|Oral history interview with Ralph Reichenberger. Ralph enlisted in the National Guard and the 32nd Division went to New Guinea. Ralph worked with the Army Air Force packing parachutes that were used to drop supplies to front line troops. He rotated stateside and left for home around November of 1944. He was discharged from Fort McCoy on August 15, 1945.
Ralph Reichenberger Interview
7 January 2004
Conducted by Tom Sullivan
(T: identifies the interviewer, Tom Sullivan; R: identifies the subject, Ralph Reichenberger. Open brackets [ ] or bracketed words indicate that either a word or phrase is not understood, or that proper spelling for the word is unclear).
S: It's January 7th, 2004 and we're at the Oshkosh Public Museum. I'm Tom Sullivan, and Ralph Reichenberger, who served in World War II is going to be telling me about his experiences in that war. Are you ready Ralph?
R: Yes I am.
T: Let's begin by having you tell me when and where you were born.
R: I was born in Oshkosh on June 29th, 1922. Not by a doctor but by a midwife.
T: I guess it was common in those days.
R: Very common. In fact all my brothers and sisters were born with a midwife except for the last one.
T: How many were in your family? How many brothers and sisters did you have?
R: Seven of us. And I was the oldest. I had four brothers and two sisters.
T: Are any of them living today?
R: All but one.
T: Were your mother and dad both from the Oshkosh area as well?
R: Oh yes.
T: Were they born and raised in Oshkosh?
T: Tell me a bit about your childhood, where you lived and where you went to school and some of those things.
R: All right. My dad had a meat market on the corner of 6th and Knapp St. which was kitty corner from Sacred Heart Church. And we lived above the store and we were all raised upstairs in that building which still stands today. Went to Sacred Heart School. Graduated from Sacred Heart and then went on to Oshkosh High School from which I graduated in June of 1940. But in January of 1940, at the age of 17, I joined the National Guard at the Armory in Oshkosh here.
T: What did you do for fun when you were a kid?
R: We were baseball and sports mostly. All sports. And it was, nothing was organized sports in those days. You had to choose up sides with guys and we did our own thing.
T: Sure, on an empty lot somewhere. Do you remember, you know, that a lot of people were affected quite a bit by the Depression and you were a young fellow during those years. Can you tell me a little about how the Depression maybe affected you and your family?
R: Well we always, because my dad owned a meat market, we always had plenty to eat. There was never any part of that but so many have asked me already, "What did you get at Christmas for a gift?" And we'd tell em we got pairs of shoes because in the summertime we had to run around barefoot. Because we didn't have shoes or our folks didn't let us wear the shoes to wear em out. So we got those kinds of gifts. Something that we really needed, you know.
T: Can you remember how other kids that you knew were affected by the Depression? I can think of some pals of mine that really had it sort of tough.
R: Oh it was tough in those days. And I was going to high school and I can recall my mother with a shirt with the elbows poked out. She made short sleeve shirts out of em; turned around the collars which were all frayed on the inside. She turned around the collars and sewed em back on so we'd have a nice shirt to wear.
T: Yes. My mother did that too. You just reminded me of that, that she would turn those collars on my dad's and grandfather's shirts. I was too young to wear the dress shirts, but yeah, that was very common I guess.
R: Very common. Nobody had anything, you know. And everybody had bicycles and we all biked to school. Biked to high school. And I can recall I got a bicycle that I saved up, I pedaled papers. Sunday papers I pedaled. And when I got to the point I had $29.35, I bought my bought my first bicycle at Joe Roble's Bicycle Shop on Ohio Street.
T: Ralph, in the late 30's and early 40's of course there was war in Europe and things were going on in the Far East. Did you or your pals give any thought to that at all or was it something that was just too far away?
R: It was too far away. Nobody thought about that. We joined the National Guard actually to get a few dollars. Nobody had any money really; the kids didn't have any money.
T: I can remember Clarence Youngwirth saying that. They joined the Guard, a lot of the guys, just, whatever you got, that was gravy. That was really nice.
R: There was three of us that played in Oshkosh High School band and we heard that Mr. Rothe who was the band director needed woodwind instruments. So three of us went there and joined the band. (The National Guard band). And I was 17 at the time and I couldn't get in unless I had Dr. Bitter, in fact on my discharge papers, I actually was born January 29, 1921 but he wrote that down so I could get in. So that made me 18. Which I really was 17 at the time when I joined up.
T: Well, did you get a job when you got out of high school? Or weren't there any jobs?
R: There weren't any jobs. I worked in my dad's butcher shop, scraping the blocks. And just being there, you know. There were no jobs. I pedaled a few papers. That's about it.
