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|Cassette recorded oral history interview with Fred Leist, United States Army Air Force and United States Navy during World War II.
Fred Leist Interview
27 July 2004
Conducted by Brad Larson
(B: indicates the interviewer, Brad Larson; F: indicates the subject, Fred Leist. Open brackets [ ] or bracketed words indicate that either a word or phrase is not understood, or that proper spelling is unclear - in that order).
B: It's July 27th, 2004. This is Brad Larson and I'm in my office with Fred Leist. We're gonna start the oral history. And if you're ready, I'll just do a little sound check. So if you could just start by telling me your full name and date of birth.
F: Full name, Frederick O. Leist. Date of birth is 25 November 1916.
B: So where were you born?
F: South Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
B: What did your folks do at that time?
F: My dad was a fuel dealer, my mom was a housewife. I had a brother and a sister.
B: Growing up in those years before the actual start of World War II, were events in Europe or what was happening in the Pacific ever a topic of conversation in your family?
F: Well when I was born in '16, the war was already under way. And my dad had been born in Germany. Came over at the age of 16 to the United States, by himself. And when it came time for him to register at the time of World War I, they insisted he come into Milwaukee every month, something like that, to check in with the authorities because he was still a German citizen.
He became a citizen later on and in World War II, dad wanted to get into the army. And they wouldn't take him. He tried the Navy and they wouldn't take him. He was 67 I think, at the time. So he tried the Red Cross and the Marines. Nobody would take him. He had been in the German army when he was 21. He served his year. And his dad had been a career army man in Germany. So he had some military background.
He was not in favor of me going in. I was married and we had a son. But I was interested.
B: Did your dad and mom ever talk about events happening overseas? Was it ever a topic, especially maybe that you kids may have been participating in?
F: No, I don't think so. Other than both my dad's brothers were in World War I on the German side. Both lived through it. That's about all I can remember. My folks didn't discuss it.
B: How about as in the late thirties, as it became more evident that Adolph Hitler was moving Germany toward war and the United States may become involved, did it ever then surface in your family?
F: Before that, about 1930 I believe it was, dad took the family to Germany to visit his brothers and bought a big seven-passenger Hudson automobile and hauled it over there. And as we traveled around Europe, not only Germany but Austria, Switzerland and some other places, people would stop on the street and watch that big car go by. "The king and queen of South Milwaukee."
That was a wonderful trip. We spent three months over there. And at the time, we saw a group of young boys in uniform charging up a hill at a paper castle. And burning it. Carrying, I don't remember whether they carried guns or imitation guns or what it was. But it was already quite military by that time.
B: Boy that must have been something for a young guy to go to Europe for three months like that. It must have been really exciting.
F: It was. I was the oldest. I was thirteen I think. And my brother was the youngest. He was about four or five. My sister between us. It was an exciting trip. We had a lot of fun. My uncle in Switzerland was interested in rifle clubs. And he had some wonderful pieces and he took me with him several times out in the fields with a target at one end. And we'd lie on the grass and shoot at the target.
B: Of course the Swiss are known for their marksmanship.
F: Oh yes. Yeah.
B: They produced some fine rifles over the years.
F: Beautiful things. He gave several to my dad, which we brought back with us, over here. I can't think of anything else about that trip except it was very nice.
B: Do you remember what might have happened within your family say, after Germany went to war with France and England? Was it ever again, was it ever a part of your life? Did you keep up on what was happening over there or was it really not such a great concern?
F: World War I you mean, or Two?
B: After Nazi Germany invaded Poland?
F: I don't recall that we were too much concerned about it. I had an uncle, my dad's brother and his wife who lived in the United States at the time. And [ ] had a brother who had come from Germany just before the war broke out to live with him or visit with him really, in New Jersey. And he was not allowed to go back to Germany. He was very unhappy; I remember that.
And after World War II, when we, my wife and I went over to visit in '58, I think we spent six weeks in Europe. We went to visit him and he was still angry about having been humiliated in the United States. Not allowed to go back to Germany.
B: Well as we moved closer to Pearl Harbor, were you in school then or…?
