|Cassette recorded oral history interview with George W. Last. He enlisted in the US Army on June 30, 1942. After basic training, George received radio and radar training in Chicago. He was classified as a radar repairman and left for the Pacific theater on January 5, 1944. He was attached to Company B, 579th Signal Warning Btn. which supported elements of the 13th Air Force. In May of 1945, George was attached to the 551st Signal Air Warning Btn. on Zamboanga in the Philippines where he remained until the Japanese surrender. He was discharged from Camp McCoy on January 6, 1946.
George Last Interview
17 June 2005
Conducted by Tom Sullivan
(T: identifies the interviewer, Tom Sullivan; G: identifies the subject, George Last. Open brackets [ ] or bracketed words indicate that either a word or phrase is not understood, or that proper spelling for the word is unclear - in that order).
T: It's Friday, the 17th of June, 2005 and I'm Tom Sullivan at the Oshkosh Public Museum with George Last who served in World War II. And George is going to be telling me about his experiences in that war. Let's begin George by having you tell me where you were born and when you were born?
G: I was born and raised in Oshkosh. May 17th, 1920 was my birth date.
T: Were your mother and dad both from the Oshkosh area or did they come from somewhere else?
G: They were both from the Oshkosh area.
T: What did your dad do for a living?
G: Well he was a laborer.
T: Do you have any brothers or sisters?
G: I had two sisters. One of them has passed away.
T: Tell me, when you were a kid where did you go to school? Grade school for instance?
G: I went to grade school to South Park School. And then the last two grades I was at Jefferson School.
T: So you lived on the south side then?
G: Yeah, yeah.
T: What sort of things did you do for fun when you weren't going to school?
G: We always had a gang that would get in a baseball game or football games. I liked to fish. I had a paper route. And just the normal stuff that kids that age did.
T: And then you went to Oshkosh High School.
G: I graduated from high school in June of '38. And there were no jobs available at that time so I decided to attend Oshkosh State Teachers College, which is now UW-Oshkosh. And I also decided that I may as well pursue a teaching degree in secondary education so that I would have something that I could use.
T: Let me go back just a little bit George. You grew up during the Depression years. Can you tell me, was your family affected by the Depression? Or did you dad have steady work during the Depression?
G: No he did not. In fact my folks lost their house. I suppose in 1929, at least.
T: I guess that happened to a lot of people. A lot of people were forced to go on relief and if they had a job only worked a few hours a day.
G: There wasn't such a thing as relief as people know it now. No.
T: But your family was able to get through that period?
T: I imagine they had a lot of company. You probably had a lot of friends that were in the same situation.
G: And of course the mothers could sew and make clothes out of old clothes. They cooked from nothin.
T: I've heard that from other guys, that their mothers could make a meal out of practically nothing.
G: Couple strips of bacon and a potato and they'd have soup. And of course we always had a big garden.
T: So then you went to Teachers College. You wanted to be a teacher. Were you able to complete your Teachers College education or did Uncle Sammy put a stop to that?
G: I was able to complete it. In 1941 we all had a draft number. So I was going to school and I got a deferment in the fall of '41. Well after December 7th of '41 again I thought I could be drafted before I could graduate in June of '42.
T: Can you remember where you were and what you were doing when we had Pearl Harbor attacked?
G: I was watching a Chicago Bears, it was on a Sunday, I was watching a Bear/Packer game.
T: I guess most everyone can remember where they were and what they were doing when they heard that news.
G: Well I guess I started looking for options. A Navy team came on campus to recruit for flight school. A friend of mine, Bob James and I decided to check into it although I had no desire to fly. During the physical I was told to step aside and jump on one foot. A doctor said, "Did a doctor ever tell you that you have a heart murmur?" I says, "No, but I never had a complete physical before this." He said, "We'll take you in the Navy but you wouldn't be able to fly for the Navy." Well this friend of mine, Bob James, he passed and he did complete flight school. And he flew for the Marines.
So look for options again. I went to Milwaukee with two friends, Paul [Stungee], his dad was a minister here in Oshkosh; and Al Stamborski. Paul had been accepted for the Navy V-12 program and did become a doctor. He had to put two years in the Navy after he got out of med school. Al got thrown out because of his eyes. I told the doctor I was told I had a heart murmur and after discussing this with some other doctors present, they agreed that I may have a heart murmur. They didn't think that I could pass the physical for Marine officer's school in the future. That's what we were down to Milwaukee for.
More options. The US Army Signal Corps recruiting team came on campus. They said that if I joined the Army reserves I could be inactive until I graduated in June of '42. Al and I both accepted this program. At the time he was teaching in Granton, Wisconsin.
So I did graduate on the tenth of June in 1942 with a bachelor's degree.
