|Cassette recorded oral history interview with Robert W. and Leola Kitz. His father got him a job at Oshkosh Trunk in 1933 and he worked there for some 27 years. During World War II, the Oshkosh Trunk factory made a parachute-like product, "A22", which was attached to a sort of pallet filled with supplies for the troops. These were dropped from airplanes. Bob says the firm actually made the parachutes as well. He could not recall what other defense products were made by the company. At its peak, the trunk factory employed over 400 people.
Robert Kitz Interview
20 July 2005
Conducted by Tom Sullivan
(T: identifies the interviewer, Tom Sullivan; B: identifies the subject, Bob Kitz. X: identifies Bob's wife. 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 July 20, 2005 and I'm Tom Sullivan from the Oshkosh Public Museum with Bob Kitz at his home. Bob is going to be talking with me about his experiences working at Oshkosh Trunk during World War II, among other things.
Let's begin then Bob by having you tell when and where you born.
B: I was born in Oshkosh on January 28, 1914. And I went to work, my mother died.
T: Well we'll get to that in just a second. Were your mother and dad both from the Oshkosh area as well?
T: What did your dad do for a living? How did he make his living?
B: Well, he worked at the Trunk factory and then he did other people for his work.
T: Was he sort of a craftsman? What kind of work did he do at the Trunk factory? Do you remember?
B: Yeah, just like anyone else.
T: I see. Now how old were you when your mother died?
B: I was six.
T: So it was quite early on. How many brothers and sisters did you have?
B: I had four sisters and one brother.
T: Are any of them still living?
T: They've all preceded you. Tell me a little bit about your childhood Bob. I know you lost your mother at age six. Where did you live in Oshkosh?
B: I lived on Lake Street and my mother of course lived there and she died there too. And it was rather difficult to go along with this different stuff.
T: Well you were a fairly large family with six of you kids. And your father probably had a difficult time without your mother being there.
B: Yes, he did.
T: Where did you go to school, Bob?
B: Well I went to the Longfellow school in Oshkosh and I never went to high school.
T: I see. When you were going to grade school, what did you do for fun? When you weren't in school, what kind of things did you kids do at that time for fun?
B: Well, we played a game at night called "Duck on the Rock." And then we, well we played Hide and Go Seek and all those games like that.
T: The usual things that kids played in those days. Kick the Can and that sort of thing.
B: Stuff like that.
T: What year did you complete grade school? Can you remember? You were born in '14…
B: Well now I forgot to tell you one thing else. When my stepmother died, then we moved, I'm wrong ain't I? My stepmother did not die. Well the thing of it was I was, oh I know how it was. I went up to the Buttes des Morts School in Buttes des Morts. And I went to school there. And I had to go a half a semester more because I never had agriculture.
T: I suppose that was important up there.
B: Yeah. And I never had agriculture so they took me there and I was oh, able to get along. I graduated. Then I came to Oshkosh. And I went to the Longfellow School and then came high school. But I didn't have any clothes, decent to wear.
T: Gee that's too bad. How long did you go to high school? Did you go for any length of time?
B: About two weeks.
T: I see. That's not very long is it?
T: Well, I think in those days there were probably a lot of kids that didn't complete high school. My mother only went a couple of years and never completed it. I suppose you probably had friends that didn't go to high school either.
B: What was her name?
B: Did she know Sylvia Killian?
T: Sure, Sylvy and my mother were just like that. They were great pals.
B: They were quite friendly
T: Yeah, Sylvy was one of my mother's best chums. I don't know just how it happened, whether it was from childhood on or what but yeah, they were real good pals and my dad and Bill Killian hit it off too. Bill was Sylvy's wife. Yeah, they knew each other very well.
And how did you know the Killians then?
B: Well I remember that my aunt used to tell me, "Leone was over." I thought it was Leone. She said Leone was over this afternoon and we went somewhere and they played cards." Was that one of their things?
T: Yeah, my mother loved to play cards. Well, now after you finished grade school, did you go to work then?
B: Yes I did. I went on the farm.
T: How old were you then when you went on the farm? You must have been about thirteen, fourteen years old.
T: What farm? Did your dad have the farm or was it somebody that you knew?
