WORLD WAR II
Oral History Interview with William Radford

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Record 32/959
Copyright Oshkosh Public Museum
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Classification Archives
Collection World War II Oral History Project
Dates of Accumulation 2002 - 2002
Abstract Oral history interview with William Radford conducted by Brad Larson for the World War II project. William Radford joined the United States Coast Guard in January 1942. Saw convoy duty in the North Atlantic; saw German U Boats; service in Pacific; saw action against the Japanese; attended Officer's Candidate School; service in Alaska; discharged late 1945.

William Radford Interview
20 September 2002
Conducted by Brad Larson

{B: denotes the interviewer, Brad Larson; W: Mr. Radford}

B: This is Brad Larson. I'm talking with Bill Radford in my office. And the way I'd like to start Bill is if you would state your date of birth, and where you were born and where you were living at the time.

W: Born December 7th, 1921 in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada.

B: When did you move to Oshkosh?

W: When I was seven. So that would be about 1928. And ah, the reason we moved down ah, my father and uncle, we owned a bunch of lumber yards up in Canada and ah, they were running them and ah, then my grandfather decided, or they all decided to sell em. So ah, they did. And ah, moved to Oshkosh where the main office was. And ah, but during that time my dad became a British subject and served in the Canadian Cavalry in World War I. And so when we came down, I had to get a, he was re-naturalized and I had to get a certificate of derivative citizenship.

B: And you were living on Washington at the time? Washington Boulevard?

W: No. We lived at 453 Algoma Boulevard, which is where Radford Hall is right now. And ah, sold it I guess, sold it to the university or whatever happened. And ah, but we lived there and then also at 38 Park Street which is now Amherst Avenue. And ah, couple of other spots. I can't remember - one more on Algoma.

B: What are your memories of Oshkosh during the Depression?

W: Well, I certainly remember that ah, dad and my uncle and everybody at the Radford Company had to ah, reduce their income and their way of living proportionately because it was a bad deal. And ah, but you know I was so darn young that I really, you know, but they would tell me that you know, you can't do this or that because of that.

B: In your household was there any family conversation that you can recall that might have involved what was happening overseas, either in Europe with the Nazis or over in the Pacific with the Japanese…?

W: Now are you talking about…?

B: In the thirties. When Hitler came to power.

W: Oh, I see. Ah, not too much that I can really recall now. Ah, I remember on Pearl Harbor Day in 1941 that everybody was very incensed and President Roosevelt really got us all worked up and that's why I enlisted in January of '42.

B: How did you pick the Coast Guard?

W: Well, there seemed to be ah, a lot of my friends from Neenah-Menasha and Oshkosh that were joining that. And ah, we knew it was going to be taken over by the Navy. So ah, I just went ahead and did it too. No other reason.

B: Where did you enlist at?

W: I think it was Green Bay. And I remember I got up there and weighed 129 and they sent me home to eat bananas. And I came back two days later and weighed 131.

B: So then you went to basic training. And where would that have been?

W: Well, believe it or not my first ah, assignment was Sturgeon Bay. And ah, they had a lighthouse there and that's where I go basic training. Although there were only two of us there that were reserves. And then ah, they sent me down to the University of Chicago ah, for signalman training. And I was there for two or three months as I recall. And learned semaphore and Morse code. Reading lights and radio dit-dahs. And ah, after I graduated there, this was with the Navy down there, ah, went up to Battle Creek, Michigan where they had a Navy and Coast Guard boot camp. And so I was teaching semaphore and Morse code for five-six months, I guess it was.

B: Thinking back on that time right after Pearl Harbor, things weren't going that well for the Allies. Now try to think back as you would have thought, you know you're a 20-year-old young man. Did you ever think the United States would, and its allies, would lose the war?

W: No, I don't think so. I figured this was going to take a lot of time but ah, I don't believe so. No, everybody was very optimistic and knew we were in for the long haul. But you know the Japanese had become quite entrenched. So had the Germans. But ah, no. All optimism.

B: Where did you go after you left the boot camp training at Battle Creek?

