|Cassette recorded oral history interview with John H. Sitter, United States Coast Guard. He was assigned to the troopship U.S.S. Admiral E.W. Eberle and they carried troops to first the Far East (New Guinea, Philippines and other islands) and then to the European Theater of war. When the war ended, John's ship was in the Far East as part of a 1000 ship task force preparing for the invasion of Japan.
John Sitter Interview
28 April 2004
Conducted by Tom Sullivan
(T: identifies the interviewer, Tom Sullivan; J; identifies the subject, John Sitter. Open brackets [ ] or bracketed words indicate that either a word or phrase is not understood, or that proper spelling for the word is unclear).
T: It's April 28th, 2004 and I'm Tom Sullivan at the Oshkosh Public Museum with John Sitter who is going to be telling me about his experiences in the Second World War. Are you ready to go Jack?
B: Okay. Tell me first when and where you were born?
J: I was born in Oshkosh in 1925, February 13th.
B: Were your mother and dad also from the Oshkosh area?
J: All their life. My mother and dad lived here all their life.
T: Did you have any brothers and sisters?
T: Where did your family live? What neighborhood?
J: I lived two houses from the lake on Waugoo.
T: Okay. Tell me about your childhood. Where you went to school and some of the things that you did outside of school for fun.
J: I went to school in Washington School from Kindergarten to eighth grade. Then directly to high school. And my interests were, my uncle had a two masted ketch and I sailed a lot with him. I ice-boated. I had rowboats. I rowed all over the area, up from Buttes des Morts to the island. And was on the water all my life. And not much of a fisherman. But I had a lot of interests. I did carpentry work and my father was in the furniture business so I helped there. I had a very nice life.
T: I see. When you were a young fellow we were pretty much in the depths of the Depression. Did the Depression affect your family directly or did you have it fairly decent through the Depression.
J: We lived well during the Depression because my father was a gambler. He quit his job and sold our house and sold his life insurance policy, borrowed on it. And we started the furniture business in the heart of the Depression in 1932.
T: That would require some courage.
J: And we opened a store on Main Street which we heated with coal and two coal stoves. He did very well. He retired when he was 46 years old when the war ended, the day the war ended almost.
T: Where on Main Street was that store located?
J: The first building from the river going north on the north side of the river.
T: So Dunham Fulton Gun Company was in there in that area.
J: That's it. That was farther north.
T: Were you on the east side of the street?
J: Both. Started out on the east side and finished in that four story building on the west side. It had a big sign, "Sitter Furniture" if you were old enough, if you were here long enough.
T: Yeah. Well I was born in '28 but I just can't quite visualize exactly where the Sitter…
J: Well it was the first building, right after Sam Kingsley's Gun Shop. It was the first real building from the river. It was four floors, had two elevators. And Sitter Furniture was in great big yellow, not yellow, blue sign when you came over the bridge.
T: Back in the Depression can you recall friends of yours that were perhaps affected more by the Depression? How was Oshkosh in general affected?
J: Oshkosh was in the doldrums because of the woodworking and no construction. Most of my friends were on welfare and WPA and so forth. And we used to take one of my friends with us wherever we could go. He's dead now too. But my folks, of course we weren't wealthy, they were just starting in business but we had a fair income and we rented a house and finally built one in '36. So it took em three or four years to build one. And then we had, I had a nice upbringing.
T: In the late 30's and early 40's there was war in Europe and there was war in the Far East. Did you give any thought to that, you and your pals? Or didn't it really enter into…
J: The only war I remember is the Spanish Civil War that I got interested in with Hemingway, reading his stuff.
T: When you were in school, grade school or high school, did they talk about the war very much?
J: Oh yes, yes. Not the war but my history was well done. And I was always interested in the Revolutionary War and Civil War and that's I guess how I probably got into teaching.
T: Now you finished, when did you finish high school?
J: In '39, in January, I mean '41 in January, '43 in January.
T: I imagine you felt that you were going to have to go in the service. That was the rule.
J: I can remember the football game when December 7th, when the thing…
T: I was going to ask you about Pearl Harbor.
J: I can remember it vividly. It was at 11:30 and my dad said, "You'll probably be going." I said, "Well I don't mind." And so I was prepared for it and I volunteered to be drafted as soon as I was 18. Another buddy of mine volunteered to be drafted because I said… I had soloed when I was 16 in a plane with Wittman. But I didn't have 20/20 vision. And I tried to get in V-5. That was the Navy Air Force. And I went and I enrolled in Wake Forest College in Illinois and of course you had to be enrolled before you could get in V-5. So I flunked out in the physical though I had pretty near 20/20 vision. I didn't wear glasses, you know. And I had been flyin for two years. It was a pity I didn't, well I'm glad I didn't get in. I'd been dead probably by now.
T: Well it was risky business, I guess.
J: So one of my best hunting friends was a sailor all his life too. Down at the Yacht club. We sailed Snipe. So I said, "Rosie, we better get in something clean instead of the Army." So we went with the 270 draft people. On a whole train with the All-Star basketball team was on it. (The Oshkosh All Stars).
T: So you really were, as a draftee you were headed for the Army more or less, or wherever Uncle Sam wanted to put you. How did you get into the Coast Guard?
J: That's so interesting, it's cute. So we volunteered to be drafted. So we went down with the draftees. When we got down there, we went through the same thing that all the 270 soldiers did. When we got to the end of the line, they said something about preference and I said, "We came here to get in the Coast Guard." The sergeant says, "The Coast Guard quota's filled. You're going in the Army." So all our papers were going through the fortieth typists. And I saw a Commander in the Navy walkin around as the boss of the recruitment thing. And I said, "Sir, we're getting shanghaied into the Army and we're good sailors. We've been on the water all our life. And we don't want to go in until we get drafted." He says, "Well I can fix you up." He says, "Where's your papers?" I said, "They're in the typewriter, see?" He said, "Show em too me." So he went and tore em both out of the typewriters. Rosie's and mine. Rosie is still here in Oshkosh.
