Posts

Robert Baskett, Issaquah Soldier in Normandy

by John Boland, Historian, US Army Retired

“I don’t care what happens as long as it doesn’t happen to me”

—Robert Baskett’s senior quote in the Issaquah High School 1943 yearbook

Most people in America have heard of World War Two and D-Day; they have seen Tom Hanks storm Omaha Beach and of the herculean struggles of Dick Winters and the men of Easy Company 506th PIR. The untold story of one former Issaquah soldier is the intersection of these two tales and sheds light upon a struggle that is little remembered today.  The young man was a senior at Issaquah High School, class of 1943; for some reason he had withdrawn during the second semester. Was it due to the outrage over the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, or just patriotism? He had not yet reached his 18th birthday. Fifteen months later Sergeant Robert C. Baskett, an Infantryman with E Company, 2nd Battalion of the 8th Infantry Regiment, 4th Infantry Division found himself on a French beach at 0630 on June 6th, 1944. He and his troops were among the first of the seaborne assault to set foot upon Utah Beach.

No plan survives first contact with the enemy.  This one did not make it that far.  

“The landing plan went wrong from the beginning. Strong currents beset the landing craft, and the area was obscured by smoke from the preceding shore bombardment. But the main problem was the loss of three of the four designated control craft to mines. The fourth control craft eventually rounded up the confused landing craft looking for directions and, using a bullhorn for communication, led them in. The force landed 1,800 metres (2,000 yards) east of the designated landing area, in the less-defended Victor sector and almost astride causeway number 2.  The assistant division commander, Brigadier General Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., quickly realized the error. Uttering his famous remark “We’ll start the war from here!” he ordered the division to advance. Three hours later exits 1, 2, and 3 had been secured, and by 1200 hours contact had been made with paratroopers from the 101st Airborne Division around the town of Pouppeville. By the end of the day the 4th Division had pushed inland about 6 km (4 miles), and its westernmost units were within a mile of the 82nd Airborne’s perimeter near Sainte-Mère-Église.  For an assault that had begun with such terrible confusion, the Utah Beach landings ended as a spectacular success beyond the most optimistic expectations. The 1,800-metre error had placed the landing force away from the heavily defended area of Les Dunes de Varreville and into a less-defended section of beach. Twenty thousand troops and 1,700 motorized vehicles had landed at Utah with surprisingly few casualties—fewer than 300 men.”[1]

Landing plan, Utah Beach

Although the gods of war were merciful to the men of the Eighth Infantry Regiment on that first day, their leniency soon came to an end.  That afternoon, pushing inland from Utah beach farther and farther away from the auto repair shop that his father Calvin had owned in Issaquah, Sergeant Baskett may have witnessed Sergeant Elbert E. Legg, a member of the 4th Platoon, 603rd GR Co carefully hammering wooden stakes fashioned from a rations box into the ground in a field near Blosville.  They would meet again. 

For the next three weeks Sgt Baskett led his men, on foot, northwest from Utah Beach through the harrowing bocage, villages and towns to the critical Allied objective: the port of Cherbourg. This action made possible bringing over General Patton’s Third Army with all of its armored forces.  On June 8th SGT Baskett led his soldiers in a battle to seize the French town of Neuville-au-Plain, made notable in the scene from “Saving Private Ryan” in which the French family hands over the little girl to American soldiers.

Still from Saving Private Ryan

To accompany the mud and rain was the ever present smell of death and decay.  So strong was stench, that it overpowered the sweet smells of the fruit orchards and baguettes.

No creature was spared from the death that became known as Hedgerow Hell.

Although neither Robert nor his men fought in Cherbourg itself, they had the unenviable mission to attack and eliminate determined German concrete and reinforced positions in the towns, hills and hedgerows on the approach to the port.  The fierce German defense, withdrawing from one hardened improved position to another, made progress through the hedgerows gut-wrenching.

“On the evening of D+2, the 8th Infantry Regiment and the 505th Parachute Regiment caught two battalions of German troops trying to relieve each other and demolished both battalions, killing approximately 500 men.  After the attack, we tried to get some sleep.  We had been attacking for almost 72 hours.  D+3 found us attacking toward Cherbourg.  The count of men at the end of D+3 was fifteen left of our original forty.”

—Harry Bailey, Columbia, S.C. Company E, 2nd Battalion, 8th Infantry Regiment, from War Stories, D-Day to the liberation of Paris, Deeds Publishing 2001, 2014, 2019 p.255
Example of German hedgerow position.

No terrain in the world was better made for defensive action with the weapons of World War 2 than the Norman bocage, or “box-country” in French. These hedgerows, mounds of earth to contain cattle and to mark borders of ownership, began in Roman times. Typically there was only one entry into the small field enclosed by the hedges, which were inconsistent in size and set at odd angles. On the sunken roads the brush often met overhead, giving Robert and his men a feeling of being trapped in a leafy tunnel. In every direction they witnessed only walls of vegetation.

