|Oral history interview with Elmer Wokosin by Brad Larson for the Oshkosh World War II project. Elmer served in the 32nd Division and fought in the Pacific Theater during World War II.
November 14, 2000
Interviewee: Elmer Wokosin
Interviewer: Brad Larson
Wokosin served in the 32nd Division during WWII
November 14, 2000
Interviewer: Brad Larson
Interviewee: Elmer Wokosin
W: They say that August 6, 1945 would be the day that lived in infamy because that is the day that we dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.
L: No kidding.
L: That's not right
W: Well that's the way my... my answer went but... I guess they ended up to paragraph that it was a good thing we didn't have a coward in the White House at that time. Harry Truman was in there he and was a WWI veteran, artillery captain, WWI. Then he was the one who gave the order that we should not demonstrate this thing but we should go ahead and use it, because everything they developed they were using on us.
Remember if, how much you remember of WWII or what you heard about it, but things weren't going that good in... in Europe because... the... the Germans has these buzz bombs that they were, they couldn't guide 'em or anything but what they were was a flying bomb what they would send against the against British Isles and they would land anywhere, if they hit a hospital or school or anyplace like that. And then they came out with the buzz bombs artillery could shoot 'em down if they see 'em coming' but, and aircraft fire, but then they came out with the V-2 Rocket, which was a rocket that went way up and came down, and they of course were um... and the way they got their range there I guess is how much, how much fuel or power they put in 'em to get the range. Eventually, now we got these rockets that can go oh, halfway around the world, see, but at that time they were getting from the Continent onto the British Isles.
And then they couldn't hear 'em coming' or anything they were just large explosions. So every time they had a new development like that they would use it on us.
So along when we got the atomic bomb perfected, these here reactionaries back here thought we shouldn't really use that, not like they were doing, we should maybe, um, bomb an island out some in the sea and tell them what it could do or something like that, and Truman says nope, take out one of their cities, oh, a city about the size of Milwaukee, I guess Hiroshima was, and wipe it out. But then that's what induced them to quit. Prior to that, the Japs, quitting was not in the their vocabulary. They wouldn't give up.
L: Well, well, let's start from the beginning here, and I have a couple of questions I'd like to ask you. And I'll just start out by saying we're sitting here in my office on November 14, 2000 and I'm talking with Elmer Wokosin. And Elmer served in the 32nd Division so I thought we'd start a little bit about that.
So when did you join that National Guard unit?
W I joined it when I was still a student in high school, back in September 1939. And WWII had just started, the 3rd of September when Germans marched into Poland. And then Britain and France went to their aid. And the British had a large expeditionary force on the continent which they had to evacuate at Dunkirk, otherwise they would have been annihilated. Dunkirk, Belgium I guess is where they, they had that big mass evacuation, with all the, I guess everybody who owned a motorboat in England went over across the channel to pick up troops. So we got most of them off, back home. So things were pretty, pretty tight then, in '39, that was a year, maybe 13 months later, is when they mobilized the National Guards over the United States.
L: What made you enlist?
W: What made me enlist? Patriotic I guess, there was, some of my friends had belonged to the Guard, and they had told about how nice it was, you know, they'd go to camp and they were in the summer for two weeks, and there was... would be marching in the Memorial Day Parades and things like that, see. And it appealed to your macho a bit I admit, you're gonna...you know you're sticking your neck out because you took the oath to defend the United States against all enemies whomsoever.
L: How old were you?
W: I was 17 when I joined the National Guard. [Pause, laugh.] And, of course when they mobilized then I was 18, then I was alright. But you gotta remember at that time, in 1940, they started Selective Service then too. At the time they mobilized all the National Guard divisions over the whole United States they started Selective Service. But they weren't taking 'em under 21. See, 21 was the age of the majority then, they couldn't vote until they were 21. And they were drafted after 21. So those that were 18, 19, and 20 were free to enlist, but they weren't drafted. So I mean, it was an awful lot of 'em joined, even at the time of Pearl Harbor then there was a whole slew of them from high school and colleges all over the country that enlisted right away, right after the attack.
L: Do you remember Pearl Harbor?