T: What is his last name?
J: McDonald. Earl McDonald. And so he tore em up and made a call to the post office in Milwaukee. And he said, "I got you in on the next month's quota." Wasn't he a nice man?
T: Yes. I imagine you were overjoyed, having spent a lot of time on the water anyway.
J: Well see, one of our older friends that was at the Yacht Club, he got in on, in the Coast Guard on submarine patrol on a schooner. Well that was duck soup for us. To get on a sailing ship, you know? As duty? Even if it was submarine patrol. So that was really neat.
So they picked us up in a van and took us right to the post office in Milwaukee. The old post office on Wisconsin and the guy was really nice to us. He said, "Well," he said, "You just turned, you're gonna turn 18 in a couple days or something." And he said, "We don't want you until March 10th." My birthday was in February. So he said, "Here's the stuff. You report to New York March 10th. We'll send you the tickets." And he swore us in right then.
T: That's great! Then you went to New York. Tell me about the training you received in the Coast Guard.
J: Oh, well I had been to New York before so when we got the subway tickets and everything, I knew what we were doing because we had gone out to that area. So we went to Manhattan Beach. It was an old Coast Guard Surf Station. And there were 25,000 guys there and we fit in real well. We stayed in cottages with spaces between the floorboards and it was colder than hell in March from the ocean. We had to row out in the ocean. Those big longboats. Those big whaleboats. But we knew how to row. Most of the people didn't know how to row even, you know. They'd fall in, I mean fall backwards. Of course that was duck soup for us. And we spent three months there and I enjoyed it. We really liked it.
T: Was that sort of the equivalent of basic training in…
J: Well it was basic training. We learned to march and shoot and we learned to do everything. Seamanship which we all knew more knots than the instructor did. And we had a lot of physical training. And this is interesting. Jack Dempsey was a Commander in the Coast Guard in charge of physical training at that boot camp.
J: And so we - I got beat up every day for three months. He had all his friends, sergeants, well they weren't sergeants. They were Petty Officers, training us, you know. I got knocked out two or three times. Boxing and judo and everything. They weren't abusive. But we never objected, you know. I mean it was part of the game. And we marched in the Memorial Day parade with our guns. And went through normal boot camp.
T: A lot of fellows from towns like Oshkosh had never been anywhere until they got into the Army but you apparently had been around a little.
J: Well I'd been to Florida and I'd been to a lot of areas. I traveled a lot with my mother and dad. It's a good thing I went along with Rosie because he had never been across the street, you know. So we had some friends that lived across the street from us and my folks did. They lived in St. Albans and so they used to pick us up and take us to Chinatown and all that stuff. And Sheepshead Bay was a very fashionable seafood place in Brooklyn. And my folks, my dad came to see us and my mother came to see us in New York because they liked New York.
T: That's great. Sounds like that would not be too hard to take.
J: Yeah. And Rosie enjoyed all this attention, you know, my friend. What I'm gonna say, the other thing we enjoyed, we would go to 99 Park Avenue every Saturday when we had liberty. We saw fourteen plays in a row that the USO gave us. We had 14 hotel weekends. We had 14 football games or baseball games. We had so many things to do. The theater and the boat rides around New York and the ball games. And the Stage Door Canteen and the Pepsi-Cola Canteen. We had a regular regime of ah, kept us busy.
And we met our two high school teachers walking down Broadway. Pete Schultz and ah, I forgot the other guy right now. Kenny Hanson? They were both lieutenants in the Navy. And then I met a girl that I knew. Lynch, her name was Patty Lynch and her father was a doctor in Oshkosh. She was going to school in Washington, D.C. and she invited me down for a dance. Boy, we just had a glorious time.
T: That doesn't sound like the basic training that a lot of guys had.
J: Well because we were in the city we had the advantage of taking the subway for a nickel down to Times Square.
T: What was the procedure then after you completed your basic training?
J: Then we took, we all took achievement tests and I had the highest mark ever gotten in the Coast Guard in mechanics. Got one wrong. I got the numbers right in this book.
So we both went to a motor-mach. school. Machinist mate. Motor-mach. means for small engines. And we went there for a couple of months. And lived at Coney Island in the Half Moon Hotel. That's where they put us up. So we would march down the boardwalk to the subway and then take a couple subways over to the Queens and went to a machinist's school for a couple months.
And then that was the end of New York.
T: Where did you go after machinist school?
J: A whole bunch of us shipped to the receiving station in St. Louis, Missouri.
T: Why did you go to Missouri? What was there?
J: That was the receiving station for disbursing and at that time they needed "Motor Macs." And I became a Machinist Mate on an LST ferry crew. They made LST's in Seneca, Illinois and we took em down to New Orleans. And Rosie, since his name was McDonald, he went immediately back to Boston and got on an icebreaker to Iceland. And that's where he spent his time, from Boston to Iceland on submarine patrol. Which I'm glad I didn't get on.
T: Where did you go then after St. Louis? How long were you in St. Louis?
J: We were only there, I was only there a few months and then… The Coast Guard was guarding the power plants at Watts Bar Dam that made power for the Oak Ridge for refining uranium. So these power plants were crucial. So they had the Coast Guard with a boat on each side of the dam, guarding the dam.
T: And what dam was that again?
J: Watts Bar at Chattanooga. Tennessee Valley. TVA. And we were way out in the middle of nowhere and we had to hitchhike to town for liberty. We lived on this thing all the time. Four of us, and one guy was always gone. And we patrolled with machine guns.
J: I was a Machinist Mate. I was in charge of the two engines but I stood a regular watch, four on and eight off.
T: I understand.
J: And so that was kind of an interesting experience for six or eight months.
T: What kind of a boat was it?
J: It was one of those dollar-a-year boats that people donated to the government. It was a 36 foot twin-engine Chris-Craft.
