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Record 6/959
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Oral history interview with Ken and Rosamae La Fontaine by Brad Larson for the Oshkosh World War II project. He discusses his experiences in the navy and the attack on Pearl Harbor. TRANSCRIPT OF ORAL HISTORY WITH KEN LAFONTAINE JUNE 5, 2001 ORAL HISTORY CONDUCTED BY BRAD LARSON B: It's June 8th, 200l and I'm sitting here again with Ken LaFontaine and his wife, and your name again? {B stands for Brad Larson} R: Rosamae. {R stands for Rosamae} B: Okay. And we're going to talk a little bit about the memories of World War II. [ ] Talk a little louder? O.K. Alright. Well Ken, you know the drill so we are going to go over the questions again. K: O.K, uh. [K stands for Ken ] B: So we'll talk a little bit about when, we'll start out from when you graduated from high school. K: Right. O.K. I went in the service. I went in the navy for six years, Oct 20th or something like that. Then I went from here to Great Lakes - I think that was six weeks training and from there I went to Ford Motor Company in Dearborn, Michigan. Machinist Mate School, really, Henry Ford. And ah, that was a ten week course and I graduated from there and I went from there to San Pedro California and caught an oil tanker to Pearl Harbor. And from there I went to the U.S.S. Whitney, a destroyer tender and we serviced a flotilla of destroyers which is thirty. And, well after the, after the war we took care of more than that but whatever was available they shoved onto us. But from, after Pearl, after Pearl Harbor I went to church that Sunday morning, 7:30, I took the launch to ah, to the Navy Yard. B: Why did you go to the Navy Yard? K: 'Cause that's where the church was, it being held. They had like a bowl scooped out with concrete steps and everybody sat there around and I think they used it for more than one religion but this was a Catholic priest this time [ ] that I belonged to but ah, after that, before I got to the church, these planes started comin over. All of a sudden the guy in front of me was shot, I didn't realize but he hit the ground, didn't move. By the time I go up to him I knew he was dead 'cause I had seen a bullet hole through his stomach. B: Did you know they were Japanese planes when you first started… K: No. I didn't realize that until a few minutes after they shot him you know. I suppose those bullets were hittin' the ground so I didn't really realize what was goin' on. B: Unh huh. K: 'Til I saw him. Then after that I watched the planes go down the channel, it was torpedo planes. That was what did all the destructive damage to the battleships. Then after that was goin' on for maybe about twenty minutes, half an hour, I went, got on deck to the little launch that was to take us back to the ship so then we went by the battleships, the Arizona was on the end there. I was about maybe 2000 yards away from our ship and from there, and then I got on board again and the destroyers were firing already on, on the second wave of torped… I mean the bombing planes came in then. They destroyed Ford Island really. And… B: Where you had just been. K: Yes. Right. Just went by, yeah. But they took care of that but then they had a big cruiser on the right hand side of us, on the starboard side I supposed to say, I guess, right anyway, [ ] But anyway they started firing, they stayed away from us then, they had too much fire power then because we had five destroyers along the side of them and the cruiser on the other side - so they stayed away from us pretty well. B: Where was your battle station on the Whitney? K: I was on the second deck, ah, it didn't make any difference then; we only had three inch guns at that time, they were old, I don't think they could shoot in the air, they had to go out this way to get the shell to go, I think. I suppose, I dunno. But the destroyers took care of everything for us. We were the mother ship so suppose they were [ ] look after us. [ ] They took care of us pretty well. Whenever we left port, there was always one of 'em on each side of us; when we went to sea, always. 