F: I was teaching in Algoma. My first teaching job. And each night I'd turn the radio on and listen to what was goin on over there. And I wanted to get into the service. Then we left Algoma in '42, came to Oshkosh. And I wanted to join the Air Corps so I took some flying lessons here from Steve Wittman. And I knew then that I was probably going to get into the service. So I gave up on the lessons. I didn't finish. But my wife and my folks insisted that I not go in. We had a son and they thought I should stay home and take care of the family. But when I learned that my dad had tried to enlist in all these places, that was it. So I enlisted in the Army Air Corps.
And I was in the Air Corps for about five months in gunnery training in Texas when my Navy commission came through which I had applied for before I registered with the Army Air Corps. So that was interesting. Navy got me discharged from the Army. And one day I was a buck private and that afternoon I was in Naval uniform.
B: What made you decide for a naval commission? Was there anything that moved you in the direction of the Navy?
F: Well, I'd done a lot of boating all my life. Loved boating. I loved the sea. Grew up on Lake Michigan. I just thought that'd be great. And I thought I could get an outright commission if I applied. A friend of mine, also a teacher, had joined the Navy just shortly before I did with an outright commission. And my college roommate was in the Navy already, which interested me. He was a flyer in the Navy. Ultimately lost his life in the Navy. So I thought that would be a good place to go. And my tests and everything went fine so I joined it.
B: Was there a lot of pressure at that time to enlist or join the military services?
F: Not on me. I didn't have any feeling like that. I had some friends that were scared green that they were going to be called.
B: Looking back on it now, what was maybe the driving force that compelled you to enlist in the military?
F: Well I don't really know. My dad had been military, his dad had been military. When I was a kid I was always interested in guns. We had a shooting gallery in the basement of our home. And I had always been interested in war stories and I thought I wanted to be part of it.
B: Now I'm going to ask you to think back on that time and really try to put yourself back as a young man. Pearl Harbor had just been attacked. Do you remember thinking whether or not the United States was going to win the war? Was it ever a question in your mind?
F: No, never a question in my mind. Not at all. No. I knew that in the European area there'd be no question that we'd come out on top. When Japan came in, it was just more of the same. It looked bad for a long time but it never bothered me or worried me.
B: When you say it looked bad, what do you mean?
F: Well, all the ships we lost when the Japs attacked Pearl Harbor. And so many people lost. So many sailors. Like we weren't prepared. But I didn't think we were gonna lose. I knew we'd be comin back. United States always comes back.
B: So now what happened after you got your commission? You're now a naval officer. Where did they send you?
F: Just before that, when I was in the Air Corps, we had a train ride from Fort Sheridan, Illinois and we were going to Texas. And along the way we stopped at Basic Training Center No. 10 in Greensboro, North Carolina where they dropped me off first. I was there for awhile. Going down there the train was just loaded with people. Babies and wives and so forth. And of course many, many soldiers. I was standing in the aisle for hours. It was a 33-hour trip. Pretty soon I was sitting on the floor. Finally I laid down under the row of seats, people's feet over me. And the people were smoking their cigarettes and dropping their ashes on me. I just lay there laughing. I couldn't believe I was in a spot like that. Well, a short time later my commission came through and I was sworn in, in Raleigh, North Carolina. And going back they said, "Would you like to sit here, sir?" And, "Can I get you a drink sir?" I had to laugh again. Different situation.
B: Where did they send you?
F: Well, from Raleigh I went back home. I forget how much time I had. Three weeks or something like that to go to Princeton University for indoctrination training. Then I was at Fort Schuyler, New York for awhile.
B: While you were there, what were they teaching you?
F: PT a lot. And marching a lot. And Navy regs. We had to study the Morse code and all that kind of stuff. Didn't have any guns or anything like that. It was pretty much book work. And Fort Schuyler was pretty much the same.
From Fort Schuyler I went to Miami where we had boat training. When I finished at Schuyler we had an interview to determine what kind of service we wanted, what kind of ship we wanted or something like that. And I wanted a PT. And we talked about that for awhile with the guy. And he asked about my family and so on. I said I had a son. And the interview ended and a few days later the bulletin board had the notice I was assigned to Miami for anti-sub warfare on USS SC-685. It's the ship I was finally assigned to.