“The sunken roads between the hedgerows in Normandy were another dread for drivers. Along with all the above mentioned hazards, hidden anti-tank guns, zeroed in enemy artillery, dead cows, destroyed and burning vehicles, and on many occasions, bodies of those who were victims of war. Some of the dead were American. Seeing enemy dead didn’t bother me. The sight of our own was a different story. I remember one GI I thought I could help. I stopped to see but he had been hit in the head by a shot from a sniper. He was propped against a tree. I cried when I saw a snapshot, presumed to be his wife and two little girls. They looked to be about one and three years old. The picture was fastened inside his steel helmet liner. The shot up helmet was alongside him. Those steel helmets didn’t stop sniper bullets. Something like that is hard to get out of your mind.”

Former T/5 John K. Lester

Sunken lane in Norman hedgerow country.

Undertaking an attack in the hedgerows was risky, costly, time-consuming, and fraught with frustration—really more like fighting in a labyrinth. Robert’s squad found themselves completely lost a few minutes after launching an attack, at times becoming separated. The small fields limited deployment possibilities; seldom during the first week of battle did a unit as large as a company go into an attack as a complete unit, being forced to attack the hedgerows in smaller units.

Where SGT Baskett and his men got lost, the tenacious Germans were at home. The German 6th Fallschirmjäger (Parachute Infantry) Regiment (the concures of Crete, and warriors of north africa) had been in Normandy for months, training for this clash. Further, the Germans had formulated mechanisms of defense at capitalizing upon the redoubt potentiality of the hedgerows over the past four years. In the early days of the battle, some of Sgt Baskett’s infantrymen may have been killed or wounded because they dashed through the opening into a field, just the kind of aggressive tactics they had been taught, only to be felled by pre-sighted machine-gun fire, artillery, mines, flame throwers, or mortars.

In deciphering Robert’s journey I have set eyes and ears on hundreds of oral histories from the soldiers of the Ivy Division concerning the fighting upon the bocage of the Cotentin Peninsula.  One common thread emerges: no one ever told them about the hedgerows.

As though the Germans trying their damndest to shoot, stab, blow up, or drop artillery on his head, hiding from tanks, and avoiding the plethora of land mines all while keeping a group of weary soldiers alert and moving forward through a maze of death were not enough to ask of a nineteen year old sergeant, they had to contend with the rain—the most severe experienced in the area for 50 years.  Rivers escaped their banks, transforming into lakes and swamps; streams became swift moving rivers, hampering any plans of a rapid advance.  The Germans knew where Robert and his troops would come from, and they were waiting.

Théâtre de Cherbourg

Following the liberation of Cherbourg, Robert and his squad spent the 28th and 29th of June patrolling the streets, keeping law and order and dealing with sporadic German holdouts.  I wonder if, upon passing the Théâtre de Cherbourg, Robert would regale his teammates with tales of his brief acting career: the Issaquah High all school play “Apron-string Revolt” during his sophomore year. On the next day they headed south, having been relieved by 101st Airborne units.

After weeks of surviving on canned rations, a hot meal was most welcome.

They loaded trucks and headed south toward Gourbesville to refit, train replacements, and issue replacement gear that had been destroyed or worn out.  Their mail may even have caught up with them.  I know for a fact that Robert received and sent mail while in Normandy.  After 24 days in the maelstrom, they ate hot chow!  They may have been temporarily removed from the fire, but life in the frying pan is still hot.  They had to maintain security patrols while in the assembly area as the Germans were still in the game. 

On the fifth of July, Robert’s unit headed further south to the vicinity of Appeville for one more day out of the hell that was hedgerow combat. Mailing letters, checking their new replacement soldiers, pre-combat checks, going over the plan, rehearsals, last hot meal for a while, and maybe even a warm beer or two.

I don’t know if Robert received letters from a girl waiting for him at home, but I do know that he kept in touch with his mother and father. Cal and Mazie Baskett lived at 210 Williams Street in Renton; Cal had sold his auto service shop in Issaquah and they moved, enabling Cal to be closer to his job as a plant superintendent at the ice plant. The move corresponds with Bob’s withdrawal from Issaquah High.

After moving into their attack position on the 6th of July, the 12th, 22nd, and 331st Infantry Regiments had been attacking along the Periers-Carentan Road, advancing slowly with horrendous losses; one life lost for every yard gained. To break the stalemate the 8th Regiment and SGT Baskett would conduct a night attack, in the rain, across the chest-deep marsh. The men of the 1st Battalion, attacking alongside the second, were subject to a hail of gunfire midway through the bog.  They were decimated and had to return to their start point.  Robert and his men, on the other hand, found a path through the rancid swamp only to discover in the growing light of dawn that they would also need to withdraw.


The almost constant rain, combined with the flooding of fields by the Germans, kept the GIs wet.

‘The enemy defended organized log and sandbag emplacements with rifle and automatic weapons, utilizing good fields of fire and covering the narrow corridor through which the leading elements had to pass.”