T: Let me ask you this George? In the late thirties and the early forties there was war in the Far East and there was war in Europe. Did you and your pals give much thought to that? Did you ever think that the U.S. would be drawn into that conflict or didn't it enter your mind at all?
G: I don't think… We knew the war was going on, especially in France. And there was an instructor at the college by the name of Mercier. She was a French teacher.
T: I had her as well. A real character.
G: Yes. And she kept telling us that the young men in France are dying. Of course we all had our ideas of what to do and that.
T: So you were deferred until you graduated from college. Then Uncle Sam I imagine, came looking for you.
G: I got out the tenth of June and the 30th of June I became a private for the duration and six months in the Signal Corps Enlisted Reserve Corps. In other words, before that I was on inactive. But that's the day I was sworn in, for the duration and six months.
T: Why did you pick the Army? Initially you had talked with the Navy people. Why didn't you consider joining the Navy rather than getting in the Army? Or didn't it matter?
G: I guess it didn't matter. Well anyway I attended, after I was in the enlisted reserve, they sent me to radio and radar schools in Chicago. Like the Illinois Institute of Technology.
T: What type of unit were you in then? Was it a sort of communications unit?
G: Actually it was a, it was for schooling. We didn't have any drills or formations of any kind. But after that I went to Camp Crowder, Missouri. And that's the time I say I was in the Army. And that was for one month of basic training. I did get home on leave from the 9/25 to 10/3 in 1943. So after bein home on leave I went to Camp Murphy, Florida for field training on the radar units to become a radar repairman.
We had pretty much finished the schooling there so five of us thought that we should volunteer for overseas duty. And we thought we'd probably go to North Africa. Because Florida was kinda close. So all you hadda do was go to Company S. All equipment was issued to you except the rifle. And they said, "Now it'll be a few days. You'll have time to do things." And one thing they recommended was to have your teeth checked. So they would call - I had a cavity - they would call for an appointment.
Well we left Camp Murphy on 10/21 in a troop car that was just hooked on the Atlantic Coast Line as it went through the camp. But we didn't go, we headed west. We didn't go to North Africa. On 10/26 we arrived at Camp Stoneman, California. That was a big place to prepare the units to ship overseas.
Well, something was snafu. The unit that I was to go into, it was a radar unit and the radar was synchronized with the guns so if they were on a target, the gun would follow it wherever it was. But that unit left for overseas the day I left Florida. I had to go to the doctor or something and he said, "Were you in the stockade?" I said, "No, why?" He said, "This unit left." So there I was.
T: These other fellows, were they still with you? Were you still a group of the same guys that left Florida?
G: Yeah, still that one troop train. I suppose there was seventy or seventy-five guys.
T: So it was more than just you five that decided to …. It was a bunch of guys.
G: Oh yeah. That was water over the dam. Well anyway we were held at Camp Stoneman. We all helped out at the PX, tending bar or whatever we could just for something to do. We left the United States on the 5th of January in '44. The ship was a Liberty ship, just a merchant ship. The name was the Thomas Condon. He was some kind of naturalist or something. Well it actually became good duty. I was part of the armed guard. There were 24 Navy and 24 Army like myself. And we all had battle stations and stood watch. I believe four on and eight off. We slept in two what we called "doghouses" on deck. Four bunks in each one, three high. My station was I guess you'd call it the second loader on the aft three-inch gun. The ship had a big deck load, nine backhoes plus all the crates, a complete P39 on each of the five hatches. And a walkway had been built over all the deck load, through everything.
T: What was the trip like as far as the weather goes? Was it pleasant or did you hit bad weather?
G: It was very rough first out because of what they called the ground swell. And when the pilot was picked up, the ship got crossways and the propeller came out of the water. And when that happens it just shook the ship. I went to a 20-millimeter gun tub so that I wouldn't get seasick . This was I suppose ten o'clock at night or so.
Well here's another little sideline. Out about five days, there was a big purple balloon about fifteen feet in diameter that was released for target practice. First the order was to the 20-millimeter guns, shoot the balloon down. It still kept going. Then the three-inch could fire when it was a good distance from the ship. It still kept going.
A Navy gun crewmember asked if I ever heard a three-inch. "Nope," I said. Thirty-ought six was my loudest. He said, "Well here, put some of this cotton in your ears." Boy was I glad to have it because they really snapped. One of the Army was called the "hot shell man.' He had asbestos gloves and was to catch the shell casing when it was ejected. Well he didn't move as the gun moved. So he missed all of them. The casings were rolling around in the gun tub. Of course if we would have been in action, they would have just been thrown overboard.
T: I didn't know that those shell casings were hot. Apparently when they went off there was a lot of heat and pressure generated.