But in Miami we had PT boats, which, no patrol craft, which are larger than the sub chasers. And learn how to handle the ship and all that kind of stuff. We'd go out for a day and come back and so on. They'd let us handle the ship and do the signaling and the talking and all that kind of stuff. Very interesting. It was fun. And then from Miami I was assigned to the ship at Key West, was our home base and we operated out of there.
B: What was your reaction on seeing that notice on the bulletin board?
F: I didn't care one way or the other. When they tell you to go, you go. And it was interesting. We had three officers aboard and sixteen sailors. So it wasn't any saluting and "yes sir" and all that kind of baloney. So that was very pleasant. Had three nice guys aboard.
And we were escorting freighters and troop carriers from the East Coast down to Cuba. And another group of sub chasers would pick em up. We traveled in fives, groups of five. We picked em up going around Cuba and would take em to the Panama Canal. And we would go into Cuba then because we had two or three days R&R there and came back and picked up [ ] and so forth.
B: What would a typical escort patrol be like? What were some of the things that your craft would be doing as you were trying to shepherd these ships along?
F: Well as a rule, the freighters or whatever they were, troop carriers or whatever, maybe four or five, and there'd be five sub chasers. One in the lead, two on either side. And we would have our Sonar going all the time, looking for subs approaching and so forth. And we pretty well kept em away. That was our job, to keep em away. And we'd have some rough seas sometimes and so on. A little hard to keep station.
But it was fun too. I remember my very first trip. We got aboard, go acquainted with the guys on the ship. And we were shoving off within a few days. So the skipper of course took us out of the harbor and out to sea. And I stayed with him for a four hour watch to find out what he was doin up there. And after the four-hour watch was over, he said, "Alright Leist, you're on for the next four." So I took the ship over and he went to bed. But it was good.
B: How was the ship armed in the event that contact would have been made with a submarine?
F: We had a three-inch gun and we had 50-caliber machine guns. Mainly our armor was anti-sub stuff. Drop the barrels over and that kind of thing.
B: Did you ever make any depth-charge runs on any submarines?
F: Only one, and chased him away. We didn't get him. And we were near Miami at that time. We were called out around midnight. Now that, in Key West, we were tied there and we got the call and the skipper and exec were both ashore with their wives. This was our home base. I was in charge of the ship so I had to go roust them out and bring them back to the ship and get that goin up to Miami area. And we chased around but we didn't catch him. Generally they stayed away from us. We were five of us and somebody could do some damage to them. So we kept our escorts goin and we kept the ships safe.
B: Did you ever see any of the aftermath or rescue survivors in the aftermaths of U-boat attacks?
F: No, none of that.
B: During this time, were you and your crew made aware of how really critical fighting U-boats was? It was called, during the course of the war, the most serious concern that the Allies had was defeating U-boats?
F: Yes. Well that was earlier in the war than I got in. It was still a threat but the real heavy threat had passed by before I got in there. And that was mostly back and forth across the Atlantic and then down the Caribbean. Of course they would come and try to pick up these ships of ours going by. And we kept them pretty safe.
B: When did you actually join the crew of that ship?
F: What the heck was that date? I think it was April of '43 or somewhere in there. I remember when I came aboard, one of the ships we stopped in Guantanamo, "Gitmo," we were there for New Years Eve. But we didn't have any problems of any kind. We did our job and nobody shot at us. So it was easy.
B: Do you remember, how did you view your enemy? Your U-boat adversary?
F: Well I don't know. Most people did but I thought of it as a ship rather than guys we're shooting at. Which is really what it was. You knocked down a submarine, the whole bunch are dead. We didn't run into that. We didn't knock off any subs. So we really didn't worry too much about that. I didn't certainly and I don't believe the skipper did either.
In about early '45, middle of '45, I forgot now just when, April, May, somewhere in there we were given orders to leave Key West, go down through the Canal, up the other coast. And we stopped in Mexico at one of the places that's now a resort area, expensive resort area. Manzanillo. We refueled there. Got some food there.
