As told to Barry Hillman
Life Before the War
I was born in Ottawa, Canada, then moved to Burbank, CA when I was about two. I entered kindergarten there. One noon-time I didn’t feel well so I walked home and ended up spending the next six months in bed with double pneumonia. I lost a whole term of school but soon made it up. We moved to San Jose not long after and I lived there through high school.
I had three brothers and four sisters. We had a big family. I had an older sister, an older brother and then me and then the rest. In about 1936 my mother died from cancer when I was in school. I think I was about 13. My father was an accordion player. His whole life was predicated on playing the accordion. He put up a 2 ft. by 3 ft. sign in front of the house advertising lessons. He wanted to teach people how to play but he never really promoted himself and so I don’t think he ever got a single job. Not even an inquiry. He used to do odd jobs but nothing steady. It was difficult for all of us with very little to go around. I always worked.
When I was about 13 or 14 I was hitting a tennis ball against the side of a warehouse and I hit it up onto the roof. I put a ladder up against the gutter to go get the ball. Just as I reached for it, the gutter came loose and down I came. I broke my heel and my ankle. It never healed correctly and I had problems with it later when I was in the Army. A neighbor woman who liked me saw what happened and took me to the county hospital. After I got out of the hospital they took me in. She put a bed in the garage for me so that I wouldn’t have to climb any stairs.
High School Memories
My oldest brother Sonny didn’t like to work. He hated school. He was a rough one.
I remember when I graduated from grammar school that I needed to get three extra tickets for the graduation. I had to go in and ask the principal. Her name was Nellie O’Brian, and she drove a pink Cadillac. She would drive up to the front of the school and wait until someone came to open her door for her. If no one opened the door in five minutes she would walk into the school and it would be a bad day if you had to see her.
I had to go in and ask for the graduation tickets and she lit into me saying, “I’m not going to give you any tickets. Why should I? All the trouble you have caused over all these years.” And she was going on telling me how bad I had been when Ms. Green said, “Nellie, this is Walter, not Sonny” and she gave me the tickets.
I once worked at San Jose High School for two weeks while the janitor was out for a vacation. A week before graduation they asked me if I would work while the janitor was gone. They gave me the keys to the whole school. Can you imagine trusting a kid my age with keys to the entire school? They paid me $20 for those two weeks. When I graduated my brother graduated with me even though he was two years older. The $20 I earned was used to buy graduation clothes for the two of us.
I met my future wife, Hazel Cuneo, when I was still in high school. She was working for the San Jose Mercury Herald, and I was delivering papers for them at the time we met. She was working in their accounting department on a new method of billing, and was also taking classes at Heald College in San Jose. The paper sent her to San Francisco as part of her training on the new billing system and because my grades were so good, I was able to take time off from school to go with her. Hazel was about a year older than me.
Hazel was born in San Jose on Aug 6, 1920. Her parents were from Sydney, Australia. Her mom had worked as a seamstress with her sisters, and her dad was with the Sydney police. Hazel’s parents had lived in South America for a while in 1914 before they made their way to the United States. Her dad worked for Studebaker and her mother was a governess. When they arrived in the U.S., they moved to Detroit, Michigan, where her sister Alice was born in 1917. They moved to California about 1919 and ended up in San Jose, where her dad opened a car repair shop.
When I graduated from high school in 1939 and I got a full-time job with J.C. Penney in San Jose, Hazel’s dad finally consented to our marriage just before I was sent to Hawaii for basic training. We were married May 17, 1942, and I shipped out five months later on Columbus Day. I worked for Penney’s until I went into the Army and went back to work there the day after I got home from the war.
Hazel and I were coming back from a visit to San Francisco when the war broke out. When we got back to San Jose, every street corner had a military policeman on it. In addition to working at Penney’s at the time, I also had a part-time job with the San Jose Police Department. I worked holidays and nights and times like that. After the war started we had blackouts at night. You had to pull your shades down in your house and not use lights if you didn’t need to. Everyone also had to drive with visors over their headlights. I had to stop people and make sure they needed to drive, and that they had the shades on their headlights.
I really didn’t want to go to war but I got a letter from Canada telling me that I could serve in the Canadian Army if I wanted to. I wrote back and told them that this was my country now, so I would serve here. I was drafted by the US Army after that. I think I was 21.
