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|Interview of Otto
November 25, 2002
For the Monmouth University Archives
This oral history interview of Otto Johnk is taking place on November 25, 2002 at Monmouth University in West Long branch, New Jersey. This interview is for the Oral History Project for HS 298 01(Oral History) at Monmouth University. I am Tom Hanley, a student at Monmouth University. I will be conducting the interview. Otto Johnk served before and during the Korean War. He served in the following areas: the Atlantic Ocean.
Question: You were born in New York
Answer: That is correct.
Q: You lived in Germany from 1936 to 1947?
Q: Did you live in New York before you moved to Germany?
A: Yes, we lived seven years in New York.
Q: What do you remember the most about your experience in New York?
A: The thing that stands out the most is that we lived in the Bronx and were not allowed to cross Park Avenue. One time I did with my brother and we were severely punished. That sticks out above everything else. We lived in a predominantly Irish neighborhood.
When I went through the street as a little boy I only spoke German. Both of my parents were German so I only spoke German. Nobody understood me. Since they refused to learn German I had to learn English, which I did.
Q: How would you compare your experiences in New York then to the way the city is today?
A: I love New York. I go to New York frequently. I do not remember too much of my earlier years. We lived in the Bronx, somewhere near Fordham Road. I know New York City much better now than before. I really can't tell you what has changed. I frequently go to New York City. I have no fear, none. I've never been bothered in New York City. I know where to stay away. I was a tour guide in New York City for German American tourists and they all liked the city. They were treated very well. How it is now, I think is much richer. I remember a lot of poor people in 1936 when I left. I think, financially, people are much better off in the city now than when I left.
Q: What was it like living in Nazi Germany?
A: I think Nazi Germany is not what is shown on television and video. My Father had a permanent job in Germany, which he didn't have in America. He had a dairy business. He worked hard. We lived well until the war broke out. I was in the Hitler Youth. The Hitler Youth, to me, was a version of the boy scouts. We had to stand in the Honor Guard when some big official visited.
Keel is where I lived. Keel is a German equivalent of Norfolk, Virginia. It's a major seaport. Lots of ships were there. I was aboard many ships. My Father had a dairy business and some of the routes covered German docks and piers for the German Navy. I was aboard all of the three sailing vessels that were used for training. I was aboard German subs. I was aboard German destroyers. When I went aboard the German destroyers I always said "They will not send this thing out into the big sea, big water." Well, I found out different. They did go out into the big water. I lived there for quite a few years, five years until the house I lived in was partially destroyed by British bombers. At that time I moved to Southern Germany, where my mother was from and was a little bit more protected. My love of the navy and the sea was much furthered and advanced by living in the Harbor in Keel.
There were lots of German Navy ships. I was on many of them. I was at the launching of a German cruiser, the Prince Herging, which was basically launched by VanHorti, who was the Hungarian Prime Minister and Adolph Hitler. The Hungarian Prime Minister was there because Prince Herging, after whom the ship was named, was an Austro-Hungarian Prince. That's why the Prime Minister was there. I spent a lot of time on German ships, out in the harbor, as a little boy, of course. They could go almost anywhere they wanted to. I always loved the sea and I loved small ships. That's how I ended up on a D.E.
Q: Living under Nazi Germany, do you know if the press was, at all, controlled tightly?
A: We never knew what it was. The press was only one voice. The Nazi newspaper was the only news you got. It was illegal to listen to anything else.
Q: You went through eight grades in the German school system. How would you compare the German school system with the twelve grade American school system?
A: I really don't want to compare. The school system over there was very rigid. If you didn't learn and didn't pass, you didn't get advanced. Germany has a school system where, at that time, you had to attend school until you were fourteen. At that time, if your grades were satisfactory, you went to what is called a Gymnasium, which is and advanced form of High School. The teaching was rigid, hard and if you didn't go to the Gymnasium, you could not go to the University.
Q: Did you have a job growing up?
A: Not at that time. I did help my Father in the dairy business. That's how I got to know a lot of submarine sailors. My Father delivered milk to them.
Q: Did you deliver milk with him?
A: When I could, yeah. Remember I was seven, eight or nine years old. Yeah, I would usually help him.
Q: When you had time for recreation, what did you do?
A: I played soccer. In Germany we played soccer from the first of January until the very first of December, from eight in the morning to ten at night. as long as we could. I recall many times my mother yelling at me because we bought new shoes, which were hard to come by during the war. We would kick every stone, everything. Soccer was the only sport we really participated in. There were organized athletic activities. Every year, the Hitler Youth held organized sports. Unlike what you see in the movies, girls and boys were always separate. Winning was encouraged. You had to be in the Hitler Youth to participate and it was a lot of high jumping, a lot of running called straight running and hurdles, shot put, all the normal athletic activities.