T: I'm not real clear on when the Guard was activated and what they did. Were you activated before Pearl Harbor?
R: [ ].
T: You were down south then weren't you?
R: Yes we were.
T: Tell me about how things worked then after you joined the Guard; where you went and when you went?
R: Because of the war starting in Europe after Germany bombed Poland in '39, and then in 1940 we went to camp at Camp Douglas, it became McCoy and then we got back. And then we were activated public service full time on October 15th, 1941. Pearl Harbor was bombed in '41. Had to be 1940. October 15th, 1940 and we were supposed to be in for one year of service. And then of course we went to Camp Beauregard, Louisiana and from Camp Beauregard we went to Camp Livingston, Louisiana and that was when we were bombed at Pearl Harbor.
T: So you were at Camp Livingston then when Pearl Harbor was bombed?
T: Do you remember that day?
R: I remember exactly. I was going up to the mess hall when we found out about it. During the noon hour, I believe it was, or it could have been the supper hour too. I remember going to the mess hall when we found out that Pearl Harbor was bombed.
T: I imagine then that you fellows pretty much knew that you were in for a long haul.
R: Oh, yes. And then from Camp Livingston, we were shipped to Fort Devons, Massachusetts. And from there we thought we were going to go over to England or Ireland.
T: Sure. That makes sense.
R: But in all of that same time, MacArthur left Bataan and went to Australia. And he called up for the 32nd Division. So we got on a train in Fort Devons, Massachusetts, we were there for three months I believe, and went to Fort Ord, California. And from there we just shipped out.
T: It was my understanding, I think, talking to somebody else, that your division was really, the one reason MacArthur called for em was they were one of the few divisions that had any sort of training at all at that particular time.
R: That's absolutely right.
T: And they had to have somebody so you guys got it. Now where did you go after you went out to the West Coast?
R: We were at Fort Ord just for a short period of time. No actual training, just getting us ready to ship out. Probably there a month or so.
T: Then you shipped out on a troopship?
R: Yeah. The USS Mt. Vernon.
T: What kind of a voyage did you have?
R: Well, when we first got out to sea they hit a terrible storm. It was, everybody seemed like they were tossing their cookies. And it was really a hard storm. Then I think they took 22 days if I recall, to get to Australia.
T: Where in Australia did you land?
R: At Port Adelaide.
T: That's on the northeast coast?
R: No, it's in the south, way on the bottom. On the underbelly.
T: Underneath Sydney?
R: Oh, way beyond that. Way around the bottom. And you have to go through the Tasmanian Straits, I believe and then you come up into Australia. We landed there on May 14, 1942.
T: And at that time, you were still in the band? Did you, in addition to being in the band, did you receive the regular infantryman's training?
R: Oh yeah.
T: And what type of weapon were you supposed to have?
R: Well, first we just had '03s, rifles. And then after they were too heavy, we got carbines. But we were also designated as 50 caliber machine-gunners.
T: You had training in that type of thing too?
R: Yeah. Besides our duties of playing Reveille and having a dance band, and did stuff with the troops.
T: How much time did you spend in Port Adelaide? Was that just a stopping place or…?
R: We were there maybe, we went out to a camp that was called Stanley Creek and we were out there probably three or four months, something like that. I'm not positive. But this is where we played for dances, dance band for the Australian people for dances. And this was where I met my friend Peggy.
T: During that period of time, was the rest of the division, and your unit, were they training for combat.
R: Yeah. It was, we were in training, you know.
T: What was the weather like there?
R: Cold. It was May, June and July so it was their winter. I can recall on our bunks, all the guys would get as much paper as they could, newspaper, put it underneath their cot, on your cot.
T: For insulation?
R: For insulation, sure.
T: What was your opinion of the Australian people that you met?
R: Wonderful right away. We didn't know, we had, you know, all the coinage. You had to take their honesty when you bought something. Just hold out and they'd take it, what it was.
T: Was it something like English currency? Pounds…?
R: Pounds, shillings. But now they've switched over to the dollar.
T: Where did your unit go after Port Adelaide?
R: Port Adelaide? We got on trains, and there's another thing. Each state in Australia had their own track width.
T: Oh, the gauges were different then.
R: The gauges were different. And we went from south Australia up into Queensland and then we had to stop, get off of that train because the gauges were different in south Australia from Queensland. So we got on another train and then we went to our camp in ah, it was called Camp Cable, out of Brisbane.
T: Now Brisbane is on the north coast more or less?
R: No. It's on the, it's about in the center of what would be the eastern coast.
T: That shows how much I know about Australia.
R: It'd be on the eastern coast..