T: So it had been a pleasure boat before.
J: Yes. Full of cockroaches. When the lights went out, the cockroaches took over. And we hadda sit up all night and watch the dam. And when any boat came, and there were lots of towboats, you know, we hadda guard em and check their passes. Nobody could go through the dam, we'd catch em a couple miles down the road. Tennessee River. And board em while they were going and then we'd check their passes.
T: So the dam had a lock arrangement there.
J: Oh yes. A 54-foot lock. One of the highest ones on the Tennessee. And we were just four guys, you know, that never knew each other. And we all got along good. We cooked. Each guy cooked a day and each guy was gone a day into Chattanooga for relief. Because you're just sittin out on that boat day and night.
T: I suppose it gets boring.
J: It was boring but we had a rowboat and we used to row over to shore and talk to the natives and get a little… We had extra canned good, see? We had to do our own cooking. And we had extra so we'd change it for a little whiskey. A little home made whiskey. We weren't without our fun!
And we hadda take a shower in the dam. In the damn dam. That was the only place we had for water. We only carried enough drinking water on the boat for a little washing.
We had an alcohol stove for cooking. All boats had alcohol stoves in those days. And no heat. It was cold in winter. And we had pretty nice bunks. I had a front, the front. I had, I slept with a guy.
T: How did, how long did that particular…?
J: That only lasted seven months. And then they needed water tenders. The Coast Guard started to get in troop carriers. Here's how many troop carriers we had. (Shows Tom a list of carriers).
T: Oh boy.
J: But they were all steam and nobody was, nobody in the Coast Guard was steam oriented. But since I had a good I.Q. for mechanics, they sent me back to New York to a water tender's school. A boiler man is the water tender.
So I didn't think I was going to like that. So I applied for the Coast Guard Academy. And I got sent there. The doctor that gave me my eye test, and the Coast Guard didn't have, in New York the doctor didn't have… He was an old guy and the Coast Guard didn't have eye doctors. Optometrists. So they sent me to this old bird and they did give me a good test and I got by.
So I got to the Academy and I was there about four months and, you know, it's one of those six-month wonder jobs? And they checked my eyes and I wasn't 20/20. So I went back to another water tender school.
T: Oh gosh!
J: But this time I was in, they invented a new type of boiler so they shipped me to Philadelphia Navy Yard. All by myself. This was all by myself. So I went to the Philadelphia Navy Yard in November, something like that to learn these new high-pressure thousand degree steam boilers. Babcock & Wilcox. Which nobody knew how to run. No old timers knew how to run em. They were much faster.
So that was full so I waited around there for a month or two and I was a driver for a Captain. I had my own station wagon. Well I was an odd duck, you know. I was a Coast Guard guy in the Navy. They didn't know what to do with me. And I didn't like staying in that Philadelphia Navy Yard. I slept on the eighth bunk. You needed a parachute up there.
So I got all my time off. I wanted, as soon as I was driving the Captain around, then he said, "Go home." So I stayed at a USO overnight for a buck or something. Then when I got in school of course I couldn't do that. I got in this boiler school. I went until January.
T: Now what year was that, John?
J: Must be 1944.
T: '44. So you went in in '43. So sometime in '44, how long did that boiler school last?
J: It lasted a month or two.
T: Then you were all set.
J: Then I'm all on my own again. They got a track on me, because Coast Guard was small, you know. So a ship was being built and it was just going to be commissioned out in California and the water tender got sick. One of em, for the boiler room. So I was the guy that filled the bill. So they shipped me out there alone on a sleeper. But I could stop home because I hadn't been home for a year or so.
And so I went out on a sleeper to Alameda, California and got on the ship and became a "plank owner." You know, I commissioned it. I was on the commissioning and later the decommissioning. So I did all that time...
T: You spent all your time on the same ship.
J: Yeah. And here's when we christened it. (Shows Tom a photo of the vessel). Now a daughter of a man who was a friend of mine comes to the reunion and she sent me that picture.
T: I see. What type of ship would you call that now? What was that called?
J: An Admiral Class Troop Transport. Built just for that. Carried 6500 people. Everybody had a bunk. Nothin like the Queen Elizabeth or all those ships that they had to sleep in shifts. The staff, we got the world's record still crossing the ocean - the Pacific. I got a picture of that too. I'll show you after awhile.
T: What was the size of the crew complement on the ship?
J: It was 560 plus 50 Marines that were the policemen.
T: Plus you said, 6500 troops.
J: Yeah well, 6000 troops about. Yeah. And so I commissioned it, then we ran along Catalina Island to calibrate everything, you know. And degauss it. You know what that means? Anti-magnetic.
J: And did all that stuff and then the first place we left for, and that was February maybe, was Finchhaven, New Guinea. Seven or eight thousand miles non-stop.
T: And that would be early in '45 then?
J: Right. February or something like that.
T: How long did it take you to get there?
J: I can't remember.
T: Did you have good weather?
J: Oh, that doesn't hurt us, you know. We were big. We went full steam. We made 560 miles a day. And we have the record across the Pacific, eight and a half days. But that's the great circle route, up around the Aleutians.
And so we took troops there to Finchhaven. And then we dropped the troops off and then we picked up a bunch of wounded, another bunch, and went over to Hollandia. And then we, I should look on my list. Well it doesn't hurt.
T: At that particular time, when you went to Finchhaven and Hollandia, were there, was there enemy activity in that area?
J: Oh yeah. There were half a million Japs on there and they were surrounded. And we were starving them out.
T: Did you have any problem with Japanese submarines or planes or anything like that?
J: No. We never had trouble with submarines because we were too fast and they could never catch up with us. Or get ahead of us.
T: You didn't have to be part of a convoy then either, if…
J: No. No. Because, no. We only had a convoy when we got in tight places like around the Philippines? Do you know what the Indianapolis was? That's the one where the sharks ate a thousand men. We were 12 miles from them but we couldn't go there because the Japanese captain on the submarine was waiting for somebody to save these guys. And we got, we were 600 miles out of Manila and they said, "Don't go. You got 5000 troops. Don't go." And so they were never saved, you know. for a couple days until they chased the submarine away.