4th ID AAR (After Actions Report)

For the past 31 days Robert had led his men from the beach, through the hell that is hedgerow fighting.  The rain and flooding had created a muddy morass that not only kept their feet sopping but, more alarmingly, it severely limited the effectiveness of the armor and air force. The hedgerows themselves stifled the use of observed artillery fires. This was a medieval infantry fight, and SGT Baskett and the men of the Eight were the infantry. The follows is an extract from the Eighth Infantry Regiment’s 1946 yearbook describing the battle of the hedgerows:

“The hedgerow campaign, where some of the grimmest battles fought by the Eighth Infantry were unfolded, were recorded for American newspaper readers by a grey and gentle reporter, known to hundreds of ‘doughs’ as ‘Ernie’, the late Ernie Pyle. Hedgerows are earthen fences around fields and orchards.  Roughly four to eight feet high and three to six feet thick, covered with tangled bushes, they form an obstacle surmountable only with the greatest of courage and the stoutest of heart.  Once burrowed under these hedgerows, hidden like rats in the earth, not even a direct hit with a large artillery shell would convince the fanatic Nazi defenders that their positions should be abandoned.  Only a grenade in the foxhole or a bayonet in the belly furnished the proof.  Each field required an individually planned and coordinated attack.  Every Nazi’s foxhole was a miniature fort, to be reduced by grenade and bayonet.  A scant hundred yards separated the opposing forces during the infamous hedgerow fighting.  From Utah Beach to Cherbourg, from Periers to the base of the Cotentin Peninsula, it was yard by yard, field by field; fire as fast as you could and run like hell to the next hedgerow.  Get the supplies and repeat, repeat the grinding sequence, hour by hour, day by day, week by week.”

Eighth Infantry Regiment 1946 Yearbook

“15 July 1944 – D+39

The 17th SS Panzer Division withdrew under the covering of the 6th Parachute Regiment.

Considerable shelling of the rear areas and increasing numbers of mines found which had been

hastily laid by the retreating enemy.  The 8th Infantry launched an attack at 1015 in conjunction

with the 12th Infantry.  Upon reaching the objective at 1800, the regiment organized positions for

defense.  The 12th Infantry did the same at 2100.  The 22nd Infantry remained in assembly area

as a division reserve.”

4th ID AAR

During this attack, after enduring 39 days in combat, Sergeant Robert Calvin Baskett was felled by German airburst artillery shell fragments, somewhere northeast of the small French village of Raids along the Carenten-Periers road. His body arrived back at Blosville Temporary Cemetery (pictured below), the location he had fought through on route to his initial objective on June 6th.  He was laid to rest in a grave, dug by German prisoners, in the cemetery laid out on D-Day by Sergeant Elbert E. Legg. His parents were notified by telegram on August 4th, 1944.

He would lay in rest in the French field until the repatriation of his remains in 1948.  He now rests in Issaquah’s Hillside Cemetery beside his father, who had passed away less than six months after receiving the news.

Cal and Mazie Baskett were not alone; 82 other men from E Company, 8th Infantry Regiment, would pay the ultimate price.  No man gives his life for his country, he has it violently torn away from him.

Ernie Pyle summed it up in a most fitting manner:

“Some of the men carried grenades already fixed in the ends of their rifles. All of them had hand grenades. Some had big Browning automatic rifles. One carried a bazooka. Interspersed in the thin line of men every now and then was a medic, with his bags of bandages and a Red Cross arm band on the left arm. The men didn’t talk any. They just went.

They weren’t heroic figures as they moved forward one at a time, a few seconds apart. You think of attackers as being savage and bold. These men were hesitant and cautious. They were really the hunters, but they looked like the hunted. There was a confused excitement and a grim anxiety on their faces.

They seemed terribly pathetic to me. They weren’t warriors. They were American boys who by mere chance of fate had wound up with guns in their hands sneaking up a death-laden street in a strange and shattered city in a faraway country in a driving rain. They were afraid, but it was beyond their power to quit. They had no choice.

They were good boys. I talked with them all afternoon as we sneaked slowly forward along the mysterious and rubbled street, and I know they were good boys.

And even though they aren’t warriors born to the kill, they win their battles. That’s the point.”

Ernie Pyle
Ernie Pyle
Ernie Pyle’s signature

***For an interactive map which details Robert Baskett’s journey from Issaquah to Normandy and back again, click here.

Many thanks to the following historians:

  • Bob Babcock CEO of Deeds Publishing LLC; Past President/Historian, 4ID Assn
  • Michael Belis, DMOR 22nd Infantry Regiment, 22nd Infantry Regiment Society Historian
  • Jérémy Andersen Bö, Reenactor in Paris, France
  • Gerry W. Howard, Past President, National 4th Infantry (IVY) Division Association
  • Wesley Johnston, Historian, 7th Armored Division Association
Dinner for the Servicemen

Women of Issaquah in WWI

Dinner for the Servicemen

Dinner for the Servicemen, circa 1943-45. From left to right are: Mildred Paulson, Lulu Smart, Bonnie Castagno, Barbara Sellers, Avis Yourglich, Joanne Boni Karvia, Mabel Miles, and Ethel Inger. (IHM 2000.18.7)

By Erica Maniez, Museum Director / Summer 2003

After the United States entered World War II on December 7, 1941, many of Issaquah’s young men left town to serve in the military. Women stayed behind to tend victory gardens, run family businesses, volunteer as airplane spotters at the Issaquah Volunteer Fire Department Hall – and to serve in roles traditionally reserved for men. Women’s roles during World War II were significant and diverse.