Q: You said that boys and girls were always separate. Was there a girls' division of the Hitler Youth?
Q: And they'd have their own games as well?
A: They were in other areas. When it was for boys athletics, it was for boys. I laugh when I watch Hollywood movies that show all the interchange between recent girls and all the things. I never was involved with any of that. I am sure of the fact that it did happen but it was not the everyday thing
Q: Aside from soccer and other sports, did you have any favorite radio programs?
Q: What was your favorite?
A: Not too many movies. Music, standard German music. They usually sing about the Rhine. They sing about drinking wine. Of course they sing about girls but not in any derogatory ways or even sexual. Most of the songs we had in Germany are about the Rhine or about traveling. If you go to Italy or any other one of those countries, it's overloaded with Germans because it is a warm beautiful country and they have money. It was the same way at that time. My father had a three-wheeler for delivering milk. My lawn-mower in Colonia had a bigger engine. It was just about a one cycle or two cycle put put, maybe about two horsepower. You would travel around the place.
Q: Did you know much about Japan before the war?
Q: There was no news at all about that country?
A: I beg your pardon?
Q: There was no news at all regarding that country?
A: Oh yeah, there was news but it was standard news. It was standard news. The only thing that really was filthy was worms.
Q: So, was there a big deal made out of the Japanese alliance with Germany?
A: That was a big thing. I remember that.
Q: What was your reaction?
A: Positive. Nobody knew anything about the Japanese. Nobody knew anything about the Japanese. The Germans always had the feeling that Roosevelt wanted to get the United States into the war, one way or the other. They also felt, now this was towards the end, that ultimately Russia and the United States would go to war. That was the big feeling. Propaganda, yes. Especially toward the end of the war. Even at the beginning of the war we used to have what they called a sanda melding, which basically is extra-recording. German submarines sank a huge tonnage of allied forces. When Germany and Japan got together. Germany did not depend much on Italy. Germany did not consider Italy as a reliable ally.
Q: So was the reaction different when Italy aligned with Germany than when it aligned with Japan?
A: When Germany aligned with Italy, which happened in the mid 30's or so, I wasn't aware of it. That's before my time.
Q: Did you know about Mussolini during the war or later on?
A: Beg pardon?
Q: Did you know about Mussolini at all during the war?
A: Oh yeah, I saw Mussolini. Towards the end of the war I lived in Southern Germany. Mussolini was there quite often. Germany had very little faith in the Italian soldier.
Q: When World War II began on September 1, 1939, where the German people made aware that their nation was at war?
A: That there was war, yes.
Q: How much detail about these attacks were you given from the German military?
A: A lot, because they were winning. They were winning.
Q: What was the overall reaction to that?
A: Sad, because most German people didn't want to go to war, which is probably something Americans don't understand? There is no newspaper that says "hey you infringed, or you're doing something." The only newspaper you had was written by Girdles. He supported Hitler and everything in the media was pro-Nazi.
Q: When did you find out about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor?
A: Probably the same day it happened.
Q: What was your reaction to that?
A: No reaction. I just didn't know. You have to remember when that happened I was eleven years old. What do you really know?
Q: Did anyone that remembers mention that it might bring America into the war.?
A: The feeling in Germany was that America would be in the war. As a matter of fact, the feeling in Germany was that America already was in the war from the word "go" because Roosevelt was supporting the British with weapons, ammunition, and fuel. There was never any doubt in the German people's mind.
Q: Speaking of Roosevelt, do you know what the overall opinion of FDR was in Germany?
A: You really want to know? He was lying between his teeth. I see somewhat of a parallel right now, when you look at Palestine versus Israel. Everything that happens is Arafat's fault, everything. With Germany it was the same thing, everything that was bad was Winston Churchill. He was considered a lire, a finagler. He had used all kinds of unethical or other people's countries and everything, including the United States. The feeling was that Roosevelt supported him. The lend-lease program and all of that was just a cover.
Q: What was your personal opinion of Franklin Roosevelt?
A: I really don't know, Tom. My Father went back to Germany because things in the United States were lousy in 1936. When my parents went back to Germany we had a good life for a couple of years. When the war broke out my father went back into the service. The store was closed and ultimately destroyed.
Q: How would you compare pre-war Germany to Germany during World War II?
A: Terrible. Terrible. The American people don't know, don't realize and don't understand what it is when you get all of your news from one source. All the news came from one and of course it was all slanted. You were not allowed to listen to a foreign radio broadcast. People would go around spying.
Q: Your father was a veteran of World War I?
Q: He was drafted to fight again for Germany in World War II. How did this affect you?