G: Right. And like I said, he had big asbestos gloves.
T: It's interesting to know that they were hot.
G: So that was an experience. Well these are just little sidelines. We crossed the equator on January 17th. When did we leave?
T: The fifth I think you said.
G: We crossed the dateline on the 26th. So we missed a day. And one morning there was a lot of activity on the bridge. I thought, "God, now what? Did they see a submarine or something?" The crew wanted to know the exact minute that they were into the battle zone as their pay increased. Now this was a merchant crew, you know. We were always told not to have anything to do with them. We ate before they did. But they were all good guys.
T: Sure, just like you.
G: Why yeah! Except they were… Well we arrived at Noumea, New Caledonia on January 24th. I counted ninety-two ships in the harbor. Of all kinds.
T: I imagine that was a sight.
G: Oh yeah. A little sideline; before the anchor hit bottom a barge came out and picked up the five P39's that would be sent to Russia. Ready to fly. We got off the ship on the 30th of January and went to a replacement depot there in Noumea until the sixth of March.
T: That was a long voyage. Practically a month at sea.
G: Actually it was a great voyage. The weather was calm. With the deck load I think it just had a gentle roll, nothing bad.
T: Probably was a little top-heavy maybe.
G: Yeah and the merchant crew sure ate well. They, every day they had a choice of like two meats. They always had home baked bread, baked rolls. I think I gained weight going overseas.
T: So everybody got fed the same as the Merchant Marine guys. So you ate pretty good.
G: Yeah. Fresh apples. Well after this replacement depot, we were there quite a while from the way it looks. On 3/8/44 - we were there a little over a month - I was assigned to Company B of the 579th Signal Air Warning Battalion. It's a radar outfit. Now that outfit had left the U.S. in February of '42 bound for Corregidor. Somebody finally woke up and said that was a lost cause so they went to Australia. A lot of the men were from New York and the East Coast. But some draftees were from Michigan and they had set up units in New Caledonia to watch for enemy aircraft.
Well this camp was out a few miles and we moved into a camp, set up a camp in Noumea on the 19th of March 1944. Just waiting to move up or see what's what.
While in Noumea I contracted Dengue Fever. I stayed in a bunk, we all knew each other, he brought me crackers and liquids. Finally the First Sergeant missed me. I had to go see the Battalion doctor. I had a rash then. He said the rash was the last part of the Dengue Fever. When you got that rash, you were just about over it.
T: What were your other symptoms like when you contracted it initially?
G: Just a regular fever and you felt weak, you know. Nothing too serious.
T: Most of us aren't very familiar with those tropical diseases. It's something you never hear about around here.
G: So we stayed there at that camp until 4/27, that would be April 27th. Then we boarded a Navy transport. There were five ships in a little convoy and one destroyer escort. Our ship was the S.S. Rotanin. One day they stopped at sea. Our ship had a doctor on board. He was taken off to go to a cargo ship. Army guys had drank alcohol from the truck radiators and were deathly sick. And he just stayed on that ship. But there again, when you stop a ship in the middle of the ocean, you think the worst - submarine!
T: Right. Perfect target.
G: Well the destination was Guadalcanal. We got there on the 8th of May of '44. We set up camp to wait for the other elements of the 579th to arrive. They had been stationed at these islands in the area, Bougainville, New Georgia, Florida, Green and other islands. So they were operating there.
T: Was Guadalcanal secured at that time? There was not enemy activity at that time?
G: There was just little sporadic stuff. But no.
T: It didn't affect you guys at all?
G: No, it didn't. Henderson Field was secure. While I was on Guadalcanal I got to the base PX there. I saw some Johnson Baby Powder in pink and white cans like they had in the states. I bought six cans. I credit using this for keeping me free of the jungle rot. We all took Atabrine to ward off malaria and we all slept under a mosquito net. But I used to use this powder and I think it worked because I never, some guys'd get that jungle rot, wow! Just spread!
T: Where did your unit set up on Guadalcanal? Were you at Henderson Field?
G: No, we were up on a hill a couple miles away I suppose. Because you could see the planes taking off and landing. And we were just waiting time.
T: Were the radar units operational? Were they doing something?
G: No. There were some but it wasn't us. And there again…
T: What were your duties then? Or were you just waiting around?
G: Yeah. Well once in awhile they'd have to get a crew together to go and help, to go down and work on the docks or something. But we were right next to an Australian anti-aircraft outfit. And our cook was from Detroit. Louis [Guannari]. He was Italian, a good cook. And we used to get mutton, our guys wouldn't eat it. And they would get beef. So Louie, he'd trade the Australians our mutton for their beef. So we made out.