And then we went up to San Diego, did more of the same. I went ashore there. We were only there for a matter of hours. Called an uncle of mine who was living nearby, San Diego. And he came over and visited while we were there.
Then we went up to San Francisco on Treasure Island and exchanged our two engines and learned that we were going to the Aleutians to turn our ship over to the Russians. There were twenty some going to be there eventually being turned over to the Russians. So we had to bring everything up to full book. That was my job. What a horrible job! Book that thick. Every item had to be checked. Engine parts, everything. And we got 'er all set and engines going. We went on up, stopped at Seattle. Actually went into Bremerton Navy Yard there and finished up our last orders and the last work we had to do, get the food aboard and all that kind of thing.
Then we went up the Inside Passage and that was interesting because they put a pilot aboard. We didn't know those waters although we had the charts. And the pilot took over all the way up so we were on vacation. Sittin there with our feet up on the flying bridge lookin at the scenery. We had a ball.
And then we got up there and there were a whole bunch of these SC's lined up, tied next to one another. If you were way out, you didn't know which way to go to get to the dock. I remember climbing up, one night we came in, soon after we came in we were tied up close to the dock and we were up on the level so we [ ] ships onto the dock. We went ashore and had a party with the Russian officers. And when I came back in the middle of the night - I left before the other two officers did - I had enough. I got to where the ships were and there they were down there; fifty foot tide! So they had rigged up ropes and pieces of wood and jerry-rigged a ladder all the way down fifty feet. But we all made it pretty well.
B: What were those Russian officers like?
F: Friendly enough. We couldn't communicate very well. We had to take them aboard and make them familiar with all the equipment. How to run the ship, where everything was and so on. And they didn't speak English and we didn't speak Russian. But I had a little bit of German and one of them had a little bit of German. So with motions and books and all that kind of thing we managed.
And we were saying at the time, all the Navy guys were saying, they'll be shootin at us one day with those ships. It didn't turn out that way but we didn't trust em. They were interesting and fun to visit with.
B: What was the reaction then when you learned that you were going to turn over your ship to the Soviets? Do you remember what the general reaction was between the officers and crew was?
F: Not really anything exciting. We knew we needed help and wanted help on the other side of the ocean. And they were supposedly going to use the ships to help. And so we didn't object to it but we didn't believe they'd be a lot of help. And we didn't trust em very far. That was our feeling - what did we know? We were told to turn it over and that's what we worked at.
B: So was there a ceremony when the ships were formally transferred from the United States? Or was it just kind of an informal, "here we go."
F: No. Went there and were taken care of and we were put on a plane and shipped back to the U.S.
Before we turned the ship over we were at a place called, no I think it was there at Cold Bay, Alaska, it was called. The last jumping off place before you get into the Aleutians. And it was cold. Comin across the Bay of Alaska, I got a picture with ice on the ship. It was a miserable trip. Real rough and cold. But then we stopped on the way up at Kodiak Island where all the bears are. Didn't see any bears but visited with some guys in the club there. And then we went on the next day. But Cold, they had a row of maybe three or more volcanoes smoking. So that was interesting to see. And they also had for wintertime, they had walkways like a shed, but blocks and blocks long. And they would be in the wintertime would be completely covered with snow. So the only way you could get around on that base was walking through these channels. There was no snow that high when we were there. There was snow and ice but nothing like that. So we could see everything wide open.
B: Let's just go back to patrol for a minute. I have a question that I thought of. Every ship has a routine that you go through. The routine of shipboard life if you will. What was the routine on your ship? Could you describe for me an average day in the life of that ship when it was on patrol? What were the things that you would have to do as the duty officer?
F: Well, as O.D., you ran the ship, gave the orders. You had a crew of three guys on the flying bridge with you. The skipper and exec were not active at the time. And getting jobs done like work with the cook; when do we eat and all that kind of thing. Cleaning up the ship. Not a lot of training going on. That had already been taken care of. There wasn't that much work on a ship of that size.
