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Record 39/959
Description 
Oral history interview with Russel A. and Catherine Rill by Brad Larson. He discusses his experiences when growing up in Clintonville, WI, attending the University of Wisconsin at Madison at the time of Pearl Harbor, called to active service in June 1943, and service in the Headquarters and Supply Company of the 1304th Construction Engineer Battalion, United States Army. He served in Bhamo, Burma and built bridges on the Ledo Road in the China Burma India Theater of World War II. Rill, Russ and Kay Interview 13 February 2003 Conducted by Bradley Larson {B: denotes the interviewer, Brad Larson; R: and K: indicate the subjects, Russ and Kay Rill}. R: Well I commend you for the interest and for the trouble you are going to, to produce this. K: [ ] oral history, history is lost very often. [ ] in the past [ ] history [ ]. B: That's right. And it's, what it really is, is the individuals experience [ ]. It's not an abstract sort of thing. So if we're started Russ, if we're ready to get started? R: Oh, one last question. Well maybe that isn't the last, but any question… How do you deal with material. Do you edit it and then cut and paste? B: Yes. Not every interview is a linear interview. In other words, we start from day one and go to day one hundred. That doesn't work that way. So very often, after I have them transcribed, I have to go through and, and ah, search for the quotes. Or search for the experience to fit into the body of the book. R: Yeah. Well I would hope so. Because I'm sure that a lot of people don't have their thinking organized when they come to see you. B: That's right. Or as you're talking, you may have a thought that comes to you right now and you want to talk about it. All right, well it's February 13th, 2003 and I'm in my office with Kay and Russ Rill. Katherine, I'm sorry. So we'll get started and I'll ask you by, if you'd both say your full name. And Kay, in your case, your maiden name at the time of the war. And your date of birth. R: Well my name is Russell Rill. I was born at Rice Lake, Wisconsin July 19th, 1921. Moved to Clintonville with my parents at about one year of age. And that was my hometown until I went away to college and subsequently to the military. Came back to Clintonville, worked there for a number of years and finished my, my career as an engineer at Oshkosh Truck Corporation. B: Kay, how about you? K: My name is Katherine Dorney. At the time of the war, I was about sixteen years old. And I was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Went to the University of Wisconsin, Madison. And then started to teach school at Clintonville, Wisconsin where I met Russell. B: Let's start by talking at the time before Pearl Harbor. Were you very much aware of what was happening overseas? R: Oh yes. Because I was quite eligible for draft. In fact ah, I was enrolled in engineering school at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. I studied there for two years. During the second year, it became quite obvious that ah everybody of my age, all the young males were being drafted to join the war. I enlisted in a program on campus which was to assure my finishing my four-year college degree. I had only two years for it when I did this. As it turned out, I didn't last the entire two years. They called me up for active duty on June 17th, 1943. But I guess to answer your question, I was very much aware because all my friends were going off to war and the war occupied the news extensively. When I was in Clintonville in 1941, there was a National Guard Unit there that was called up and subsequently went to the South Pacific. So, does that cover what you had wanted to know? B: How about when Pearl Harbor came? I think that everybody who lived through it can remember. R: I was, I was at school in Madison. I remember distinctly that day because ah, a car full of friends from Clintonville had come down to visit me, to see the campus and ah, get re-acquainted. When the news of Pearl Harbor broke, it really did great damage to our happy reunion. But I can picture a number of the things we did, places we went ah, on that day. All the rest of them went home and some of them, the guys, went in the service and I stayed at Madison. B: Because you were enlisted in this program? You were already in this program which guaranteed the…? R; Yes. I knew I'd be called up after I had my degree because that was the, that was the arrangement that was made. I was to become a graduate engineer and then I would go into officer training school and become an officer. But things heated up so much in Germany that ah, the army changed its mind and I was called up after two years. B: Katherine, tell me about when, you were a young girl at the time. You must… K: I was in high school. B: Tell me about your memories of the day that …? K: I guess my brother and I were home just playing and ah, heard the announcement on the radio. And I said to him, "This means we're going to be at war with Japan.' He said, "Oh, I don't know [ ]" He was younger than I and didn't think it was that serious. Of course as it turned out, it was. B: Back to you Russ. Tell me now. You were called up. Tell me about being called up and being, entering service? R: Yeah, I ah, was called up as I mentioned before, June 17th, 1943. And I was, went on active duty at Fort Custer, Michigan. Went from there to Fort Belvoir in Virginia, just south of Washington, D.C. for basic training. After completing basic training, I was selected along with several other fellows, there were 20 of em, I guess ah, that, training battalion. We were sent to the University of Pennsylvania where we were to finish our engineering degrees and then to officer candidate school. So again, the bottom dropped out of that. So on April 12th, 1944, I was transferred from the University of Pennsylvania where we lived in a fraternity house, by the way. And what a nice way to move. That would have been a good way to spend the war. But it wasn't to be. Anyway, I was put into the 1304th Engineer Construction Battalion, which had been training there and was getting ready to go overseas. At that point, they, when I arrived, they didn't know where they were going but the construction battalion was made up of mostly people, men who had considerable experience in the construction field: bulldozer operators, crane operators, anything having anything to do with heavy equipment operation. So they had all the ranks, master sergeants on down. And a few of