Oahu – 6th Army, 24th Infantry, 21st Regiment –
North Shore Defense December 8, 1941 until May 1943
Historical note: The 24th Infantry was one of the first U.S. Army divisions to see combat in WWII and was among the last to be withdrawn from combat.
After I was drafted I was sent to Hawaii for basic training. That was in October 1942. When I finished basic we took a test and my lieutenant, Richard Lambert, told me that he wanted to recommend me for Officer Candidate School (OCS). The army has an enlistment grade system and I was a Grade 4 or E-4. I was told that I would be qualified to become a colonel. I told him that I was not interested in becoming an officer. I think I mentioned that I did not want to go to war and I was concerned that if I became an officer I would have to stay in the Army longer than if I was just an enlisted soldier. I still have his letter over there on the wall telling me that I qualified to become an officer. About a week after I turned them down, I was assigned to the 6th Army, 24th Infantry Division, 21st Regiment in the anti-tank cannon company. I was given the job of T Corporal and took care of all of the mail and stuff like that.
The anti-tank company had 27mm cannons that we towed behind a jeep. When we traveled on ships we would strap them to the deck to give the ship more guns to shoot if attacked. We never had to use them.
After I joined the 21st our company commander, Captain Riley, came to me and again tried to convince me to go to OCS, but I told them again that I wasn’t interested. He was a good man but he was transferred out of our company into the infantry. Another lieutenant was promoted to captain and became the company commander.
As it turned out, this new commander was afraid to go to war. He kept trying to do whatever he could to not go. One day he said, “Rogers, I guess I won’t be shipping out with you guys because I had to have some surgery,” but he wouldn’t say what it was. I asked around and found out that he had been circumcised. They sent him anyway. Can you imagine going into war with a company commander who acted that way? I was only a T Corporal but he left me in charge all the time. He would tell me, “Rogers, you are in charge,” and then he would disappear. How safe can you feel going off to war with a company commander like that?
Kina Point, Oahu
While we were in Hawaii we were guarding the North Coast of Oahu. We were stationed at Kina Point and I was in charge of the PX. One day several guys decided that they were going to row a boat out to Kina Point. They asked me to come along and I did.
There was no problem getting out there and no problem getting back until we got close to the beach and had to get through the surf. We tried several times but no one had experience doing that. Finally, everyone except me and another guy jumped overboard and swam to shore and took off.
Well, I was a pretty good swimmer and so I tied a rope to my waist and jumped in. We figured that if we could get to shore we could pull the boat in. So the other fella stayed in the boat and I swam to shore.
When I got there a sergeant came running up hollering that we needed to get the hell out of there. I told him that was what we were trying to do. I pulled that boat along the shore while the other guy steered it with the oars out in the ocean. There was one other area where there was no beach and I had to swim again. This was where the PT boats were docked and we were worried that they could come out at any time. We finally got the boat back where it belonged and the owner started giving me a hard time. I told him that if it weren’t for me, his boat would be out in the middle of the ocean. That shut him up.
There was a guy in my company from Hawaii. He asked me to spend Christmas in 1942 at his place and I did. On Christmas day he asked me if I wanted to play some golf. I told him that I had never played golf. He said it wasn’t very difficult and that he would have me playing in no time. We were on about the ninth or tenth hole when I saw these huge loudspeakers. I asked him what they were for and he said that if they came on I should do whatever they told me to do. Just about then the speakers came on with some guy saying to clear the field, that there was a plane coming in. My friend told me to grab my bag and start running and I did. Just then a single-engine fighter came in and landed on the fairway right where we had been playing.
Before we could ship out everyone had to pass a swim test. Since I was a good swimmer my CO told me to go out 150 yards and tread water. Then each guy in our company had to swim out and touch me and swim back. But there was one big Italian guy who played the accordion and he was deathly afraid of water. He said that when he was a kid he was out in a boat with his father and the boat flipped over. He said he almost drowned and that he didn’t like water after that.
I told the CO to give me a chance to work with him…that I could get him to pass the test. I started with this guy in real shallow water and then had him follow me. When he couldn’t touch any more he started doing the dog paddle and he paddled all the way out and back. He was a really big guy but he did it. Shortly after that, we got our orders saying we were going to Australia.