T: I guess it's a big continent.
R: Oh, huge. It's wonderful.
T: What was your duty in Brisbane. What did you do there?
R: Well, we had our regular training plus our training in marches. Australia's memorial day is called Anzac Day. I forget the date, but we played in the parade in Brisbane. And the main street was Queen Street and I've got some pictures of that too, where we played in the big parade.
T: What was your life like outside of your duties? Did you have fairly good food, and what were the living conditions like there?
R: They were very good there. We had plenty of food and they gave us passes to go into town. And we had great experiences. One of my buddies, Max Paulkner, he was just buried last summer up in Tomahawk. But one of the great experiences with Max going into town with him, we were walking down the street in Brisbane and look across the street. And there's his brother who was in the Navy. Of all things. And to meet in a foreign land like that, brothers.
T: Well imagine that was quite an experience for your buddy to meet his brother.
R: It was unreasonable, unbelievable because of the fact, then Max, he could go on his brother's ship. And he stayed with him overnight on the ship before he could come back to camp.
T: During this time, did you get mail from home and did it come with any regularity at all?
R: Not regular. It would be, you know. When it did come in well, then we'd, the guys….
T: You got a bunch of it all at once and then you'd wait awhile.
T: Where did you go then after Brisbane?
R: We went up to Townsville and from there we boarded ships and went into Port Moresby. And ah, but a lot of the companies were flown in to Port Moresby. That was the very first time in American history that troops were flown into so-called battle zones.
T: What did they use to fly them?
T: Did you, as you progressed northward, did you experience a climate change? When you got to Port Moresby I imagine that was a tremendous difference.
R: Oh yeah. It was just hot and humid.
T: Well let's go on then. What was the next step in your….?
R: Well after the battle of Buna, then we went back to Australia again and then just more training and everything.
T: What were your duties when you were in Port Moresby?
R: We were flying in supplies over the Owen Stanley Mountain Range for our troops that were fighting. The companies, you know, were fighting at Buna. And we also, we didn't have any instruments in those days. They were left back in Australia. So there was no band playing. We, a group of us were making, not making parachutes but on huge long tables, the shroud lines of the parachutes, we had to straighten em out so when we dropped the supplies with parachutes, that they would be opened up.
T: It's unusual for me to hear you tell, here you're an infantryman and you're telling about folding these parachutes. How did all that come about?
R: Whatever job had to be done. You know, we were attached with Service Company and Service Company supplied the food and all the things.
T: How long were you at Port Moresby then?
R: Whew! I don't know how long that was. Three four months. Five months, I don't know. But there was very scarcity of food there.
T: I was going to ask you about the rations there.
R: That's where I lost all my weight.
T: You were down to C rations and K rations?
R: Oh yeah. It was nothing. And it was hot, humid.
T: What did you live in? Were you in tents?
R: Well we first started out with pup tents. Two guys in a put tent. That's how it started out and the very first night there, we had a heck of a rainstorm. I was sleeping with Don Schroeder. He's still alive today. He's one of my few buddies that's left here. He lives in Oshkosh. And we slept together and all of a sudden, I can recall getting bit by something. It was just, aw, the pain was excruciating. And Don always said to me, "It's nothing but a mosquito." Joking. I said, "Yeah, right." So I went down to the medic right away. My ankle was swollen up and I got hit in the belly here too. And I always remember the medic down there. He said, "Soak it in ice water." And I said, "If I had any ice water, I'd drink it!" So that was a funny thing.
But the next morning, Don got bit. And I said to him, "Ah, nothin but a mosquito." Here there was a centipede, maybe 10-12 inches long, about an inch wide, and that was in our blankets, laying on the ground. That was a funny thing that went through, you know.
T: I suppose that there were a lot of insects like that that one had to deal with. How did you keep them out of your area?
R: I don't know. It was just [ ] or whatever, you know. But that same night is the night we saw, after we had the rainstorm, the sky opened up and it was a moonlit night. And three Japanese two-engine bombers came over and at the same time - we were stationed very close to our airport runways - we heard this P-38 warming up. And we saw him shoot down two of the bombers. And it was Major Bong, was on the P'38. He shot down two of em that we saw go down. And the third one he got over the mountain range which was out of our sight.
T: Well that's interesting.
R: It was. Aw, it's still so vivid in my memory too, of that particular night.
T: Did you see Japanese prisoners?
R: Yes. They had a few of them they brought back.
T: What was your opinion of the Japanese soldier? Were they a tough opponent?
R: Well, you know everybody thought they were the squint-eyes, that they weren't gonna be, but they were formidable adversaries, I'll tell you that.