A: Very badly. Like most boys, my mother couldn't handle boys. My father was a very strong force in my early life. He was a very good person. He was a good guide and leader, which I lost when my father went away. I saw my father once a year for the next five or six years. I lost that upbringing and like most boys I'd rather play soccer than do school work.
Q: Did you suffer an hardships during the war such as food or power shortages?
A: Food was always short. I had a half brother, who was killed in Russia. I had no father. All of my other uncles were in the military. We missed them. Definitely.
Q: Did you have any first hand experience with air raids?
A: Do I? Tons of them. I was in the Hitler Youth. In the Hitler Youth we formed, this is when I lived in Southern Germany; we formed a joint fire brigade to help the firemen. Fortunately, I never got involved in a fire. Have I been in air raids? Yes. I have seen air raid shelters in Munich. I have seen people run around with napalm on their shoulders, burning. It was not a pleasant experience.
Q: Did you know what nation was bombing you?
A: Sure. During the day time, it was the Americans. During the night it was the British.
Q: How long did the air raids last for?
A: IT is hard to say. Sometimes they lasted for hours. They became longer as the war went on because the German anti-aircraft became less and less effective.
Q: You talked about the one news source and Nazi propaganda. Was there a lot of Nazi propaganda circulating during the war?
A: During the war? Yeah. We never lost a battle. We retreated, but we never lost a battle. We kept coming. As a matter of fact, in days when you could hear the American tanks, the newspaper said and all that kind of stuff and was still talking about winning the war.
Q: So they were reporting falsehoods?
A: They lied. Yeah.
Q: Did you ever have the opportunity to see Hitler speak in person?
A: No. I saw him in person. I listened to many speeches but I never met him. I never was at any of his affairs where he spoke. He probably was the greatest speaker I have ever met. He was a very dynamic speaker, a very forceful speaker. When he spoke, he had the ability to make people want to go through the wall for him. There is only one other guy that I have seen, who is similar to that, Castro.
Q: You didn't see him speak in person, but did you ever see Hitler in person?
A: Yes. Hitler was as close as you are to me.
Q: Would that be about three feet?
A: Something like that, yeah. We were a Hitler Youth Guard. This was at a ship's launching. All of us were holding hands together to prevent people from breaking through.
Q: What was his presence like?
A: Dynamic. He stood up straight with a very military bearing and we didn't know any different.
Q: What was the reaction in Germany to victories such as the defeat of France?
A: Very happy. The feeling in Germany was that Germany was done very wrong in Versailles. It was revenge.
Q: At the same time news of defeat wasn't brought to the public?
A: You mean the defeat of Germany? They never lost a battle Tom. They never lost a battle. It was like I heard in Korea and some other places. We retreated to a better strategic location but won the battle.
Q: After the war you enlisted in the United States Navy and you served on a destroyer escort ship. Did you know anything about the Destroyer Escorts and their role in the war against Germany during World War II?
A: No. No, nothing. I went aboard a Destroyer Escort because we made a bad choice. When I graduated from electronics school we were given places to select where we could go. I hung around at school we did not want to go to Norfolk. Norfolk, at that time, had an incredibly terrible reputation for sailors. You know, like "sailors and dogs keep off the grass." We decided not to go to Norfolk. We wanted a Destroyer or something smaller. We went to Key West. We then found out, a few weeks after we were in Key West, that the four Destroyers we were looking at in Norfolk escorted a cruiser on an around-the-world trip. We got to spend our life in Key West.
Q: You were born in New York, which makes you an American citizen and your parents were German citizens. What would it mean for you if Germany had won the war?
A: I was on the winning side regardless of who won. By German law, I was a German citizen and by American law, I was an American Citizen, but I must tell you that I'm glad America won because America was good to me.
Q: Do you remember where you were when you heard that Mussolini had been killed?
A: Vaguely. Vaguely.
Q: What was your reaction to it?
A: There was no reaction. I think this happened in forty-four or forty-five. There was no reaction. We didn't hear much about Mussolini and those kind of things. We only heard when he was coming to Munich to meet with Hitler or something like that.
Q: Where were you when you heard that Berlin had fallen?
A: was in South Western Germany in a camp where they had some of the apprentices. I had my bicycle with me and there was a girl there who lived in the town next to me. We rode home, roughly one hundred kilometers, seventy miles in one day. There was no food and no water. We were continuously strafed by American and British fighter jets. They shot at everything; dogs, cats, mice, everything that moved. We were shot at.