Rockhampton, Australia (on Northwest Coast) May 1943 – April 1944
In 1943 we were sent to Rockhampton, Australia for amphibious training at a place called Camp Caves. We had to practice crossing rivers and they would set off dynamite charges to simulate battle conditions. We had to practice landing on the banks of the river and moving the anti-tank cannons off the barges.
I remember seeing kangaroos for the first time – hundreds and hundreds of them. My wife’s mom was Australian and her sisters still lived there. I went to visit her relatives when I was in Australia. In the middle of the night something started to nuzzle my hand. It surprised me and I must have said something. They told me that it was their pet wallaby.
We also used to go to the coast for holiday. A group of us would take the train but their equipment wasn’t very good. Once, the train had to make three runs to get up a hill. We would slide down and then they would try again. We finally made it. It was pretty amusing at the time.
Danger on Goodenough Island
Once we had completed the training in Rockhampton, we were sent to Goodenough Island. The Japanese had been there but I think the Australians had already defeated them. The first night we all slept on the ground. The next morning a directive came down that we should not sleep on the ground because there was a red insect that would bite you and the bite could be fatal. We had to boil all our clothes in a solution and from then on slept in hammocks.
A guy that I went to school with in San Jose was bitten and he didn’t make it. I don’t remember what that bug was called, but I saw a guy who was bitten. I was in the infirmary and he lay beside me in another cot. He ran a temperature of 105 degrees for five days. I don’t know if he lived or not because I was sent back to my unit.
We were told that the Australians used to go to this island for vacation. I wouldn’t want to go there with that insect around.
Surprise Attack at Tanahmerah Bay, New Guinea, April 1944
Historical note: The 6th army was sent to New Guinea to capture the Hollandia airbase complex. Following the capture of the airbase, the 24th including the 21st remained at Hollandia until fall 1944.
We participated in the attack on New Guinea. I remember the mosquitoes there – big ones, and lots of them. You could be covered from head to toe. We slept under mosquito nets, but they didn’t do that much good. I used to joke that the big mosquitoes would lift up the net so the smaller ones could get in to eat us. I ended up getting malaria. For the first three or four days while I was in the infirmary I could only see red.
I had a terrible experience my first night in New Guinea. This is the hard part. We were in foxholes that the Japanese had dug. Normally, I would take my canvas leggings off. That night I put them back on. I don’t know why.
Another guy by the name of Max came up to my foxhole and asked if he could join me. He had lost his rifle somewhere. I had my rifle with a bayonet and a knife that the guys at the sheriff’s department had sent me. On the handle it said, “To kill a Jap.”
It was pitch black that night. You could hardly see your hand in front of your face. We were told that anything that moved was to be considered the enemy. This was my first combat and we were all scared. About eleven o’clock someone started banging on a can and making a lot of noise. Said he was “Captain Chen.” We had no Captain Chen in our company. I gave my knife to Max.
All of a sudden these two feet came over the edge of the foxhole. We pulled the guy in and I held him up against the side of the foxhole as he struggled. I hollered at Max, “Does he have dog tags? Feel for his dog tags,” because you were told to always wear your dog tags. Max said, “No he doesn’t have dog tags” and so we … we gave up on the idea that he might be an American and we killed him. This is the worst experience I have ever had in my life.
Well, the guy was a GI. He was drunk. Apparently he found some sake in his foxhole. He had taken off all of his clothes except for his undershorts and was banging on that can. They always told us to keep our dog tags on, but a lot of guys didn’t.
They should make guys keep their dog tags on. That is the only way you can tell for sure that it is a GI. They don’t emphasize that enough.
Early the next morning there was some shooting going on. Max and I decided to move to another foxhole where our sergeant was. We asked him if we could come over and he said, “Sure, come on.” Max went first and had no problem. I started to get out of the foxhole, and the muzzle of a rifle was right in my face. It had just been fired. I yelled “American, American.” I could smell the powder from that gun having been fired. Whoever it was didn’t shoot me, and I made it over to Max and the sergeant.