'Course we had an expensive crew on there, we were expensive. You know we had everything on there, foundry, sheet metal, electrical. You name it, we had it. And we also had all the facilities, electrical; we furnished all electricity, we could have furnished electricity to the whole city of Oshkosh. [ ] it was real big [ ] But anyway, after that, after that happened, about two weeks later, then we left and went south, south pacific then. B: Well, what happened immediately after the attack? What was, let's say within a day or two after the Pearl Harbor attack. K: Well we had to clean up; we started cleaning up the harbor you know, pickin' up the men you know that were drowned or hit or killed but we picked those people up. I was only on that detail one day. I couldn't stand it no more. Both the men I worked for or went with, he was a strong individual, he could stand that. He was used to that, diving underwater, he was a diver. And he picked people up, and, put 'em in a bag, flowed to the boat or launch or whatever and then they stacked them up like cordwood, and that was only one day for me, that was enough. But then after that, we got everything ready; we went to sea, we went south, south pacific. We stopped at Tonga, Tonga Tabu, which were, they were real friendly people. But we couldn't go ashore there, nobody. Just the, well you have to have some regulations otherwise, all these people, steal them blind I suppose. B: What was the mood like among the men on your ship in Pearl Harbor after the attack? How would you describe the mood of the men? K: Well, they were anxious to get after these people. I mean they were ready to go. They'd do anything, I think to kill those Japs that were after them. No, we had no choice. You had to stay aboard ship and ah, we didn't go no place. They pulled out of the harbor and we went south, that was [ ] the destroyers [ ] went to New Caledonia after, that was a French island. That's the most beautiful harbor I ever been in. All surrounded by mountains. And they watched for us, 'er, the army and the navy; both they patrolled the skies for us. And the destroyers took care of everything else. They wouldn't come near the place. But, ah, but then we moved from there to Tulagi, that was near Guadalcanal. They were fighting the Japanese navy then; the destroyers, every night they'd go out at sundown. They'd come back in the morning. Sunrise, that's ah, they'd go out there and shoot each other up, I guess [ ] unreal. That, they used to call that "the slot." They used to have to go to the slot every night. But ah, that was real dangerous and ah. B: What were some of your jobs there that when you were servicing those destroyers that were out in the slot? What were some of the things that you would see and do with those… K: We, all I [ ] to the; I worked in the machine shop at the time, but most everything was underwater welding. Something, the newer destroyers were all aluminum. So they welded underwater just marvelous. That, I'd never seen that done before, until at the time it was I think it was quite new technology. It was really something to watch. B: Were those ships beat up pretty bad? K: Yeah some of them were beat up pretty bad, yeah they all shot up you know, lot of shrapnel. Ah, some took torpedo hits and these things aren't too big, maybe 375, 400 feet long. You know and their beam is real narrow, probably thirty feet, forty feet at the most so they take a beating. They used a lot of men on these things, eh, but that's war I guess. That's what it amounts to. Sacrifice, ah. B: Did you understand, did the Navy keep you informed about what was happening, kind of overall what was happening like in the Solomons or what was happening in the [ ] Pacific? K: They put out a Newsweek letter about three or four pages long every week, once a week a mimeographed thing and ah, it told how far we were advancing; I don't know if they lied, you don't know. There was no proof of anything; they were radio operators they took care of it, they put all the news down and ah, they ran if off on the ship. But they were, ah, it was I suppose halfway truth anyway. B: Were you engaged at the time of Pearl Harbor? R: I was in high school when he left. And I did not know there was a Pearl Harbor because my mother was dying that day. She died December 7th, 1941. B: Oh, my. R: So I really hadn't heard from Ken. Well, I got a letter from him but it was all blacked out. And ah, I think his mother didn't hear from him until the end of January. And knew he was all right. K: Oh, yeah. B: How did you hear of Pearl Harbor then? How did you hear of Pearl Harbor? Of the attack? R: Ah, [ ] Ah, I was at the hospital all day, as I said my mother was dying and I went home to rest and about five o'clock at night ah, my brother came in and he said, "I wonder how the war's going?" And I said, "What war?" [ ] they kept it from me. That's how I heard about it. B: Did you know that Ken was at Pearl Harbor? R: Yes. We were never engaged. I think I was still in high school. No, I was a freshman in college. B: Ken, was Pearl Harbor considered to be pretty good duty? When you got assigned? K: Oh, yes. The