Many women played an important role in the war effort by taking the jobs vacated by men who went overseas. More than six million women worked in defense plants and offices. Many from Issaquah and the surrounding area found wartime employment at the Boeing Company. Among them were Jo Garner, Helen Hailstone and Betty Brault. Betty worked as a riveter on airplane wings. Viola White Petersen remembers, “After graduation from high school, I got a job as a mechanic at Boeing Aircraft. There were lots of women working in war plants but, considering my mechanical skills and for the good of the country, that fall I left to go to school at the University of Washington.”

Daughters as well as sons joined the military and died in service to their country. During World War II, more than 350,000 women served in women’s divisions of the military, among them several of Issaquah’s young women.

Juanita Risdon joined the WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service), the women’s division of the Navy. WAVES worked stateside so that Navy men were free to fight overseas. In addition to traditionally female secretarial and clerical jobs, WAVES were also assigned to other duties including aviation, intelligence, and communications.

Agda Peltola, daughter of Herman Peltola, joined the SPARS. This women’s reserve of the Coast Guard took its name from the Coast Guard’s motto, Semper Paratus (“always ready”). Lynnette McDonald joined the Women’s Army Corps, and her progress through basic training was recorded in several issues of the 1944 Issaquah Press.

Elizabeth Erickson joined the Woman Air Force Service Pilots (WASP). These women received extensive flight training and relieved men of their non-combat duties. Among other things, they ferried new fighter planes to Europe so that fighting men would not have to leave the front lines to do so. This proved to be an appealing vocation for young women whose early years were filled with news coverage of Amelia Earhart’s daring flights – and eventual disappearance.

Erickson, a graduate of Issaquah High School and the University of Washington, reported for duty at Sweetwater, Texas in January of 1944. Tragically, four months later she was killed in a mid-air collision over Texas. Thirty-seven other women died in service to their country, but never received military recognition. Because they are still considered civilians, the U.S. Army did not even provide military burial. Erickson’s name is inscribed on the monument to Issaquah’s war dead that stands in Memorial Field.

World War II brought around changes in the typical roles of women. Issaquah’s women, like their sisters across the nation, took the opportunity to serve their country in new ways.

This information came from research done in preparation for the newest IHS exhibit, Issaquah in Wartime. The exhibit opeed at the Gilman Town Hall on July 4 and closed November 11, 2003. The article was published in the the Summer 2003 edition of Past Times

Hearing History: Bill Evans

 


Evans-2C-2BBill2Maria McLeod:
  …Tell me a story about you and Walt Seil.  I know you guys ran around together, and I’m sure there’s a lot of stories.  Some you could probably tell, some you can’t.  [laughter]  But what’s a memorable moment with your friend Walt? 

 

Bill Evans:  Well, of course, we graduated in the same class.  On graduation night, we – big stuff – I was president of my senior class – so we tried to arrange a party.  But we graduated on June 3, 1941.  It was a Tuesday night.  It was raining to beat heck.  Usually, the first part of June, I always remember the rain.  We didn’t get good weather constantly until July.

 

 …So I had a class meeting the day before we graduated, and I said, “It’s our last time together as a group.  How are we going to celebrate?” 

 

Well, a lot of them had family parties on graduation night.  I had a graduation party, too, with my family.  But we all decided well, after the party is over – and it’ll probably be over about ten o’clock – we’ll meet back at the high school and go to a party in Seattle.  We’ll find something that’s really good to do. So Walt and I and another fellow, I don’t remember who the other fellow was, but we had our dates, and we met back at the school at ten o’clock.  And we went to Seattle.  We thought, “This’ll be great!  We six will do something that nobody else does.” 

 

So we went down to Boeing Field.  We were going to rent an airplane and take our first flight over the city.  Well, we got down to Boeing Field and, of course, Tuesday night, ten o’clock, everything was pitch dark!  There was nobody there. 

 

“So what do we do now?”
“Well, let’s be daring.” 

 

And there happened to be a bottle club on First Avenue in Seattle, with entertainment and so forth.  But it wasn’t a club like you think of nowadays.  But still, you had to be 21 to get in.  Of course, we looked like we were eighteen.  [chuckles]  So we got stopped at the door!  And that took care of that. 

 

“What do we do now?  It’s midnight!” 

 

“Well, there’s all-night shows.” 

 

“Big deal.” 

 

So we went to an all-night show.  We parked Walt’s car up on somebody’s rooftop parking downtown.  We went to the nearest all-night show.  We enjoyed the show.  And our dates were kind of worried, because they’d never been out this late before. 

 

MM:  No, that’s probably about two in the morning by that point. 

 

BE:  By the time we got out of the show, it was almost dawn.  The girls were hungry, naturally – like my wife – and so we went to breakfast.  My girl lived in Upper Preston.  There’s a Lower Preston we all know, but in those days … and still, people live up there.  It’s further up toward Echo Glen, fairly close to that.  And it’s a little Swedish flicka that I went with.  Her mother was at the door when I brought her home, and the sun was shining bright.  And she was a sweet little lady. 

 

She said, “Now, Bill, you know that Francesis younger than you are.” 

 

“Yes, I know.” 

 

She said, “And we live in a community where everybody sees everything that goes on.” 

 

I said, “Well, nothing went on.  Things didn’t work out, and we ended up at an all-night show and went to breakfast.” 