B: It was somebody that I knew. And they wanted me to come and work for them. And I did for three dollars a week. Then I worked there several summers. You know, you'd have to know something about what you were doing. And they had a farm there where they raised vegetables and that. So it's not very exciting to watch a turnip grow or something of that nature.
T: When you were on the farm, were you there when the Depression came? Back in 1929 when the stock market crashed and we had the Depression. Were you still working on the farm then or were you working somewhere else?
B: I was working on the farm.
T: How did the Depression affect you on the farm? I suppose you always had enough to eat.
B: Oh yes. They were very generous with feeding us and then you worked for your room and your board. And naturally that was included, the eating and different stuff you know. So that's such a long time ago. But they had very nice people working there and we all got along very well.
T: Were there more hired people there than just you?
B: Oh yes.
T: How many of you were there?
B: About six.
T: I see. What kind of quarters did you have? Did you have a little place of your own where you slept?
B: We slept above the garage. It was all fixed up real nice. And so we had that. And we had a toilet and that, that they had. Not like the modern ones today. It was out in back.
T: I see. A little outhouse out in back.
B: So it was different.
T: I'm sure it was because I can remember those days and my relatives on the farm had, a lot of them didn't have indoor plumbing or electricity. They'd light up that oil lamp in the evening.
B: Well that's the way life was.
T: Life was a lot more simple then, wasn't it?
B: Oh yes.
T: When did you leave the farm and start to work somewhere else?
B: Well, let's see. Right when Roosevelt, it was in the thirties.
T: About 1933 Roosevelt was elected for the first time, '32 or '33.
B: And then I went in and my father was working at the Trunk factory. And he said, "Bob, do you want a job?" To come there? Well it really wasn't, "Do you want the job?" He said I had the job. I mean "I have the job for you." And of course I went.
T: As I understand it, from talking to other guys that grew up during those years, jobs were pretty scarce during the Depression and a lot of young high school kids for instance, couldn't get a job working somewhere. They took the breadwinners first and gave them the job. Fellows that had to support a family. Now you weren't married at that time were you?
T: But you were able to get into the Trunk factory. What kind of work did you do there then?
B: Well I was fortunate. I knew a guy by the name of Matt Duex. He was a foreman in the department where I was. And I worked there and he was real good and I liked him. And I had several years with him.
T: What kind of work were you doing? Was it assembling these things?
B: Well yes. And then I was cutting bindings. Binding was a leather strap that was about that wide and it went around the edge of the suitcase. And we sewed it on.
T: Was that sewn on by hand or did they have a machine that did that?
B: They had a machine. Then that was one of the better jobs. Then after I got that, oh I was kind of happy and I was at the Trunk factory for twenty-some years. Never made a lot of money.
T: Well it was steady work though. Which a lot of people didn't have. At least some people didn't have. Back in the late thirties there was war over in Europe. And there was war out in the Far East. Did you ever give any thought to those conflicts that were going on in the rest of the world?
T: Did you ever think that the U.S. would get sucked into those wars?
B: Then the Trunk factory was sold. And the Plotkins from Chicago bought it. The Plotkins were Jewish. I can't say anything against them. They were pretty good people. And I, well I tried to get along with everybody.
T: Sure. Can you remember where you were and what you were doing when Pearl Harbor was attacked?
B: Let's see. Yeah, I was working at the Trunk factory and we were making A22. And A22 was a large, like a parachute. And they made that so that they could drop, they could put stuff on a piece of plywood, pretty good size, probably 6 by 6?
T: Like a pallet maybe?
B: Yes, you said it better than I could. And I worked with it. But made the pallet and they had a, it was a, on a parachute and then when they flew over, they had stuff on that. I mean goods for the people that were in the Army. And that's one of the reasons why I never got in that Army.
T: Because they needed you to make that stuff. It was a critical job probably.
T: When did they start doing defense work at the Trunk? Was it before we got into the war? Before Pearl Harbor or was it after that Trunk started doing defense work? Can you remember that?
B: Well it seems to me as though they had that when I was first there. I was right in with that. I think some of us were working before we should have been working. You know what I mean?
T: You mean your age? You were a little bit too young for that kind of thing?
T: They didn't have real strict child labor laws in those days I guess. Now you'd have to be at least sixteen.