W: Well then I was assigned ah, as a signalman on a ship called the United States Coast Guard cutter Balsam. That was just made in Duluth, Minnesota. So I went up there and ah, we left ah, Duluth and went out through the, all the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence. Up to Nova Scotia.

And from then on we were doing convoy duty from ah, Sidney and Halifax down to Charleston, North Carolina is it? I guess so. Back and forth. And we did that for a good year.

B: Let's talk about convoy duty a little bit. What would be a typical escort's responsibility in shepherding ships along?

W: Well, we would, the convoy would zigzag and we would too. But we would have the convoy in the middle and we'd ziz-zag alongside. And ah, with other ships. Navy ships. It was very rough water. The North Atlantic is probably the worst see I've ever been in. As a typical, we'd get in sometimes to Boston and we'd have two feet of ice on one side of our ship. And we'd have to pump fuel oil, say if the ice is on the port side, we'd pump fuel oil to the starboard side so that we wouldn't tip over.

And ah, it was ah, not a pleasant experience because it was so cold and rough. And not only that, the temperature of the water was you know, like 29 or 28 or whatever. And the German subs were just all over the place. And we lost many tankers. And unfortunately ah, you couldn't pick anybody up because the convoy wouldn't stop and you were told not too. Which was very hard to do. Because the ships would sink you know, but they'd go after the tankers and the merchant ships that we were convoying.

B: Did you make depth charge runs on the submarines?

W: Yes. And in the rough seas, you never know whether you get em or not. But we would do that. And ah, hopefully would get one or two, you know. But the German subs were fast. They'd go over 20 knots and ah, which was about as fast as we could go, if that. Sometimes they'd even come into harbors. They were very ah, bold in those days because you know, we were just starting out the war. And ah… So they sank a lot of ships in the eastern seaboard.

B: How did you view your German enemy? Your U-boat sailors? Do you remember how you thought of these, these enemies that you were trying to find?

W: Well, just, you know, hated em. And what they did over in Europe, you know. To theJews and ah, they were very adept foes however. I mean they were smart and had a lot of new equipment. Their subs were better than any of ours to start with. So we didn't like em. No question there.

B: How long did you stay on convoy duty?

W: Well, let's see. I'd say it was probably almost a year. And then we were assigned to go through the Panama Canal over to the West Coast. Ah, and ah, so that took some time to get through there. And then we were assigned, went to San Diego and ah, were outfitted again with ah, more depth charges and whatever to make us… and then that time they gave us these launching things out on the bow of the ship, I think. To ah, shoot these…

B: Hedgehogs?

W: Hedgehogs. That's the name. You're good. And ah, so then we were assigned to, you won't believe this, but ah we had to convoy to the South Pacific, a floating dry-dock. Along with two tugs that were pushing it, or pulling it. And these things were immense, you know. Because they'd have to take a cruiser, I think was the biggest they could take, probably. And so it was a very slow journey. And ah, I can't remember there was another ship on the way helping us but ah, I don't think so. So that took you know, 20, 25 days to get over there.

And ah, but we got it there and ah, on the way we think we depth charged a Japanese one man or two man sub. We saw debris left over from it. And we spotted them on the surface. I was taking a sunbath in the lifeboat when I was one of the guys who saw it. And ah, so we're hoping we got it. And no damage to the floating dry-dock.

B: After being in the rough and cold North Atlantic, how was the change greeted by the crew?

W: It was nice, but you know, in reality it was so hot it would be well over 100 degrees. And ah, you couldn't walk on the deck without shoes on because you'd burn your feet. And ah, as they said, you know, I think it got upwards of 120 to 125 and you could almost fry an egg there. But it was a big change. It was an interesting trip you know. We went through the equator and the international dateline.

B: Did you have a little ceremony when you did that?

W: Oh yes. They initiate you, you know. So it was fun.

B: What was, you were a signalman. What was your shipboard routine like? What were some of the things you were responsible for?

W: Well ah, being a signalman, I also learned, somewhat, navigation. And so ah, I'd be on the bridge and have to work the blinker. And the semaphore deal. Plus ah, put the various flags up for, like if you're in port and you're loading fuel oil, you had to put the red baker flag up which was all red so that everybody knew that you were putting on oil or some dangerous flammable substance.