W: Oh yes. It was on a Sunday. And of course... I was down Camp Livingston, Louisiana, and Sunday was usually, in peace time, a kind of a day off. We still had guard duty, and then we had kitchen duty and stuff like that. One of my friends, [ ] after we had our Sunday dinner, we took a walk around Camp Livingston, where we hadn't been before, cause this was a new camp, that was built for the 32nd Division. And we were taking pictures, went over the by the artillery, which was probably a couple miles away from where we were building it. And it of course it was kind of a dead, dismal day, like, almost like kind of like today. It wasn't that warm down in Louisiana at that time, either, we were wearing our heavy jackets. And then when we got back to our company where our tents were and our mess hall and everything, we got back to the company street, there was a lot of commotion going on. The first thing they told us they said "We're in a war! We're in a war!" the Japs had bombed Pearl Harbor, and I said I can't believe that, but sure enough, we had a few radios in some of the tents, and there they were blatting off what had all happened, you know. And they were giving verbal orders that all military personnel should return to their base and stuff like that, you know. The guys that were on leave and furlough and stuff. See, at the time they attacked we didn't know if there would be a follow up invasion. At the time they even thought the um...our west coast was, you know, vulnerable. And I thought it was because, actually, they did invade and occupy some of our Aleutian Islands in part of Alaska so if you want to look at it this way they did invade this country. And they did carry out air attacks against Alaska at Dutch Harbor and they bombed some of our oil tanks and stuff and then even down in California, in Santa Barbara, we had a lot of oil refineries and stuff there, and one of the Jap subs came, surfaced, and started shelling these oil storage tanks and stuff but they didn't do too much damage.
L: So, what did you...do you remember what you thought when the Germans and Italians declared war a few days later?
W: We thought we were... we eventually thought we'd probably get in with them anyway, because of the fact that England was on the ropes. France had capitulated. Any of the other countries that had any chance at all, Norway and Sweden, Sweden was declared neutral, and Norway was occupied by Germany, and Denmark, so there really wasn't another European country outside of England that was still free. And so we knew we were kind of on the short end, we were out-numbered and out-gunned and everything else at the time of Pearl Harbor. That's another thing I've pointed out in this letter answering [Linenthal] is that... we had to come from behind to beat 'em. It was a long, steady, let's see, from the time of Pearl Harbor, to the D Day, that was '44, there were 3 years to get ready to make an invasion of Europe.
L: I had read that the 32nd Division still had a WWI artillery at the time of Pearl Harbor. Do you recall anything about that? Older equipment?
W: Oh yes, yes, the 32nd Division was, you know, a very large group that was consisted of the Wisconsin and Michigan National Guard units and we had the basics... were an infantry brigade from Wisconsin and another infantry brigade from Michigan, and each brigade had two infantry regiments. Like Wisconsin had the 127th Infantry which I was a member of, and the 128th. Michigan had the 125th infantry and the 126th. In addition, we had field artillery battalions that worked with these infantry regiments. When we were in Louisiana we even had a small air squadron called the 107TH Observation Squadron that worked with the reconnaissance over the enemy line and stuff. And we also had a cavalry troop, the 106th Cavalry and Reconnaissance Troop and they had horses. [laughter] So as a matter of fact, Armistice Day 1941 the old division paraded down in Alexandria, Louisiana and they hauled us to town in these big trailers that they hauled the horses in for the cavalry, we could get quite a few, 'course we all had to stand up in there. That was the only parade I remember where we wore our steel helmets and bare bayonets. I often wondered, I'd like to have gotten a picture of that, I'm sure they had some down there, 'cause... we weren't strung out in a long line like you sometimes you see, we were a battalion at a time that the troops went from, from one curb to the other, you know, so it was a mass. I guess what they were trying to do was duplicate some of them photos that were coming out of Germany and Italy where they showed these big mass of men, you know, with their bayonets and everything and trying to scare people, you know...
L: Had you heard anything about Nazi concentration camps or what the Japanese were doing to the Chinese? Had you heard any of...
W: Ah yeah, I'm not... on the Japs with the rape of China, our reporters were still there, and at the time they were getting some of the news out, I guess...of course, you know, during the war there was quite a bit of censorship, especially from, you know, the axis powers, although before we got into war with Europe they did have a correspondent in Berlin by the name of, I think his name was William Schuyer or something like that. And he would be given the account, I suppose whatever they let him talk about, when they were... Germany's campaign against Poland, Holland and Belgium, France, Czechoslovakia, and Denmark. They kept moving east 'til finally they took on Russia.
L: So you did have some idea of what was going on.