T: Sorta tragic.
J: I heard the Japanese on the History Channel. The Japanese captain said he was waiting. I just absolutely couldn't believe I heard it. I knew that it happened. But I didn't know if it was true.
T: What type of a ship was the Indianapolis? Was that a battleship?
J: No, no. That was a kind of a troop carrier and a cargo ship. It took the bomb, you know. It took the atomic bomb one way and came back with the wounded and soldiers.
T: I see.
J: I really never seen it, you know. It sunk. We were 12 miles away.
T: What was your daily life like on the ship? What was the food like and the guys that you associated with?
J: The daily life was terrible because it drove you nuts. Four on and eight off hours for thirty-forty days at a time. You never had a whole day. You kept changing your watches so that everybody didn't have a bad watch. And all it does is existing, eating and sleeping and taking showers because it was always 110 in the fire room, you know. Playing a little cards for candy bars. We had movies every night, almost. And we liked to see these PBY airplanes come in and give us our mail and our new movies.
T: I was going to ask you about the mail. You know, being on ship like that, was mail delivery pretty few and far between?
J: Oh no. Three, four months at a time. It wasn't bad. Because they kept good track of us.
T: You probably got a bunch of stuff all at once.
J: Yeah. We'd see the old PBY come alongside of us and then we'd slow down and they'd stop and we'd send a whaleboat over to get our stuff.
The food was not bad because I ate everything anyway. It was just a lot of powdered stuff and artificial stuff.
We had nice beds. We had our laundry. We could get our laundry done. We had a piano. We had a guy that could play the piano. We really had a nice, we had church, you know. I got pictures of 6000 guys in church. Every time we came into, we were going to dump em for an invasion, they, everybody was at church.
T: I can understand that. I think I would be.
J: We had a nice library. I did a lot of reading. We did a few handicrafts with stainless steel, making bracelets and… Australian Florins, you could pound on the edge and make a nice, like a wedding ring. We learned all kinds of odd stuff to do.
T: Now you transported troops to battle areas. What did you do then after you had dumped those troops off? Did you take on wounded and take them somewhere else?
J: Often we did. And we were the first ship that took the survivors out of the concentration camps in Manila. The civilian survivors. We took 3800 or something like that. They were French and you know, English and everybody that was in Manila that was a civilian was thrown in a place called Santo Tomas. That's the University of Santo Tomas. I've been back to the Philippines. And so we, the women had to be forward and the men had to be aft. And so we made friends with two little Philippino American boys. And I still see one of them in Connecticut.
T: That's interesting.
J: And they interviewed all these people because there were a lot of collaborators in this 3800. So when we got to Hawaii, they took off about three or four hundred. They gave favors to the Japanese, you know. Fifth Columnists or whatever you want to call them.
T: Yeah, I understand.
J: And my uncle was a colonel in command at one. That's the Army prison camp. And they were on the first ship out. They took the Army guys out first because they were the worst off. And so I just missed them. My favorite uncle.
T: I heard that the Japanese gave the…
J: That's them coming on our ship. (Shows another photo).
T: I see.
J: A newspaperman gave me that. And there on the back, I lost the other one I guess. On the back was this stuff that went into the news, the New York News.
T: I guess the Japanese treated those people rather…
J: Oh, they didn't have any clothes. They were skeletons. They had burn marks from cigarettes. They had cuts all over em and they had no food. These two little boys, since they couldn't stay with their mother, because they couldn't have them with naked women, you know. There was no privacy. They had to stay by themselves. So they used to meet us every day and we'd give em canned grapefruit and whatever we, and Cokes.
T: I imagine that was a treat.
J: They were 14 and 15 or something like that. And their father had abandoned them. He was a Filipino. Married their mother in M.I.T. When the Japs came, he left. They won't touch him now. If he came to America, they wouldn't touch him.
T: Which is probably as it should be.
J: Yeah, they shoulda shot him.
T: Where did you, you mentioned going to the Philippines, can you enlarge on that a little bit? Your activities there.
J: After New Guinea we went up to the Philippines, well we went up to a couple places but I can't remember the names. But we went to the, I was in the Mindanao invasion, the Mindoro invasion. Those were two big islands in the south. Then we went to Luzon and then we went to Manila where they were still fighting in the north. They were still fighting on the north side of the city. And took soldiers and took wounded.
And wouldn't you know, I forgot to mention it, in New Guinea a guy came on board who was a carpenter for my dad. But he was all beat to hell and had malaria. I seen him four or five years ago. He called me up.
T: When you were there and you came in contact with this fellow, how did that happen?
J: He just came aboard ship to come home. He was so bad off.
T: You recognized him?
J: Sure. I was 18 and he was 31 maybe or something like that.
T: It's conceivable that you might not ever have seen him.
J: But he had been a carpenter at our cottage for a couple months. And they used to hang around there.
T: You hear about reunions like that.
J: I can't think of his name now but I think I got it at home. But he called me up and said, "Are you the Jack Sitter that was on that ship?" And I says, "Yeah," because I hadn't heard from him in 40 years, you know.
T: I see. That's interesting.
J: When we get on, when we brought soldiers back from Tokyo, a friend of mine got on the ship. Joe Gibson. He's still runnin around town. He was in New Guinea. He came through all the islands up to the Philippines.
T: When you loaded with wounded soldiers, where did you take them?
J: We had a hospital for a couple hundred people. And we treated em there. And we had six padded cells which they put the shell shock, if you want to call it that. That was terrible. I used to, I went and looked at em once.
We really weren't a hospital ship. We didn't take the dying, you know. We took the walking wounded.
T: I see. So they could be treated on board your ship and…
J: Oh yeah. We had a regular hospital and 25 nurses.