Well we left Guadalcanal on the 14th of June in '44. It was a Liberty Ship. The name of it was the [Sacejawea]. Company B had all the personnel and equipment on board this Liberty. Well that Sacejawea, that's the gal that's on the coin. And she was just on the Liberty ship. And we stopped at Tulagi, maybe five miles away to have the ship, they call it de-gaussing. De-magnetizing it.
T: Right, I've heard of that.
G: And we were there for two days and then we moved unescorted to Emerau. We left on the 14th and we arrived on the 22nd of June. One of our truck drivers was on the loading detail. He threw some lumber on top of one of the vans housing the radar unit and the generating unit. Some canvas was nailed over a wood frame and we made the trip sitting up there playing pinochle mostly all day.
This is a little about Emerau. Emerau was in the Bismark Archipelago, a small island about two miles by four miles. The Marines took the island on 3/18 of '44 with no opposition. The airstrip was operational in May. The island is about a hundred miles from Rabaul. New Ireland and New Britain were bypassed.
The 579th set up in June. The Navy had been operating Argus units for a short time and the 579th took over their operation. We were attached to the 13th Air Force. The Marines flew B25's with Corsairs for cover to check on the Japs trying to reinforce their naval base at Rabaul.
T: So now your unit was actually operating these radar things?
G: Yeah, we had two units. The one I was on was called a 525, I think. It had a range of about a hundred miles. And then they had a different, a different company had one up on higher ground, a 270. And they could reach out I suppose 250 miles.
T: I suppose that those were probably operating day and night, just constantly.
G: Oh yeah. And we reported to, we were the reporting station, you might say. And we reported to the plotting which is an area by the airstrip. So we'd plot as we got response from a target.
T: As a radar repairman, were you called upon to do work all the time?
G: No. Really there was not too much went wrong with them. And if something did, they had complete parts that would fit into them. It was quite uneventful. One time we had a bogey, in other words a target that didn't have this little… All the planes had a triggering mechanism that always sent a pulse out. And the radar would pick that up.
T: So you could tell whether it was friendly or…
G: That's right, or foe, yeah. And we had this, I think coulda even been there that night but anyway this bogey was heading straight for the Admiralty Islands. It never came towards us. So the Japs had evidently bale-wired a plane together and did drop a bomb on a dry-dock in the Admiralty Islands. The next day all over there was plenty of brass to see what the hell was going on. But we just assumed that other radar would pick that up because it never came towards us at all.
T: But you had picked it up, identified it.
G: Well we knew it was not a friendly plane.
T: So you guys had done your job.
G: Yeah, and we reported it. And it was just a straight line. Now what happened, I don't know.
T: Was there much Japanese air activity besides that or were they pretty well…?
G: They were beat. Well now, the 579th ceased operation on 2/8/45. That was one of the units. And the other one on 3/22/45. Now those men in the 579th had enough points to be rotated to the U.S. Because they were the ones that left in February of '42 and this was '45. You probably know how the points work. You got so much for …
T: I wasn't in World War II. I was in Korea and the point system wasn't in operation then.
G: This point system, you got so many points for the length of time in the Army, the length of time overseas. If you were married and I can't remember now how many points you needed. But most of the original gang got rotated and then that's one… I didn't have quite enough points. So I was transferred to the 551st Signal Air Warning Battalion. Because they took over the operations from the 579th. But then I went to the plotting company located near the airstrip.
T: Tell me about your daily life other than when you were on duty. What was the food like and what was the weather like? I assume it was hotter than blazes.
G: Yeah, we were about a half a degree from the equator but I read someplace that the heat equator is not the same as …
T: The true equator?
G: Yeah, but well I guess…
T: When you weren't on duty, what did you do for relaxation and so forth?
G: I brought a few pictures. We'll take a little break. This is me and this is, he and I worked together. And you can see we're right in the middle of a coconut tree plantation. And we were putting a floor, we were building a floor in our tent.
T: You weren't in pup tents then. You were in these…
G: No, no, we had the pyramidal.
T: I forget what they called em. But that's you again in that picture?
G: That's me and I got that Australian cap from somebody.
T: The dress was pretty informal as I can see.
G: Oh yeah, that's it right there. In fact…
T: Were there a lot of insects, bugs and that sort of thing on the island that bothered you guys?
G: Not really as I remember.
T: But you did sleep under mosquito netting.
G: Oh yeah. This guy was from Chicago and this guy was from Kentucky. Lewandowski and [ ]. That's me and this is Kyle. We were in the same tent. He was from Toledo.
Well, here's what we did this; we played…
T: You played volleyball.
G: Yeah, volleyball. Now here you can see the tents. Some of the guys, they didn't care to put a floor in their tent like we were doin. They just let it on the ground.