And of course the crew was divided up into watch groups. And we were four on and eight off as a rule. The one time that we were not, were four on and four off, we lost one officer who, when we were coming from Mexico up along the coast to San Francisco, he got word that his wife was having a baby. So the skipper sent him ashore. Around San Diego. So from there on up we had four on and four off. But it was no problem. We had a ball too. It was just a sidelight, doesn't need to be part of the story necessarily.
When we were in San Francisco having our engines changed over, replaced and so on, the skipper and I went to a theater in town to see The Mikado. And there weren't a lot of people in the theater. We were almost the only ones in the balcony the night before the show, waiting for things to start. And all of a sudden somebody up further in the balcony hollered, "Mr. Leist!" I didn't know anybody there. Here it turned out to be a practice teacher I had had here in Oshkosh before I left for the Navy. So she came running down and we visited for a few minutes.
I don't think that I met anybody else that I knew. I can't recall that I did. Well I did when I was in New York after the war had ended. I had orders to go to New York and pick up a patrol boat to Hawaii. It was on all the down the East Coast and around; it was a nice trip but the war was over. But they sent me there to have my appendix out because I'd had an attack just before we went to sea one time. And they took my appendix out and the war was over so they let me go home instead. Which was fine with me. I had a job waiting. My wife was teaching in my place.
B: How was the food on your ship? It was small enough that you probably didn't have a formalized routine like a larger ship.
F: No. The guy, the head officer of the deck ate when he had a chance and the others would go down at a regular time. And of course the crew the same thing. Groups would go at different times. We had a black cook who did a good job. However when we were at sea and it was real rough there weren't a lot of guys eating. The only one who really ate was the exec. He got extra hungry when we had rough seas and of course he'd tell us about it, the skunk!
B: Well I imagine on a ship that size you had to have a pretty iron stomach because I would think it could roll around quite a bit.
F: Yeah, the sub chasers are small, 110 by 14 and you both roll and pitch wildly. And in some of the rough seas, particularly across the Bay of Alaska is what's tough. Southern Caribbean was tough too sometimes but not like that one up in Alaska. Oh, boy! That was really rough; skipper didn't think we were gonna make it in fact. It was an especially big storm. All ice on the ship. We lost our life rafts. We lost the only lifeboat we had aboard. We had to string lines so we could keep from slipping over the side and so on. That was a rough trip there. But normally it was a vacation trip.
B: Were you alone or were you with other vessels?
F: We were alone that time. I guess each one was brought from their different stations at different times but they gathered up there within a week of one another. And I think there were something more than 20 at the time we arrived up there to turn our ship over.
B: You said that the Russians were going to help in the war against Japan. Where were you when you heard the news that they had dropped the atom bomb?
F: Where was I? I really don't know. We must have been in the North Atlantic somewhere, or up in that area. I can remember being in Seattle/Bremerton when the president died. But I'm not quite sure. I don't remember hearing the news like all of a sudden we get a big surprise. I don't remember it that way. I don't know why. Of course we learned about it later.
B: How about when you found out that the war was over, that the Japanese had surrendered?
F: By that time, I think I was back in the United States. I came back first off our ship. Flew into Seattle from Anchorage. I had flown to Anchorage from up at Cold Bay. And I went on to New York.
B: Did you take a train from there? Or did you fly?
F: Flew all the way. I had orders to go to a ship out there after I got through with my appendix operation. So they let me go right on through, flying. You sit on the deck of the ship, no seats. The airship I'm talking about.
B: Up until that time you assumed that you would participate in the war against Japan?
F: No, I didn't think that we would have to run over with the little jobs we had. Our duty was here. See, it was close to the end of the war by the time we turned those ships over. And we knew we'd be reassigned for something. Didn't know what we'd get. Some of our guys went to larger ships, T.E.'s and destroyers. But with my delay to go back to duty aboard ship with taking the appendix out, everything cleared out and it was done and they didn't want me any more. Didn't need me anymore.
And I stayed in the reserves for a few years. Was with a reserve unit here until they decided junior officers were in oversupply. So then we had a choice of resign the commission or retire. So I retired.
B: So how long had you spent in the Navy at that time when you retired?
F: About two years or something like that. Just a matter of months in the Army.
B: When did you come back to Oshkosh? Do you remember when you got back here?