T: Where did those people go then?
J: We brought em back to the United States because we'd have to come back to get more troops.
T: How many trips did you make back and forth?
J: I made 12 across the Pacific and then when the Atlantic business started, I made six across the Atlantic. Went to Naples when we invaded Italy. Went to Napoli and took troops for Cassino. There another guy I met. From the West Side. They lived right over here. He was shot. He was sitting on his helmet. Shot, came aboard ship, I recognized him from high school.
T: When was it that you left the Pacific theater and went to…
J: Well just before the build-up. Just before D-Day.
T: So that would be sometime in June of '45.
J: Oh, earlier than that. Before that. You see, we invaded Italy long before that. Didn't you know that?
J: Okay. See this? This book, with the money that was left over in the PX, we published this book.
T: When was that published Jack?
J: Oh, after the war. See that? That's how many trips we made. There's a date thing I thought, back here.
T: When you were in the Pacific, how long did a trip take you on the average? Assume you were going to an area like the Philippines.
J: When we went there it only took us eight, nine days. But then we monkeyed around there. And then sometimes we came back or sometimes we took soldiers other places. Here's that record - "Troop Ship Makes Record." Lookit. It's from the… We carried paravanes and we ripped the chains, those are, you drag a thing like a kite made out of steel. You know what it is?
J: Well once we broke our paravane chains it was so rough. How many days was this now? This was an eleven day one. But then we made a faster one.
T: So early in '45 you started…
J: I got a kind of a date thing here someplace. Here it is. Naples, June 6th.
T: Was that your first trip?
J: To Europe. And then we came back to LeHavre and then we went back to Marseilles. No, I mean we came back, Geez, Gibraltar, Naples. Naples to Trinidad. Then Trinidad to LeHavre. Trinidad had a bunch of Air Force guys. Then from LeHavre to Norfolk. Marseilles, July 26th. We were really fast. We were going back and forth to beat hell.
T: Was it different traveling on the Atlantic compared to the Pacific as far as the…?
J: No difference.
T: No difference at all?
J: No. We were south of the rough land. And we never had any convoys. See, that was 4000 miles. San Francisco to Finchhaven was only 6000. But we went from Balboa to Ulithi, that's the Panama Canal, that was 8000. And you shoulda seen these soldiers. They were going nuts. We picked em up in Marseilles. They thought they were goin home. I just saw that on that thing that's on every night.
T: Oh, the history channel?
J: Yeah. It's got "The Band of Brothers" or something.
T: Yeah. That was a good one.
J: Oh, they were bitching. July 25th we picked em up. They thought they were goin home. When we hit the Panama Canal, they knew they weren't goin home. So we did 5000 to there. Then we did 8000. So they did 14,000 miles non-stop. Everybody went nuts. That's thirty days of steamin but full speed. And the black guys thought they were bein picked on because, I don't know if it's true or not, but they had garbage duty for thirty days. And you know, the Marines hadda come out with their machine guns. Nobody got shot or anything but they refused to work and everything. Now, not being part of that, I didn't know, we didn't know what was going on. Except that…
T: I remember one fellow telling me that, he was a GI on board a ship, and he said they were put to work chipping paint and things like that. Did they do that?
J: No. No one did any ship work. We had 500 in the crew. We had plenty of guys to chip paint. Besides, these were new ships. You know the old Navy thing, if it don't move, paint it. Wasn't this nice, we got this book, "Ship's Log?"
T: Oh yeah. Because one's memory fades after a few years.
J: Well I remembered em all but not trip to trip.
T: So you made a trip from Marseilles through the Panama Canal and all the way to…?
J: To Manila or to someplace… Some of them we took to Ulithi. And that was an atoll. And then from Ulithi to Batangas. That's in the Philippines. Yeah.
T: Can you think of any real memorable experiences that you had? Things that were unusual that happened? You know, outside of meeting these guys that you knew.
J: Well yeah, the big thing obviously on a troop transport is when we were in the Mindanao and Mindoro invasions. I hated to see those guys go down the side. They went down the rope ladders. The nets? They threw everything away except their ammunition and a couple lunches. K rations.
J: I had coats, blankets, jackets, shoes. I was, I dressed as a GI all the time. Because we had so many, everything. You know all they wanted was ammunition and it was hot. They had but one canteen of water. They climbed down to get in those landing barges. We had landing barges. They're bringing one out here to the, did ya hear?
T: I read that in the paper this morning.
J; Yeah, we had about twelve of em or something like that. On deck.
T: I suppose you knew that some of those guys weren't going to be coming back.
J: Oh, a lot of em weren't. Didn't you know how many people were killed in the Philippines? Twenty-six thousand. I've been at the funeral, I mean the burial ground. Twenty six thousand in the Philippines.
T: The deaths that we are experiencing in Iraq sort of pale in comparison.
J: Pale? That wasn't even a … They lost 8000 walking ashore in Okinawa. And Iwo Jima and all those. Yeah, we used to take their K-rations and everything. We were glad that, well we weren't glad that they threw em away. Understand what I mean. We had something to snack on then.
T: You made a lot of trips back and forth. Did you ever have any opportunity to get off the boat and go on leave?
J: Yeah were everywhere. We had leave. I was in New Guinea and Marseilles. And I went back to Naples and had a Campari in the same place I did in 1945. We were in Manila a couple of time. I was there. I got pictures of us in all these places. Marseilles, LeHavre. I got pictures of us all. We didn't get to LeHavre, you know, because the Germans hung around there after D-Day. They kept LeHavre because they knew we wanted to use that for big ships. So we didn't get there until June 30th, see? That's a month later.
And so we were there and I was in Trinidad. We picked up, we used to ferry airplanes. They'd fly to Trinidad and then they'd fly somewheres closer to the Atlantic Ocean and then fly to Africa. They didn't have planes that flew the Atlantic yet.