W: ..what was going on...yeah. Well we knew about, one of the big things of course that everybody knew about, was the Battle of Britain. At that time Germany was bombing open cities with their bombers. They were coming over and bombing London and a lot of the British cities and a lot of civilians were getting killed at the time. And some of the pictures that came out of there you wondered how them people could still stand up to it., see. But I guess Churchill kind of gave them that shot in the arm or what when he says that they were ah, [fighting in the beaches, fighting in the ditches] and the streets and they would never surrender and all that stuff and he sort of raised their morale.
L: So the 32nd sailed for Australia in April in '42?
W: April 22, '42 we sailed for what we thought at the time was for the Philippines, 'cause they were still holding out on Corregidor, 'cause they didn't tell us where we were going. And ah...
L: Do you remember your ship?
W: Yeah. It was the SS Washington. It... the troop ship SS Washington? But It was a civilian ship from the old Mapson Line. Let's see...No, no, our ship was called the Mt. Vernon. It was the Washington with the Mapson Line. And then they re-christened it, as a troops carrier, 'cause, being a luxury liner, everything was built, four-tier bunk beds over the swimming pool and everything else. We were buffed in there like chickens in a coop. One of these brooding houses. [laughter] And then it got pretty uncomfortable when we crossed the equator when it got pretty hot, you know. And then the guys would get seasick and throwing up and all the stuff like that
L: So what did you do once you got in Australia?
W: Well, we established our camps, we were kind of split up in different areas because of the country, they didn't... they really didn't have that much facilities for us at first, we had our own tents with it, and we slept in tents all the while we were over there until we went up to New Guinea and then we were out in the open most of the time.
L: So when did you move up to New Guinea?
W: Thanksgiving Day 1942. Some of our outfit got up there before that, though.
L: Did you know what was going on? Did they... did you know you were heading for New Guinea?
W: Oh yeah, by that time we did. When we were on the high seas, going over seas, and...we knew we were going south because we had crossed the Equator, so, that run through the Dutch East Indies Equator. So we weren't going to the Philippines anymore, we knew, we were going...they mentioned Australia that we were going. But we had one heavy cruiser, the Indianapolis, as an escort, and a few days out of Australia it disappeared one night. We didn't know where it went or anything, but we found out later...the Jap fleet was up ahead of us and they had engaged what was left of our fleet, and the Indianapolis went to join the Pacific fleet and the carriers, in the Battle of the Coral Sea. They were making a pass at Australia then. Of course, there's a lot of ifs and ands about WWII. Suppose they'd a got there first? [laughter] And then they would have been able to blow us out of the water before we'd even got there. In the early states it was touch and go.
L: What happened once you got up in New Guinea?
W: Well, the only part that the Japs hadn't taken at that time was this little sliver on the southeast part of New Guinea was... Port Moresby area. We had a few airfields there... our B-17 bombers and fighter planes were taking off there and ...New Guinea was... the center was divided by very heavy, or a high mountain range, they call it the Owen Stanley Mountain Range, that divided...see it's a tropical island of course. Along the coastal areas, you know, was all jungle and hot and everything, and then the central area goes up as high as 12,000 feet. So it was kind of a barrier to keep the Japs from coming across by foot. They had landed at a lot of different places along the northeast coast. The ones where we were particularly involved in was a couple of villages called Buna and Gona and [ ] Bay. [ ] Bay was on the very tip of New Guinea and that was the last landing the Japs tried and that's the one that...there was some Australian troops there and they...besides the Americans, and they repulsed their landing there.
L: Were these Japanese dug in there?
W: Not there, 'cause they were trying to make a beach head, coming in from the sea. Where they were dug in was at Buna and Gona where we went, see. Our division, as I mentioned before, these infantry regiments, the 126th infantry regiment was from Michigan, they walked over these mountains to meet the Japs that were coming up the other side. They and the... a couple Australian brigades, they stopped them and started pushing them back, 'cause there they didn't have time to put up fortifications, but along the coast, at Buna and Gona, there they had built a lot of fortifications, pill boxes, out of coconut logs and stuff so a rifle bullet or nothing will go through a coconut log you know, it's really fibery, you know...
L: What did you have? You had a Garand?
W: Yeah we had Garand Rifles, yeah. Later on they came along with those smaller, M-16s or whatever they were, I never got one of those 'cause after the Buna campaign I was taken out of the organization cause I had a jungle [sore] in the left eye they figured and I couldn't see good enough anymore. And I was put in a non-combative outfit and sent back up to New Guinea. Well the division, this was after the Buna and Gona campaigns were successful, and the Japs were all annihilated, very few prisoners, 'cause, like I say, they never gave up.