It was the first time I'd seen people marching from Cartset. Cartset is a concentration camp in Germany. We saw thousands and thousands of people in their uniforms. They had these striped uniforms and we had not the vaguest idea of who they were. We saw German Soldiers trying to flee. They would surrender, give up, whatever. This was the beginning of May in 1945. Farmers were turning soldiers in. The SS would go after deserters. The SS, of course was basically two organizations. There was an SS, which was basically a military police type and there was what was called the Wafum SS and I would equate them to the United States Marines. They were gung-ho soldiers. They were two separate organizations. All of the damage was really inflicted by the political SS. There was the SS and the SR. The SR was a political and social club. SR stands for Storm Division, when translated. It was something that German business men had to join, if they wanted to survive. You have to part of the in people. In order to be part of the in people, you have to be in a political organization. The SS was Germany's best troops. Waffum SS., basically means the armored SS, as opposed to the political version.
I was about one hundred kilometers from home, to answer your question. I peddled under constant fire by American and British strafing planes. They shot at everything; dogs, cats, mice, whatever. There was no food, no water, no nothing. I made it home two days before the war ended. The propaganda on the radio still talked about winning the war. You could hear the firing of artillery and guns very close to where we were. That's when I found out that Berlin had fallen. There was no big announcement that Berlin had fallen. The basic announcement, when we really realized that something was drastically wrong was when Durnitz was named the President and Chancellor of Germany. That's how that was handled. In other words, Hitler was never mentioned again.
Q: You didn't know that he had committed suicide?
Q: What was your reaction to the new Chancellor?
A: I don't remember Tom. You have to realize that everything was in such incredible turmoil. Everyone was just hoping that the shooting would stop. That's what was on everyone's mind. German troops were shooting German troops because they ran away. People were turning the troops in that had run away. It was mayhem. It was incredible mayhem. I don't recall what my reaction was to it.
The war ended and we had had not heard from my Father or my Mother's brother in over twelve months. We didn't know where they were or anything. Communication was totally destroyed, except for the Nazi Propaganda. Everything was destroyed.
Q: What town in Germany did you live in?
A: At that time, I lived in a town called Fursenfeltbrookl, which was just about twenty-five kilometers west of Munich.
Q: Where there troops in your town?
A: British and American troops, yes.
Q: How did they treat the people of your town?
A: We were treated very well because my mother had lived in New York for a number of years and we spoke English with them and we became friends with the troops. Other people were not so well off.
Q: Where were you when you found out about the use of the Atomic bomb by America, against Japan?
A: I really don't know.
Q: Was the news made public to you?
A: Oh yeah.
Q: What was your reaction to this new super-weapon?
A: I don't recall Tom. I don't really recall. We of course were always told that Germany had a super secret weapon that was going to change everything. They held out on that promise until the last day of the war. They talked about a super bomb and they talked about the V-2 and they talked about another generation of something.
Q: When did you finally hear from your father?
A: The war ended in May of 1945. My father was stationed in Norway. The British turned him over to the French. He spent a year and a half as a French prisoner of war. He came back in September of 1946.
Q: What was your reaction to finally seeing him again?
A: Joy. I had it pretty easy, as far as the war is concerned Tom, but it was not a good time. A few weeks before my uncle had returned, also from France, being a prisoner of war. When my father came back, we didn't stay around long. My father and I came back in early 1947. We had a hard time bringing my father back because he was in the Nazi party.
Q: You didn't stay in Germany after the war?
A: As soon as we could arrange the fare. We came back in May of 1947.
Q: What part of the divided Germany would you have been in?
A: We would have been far from that. We would have been in the American part. Everyone was hoping the Americans would take over. The seventh army came in because the French were raising all kinds of hell. The Americans were the most civilized. The Russians were the worst. The French were the second worst. The British were not bad. Everybody wanted the Americans to move in. Here I am, an American citizen and my Mother of course, spoke fluent English. All of the houses we live near were commandeered by the army except my house. We were under the protection of the American Red Cross. To put it bluntly, we hit the jackpot.
Q: How long were you back in America before you decided to join the United States Navy?
A: I came back in May of 1945. I tried to join the Navy in the beginning of 1947. They were not taking anybody. I went to the Navy in September of 1947.
Q: What made you decide to join the Navy?
A: I always loved the sea. When I lived in Germany I lived right on the Baltic Sea. I loved the sea.
Q: Where were you trained?
A: I was trained in Company 352 at Camp Airy in the Great Lakes, Illinois in September of 1947.
Q: What did your training entail?
A: What was that?
Q: What did your training entail?
A: My fate in the navy was already pre-chosen. I had taken an Eddy Test, which is a test the Navy gives about physics and electronics. I scored very high. So the navy wanted me but I had to wait about six months before an opening came. I tried to join the signal corps because at that time they were still talking about the draft. I did not want to become an army foot soldier. In the navy at least you get a bunk, unless they shoot the ship out from under you. Of course then you're really in trouble. You don't have to sleep in the mud and you don't have to march. I hate marching. I went into the navy and never regretted it.