us that were added was just to bring them up to rated strength. And we all went in as privates without any chance for really getting any decent ranks. Just because there were no vacancies. So we ah, spent a few weeks there and then we, shall I go on? We were all transported by train to Newport News, Virginia. Got on a troopship there. The A.E. Anderson. Started out in the Atlantic Ocean and ah, started taking a southerly route and eventually wound up going through the Panama Canal. Went southwest from there through the. Between the islands of New Zealand. Stopped to take on fuel and water at Melbourne, Australia and continued on around Australia to Bombay, India where we got off the ship. That was… B: Did you know where you were going? Did they give you any idea or any…? R: Somewhere en route they told us we were going to Burma. But at the time we got on the ship, we did not. There was a lot of secrecy in those days about troop movements. So they didn't want us knowing before we left land that somebody might let it slip. And we were on a big, fast troopship called the A.E. Anderson. General A.E. Anderson. It traveled all alone. We spent 42 days on that ship, getting to Bombay. We had no escort anywhere along the way by any other ships, destroyers, airplanes or what have you. Flew airplanes over us when we were going through the Caribbean but ah, then a couple of destroyers picked us up just a few days out of Bombay. But other than that, we traveled all alone and saw no other ships all the way. Kind of a lonesome trip. B: Yeah. Most of it was eerie too. R: It was because you knew that there were Jap, Japanese subs and German subs all over the ocean. So they could slam you with a torpedo at any point. But we did a lot of zig-zagging most of the way. I wouldn't be surprised if we actually traveled at least twice the distance that you would have if you had taken a direct route. B: What was your reaction when you got to Bombay. Do you remember what your first thoughts were as you, as you got there? R: Yeah. Well I remember that you could smell India a long ways, a long ways out in the ocean before you could even see India. It was a pretty hot time of the year when we got there and the continent just reeks. And you became aware of that before you got to land. B: What did, you're talking about a bad smell? What is the smell? Is it jungle or…? R: Well, I think a lot of it is people smell. And India is a very heavily populated country. Have you ever been to any Asiatic country? The population density just, I think results in a lot of odor because of people smells, what they eat, what they cook, their animals. You get into Bombay or into any Indian city and there are cattle roaming the streets. The people, because of fuel shortages, they have old women who go around with big baskets. And they scrape up cow manure off the streets. And then the side of every building, where they're allowed, it's plastered with cow pies. So that dries and then that's used for fuel. That's the fuel supply. So I'm sure that has a lot to do with the odor - cow manure. B: What was the general reaction between you and the men in your unit and your friends as you, as you pulled in there? Do you recall that? R: Well, we were glad to find land again of course. And the India was such a contrast from what most of us were used to. I had never been out of the country before and I didn't know what to expect. The people lived so crudely compared to the way we lived in the 'States at that time. They were poor. People were very poor. But all of, we got on a train to go across the country to the northeast provinces and wherever we stopped, there'd be mobs of people crowding the train and wanting handouts. "Boxies", they called em, "Boxies." That evidently was their word for "give me a gift," or something. Well, we kinda misunderstood that and we were throwing boxes at em. Empty cardboard boxes. I'm embarrassed to say that anymore but that was what we thought they wanted. They wanted food. K: Or cigarettes. Or did they smoke? R: Oh yeah. They smoked. But ah… B: At this when you're on the train, did you have a sense, did they tell you where you were going or what your ultimate job would be? R: Well, we knew by then that we were going to Assam Province which is a long ways from Bombay. Way in the northeast corner of India. I don't know if you the map of India but we came by ship to Bombay. We rode trains all the way across India. We went to a town called Margarita. And there was a neighboring town called Ledo. Ledo was the head of the Ledo Road. So we knew where we were going when we got on the train. Interesting trip. India has no consistency of railroad gauge. You can't ride all the way across India on the same train. Track widths were different. And also there were some major rivers which did not have bridges so we would approach a river, everybody would get off the train, get on a ferry and ride across and get on a different train on the other side. So this took us, I don't know how many days, [15] days by train across India. B: All the time I imagine it was very hot. R: Very hot. India is, it has three seasons really. Summer which is blistering hot. And then they have a winter season which lasts a couple [ ]. In this country we don't have a very good idea unless you've experienced a monsoon, you don't know what a monsoon is. So, what else can I answer? B: Was all your equipment with you as you're getting over to the northeast? Did, or were you, was it just your engineers? R: We did not carry our equipment with us. Because it was big stuff. It was hauled on freighters and we were a troop ship full of people. Our equipment actually didn't catch up with us until after we got into Burma. Shall I go on? B: Go on. R: So we arrived at Ledo and, have you had military service? B: Yes. R: Everything is 'hurry up and wait'. You wait, and wait and wait. Then all of a sudden you gotta go. Then you wait, and wait and wait. But that's they way it always is, I guess. Because we spent a lot of time messin around in Ledo, just waiting for orders to move out. Now have you heard of the Ledo Road? B: Yes. R: The Ledo Road, its purpose was to bypass the Japanese who were in control of most of Burma at that time. The Burma Road started in Mandalay and went up across the mountains into China and that was the preferred route, the only route actually. The Ledo Road, from way up in the northern tip of India - northeastern tip - bypassed southern Burma and joined with the Burma Road just before the Burma Road went into China. There