T: I would think that lumber would be pretty scarce in a place like that.
G: Not really. There was a lot of ships that always had lumber on em to secure the load and stuff.
T: Lots of sandbars there. What were they protecting?
G: They were protecting the radar unit and the motor generator unit. An electrical generator. And I don't know why. All of a sudden somebody says, "You better sandbag em."
T: Did you guys have to fill the sandbags?
G: Oh yeah.
T: Well I imagine that was fun to do that.
G: Oh yeah. Like I say, I guess here we're filling the sandbags. This is a tent where we played cards. Here you can see the rack and you just roll up your mosquito netting and at night you'd unroll it.
T: What was the food like George?
G: I think we had pretty good food because this Louie [Guanneri], hell he could make that dehydrated stuff taste pretty good. One time he said to me, "George, come down to the mess hall about seven o'clock." He said, "I'm going to make pizza." I said, "Pizza, what the hell is that? I never heard of it."
T: Right. Most of us never heard of it.
G: I think as I remember it was just some flat, you know, crust with cheese on it. But he used to, oh we had enough of square steak and round steak and that. But I don't know if I put that in here. I don't think I did. There was a bakery company on Emerau so we always had big loaves of bread. We'd go down and get em about every three days or so. And we had peanut butter from the states. A tin of it, maybe twenty, twenty five pounds in a tin. And we got orange marmalade from Australia. So if the chow wasn't any good, I ate a peanut butter and orange marmalade sandwich.
T: Did you get mail from home, from the states?
G: Oh yeah. We had an APO number and all that.
T: Did it come frequently or were there gaps where all of a sudden you'd get flock of it and then nothing for awhile?
G: Yeah. There the mail was pretty good.
T: Were your folks able to send packages to you with things like food or didn't that happen?
G: Yeah, you could do that but the stuff they wanted to send, by the time it got there, well like a cake or something… Like I say, I never complained. Some guys complained about the food no matter what. And to me, I could always make out. And as far as activity, there was always enough guys to do something.
I used to haul out the garbage and dump it in the… There was an old native dugout there with the outrigger, you know. Put a couple garbage cans on there and I'd go out in the ocean a little ways…
T: That was you way of disposing of it. Did everybody do it the same way?
G: I don't know.
T: Did you go swimming? Were you able to do things like that?
G: Oh yeah. There was a nice sand beach and barbed wire out I suppose fifty feet or something. I don't know who put that up. It was there when we got there. But I see these pictures on TV now, these colored pictures of a fish, all different sizes of little fish. Orange ones, green ones, every color of the rainbow. That's what I used to see when I dumped the garbage. The same stuff.
(The first tape ends here).
T: This is tape two of our interview with George Last. Okay George, you can continue.
G: Well like I said, I was in the plotting station.
T: I assume that's where you got the information from the radar.
G: Yeah, and you plotted it on a big map or whatever you call it. I think it was just flat on the table. With the Marines flying off of the island there, one time a B25 wasn't landing. Somebody said they can't get the wheels down. So they flew around and jettisoned most of their gasoline. Finally they were going to come in for a landing. Now this airstrip was coral.
T: It wasn't these metal mats that they laid down?
G::Oh no, no. just hard coral. So we weren't too far from the airstrip so a couple of us went over just to see. So God, pilot brought it in, belly-landed it. I think it kinda made one ground loop like this. Come to stop. There wasn't much dust or nothin from this coral. Well a couple of the gunners opened the side doors. And they come out, you know. Give it the old rah, rah.
T: I imagine they were pretty happy.
G: One of the pilots or co-pilots, somebody up in the front of the plane opened the hatch and he came out. And you knew he had a rosary in his hand.
T: I imagine there were plenty of guys that would want to say the beads in a situation like that.
I would imagine there were a number of casualties that were sustained by those flyers.
G: Oh yeah, I think they were New Zealanders had a squadron of Corsairs. And of course with these radar units, it's just like nowadays. We could pick up rain, you know. Rain clouds. And this one day three of these Corsairs flew into a black, just something on the screen, you know. And they never came out. So what the heck happened? They either didn't know where… They always said that they were good pilots if everything went right. They had a lot of courage and that. But the Americans were trained a lot more in weather and where they were, you know.
So really, that was part of the radar job, is to kinda become a little weatherman of sorts.
Well, on the second of May of '45 we left Emerau. Now that was with the 551st. Our ship was the Alexander Woolcott. We stopped at a couple of Islands there, [Piak] and [Moratai]. I don't know why, we just went past em. I don't know if we picked anybody up or not. I couldn't tell you.