Q: What did your fellow sailors think of the fact that you lived in Nazi Germany during World War II?
A: Nobody ever bothered about that. Even right now. Until our trip to Albany when I mentioned that I lived in Nazi Germany during World War II. Now everyone is excited wanting to hear my story and all kinds of things. I never thought about it. I have always been blessed with a can do and will do attitude. Three years after my brother and I came, we brought my parents back here. My parents were different. When my father came back, he kissed the ground and said "screw Germany, nothing will ever take me away from the United States."
Q: How did you get along with the officers and crew of your ship?
A: Well, well. It was the advantage of a small ship. Everybody knew each other. I was, for all practical purposes on special assignment. I acted like a professional on the ship. The ship was mostly electronics. We had three electronics technicians, very sophisticated equipment, that had to be kept running. We were on duty twenty-four hours a day and the rest of the time we could do whatever we wanted to do. My assignment during General Quarters was radio shack. I just had to sit there and make sure everything worked. There was another guy that handled the sonar and another guy that handled the radar. I had a specific duty station, which was the radio shack.
Q: Did you serve during the Korean War?
A: I was aboard ship for a year when Korea broke out. One of the ships in our squadron went to Korea. I never did.
Q: What was it like being a serviceman during that time?
A: I don't know. I never thought of it. I never had a fear of anything. At times I thought about it. You were on the ship up there. Have you ever felt one of the balk heads? They were like concrete. I wondered if machine gun bullets would penetrate. Every now and then I would think about it but never really had any fear or any idea that that would do anything.
During maneuvers I was killed. I was killed because one of the critics or judges that ran the maneuvers when the ship was at General Quarters said to me "the antenna has just been shot down." It was simulated to have been shot down. I said "ok I'll fix it." I opened the hatch and went outside. I was killed instantly because I didn't wear my helmet. For the rest of the maneuvers in Guantanamo Bay, I was dead. The skipper hated me for it because those are bad points.
Q: So if you were killed you would be done for the rest of the maneuver?
Q: What was the typical day like when you were training?
A: We had very little training aboard the ship. There were no service manuals. Everything we had was very primitive. They talk about the sailors of old wooden ships and iron men, we had to know the equipment in and out, forewords, backwards, everything because we didn't have test equipment, manuals or circuits on the equipment. You had to know your equipment, inside and out.
Q: What did you do for recreation on the ship?
A: Really not much. I loved the sea. When we were at sea, a couple of guys and I would sit on the bow. In Key West the water was always like this table top with ground swells in it. We would sit on the bow and talk and watch the water. You could see fish dolphins swimming along side us. We just sat around and watched it. I don't need any kind of entertainment. I'm fascinated with everything. I just sat there and watched the flying fish. Every now and then we would grab them when they came aboard or when the wind or the rain would drive them over. Somehow the time went very fast. We used to frequently play cards. Crazy Eight, Hearts, what the hell was the other one? I don't remember. I haven't played cards since the navy but that's how we spent the day. We drank lots of coffee.
Life aboard the ship was good except I am not the kind of person that likes to put up with crappy discipline. What does having my shoes shined and passing inspection have to do with my ability to maintain the equipment? We were basically treated as professionals. I had very easy access to the captain because when things didn't work right he'd yell "Johnk, get your ass up here!" He also respected me. We were not treated as sailors but as professionals who were assigned a specific job that needed to be done. He'd get pissed if things didn't straighten out quickly.
Q: What was your opinion of the Captain?
A: The first guy I Had was a guy named Sam Raburn, who was a nephew of Sam Raburn, the Speaker of the House at that time. Then we had Lieutenant Commmander Evers. They all treated me well. Evers, I questioned his seamanship. We use to come into port and he'd yell "throw out the number one line. Ship throw it over. Get it over there!" They'd get it over there but he wouldn't have the ship lined up. He did this everyday. You could see the lines stretching as they were pulling on it. When those lines part they are a deadly weapon because they snap like a violin string or something like that and have the ability to kill. He was not a good seamen but as a person, he treated me very well. I was always treated well in the navy, except by some South Carolina chief when I was at Camp. One morning he was walking along inspecting us when he said "Johnk! Did you shave this morning?" I said "no sir, I don't have to shave." He responded "God damn it. From now on you will shave!" I've been shaving everyday since. I had such a light fuzz. You never saw it. That probably was the worst. There were two other incidents that I know find funny. In boot camp, I got demerits. You have to realize that I'd only been back from Germany a year and I did not speak English real well. We were doing laundry and I hung my shorts up right side out. That's a criminal offense in the navy. You have to hang them up inside out. I got a demerit for doing that. I had not the vaguest idea of what a demerit was. I said "oh shit, they're going to shoot me or something in the morning.