 

She said, “Well, please don’t bring her home in the daylight anymore.”  [laughter] 

 

“I promise.”  [laughing] 

 

MM:  Did the other guys get in trouble, or the other girls?  Do you remember? 

 

BE:  I don’t remember, because I was sweating enough!  [laughter]

 

William C. Evans Jr. was born in 1923 to William G. Evans Sr. and Ella Willig Evans. Bill was interviewed in 2006 by Maria McLeod as part of IHM’s oral history project. Bill talks about his grandfather’s work with Issaquah Water Department, growing up in Issaquah, and WWII. His interview is extensive and he provides a lot of information that’s impossible to summarize. See the Full Record for a complete list of people and subjects discussed.
Bill has been written about a few times on this blog before – check out previous blog entries:

 

Waler Seil

Hearing History: Walt Seil

 

Walt Seil
Senior Yearbook Photo
ca 1941


 
Maria McLeod: Well, OK, so tell me the story about shooting off your hand.

Walt Seil: Well, this was in the fall of the year. And Tony Campbell, who was neighbors to us, him and I decided to go hunting for deer. We walked up to the railroad track and went a mile or so up the railroad track.

And we was hunting and hunting and didn’t find nothing, so we come back across the trestle and stopped. And Tony says, “Let’s hit that snag over there that’s sticking out on that tree.” And I says, “OK.”

So he tried and he missed, and tried and I missed. And he said, “Well, let me try with your gun.” 

And I’d already injected a shell into the chamber and I had the safety on. And he says, “Here’s my gun,” and I reached over and took his gun.

And I thought he had mine and I let mine go. The safety hit the rail, broke the safety off. And the hammer hit the tied. And it was falling back towards me and I had my hand like this.
MM: Your hand was sort of in front of your body.
WS: It went right through my hand, here, and it nicked my ear, here.
MM: Oh, I can see where it nicked your ear! Ohmygoodness!
WS: And so I took my belt off. Of course, [inaudible] clear across the track. And I cinched it up real tight and held it like this.
And Tommy says, “What should I do with the gun?”
I says, “I don’t give a damn what you do with the gun. Throw it away if you want to!”
Walt Seil was born in Issaquah in 1920 to Edward Seil and Josephine Wood Seil. He had seven brothers and sisters, many with family remaining in the area. Walt was interviewed in 2006 by Maria McLeod as part of IHM’s oral history project. Walt talks about growing up in Issaquah on a ranch and in Snoqualmie where his father was a logger. He also talks about accidents he had, Alpine Dairy Football Team, and his role in WWII. He was a great story teller, as you can see in the video below (Walt begins at 1:19.)

 

Hearing History: Vernon “Babe” Anderson

 

Vernon “Babe” Anderson
ca 1945
Full Record

 

Maria McLeod: …So what land are you giving to the city?
Vernon Anderson: The whole thing.
MM: The old farmhouse, too? And this place?
VA: Yeah, everything.
MM: So what is this going to become?
VA: A park.
[…]
MM: You seem to really enjoy history. You’ve kept a lot of old files. Is there some sense in you that you’d like to preserve this?
VA: Well it’ll be preserved as a park, you know. Otherwise, what are they going to do? It’ll be a bunch of damn condominiums or something. And you don’t need that. It’s all a park anyway around here. Why ruin this piece in the middle?
Vernon “Babe” Anderson was born in 1927 in Renton, WA to Albert A. Anderson and Ruth Johns Anderson. Babe was interviewed in 2008 by Maria McLeod as part of IHM’s oral history project. His extensive oral history covers his grandparent’s immigration to the United States and Issaquah, through his life growing up and remaining in Issaquah. Subjects covered include working at Issaquah Creamery, being drafted for both WWII and the Korean War, and his father’s various building projects including two houses that still remain as part of Gilman Village. The City of Issaquah acquired Vernon’s family’s land and buildings for part of the Confluence Park Project. Vernon requested recognition of his grandfather, Tolle Anderson, in the park project.
Ruth and Albert Anderson
August, 1923
Full Record

 

In addition to buildings, land, and this oral history, both Vernon and his brother Rodney wrote letters home during their time in service, and these letters were generously donated to Issaquah History Museum’s by Rodney’s daughter. Some of these letters are available in our Digital Collections as well as other documents and pictures. Check out the full extent of the Anderson Collection.

 

Vern Anderson’s Navy Class
April 11, 1946
Full Record
Bill Evans

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. 



Rod Visits Hollywood

A generous grant from 4Culture is currently funding the digitization and cataloging of several archival collections, include the letters of Rodney and Vernon Anderson, Issaquah residents. Rod and Vern both served in the Army in the 1940s, and they wrote home to their mother regularly. This post is part of a series of posts about their lives and letters.