We crossed the equator on the 7th of May in '45. So we arrived at Zamboanga in the Philippine Islands on the 13th of May of '45. And got off the ship on the 15th.
T: Did you set up your radar unit on Zamboanga?
G: No. I worked in the message center while waiting for word on what was to happen with Japan and where we would go. The rumor that we heard at this time was that we were supposed to go to Formosa as a kind of a diversionary…
T: Make the Japanese think you were coming in from another angle.
G: One time there was a Jap grass airstrip across from our camp in Zamboanga. We would go across the road there to play baseball or… Some guys had kinda miniature horses. Must have been farm boys. But jeez, they had a horse tied up over there. They'd, I don't think they ever rode him but they tended him.
But this one afternoon this P38, we were over there, oh half a dozen of us, maybe more. And you could tell this plane was in trouble. And he wanted to land there. He had a belly tank of napalm I suppose. And he bellied the plane in and we all started running over there. And the plane burst into flames.
T: I suppose he couldn't get rid of the napalm. Maybe he couldn't let it go before he landed.
G: No. Well we were running and got pretty close but you could see that…Then all of a sudden the ammunition started popping. One of the boys said that he saw that the pilot had raised up out of his seat. And he maybe got out. But the '38 had a twin tail, you know, and that must have hooked him and the aluminum was melted and running like a little rivulet there, you know. That's how hot the thing was. By the time they got some fire truck you know, nothing like they got nowadays, from the regular airstrip to this crash strip, why they couldn't do anything. But then after things cooled down, he did get out and his body was no more than ten feet from the plane. There wasn't a mark on his body that you could see but he must have been just like baked. I read too, it was some Major.
T: Well I imagine there were a lot of situations like that, that happened. Just one of many, many tragedies.
G: Yup. Well after the Japs surrendered…
T: You were on Zamboanga then when the Japanese surrendered?
G: Yes. Things moved then to a fast forward. We picked up the camp, left things for those left behind. We had a big bonfire, burned brand new stuff. And the natives there, like Filipinos, like hand tools, God, they just begged us to give em some of them. But we just couldn't do it. So threw em in the fire.
T: When you heard about the dropping of the atom bomb, how did you feel about that? I imagine you guys were pretty glad to know that the end of the war was in sight.
G: Well, when they dropped that of course, we didn't know how big but when the Japs surrendered, that was, that was happy. Some of the guys, you know, just… And by that time you weren't doing that much. Just waiting around for something. Like I say, things were really moving and we flew up to Clark Field in a C46. Now that looks like a C47 but the nose, it's a blunt nose. And after a few weeks there at Clark Field just waitin around, we took a train to Manila and all they had on it was gondola cars. And we all stood up in a gondola and finally got there.
We got on board a Navy troopship that was supposedly, could easily be converted to a tanker after the war. I never read anything more about that. We arrived at San Francisco just before Christmas of '45. There was no room at nearby bases so we remained on board ship. At six AM you could stand a formation to see if we were going to get off that day. But anybody could leave if you wanted to get home on your own. So a lot of the California people and those close by in San Francisco, they did take advantage of that. They got home.
There were four from Oshkosh on that ship. I had never seen anybody from home but on that ship there was a fellow by the name of Don Shorey, Sweet, Hitchcock and Wesenberg. Wesenberg was a mailman.
T: Were you able to get together with them on the ship?
G: Yeah, I saw one of the guys and I recognized him. He says, "Yeah, there's a couple more." So we did meet once in awhile and talk. And this Wesenberg, I saw him after the war. I think it was his dad or somebody ran Jerry's Bar on Ceape Street. But like I said, all the time I was overseas I never saw anybody from Oshkosh.
Well finally we got word that we were gonna get off the ship. We went to [Mather] Field. Now that's near, it's not too far from Sacramento I guess, and boarded a troop train for the eastern U.S. We rode a coach to Camp McCoy. I had a tooth filled while waiting. It was the one that was found before I left Camp Murphy in 1943. The dentist says, "You know where it was?" I said, "I think it was up here somewhere."
I was discharged on the 6th of January 1946. And it was kinda, you always think something can hold you back. Well everything was alphabetical. And they were reading off the guys - it was on a Sunday - who could go home. And they go through the "L's," my name isn't there. This one's a preacher, you know, he must have been a comedian or something because he says, "Yeah, we got one more, George Last!" So I held my discharge papers. I got to Oshkosh, I hooked a ride with a guy that was stationed at Camp McCoy as a cook. So somebody says, "Hey, he's always looking for a couple guys that go up that way." So I had already purchased my train ticket. I threw that away and rode with him. So I got to Oshkosh sooner. And first thing my mother said, "Oh, are you ever yellow!" From that Atabrine.
T: Oh yes. I guess that did make people yellow.