T: Did you hate the Japanese?
R: Sure. There was hatred, you know.
T: I think most of us did. For us that were in the states, there was a lot of the propaganda with the typical caricature of the Japanese person. And of course it would have to be said that they were quite cruel to their captives.
R: Oh yeah.
T: When they did take somebody captive, I heard that they considered that to be a dishonor for somebody to be taken captive. And they treated you accordingly. You were a coward.
R: You were a coward. Yeah. Well we didn't get many captive because if they were in the position, they'd commit suicide. You know, they'd, that was a very dishonorable thing for the Japanese to be captured.
T: I guess so. What did you do with these prisoners? Were they put to work?
R: No, they were kept in a stockade, yeah.
T: You were in Port Moresby for three or four months, you say. Then you went back to Australia.
R: Back to Australia. They had more training. And then we were there for I don't know how long. We had a chance to get a furlough. That's the one picture where you see me with the barmaid. We had a chance to get a furlough. Then we went back to camp again. That was at Camp Cable. Then we went up to Milne Bay, New Guinea. From Milne Bay we went to Atapi in the [Durnemore] River in that campaign. And from there, we went to Hollandia. And from Hollandia then, that was an amazing sight to see thousands of ships out in front of you out in the bay. And we knew something was up and that's when we went to Leyte in the Philippines.
T: I see. So you went to the Philippines too.
R: Oh yeah.
T: Were your duties pretty much the same?
R: About the same all the time. When we had the chance to play music, we did it. But when we were in combat areas and stuff, we didn't even have our instruments. They always stayed back in Australia.
T: I was going to say, Australia was probably the place where you did most of the playing. This one photograph that you showed, which showed the dance band, and I think it said New Guinea on the back of it.
R: Yeah, I don't know who wrote that on the back of there. I think that's wrong. We never had no dance band in New Guinea. And what would there be to play. There was no women. So I think that's, I don't know how that got on there.
T: So then you went to Leyte.
R: Yeah. I was on Leyte I would say, a little over a month. And then by that time we had so many points to get rotated back to the states. And comin into Leyte we witnessed the first Japanese kamikaze attacks. That's when they were very first used before even Iwo Jima and Okinawa. But the ship was hit right next to ours comin in. We were on Liberty ships comin into Leyte and I always felt that what was most scary to me all the time was climbing over the side of the ship on those rope ladders to get into a landing craft. You got full field equipment on and, you know.
T: When you climbed over were the seas fairly calm or sometimes heavy?
R: Sometimes heavy. And you moved around quite a bit. You're hanging and you're moving back. I've seen guys fall off and they land in the boat or the landing craft. That was scary to me. I always that was one of my scary parts in the war.
T: Tell me about the campaign on Leyte.
R: That was really something. We got in there and then we moved away from Tacloben, which was where we landed, the airport there. Well, the village of Tacloben. Then we went, I think, I don't know exactly where we went but…
T: Was the Japanese resistance quite strong?
R: Yes. Very strong.
T: Did your unit suffer quite a few casualties?
R: You mean the whole division? Yeah. We lost two guys, [Rin Kuebler] and Roger Partridge.
T: Was that just in the Service Company?
R: In our, from the band.
T: I see.
R: And that's another strange thing.
T: So when you get in the band, you are not necessarily out of action, are you?
T: I guess that applied to cooks and everybody else.
R: Everybody else, you know. That's the same thing. You're part of the unit and you gotta produce, whatever. I was kinda, more or less pall bearer for both of those guys over there. I think they were buried, both of them, but this was in New Guinea though. They were buried in New Guinea. And then when they came back to the states, I was pallbearer for them here. And they're buried out at the Riverside Cemetery.
T: When were they brought back to the states? How much longer was that?
R: I was back home already then, you know. I think their parents called me up and I remember going out to Riverside Cemetery and burying the same two guys again.
T: I guess I assumed that a lot of the fellows that were killed in combat remained there. Their bodies were not brought back home.
R: I think it was up to the parents. I imagine it cost a certain amount of money to….
T: I wonder if the government helped.
R: I don't know how that worked. I don't know.
T: Well that's sort of tragic. And those were guys that you knew well.
R: Oh yeah. Sure. But when we were in Leyte, we were there I would say a month, six weeks before we got rotated. But I remember the day just as clear as ever. We were down on the beach filling sand bags, making 50 caliber gun emplacements and somebody from 6th or 8th Army Headquarters, I don't remember what, 8th Army I think, headquarters, came down and said, "[Suda], Kellerman, Reichenberger, here's your rotation papers." We threw the shovels in the ocean! (Laughter). Well, then…
T: I imagine that'd be a joyous occasion.