I have truly enjoyed reading Rod Anderson’s letters home during WWII. He created a window into his experience in the Army – each letter descriptive and telling of the era. Even when Rod laments that he has nothing to write about he writes anyway, discussing the small things he did during his day which I am certain put his family at ease. While reading his letters I was able to tell when Rod was tired, disappointed, exuberant, and happy even during wartime. One letter in particular stands out to me as Rod at his most excited – his first trip to Hollywood.
In this post I want to follow the adventure that Rod experienced. At the time Rod was stationed at Camp San Luis Obispo, CA. He had previously been stationed in some fairly unexciting places like Oregon, Texas and Iowa. Imagine yourself at 19 – you’ve never really lived anywhere but Issaquah. Prior to the war you probably haven’t been any further than Seattle. And now you’re stationed near, and ready to jump into, the glamorous land of Hollywood, CA.
Rod’s letter begins: “Dear Mom, Well I made it to Hollywood Sat. by 6:15pm and that’s the reason I’m writing. I want to tell you what I did!”

Rod’s first stop was the Hollywood U.S.O where he got a bed for $0.50. After that he “fooled around til 8:30″ at the Hollywood Canteen (pictured at right) – a well-known club for servicemen offering food, dancing and entertainment for free (your entry ticket was your uniform.) Oftentimes celebrities visited to help out and entertain.

After fooling around at the Hollywood Canteen, Rod’s next stop was the Palladium Ballroom where he saw Sonny Dunham (pictured at left) play, a popular tumpet player and bandleader of the time. Rod says he “danced for a couple of hours and then left as it got too crowded. Really had a swell time there though.”

(Palladium Ballroom, circa 1940)

Next, Rod returned to the Hollywood Canteen and continued his night of dancing. The Kay Kyser Orchestra (pictured at right) was playing, but Rod says Kay Kyser himself, bandleader and radio personality, was not. At that point, Rod was probably exhausted and so he “hit the hay.”

Sunday morning Rod got up at 9:30am and without a plan headed out. This part of Rod’s letter makes me smile because it shows to me just what a great time Rod was having:

“…I hopped a trolley and rode the 7 1/2 miles to L.A. There in my wanderings I saw that Jimmy Dorsey and his Orch. was playing at the Orpheum, so naturally, I saw him too.”

(Orpheum pictured at left, Jimmy Dorsey at right)

After the concert, Rod returned to Hollywood around 4:30pm and wandered around. He saw a bunch of different notable landmarks of the time: Earl Carroll’s, Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, Sardi’s, NBC studios and CBS studios. He says “There’s just so much to do one isn’t able to begin doing it.” I want to note that in his letter Rod underlined “Sardi’s” which was a restaurant (sister to the original Sardi’s in New York City.) I wonder what the special meaning was for him to underline it. All I could find was that it was frequented by the stars of Hollywood and so perhaps was well-known to folks at home.

(Earl Carroll’s Theatre, circa 1947)

(Grauman’s Chinese Theater, circa early 40’s)

(Sardi’s Restaurant, opened in 1932)

At 10:30pm Rod picked up his ride back to camp at Hollywood and Vine. He says that he picked up a private ride from a guy in another company and only paid $4 round trip which was apparently “darn reasonable.” Rod notes that most fellows charge $10.

He finished his letter by explaining and describing the pictures he had enclosed (which unfortunately are not in our collection.) The pictures, though, were taken on Hollywood Blvd and were “one of those pay while you wait propositions.”

As someone who loves old films and musicals, I couldn’t help but think of movies like On the Town and Anchors Aweigh. You know the ones, the hardworking servicemen get time off to go into the city and gawk at landmarks (and somehow always get into shenanigans and end up falling in love.) While this wasn’t exactly Rod’s story, there is a sense of wonderment in his letter that he just can’t wait to tell somebody at home about.

So there you have it. Rod’s whirlwind tour of Hollywood. He does visit Los Angeles and Hollywood again later, and tells his mother about it in his lettes. But his later descriptions are never any longer than a few sentences that basically detail what he did and who he saw. He never again writes with the enthusiasm he has after his first visit.

Below you can click to view the full-size images of Rod’s letter.

Rod Meets “Boody” Gilbertson

A generous grant from 4Culture is currently funding the digitization and cataloging of several archival collections, include the letters of Rodney and Vernon Anderson, Issaquah residents. Rod and Vern both served in the Army in the 1940s, and they wrote home to their mother regularly. This post is part of a series of posts about their lives and letters.

In what is a recurring theme across WWII veterans, Rod Anderson got the opportunity to see and do a lot of things he might not have had he remained in Issaquah. My first insight into this came while reading Rod’s April 28, 1944 letter. At this point in time he had left Drake University after the Army cancelled his Air Force training and was stationed at Fort Leonard Wood, MO.

His letter begins with “Had a bad day today…” and goes on to tell his mother about spending the day in the rain. Rod consistently wrote the date and place at the top right of his letters and this one tells us he was stationed in a “Pup Tent, Bivouac Area, By Candlelight.” The troops were roughing it and subsequent letters tell me they were helping with a flood area.

But despite this Rod had good news. He writes:

“Met a kid from Everett today. He’s in my company. He used to play basketball at the W. Names “Boody” Gilbertson, anyone that has followed the W teams would know of him, I did. He was at Sheppard Field the same time that I was, I heard that he was there but didn’t get to see him before he shipped to college.”