L: Elmer, would you feel comfortable relating any of your experiences there at Buna or Gona?
W: Well, I never really cared to go and rehash it all over, you know, and the stuff and like that. Like I told somebody, a lot of your movies and stuff, they try to duplicate stuff, like the noise, and a lot of the smoke and the explosions and so on like that, but none of them ever were able to duplicate the stench, the smell, see, 'cause in the tropics the bodies would decompose very fast, and in a matter of a few days they get pretty ripe, you know.. So the stench was what I'll probably never forget, you know..
L: Elmer I read this article...
W: The one we wrote you mean?
L: I read this one, from the Wisconsin Magazine of History, it's an article about, it's called, "Buna , the Red Arrow Division's Heart of Darkness," I don't know if you ever read that article...
W: No, I read one by General [Eichleberger] , he was the...he was our corps commander, a three-star general, matter of fact we named our cemetery after him over there, we called it Eichleberger Square [laughter].
L: Well, I understand he replaced a general by the way of...
L: General Harding.
W: Harding was our division commander. And... I don't know, at first couple months up there the things were kind of bogged down, of course jungle, at that time, we being the first ones they were doing a lot of experimenting', and after they...
L: What do you mean, 'experimenting?'
W: Well, they'd try to go by the book. And if...say if a Jap came out waving a white flag that he wanted to surrender, they'd go out and take him prisoner but they'd be somebody behind him that would cut him down, see, they were doing a lot of tricks like that. And they were hollering for a medic, and you'd think, you know, the ones that...a lot of them could speak English, see and they would distract them, and they'd holler for a medic and if a medic showed up to try and help the guy that he thought he was, you know, wounded or something, they'd mow 'em down. And they were pulling all kinds of crap like that, see, and after awhile it um...you didn't give them no quarter at all, then, you know.
L: They didn't surrender?
W: Oh no, they never did, no, no The Japs never surrendered. That's why I thought that when they said they should've went ahead with the invasion of Japan instead of dropping the bomb, well, I figured that we'd have had about a million killed in the attempt. And most of the guys believed that too. They had the island, they had the island all honeycombed out with caves and stuff like they did on a lot of these other little islands like Iwo Jima and them.
L: Because of what you experienced on...
W: Yeah, they weren't gonna give up. They were gonna fight to the last chance, you know.
L: So Harding...
W: Harding, they figured, course... they were all green troops, I mean they weren't trained for jungle warfare, for that part. And so there was a lot of, you know, trial and error stuff going on, and...armaments and everything else, like flame-throwers and that, none of them worked very good. Anytime a guy would try to use one of them against a pillbox he'd get nailed, you know. But then they...Harding , some of the American troops, I think, one battalion from the 128th infantry was attached to an Australian brigade and they were under an Australian commander, and so, Harding really was under-manned too, besides. So they blamed him and removed him and then Eichleberger, he was a corps commander, he took over.
L: What did the men up there in the front lines think about that?
W: Well they thought he was, you know, like I say they named the cemetery after him, Eichleberger Square, they figure 'cause... Christmas Eve and Christmas Day of '42 was when we had the heaviest losses. Matter of fact they just dedicated this Elmer [ ] grave up in Neenah? He was the first sergeant of I Company that was third battalion of the 127 and he threw himself on the grenade and saved his commander and a couple of the others and they gave him the Medal of Honor for that.
L: Did you know him?
W: Not personally I knew a lot of guys in the I Company but...I've seen him and all that stuff, you know. 'Cause when we'd have parades and everything else we got to know the different leaders and stuff from each company.
L: And what company were you in?
W: The Service Company of 127th. We actually were a service and supply company is what we were.
L: So you got this sore on your eye and then what?
W: Well I spent about four months in the hospital trying to get that healed up. I was in ...the evacuation hospital in New Guinea and then I ended up a couple months in a station hospital in Townsville, Australia. That's as far as the Japs got to bomb, was Townsville, it was on the northeast coast of Australia. And then they moved me down to Brisbane, which was where our last camp was, and Brisbane is where we embarked for New Guinea. So we had a big general hospital there and that's where I ended up. And after about a month or so there, the climate was a little cooler then. Wounds and sores and stuff wouldn't heal very good in the tropics. So then when it healed up I thought I could go back to my outfit which had been evacuated back to our base camp in Brisbane. But instead they said I would be on limited service, so I got on a ship and went back up to New Guinea [laughter] then it was, I think, six months later my outfit came back up there.