And then help a little bit on navigation and on ah, our duties were six hours and six hours off. And ah, so that was about it. Watch for signals from other ships and signal them or signal people in the convoy if we had others.

B: What happened after you got the dry-dock to its location?

W: Well, that was in the New Hebrides. Which was a place called Segund Channel. S E G U N D, I think it is. And ah, it was a deep-water channel where big aircraft carriers and cruisers could come. And a lot of em would come in damaged from Guadalcanal or wherever. And so they could repair them right there rather than sending them all the way back to the states.

And we were sent out occasionally to ah, pick up Navy fliers who had come down into the, into the ah, islands. And ah, you know we could go in where other ships couldn't go because we had a very shallow draft. And so we'd pick these guys up and ah, maybe tow the ship back or whatever.

The ship I was on was actually a buoy tender. We had a long boom in the front and ah, during peacetime they're used to repair buoys. And we'd take em up and occasionally they'd send us to do that. And we'd put a buoy on the front deck and then we had to scrape the barnacles off, which was terrible. Smelly. And ah, but didn't do too much of that over there. It was mainly, you know, tooting around and picking up things that happened.

B: Did you view your Japanese enemy any differently than you viewed the Germans?

W: We hated them more I think because I probably spent more time over there than ah, you know, because that was maybe a good year and a half in the South Pacific and ah, so I don't know. It was much more ferocious. We would get bombed from, by Japanese planes and, because all these big Navy ships were in there, you know. And ah, so we weren't too fond of the Japs. And then at the tail end of the war, went to the Aleutians and the Japs were still in there, in caves and this type of thing. So I guess my hatred was more for them.

B: You mentioned that you were an enlisted man. Were you an enlisted man the entire period of…?

W: No. Ah, because I enlisted right away, um, I didn't graduate from college. I got, went, I was a sophomore when I enlisted. At the University of Wisconsin in Madison. And ah, so I wanted to become an officer so I talked to the captain and he wrote the acad - the Coast Guard Academy and they sent forms where I could take an exam. And ah, which I did when I was in the South Pacific. And ah, about three or four months later I found out that um, I was accepted. And ah, so I was hoping they'd' fly me back but they sent me on a Dutch transport with all the wounded. Which was a terrible sight because some of these poor guys were so sick, you know. So it took us thirty days for us to get back from the South Pacific to San Francisco. And then I was sent to the academy.

B: That's in Rhode Island?

W: That's in New London, Connecticut. Yeah. Where the Navy submarine school is. So we got back there and ah, I think that was four months. And I became an ensign and they sent me, because of my communications experience, they sent me up to Harvard University which was my only claim to fame. And ah, so up there I had, this was a Navy Advanced Communications training. And we learned how to do the codes and ah, and to also, some more Morse code which we would have to type as it came through. So I learned typing. And I became a communications officer. And ah, so that was about four or five months up there.

B: Did you have any chance to get back to Oshkosh in…?

W: Well, I went back and got married.

B: Did ya? Let's talk about that a little bit. War weddings and…

W: Well, went, came back and my wife was from Neenah. And ah, so we had the wedding and I had one of my friends in the Navy be my best man. And then another gentleman, Bill Aylward, A Y L W A R D, who was, couldn't get in the service because of health problems, I guess; so he was also there. There weren't many men home in those days. And ah, so I had ah, got married about a week to two or three days honeymoon and then they shipped me out to Seattle.

Now the first ship was named the U S Coast Guard cutter Balsam. And the second ship was the US Coast Guard ship [Onondaga] which was based in ah, Seattle. And we were going up and, so I got on that and was in the Aleutians for almost two years. We did, this was not a buoy tender. It was a regular cutter. And we did convoy duty from like Kodiak all the way out to Attu. And [Shemia] which was a flat island next to Attu was a very flat island and all the planes going from the United States would take the Great Circle route and land in Shemia, refuel and go on to the bases in the South Pacific.

So that's what we were doing up there.

B: What are the Aleutians like? How would you describe them if somebody was listening to this tape. How would you describe the weather of the Alaskan chain?