R: Yeah. And then…
T: What was the date? Do you remember that date or an approximation thereof?
R: Well, let's see, it hadda be October or November. Possibly moreso in November.
T: Of what year? Would it be '44?
R: Yeah. '44. Because our goal in those days was, "Home alive in '45." That was our…
T: I guess I never heard that expression.
R: Yeah. Home alive in '45. Anyway then the three of us, we said goodbye to all our buddies and everything, turned in our rifles, went to the Tacloben airport to fly out. We had to report back to Hollandia, New Guinea. That's where the ship was to take us back. Well, we said goodbye to all our buddies, turned in our stuff, got down to the Tacloben airport and here on a huge bulletin board were, here were three buck sergeants we were at that point…
T: So you did make some rank?
R: Oh yeah. Three buck sergeants and we look on the bulletin board and here's the rotation list for the guys to fly out? Well it starts out with colonels, generals, captains. And here we are way on the bottom of the list. Well we'll never get the hell out of here, you know?
So then we went back to our camp again and that night of all nights there was an alarm that Japanese paratroopers were dropped near our position. So here we are without guns because we'd turned em all in already. We had go back and get one from - each guy got a rifle then from the quartermaster guy, supply sergeant to give us a gun. Then they sent out Philippino guerillas that really took care of the so-called paratroopers. Whatever it was.
So then the next day we went back to the Tacloben airport again. And this is all hitch-hiking to get there. With trucks going by, you know. So we got there and I remember Chuck [Suda] saying, "We needn't gonna put our name on the bulletin board. As soon as a C-47 comes in and gets unloaded, we're going out there and talk to the pilot.
T: How was [Suda's] name spelled? Can you remember?
R: S U D A. Charlie, Charles his first name was. We called him Chuck of course. And the three of us got out there and the pilot says, "Okay, let me see your papers." We showed him our papers. "Hop on."
T: You didn't have to compete with the generals then.
R: No. He was from, the pilot was from Spokane, Washington. I'll always remember that. He said, "But I'm not going to Hollandia." We said to him, "Get us out of here." So we landed in a little island called Pelilu which was, when you looked at it from the sky, it looked like a dime in the water. It was coral reef. So we landed there and this pilot that was, "Well, you guys gotta go to Hollandia. There's a plane out of here tomorrow morning at 4 o'clock in the morning. You gotta be there or you'll miss the flight."
So that night, we took turns staying awake, the three of us, so that we wouldn't miss that flight. And we flew to Hollandia and we were in Hollandia about maybe a month and got on the troop ship and came back home.
T: Probably another long trip back home on the troopship.
R: Yeah. Well not as, it was fast going back. Because comin over, we…
T: Where did you land when your troopship hit the states?
R: Frisco. On New Years Eve.
T: Were you able to get off the ship?
R: And they wouldn't let us off the ship. And we heard all the hilarity going on in town but they wouldn't let us off the ship. Maybe it's a good thing.
T: Where did you go from San Francisco?
R: To Camp Pendleton which is across the Bay. Right past - what's the prison out there - Alcatraz. You could see that. And we went across to Camp Pendleton. And that's where we got, oh none of us had any clothing or anything. Just, when we got off the ship I remember I had just a blanket and you know, it was cold comin in.
T: Some guys told me that when they got back to the states, they got a 30-day leave. They didn't get discharged yet but they got this leave to go home and, was that the case with you?
R: Same thing, Same thing. Yeah.
T: I imagine that was a very pleasant experience to come back to Oshkosh.
R: Oh yeah. That was amazing.
T: Was that a train ride?
R: All train.
T: I imagine that trip seemed long; you couldn't get there fast enough.
R: Oh yeah, it's really a long haul.
T: Tell me about when you met your folks.
R: It was uncanny. At that time I was writing to my first wife who has passed away about thirty years ago. And she was there with my mother and my father to greet me comin in. When I got off the train, Emmy, she gave me a big kiss of course and my mom, I can remember her as she said, "Ralph, you're bleeding!" And here it was nothing but lipstick. So it was a glorious reunion.
T: After your leave was up I suppose you had to go back to Camp Pendleton or did you go somewhere else?
R: No. We went to Miami Beach, Florida for rehab.
T: Strange the way the army works, isn't it?
R: Yeah. And we were there for quite awhile, the three of us. I remember we bought a case of Schlitz beer and we went into, what is the big bowl down there, Sugar Bowl? Or Cotton Bowl or? And went in there and the three of us drank the beer.
T: Well that sounds like pretty good rehabilitation. Why did they send you to something that was called rehabilitation? What was the…?