G: So that was the end of my…
T: When you were in the service, you had friends that you chummed around with. In your unit were there any guys that were different, sort of like characters? Most of us that were in the service can remember some that sort of stood out, that were just a little bit different than the rest of the guys. Can you remember fellows like that, that were sort of strange?
G: At Camp Murphy we had a guy that was GI all the way. And he, you know if you were gonna have an inspection, he'd scrub his floor, a wood floor, it would just be white! Then the guys on each side of him, they'd get in a hell of an argument. They'd have to blend their floor in so it was passable.
Otherwise, ah, we had a guy on Emerau, he was shanghaied on board ship because he always went AWOL. Well all they'd do is call his hometown in Kentucky and the young kid, he was only eighteen or nineteen... But he was the best shot with a carbine and he would just shoot from the hip or anything. But nobody else could shoot the carbine and hit anything. But it was a nice short gun to be in the jungle with. But he was a good shot.
T: Were you awarded any medals or citations when you were in the service?
G: The Good Conduct Medal and all that junk. I think we got something for being in the Bismark Archipelago.
T: Sometimes the unit will get a citation.
G: Yeah, that's what it was.
T: Early in the war when we were suffering some setbacks right after Pearl Harbor when things didn't look too rosy, were there ever any doubts in your mind about how things were going to work out? Did you ever think that maybe we might not win the war.
T: I think most of us felt that way.
G: No. I tell ya, everybody was behind the war effort. In fact, being away from home you don't really know what they went through. Rationing gasoline, rationing meat.
T: I think everybody was pretty much involved in that. Either working in defense plants or some other war industry. And being careful about consumption of stuff. Most people were behind that effort.
After you got out of the service, what did you do then for a living?
G: Well, I'll tell you.
T: You were trained to be a teacher.
G: I did work, oh I guess as a laborer, just to have something to do and have a little money. This Al Stamborski that I mentioned earlier, when I went to basic training he had been going to school too. And he got assigned to the Signal Company of the 101st Airborne Division. So he went in France at midnight of D-Day in a glider. After the war he and I spent our mustering out pay out here at Volp's Tavern. But anyway he said it was like playing cops and robbers. "Yeah, c'mon over here." And he said he didn't have his shoes off for about a month when they went back to England. And they rested there. The next time he went into Holland in a glider. He was sitting in a Jeep and he said, "Boy, they landed in an apple orchard." He said, "All I did was steer that damned thing with guys in it. Busted arms and legs." And the first wave, the Germans let em come in. The next wave he said, "Here we're on the ground. These slow transports towing probably two gliders. Boy, they were pickin em off like shooting ducks. Then he was at the Battle of the Bulge. Never got a scratch.
T: He was fortunate.
G: Sure as hell was. Well I still had thoughts of goin to engineering school. I guess I would have taught school and I think I could have, but Uncle Sam was ready to pay the bill to go to school. I saw a friend of mine who was in high school with me. Well he went to Madison right out of high school and graduated in electrical engineering down there. When I saw him in the summertime of '46, he says, "What are you gonna do?" I says, "I dunno, maybe I'll go to school down at Madison." He says, "Why don't you do that? I'll write my landlady and tell her about you, that you and I are good friends." So I found out, I did go down there and he had written her and she had saved a little room for me on the third floor on North Archer Street. Otherwise I'm sure I would not have gone back to school because I would have had to live at Truax Field in a barracks. And I had enough Army and I didn't want none of that.
So I did enroll under the GI Bill. I started school in the fall then of '46 and I graduated in January of '50 with a BS degree in Civil Engineering.
T: Now after you got your degree, where did work?
G: I started working for the government, the Bureau of Reclamation. The reason was I was broke and they were paying the most money. And I worked in South Dakota, building electrical power transmission lines. South Dakota was way behind in their electrical project because you can't run ten miles to serve one rancher. So the government took it upon themselves to build these loops of power transmission but they were also building dams on the Missouri River. And one of the ways they could say the dam was worthwhile was say they were going to generate power.
T: Sure, send that juice somewhere.
G: So that was really behind it too. So that was good duty. I ran, I suppose you would call it a survey crew. Somebody else a year or two before had laid out the line. We came along, they had taken bids on certain sections of it where they would be setting the poles and completing the line.
T: How long did you work at that job George?
G: I think I worked it from, I got out, I got married then. I got married, we came back here in '41 (means '51) so I was out there that long.
T: Where did you work after the South Dakota job?