W: Unh, huh. Well it never gets below say 22 degrees because of the Japanese current that comes. That's why ah, Seattle and Oregon are somewhat warm. In comparison to, yeah. And ah, but it was all tundra and we hardly ever saw the sun. So our skin got very pale. And when you did get sun, why you'd get burned awful fast. And it was always blowing and the wind, they talk about the willow [ ]. It actually would change directions very rapidly. And the Bering Sea which we had, it would take us five days from say, Dutch Harbor to ah, Attu. And it was just ah, the Bering Sea was just, you know, we'd get 30-40 foot waves and…. But all the Coast Guard vessels were made to withstand that. And that's why we, but our ship we called the Rolly-O because we'd practically go from the vertical to over the horizontal, you know. But it would always come back.

And ah, well you know you get over bein seasick. Actually, I thought the North Atlantic was worse. Because it was so choppy and cold, you know. But ah, not choppy, big waves there too, 25 or 30 footers. But ah, it was, the Aleutians was a very boring area.

And um, that's where I learned my first daughter was born. I got a telegram out in Attu. So she was born and I didn't get back to see her until she was almost a year old.

B: Did you get very much ah, correspondence from home?

W: Yes. Not - I think I probably wrote a lot o letters that I wish I'd saved and didn't but ah, yeah, fair amount. Fair amount.

B: Were there any facilities for recreation for the ship or for the…?

W: Yes. I was ah, not on the ship but on "A" deck, there was a bachelor officers club called a BOQ. Run by a warrant officer. We called him "Hammerhead Hank." And he had a, he was a rough, tough guy and he ran the BOQ there. And they had a bar and they had slot machines and this type of thing.

And before I forget it, when the war ended and we were sent to Cordova, Alaska because they wouldn't let us out for awhile, ah, we bought a, five of us got together five dollars apiece and bought the slot one, the quarter slot machine. I bolted it to the safe, which was not the right thing to do but anyway we didn't ruin the safe. And ah, when we got up to Cordova, the whole town was coming down and playing the quarter machine. And we did fairly well. And then we sold it. Finally, I was sent back to be discharged and ah, and we got wind of an admiral's inspection so we took the machine off the safe, plugged the holes. And ah, sold it to the Elks Club in Cordova and they've been makin money ever since. Probably still there.

B: You mentioned that's where you were when you heard the end of the war. Let's talk about that a little bit. Did you assume that the Allies or that America anyway was going to have to invade Japan?

W: Oh yes. Yeah, we all thought that. And ah, but everybody was so happy when that atomic bomb was dropped, you know. I can't remember whether I was still in the ah, no I was in the Aleutians then I guess. Yeah. And ah, so that was a big relief to all of us. To have, because we figure, you know... We'' probably have to go from the Aleutians and go down through northern Japan or something, you know. One of those islands up there. Can't remember their name.

B: Did you know when they said, "an atom bomb," did you have any sense of what it was?

W: Not that much. But you know everybody had sort of heard that they were, you know, exploding em. And ah, so it was a huge sense of relief. Because then we knew, you know. Sooner or later we were gonna get back. Because four and a half years is a long time.

B: How did you get back?

W: Well ah, I finally, I was still communications officer on the ship when they sent us to Cordova. And we were ah, well, we rescued a fair amount of ah, not a fair amount but a few fishing ah, boats that were ah, had problems in the Gulf of Alaska. Which might be in there. And ah, but then finally I got my orders because they couldn't, they finally found somebody I guess who would take over my job as communications. So I was sent back on a plane to Juneau and we got stuck there because of awful weather for a couple nights. And finally, I got home.

B: Did you fly?

W: Yeah. Flew from Juneau to Seattle and then, can't remember whether I took a train or a plane home. I think I took a train probably.

B: So when did you get back to Oshkosh then? Do you remember?

W: Ah, oh that'd be in the summer of 1945. And ah…

B: When you got back do you remember, were there any changes that you, that struck you about Oshkosh? Was there anything that seemed to be different or did things seem as they were before the war?