was a lot of fighting that had gone on prior to our arrival there. We didn't, we didn't actually participate in any, in any shooting. But the Japanese were being cleared out ahead of us, you know like twenty miles ahead of us. So the Ledo Road was cut through jungle all the way essentially; beautiful virgin jungle. There were a few scattered tribes living around but they were nomads. Ah, we'd come to some area where, say a valley where they were able to raise rice, and so there we'd encounter some of the local people. But for the most part, it was just a beautiful place to be, actually. I was glad I was there, as compared to slugging it out in Germany, or Italy or someplace like that. If I had to be in the Army, that was, I was glad I was in Burma. B: What were some of your things that you were doing? What were some of your responsibilities? R: Well okay, we went over that part of the Ledo Road that had been built up to the time of our arrival, a distance of 212 miles to a little place called [Warzu]. And we set up a camp there and we were, we were then told that we were going to build bridges. This is just on the downhill side of the Himalaya Mountains. And there are many, many streams coming out of the mountains because of the snowmelt. And [ ] across the country that the Ledo road had to cover. So I started out being a private in an organization of much higher ranks. I got all the dirty work. A few of us were on KP or doing guard duty. Pretty menial type tasks. Eventually I got to be a surveyor. I got to know some of the people who were professional surveyors back in the states. Got to know them and they took me in and taught me surveying. I hadn't had any surveying courses in college but I learned to be a surveyor there. Our battalion was made up of four companies: headquarters, besides H and S. A, B, C and one other one. And C company was broken off and transported by airplane into China and we never saw them again. I'm not too clear any more about what they did but they were into construction work in China. We built, there was a town that was a destination for the road called [Nishinaw] {phonetic spelling} and, should I spell that? It's a, I'd better. It's spelled M-Y-I-T-KY-I-N-E. You wouldn't guess it but that's Myitkyine. That was a destination of the road. And I think it was like 35 miles from Warzu and we built like 50 bridges in that stretch. For the most part, the bridges were poles; they were up to 48 feet long. We'd drive poles into the ground and use this wonderful wood, it was furniture grade wood but we were making bridges out of it. We had a sawmill assigned to us and they would saw planks which were put on top of these poles and that was the bridge. The ah, our job as surveyors was to lay out the bridge, tell em where to put the poles. And then ah, after the poles were driven, we would give them the cut off heights, using our surveying instruments to determine the levels so that they knew where to cut the poles off to the right height. And then [ ] bridges were pontoon bridges or floating bridges. Others were steel bridges. One type was called a Bailey Bridge. And that was made up of sections of steel assemblies. Four men could just barely cover one of these sections and these were strung across the river and then planks laid on for the travel, for the traffic to use. One of our earliest jobs before Warzu was right near the Irrawaddy River which is a major Burmese river which I'm sure you've heard of. It was very wide, sometimes the river would be a half a mile wide. But ah, that's during the monsoon. When we built the bridge, it was much narrower than that. So we ah, completed that job and then we moved on. Across the road from our camp was an airstrip where C-47's were used to transport food primarily over the hump into China. The C-47 was a military version of the DC-3 which was one of the real workhorses in the early days of air transport in the states. In fact, Bassler out there does reconstitution of DC-3's. But they were a great airplane. Just wonderful airplane. Oh, one of the things that happened, I was, I was fortunate enough to be assigned to guard duty. And that's another job that the lowly ranks got. We had tents. The tents that were manufactured in India. They were actually double roofed because with the heat, the sun beating down, you couldn't stand just a single roof over you. But the double roof, separated by a foot or so made a world of difference in the comfort within the tent. And then we would, because we had the equipment, the know-how, we built floor sections and then we got out of the mud. Much of the, when we arrived near the tail end of the monsoon, the bottom of the tent was pure mud. And of course, with the high humidity, you can't ever dry anything out. Everything gets moldy and your boots are continually wet and moldy. But it helped a little when we were eventually able to build the floor sections which we subsequently used, when we moved from one camp to another, we would disassemble the floor sections. We had walls built of framing. The lower half of the wall was of Hessian Cloth, I think it was called. Actually it was a heavy duty, high quality burlap. It was made in India. It was about four feet wide and it was put around the lower part of the tent. And then the upper part was mosquito netting. And then you had a screened door. It was pretty comfortable when you had it all set up. Now the month that we were at this Warzu camp, they had an incident where a tiger came into one of the tents. There were four beds in there and the guy in the bed at the farthest distance from the entry was approached by the tiger and he tried to drag him out of the tent and this soldier started to [ ] tigers. They were there and if they got too hungry, [ ] people [ ]. So, there was an incident while I was on guard duty. I looked up [ ] smoke. [ ] could be a fire so I went down and investigated. And it turns out that ah, pipeline [ ] four inch diameter pipeline ran all the way along the Ledo Road to supply the vehicles. B: They carried gasoline? R: Gasoline. Not only gasoline for the vehicles but also for the airplanes that were based [ ]. Later on they built a second six inch pipeline. So they had two of these pipelines that [ ] down into [ ]. I went down and investigate that cloud. That turns out that that was a leak. And the gasoline was [ ] a mess there [ ]. But it turns out that the leaks in the pipeline were not too [ ] common because these were 20 foot [ ] sections of pipe which are laid by… They didn't dig a trench