weather was gorgeous. You can't beat it. Sunny day like this just about every day. But it rained sometimes every afternoon; two or three o'clock in the afternoon it would rain. In the bay [ ] but in the harbor. But ah, B: Prior to the attack did you have any inkling that the United States might be at war soon? K: No, none at all. No. Politicians [ ] I shouldn't say that, but it's true, 'fact, they've proven it I guess. They knew it was coming but they never told anybody; they never told Short, General Short or Admiral Kimmel, I guess. They never told them they [ ] never admit it anyway. B: Was there any talk among the men? K: No. There was no talk, they didn't realize you know. They picked the best day of the week to attack, attack us you know. Sunday, everybody is, you know, lazy , layin' around doin' nothin'. You don't have to get outa bed or outa the sack so if you feel like getting up to eat, that's your privilege. If not you get up and eat 'til noon. But it was a quiet day that's why they took advantage of us. Really. Can't blame 'em I suppose. B: Just out of curiosity, were you usually up early on Sundays? K: I always woke early. Yeah, I was up around six o'clock, always, just about every day. B: Rosemary, did you have any inkling before Pearl Harbor that the United States might be involved in a war with Germany or Japan? R: No, I had just graduated from high school in June and I was seventeen, eight- I was too busy going to college and having fun. B: Did the war news from overseas ever interest you…[ ] did the war news from overseas like prior to December 7th, did you ever keep up on that? What was happening? R: Oh, well yes, later on in January, February and so forth, but I think most of our papers here, we were more in history, England and Europe because that was first, you know. Why, I hoped that he was all right and I went on with my life. But he didn't say once, he got shrapnel in his elbow walking the beach at Pearl Harbor. B: Tell me about that, Ken. K: Well, I suppose I got a piece in my elbow and I was bleeding quite profusely so I got back on my ship and went to the sick bay and they wrapped it up and cleaned it out and put a couple bandages on it and took care of it, about a week's time, 'course we got used to everything heals quick. Not like now, If I cut my finger, it takes two weeks [ ] it's about what it amounts to ah, B: Were you aware that you had been hit at the time? K: No. Not really, no. It just stings that's all. I don't know. I was very fortunate. [ ] B: So just back to Oshkosh for a minute. After Pearl Harbor the war news was all pretty grim. Do you remember what the mood was in Oshkosh in those months after Pearl Harbor? R: I think after the initial shock I was [ ] house, university now. And I think we just went on with our life. And I didn't have much [ ] with reality? You know and I think then we settled down and there was rationing and then I think people were, burning candles at church and praying; got a little serious about this whole thing. Prayed for all of them to come home and I know some of us gals, I went to a very small high school, and we made a point to ah, send cards or Christmas cards to the fellows that had been in our class, that were overseas. So we did become more aware of the war. B: Is there anything that brought home the war to you particularly that you can remember? Something that was a personal impact on your life that you might have remembered? Someone, friends, fiancée or son that was lost during the war? R: No. Fortunately. B: Ken, how about you? Did you get a chance to get back to Oshkosh or were you still… K: I came back and married her. Yeah. That was a big deal, that day. R: Well, that took three years. B: So you were overseas three years before you got back? K: Oh, yeah, at least that. How long? R: He was in the Navy six years and he was overseas four and a half. K: Long time. [ ] B: So, let's pick up after Tulagi. What happened after Tulagi? K: Oh, I was there about nine months or so and it kinda died down because I guess they were, all their ships, they were knocking them outa the water, I guess. So then we finally got, we were supposed to get some R&R. [ ] the ship needed, we had barnacles on it abut five, six inches long so we were scheduled to go to dry dock so they [ ] to Sydney, Australia and that's where we went and the [ ]. The hardest part was the Coral Sea was rough on me; I ah, I didn't like the Coral Sea very well, it, it was rougher than a cob. I never had anything like it in my life; I thought we were going to lose the ship, really. B: Why is that? K: Because the, we didn't recover. We went down and we