L: What did you do in those...up there...
W: Up there? And then we went to. established a base on the east coast near Bun and Gona called [ ] Bay. That's where we had spent most of the time. In [ ] Bay we moved up to... we went in with the 7th Australian division to Lae, New Guinea. Lae was further up the New Guinea Coast and was a Jap stronghold. By the way, Lae was where Amelia Earhardt last was seen when she was flying around the world. She took off from that airfield at Lae, New Guinea and was never heard from again.
L: So [ ] was heavily fortified as well?
W: Oh yeah. Yeah, they had been there for oh, maybe a couple years already. Across the...what they called the Coral Sea was another island called New Britain, that was part of the Solomon Islands. The Solomons were where the Marines made a landing at Guadalcanal. And that was touch and go, too, with them. The Japs were building an airstrip on Guadalcanal that they would have been able to get us. So the first marine division moved in but they also had to depend on another army national guard division to help them out. When we first went over there, and first went up to New Guinea we only had two army divisions and one marine division. When MacArthur decided to start an offensive back against the Japs, they had everything intact but they depended heavily on their air force and their navy because their men were scattered on different the islands and stuff. And as long as they controlled the air and the sea they could move their troops around.
L: So hopefully they learned after Buna and Gona...
W: Oh yeah that was the first defeat the Japs had was at Buna and Gona, up until then they thought they were Supermen.
L: Did you...How did you learn from that experience?
L: Do you have any thoughts on that?
W: Never to trust them I guess. [laughter] Even today when I hear the word Mitsubishi like they sell these Jap cars and that I look up and wonder where they're coming from, 'cause they made bombers too.
L: What happened then after Lae ?
W: After Lae? Then things started to go our way. The first cavalry division came over . They were, they had no horses or armored vehicles. They were just mounted the same as an infantry division. But they took the Admiralty Island, which was a little island off the New Guinea coast so that it protected the right flank as MacArthur's army moved up the cost of New Guinea and they moved up, way up to Dutch New Guinea. See New Guinea is an island about 1000 miles long see and... they get up on the north end which was part of Dutch East Indies at the time. And they occupied a... well there was several campaigns before he got to [ ] was one of them [ ] that's as far as I got with [ ] and then from there they jumped off for Philippines. By that time they've, course you see, that would have been '44, that had given the United States a couple of years to build up an air force, build up ships, Kaiser was building the Liberty ship in four days, Ford was kicking off a B-24 Bomber every hour and stuff like that. The tide was slowly turning in our favor that way.
L: Did you ever have thoughts that maybe the Allies wouldn't win?
W: In the beginning we did. In the beginning we thought we really had our hands full. But... and we had no idea how long that would take because, see, like when we were on the ship we got the word that Corregidor in the Philippines fell, and after that the prisoners experienced that death march, 80 mile death march. I knew a fella that went through that, that lived through it. They're both dead now but the one of them lived to be 90 years old.
L: Do you think people know about that Batan Death March very much?
W: I don't think they do. I think what they try to do is, like Clinton, 'Oh we should forget about it, that happened a long time ago, we should forget about it.' and they don't tell these people anything about it after awhile they don't know it existed. I think there's some and, not some, but I think there's a fair amount of them that challenge the Holocaust even though there are witnesses that are still living yet, see, they still challenge that.
L: That leads me to a question: what do you think that we should tell students today about the Second World War? Here, you lived through it, Elmer you had some first-hand experiences...
W: They should, I think they should always be prepared, for one thing, remember back in 1940 when they first start mobilizing our Reserves, 'cause at the time they called up the National Guard they called up the Reserves too, they started from scratch. For one thing, in this day and age you would never have the time we had. Like we were 23 days on a troop ship going to Australia, [laughter] 23 days in today's wartime you could be wiped out in that time. And...so we had a couple years there really to get ready.
L: Did you feel you were doing an important job at the time?
W: Oh, yeah, we thought it was either that or nothing, it was all for broke.
L: How about the rest of the people that were..for example...those not in the military that were in...
W: Oh yeah, they were all very much in back of you. In the articles we would read, and the mail we got from home, I would say it had almost 100% support. Matter of fact the WWII monument which they're gonna start building, they just had their groundbreaking on Armistice Day here, they're gonna emphasize that, they're not just gonna say it was the Air Force, or the Army, or the Navy that did it but the home front. The women that picked up the slack in a lot of the jobs that had to be done.