I played soccer in Germany and at that time it was not very popular in the United States. We had to participate in sports. Now I know what I did wrong, but at that time I didn't. They were choosing sides and I said "I don't know how to play. I'm not playing. I don't even know what this is all about." They said "God damn it Johnk. You're going to play!" I said "ok" and I was first at bat. I was a soccer goalie. I had fast hands and good eyes. The guy throws the ball. I'm standing here, holding the bat and the ball is so big it looks like a pumpkin being thrown at me. I hit it between what I now know is between second base and the center fielder. Everybody's yelling "run!" Well I'm standing this way with a base down there (he points left) and a base down there (he points right). Guess where I went? Third base! After that they believed that I didn't know how to play.
As I said, I was treated very well. I was never put on report. I came back to the ship late one time because the New York-Miami train got delayed. I came aboard, they were going to leave in the morning, and I was very apologetic. They all said "get on here." I said "what do I have to do?" He says "get down below and go to sleep." I always had the feeling that the navy would take care of me because I took care of the navy. They knew I was there. They knew I did what I had to do. They knew I was reliable and so they bent over backwards the one time I was late.
Q: What was your most memorable event while serving in the navy?
A: While serving in the navy? It was seeing Harry Truman. Harry Truman used to visit Key West a lot. If we were in that particular part of Key West, he would be walking past us in the morning. We'd all stand there and scream "hey Harry!" He'd grin from ear to ear and wave back. He seemed to be a really down to earth guy.
I think possibly the worst experience I had in the navy was in March of 1952. The Yankees and Dodgers were playing in a spring exhibition game in Miami and about ten or twelve of us went. We were on liberty and had to be back at seven o'clock on Monday morning. We went to the game and the Yankees beat the shit out of the Dodgers. We were all very happy.
When we came back there was no ship and no one would tell us what had happened to it. It was gone. I had on whites and that was it. I had no other clothes or anything. We stayed overnight on the destroyer that was the flag ship of our squadron. They put us up on there overnight. They didn't tell us what happened. The next day when we went to sea, they told us they had spotted Russian submarines, south of Puerto Rico, where the navy was holding war maneuvers. They had spotted the Russians because we had unique sonar equipment. They sent the Robinson out to find and chase that sub. They did, but in the mean time we were in Key West.
In comes the ship the next day, now we knew what was going on. The next day, we had no clothes, no nothing. The bunks were all occupied. So we had to find a bunk while a guy was on watch. Then they put us on another ship, the Kulbar 217. Would you believe I just met a guy that served on the Kulbar at that time? I accused them of thievery because we had to buy new underwear and all kinds of stuff and they charged us exuberant prices.
We met the ship two weeks later in San Juan, Puerto Rico. They did find, I believe, some Russian subs. We were never told. In the mean time though, the Robinson was trailing us. We had caught up with them when we were south of Puerto Rico. The Robinson was trailing us and we were so desperate we wanted to jump into the sea and have them rescue us. They were going to transfer us in that little chair. You know, the little thing with the two legs sticking down. They were going to transfer us in that but they decided it was too dangerous. We watched it and when the two ships went this way (got closer); the little thing went down in the water. When the two ships went that was (further apart), you went up like you were shot out of a cannon. They refused to transfer us and they transferred us in San Juan, Puerto Rico. That was an interesting experience.
Q: What was the name of your Destroyer Escort?
A: The Francis Martin Robinson EDE-220. It was named after a marine colonel, I think, who died in the First World War. Destroyer Escorts are named after people. Destroyers used to be named after people. Submarines used to be named after fish, battleships after states, and cruisers after cities. Now it's a total mish mash.
Q: Overall, how would you rate your naval experience?
A: Fantastic and the reason I say that is that I had a year's education in electronics. I always was interested in electronics and it was the foundation for me to go onto college and get my degree. I love electronics and I love the sea. For me it was fantastic.
Q: When and where were you discharged?
A: I was discharged in Key West, Florida in September of 1952.
Q: Have you been back to Germany at all since the war?
Q: What was the biggest difference between then and now?
A: The difference is incredible. When I left Germany, everything was in ruins. When I went back this time I found that Germany is an incredibly clean country, however people are not the friendliest. I didn't meet anyone I knew in the area that I had lived in, even though I lived in that town for seven years. I found the house that I lived in. There were new places. There were new houses and developments. A lot of displaced persons from East Germany were there now. I did not find any of my friends.