As I said, we were an anti-tank company with 27mm cannons. I was on patrol when we came on about 25 Japs bathing in a pond. There was a Jap tank there too. They were having a good old time like nothing was going on. I think they thought they had control of the war. We went back and brought up the cannon. We started firing with our rifles while the 27mm fired on the tank at about point blank range. We hit the tank and destroyed it. Most of the Japs were killed. I think two or three got away, but the rest were killed.
One day on patrol we came across a wooden building. I went into one of the rooms and found a quart jar of liquid. I didn’t know what it was, so I threw it out the window. A great, big cloud of white smoke went up. The Japs were using that cabin to make explosives. I heard this crunching sound in the other room. I went in, and some of the other guys were knocking the gold teeth out of the dead Japs. I think they had been dead for a couple days. The Japs had a lot of gold teeth, and some guys would collect the gold. I just got out of there.
On the road to Hollandia we came on these 4-by-12 timbers on the road. I told our guys “Hey, the natives don’t have 4-by-12 timbers.” So we took a shot at them and the whole road blew up. I wouldn’t be here today if we had run over them.
We captured the Hollandia air base. I don’t recall that there was much fighting. After the war, the Queen of Holland gave everyone a medal for the capture of Hollandia. We were also recognized by the President of the Phillipines after the war ended. Those are some of the medals on the wall there.
6th Army Lands at Palo, Northern City on Leyte, Without the 21st
October 20, 1944
The entire 24th was sent to the Philippines after that. I think the whole 6th Army went. We landed at a different location on Leyte than the main part of the 24th. The 21st was sent to the Panon Straits. We were there for a short time, and then we were relieved by one battalion of the 32nd Infantry. We were sent up to rejoin the rest of the 24th who had landed at Carigara Bay on October 20, 1944 with the rest of the 6th Army. We arrived right at the end of October, and were sent to relieve the 34th Infantry at a place they later called Breakneck Ridge.
Historical note: The 21st was sent to relieve the 34th Infantry at Breakneck Ridge on November 5. The battle of Breakneck ridge, conducted by the 21st through December 14, became one of the decisive battles for Leyte Island and the Philippines. On November 8 the island was hit by a typhoon accompanied by torrential rains and extremely high winds, preventing both naval and air support for the 21st, while turning the jungle slopes into deep mud.
The Japs tried to drive us off the island one night not long after we arrived there with a major air raid. I think it started on October 24th and lasted for three or four days. Bombs were landing all around us. The sky was red. There was nothing we could do. I had to get under the axle of a one-ton truck just to avoid all of the shrapnel that was coming down. A lot of guys were killed and there was a lot of damage.
There was already a major battle going on at what became known as Breakneck Ridge when we arrived. It was mainly the infantry fighting their way up a steep mountain road. We brought our anti-tank guns forward but we didn’t see any tanks. We ended up positioned near the medics to defend them. It was close to the airfield.
I remember we took seven hand grenades and tied them to trees and then ran a string to another tree. It was a trip-wire device and the grenades were in cardboard boxes. A typhoon hit us one night. It was raining so hard that you couldn’t see much. In the night, those grenades started going off and we started firing our anti-tank gun and everything else into the darkness. We just kept firing. In the morning, we realized that those cardboard cartons had gotten wet and they set off the grenades. Those guys in the medic tent must have thought they were going to die that night with all of the explosions and firing we did. When the typhoon hit we really couldn’t do much.
Colonel Verbeck took over command from Colonel Weber at Breakneck Ridge. I remember Colonel Verbeck. We received a letter of commendation from him after the war for the 63 days in combat we later spent on Mindanao.
We were protecting the air base. They used to fly reconnaissance planes at night and land them right at daybreak in the morning. One night, there was an oil truck out on the runway doing some repair work. I guess the tower forgot to tell those guys in the air about the truck. One of the planes came in for a landing and did not see the truck. They flew right into it. There was a huge explosion. Everyone was killed.
I remember another night that the Japs tried to blow us off the island. We were hit with constant artillery fire and started returning fire. I was a gunner that night. There was so much noise that you couldn’t hear anything. I was standing next to the breach telling the guys to fire. I yelled, “Fire the son-of-a-bitch! Fire!” They yelled, “We’ve already fired. Put another shell in!”