L: I talked to another veteran, and he said we almost took it for granted that everybody was going their part. Do you think you did too? That everybody was doing something to help...
W: Oh yeah, I would say so. I had no reason to believe otherwise, we would get letters from home. Of course the company I was in originally were all from Oshkosh but when we were built up to war-time strength we started taking in Selective Service men, draftees, and we had started to get men from California, Illinois, we had a lot of them from Massachusetts, so we got people from all over the country that became part of our organizations. So there was a lot of inter-mingling then and they all helped the same way. There was no difference, you know, like one area against the other or something like that. One thing I never cared for was they gave compensation to these Japs that they moved. See, right after Pearl Harbor they actually thought there could be a follow- up invasion of the west coast and they thought the best thing to do would be to... they had, I don't know a couple hundred thousand Japs living in California and on the west coast, and they figured they would, in case of an invasion, they would side in with the Japs and help them, and be like a fifth column. So for their safety and our safety they moved them inland to relocation camps and they didn't call them concentration camps and...
L: The history books tend to focus on two things a lot. They tend to focus on those relocation camps and they tend to focus on the atom bomb being dropped in 1944.
W: They said both of those two things were wrong, they criticizing us, I assume, is where you're coming from. I have that they said these Japs were no different than the Italians and the Germans that we were fighting in Europe. But there was a big difference because the Germans and the Italians were white. I had...my fox hole buddy up there at [ ] Bay was a German, a German immigrant that was in the American army. He talked a little broken English and stuff and we got talking with him. And he was discouraged because he was transferred to the Pacific. And he was in General Patton's 3rd army. He was in one of the armored divisions, and he liked that, because they went over to Europe and Patton gave the Germans a hard time, I guess he was one who broke that Sigfried line, and a lot to do with bringing the war to an end. And he was telling me, he said, he wanted to stay with Patton and everything else, well why did they transfer you out here to the Pacific? He says they found out I had four brothers in the German army. [laughter] Well that didn't make no difference to me he said, they thought maybe I wouldn't shoot them he said, but I'm sure they would've shot me if they'd a had a chance. [laughter]
L: I'm going to show my ignorance here, but what's a foxhole buddy?
W: A foxhole buddy? Well there'd be two guys together that you would share the hole with that you would dig it, in the ground, and... whenever there'd be an air raid you'd jump in, you know.
L: So you'd share it with the same person all the time?
W: Most of the time yeah. Yeah, 'cause we were in the same tent together and we dug the hole together which was close by. They were kept fairly small that way, instead of having a very large dug out, they were just big enough for two guys.
L: So you'd talk in your...
W: Yeah. And he told me he had four brothers over there. Well, they wanted to make sure that you didn't have to shoot one of your brothers. [laughter]
L: Do you have any particularly vivid memories that you'd want to share, or anything that you'd like to get onto? Anything that you remember stand out? Anything stand out?
W: Mmmm...well just that the climate wasn't always good, a lot of rain, a lot of mud. There was one time I... up at Lae I was in the field hospital up there when, if you want to put this as something that stands out, we would get visits by some of the Hollywood people, 'cause that made it all feel like everybody was in the same boat. And this particular group was Gary Cooper, [ ] and then a few others. And they were putting on a little singing show for us in the hospital area. And the colonel came running up and says "Red alert! Everybody take cover!" and he took the women there to his dugout and the guys all scattered. Gary Cooper he had just made that picture, "Sergeant York," I don't know if you saw the picture or not, but it was WWI Medal of Honor wasn't it? Gary was a man of few words you know, 'yep' he'd say. And I went over and got his autograph and I talked to him. And there was about thirty-five Jap dive bombers going right overhead at the time and we were both looking up at them there was kind of clouds and clear skies and you could just see them going through. I says they ain't gonna hit us or they would have dropped their bombs further back because they kinda come in on a slant. They're heading for the air field up ahead here. We had an open area at the hospital with a lot of white sheets spread out in the shape of a cross like you'd see the Red Cross, to identify that it was a hospital so they wouldn't hurt ya. [laughter] And I says, don't think you're safe here with that white cross out there, cause they hit one of our hospitals the other day, they use that for a target. Gary... he was pretty unassuming.
L: I need to put a new tape in, just a minute here...