J: So we took a bunch of troops there. I remember there when I was in Trinidad. We were anchored out and we missed our boat to get back to the ship. I says, "What the hell. We'll swim out." So we did and we got halfway out and, "Are there sharks around here?" We swam out a block you know.
T: You know, we all, guys that were in the service had acquaintances, some of whom were just magnificent people, but there were some that were really odd. Can you think of any characters that you knew in the service?
J: I had a very good friend named McGarrity. He was an Irishman and he was older than we were. And he kinda took us under his wing when we went ashore. He was a real nice character. I had never met an Irishman like that. And I saw him after the war in Philadelphia where he lived.
(The first tape ends here).
Really everybody were really right people. We ah, they were the nicest bunch of guys I coulda ran across. Now I'm not saying this to be uppity but the Coast Guard you know, had a, was more of a preferred group. They didn't just, you hadda have a high school education and almost everybody had some kind of a background that was worthwhile.
T: I see. I didn't know that.
J: Yeah. We did have one fellow that came for a replacement and he was a hillbilly from Clyde, North Carolina. And we became friends. Another man, like me, made friends with him to help him along because he just couldn't get along with northern ways, you know. He's dead. He died of asbestos lungs that he got on our ship. So far his two daughters got $80,000.00 apiece. And that's only the tip of the iceberg. The company that's suing, one of those shyster lawyers in Dallas is suing, you know. That asbestos ad? They've been contacting me and they said they might want to deposition, send somebody down to Oshkosh. I said I'd rather come to Dallas. I got a friend there. I called up and I said, "You didn't tell me they each got 80.000 bucks so far." She says, "Well that's only the tip of the iceberg."
T: I know asbestos was used…
J: Well see, I was on boilers. There was asbestos everywhere. I used it like snow. When we'd get a leak in a line, we'd take it off and put it in a bucket and put water with it and put it back on.
T: Can you think of other fellows that you were in service with that contracted a similar problem?
J: Not except gonorrhea and syphilis. (Laughter). No.
T: I guess the asbestos thing will never go away. That's with us…
J: Well I was in the asbestos. Howard Queen, the hillbilly, he never was in it. But he never did anything else in his life that put him in asbestos. So there must have been asbestos in electric fuse boxes and things.
T: But you never had any symptoms that you could attribute to that.
T: Where were you when the war came to an end?
J: I was waiting in Ulithi with a thousand ships to invade Japan.
J: And boy, when we heard that on the radio! A thousand ships were there.
T: When they dropped the bomb, how did it strike you?
J: You know how it struck us. We were glad. I mean we had all these troops on the ship. They were waiting. We were there thirty days or something like that, waiting. And I got something really memorable about that. Here's when we ran across mines that were afloat, we hadda shoot em before they shot us. We destroyed quite a few mines. I got something interesting. Now this is, you see from there we went to Manila because we had all these troops. I don't know what else we were doin but I went to that thing in the stadium. (Jack is showing pictures here).
T: It looks like it was put together rather quickly.
J: Well sure. Don't forget, Manila was laid low, bombed.
T: So they had a victory Mass in what was it, Resolve Coliseum? Manila.
T: September 2nd, 1945.
J: But we were in Ulithi and then we went to Japan with our soldiers for whatever you call it.
J: Yeah. Occupation forces. And dumped em and then we took, we went back to the Philippines for some more soldiers. The war was over there too so took some more soldiers back to the United States.
T: How much time did you spend in Japan, John?
J: Well I was, we would just be there for a week and discharge and get more people aboard. And so I was in Nagoya two or three times. I got pictures of was burnt down. Nagoya I know had a million to hundred and fifty thousand people. And when we got through bombin it, fire-bombed, there was a million people lived in holes and I saw em 'cause I walked all around the town. And those wooden houses had the corrugated tin roofs. So they'd dig a hole and cover it up with the roof. Because I was in some of em. I even got pictures here. Maybe that's just in my own picture book.
Here's another interesting picture. Right here. This is a city of a million two hundred thousand people.
T: And that was a city that was fire-bombed. It almost looks like atomic bomb destruction.
J: Yeah. Nagoya. I've been back there too.
T: And it was a million three fifty-five people. What does the city look like today John? Is it all built up?
J: That's where Mitsubishi, Toyota and everybody is. Beautiful. We took the bullet train there and everything. I stopped there and a Japanese guy took us all around. Stayed there a couple days. People were very subservient. You know one guy stepped on my rubbers, kneeled down and put em on for me. Well they thought they were gonna get killed. See, I lived next to a Japanese surgeon. And he said, "Jack, when your troops came in," he was four years old, "We thought we were all gonna get killed or you were gonna poison us or something."
T: Why did they have that idea?
J: Well it's ingrained. You're supposed to get killed. You're not supposed to live when you're a loser.
T: Yeah, I know the Japanese army felt that way but…
J: But those generals didn't. All those generals should have committed hara kiri. But they were, you know…
T: When did you get out of the service? When were you discharged from the service?
J: Gee, well I know it was something like May 1946. I was frozen on my job. We were bringing troops back from the Philippines and from Japan and from Korea that had a lot less points than we did. But since they couldn't get home any other way, we were frozen and we were really mad. And Senator Pepper was getting people out. He was trying to get the people out of the service. That was one of his campaign speeches from Florida. So we wrote him and we were in Seattle and we oughta mutiny. We said we weren't gonna be on the ship if they left.
T: Well I would think there would have been replacements for you fellows.
J: But there weren't because you know, we were all stretched thin. We were all stretched thin. And so, since I was a young guy, they put a few of us on the decommissioning group and we took the ship empty from Seattle on one set of boilers. I ran one whole half the ship myself. And down to San Francisco. And we dumped it and I got on one of those troop trains to St. Louis where I was discharged. May 5th or something like that.