Can you imagine so much noise that I did not even know that we had fired that 27mm cannon?
One day, I heard two planes come over and I said, “Those are Japanese planes.” The guys said, “No, Rogers, those are our planes.” I said, “No, they’re not. Listen to those engines. We need to shoot them down. Get the machine guns and shoot at them.” But they wouldn’t listen to me and we didn’t fire on them.
About 20 minutes later we received a radio call and they told us that those two planes dropped 28 Jap paratroopers about two miles behind our lines. They got all of them, but they still wanted us to send out extra patrols. They all had brand-new equipment too. After that, the guys listened to me.
You could tell the Jap planes because the engines weren’t synchronized. They sounded like washing machines, a lot different than our planes. We were taught that in basic training, so I don’t know why the other guys didn’t know that too. A lot of guys just did not pay attention, like the fact that they didn’t always wear their dog tags. They should enforce that more. Always wear your dog tags!
I remember the day the guys up front captured a Jap concentration camp. Walking down the road came six American nurses that had been in that camp, so thin you could see their bones. I felt so sorry for them. They still had their uniforms on, but they were very haggard. They just looked straight ahead as they walked past us. They never turned their eyes and no one said a thing. They must have had a horrible experience. I really felt sorry for them, and angry.
Historical note: When MacArthur retreated from the Philippines in 1941 there were a number of American, British and Philippine troops stranded. This led to the infamous Bataan Death March on Leyte Island. These nurses were likely part of those left behind and later rescued.
I became a naturalized citizen while I was in the jungle. One day they announced that anyone who wanted to become a citizen should come and review the papers that they would have to sign. So, I told them I was Canadian and they handed me a stack of papers. Most guys just signed them but I started reading them.
A sergeant asked me, “Rogers, are you going to read all of that?” I said, “Yes, I am. I don’t want to sign something that causes me to stay in the Army any longer than I have to.” He said, “No, there is nothing like that in there.” I took time to read them anyway.
Then I was sworn in as a U.S. citizen.
Mindanao Assault, April 17, 1945
Historical note: On November 16 the 21st was relieved on Leyte by the 128th Infantry of the 32nd Division outside of the town of Limon after the victory at Breakneck Ridge. They remained on Leyte until April 17, 1945, when they were sent to participate in the assault on Mindanao. MacArthur had determined to take Mindanao before launching his assault on Luzon. The main 21st Infantry was sent by boat 35 miles up the Mindanao River to the town of Kabacan. The artillery and anti-tank companies were sent by road to Kabacan.
I remember when we were in the convoy headed to Mindanao. I used to sleep on deck, under the canopy where they stored the ammunition for the deck guns. One night I saw a ship that was headed in our direction and I kept watching it. It got closer and closer and all of a sudden this sailor came running past me and got up on the bow of our ship. You could feel our entire ship shudder as they put it in reverse to avoid hitting the other ship.
The other ship was a Liberty ship and was much larger than ours. As it passed, the sailor on the bow was pushing against the hull of that Liberty ship. It was that close. That sailor came walking back past me just shaking his head. I don’t think there was any radio communication because we were about to attack Mindanao.
On Mindanao we had to fight our way in. We got in about 25 miles and got things pretty well under control. That’s when we discovered that we didn’t have the maps we needed, so I volunteered to go back and get them. I knew exactly where they were. I had to walk back because we didn’t have any vehicles to spare. I was okay when I was walking but when I stopped to rest, the ankle that I broke when I was a kid started hurting and really swelled up. I would just get up and start walking again and pretty soon it wasn’t so bad.
When I finally got back to the landing area a guy told me that about 6 p.m. I would hear a whistle blow and that I should immediately get under one of the banyan trees. They’re the ones with the big wide roots. The whistle blew and I ran for a banyan tree. Just a short time later there was one heck of an explosion, the ground shook and stuff was landing everywhere. I was glad I was under that tree.
They were blasting to make the harbor bigger so that they could get supply ships in. I rested at the landing area for a couple of days and then had to walk back with the maps.