This piqued my curiosity and I was excited to learn that Merlin “Boody” Gilbertson was indeed a sort of local celebrity. He was enlisted in the Army National Guard September 16, 1940 with only 2 years of high school under his belt and served four years. His basketball history began on Everett High’s basketball team and with him they easily claimed the state championship during his 1939-40 year. The timing is fuzzy in my research but Boody did play basketball at the University of Washington (either before the war, after or both) and played 2 seasons of pro basketball – one for the Seattle Athletics and the second for the Sheboygan Redskins.

Here is a great Seattle PI article profiling Gilbertson.

Here is the copy of Rod’s letter with his brief description of meeting “Boody” Gilbertson:

Rod Receives AFPMP 6122

A generous grant from 4Culture is currently funding the digitization and cataloging of several archival collections, include the letters of Rodney and Vernon Anderson, Issaquah residents. Rod and Vern both served in the Army in the 1940s, and they wrote home to their mother regularly. This post is part of a series of posts about their lives and letters.

When Rodney Anderson was drafted into World War 2 he was placed in the United States Army Corps of Engineers, and began his training at Camp Abbott in Bend, Oregon. In Rod’s first letter home he says he is surprised that they didn’t put him in the Air Corps.

So Rod took matters into his own hands and, after covertly asking his mother for his birth certificate (he didn’t want to worry her), he applied to the Army Air Forces (previously called the Air Corps.) Rod was accepted into the AAF and moved to Sheppard Field in Wichita Falls, Texas. There he began his training.

Training sent Rod to Drake University in Des Moines, IA. College life seemed to suit him and his letters were happy and excited, talking of classes and coeds. After 1 month at Drake University, Rod received memo AFPMP 6122 titled “Army Ground Forces and Army Services Personnel.” The memo basically said that any men who had not yet fully completed AAF training were to be pulled from their training and placed back into Army Ground Forces due to a shortage in men. Rod wrote a disappointed letter to his parents on April 7, 1944 and included memo AFPMP 6122.

Here is the memo followed by the letter Rod wrote home to his parents:

(click on the pictures to enlarge)

The memo is not a clear indication of why the men are being pulled from training. The memo indicates that there were “accumulated shortages that [had] developed since last July [1943] in Selective Service.”

In Vernon “Babe” Anderson’s (Rod’s brother) oral history, he speculated that it was a result of heavy losses during the Battle of the Bulge. So many troops were lost that they had to pull some out of training and send them back to infantry. But the Battle of the Bulge didn’t really begin until December 1944 – almost 9 months later.

Doing some research into the AAF during WWII indicates that enrollment reached its highest point in March 1944 at 2.4 million men with less than half being overseas. At that point men were sent back to the branch of the Army that they had come from due to a surplus. It is also important to mention that D-Day occurred only a few months later and men may have been pulled in preparation for anticipated loss.

Rod went back to the Engineers and had some good times in training near Los Angeles (stay tuned for a future post on all the wonderful things Rod saw in Hollywood.) He ended up overseas both in Europe and Japan and returned safely home.

The only remaining mystery I haven’t been able to fully decode is what “AFPMP 6122” stands for…any ideas?

The Anderson Brothers’ Service to their Country

A generous grant from 4Culture is currently funding the digitization and cataloging of several archival collections, include the letters of Rodney and Vernon Anderson, Issaquah residents. Rod and Vern both served in the Army in the 1940s, and they wrote home to their mother regularly. This post is part of a series of posts about their lives and letters.

Recently, a very generous donation was made by Rodney Anderson’s daughter. Included in the donation of pictures and documents was a set of letters written during wartime from Rodney and Vern Anderson. The first batch of letters, beginning in 1944, were written by Rod Anderson to his mother, grandfather, and brother. The second batch of letters are written by Vern “Babe” Anderson, Rod’s younger brother, and were mostly written post-WWII. We are only beginning the process of cataloging these letters into our collection and hope to have more posts regarding their content. For now, here is a brief biography into these two brothers’ service to their country.


Rod Anderson (pictured at right) entered the Army in August 1943, 5 months after he turned 18. He only completed 3 years of high school. He started out in the infantry but ended up taking tests to enter into the Air Corps. He made it in and began his training and education. Soon after the Battle of the Bulge the United States began pulling men from different areas to go back into infantry. Rod was removed from his Air Corps training and was sent overseas. He spent time in Austria, Czechoslovakia, and Germany before the war ended. He was then sent back to the United States and then to Japan after their surrender. He returned home in March – just as his brother Vern was entering the Navy.

Vern Anderson (pictured at left) was drafted in March 1946 for WWII only 3 months after his 18 birthday. He was drafted again in March 1951 – almost exactly 5 years later – for the Korean war. Here are some excerpts of his oral history in 2008 detailing his time spent in service.

VERN ANDERSON: Well, I … originally, I got drafted in 1946, in March. I ended up in the Navy. I went to boot camp in San Diego, and then they sent me back to Great Lakes Naval Training Center in Waukegan [Illinois].

I spent all summer there going to a service school, which was just right down my alley because it was all about boilers. And hell, I’d been running boilers, you know. [chuckles] I knew all about that stuff.

Then I got discharged because they didn’t want us anymore. I’d only been in there eight months. So I came home. Then in March of 1951, I got drafted again, about five years after. In the same month. Practically the same week. And this time, I ended up in the Army.