W: Well, I can't recall that there were that many changes. Ah, certainly there were some. I don't know. I came back and of course here I was a dad. And um, father and I, my health was not too good from just, I don't know. I think my nerves were so hot and so my wife and I went to Florida for six weeks. And I got sort of over the rigors of war I guess. And came back and went with the Radford Company. And that's where I started and ended up.

B: Was it common do you think, when men were discharged, they had a period I'll call it, I'll call it, of adjustment?

W: Yes. I certainly did. I was ah, well I can remember going to see the doctor and he'd put me on some pills and things like that. But they didn't have the medication like they have nowadays you know, for nerves. I think it was just a matter of re-acclimating yourself to ah, civilian life and family life. Rather that being treated with ah, medication. Because they really didn't have that much. But I did.

B: When you got back, did you learn that any of your friends had been killed during the war? Any good friends or anybody that you knew personally that had lost their life?

W: I'm sure I did but you know I can't, well I had a cousin from Duluth who ah, Donald Radford, who was killed during the, out in the South Pacific. He was in the Army. And
I'm sure there were more but ah, you know as the war went on I would hear of somebody I'd met that went on a mission and got bombed or whatever. But not too many that I can recall now in Oshkosh. There probably were some that I just can't remember.

B: Today, is the war something that you think about?

W: Yes. I'm you know ah, I just hate to see young men going over to ah, and I know there's a good reason for it but over to ah, Pakistan and maybe ah, maybe Iraq. Um, but I guess, you know, if we don't do something, there's more terrible things could happen, such as germ warfare and/or atomic bomb and this type of thing. So, but I'm sure hopin that all diplomatic ah, measures can be taken to not have anything really bad happen over there. Gosh, I just can't, you know Viet Nam was bad enough.

B: Is there anything in particular that might bring back a memory of the war years? Perhaps you hear music, Glenn Miller or something like that?

W: Yeah. All that big band music. Yeah. And I was a big band fanatic.

B: Oh, you were?

W: And still am. Yeah.

B: Were you able to get any of that on your ship at all? Any records or music?

W: I think a little bit but not that much. You know. We'd also always have Tokyo Rose on you know.

B: Tell me about that.

W: Well, she would, or was it a he, I can't remember. But he would be, and the South Pacific would be broadcasting in Tarawa and saying things that weren't true, trying to get us, you know. Well, trying to get us to think that they were winning and we weren't, you know. And that all terrible things would be happening.

B: Why did you listen to it.

W: I don't know. Just to be silly, I guess. And ah, being in communications, you know. The radio shack would be getting this kind of stuff. So it'd be interesting. No, and you know, we knew it wasn't true. But still it was something that everybody listened to I guess.

B: Is there any, any particular incident that we haven't talked about? Any incident during the war that you think about? It was either funny or was something in hindsight comes to mind often, or it was particularly tragic. Is there any one incident that you want to relate?

W: Well, that had to do with the war.

B: Or for that matter, anything perhaps that you had ah…

W: Well, in here, [referring no doubt to some documentation] you'll see, when we were in Boston, one of our, I think he was an officer and I was enlisted. When, you know we were given nights off or whatever and he was in a terrible fire at a night club in Boston where there were, I think it was a hundred or more that's in that, I zipped it out…

B: I wonder if that was the Coconut Grove fire?

W: That's it. Coconut Grove. And oh, we were all just terribly shook. I can't remember whether there was one or two of our men that were killed in that. And ah, but ah, that, we couldn't get over that for awhile. That was, you know, something.

B: And I suppose you were a pretty close knit crew. There wasn't really that many…

W: Well yeah. You know, there was only ah, well our ships were, each ship was only 165 feet and ah, we probably had a little over a hundred crew. So you know, ah, we'd know officers and enlisted men and ah, it was something. So that was just a terrible thing. Yeah, Coconut Grove was right.

I'm trying to think of others. Well hopefully, sinking that Japanese sub was a very exciting thing. And um….

B: Was your battle station right on the bridge?

W: Yes.