B: Well I think, I don't know. You see it's so difficult. I can remember a lot of the people I worked with. But what good does that do? You've gotta know, but I worked with a lot of people and then finally they got a union and so then they wanted to do this and do that. And so somebody said to me about, well what about joining the union? Well I would so I said, "Yeah." You know they knew how to spread it. And I said I would. And then I was in the union and first thing you know I was the head of the union. And oh boy, that was terrible!
T: Well, it's probably a thankless job to be the head of the union.
B: You bet it is.
T: Can you remember any other things that were made for the war effort at the Oshkosh Trunk Factory? Other different types of things that they made for defense contracts.
B: Oh gosh, they made several things but I then, was I gone then?
T: When did you get married, Bob?
X: We were married in 1938.
B: Of course sometimes now she wished that we got married too long.
T: So you were married well before the war started. Was living rather difficult then, because we were still in the Depression.
X: Prices weren't anywhere near as high. By the time you bought the things you had to, you didn't have much money left. Maybe buy something you wanted.
T: Well as I understand it, Oshkosh was pretty hard hit by the Depression. There were a lot of people out of work. Apparently you had full employment at that time which was very fortunate. I'm sure that you can probably remember fellows that you knew that were not working.
T: Or maybe were working very reduced hours. There were some guys that kept on working but only a few hours a week, just enough to put bread on the table.
B: Yeah, it wasn't easy and I'll say that. We rented a place, an upstairs on the corner, I don't know, you know where New York Avenue is?
B: And there was a fire station right on the corner. Well then we rented the house right in back of that fire station. And it was fairly reasonable wasn't it?
X: Yeah, but they were kind of crummy about heating it.
B: Well that was our punishment I guess for not having any money. Oh that was a terrible time. But I don't know. I'm worried about this country now.
T: Well I guess other people are too. Back to Oshkosh Trunk, tell me about some of the products that they made, either before the war or after the war. I'm assuming that during the war you probably stopped making some of the things that you ordinarily made, and made these Army things instead.
B: They always were noted for the fine luggage that they made. Oshkosh Trunk and Luggage was noted for fine luggage. And well, they made what they call a "makeup box" for a woman. And you don't have any of that now, do you?
X: No, it don't think so. My purse is [ ].
B: But anyway then we had this stuff that they made like a makeup box and a 22 inch case, and a 24 inch, and a 26 inch, you know.
T: Did you make those big steamer trunks at Oshkosh Trunk?
B: Yes. They made them, see I never worked on them. They were on second floor. And that was trunks. And they were made and sold. They had a whole bunch of them. They didn't sell as fast as they thought they would.
T: Well they were probably sort of going out of style about that time. I know my folks had one but it was up in the attic somewhere. They never really used it. They stored things in it.
B: What did your parents do?
T: My dad was a podiatrist. He treated foot diseases in Oshkosh. How many people were employed at Oshkosh Trunk when they were really going strong?
B: It was 400.
T: I'm trying to think of just where that was located. That was along High Street, wasn't it?
B: Well, where would you say that is on High Street?
T: But it was in the same area as the Axle and the Match factory and so forth. There was a bunch of those all along there. I can remember seeing the sign but I can't quite remember where it was.
B: Well it was right, it's hard for me to remember. Well let's say you go down High Street and you kinda got to where the fire station was on High Street and right next to that was the…
T: did the factory property go right down to the river or not? I guess there was another intervening street.
T: Well that area has certainly changed a lot with the university.
B: Well my son needs a job and he's got a good job.
T: Can you think of any other products that were made during the war at Oshkosh Trunk besides the one that you told me about?
B: I wasn't in those departments so I…
T: You pretty much stayed in one particular area and just worked in that area. I see.
I'm not a very good guy for a lot of stuff because… I can remember very well and then I guess my brain says, "That's enough."
T: Well, I know what you're talking about. Did they have to take any security measures at Oshkosh Trunk during the war? You know having people show their badge when they went in to work?
T: Because I had a job at Leach's after school and I remember we had to show something when we went in to work.
B: Did you know Eleanor Springborn?
T: No, no I didn't.
B: She worked at Leach's.
T: How were you affected during the war with the rationing and things like that? The food stamps that you had to have? Can you remember those things?
X: I can.
B: She would be more to tell you that than I. What about the rationing?