I was over at Fort Lewis; and a bunch of the guys in Issaquah had been in the reserves, and they were running a reception center. And one of these guys said, “Hey, where do you want to go?”

I said, “I don’t know. What have you got in the lineup?”

“Well, you can go to Fort Lawton or you can go to Aberdeen Proving Grounds.”

“Oh heck, I think I’ll go to Fort Lawton,” I said. So I went out there.

We went through training there, and there was a port company – unloading ships – and they needed a bunch of guys up in Whittier, Alaska, which is an Army port. So they sent us up there. And because I had been in the service before, they could send me alone. Because you had to have six months in the Army before they could ship you overseas. I’d already had that before.

So we went up there, and we stayed there till right up until the first of December, then we got back here. Then they gave us a month off, you know, a month off here anyway.

When we got back right after New Year’s, they called six of us guys’ names out and they said, “You’re going down to the port of embarkation.”

We didn’t know what the hell we were going to do. We went down there to [unknown] and they made military policemen out of us. It was supposed to have been temporary. And it was such a good deal. Hell, I just fell right into that job. [chuckles] So actually, I spent the rest of my time right there.

MARIA MCLEOD: What was your job?

VERN ANDERSON: I was a military policeman on the main gate. That’s where all the troops went and left Seattle, and then also when they came back.

[…]

MARIA MCLEOD: So when you say it was the “best deal,” when you worked the gate, what did you mean?

VERN ANDERSON: Well, I had an off-duty pass. All I had to do was show up for work down there. I could do what I wanted after. Then, later on, I even got a pass for living at home. They paid you. Then I had to pay for my meals was the only difference.

MARIA MCLEOD: Do you remember how much you got paid doing that job?

VERN ANDERSON: You want to see the actual figures? I’ll show you. Didn’t get a hell of a lot.

MARIA MCLEOD: So you just [found] your tax withholding statement, your W-2 form, from the U.S. Army, and that says that the finance officer, C.F. May, Lt. Col. F.C., Fort Lawton, sent this to you –– and it says that total wages before deductions payroll in 1952 was $1,429.45, and Federal income tax withheld $151.60. So this was for a full-time job. Did you hold it a whole year?

VERN ANDERSON: Yeah. Look what they get now! You can’t believe it. I was getting – because I’d been in before – I was getting a little extra money. Then, also, I was a PFC, because I’d been in before, and got a little extra money for that.

MARIA MCLEOD: Private first class.

VERN ANDERSON: Then a little later on, I got to be a corporal. That upped it a little bit, not a whole lot.

MARIA MCLEOD: So does your job change at all when your status changed? Private first class, corporal …

VERN ANDERSON: No, I did the same thing. Actually, there was supposed to be sergeants on that job but they had put a freeze on – they couldn’t promote anybody for, I don’t know, about a year there or something, or six months.

We were only supposed to be in the Army for twenty-one months. That’s what the deal was. Then they upped it to twenty-four months.

MARIA MCLEOD: So when you worked the gate, did you have weapons on you?

VERN ANDERSON: Oh, yeah. A .45 pistol. I had that Sam Brown belt and all that. Then, when they had the ships come in, you had to put on a fancy outfit – a white kind of a deal, a neckerchief-type deal. Then you had a white rope on one arm. Then you had white leggings. Then you had the hat – they used the helmet liner, actually, was what they were. They were painted fancy. I think it was a white and gold kind of a deal like that.

[…]

MARIA MCLEOD: When you were at that gate, what were you supposed to be watching for, or protecting against?

VERN ANDERSON: Well, we had to let the people go in the cars. That was one job we had. We used to take turns going to do back and forth. Then we to check everybody who came in and out.

MARIA MCLEOD: Did you have to keep a roster of their names?

VERN ANDERSON: No. They always had to have an I.D., or we wouldn’t let them in. They weren’t supposed to be bringing alcohol in, and all that kind of stuff, you know.

MARIA MCLEOD: Did you have to search for alcohol ever, or confiscate alcohol?

VERN ANDERSON: Oh, yeah. We’d take it off of them. They weren’t supposed to take cigarettes neither, you know, from the ship’s store. Golly, they were 20 cents a pack, or a carton, I don’t remember what it was. We used to take it away from them.

I remember that one day, it was on a Sunday, and this black fellow came walking along there. He had a whole carton stuck in his back pocket.

I seen it, you know, and I reached out like that, I hit him in the back. I said, “What the devil do you got in there? Come in here!”

He had steaks wrapped around his body. Tied up in there, you know. Taking them home, see.

So I had to do something then. I couldn’t let him go. So we had to call the officer of the day, and I don’t know what they did. They didn’t do nothing to him. In about two weeks, I seen him back working.

MARIA MCLEOD: Was he stealing steaks? From where?

VERN ANDERSON: Yeah, out of the mess hall, out of the ship. He was one of the cooks that was working in the mess hall.

MARIA MCLEOD: Oh, and he was going to take some home. I guess some people must have gotten mad at you for taking their alcohol and their cigarettes.

VERN ANDERSON: No, they didn’t seem to be. They knew they were wrong. What were they going to do about it? If you got a job to do, you do it.

To read Vernon “Babe” Anderson’s full oral history, follow this link.