R: We didn't have nothin to do there. Nothin to do. We were in the, what was the name of the hotel, I think it was called the Roosevelt. Right on the beach. And you could walk around and just, it was great. It was just great.
T: How long were you there?
R: Probably a couple weeks. And then from there I was shipped to Fort Sheridan, Illinois. And see, at that time they were still getting in a lot of German prisoners, and Italian prisoners of war. And most of the guys were sent to all these farm camps where the Germans and Italians were that did the farm work at that time. But I was, I wasn't sent there. I was sent to the Veterans Home at Wood, Wisconsin which is in West Allis. And that's where I was sent. And during all that time was when I was getting all my attacks of malaria.
T: I see. When did you start to get malaria? Was it when you were in New Guinea?
R: No. First got it when I got back home to the states. Never had it overseas.
T: I know some guys had it real tough. I think Clarence…
T: Yeah. I think he had it.
R: Oh I had, I never got it overseas but when I got home here we didn't have any atabrine to bring home or quinine. And I got, I had 22 bouts of it.
T: Over how long a period of time?
R: Oh that was a long period of time. When it started out, I was getting like 100% disability. And as the attacks dwindled, so did the disability. Finally it got down to 10% and then nothin.
T: And you were discharged then from Fort Sheridan?
R: No, I was discharged from Camp McCoy.
T: What was the date that you were discharged? Do you remember that?
R: August the 15th, the day of the Japanese surrender. And there again, they wouldn't let us out of camp because we were in the process of getting discharged. The rest of the guys, they all went to Milwaukee. Maybe it's a good thing, you know.
T: Yeah, might have kept you out of trouble. So you were probably in McCoy or in Wood when they dropped the atomic bomb.
R: It hadda been, I would say we were in McCoy at the time.
T: How did you receive that news?
R: It was just screaming and hollering, you know. I think they were all, at Camp McCoy, everybody was getting discharged at that time. So it was a happy moment for everybody, you know.
T: I think that just about everybody, in contradistinction to what goes on today, everybody was pretty happy that they dropped that bomb. There was a lot of lives saved - probably Japanese lives were saved too.
R: Oh both ways, both sides.
T: I think many felt that would have been a horrendous thing to invade Japan.
R: There would have been millions of American guys killed and millions of Japanese killed, You know, civilians and - saved a lot of lives, you know. They always talk about the atomic bomb…
(The first tape ends here).
R: Well they always say about the atomic bomb, sure it killed a lot of people instantly, you know. But there were more people killed in Tokyo with fire bombing than were killed at Nagasaki and Hiroshima, you know.
T: We tend to lose sight of some of those points. Well, what happened after you were mustered out of the service, Ralph? Did you get yourself a job or did you go to school?
R: I went and came to my dad and he said, "Well you can start working for me in the butcher shop." Twenty bucks a week, six in the morning 'til six at night.
T: Meat was still rationed then, wasn't it?
R: Sure. Oh that was another thing. We got black market hogs I remember. I'd get home, and I was married then, married my high school sweetheart, and ah…
T: What was her name?
R: Emmy [Perkimer]. And she was two years behind me in school. But anyway I remember my dad calling up at 2 in the morning: "Ralph, come in. I got about 12 hogs here we gotta cut up yet tonight." Sure, then I just kept workin there at my dad's butcher shop.
T: When you were in the service, did you get any decorations?
R: Oh, just the regular ones, you know.
T: Can you tell me what they were?
R: No, I don't remember what they were.
T: The usual stuff; the infantryman's rifle badge…
R: All that stuff. Yeah. Overseas bars and that kind of stuff.
T: Because of the fact that you got malaria, were you eligible for a Purple Heart? Did that entire the picture at all?
R: No, no. They never gave Purple Hearts for that.
T: I didn't really understand that.
R: I think you had to be wounded with some kind of a shrapnel or something, you know.
T: Did you have children of your own?
R: Yes, I have four children. My daughter Carol was born, let's see, I married in '45, she was born about '47 or '48. Oh, January of '48 she was born. And then I had a son David. He was born August of 1950. And then I waited ten years and had two more kids. Two more boys.
T: Sort of an afterthought; that's great.
R: My wife was a registered nurse. She graduated from the Mercy School of Nursing here in Oshkosh. That building is tore down now. And she worked for many years out at Winnebago State Hospital as a psychiatric nurse.
T: I had a girlfriend for awhile, her name was Bernice Egan and she worked out there. Every once in awhile she'd get a black eye or something.
R: Oh, my wife got hit a few times.
T: I guess you had to be pretty cautious.