didn't come back up. The bow went down and took on tons and tons of water. He had a, oh, a pom-pom gun up on deck on top, oh, way up on the deck, it was on the bow. And, anyway there was armor plating and it smashed that thing right down. And, so we lost maybe fifty, sixty plates up in front. Took on a lot of water. So I think that's the scaredest I've ever been. And that was [ ] I was young; I wasn't afraid of anything really - 'till then. Ha, ha. B: How old would you have been? K: I must have been, what, twenty-three, twenty-four. Yeah, somethin like that, I think, yeah. B: Was Sydney a good liberty port? K: Oh, yeah, yeah, oh. They were good to us, yeah. B: The Australians? K: Yeah. And the navy yard had a huge barracks for us to stay in. You could go ashore anytime. They didn't care. And they had a place to sleep and warmth; buy your own food and do your own drinking, whatever you wanted to do that was it. B: You think those Australians were pretty happy the Americans were down there? K: Oh, sure. Well we spent a lot of money down there, yeah. Those navy guys were easy go, easy come you know and [ ] that's it. B: What was your pay a month? Do you remember? K: Oh, when I first started out it was $21.00 a month. Oh, gosh, then I go up to what the heck was I second class or first class when I got there, that was, that was probably $300 or $400 a month then. That was a lot of money then. When I made Chief Petty Officer though in Guam, that then I raised my salary up almost a thousand dollars a month then. [ ] yeah. Everything's free livin', live here, live there, furnish water and soap. Buy your own cigarettes, nickel a pack, ah, God! Yeah, it was easy goin'. B: So, after Australia, then the ship… K: I came back to [ ] Guadalcanal. Then I got on a, I don't know what the heck it was. They didn't call it really a troop carrier, smaller ship, they took a hundred of us and from there we went to ah, ah, Oakland. Then I got off there, then I came home for leave, that 30 day leave. B: What was Oshkosh like when you got back here? R: Interject just a minute; I think you tell him, you asked how the Australians accepted - tell him how the chiefs on the islands accepted the sailors. What your R&R, every six weeks the R&R [ ] what your R&R was. K: Oh, Oh, yeah, we go ashore. We get two bottles of beer, two cans, two cans those are all cans we had it stored aboard ship for we had to take care of the destroyers too, feed those guys beer too, so we'd go over there, they had a place you had to go [ ] spot. You couldn't go anyplace else on the island, you had to go right there, to swim and take your beer. After a couple hours of that they'd haul you back to ship and "get to work." Ha, ha. R: They had both [ ] K: Oh, yeah. R: The sharks, so they couldn't come into the lagoon. K: Yeah. R: hen the big chiefs stood on the islands and said [ ]. K: Oh sure, yeah. R:[ ] B: When were you married? K: Ah, I'm not talking. What was that, '44 wasn't it? Okay? '43? I can't, no, it's '44. R: We were married '44 [ ] January 13th, 1944. January 13th, '45. K: [ ] no, '44, yeah. I still feel '44, I don't know why. [ ] R: '44 would have been a little different. B: Well, so now, tell me, when you came back to Oshkosh what did you find changed or different about the city? Anything? K: Rationing I suppose. Food, you know. Gasoline. [ ] they were rationed too I suppose. There were a lot of those around. R: Eleven month old son, he had never seen. K: That's my oldest guy. Tom. School teacher. Berlin High School. Yeah. He's older than you are. Sure. How old are you? B: Forty six. K: Forty six. He's, how old is Tom, fifty six. Tom, fifty six? R: Fifty five. K: O.K. I'm close. R: We've only been married fifty six years. K: Oh, [ ] B: O.K. so, I talked to somebody else about Oshkosh during the war and they said there wasn't very many men in Oshkosh between the ages of [ ]… R: Just the cadets. And the boys were home on leave. B: Who were the cadets? R: They were at the university, Air Force. Going to school. Ah. That Rose [ ] building? And they took that over and made a dormitory out of it. B: You were still going to college at the time? R: Mm. B: Did you have any war ah, related assignments or projects in school like bond drives or scrap participation? R: Oh yes, I did. I ah, that was the second year. I ah, quit. 