Looking for Local History: Bill Evans Tries to Enlist

May is local history month! All month long, we’ll be sharing bits and pieces of Issaquah’s collection, as well as tutorials to help you find local history on your own. Enjoy!

Bill Evans was born in Issaquah in 1923 and lived here for most of his life. Both of his parents were from coal-mining families. After serving in World War II, Bill lived in Seattle and went to college at the UW. Bill proved to be a sound and enterprising young businessman, and by the 1950s, he was living in Issaquah and operating his own business. Well-spoken, civic-minded, and forward-thinking, Bill was active in Issaquah’s Chamber of Commerce and helped shape the town we know today. Bill died in 2008. This excerpt from Bill’s 2006 oral history describes how Bill tried desperately to avoid serving in the Army during WWII.

Although he looks pretty cheerful in this picture, Evans was determined to serve in ANY branch but the Army.

Bill Evans:  I tried to enlist.  In those days, in [19]41, Walt [Seil] probably told you that he went to Pearl Harbor right after Pearl Harbor happened.  We saw him off on the train to San Francisco because he went down there to catch a ship.   …I didn’t want to get in the infantry.  At the time, there was the Army Air Force and the Navy Air Force.  I tried the Army Air Force first.

I passed my mental test.  And then, for some reason, they all took the mental test first.  I guess to see whether you were as dumb as you look or what.  And then they give you the [physical] test.  Well, when I was twelve or thirteen, I got scarlet fever.  I woke up in the middle of the night, probably two or three in the morning.  I remember I turned on my light – I had the bedroom next to my folks’ bedroom – and I was covered with blood.  This fever had built up so strong that it broke the blood vessels in my nose. I woke up, and I was soaking wet with blood from the fever.  Scared the devil out of my mother.  …The local doctor up in the bank building, which is now the bicycle shop cauterized the vessels in there with some kind of metal, heated iron, and stopped it.

All it left me with, other than being a little on the puny side, with 20/30 in one eye, and 25/ or 30/ in the other eye.  So later on, when I went to join the Air Force, I couldn’t get in because they demanded 20/20.  So I tried the Navy Air Force.  They gave me my mental test first.  And then I tried to tell them, “You better check my eyes,” “Oh, we’ll get to that.”  And I flunked out there.

Then I went to the Coast Guard, and I flunked out there.  Then I went to the Navy, and I flunked out there.  All about my eyes, 20/30.

Let’s see, in [19]42, I was working at the Alaskan Copper Works still. …I was out in the cold weather in the wintertime and so forth, and it really bothered my ears. I got an infection in my ear… I just had flunked out because I had 20/30 [eyesight].  And the doctor said, “Have you tried vitamins?”

And I said, “What’s a vitamin?”

“Well, it’s a pill.”  They weren’t out like they are today.  And he said, “Vitamin A will get your eyes in good shape.  It’ll take about two weeks if you take vitamin A.” 

I said, “How do I get this vitamin A?”  Because I’d tried bananas, I’d tried orange juice, I’d tried cabbage juice.  I’d tried everything I was told, and nothing worked.  So he gave me a prescription to go to the pharmacy and get vitamin A.  He was right.  In two weeks, I had 20/20 vision. He warned me.  He said, “Now, if you stop taking the vitamins, in two weeks your eyes will go back to normal.”

So I went back to the Navy real quick, and I said, “Here, swear me in!  I’m ready to go.”  By this time, it was about March of [19]42.  They said, “Oh, you come back in four months because we’ll send you to Farragut, Idaho.” Of all places for the Navy to train you, you know. There was no water around in Idaho!  [laughter]

And I said, “Well, OK, I’ll wait.  But swear me in!”

“No, we’ll swear you in when we call you up.”

I knew I was dead because I’d been in the State Guard.  Teenage kids and old men were in State Guard.  The only ones who weren’t drafted, or in the service.  We wore coveralls, and we’d go out in the fields by Puyallup, and lay in the rain with a shotgun.  We’d do close-order drill.   … All they did was teach me close-order drill, which you learn in any camp, you know.