X: Well it didn't, I knew the grocer in the neighborhood. I happened in, just happened to be working on the meat and I don't think I had to give any, not stamps. But then I got home with that and his grandmother, I don't know how she knew but she'd come right over and I couldn't, come right in, so then I had to give her some meat.
T: Well, I guess meat was quite scarce, and other things too. I was rather young. I was in my teen years and you know when you're a teenager you don't really think of that stuff very much. Too busy doing other things. But I can remember going out and collecting scrap paper and aluminum. We had these aluminum drives. People bought war bonds. Did you probably buy some war bonds like other people did?
X: I don't know if we had enough money to buy war bonds.
T: A lot of factories had drives where they would try to get you to buy a war bond or two.
B: I really don't remember a lot of that stuff. I really don't. It's something that well, if we could we would. If we can't, we can't.
T: Can you remember what any other Oshkosh factories made during the war? In talks with friends of yours that were working in the factory. Can you think of any other products that were made in Oshkosh during the war?
B: yeah, trucks.
T: Oshkosh Truck was making things. And at Leach's they were making reels for the Signal Corps, and all sorts of things.
B: Trunk factory. I mean what's so spectacular about a Trunk factory?
T: Well, I'm sure that even though you only remember this one item that you made, Trunk factory probably made other things that were helpful in the war effort. Things that were used by the troops during the war.
B: Oh yes, there were some small things.
T: Buckles and that sort of thing.
B: Parachutes that they had that they could attach em to a panel and drop things to the ground. And such stuff like that.
T: Did Trunk make those parachutes or did they get them for somewhere else? Did Trunk just make the things that the stuff was put on or did Trunk actually make the parachutes?
B: They made the parachutes.
T: That's interesting because I didn't know that they ever did any work like that.
B: Oh yes. And then they had that all [ ] and then after the cargo was on the panel that they had, then they dropped that. That was stuff that was floating down on the ground.
T: I see. Dropped it from an airplane to the troops. Do you remember VE Day, when they won the war in Europe?
X: Yeah, I remember that.
T: We probably remember VJ Day more because there was more of a celebration. Because then the whole war was all over with. But I don't really remember VE Day myself. I remember VJ Day when oh, everybody went downtown to Main Street. And they were hooting and hollering. Did you partake of any of those festivities?
B: Might have if I had fifty cents to go down and buy a beer or something like that, you know. I don't mean that was the main thing. But a lot of the guys, well whoopie! I did the best that I could.
T: Can you remember when they dropped the atom bomb? Did you work during the war Mrs. Kitz? Did you have employment during the war or were you a homemaker?
X: When we were married I worked at a picture store framing pictures and that sort of thing. And then I was going to have children so I couldn't very well work for a few years.
T: So you had two children.
X: Yeah, eight years apart. Because Susan was pretty big by then, when Bill was born.
T: When you heard about the dropping of the atom bomb, what were your thoughts on that. I guess none of us really understood what it was. We knew it was something big.
X: I think I was so glad that I wasn't around it.
T: Well I know that most of the troops were glad that it put an end to the war, that they didn't have to go and invade Japan, because that would have been a nasty situation.
X: Wasn't Truman the one that did that?
T: Yes, he was the one that authorized it. Early in the war Bob, we probably suffered some setbacks right after Pearl Harbor. Did you ever think then that we might not win the war? Did that thought ever cross your mind?
B: I guess that some people thought that but I dunno, I had so much faith in America that I thought we'll blow em out of there. That was my feeling.
T: it cost us quite a bit in fellows that were killed but we did the job. I think most people felt that we would prevail, that we would win. I don't think I've talked to anybody recently that felt at some point that we might not make it.
X: I had two brothers in the war.
T: I see. Did they both survive?
X: Yes. The oldest one was in over six years.
T: Bob, how did you meet your wife?
B: Well, how did I meet ya? Were you chasing me?
X: No, my sister Mae was going to the Eagles on New Year's Eve. That's when she first was goin with Lawrence [Reno]. And anyway then they were gone and I had bought a new dress with some Christmas money. And I thought I had better try it on. About that time my brother comes waltzing in and he says, "You don't take it off. Let's us go down to the Eagles and see what they are doing down there on New Year's Eve." So we went down there and we weren't too enchanted. We figured we were both ready to go home again. And then Joe Deux asked me to dance. And I'd seen him around there. He was [ ] with the Trunk Company. And I never seen him dance. I thought he maybe just drank beer and … But my brother said, "Ask him." So I did. Well then we couldn't go home without going in the bar room. Have a little beer or something. I don't drink beer anyway. And then that's how I met him. That started something.