Shortages and Whiskey
We had been running out of supplies. We only had cans of cheese by then and we would eat one can for each meal. We finally did get supplies delivered and there was one case per squad. I probably shouldn’t say this, but remember the company commander I told you about? Well, when the supplies came in he had them delivered to where his tent was located. Lieutenant Boyer was walking by and he saw the Captain opening all the supplies and taking things out. He asked him what he was doing and the Captain said he was removing all of the good stuff like the fruit cocktail and things like that. He said that the officers deserved to have that stuff. The lieutenant said, “I think I will eat with my squad.” Can you imagine being in battle with a company commander like that? He was always hiding.
I can recall that before we went into combat a medic came by and asked if there was anyone who did not drink. Somebody told him I didn’t. He said “Good, I am assigning you to carry this jug of whiskey. It is for use if someone is in shock and you can’t find a medic.” I didn’t want to carry that jug but I didn’t have a choice. We had a first sergeant who was a drinker, and he did everything he could to get at that jug. One day he got drunk on something. A lieutenant came to me and told me to get his rifle. You see, every time he got drunk he tried to shoot the lieutenant. When we found him they had to carry him back on a stretcher. He said, “Well, this is embarrassing, isn’t it?”
When we got back to his tent he immediately asked me where his rifle was. I told him I didn’t know. I told him it wasn’t my job to keep track of his rifle. He said he was going to shoot that lieutenant.
That first sergeant was also a gambler, and he always lost because he was drunk. The other guys loved to play with him. One day he borrowed $20 from me and lost it, of course. Later when we were leaving Mindanao to go to Japan I said, “Sarg, what about the $20 you owe me?” He didn’t have it but he opened his barracks bag and handed me a beautiful painting. I know it was worth a lot more than $20.
We were moving very fast when we were on Mindanao. At one point we had a company commander from another company tell us to slow down. We were moving up as fast as we could and I guess he was concerned that we were getting too far ahead of everyone else. We didn’t know. There wasn’t any fighting where we were at that time so we figured we would just keep going.
Mindanao: 63 Days of Combat
By the time we reached Kabacan the city was already in our control, so we went to Davo next. By the time we got there it was the same thing. Then we were sent to clear a town called Mintal. We were sent around to the rear of the town and told to shoot any Japs that came out that way, but we never saw anybody. So we were sent to the airfield, the Libby Airdrome about five miles west of Davo City. Again, we didn’t see much action. I think the Japs had taken off by then.
I’m glad I wasn’t one of the infantry guys. They had to walk through this terrible grass known as “conga grass.” It was considered almost impenetrable, and both Americans and Japanese suffered from heat stroke as they attempted to find their way through it. It was very hot and you had to push your way through. You couldn’t see anything.
We were in combat for 63 days on Mindanao. That is a long time to go without a rest. It was impossible to get sleep or to eat right.
Finally a colonel came and told us it was time to relax and that they were proud of us. Some of the guys could not stand the quiet after all that time in combat. That’s when some of them would lose it. They couldn’t sleep at all.
I was relieved to be out of the fighting. It was extremely stressful even when we weren’t in direct combat.
Historical note: On June 19, 1945, the 21st was withdrawn after 63 days in continuous combat and received letters of commendation after the war. They were credited with 42 percent of all enemy casualties.
Not long after we were withdrawn from the fighting on Mindanao I got a terrible pain in my right side at about 5 p.m. I went to the sick bay and a doctor examined me and said I had appendicitis. He said they would have to operate in the morning. There were two doctors. One was from a well-known hospital back east somewhere and then another one to help him. They put up a curtain up so I couldn’t watch, but I was awake the whole time. When they got it out, I heard the head doctor say to the other doctor, “No wonder it hurt so much, look how big it is.” It took me about a week to heal and then I went back with my company.
I was manning the radio when the call came that the war had ended. That was August 15, 1945. It should have been our captain who told everyone, but he was never around and I couldn’t find him. I told all the guys that the war was over.
After the war ended the air corps began dropping red leaflets, thousands of them, telling the Japanese that if they came in holding one of those above their head that nothing would happen to them. One day an entire Japanese family …grandfather, grandmother, father, mother and five children…came in holding those leaflets above their heads. They didn’t speak any English. You could see they hadn’t had any food and were starving.