or prepare the ground in any way. They just laid the pipe and joined the sections. So occasionally one would spring a leak. So we called, we called the pipeline company and they shut off the fuel [ ] they knew there was a [ ] Got used to it after [ ]. Would you like me to go on or do you have some questions at this point? {The numerous double brackets in the previous two paragraphs indicate interruptions that sound like a mike being shut off and on. It is hard to tell whether any material is being missed}. B: Well, tell me what was the, could you describe the jungle for me Russ? What, what would a person typically see, or tell me about what that was like? The jungle itself. Where you were working, building this road. R: Well, I wish I had known Katherine before I went over there because she's a botanist and has a much greater appreciation for nature than I had as a kid just out of college, or not even out of college. [ ] These were just tremendously beautiful jungles. [ ] In the valleys, where the trees did not do too well, there'd be rice [ ] but [ ] mostly [ ] growing up in the trees or other saprophytes [ ] appreciated as much then as I would now. And I [ ] if she could see that. Much more [ ] these trees are just indescribably big and beautiful. And we'd cut em down and make bridges out of em. [ ] For the road. B: Was your perception of the jungle shared by a lot of your companions? Did other people feel the jungle was beautiful or were they more frightened of it? R: Well, I think the beauty of the jungle was lost on a lot of em. However I was with a group [ ] group. It was called S-4 and it was made up of people that were graduates or college attendees when they went into the service. [ ] the appreciation, the [ ] beauty then [ ] people. [ ] Wide variety of backgrounds [ ] United States all pulled together here. And there was a real melting pot [ ] battalion. But I think as far as enjoying the jungle, the fellows that I knew in this surveying group were more appreciative than the average [ ] about [ ] college offers. [ ] K: You had a problem with leeches didn't you? Was that at this place or somewhere else? R: The jungle was full of leeches. You what a leech is, it's actually, here we call em bloodsuckers and they live in the water. But in the jungle, they live on the vegetation. And it's really a horrible experience to go into the jungle because you come out and you're full of these leeches, bloodsuckers. And you have to fight em off. They're not easy to pull off. And if you let em go, they just get big and blood-ridden. B: How big are they? R: Oh, they'll get this big. B: Eight inches maybe? R: Yeah. If they're allowed to [ ]. B: How did you remove them? R: Well we tried everything. You wind up just pulling them off [eventually]. We tried salt or [ ]. [ ] no way to get em off. [ ] I really believe that a person [ ] on a continual basis [ ] these things[ ] I think they'd [ ] and they'd [ ] all your blood. Yes? B: They dropped off the plants? R: Yeah. They'd be on the undergrowth. And they're sneaky. Hard to spot ahead of time. Yeah, they're not nearly 8 inches long and sitting there, lying in wait. They get bigger when they're filled with blood. [ ] Ah, and we were in the jungle; there were Japanese stragglers that had escaped from the fighting. And I could never understand how they could survive in the jungle because [ ] and really they didn't survive very long. They'd come in and give themselves up. Of course they had lost touch with everything [ ] while they'd escaped from the fighting and were trying to make a living in the jungle. They had no news. They didn't know that [ ] had surrendered or been captured. So they were trying to hide and hoping that [ ] happen to em. Or they died in the jungle. [ ] the Japanese, the war was still going on and we were right across the road from an airstrip. [ ] from Japanese airplanes and try to [ ] aircraft on the runways but we weren't troubled an awful lot by them. Once or twice they'd be shooting into our camp at night and we never, somebody'd shoot at us [ ] so it was just stragglers, I guess. [ ] Only one fellow that I know that was shot by enemy fire. B: Thinking back now as a young man here in the jungles of Burma, how did you view the Japanese as an enemy? Do you remember how you felt about them? R: Yeah. We felt they were enemies. We called em "Japs" derogatorily. I just don't think I said the word right. Derogatory. We had fear of them of course because if they'd had the chance, they'd kill us. But there were organizations, fighting organizations that went ahead of us, like Merrill's. Merrill's Marauders were a famous one. They were a fighting unit and they traveled through, [ ] they held pockets of Japanese. [ ]. At Myitkyine there was a [ ] well that's a [ ] B: We can get to that in just a minute but I have a question for both of you. At any point in the war did you feel that the United States would not win the war? Even in the beginning? Did you, did you feel that the outcome of the war would eventually be victory for the United States? R: Yes, we always felt that we were going to win the war. However there were times when we thought it was going to take a long time because [ ] and [ ] D-day was a pretty big event for us. That was the day that the Germans surrendered. We [ ] had news. We had radio news.[ ] I guess I never thought that the, we wouldn't win. [ ] later. B: And Katherine, as a young girl on the home front, you followed the war news very closely. You kept a scrapbook. Did it ever occur to you that perhaps we wouldn't win? K: I guess I always felt we would win, but there were times when things went against us. So there were ups and downs, of course. But I think [ ] always that we would win eventually. I had a very good friend in high school who, the day he turned seventeen, enlisted. I remember him sitting in the office waiting to talk to the principal saying that he was going to quit school. But ah, of course there were friends who were in the service. And this particular one was killed in service. A lot of the friends, a lot of people that I knew in high school, and a lot of my friends went into the service. B: Before we get going here and talk about the Burmese and the Chinese, I'm going to put a new tape in. {The first tape ends here}. B: So what about the Burmese people? Were they helping you build the road at the time? R: No. Ah, they had very little to do with us. They were [ ] family groups. They would manage to clear a little area of the jungle and plant a few crops and [ ] for