L: OK Elmer, we'll just continue here, so Gary was just an unassuming guy...
W: Yeah, yeah I got his autograph. I don't have it anymore of course, but, I had Jack Benny's autograph, too, and also one of the first movie stars that come over to see me. Usually if you're in the hospital you get a better chance to see them or talk to them or shake hands with them. Joey Brown, he was the first one to come over there. He lost his son...
Joey Brown, I don't know if you ever heard of him. He had a big mouth and he played in a lot of the early movies. Originally he started out as a baseball player.
L: Were you back in the hospital for your eye again?
W: No, no, that...I guess that was the first time, yeah, when I got back to... that was at Townsville, Australia when Joey Brown came along. I think when Gary Cooper came over there I think I had external hemorrhoid surgery in this field hospital.
But getting back to the local level here, in the early part of the war when they were mobilizing the National Guard units, there was three units from Oshkosh that left: the service company that I was in, and then Company H which was a machine gun company or heavy weapons company, and then the 127th infantry [ ], those three units left together. And we had a company down in Janesville called the 32nd tank company, see we had little tank support, like I mentioned before. We had the cavalry and we had this air force, and this tank company was supposed to give the infantry something to hide behind when they were making a frontal assault. Instead of going to Louisiana with us they went to the Philippines, the tank company. And we wondered why cause we thought we were all going to the Philippines Islands, which could have changed our outlook a lot, too. They were captured in Batan and went through the death march and stuff.
L: What are your memories... here you said here there was a lot of mud and rain. How did that effect what... how you lived, or how your weapons or your...
W: Well you almost lived in the mud all the time, you had a tent you would keep yourself dry for awhile but your feet were in were in the mud because of the bottom, you know, the mud floor. Even our hospitals were out in the mud. When Gary Cooper came that time up there at [ ] Valley it was quite muddy there at the time. It was hard for vehicles to get around. I know up at Buna the general, Eichleberger used to come up to the front just about everyday in a Jeep. We had built what they called a corduroy road and we had to keep it repaired... a bunch of coconut logs all fastened tight together, and held together with some longer logs on each side of them, they'd bind them together with a lot of vines and stuff. And they called it a corduroy road. Well, it was like going over a bunch of logs, that really what it was, see, otherwise they'd never make it.. Otherwise everything else was done on foot.
L: Was that your job in the service company?
W: Well, mostly to get the ammunition and the rations up to the front and of course we did work on this corduroy road and keep repairing that.
L: Well, when did you get back to the states?
W: It was in October 1944. They started a plan called the rotation plan that.... they had a point system for all those that had so many days overseas and so many days up in a hostile area, and the ones with the most points were shipped back. My outfit was starting to all move back, some of them even moved back before I did, on a individual basis. So we came back straggling, one or two here, you know, and that. We never came back as a unit. Our 32nd National Guard unit had a record of the most days of combat than any organization in the army.
L: No kidding
W: I thought it was 640-some days.
W: Would you be interested in getting a copy of that letter I wrote to the Northwestern?
L: I sure would.
I'll send it to you then.
You know, as strange as it may seem...
The Northwestern never published it and all I was trying to do was to answer [Linenthal]...
L: Elmer, you know, we don't have a lot in our collection on the Second World War. Relatively little on the 32nd. Do you have any photographs or anything that you would allow us to copy?
W: Well I have three of them, that one they used in the Northwestern picture there was Easter sunrise service that was down in Camp Livingston, Louisiana. Then I have two pictures - one was kind of a big panorama shot of our first camp in Beauregard, Louisiana, that was a WWI camp. The other was a aerial photograph of Camp Livingston. I thought someday maybe I'd just donate then to the museum.
That would be great.
I also have an Australian hat with the... you know, one side turned up, I thought maybe I'd give them that, too.
L: Your article, the newspaper article, said you still have your uniform as well.
Yeah, maybe I'll throw that in, too.
We would really appreciate that, that would be a wonderful donation, that would really be fine.
Well what happened once you got back here? What was the public reaction to you when you got back?
W: Oh, everybody was glad to see you, sure, they treated you like heroes, by that time you were getting better publicity. Things were going our way up until December of '44, that's when the Germans launched this counter-attack in the Battle of the Bulge. They took advantage of bad weather over there, and they hit a couple of our Reserve Divisions in a weak point in the line, and made quite a bulge in our line over there, captured a lot of our people. Things were still at that time, in '44, touch and go. Cause they were shooting these V-2 and buzz bombs into England, and if they ever would have gotten a little more finesse they could have probably had some of these their rockets hit New York City.