R: I can remember she would come home and say her hat was torn off. They had them starched hats in those days. You don't see that much anymore. And the white starched uniforms. That's why the nurses always looked so nice. But now you go to hospital, you don't see that anymore.
T: And you say you lost your wife some thirty years ago. What happened?
R: She died of ovarian cancer.
T: That's too bad. Did you ever get married again?
R: Oh yes. I got married two years later and I've been married again now for 28 years with my second wife.
T: How did the war affect you? Do you think it changed you Ralph in any way?
R: I think the way it changed me is that I got so close to my buddies. In fact they were more close to me than my real family. It was a [comaraderieship] of just, you just felt closer. Like, you don't feel it with your, well I feel it today with my brothers and sisters. You know it's close, we were very close. But in those days, it was more or less you…
T: Some guys said, "It made a man out of me." Because you were just really a kid when you went in.
R: I was 17. Got out when I was 23. Six years, you know, actually your growing up years.
T: When you got back to Oshkosh after the war, did you discover that some of your friends had been lost during the war? Had you lost any close friends, guys that you knew in school?
R: Oh yeah. Little neighbor man across the street, a kid, Raymond Heisler, like he was in the service only a very short period of time. He was drafted and he was killed in the Battle of the Bulge. So you know they shipped guys over there so fast and without a lot of even training. Give em a gun and go.
T: Yeah, I heard that. Particularly about the "Bulge." That some of the units that went over there were improperly prepared for it.
R: It just hadda be, they hadda get people in there.
T: Do you think very much of the war today or is it something that you've sort of put out of your…?
R: Yeah, you kinda do that. You know you got your family to live with and grandkids and stuff.
T: When we first talked on the phone, you said that you'd made some fast friends in Australia and that you still correspond with them.
R: It's really a story that has to be told, as Ollie North says on his program. It's a story that has to be told. You know he's on every Sunday night.
Well, when we got over there and playing at one of these dances, I met, I was 19 at the time, and I met this Australian girl. Peggy Wilkinson was her name and she was sixteen. And we got to be good friends and I was invited quite a few times out to her folks house for dinner with my buddies. And I recall the first time we were invited out there. What did they even call it? Dinner? Tea. We were invited out for tea. So in fact it was Eddie [Troxell] and I went out to the house. But before we went out there we thought oh, we're just gonna get tea. We went and had fish and chips in Adelaide. Ate a big meal, get out there and their tea is the big meal of the day at night. Sort of their dinner hour.
T: Sort of embarrassing if you've loaded up.
R: It was. They had a big leg of lamb, I remember. And a big fruitcake that they lit with flames comin up. You know, it was real…
T: Did a lot of Australian families have GI's in their house? It was a common practice?
R: Oh yeah. Common practice.
T: It was very nice of them.
R: It was wonderful.
T: I guess they were pretty happy to have America there at that particular time, helping them because the Japanese were so close.
R: They were still bombing Darwin up there on very north. So you know, we were like saviors, so to speak.
T: Did you ever get the opportunity to go back to Australia?
R: Oh yeah. I got to tell you about this. This is where the story has to be told.
Well then, Peggy and I went out maybe eight, ten times. Went to movies, went to different dances while we were in the Adelaide area. And then when we shipped out, I wrote her maybe a couple letters from Brisbane. And we corresponded a little. But then when we got up into the islands in New Guinea and that, I just stopped. That's enough. I'll never see her again anymore. What's the difference. You know what I mean.
So then after I got back home and back to the states and everything, and this is 47 years later, a friend of mine, a friend from Oshkosh here, Matt Ebersberger and his wife went to Australia on a trip. So they wound up in Adelaide on one of their excursions and Matt worked for the Telephone Company here in town. And they're walking down the street in Adelaide and he saw a big sign: Telecommunications Museum. Hey, that's just my fancy so I'm goin in there and I want to see how their telephone systems work.
So he's talking with a guy in there and they said, "Well, we're gonna exchange brochures from each other." So then after Matt got home, he got a letter from this guy whose name was Ken Work. And in the letter it said, "Matt," who he knew was from Oshkosh, "You don't by any chance know a chap by the name of Ralph Reichenberger who was friendly with my wife during World War II?" Well, my God!
So immediately I got the address and I wrote to Peggy and Ken. I wrote em my whole history in 47 years quickly. You know. And then we find out that they're comin, he's, Ken's a pilot, that they're comin to Oshkosh to EAA. So I said to Matt, we found out just when they were comin in to Milwaukee. I said to Matt Ebersberger, I said, "Matt, we'll go down there and pick em up in my car."
