gables they had a swimmin’ pool with a big rock bluff. They’d make us jump off of that; I think it was 33 feet down to the water. You’d just be forever [unintelligible] till you hit that.


I: Did it hurt when you hit the water?


CS: Some of ’em landed the wrong way. Oh, yeah, you can get hurt, but you soon learn that you can keep yourself straight and land feet first. Even the bottom of your feet burn when you hit that. But what I mean [is] there was so many things that…. We had to swim a mile. Now, the purpose is not to swim a mile, but to stay afloat. If you’re shot down, or your ship goes down, the name of the game is stay alive. You don’t have to go anywhere, but keep your head above water. That’s what, really, this was for.


I: Survival training, really.


CS: Yeah.


I: Did you have to jump through oil? Somebody talked about how they had to jump through the oil on the water. 


CS: If that happened, you were taught to swim underwater because of the danger of fire. Oh, yeah. They would place object boxes, and you had to jump and miss those. Now, on an aircraft they would…. Your flight deck would be from fifty to eighty foot above the water. That’s a long ways down there. But too many people don’t realize the preparation we did. Right before we invaded Normandy we sent people ashore to get samples of sand to see how much weight that beach would support—how big a tank can we unload. It’s just amazing what we did way back…. That’s sixty years ago!


I don’t think there’s anything else on there…. I didn’t mention about the Depression. I was pretty lucky in the Depression. We lived on a farm; we always had somethin’ to eat. Kids in town, a lot of ’em went to bed hungry. What did our family do for food? We had big gardens. My mother would can. It was nothin’ for a farm family to have six hundred quarts of stuff—produce. We did our own butchering, and still today I go out and shoot a deer, pull the hide off it, and I butcher it myself. I don’t take it to a [unintelligible] plant.


You’re probably wonderin’ why I took the Navy. This friend of mine—his name was Bill Franklin—he said, “Let’s join the Navy and learn to fly fighter planes!” [I said], “I’m too dumb; I can’t pass that test.” You never know until you try. Oh, gosh, you had to have letters of recommendation, pictures, transcripts of your grades. I said, “I’ll never get through that.” So on the 27th of February we went to Kansas City. There were 33 of us [who] started. Two of us got through. That’s…. I always considered myself a dumb kid, but I just happened to write down the right…. I’m marchin’ right along through somethin’.


I: Yeah, but you went through it.


CS: I got through it. Yeah. After I got through the mental test, I said, “Well, I can’t pass the physical,” ’cause I only weighed 118 pounds. 


I: But you did. You passed it.


CS: Yep.


I: Well, again I’ll say thank you for talking to us today.



Length: 42 minutes

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