'Cause you could only be a teacher and I didn't want to be a teacher so I went to the bank - First National yeah, and there were bond drives and so forth. B: So, so how did people participate in those bond drives? Do you think there was a pretty whole-hearted participation? R: I think so. I mean you know when they're young like that they don't pay much attention and there was the media blaha, you know, the news. They played up the canteens and Hollywood more and I don't know [ ] locally people got behind whatever they - what was going on. B: Well Ken, after your leave was over, did you have to go back to the South Pacific? K: Yes. That's when I went to Guam then. I went out of San Francisco. Now I forgot what the heck I rode out of there. B: Were you assigned to a different ship or back to the Whitney? K: No, just another transport. I don't know if it was a cargo ship or what, oil tanker or what. I don't remember. But I went from there, we went from there right to Guam from San Francisco. That's when I got off of there, and I was on the, on the bay just like on a coral reef. It was all coral - the whole island was the whole bay area was all coral. And they had Quonset huts built there and that's ah, that took care of the typewriter shop, the optical shop. They had the whole first floor and ah, that's when I made Chief Petty Officer. [ ] chief participant [ ] yeah, I don't know - what the hell is that? R: C P A. K: Chief [ ] of instruments. R: S I A. Special [ ] of instruments. [ ] B: Were you there then when the war ended? You stayed in Guam? K: Yes. Yeah. And then I got out of there, it must have been the first part of October of '46. B: Ken, do you remember when you heard about the atom bomb being dropped? K: Yeah, well the B-52's were in the Marianna's and that was about fifty miles away from Guam. And they flew out of there, most of them, they come over Guam quite often. And they, ah, I didn't know much about the atom bomb 'till they dropped the darn thing. Heh, old Harry Truman, huh, you never thought, he was a dandy though, he did the right thing, I think. But so they destroyed a lot of lives, so they destroyed a lot of lives for us too. So… B: Since it was a secret weapon and no one knew much about the atom bomb, do you recall any of the reactions… K: No. Most of the guys, sailors, they took care of us, they thought that was great. "Kill those Japs," they'd say. Yeah, they didn't care. They…. R: They used to say, "the only good Jap is a dead Jap." K: Yeah, oh yeah. R: I think that was the general feeling. K: Yeah. R: Summation of it. K: Yeah. R: When you asked their feelings. B: Do you remember the day they dropped the atom bomb or you heard about the atom bomb? What did you think, do you remember? R: How, oh yeah. I was about [ ] There was a big celebration down on Main Street. I went down with some friends and everyone was drinking champagne and they stand there crying. 'Cause I knew he had another year; he was Regular Navy. B: You had a party down on Main Street, huh? R: Oh, everybody was down there. K: Hah. B: Stores closed? Or open, or? R: I don't think we paid much attention. B: Yeah it was just, everybody was just happy. R: Oh yes, ecstatic, yes. [ ] And we were kept informed on the newsreels. You know there was no television at that time. B: What do you mean a newsreel? R: When you went to the movies, there was a "B" picture, a newsreel, and "A" picture and a cartoon. Paramount. K: Yeah, yeah. I remember that. R: And ah, I'm trying to think of the reporter, it wasn't Ernie Pyle, anyway they would have pictures of the news and that other than the papers, you know on radio, that's all they have, visually. B: Did you look forward to seeing those newsreels? K: Did you look forward to seeing the newsreels? R: Oh well when I went to a movie, which we did there wasn't much else to do, I think probably we went, some went once every week. I went maybe every two weeks. Yeah, to see what was going on. B: Well, I'd like to back up to Pearl Harbor just for a minute. And here now we are sixty years away from Pearl Harbor and when you think back to that day; we talked about this a little bit earlier in the week when we, you know when we, ah talked the first time. When you think back to it sixty years later, what are your thoughts of… K: Well, I thought it was a waste of energy and men. Manpower. I think the politicians screwed it up and they didn't tell us, they didn't inform anybody. 