One interesting thing, you know. I told you I didn't want to be down in the bottom of the ship in the boilers. So as soon as I got on there, I found a way to get out of it, you know. Obviously I'm not dumb. And I made friends with a guy, called him an oil king. Now there's two oil kings on a ship and they take care of all the oil, water, diesel fuel and they pump it around. That's all you do all day long. He said the other guy left. They all had hash marks, these guys, see? One guy got sick or something and he says, "Kid, you're the only one's smart enough. You know all the tanks and everything" he says, "You're gonna be my partner." So I made Second Class and that's like Staff Sergeant.
T: I was going to ask you if you made any rank when you were…
J: Yeah. I was oil king and I was only a short time down in the dungeon there. I took that because I donated this to the museum and I wanted, I deducted a couple hundred bucks. And I had a beautiful Nazi flag. I deducted $350.00. Big as that wall. I got it in LeHavre when the Germans dumped everything. And I had 25 pistols. I just sold the last one to my cardiologist for $350.00. A German P-38 which was better than a Luger. Yeah.
T: My dad lost all of his stuff on the way back from World War I on the boat. He played poker and he had no business playing cards because he telegraphed his hand all the time. He lost all of his things that he'd accumulated.
J: When we got Japanese rifles, we'd take em into Washington or wherever we were and put one on the bar. A rifle. We'd say, "We're gonna drink this up." I wasn't a big drinker but you know. Four or five guys, we're gonna drink this up.
T: I was just looking at the medals that you got here. This Philippine Independence Medal, was that given by the United States Government? That was given by the government of the Philippines.
J: Right. There's two of em.
T: When did they give you that? Was that some time after the war?
J: Yeah, we got it. This was it.
T: Both of these…
J: One's independence and one's something else. I've forgotten. And then on this one we had a star. On my shirt.
T: Asiatic Pacific Campaign Medal.
J: We had stars.
T: What did that star mean?
J: Well we were in a major battle.
T: And another one, European African Middle Eastern Campaign.
J: Yeah. Well that's when I was in Morocco. We took troops to North Africa and then to Naples, Napoli.
T: You know, as you describe it, it seems like you really moved fast. And as you showed me in that book that you have, you made a lot of trips. Really moved fast.
J: That's what was so monotonous. I never had any time to breathe. Fresh air. It was always 110 you know. In the fire room. The ship was always hot. We were in the tropics all the time. Never cooled off. Just hotter than blazes. The guys in the fire room all had heat rash. Eighty per cent of the people had under their arms or groin and back of their legs, they all had Calamine Lotion. The people that didn't get heat rash got seasick.
T: I know that when I was on board ship, I had a cabin up on the top and we had very rough seas in the North Atlantic and I was in charge of some guys that were right down in the bottom of the ship. And you could hear the bilge water sloshing around underneath. And I had to go down there and I'd get sick to my stomach when I went down there.
J: I never got sick a minute.
T: Well you'd been around it a little bit I guess. I think there's certain parts of the ship where you notice things more.
J: Well you know where you want to be on a ship? In the bottom about a third of the way away from the stern.
T: One man who was a corpsman told me they had their operating rooms about midships because there was less motion there or there seemed to be.
J: Well the bottom is where there is less motion. You can figure that out. The bottom just pivots. It don't really lean, you know.
T: When you were mustered out of the service did you go back to school then or did you get a job? Tell me about your life then after the service.
J: Well, when I got out of the service I was just 21 and I always wanted to be an aeronautical engineer but of course there were millions of em. So some guidance guy down at the University of Wisconsin, which I went with a friend there, not to enlist but not to go to Wisconsin, the guidance guy told me, "You'd be a lot better off being a salesman. You'd make more money than doing anything else." So I came back and I couldn't get in Lake Forest right then before because I was late getting out. Because we were frozen. So I went to Oshkosh for one year. And took just a general course. Then I went to Lake Forest for the three and a half years. And I got out in '50. And it was a business administration degree.
T: Where did you go to work?
J: Well I went to school at J.C. Penney's great grandsons. So you know where I went to work.
T: J.C. Penney.
J: Twelve of us did. And I was on a management training program out of New York and I ended up in Springfield, Illinois.
T: How long were you there?
J: I was there a year and a half. And my father had sold our furniture store four or five years before because I said I don't want to go in business yet. I want to play around. You know, I hadn't been loose. Been pent up. Sew your wild oats if you want to [ ]. It didn't bother him.
So I worked for Penney's for a couple years in Springfield and did real well. And then they were going to move me to Gary, Indiana. You know the better the job you do in a corporation, the worst place they send you. To take care of what's wrong.
T: I guess that's right.
J: Well that's true. I coulda worked for Inland Steel. But [ ] go to the steel mill for a year. From Lake Forest. I knew the Inland. I was [ ] with a girl and her dad was something in Inland Steel. And he said, "I'll get you a job right away."
Anyway I was going to Gary, Indiana. My dad called up and he said the people didn't like the furniture store. They're from Indiana. They're Hoosiers. They couldn't fit in to Oshkosh. He said, "They want to sell it and we're sick of being retired." They were only 46 when they retired. By now they're 50. And ah, yeah, a little over 50. So he said, "We'll help you." They had retired see? "We'll help you."
And I borrowed twenty thousand from the bank and they lent me twenty thousand, so they helped me. And I ran the store for seven years. Tripled the business.
T: The store was your baby. Your folks were still out of it. They didn't …
J: No, they came and helped me.
J: They wanted to get their nose in it but not, but you know, I really got along good with my dad. And my mother. And so it was very nice. We had a wonderful time. I didn't think it was gonna be but you know, kids and their dad, boys and their dad.
T: So what year was that that you bought the store?
J: I bought it in '52 and sold it in '58. And I made enough to retire, slightly. But I hadda do something. I made a lot of money. I tripled the business. And I invested it and I was tight, you know, tight. I just drove a little car and everything. Now I got a Cadillac. And so my dad said, he was a smart old bird, eighth grade education, he said, "You know you should, if you're gonna…" I mean not to retire fully. I was making twenty five thousand on my own. I invested well. So he says, "You should work for the government in teaching or something," he said, "They're the last wage to go up and the last one to come down."