I went to Ireland a year later. The difference was unbelievable. Ireland is a beautiful country. It is not as clean and organized as Germany, but the warmth of the people was just incredible.
I'm still very active in German circles. I am still involved in German electronics with them. I video tape some German programs, Christmas shows and other kinds of things. I am glad to be an American but I am proud of my heritage.
Q: The things you do. Is that for Germany or German Americans here in the States?
A: German Americans here. What nationality are your parents?
Q: My father is one hundred percent Irish and my mother is half Italian and half Polish.
A: What a combination. My son in law's Polish.
Q: What was Ireland like?
A: It seemed possibly a little bit backwards in many things compared to Germany and the United States. In terms of warmth and friendliness and happiness, at least what I saw, it's far, far better than either Germany or America. I would say that the lady I dated at that time in Dublin had several lady friends. It was incredible. The Irish people talked to us and invited us to their homes. They made us food. It was unbelievable.
Q: Was this recently or was it after the service?
A: it was in 1997.
Q: When you returned home from the navy, how were you received?
A: Incredibly well. My parents had returned from Germany, while I was in the navy. I had not seen them in a couple years. They were still in Germany. I was very fortunate. We had a very close family. We put up with a lot but suffered significantly less than what most people have suffered.
Q: In the last few years you've been back to Germany. You've gone to Ireland. You've done programming for the German Americans.
A: I like to travel. This year I went to the Bahamas. I was also in Argentina. I was in Buenos Aires, and went around Cape Horn in a ship that is fifty-seven times as big as the Robinson. I had a marvelous time. It was an unbelievably weird country. It was just a few hundred miles north of the Arctic Circle. Beautiful.
Q: What has your post-naval life been like?
A: My life? After the navy I had wanted to go to missile school in California when I joined the navy and they said no, they had too many candidates. After that they asked me to stay in the navy. I decided to go to school independently on the GI Bill. I married a very good girl, also of German descent. As marriages go, I think we had one that was happy as any one. There's always conflict with something but I married the right woman for me. Unfortunately, she died many years ago. I have two grand children. I have a Polish son in law and my other daughter's boy friend is Irish. I'm very proud of it. I am doing very well Tom. I am doing very well. I find life exciting. I have all kinds of old age problems which I desperately try to ignore. The United States has been very good to me.
I worked for RCA as a design engineer and I worked for another company as a sales engineer. I've done very well and I'm happy to be an American. Not just now because of nine eleven and everything. I see so many people. I see it on the Parkway. They say "Remember nine eleven. Now get the hell out of my way!"
Q: How did you get involved with DESA?
A: I first became involved with the Destroyer Association because I did not know there was such a thing as DESA. About ten years ago, I parked alongside a guy that had a destroyer symbol. I talked to the guy and I joined him. One time, I had the destroyer symbol on the car and a guy talked to me and asked "which destroyer were you on" and I said "no, I wasn't on a destroyer. I was on a destroyer escort." He talked to me until I consented to come to one of their meetings. Now I'm a trustee in the association. My lady friend is learning to be very good with computers. We do their mail lists and all of that. We have a good time.
Once a year we have a reunion on the Robinson. I had good friends on the Robinson. We had one hundred and eighteen guys on the Robinson. You knew everybody. A friend of mine went to school with me got out and he went aboard the Missouri. I went aboard the Missouri once. I asked "where's Jack McKenna?" Everybody said "What? Who?" On the Robinson everybody knew everybody. The skipper always called me by my first name.
Q: How often do you see your old shipmates?
A: Once a year on the reunion. We just came back from one.
Q: Do you have it in different places each year?
A: Yes. We've been to Albany. We've been to Norfolk. We've been to Miami and we've been to a couple of other places. DESA, I see all the time, the local DESA guys. Unfortunately not a single one of them was on my ship.
Q: Have you been to the USS Slater in Albany, New York?
A: Yes. I was on the Slater right after she came back. I saw her in New York. I went aboard her and took my grandson aboard the ship. I showed him where I used to sleep.
Q: What was it like being on the ship when it first came back, before it was restored?
A: Sad. It was an incredible, filthy mess. It was rusty. Everything was broken and nothing worked right. Anything that was of any value had been taken off. It looks fantastic. Those guys did an incredible job.
Q: What's it like being on it now with the incredible job that's been done? What do you think of it now?
A: Fantastic. It is really fantastic. They put a lot of time into it.
Q: Being a former service man, what is your opinion of possible war with Iraq?