We had them sitting in a line and brought out sandwiches. The guy with the sandwiches took them to the youngest child first but the grandfather stopped him and signaled that he would go first. So we gave him a sandwich and he tasted it and sat there for a minute. Then he nodded his head to say they were okay and they all started eating like they couldn’t stop.
Historical note: In October 1945 the entire 24th Infantry Division arrived in Japan on the southernmost island of Kyushu and was stationed at Camp Wood in the City of Kumamoto. The atomic bombs had been dropped about two months prior on Nagasaki and Hiroshima far to the north, bringing an end to the war.
When we got to Japan we had to land on the beach just like we were attacking, even though the war had ended on August 15 and this area was secure by the time we got there. I heard that MacArthur insisted on landing this way even though I didn’t see the purpose. Then we got on a train to take us to our camp at a former Japanese headquarters.
The last car on the train was loaded with Japanese citizens. They were clinging to the roof or anywhere they could grab hold. There were no buildings or trees or anything except a few pipes sticking out of the ground, and a few walls of buildings still standing. The train yards where all of the trains were was riddled with bullet holes.
Historical note: Walter thought that he was located near where one of the nuclear bombs had been detonated but there is no indication that the 24th was ever near Hiroshima or Nagasaki. It is more likely that he witnessed the devastation of fire-bombing that took place in many cities in Japan.
We were only in Japan for two or three days and then we were told we were going to ship back to the U.S. They told us that we could go to a room in one of the buildings that had all sorts of Japanese weapons, and that we could pick one of them to take as a souvenir.
The room was stacked floor to ceiling with weapons turned in by Japanese troops and citizens. I saw a very nice little pistol, which I took. When we were headed back on the ship I met a guy who just had to have that pistol. I finally traded it to him for a sword and a rifle. My daughter Joan has the sword and I think my son Dick has the rifle.
I saw other things in the war, but I don’t want to talk about them.
Rocky Ride Home
The ship-ride back was something. We were standing on the dock looking for our ship when a sailor pointed to this old beat-up ugly ship and told us that was ours. I didn’t think it would make it back. It was an old Liberty ship, a real pile of junk. I asked the guy if this was really our ship because I thought he was kidding. He said, “Yep, that’s your ride home.”
Most of us slept in the hold. That ship would roll so much that our cots were sliding back and forth across the whole area. Turned out that someone had flooded one of ballast tanks by mistake and they were having trouble pumping it out. That ship rocked like that the entire way back to San Francisco. We had to eat on deck. One morning I heard that they were serving corn flakes, which we had not had in a long time, so I was the first in line. I got my cornflakes and walked out on deck and the wind was blowing so hard it just blew those cornflakes right out of my bowl and out to sea. I had to take my place at the end of the line to get another serving. I put a lot of milk on the next time.
I had found a picture that showed the U.S. and Japan. I hung it on the wall and each day I would mark off how far we had come. Everybody would come to see it. We were all so anxious to get home. There was one guy who brought a monkey on board. The other guys told him that when we got to San Francisco that they would take him and that monkey and put them in quarantine for a month. So when we were about to come in he gave the monkey half an aspirin and it knocked him out. He put him in his barracks bag and I think he carried him right in.
When we got back to San Francisco I ran into a guy who knew me, and he gave me a ride back to San Jose. It was a very, very strange feeling walking up and ringing that doorbell after being away for three years.
The first thing I did the next day was go out and try to buy a car. But cars were in short supply. Everybody wanted a car, so you had to have a car for a trade-in or they wouldn’t sell one to you. I didn’t have a trade-in but I finally found one that I could buy without a trade-in.
By the time the war ended, all four of the boys from my family — my and my three brothers — were in the military. We all saw combat and we all made it back. I’m the only one left now, though. All of my brothers and sisters are gone.
Career and Family
The day after I got back from the war, I went back to work for Penney’s in San Jose as the mezzanine manager. They had set aside $15 per month for us while I was away, so I had some savings beside my Army pay. I was transferred to JC Penney’s Modesto store sometime in early 1948; I also worked part-time for the sheriff’s department in Modesto.
Hazel was pregnant with our first child, so she stayed with her parents until a couple of weeks after Linda was born. In 1955, I was transferred to Monterey as assistant manager of the store and then they transferred me to Sonora in June, 1958 to manage the store here.