'Course our government lies to us now yet. They still do. I don't know about - I think the City of Oshkosh lies to us now and then, hah. I shouldn't tell you that. Don't you tell Don that. Don will have a fit, well no he won't care. R: Well, I think serous though, we figured that Roosevelt, he knew it. K: That's right. R: They screwed up there in the White House [ ] K: That's right. R: That Saturday before and they never did anything about it. They knew it was coming. B: Was that a topic of conversation? R: Oh, you better believe it was. Lot of animosity especially as the war went on. Too much of this wasn't released. But a little more and a little more… and well, I don't know, a lot of us, at least the group I traveled in, we blamed Roosevelt. We felt that there was no excuse for this sneak attack but he knew it was coming and we figured he had to deal with Churchill. B: How so? R: Well, it would take the pressure off. Of England. To get the rest of them [ ] over there, Germany and the rest of it. And then he could get us involved in the war and then they'd start - he was shipping stuff over to England before there was any war breaking out. B: How did people feel about that? R: They didn't, well they didn't mind seeing us go to Europe because at the time [ ] the Germans, but then we were in war and came out and Roosevelt was not mentally right, he was a very ill man in '44 and he went to Yalta with Stalin and Churchill, and Churchill kept telling him and Roosevelt wouldn't listen and then he died in April, this was like in January. He died in April. So I mean it just, it did not leave a good taste among people, at least the people I knew and the way I felt. And history has sort of proved things out too. B: What about you Ken, do you agree with that? Did you have any thoughts along those….. K: Yeah. We in the service [ ] thought that Roosevelt killed himself. Thought he committed suicide. It didn't say how he got killed or died and [ ] they never said how Roosevelt died. R: Well it was his mistress down in Warm Springs, Georgia. K: A mistress? God, that old f…. R: Yep. She was a…. K: Oh, God… B: Well Ken, tell me what is your most vivid memory of December 7th? What is the most vivid memory you…. K: Oh, I suppose, the battleships I suppose, going down. Exploding, that was the - 'course it was right in front of me you know so I couldn't help but think of that. All the time, you know, how bad [ ] was. These torpedoes hitting these ships and no defense, nothing. One right after another came, BOOM!, and fifty feet off the water and dropping them and away they go. They'd pull up and pull away. So they didn't get hurt themselves. I think that's probably the worst memory I got of it. Or I still remember, you know. It's difficult to say, I suppose. There's so many things happened that day that it's hard to understand how you think or how you react to it . It's something else. B: You were close enough you could vividly see those Japanese planes? K: Oh, yeah, like [ ] yeah. They weren't too far, about from here to the street from me. B: That's only about seventy five yards. K: Not very far, I'll tell you. The channel was pretty narrow, it wasn't too big. Just big enough for - there was no ships coming in there. It was all launches [ ] the launches probably fifty feet long, you know. And about from here to the wall away in width. Then, O.K., the sailor, usually a boatswain's mate ran 'em. They steer from the back standing up you know. Yeah, I was, tired, yeah. B: Rosemary, what's your most vivid memory of the war? R: Well, it wasn't until it went on because I don't have, the death of my mother, she was just forty two, and seeing your mother die - and I was eighteen, that had an emotional effect on me for quite awhile, I mean, it wasn't really until New Year's Eve when my father and I went to the, a movie and then saw this you know, on [ ] that it really sunk in. Because it was [ ] quite a shock. B: Do either of you have anything you want to add, anything more that we should talk about? K: Ha, ha, ha. Anything you want to talk about? R: Things have [ ] have [ ] . B: Well I just have one question for Ken. Ken, why did you enlist in the navy? K: I dunno, I suppose…I had a buddy I went with. He's the one that really talked me into it, I guess. And ah, but that was about the only reason I guess. He had kind of a hard life, I suppose. His father committed suicide and his mother died young and he was ah, he was a pretty good guy. He was a submarine man and he was on the U.S.S. Hol[ ]; that should get to you. Yeah. What tender did you go with again? You said something…. B: U.S.S. [ ] K: O.K. B: So he talked you into joining eh? K: Yeah. He's dead now too. He died here, when did he die about a year ago, something like that? R: He wasn't much good… K: Yeah, he… R: Yeah, [ ] Gordy had a hard life and… K: Ah, well, yeah. B: Well I really appreciate this, I, I….. K: You think It'll work this time? B: Oh, yeah… K: If it don't, don't call me on Sunday. B: I won't do that.
Oral History Interview with Ken and Rosamae La Fontaine -WORLD WAR II -Copyright Oshkosh Public Museum
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