B: So you had a kind of a bird's eye view of the whole…

W: I could see everything whether, when I was enlisted and/or, so, and ah, oh I can remember one time coming into ah, Sidney, Nova Scotia. And I was signalman and the captain, name was Toolin. T O O L I N. And ah, it was our first time going in and it was cold. It was below zero probably. Windy and just awful. And ah, so the shore was telling us how to come in. And I was on the bridge. My eyes, I could hardly see. I was having to read the blinker, which told us how to go in and not hit the mines. And this, he said, "Radford, you better read this right or we're all going to be blown sky high." And ah, he was a nice guy. He was a, what we call a mustang, you know. He was a Lt. Commander but he came up through the ranks as an enlisted man and then they made him a Lt. Commander. He was tough but he was always was nice to us and liked to kid us. So boy, I was really reading that blinker as best I could.

B: It was a lot of responsibility to put on a person…

W: Yeah. Because they'd say turn, you know, or zig, or zag or whatever.

B: That's one thing that amazes me about the World War II generation. A tremendous amount of responsibility was placed on their shoulders at a very young age.

W: Yeah, you know we were real young and ah, of course everybody was and so, you know. It was, oh; there was one funny thing that happened. When we ah, went out from Duluth through the Great, through the St. Lawrence waterway, there were two ships. I was on the Balsam and then the Cowslip was another Coast Guard ship that was right behind us. So we were tied up right next to each other. And I remember one time when we were in northern New York State. I think it was the city of Onondaga, tied up overnight. Ah, we had a fella on our ship who was a snuff salesman from down south. And he always took a few too many drinks. And I had the gangplank watch that night. And he came in about 4 AM and he was all sort of beat up and everything like that. Well to make a long story short, he had too much to drink and he had gotten on the Cowslip by mistake. And tried to kick somebody out of his bunk, which wasn't his. And so they gave him a terrible time. And but he was just so funny. Just funny. He'd sell snuff in the southern states.

B: Well, that's one thing about the military. You meet a lot of characters.

W: Yeah. And you get, you know, you ah, get to the point where you can get along with more people. If that's one thing it taught, I think the Navy, Coast Guard, Army, you were able to adapt yourself better. But sometimes it was kinda hard to do. But you know, we're all in it together so there was a bond. And that was nice. That I liked. And you know when I became an officer, I had a tough time for awhile because I was an enlisted man for two and a half years and it was kinda hard for me to accept the more pleasantries and living in a ward room and a better bunk and…. But anyway, I would say, in all services, there was never a big distinction between the officers and the enlisted men. It was, there was always a good friendship and ah, camaraderie.

B: Well, I guess that's about all I have Mr. Radford. If there's, I know you have an 11 o'clock appointment here.

W: Well, it's with my wife.

B: What's your wife's name? I want to get that in here?

W: Well ah, my first wife died at the age of 50, leaving me with five children. And ah, a couple years later I married Mary Patricia. They call her Patty. And we had six children. So we ah, we're ready to take on the Green Bay Packers.

B: Well, you could do that, couldn't you?

W: Yes. And ah, but ah, so we just celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary.

B: Congratulations!

W: Yes. This year. So it's been very happy. And all, the both families got along very well together and ah, so it was nice.

B: Well, thank you very much.

W: Well, you're welcome. I can think of one more thing that you might not want to have on maybe. But ah, I don't know if ah,

B: You go ahead and we'll see if we can edit it out.

W: You know, in those days ah, I learned a lot that I didn't know, especially about gay people, you know. And we didn't call em gay. But by golly, we had one on our ship, if you can believe this. Terrible. And on the one going to the South Pacific. Well it got to be sort of a big problem and finally they transferred him off. Because some of the guys got a little funny. And so it was a bad situation. But you'd see that fairly often, you know. And ah, so it was a, I'm sure it was hard for the Coast Guard and Navy to handle. And a lot of em were nurses, you know.

{The tape ends here}.
Event World War II
Category 6: T&E For Communication
Object ID OH2001.3.38
Object Name Tape, Magnetic
People Radford, William D.
Subjects World War II
United States Coast Guard
Sailors
Pacific Theater of Operations
Officers
Naval operations
Naval warfare
Title Oral History Interview with William Radford
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Last modified on: December 12, 2009