So I knew I was dead.  I thought, well, I’d try the Merchant Marines.  So I went down to the Merchant Marines and they said, “OK, but we have to have your parents’ OK that you can get in the Merchant Marines.”

I was going into the Merchant Marine because there used to be a butcher shop about two doors down from Fischer’s Meats. The father of this guy was in the Merchant Marine during the [19]30s.  His son, who was a year younger than me, Don Finney, got in because of his father. He went from here, to Alaska, to Vladivostok, Russia and then back again. He was home every three months.  I didn’t know when I’d see home if I got into the Army or something.  So I thought, well, hey, that’s a possibility. I can be home. And I’d get double pay in Alaskan waters because the Japs had already infiltrated Attu, Alaska and so forth, way up north.

Interviewer:  How come you’d get double pay?

BE:  By carrying weapons and munitions and so forth.  Dynamite.  Anything that could blow up your ship.

INT:  Oh, so it was extra-dangerous.

BE:  Yeah, right.  So I was all set for that.  I had to talk to my mother until four o’clock before she finally gave in.  So my dad said, “OK, if that’s what you’re going to do.”  So I went down with my paperwork all signed.  He said, “Well, you have to have lifeboat training if you’re going to be in the Merchant Marine.  So we’ll have it out at Pier 92.” So I said, “OK.”

Well, I got home that night and I had a call from the draft board.  So I knew I was dead.  So they said, “Well, they won’t release you.” So I went back the next day, crying the blues to the Merchant Marine.  “We called them, and they won’t release you because you’re draft material.”
I was defeated. I went to Tacoma to the sixth floor of a building where they had the draft board located.  There was a guy sitting at the desk where you first came in. He said, “What do you want, Army or Navy?”

I said, “Do I have a choice?”

“Oh, yeah.  If you qualify, Army or Navy, either one.”

I said, “The Navy!”  I thought, Boy, there’s life yet!

So I went into a back examining room, went through the physical – most of the physical.  And the mental, again.  And I got to the eye exam.  The room had been a classroom, and the charts that you’d close your one eye and look at were at the front of the classroom, hanging over a blackboard.  Then you had to go down to the back of the room, turn around and take the eye test. I knew what was going to happen.  So, I flunked. 

I went out and there was a chief petty officer, about a thirty-year man.  He had hash marks all over his arm. And I said, “I couldn’t see all the letters” because of some reason, there was a shadow or something.  I lied my head off then. And I said, “Let me take it again because,” I said, “I know I can see those letters.  Something is wrong here.  I don’t know what it is.”

He said, “You stupid jerk.  Why do want to get in the Navy?”  He’d been in the Navy for so long, he couldn’t understand that.

“Let me go back and take it again,” I said.

I knew what lines I could see. So when I was standing there, getting in line to go back to the back of the room again, I memorized the letters I couldn’t see, because I was up right alongside of them.  So, I took my test and all of a sudden, I became 20/25 or 20/20.  [chuckles]

So he looked at me and he said, “Well, you said you could see them.  I don’t know how the heck you did it,” he said. “OK, you want to get in the Navy, go in that room over here.  There are naval officers to take your paperwork.”

There was a lieutenant commander, and a commander, and a lieutenant JG.  And an ensign on the end.  And the highest-ranking officer looked at my papers and said, “OK.” “OK” right down the line.  They got to the ensign and he said, “Fellow, you were in the State Guard, weren’t you?”

I said, “Well, it’s all close-order drill.  You do close-order drill in the Navy.”

“Yeah, but you look like Army material.”

I said, “Why do I look like Army material?”

And he said, “Well, you’ve had this training.”

I said, “I’m willing to call, at my expense, my commanding officer at the State Guard in Seattle and he can explain it to you.”

“No, we don’t have time for that.  Put this man in the Army.”

So I was shipped from Fort Lewis to Camp Roberts, California, by Paso Robles.  I went right into the infantry.  When I get there, I thought, Ohgod, the worst possible thing that could happen to me now has happened to me. 

What happened then? Peruse the rest of Bill’s oral history to find out. Other stories in his oral history include his early childhood in the coal-mining town, his career as a medic in the Pacific Theatre, and how he fell in love-at-first-sight with his wife on a Seattle bus.