So I said, "Well, I'll go back to school here in Oshkosh and get a teaching degree." So I did.
T: You had a BA already. How long did you have to go to school?
J: Just a year. And the guy that I sold the store to was a Jewish guy from Chicago and he didn't fit in either but he kept me on there the year that I went to school, for a helper. And geez, he furnished my house for wholesale, less than wholesale. What a character he was. Sam Isenberg. Really nice man. So then, but he couldn't tune in either so he sold it.
By that time I got a teaching thing at Ripon. They wanted teachers, men, in '58. Everybody wanted men teachers.
T: How long did you teach?
J: I taught 23 years non-stop.
T: And that was history?
J: History and geography and reading. I didn't teach reading much. When you go to a school, they give you all the crappy stuff anyway, you know. They give you two of this and three of that. That's another stupid thing, for superintendents. A new teacher and they give him all kinds of broken up stuff, you know. That you can't tune in on everything at once. But I weathered it and then I got a Masters, really two Masters.
T: Did you get married?
J: Oh yeah. Twice. I got married in '50 right after I got out of college from Lake Forest. Then I got divorced in '52 and married again in '56. And adopted two little girls, two nine-month old girls.
T: You didn't have any children by your first wife?
J: No. She couldn't.
T: Is your wife still living?
J: No. She died at age 50 years old. Breast cancer. Here I got two young girls, you know. One sixteen and one seventeen.
T: Well, that's a challenge, I imagine.
J: Well, I weathered that too. I was used to kids by then you know.
T: Well it's still tough when they lose their mother.
J: Their second mother. They were orphans. Not orphans but their mother gave them away at birth. So they lost two mothers.
T: Yeah that's too bad. Do you feel that the war changed you in any way?
T: Were any of your friends from Oshkosh killed during the war?
J: Oh, five or six of em. Yeah. Five or six of em were killed during the war. My best friend besides Rosie got to fly. And he finally got killed after the war though. He got killed after the war in an Army plane. In an F-80/
T: I see.
J: I had just drove up to Anchorage with him where he was in the Air National Guard. Two months later he was dead. We flew up there. I could still fly so we rented a plane and flew over all the glaciers and things.
T: Did you, during your life after the war did you maintain your pilot's license?
J: No. I never had one. You hadda be 18 in those days. So I never got one and then after the war I didn't see the need for it. I wasn't that nutty about flying.
T: Some are. Some are really…
J: Well yeah, but they think that's romantic or something. But I don't. Any idiot can fly, you know. I flew when I was 16 with seven hours of training. And I flew for two years all around the airport.
T: You had a pretty good instructor too.
J: Well I know it but he didn't give me any instruction. First day I walked around the plane and he says this that and the other thing. My mother knew him. Sixty-five bucks it cost me to solo. He said, "I'll teach him for $65.00." One day he said, I'd just turned 16 in March, he says, "Here, you made a hell of a landing but you might as well try it on your own."
T: I think it's probably different today.
J: Well, you learn all the crap now that you have to learn. You know how I learned to fly? By ear. By eye. By feel. He says, "Don't look at nothin." He said, "If you can't tell when you're stalling, it's too late."
T: There really wasn't much to look at in those days…
J: Well no.
T: I can remember going out to the airport and going in the hanger and looking inside Steve's "Bonzo." He had it parked over in a corner.
J: I knew that Bonzo real well.
T: That little cockpit. There's nothin in there except the stick and maybe a couple dials.
J: Well, I learned in a "Champ" and the air speed, you know, when it was gonna stall there was a little thing on the wing that went out. The wind made it wiggle and it buzzed. That means you got about two minutes to quick stop it before you stall. You're goin 38 miles and hour. It stalled at 35. So I used to rent the plane, $12.00 an hour and fly all over hell, you know. Illegally. You know I'd land it in a field, pick up a kid. You couldn't get a license until you were 18, see.
T: John, do you think very much about the war today? About the Second World War, the war that you were in.
J: Yeah, I think about it. Some of my girl, I got a girlfriend. She says, "You're always talkin about it." I says, "I'm trying to put you in the perspective." She had no one ever in the service. Her father, her mother, uncles, aunts, brothers. I said, "Nobody knows what the hell went on."
T: Some guys try to put it on the shelf and sort of forget about it and ah, then things happen that bring back memories. They hear songs, they see something on television that brings back the memories. And for some guys the memories are ones that they just don't want to recall.
J: Well you know, I saw 12 or 14 guys buried at sea. A plane crashed into us. He had no ammunition or anything. He just crashed into us in Mindanao.
T: Was this one of the so-called kamikazes?
J: No, he wasn't. He wasn't kamikaze. He just ran out of fuel.
T: Just bum luck.
J: He ran out of fuel or something and the plane ran right through the side of the ship and made a hole eight feet in diameter. The engine detached from the plane. The plane sunk. Engine went through and killed eight guys and I was the first guy in there. They went through the men and the lockers and the beds and everything. It was about this far above the water line. And that was a shock but you expect shocks in the service. And I didn't know who was dead [ ] and stuff like that.
And then we had some other casualties but I think, I don't know, I was an only child and I was a pretty tough kid, you know. For that reason. And my folks worked in the furniture store. I was on my own. My grandmother ran herd on me and my uncle had this big sailboat. I used to follow, he taught me to hunt. I did a lot of hunting. I'm a good shot with a shotgun.
T: Is there anything else that you'd like to talk about that we might have missed regarding your World War II experiences? Have we pretty much covered the territory?
J: Sure we did.
T: Well I thank you very much John. I really appreciate your coming down here and…
J: Well, I hope I told you the right stuff.
T: Oh well I'm sure you did.
Oral History Interview with John H. Sitter.
-WORLD WAR II
-Copyright Oshkosh Public Museum
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