L: Did you fear that maybe you would be sent to Europe then?
W: It didn't make any difference to me. I would have just as soon went on that assignment at that time, 'cause we were right in the thick of it yet. There was nobody ready to give up.
L: Do you have any other thoughts you'd like to share?
W: I guess the disappointment is that they've taught so little about the war in schools. I've talked to younger people before, this neighbor girl last year came over, and her teacher at Smith School wanted her to write some things up and she even had a tape recorder and everything [laughter] She said they weren't learning anything there about the second world war. I don't know if they're anti-military or whatever it is. It seems like the whole attitude had changed: 'As long as we're safe now, we don't owe anybody anything.'
L: Well, hopefully we can change that a little bit with our educational materials, at least we're going to try, put it together, make them available to the schools, and our goal would be that every student would get this material.
W: I know patriotism I guess kind of faded away too, a little bit, 'cause several parades I was in, when I was color guard, I am a past commander of chapter 17 of Disabled American Veterans, when you'd be going down the street, you just noticed, you've got the American flag and our unit flag, plus our rifle man on each side of your color guard. And you watch those that don't bother to get up or take off their hat or salute anything and you think, what are they out there watching us for now? If they're not willing to support us, what are they bothering to watch us for? They want entertainment or something. [laughter]
L: Well, Elmer, that's all the questions I have. I really appreciate you coming and talking to me. This has been very...
Well, I mean, I couldn't [ ] say I won this and I won that and everything else, I did have a couple of close encounters. When we went into the last phase of the Buna campaign our regiment was airlifted over the mountains cause the other regiments they'd gone far enough to make a grass airstrip so they can land the land airplanes. And for a lot of us this was our first airplane ride, back in 1942. It was my first airplane ride. We flew over in a Hudson Lockheed that was an Australian light bomber that was made in this country, Lockheed. And they had an Australian staff sergeant flying the plane. Most of our pilots were all commissioned officers lieutenants and stuff, and flying officers, and there was, I think, four of us from my company in that plane, and one of them took the co-pilot's seat, he was a [ ] officer with our company. But he never flew a plane before, but he was sitting there with the pilot [laughter], I don't know what would have happened if something had happened to the pilot And the pilot was only a non-commissioned officer. We had one guy that took the turret machine gun, and I took the waist machine gun, in case we get attacked on the way over there 'cause we were landing within nine miles of the Jap air strip there...
Wow! That's close!
Yeah. Well, we could see them on the ground there before we landed. Anyway this kid that was..., he didn't have a gun to handle or anything, he sat opposite the door, looking out at the landscape, you know, 'cause this was all-intriguing and you get up and you've never been up in an airplane. And we had a pile of litters and a couple 50 caliber machine guns. And he was sitting on top of them looking out and this door was taking off, it was all open, see. And of course we all thought when you see an airplane fly that they're as smooth as from the ground, that's the way it looks, see, got up there going over the mountain and start hitting air pockets and it was getting kind of bumpy and this kind of shocked us. All of a sudden I see this kid come flying towards the open door, and I thought oh-oh, and I hung onto the machine gun and I grabbed him by the stomach pulled him around, and got him back of me and I held onto his belt until we landed. [laughter] That kid would have been flying out that door at about 12,000 feet up, they'd never found him. So that probably I'll never forget. I was hoping something would come along and I could have a chance to shoot them down. When we landed and they found out we had some fifties in the plane we unloaded everything real quick we set one of the fifties up right away and I got behind it. They said that after you get a couple of planes on the ground, of course the Japs could see us and would come over and try to scrafe them or bomb them and put them out of commission. I was hoping they'd come then, too, but they just didn't. I don't know if I would've hit them or not but I would've gave it a try.
Is that a pretty good weapon?
The 50 caliber? Oh yeah, that's a very large slug, better than a deer rifle. What do they call that, a 50 mm? One of the shells are this long...all of our machine guns on our B-17, Flying Fortresses, were all armed with 50 caliber machine guns. But this one I had on this Hudson Lockheed that was just a thirty caliber machine gun that I had.
L: Well, Elmer, I really appreciate this, it's been a fine afternoon, good interview. Thank you very much.
You can't walk off with my microphone!
|Oral History Interview with Elmer Wokosin
-WORLD WAR II
-Copyright Oshkosh Public Museum
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