G: Well, I came back to Oshkosh. I told my boss in South Dakota, I says, "If I can find a job in Oshkosh, I'm going to take it." Well I went to a couple places. There was a contractor by the name of Precor Construction Co. And I think I went to C. R. Meyer. And somebody told me that an architectural firm here, Irion & Reinke, Ted Irion and Len Reinke, they probably were lookin for somebody. Because they became associated with Perkins and Will who designed some schools here in Oshkosh. Irion and Reinke had to take care of the local business, supervision, pay requests and change orders. Just the usual running of a job.
So they hired me. Ted Irion says, "Well, okay." I had a couple of references done. I know damn well he called em. And it was my hometown. My wife was very…
T: Your wife is from Oshkosh?
G: No. She was from Iowa and I met her in South Dakota.
T: How did she feel about coming to Oshkosh? Did she like Oshkosh?
G: Oh yeah. What the hell. We were still in love I suppose.
T: Sure, and young.
G: She's a personable gal and I knew she'd fit in. I had friends and their wives, I knew that she'd just fit right in with them.
T: How long did you work for Irion & Reinke?
G: I worked there until I retired.
T: I see, really! And when did you retire?
G: Well let's see. I retired when I was 65. So if I was born in 1920… I was 65 years old. Take away well what did I say, from '51 to…
T: Probably in '71 or thereabouts, I would think.
G: Oh probably more than that.
T: Or to '81. To 1981 probably. My addition isn't so great.
G: Yeah, that would be thirty years.
T: How do you spell Irion?
T: Okay. I had i-a-n. I couldn't remember how that was spelled.
G: He's still living. He and his wife live out at Evergreen Manor. And Reinke, he and his wife…
T: Do you have children George?
G: I adopted two of em. I had a boy. My stepson was killed in Viet Nam. And I got one daughter. Something happened to my wife's insides and she couldn't have any more kids.
T: I see. That happens. It's one of those things.
Well, do you think that the war affected you in any way? Did it change you?
G: Well, yeah. I think it, for one thing, I'm sure I would have been a schoolteacher.
T: You would have been a schoolteacher. You were pretty well set on that I guess.
G: Well, I think I would have worked myself into it. I guess my first choice would have been engineering.
T: Were any of your friends from Oshkosh killed during the war? Guys that you had palled around with?
G: Yeah. When I was going to college here, you had to practice teach someplace. In one of the local schools or at the Training School. And there was a fellow by the name of Les [Kornowski]. He was from up towards Green Bay. He and I had two sections of I suppose eighth graders, practice teaching. He and I of course became pretty close. He had been in the National Guard here to earn a little extra money, which a lot of guys did. So he went in service. He became a 2nd Lieutenant in the paratroopers. Geez, I get a letter from him - he's over in New Guinea. I wrote to him. I says, "Korny, whatever you do, don't jump because you'll never hit the ground with all that jungle." Well I got a letter back. It says "Killed in action." I think I got a second letter back. And when I got home, somebody told me, "Yeah, they jumped in Manila and he got shot comin down in his parachute."
And there was other kids I knew in high school.
T: Do you think about the war very much today, George?
G: Yeah. When our son was killed, he wanted to go in the Army and he had wanted the Infantry so that was what he was in. And he ah, of course my wife cried probably for one year every night in bed. Because I used to write him and tell him, "Don, watch you backside." And stuff like that.
They were out on patrol and he was a squad leader and there was a little clearing they hadda cross. The communists must have had that zeroed in. Because he got hit but he got the Bronze Star because they said he returned fire till all his men could get back under cover with the jungle. But you know just to show how people don't realize, you see it now over in Iraq. Some guy gets wounded. Couple of these women, they can't wait to get back to their outfit. In Donny's case I guess it was a Sergeant ahead of these squads, he went out to get Donny because he knew he was hit. And he got shot and he got killed too.
My wife wanted to go out to Washington, D.C. to the wall and we found Donny's name and there was another name - they're in there according to when they got killed.
T: I see. So they would be very close.
G: He was one away. Sergeant, a guy by the name of White from South Carolina. He was in the 199th Light Infantry Brigade.
T: Well there's a lot of sad stories when you talk about war.
G: Donny would have been… I think he had about a week and a half to go.
T: Oh gosh! Have you ever attended any reunions? Does you unit have reunions?
G: Yeah, we went to one of them. And actually it was in I guess South Carolina. The units were so split up but you still became awful good friends for the while you were there. Except that there was so many platoons and companies that were close to the battalion that you wouldn't get to see them. So I only saw… There was one guy from Michigan, he and I were together in the same platoon. Because we built the mess hall and he was a good carpenter. Lot of them still come. That was the only one we attended.
T: Well George, it's been great talking to you. I really appreciate your coming down and be willing to tell us about your experiences.
Oral History Interview with George W. Last.
-WORLD WAR II
-Copyright Oshkosh Public Museum
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