a number of years. We had very little contact with them except at [ ] down the road I can describe that. And I wonder if you'd mind if I'd read? B: No, sure. Go right ahead. R: I'm a little out of sequence here, but this has to do with ah, one of, and incidentally, being in the headquarters and service company was a lot better than being in one of the line companies because we had, we had a much [ ] military lifestyle. We weren't bothered by being called up [ ] or anything like that. Very relaxed [ ]. We'd set up our camps where it was convenient. And usually along a, one of these streams coming out because it [ ] the spots according to where we were most valuable as surveyors to do the work. And it was normally away from the people who were building the bridges. Laundry got to be a problem of course. Although we didn't wear many clothes. We wore shorts and maybe [ ]. Anyway our method, we would ah, take the top off a 55 gallon drum, set it up somewhere along the riverbank, fill it with water and build a fire underneath it. And then throw these bars of laundry soap into the water and everybody'd put their clothes in there and a couple guys would stand there and stir and boil the daylights out of these clothes. Then when the ah, the clothes were ready, they would, with long poles they would dig our clothes out of the drum and throw em in the river. And these clothes would float downstream - and these were rapid rivers. And then we'd have to [ ] clothes out of the water and they'd been all rinsed in the process. We would just take and hang em up. It was a pretty good system as long as we were able to camp near these nice streams coming down the mountain. I was going to read about another, I guess I would like to show you the sketch that I made at one of the, one of the Burmese camps of a loom. A woman would sit in there and she had all these string, well… K: A loom. R: Well they operated them but it was a homemade… B: It's a nice little drawing. What a valuable historical record of your time in Burma. K: Well, what did they make on the looms? What kind of products? R: Well, they made cloth which was then made into clothes. Well, the people, the people were called Kachins. Spelled K-A-CH-I-N-S. Those were the jungle people. Now, we visited one of their camps and I'm quoting from the book: We sat and watched a woman weaving cloth. Probably the same way these people have been doing it for hundreds of years. Thread is laced among a number of small sticks about three feet long stuck upright in the ground. Each thread close to the next but not overlapping. When that is finished, the sticks are pulled out, made into a bundle and set horizontally on the rack. One end of the thread is brought out, wrapped around a stick [ ] broad leather band which passes around the woman's back. Two layers of thread are held apart and every other thread is either top or bottom layer. She sits on one end and holds down the other with her feet. A long pole which is connected by a system of strings and pieces of wood, that's this, to a wooden device that holds the layers apart and interchanges their positions, which is pretty complicated. The cross threads originate from a pool, spool, set in the back of a board about 2 ½ feet long. The front edge is tapered almost to sharpness. The board is brought between the layers from side to side, each time tamping the thread toward her with the sharp edge against the ah, finished work. If cross threads of different colors are desired, they are put in separately and tamped in place as though they were continuous. It's a slow and tiresome process, taking about ten minutes to do an inch. The colors are usually black or dark blue for a base, with stripes of white yellow and red. Simple but very attractive. I tried to buy some but they would not sell. Well then, to go on, there was one woman sitting on a bed nursing a baby, not bothered at all by our being there. When the baby was full, she laid it down on the bed, picked up a very small puppy that was playing around there and started petting it. The puppy began nuzzling around her breast and she was only a slim vest that just barely covered her breasts, so she opened the vest, gave the puppy the nipple and she began pulling away at it for all his might. Maybe you don't want that in your book. X-rated stuff. She held him as though he were a baby and smiled at us as though it wasn't the least bit unusual. We stood and looked down in amazement. K: A different culture. B: That diary is a wonderful thing. Was it unusual to keep a diary like that? R: I don't really remember how many guys did that. You had to force yourself sometimes [ ]. Gaps in here where I didn't do anything for awhile. B: It's detailed, and that's very unusual to find. Most diaries that I've seen are rather little cryptic entries. About the weather or perhaps what they did today. But yours was very detailed. R: Yeah. Well I found when I was reading these this week, that ah, [ ] the end of the second book, much of our concern was when we were going home. And how we were going to get there. The ah, [ ] that had been set up by the military was more in points for duration and medals and a lot of different things. [ ] number of points [ ]. As I read this, a lot of my attention was this point system. By that time, I jumped way ahead here, by that time the Japanese had been defeated and [ ] later part of the book was not as interesting because… K: Wanted to go home. R: We'd been in the jungle for a year and a half and we wanted to get out of there. B: Sure. R: So to answer your question, I can't specifically remember that other people had diaries but I would think that some must have had them. Because these were all educated people and [ ]. Well anyway that was… K: Do you want to mention [ ] bamboo [ ]? R: Well, that's later on but I can… K: Well, it was kind of interesting. R: It's out of context but I can tell about it now. K: Well, whatever. B: Whatever you want to talk about Russ, you just go right ahead. R: On the other hand, if you want to end this at any time, you just tell me. I don't know how this fits into your boredom quotient but… B: I'm very interested. You don't have to worry about that. I find this fascinating. K: With the job that you have here, I'm sure you are very interested in history. You'd have to be. B: Was the road being used up to that point? R: Some. Ah, it, when we were finished with it, it was a really fine road, ah, graveled. In the early days, a lot of the traffic was mules. Whole strings of mules carrying