The Modesto store was run by one of JC’s nephews whose name was Dick Penney. One day he told us that JC was coming to visit. We had everything ready at 11 a.m. when JC came in. We all went over to meet him and he shook hands with everyone. Then he asked, “Well, how you boys doing? How is the store going?’ And we said that it was doing well. And he said, “Well, it doesn’t look like it’s doing that great to me. I have been watching a lady over there for 15 minutes and no one has helped her yet.” We took the message and scattered. He was all about business.
Hazel and I had three children. Linda was born in May 1948, Joan in July of 1951 and Dick in August 1952. Dick still lives here in Sonora, but Linda lives in Sacramento and Joan lives in Reno. Sometime around 1952 they were drafting people to go to Korea but because of the children I wasn’t called. I didn’t want to go back into the Army.
Retail Dream Realized
I managed the Sonora Penney’s for about four years, but I always wanted to open up my own store. In November 1962 my wife and I opened Rogers Family Store. It was located in the street-level part of the Masons Building. I am a Mason but that didn’t have anything to do with putting the store there. It just happened that that was the only place available at the time in downtown Sonora.
We operated the store for six years until it was announced that they would be opening the new Plaza shopping center. I told Hazel that the shopping center would be the end of downtown and that we should close the store. A lot of people asked me why we closed and I told them. I was right. Other businesses closed once the shopping center opened. New people tried to open shops downtown, but they couldn’t make it. I remember one couple that came from San Francisco and tried to open a men’s shop but they had to close it down in a year. We closed in 1968.
Serving in the Sheriff’s Department
I had been in the sheriff’s reserve in Sonora with Fred Mitchell. Fred finally joined the sheriff’s department full time and kept trying to get me to join. Fred became undersheriff about the same time I opened Rogers Family Store. He always wanted me to consider letting my wife run the store and have me join the department. Well, when we closed the store I joined the department and three months later became lieutenant.
Miller Sardella was sheriff at the time and Jack Litteral was running the jail. It was different then. I have to say that the sheriff’s department was in a terrible state. Miller never wore a uniform … I don’t think he owned one. He always wore a cowboy hat and boots. That’s the way he ran things, and it showed.
At that time there were only two Sonora police officers on duty at night and one sheriff’s deputy. I remember one night I was on duty when someone spotted two guys on the roof of one of the buildings downtown. The Sonora officers told me to wait in front of the building while they went up on the roof. I was standing there and pretty soon this guy came running through the store toward the front and threw a tire iron through the plate glass window, then tried to jump through it.
Well, he cut his leg pretty badly on the glass and ended up on the sidewalk bleeding.
There were other people standing around, and I tried to get them to put a tourniquet on his leg but they wouldn’t do it because they were afraid he had a gun. I told them that I was the only guy around there who had a gun but they still wouldn’t do it so I went over and held my hand as tightly as I could directly on his cut until the ambulance arrived.
The other bad guy wasn’t a problem either. The two of them had come through the roof, but the rope they brought was too short to reach the ground, and when he let go of the end of it he fell and broke his ankle.
I had just been given charge of the jail when we had a jail break. There was a ring of keys that was carried by the jailer on duty. Jack Litteral had said that the keys only belonged to the jail cells. But when two guys broke out, they took the keys from the jailer on duty and escaped through the kitchen door, which was supposed to be locked. There was some suspicion that the door had been left unlocked and that they had just walked out.
I did a little investigation and found out that the key ring also had a key for the kitchen door. I changed that. Those guys didn’t get very far. We found them across the street.
I eventually became coroner as well as being a lieutenant. I worked for the sheriff’s department until I retired in 1979 at age 58.
I always enjoyed woodworking so after I retired I spent more time doing that. I made animal mailboxes and planters, which I sold at a store in Jamestown. I also built a scale model of Old Ironsides. It’s the model there on the mantel. I always enjoyed working with wood.
Hazel died in 2006. She was almost 86. We were married for 64 years.
I will be 92 next March.
Commendations and Medals
The Bronze Star for 63 days of continuous combat on Mindanao in 1945
World War II Victory Medal
Army Good Conduct Medal
Philippine Defense Medal
Medal from Holland for victory at the battle at Hollandia in New Guinea