B: [ ] Then we didn't go together…
T: Did you go together for some time before you eventually tied the knot, got married?
B: I guess so, yeah.
X: We met in about 1936-37. Just comin in or something. And we were married in the fall of '38.
T: Were any of your friends or relatives killed during World War II Bob?
B: None of mine. No. I don't think any of yours either.
X: No, Clifford couldn't go because he had asthma.
B: Yeah but I mean there was nobody killed.
X: No. And [Jarvis] joined the, what was he in? He was not in the Army. He was in the Navy or the…
B: He was on the Coast Guard.
X: He figured if he was on a ship [ ]
T: Well, is there anything else that you can think of Bob that relates to World War II and your work at the Trunk that maybe we missed? Anything that might be of interest.
B: Well they were making stuff later on in the war. I don't really know what they did. See, after that I left and I went to the candle company.
T: I see. So you didn't, when did Oshkosh Trunk go out of business. Can you remember when that happened.
B: I can't tell you.
T: And how long did you work at Oshkosh Trunk then?
B: Twenty-seven years.
T: Okay. That's quite a while. And then you worked at the candle company after that.
B: For about six months or less. And then I finally had a friend that was in the office over at Rockwell and he said, "Why don't you come over there." So I did and I was very, very happy.
T: I see. What kind of work did you do at Rockwell?
B: I was in the shipping department and I sent, I would get the orders. I would take em and fill the orders, smaller parts that they had. And then I would put em in the basket and push the basket out and they'd come and pick em up. It was, well…
X: Didn't your packages have to weigh so much?
B: Oh yeah. It was UPS. And that had to be done and done right, otherwise they wouldn't take it.
T: So you liked working at Rockwell then. It was fun to work there, or pleasant work for you when you worked at Rockwell. You said you liked it.
B: Yes I did.
T: Did you work there then up until your retirement?
B: What was it? About seventeen years there?
T: Can you remember what year you retired, Bob?
X: I quit in, I think it was about '81. I worked three years longer after he quit.
B: Good thing I got her because I don't remember a lot.
T: After you retired, between then and now, what did you do for enjoyment, fun and relaxation? Were there any things like hunting or fishing that you did?
B: Oh yeah, I hunted. Duck hunting.
X: I was so tired of ducks and dressing and so forth. At Thanksgiving I wanted something else. In those days we didn't have a freezer and a couple of refrigerators. We'd invite people over and we'd have it. And then he'd come home with more ducks and then we would invite somebody else.
T: He was probably a better hunter than you had hoped.
B: Well I started that pretty early as a kid.
X: The first time he invited his boss home and talking about [ ], he never seen me in his life. He walked right in just as everything was ready to go on the table. Sat down and ate everything. [ ] there a lotta time.
B: She was a good cook.
T: Did you ever do any fishing besides hunting?
B: Yes. Out on Lake Winnebago.
T: I guess fishing isn't as good as it used to be there.
B: No, it ain't but my neighbor right now is a fisherman and so we gets some nice meals once in awhile.
X; They say, "Don't plan dinner. We're gonna bring some fish. And they bring it all cooked.
T: I think we've covered all the territory that I wanted to cover. I wanted to get into the history of your relationship to Mathias Kitz but apparently you can't remember the…
B: No. Mathias was quite a bit older and my aunt Sylv. Killian and those people, I was close to but not Mathias. I'm sorry. I don't think they were, had anything that was worthwhile, you know. I [ ]. But I mean, that's all I know.
X: I think the first thing people come for in that museum, they want to see that clock.
T: Yes, it's a very popular thing and it's beginning to show its age a little bit. It doesn't always work right. The doors don't always open the way they're supposed to.
X: People that know how, there aren't as many of them.
T: There aren't many people that are real knowledgeable about that. Well I want to thank you very much Bob. I appreciate your letting me come to your house and talk to you. I've enjoyed it and I think it was very helpful. And I thank you.
Oral History interview with Robert W. and Leola Kitz.
-WORLD WAR II
-Copyright Oshkosh Public Museum
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