And we got there at Mitchell Field down there in Milwaukee. And I said, "Matt, you know Ken. I don't know Ken but I want to see if I can pick out Peggy comin in off the tarmac." And by golly, I did. After the 47 years. And then getting into things, hugged and kissed and greet each other like we never had been…
T: What year was that, Ralph?
R: Let's see. I should have brought my diary here.
T: What was Peggy's maiden name?
R: Wilkinson. Let's see now. It hadda be, I would say, about 12 years ago. So that'd be early 1990, somewhere in there. And anyway, of course we got em here to Oshkosh and we had big parties and we had just an enjoyable time greeting them again.
Well then the following year my wife and I went back to Australia and stayed with them. And Peggy thought I was killed in action because I never wrote to her again. But you know it was just one of them things, you know. And we're still friends to this day. We've called each other a few times but now we mostly write. Send gifts back and forth.
T: Well that's great. I think that is the most interesting thing that I've heard in a long time.
R: Can you believe that, you know? And it just…
T: How life works.
R: It's hard to imagine. It's just like my buddy meeting his brother across the street.
T: This is even more of a chancy thing.
R: For Matt to go into this place and talk to…
T: And that was in Adelaide. So then she lived her whole life there.
R: Oh yeah. It was a suburb of Adelaide which was called Norwood.
T: I guess it's a fairly good-sized…
R: A huge city. Yeah. And we went back there and we met, well she met my children and then when we would go back over there, we met her three children, a boy and two girls. And stayed with them and just had a glorious time. Those people over there are just, Aussies are just wonderful people.
T: You know, they're some of our loyal allies. They have been right straight through. Others have sort of kicked us around a little. But the Aussies have always stuck by us. And do you think that harks back to World War II and the relationships that were….?
R: I think so. I really believe so because it was like the Americans were the saviors of Australia at that particular time. Most of the Aussies were fighting in Africa. You know, the Aussies themselves.
T: Do you think they still, from your experience in correspondence and so forth, do you think they still have a pretty high regard for America and Americans?
R: Oh, I think so. I think so. So we had a glorious time over there with Peggy and Ken and their kids. And they just couldn't do enough for us. I couldn't get my wallet out of my back pocket. And I'd have to fight em to pay for something.
T: Friendships like that, they're just like gold.
R: I just sent em a long letter, just the other day. And I always get correspondence from Peggy and then Ken writes on his computer. It's all computerized. Peggy writes by hand. Ken writes all on his computer. Nice long letters to let us know what's going on. They've both had some medical problems but … See, I'm 81 so Peg must be either 78 or 79 and I imagine Ken is up there too.
T: Well, is there anything else that relates to World War II that you'd like to touch on, Ralph? That we haven't hit. I think we've pretty much touched all the bases.
R: I've, you know I've got such great friends to this day because of that war. I go to church almost every Saturday night with Hank Criha who's named in that book. Inky Jungwirth.
T: This Hank, what is his last name?
R: Kriha. K R I H A. His name is in the book that I just got. My son gave me the book for my Christmas present this year. Because he knows how Interested I am. And Reuben Drexler. You know Reuben?
T: I don't know him.
R: You know Inky.
T: I've met his wife. His wife belongs to the Oshkosh Fine Arts Association that I belong to. I've never met him personally. I've transcribed his oral histories which were exceedingly interesting.
R: Inky and I, oh well we all belong to the Sacred Heart Parish. There was so many of us that belonged to Sacred Heart Parish that were in the National Guards. So it's the friendships that you make that you possibly would never have made. But because of the war, they were made and you still hold on to them to this day, you know.
T: Well, that's great.
R: I think so, you know?
T: Well it's been very nice talking to you, Ralph and I certainly appreciate your willingness to come down.
R: Well, it's part of my life, you know.
T: Well we're sure glad to be able to record it.
R: And I'm so pleased with that book that I got.
T: I'm glad to hear that. We're sort of hoping that it's going to be seller. It's got an important message for a lot of people.
R: Oh, it's a beautiful book. You know it touches on every phase.
T: And a lot of young kids, they, well I can remember when I was a kid, World War I was not too far back but it was ancient history to me. And that's the way World War II is for a lot of kids today. It would be nice if they could learn more about the sacrifices that our people made.
R: That's why I like Ollie North's program. It's a story that should be told, you know. And it covers all phases of the war. Not only Army, or Navy, or Air Corps, it covers everything. This last week they had Ollie North and the dogs that were used in the war.
T: I'm going to terminate this now.
R: Go right ahead.
Oral History Interview with Ralph Reichenberger.
-WORLD WAR II
-Copyright Oshkosh Public Museum
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