packsacks. Or whatever it is that you call it. But they carried the supplies on the backs of mules. And there'd be a few guys that would walk along with em. Later on, the mule traffic diminished because they were able to haul supplies by truck. Very heavy truck traffic. Roads go where they, we didn't blacktop anything so they got really dusty in the dry seasons. Unpleasant but the travel was, was good. Bridges were a big problem because they'd tend to wash out during the monsoon. And the clipping which I intended to bring along, and I forgot it, ah it was from a newspaper written by somebody who had been able to visit the Ledo Road a year or two after the fighting was done and everybody had left. That is all the foreigners. And it, the road evidently had been taken back by the jungle. And it was impassable any more. Just in a couple years. The bridges were gone. Road had huge washouts along the way. It's kind of a sad thing. We'd worked so hard on it and had such a good road. B: You know, one of the things you were going to talk about Russ, was the Chinese people. Now we can either talk about that or you can get back on what you want to, on your notes there? Whatever you want to do. R: Just let me refer to this for a second. Page 103. Well I say here the other day the brother in law of one of the boys, we always called each other "The Boys," was a captain in the infantry and stopped in. He's attached to the Chinese for training of their infantry. Told us a few things about, and he used the word "Chinks" here because we didn't think that highly of them. It's not a very nice label I guess but we called em Chinks. Anyway this other fellow didn't have a very high opinion of em. And he says that every time you hear of 500 Japs being killed, you can figure 800 or 900 Chinks have been killed. In the mission affair, Americans were attached, were to attack the town the Chinese were to come up to support them. The Americans did their part but the Chinese delayed a couple days and left the Americans holding the bag. We had some pretty heavy losses. When they did come, they would fight only as long as they could plunder. They'd fight from one shop to another and loot the shops as they went along. American officers went through the camps and found them eating off fancy silver dishes in their huts full of plunder. And the natives hate the Chinese. They've done more rape and plunder than the Japs. In fact, the Japs treated the people very well, apparently to promote good will. They didn't molest the people at all and the people didn't start moving out and escaping to the jungle until the Chinese came. They wouldn't come back down out of the hills unless there were Americans along for protection. It's said that many of the people of the valley are pro-Jap. That's understandable since the British have never done anything to win favor. And certainly the Chinese have not won any favor. The hill people though are said to be pro-ally. A Chinaman doesn't dare go out in the jungle alone or he won't come back alive. They're a dirty bunch of, a dirty, thieving bunch of coolies. That's… K: that wouldn't be correct today. R: The captain told us how the Chinese are mustered into the army. A ring of guards is put around a village and the soldiers go through the houses and drag the eligible men and march them away. Well, we had Chinese assigned to us, engineering battalion, Chinese they were called. To help with the bridge building. Now they didn't have any mobile equipment at all. They were, wherever they went, they went on foot. Carried all their stuff with all their cooking equipment and their tents and everything. All carried by the people as they marched. They had no experience with using power tools whatsoever. We would try to teach em how to use - we had saws like circular saws that we used in bridge building. And driven by air compressors. You'd give some of these tools to the Chinese troops and try to teach em how to use it but they were pretty careless and ah, one of the biggest jokes among them is that one of their guys cut a foot off. And they would all lay around there laughing their heads off because this poor guy was in such agony. Just not very nice people. We did, at one point our camp was right close to where a Chinese officer lived. And B: And what is that [brace] ? R: Yeah, that's, that's silver but it's all tarnished now because I've not made any attempt. But that was a bracelet that I traded a carton of cigarettes for. B: And what is that inlaid in there? Is that ivory? R: Well, I'm not sure. It's either ivory or bone. B: It looks like ivory. R: You can see it's engraved. And there was colored. The engraving was colored. She looked at it under the microscope and it's so badly faded now it doesn't matter. K: I wonder what they used. B: That's very nice. And you got that from a Chinese officer. R: A Chinese officer. He was in the trading business and then… They insisted on Camel cigarettes. K: Boy! [ ] R: Yeah. You could get a lot more for a carton, a carton of Camels than you could for anything else. B: Well, how about supplies? Like cigarettes, did they reach you regularly? Did you have adequate food and [ ]? R: Not at the beginning. But eventually as the troop strength built up there, ah, they brought more and more goodies down for us like cigarettes and you could buy em quite readily later on. Ah, liquor was something that, of course everybody, many people wanted but it wasn't available except for the officers for a long, long time. I remember one incident where finally some of the guys acquired a bottle of brandy. French brandy. And brought it to our tent and we all sat around and…Yeah. We didn't have any fancy screw-type openers that you have now. So somebody said, "You hold it and you hit it on the bottom like that, and it pops the cork out. So the guy, the guy did that, only hit it a little too hard and it broke the darn bottle. The wine went all over the floor and that was it for that bottle. But ah, the Red Cross came in after we'd been there for awhile. The Red Cross women started showing up and they had their PX's and their Red Cross clubs. Which was quite a treat because most of us were young and hot-blooded Americans and we hadn't seen much of white girls at all. So a Red Cross girl was a real event. Although we weren't, we enlisted people didn't have much chance to fraternize with them because they were pretty exclusively taken care of by the officers. B: China/Burma/India has been called "The Forgotten Theater." Did you feel like you were kind of forgotten