A: I have mixed emotions about that. I have mixed emotions about that whole part of the world because we are going around Muslim bashing. My opinion is that Sharon is not going to stop until he has killed the last Muslim. That's the way it looks to me and I'm concerned. I have and eighteen year-old grandson. He is the apple of my eye and I would really hate to see him join the military. My opinion is that we always talk about the United States being a fair country and giving everybody their due and all kinds of things. I really don't think that we're doing that. I don't think that fighting Saddam is going to solve anything because Sharon has ignored every resolution of the UN. Every one of them so far. Why are we going after one man and not the other? Don't get me started on that because I've seen people with napalm burning on their back. I've listened to the screaming and horror. I really don't believe in it. Unfortunately Tom, I'm seeing some of the things that happened in Germany happening here. The media is not fair and balanced. Television is one sided. That's how Hitler was. I remember we were airing the news that we were winning the war and you could see the American tanks coming across the street. Wherever they went to. My uncle was in Russia and he says "I hope they never do to us what we did to them." War is just plain hell.
Q: I guess you experienced a lot of that first hand living in Germany?
A: Some of it, not a lot, but enough of it.
Q: How would you compare those events to the events such as September 11, 2001?
A: Well, I am pissed off at nine eleven because I think some people were sound asleep on the switch. Tom, when I worked for RCA, I worked on air traffic control. I worked on transponders. Do you know what a transponder is? Basically they send out a radar signal and the echo comes back and tells them. With a transponder, they have assigned a code to each aircraft and when they're lit up by the radar signal they also light up the transponder. That transponder sends information back like which plane you are and what altitude. All those numbers you see on the controller's board come from the transponder. The radar only tells you that something is there and where it is. That's all the radar tells you. The transponder tells you who it is and what it is. They couldn't figure it out? It took these planes almost an hour to fly here from Boston. They said that they turned the transponders off. First of all, I think the media is probably Bin Laden's best friend. The media is constantly telling him where and how we are looking for him. All he has to do is stay ten feet ahead of CNN and they'll never find him because CNN says where they're looking for him and all he has to do is not be at that particular spot. This doesn't make sense. Now we're going to invade Iraq. All of these cameras are going to be there and all of these knowledgeable reporters who know everything. I watch the news and the same guys who are spouting off now are cited as experts. Do you remember when ninety-nine switched to two thousand? We heard all those dire predictions from the media and their experts. All these guys crawled into the woodwork when it didn't happen, right? They're all coming back now. They're all back now and talking forever. They don't know what the hell they're talking about but the media loves it. For some reason you say you're an expert and I have now become an expert. I am an expert at turning off the TV.
Q: What do you think the world should learn from your experiences in World War II?
A: The world has learned nothing. Zero! The world has not learned. People are still persecuted for the shape of their nose, the color of their skin, their religion, all these kind of things. Nothing, absolutely nothing! In Africa with the Muslims and the Christians over a beauty pageant two-hundred people are killed. Have they learned anything? Anything? We're attacking people because of the color of their skin and the shape of their nose and where they were born and what kind of clothes they wear. We have learned zero from all of that. It's perpetuated. It goes on every time.
Q: What do you think they should have learner?
A: We should have learned that you or whoever is not any different than you are. When you poke them, they still bleed. I can't understand. I belong to this German social club. The manager is married to a very intelligent black woman. She is a school teacher and she teaches handicapped children. She has all kinds of awards for education. There's some old guy snickering back there because he's married to a black woman. Is that really necessary? When she cuts herself, she still bleeds like the rest of them. That's one of the things I've learned. It was driven into us that the Jews were bad. It was driven into us day in and day out. Whatever was wrong in the world, they were at fault. They're not as perfect as they think they are but neither is anyone else. Neither is anyone else. Through this all, I've become very tolerant, in many respects. On the other hand, Tom, because I lived in Germany I did not have a very good basic education. I went to school until I was thirty-four, my father died, to get my bachelors and then I started towards a masters, which I never finished because it was just too much. I volunteer in the local grade school in Lakewood. One day a week I help the teacher and my eyes are really being opened. There's one kid in there, who lives in a one bedroom apartment with fifteen people. There are five women and something like eleven or twelve children. None of the children know their father. They're being raised by three women. How the hell can we do that? How can we do that? Sometimes I can be very square. I'm old fashioned. I'm old fashioned. Whatever I have, I work for. Having lived in Germany and not being able to go to school and going to the university and all of the extra activities and everything, I made something of myself and I'm proud of it. I talk about it to anyone whose willing to listen be because it was long and hard. A bunch of guys that I worked with at RCA, we marched off to school, sometimes five nights a week, in Newark. We marched as a team because we were scared stiff. We all ended up making something out of ourselves. The desire has to be there. The one thing I say about the United States is if you've got the desire, the opportunities are limitless.
Conclusion of the Interview.
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