F: On the 19th of October, 1945. And I think I left on the, when did I leave for the Army? December of '42. Somewhere in there. I'm not sure. And my active duty at Princeton University I think started the 25th of May I believe the orders read, of '43. Something like that.
B: Now I know you came back to Oshkosh after you got your commission. Were you able to get back at all on leave?
F: In between times?
F: Yes. For instance from New York. When they took out my appendix they let me have ten days I guess. And the skipper at the hospital said, "If you want to extend it when you get there, send a request and we'll let you have ten more." So of course I had ten more. That was nice.
B: Well, what was Oshkosh like at that time? Do you think it was different or the same? What was the Oshkosh of the 1940's like?
F: Smaller. College had 400 students instead of 12,000 or whatever now. Fine school system. Good administration. That was my interest because I was a teacher and that's where I spent all my time.
B: What did you teach?
F: Band and choir. I started, I was hired here as a band director in '42 and I left for the service soon after. And my wife took over my job while I was gone. I can't think of anything other than it was a smaller town. Had several small theaters operating down town.
B: As you think back on it, when do you think Oshkosh really started to change from what that small town 1940's feel. Was there a point that you can think of where Oshkosh began to evolve or made some major changes in how the city was?
F: I don't recall that there was a point at which that began. I think there was a gradual growth and a gradual further interest in the university which has had a strong influence on the city. And instead of having west and east or whatever the two divisions were on the different sides of the river kinda competing against each other, it gradually got to be more of a unanimous feeling of the whole city. But that was gradual. I don't think there was any time, I don't remember when all of a sudden it changed. But it got to be comfortable and nice and it is now.
We liked it here, been here more than fifty years now. It was a nice place to bring up kids. Our son was in the service for the Viet Nam War. Outranked his dad when he went in. He's a doctor so he went in as a lieutenant. I went in as a JG.
B: Did you keep in touch with any of your crew members after the war? Your officers or the enlisted men?
F: My mail with the exec. He lives in California. He was an optometrist. And I still have a pair of glasses he gave me; sunglasses that I wore on the ship. And the skipper and I, for many years now have been playing golf together once a year in Florida. We go to Florida every winter now for quite awhile and he used to come down for a month. Until this year, he stopped because he's getting a little old too. And we'd play a round of golf, have dinner together. So we met every year and we corresponded of course ever since we got out of the service.
Our skipper was in Florida one month, the month of March, went out to play golf. This was before I knew he was coming to Florida. And he was paired up in a cart with a Jim Bruins from Oshkosh. I don't know if you're familiar with that name. He was a teacher in the system too. And they played golf together and of course riding like that they talked to one another. "Where are you from,' and so forth. And the skipper asked him where he was from. "Oshkosh." "Oshkosh!" He said, "Did you know Fred Leist?" So when they finished their round they called us. Jim knew where we were because we'd been getting together with him and his wife. And we had to go right down for a cocktail party. And from that time on we met once a year and played golf and had dinner.
B: That's a good story. I like that.
F: I just heard from him this past winter that they weren't going to come down anymore. He's tired I guess. He's younger than I. He's along in his seventies somewhere - oh no - more that that. He's in the eighties already.
B: Is the war something that you think of very often?
F: No. Just one of the things that happened in my life. Interesting thing that happened to me. I was happy to have had the chance. I wouldn't, thinking back, wouldn't have enjoyed being a career Navy man. Too many of those things going on all the time.
F: Yeah. All that baloney. And somebody with a half-stripe more than you can jump on ya. I had a few experiences like that when I was in the Navy. It wasn't unpleasant. I had a fine time but it wouldn't have been a career for me.
B: I need to change tapes. We're getting near the end…
F: Oh I think we've talked enough, haven't we?
B: Is there anything else that you'd like to talk about or something that maybe…?
F: I don't have anything. I have a few pictures I'll show you.
B: Oh I'd like to see them very much. Well, thank you very much. I'll shut the tape off. It's been very enjoyable.
(The interview ends here).
|Oral History Interview with Fred Leist.
-WORLD WAR II
-Copyright Oshkosh Public Museum
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