up there on the Burmese jungle? R: Well, yeah. Well that was called the CBI - China, Burma India Theater of war. And it's a long ways from anywhere. It did not certainly have the publicity that the European Theater had. And even the South Pacific I'm sure got more newspaper attention. I don't know, do you remember reading anything about the CBI? K: I remember reading about the Burma Road, reading about that. I don't remember anything about the Ledo Road. R: Well, we were happy to be left alone because if you were in a military unit, the typical military unit had too much military. Too many regulations and dress codes and it was just nice to be left alone in the jungle to do our job. B: Let's talk about going home. How did you get the announcement that you were going to be rotated back to the states? R: Well, the war was ended by the bombing of, that is the Japanese part. The Japan part of the war was ended by the bombing of Japan and then we began to feel hopeful. We thought we'd be there another four or five years. B: Prior to the atom bomb? R; Yeah. But once they defeated, they dropped the bomb and the Japanese shortly thereafter did surrender, we began to be hopeful. So they set up a point system as I mentioned before. And I've got the numbers in the book but I don't think it's probably too significant. But a guy had a certain number of points, depending on a variety of criteria, First they started, first they were gonna send whole battalions home together, but then after the point system was set up, it was an individual thing. So a guy with a certain number of points would go back and wait around in Calcutta for a troop ship that he could get on. And then he'd be sent back. In most cases they were mustered out of the service shortly after they got home. They didn't have to go back across to Bombay and for a long time we were expecting that we would have to be sent to Karachi which again is a city on the far western side of ah, India. It's now Pakistan but at the time it was India. That was an important port but as it turned out, most of us that I was associated with went to Calcutta, spent a few days there waiting for a ship and then shipped out. [ ] ship, well, down through the Bay of Bengal and around Singapore. We stopped at Manila to take on supplies and then started out for Seattle. Well, we got part way across the Pacific Ocean and we learned that the orders had been changed and we're going to San Francisco. So my diary ends somewhere on the Pacific Ocean, a couple hundred miles southwest of the Golden Gate Bridge. I quit writing. I think you mentioned this bamboo grove… K: Yeah. I know you mentioned that to me and I thought it was quite an interesting thing. [ ] still in the jungle. R: Well, we'd gotten back to India. K: Oh, you were in India then. R: Yeah. We were sort of on our way homeward. And we were given the job of fencing in a bamboo grove. Ah, K: Fending it? R: Putting fencing around it. Five thousand foot perimeter. This bamboo grove had been used by the U.S. Air Corps as a storage site for um, poison gas bombs. They were never used on the enemy but they were there and some of em were starting to leak so they buried all this stuff in the bamboo grove because they were afraid of handling these leaking bombs. Well then we built this fence around there. Six strands or so of barbed wire. We were based at a place called [Dibrogar] and I can spell that if I look it up. Dibrogar is the name. And the area I've been talking about is a thick bamboo grove where the bombs used at [Dinjan] Airfield were stored. When the war ended and the Air Corps moved out, they just buried all the gas bombs where they were stacked. Whoever did it didn't use his head because they were scattered all over and the burial pits were not marked. They gave the reason they did that was some of the bombs had begun to leak and they wanted to get them under ground as soon as possible. Anyway the fence we are putting in must be over 500 feet long. Steel posts every ten feet set in concrete four feet deep. Six strands of barbed wire. We must put up some concrete monuments which say: "Danger. War Gas. Do not dig in this area until 1966." See, that was 1945. It was written in four languages: Assamese, Bengalese, Punjabi and English. Well, this bamboo grove was heavily used by people in an adjacent village. Bamboo is really is really, was really important to those people. Of course bamboo grows very weedy, high. You know some of it would get 6 inches in diameter. And the villagers used the bamboo for many purposes. In fact I guess bamboo shoots are edible. But they used it to make utensils and structures. Most of their houses were built of bamboo frames with just woven grass roofs. But it was a devastation for these people because they were deprived of their source of bamboo. And they couldn't just go to another one because some other village was using that. I often wondered, there was about 20 years that they were not able to go in there. Whether they stayed away that long, I have no way of knowing. K: Well, was it in their language, this notice? R: Yeah. K: So they could read. But how many people could read? They got the idea of the fence, I suppose. R: I think that barbed wire fence was a pretty strong hint. B: What happened when you got back to the states? R: Oh, the troop ship docked at San Francisco. And we rode train all the way across the country. Up through Sacramento, across to Salt Lake City, and across Nebraska. We'd stop every so often and any troops that lived in that region would get off and be reunited with their families. I got off in the southwestern part of the state and I've forgotten the name of the place. K: Near the Mississippi or…? R: No. It was, what's the place where the crane flock was raised. Necedah. It was near Necedah. Some junction there. My folks were there to meet me and that was it. I'd been mustered out at San Francisco so by the time I got home, I was no longer in the troops. K: You were a civilian. R: I was a civilian. B: Well, what did you do then? Did you go back to Clintonville? Did you go back to college or what? R: Well, I went back to Clintonville where my folks lived and we spent the summer logging. And my folks subsequently built a house on the Cloverleaf Lakes between Clintonville and Shawano out of the wood that we sawed. And then when the fall came, you see that was in April when I got out so I spent the summer up there with them… B: April of '46? Probably. R: I guess so, yeah. Ah, then I went back to the University of Wisconsin and finished my engineering degree. K: Under the GI Bill, I suppose. R: Under the GI Bill. Which was, you probably used that. B: Yeah, I did. R: Everybody was using it. Boy, the campuses were crowded with GIs weren't they? K: Quonset huts. R: Quonset huts. B: Is that where you met Katherine? K; No. [ ] I was teaching biology in high school in Clintonville when I met him. You were working at [WD]? Well that was after you graduated. R: You graduated in '47 and I graduated in '48. K: We never knew each other in Madison. R: but when I was there, I used to play tennis with a girl who it turned out was a friend of hers but we never crossed paths. K: She didn't introduce me. B: Is the war something that you think about very often? R: Not really. Since you asked me to come and talk to you about it, I've thought about it a lot more than I had otherwise. But ah, I don't have a, nightmares about it. I'm sure that a lot of guys who were in combat carried some pretty, some pretty bad mental images of things that they were involved in. But I guess as time goes on, my memories are more pleasant than unpleasant. I remember the good things about Burma. I've skipped over a lot of things. You know, I'd made three pages of outlines here, things that if I'd gone through it in a more orderly manner, I would probably have hit upon but that might have been a little much. B: Well, is there anything you'd like to talk about, Russ? Anything that we didn't cover that you feel is important as part of the story? R: I made a lot of notes. Let me just review those. There is in there a lot of detail which I haven't gotten into of course. But ah, I guess unless I were to start from page one and just go through it page by page… K: Well, in your outline, are there any highlights that you missed? R: That's what I was just looking for. I read you the one about the Burmese natives camp. The Chinese. Oh one thing, one of the towns that we, that the road didn't just bypass was a place by the name of Mogaung. It's spelled M-O-G-A-U-N-G. Mogaung. It was the location of important jade mines. They ah, in one of the mines was a great source for white jade. I looked for a piece of jade, which I thought I brought back with me. I couldn't find it this morning. But the Chinese valued the jade very highly. When the Japanese invaded, they destroyed, I don't know that you can destroy a mine but at least they made it impossible for the mines to operate any more. So I went to, some of us went to the mines and walked around and picked up some scraps for souvenirs. And I thought that was kind of interesting because jade is a semi-precious stone and highly regarded by some people. B: Did you have any time at all for recreation? Or was it all work? Did you ever have time to have a day off? R: Yeah. We had [ ]. We surveyors had it pretty soft mostly. Our job was to do the surveying whenever we were called upon. That is like to work on the bridge. But we had a lot of free time. And we did a lot of sitting around waiting to be called. You know we had to be available. But ah, other than that we got to explore . We had ah, we had our own jeep later on so that we could get around. And later a vehicle called a weapons carrier. It was a 4 x 4 Dodge. Little truck-like vehicles, slightly bigger than a jeep and we ran around there and did a lot of visiting. So that was a pretty good life. K: You didn't tell him about the airplane trip did you? R: Oh yeah. I mentioned earlier the airstrip at Warzu. I learned on time, we were no longer living there but were a ways down the road, I hitch-hiked back to Warzu and, find this, don't seem to see it here in the notes but, I bummed a ride on one of the C-47's hauling supplies into China. They weren't supposed to take unauthorized people but I begged the pilot until he relented and let me ride along. K: Were there others with you? R: One other guy. K: One other guy, the two of you. R: And the C-47 has this, did you ever ride in a DC-3? It has a, near the back of the fuselage, there is the entry door. Now many planes used by the airlines had a closeable door which kept people from falling out I guess when they were in flight but the C-47s used by the Air Corps to haul supplies had a big open door. It was at least as wide as one of your doors here. Not quite as high. So we'd just stand in that door and look down at what was going on below us. The time we bummed the ride, we flew ah, over the hump but at that point, the hump was not very high. We flew over the hump, unloaded the big bags of what I think was rice ah, at this Chinese landing site. Then got on the plane and rode back and the pilot flew along the Ledo Road so that we could stand there and look down at all of the things that we had done to build that road. That was quite a treat. B: I bet that was a real feeling of accomplishment too. R: Well yeah. I mean this little slash in the jungle was quite a thing. Endless jungle really. But with a little road running through it. Oh, one thing I should mention, when we got out of the airplane after it landed in China, a lot of the natives were gathered around and many of them had large goiters which struck me. So we decided that it was probably a lake of iodine in their diets. I was going to show you another thing. Wandering around some of these, I think this was in Bhamo where I found the wood to make the chimney. I was wandering around the wreckage and found this head of a Buddha. That had been one of the things that the Japanese…. All of the temples, a lot of the temples had a lot of these little Buddhas around them, or in them. The Japanese wrecked them all. Knocked the heads off. So I guess they were, Japanese that were not Buddhist. K: Is that jade, Russ. R: I think that's alabaster. It's, no I don't think it's jade. B: It's a nice souvenir. R: Yeah. It's a nice souvenir. I just found it on the ground. It's kinda crudely made but you wouldn't exactly call it a work of art. I don't know what happened to the rest of it. B: Russ, would you allow us to photograph something like the chindi or that for the book? As a souvenir? R: Sure. B: Would you? I'll fill out a form when we're done here. I'll have to get another tape if we're going to keep talking. R: Want to set that up? K: Do you want us to leave these things here then? B: Yeah. I'll have to fill out a loan form. Alright. Well, thank you.
Oral History Interview with Russel A. and Catherine Rill. -WORLD WAR II -Copyright Oshkosh Public Museum
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Last modified on: December 12, 2009