Interview by Robert C. Daniels
Walter Riel’s interview was conducted at the Union-Congregational Church in Waupun starting at 12:30 P.M. on 2 December 2005. The interview lasted 30.28 minutes. At the time Walter was eighty-two years old, alert, and articulate. He also brought along written notes with which to refer.
What is your full name? Walter Riel, Senior.
I know a lot of people born in the early twentieth century were not born in a hospital, but at home. Where and when were you born? I was born in Waupun. In June 8th, ‘23.
In a hospital or at a house? At home, on 800 East Franklin Street.
Who were your parents? John and Winnie Riel.
Do you have any brothers or sisters? Well, I had ten of ‘em.
Wow! Ten. Where were you in there? Right in the middle.
In the middle. Yup. I was the middle one.
Where did you go to school? At Brandon. We lived in the country until I was in about the sixth grade and then we moved to Brandon. And then I went to school there for a couple of years. I didn’t even finish the eighth grade of school. At that time my dad hired me to a farmer and says, “Get to work.” That’s the way it was in that era.
So you did not graduate from high school? Not even from the eighth grade.
What was growing up like for you? Well, it was kind of tough. We lived in the country most of the time, no electric, no telephone, no newspapers. It was during the Depression, and things was rough. But we always had enough to eat. My mother was great at preserving things in those days. That’s when that big crock pots came about, you know. Preserving and canning. She’d can everything she could get a hold of. So we always had something to eat along the way. Other than that, well, with a big family, there was always something going on, you know.
I did lose a little sister. She was two years and eight days old. I was about eight or nine years old, something like that. Other than that, they all grew up. And, of course, I, like I said before there, when I was eleven years old, I had to work for a farmer in the summer time. Fifty cents a week. Dad took the fifty cents to help buy groceries, but I got my meals with it, then, see.
I was leading the horse on a hay fork, and clean the horse barn, clean the cow barn, feed the chickens, stuff like that, for my neighbors. But it give me something to do. But, I think, all in all, the whole upbringing was…, helped to mold my life in later years. You learned to take care of yourself. Nothing was handed to me, see. So I guess it was a good way to manage.
And you grew up on a farm? Yes.
Your father was a farmer? No. We was out in the country, though. But then, like I said, after I was thirteen years old, I had to work by the farmers until I was seventeen or something like that, or eighteen, then I went to the factory. It was a shoe factory. Then I went to the National Rivet, it was a defense factory.
During the 1939, 1941 timeframe, just before the war, what were you doing? I was working at the farmers’ at that time, right before the war. And the big wages at that time were $25.00 a month. Then, let’s see, I forget just what year it was I met my wife, or girlfriend at that time. And later on I quit on the farm with the farmers and went to the shoe factory for, I don’t know, about nine months. And then I worked at the National Rivet.
What was the name of the shoe factory? Ideal Shoe Factory XE "Ideal Shoe Factory" . It was right near the National Rivet, there. It used to be. It’s all gone [now].
What were you doing when you first heard that Pearl Harbor had been attacked, do you remember that? Well, all I can remember is I came home that night and my dad told me about it. I’d been out on a date that night with my girlfriend. All we had was a battery radio, no electric where we was at. No newspapers. So I didn’t know anything was going on in the world, really. Just that we knew that there was a war someplace, but just not by us, you know. So it really didn’t shock me because I didn’t know what it was all about. I didn’t know what was happening in the world. See, we were just…, well Fond du Lac was the furthest I ever got before I went into the service. I never got any further than that, so it was a small world we was living in . . .
Did you have a car? Yeah, I had a car. Well, when I was, let’s see, seventeen years old…, I had been working with the farmers since I was thirteen years old…, and, of course, very seldom got home at all. When I met my wife through a cousin of mine when I was seventeen, I started dating, double dating, and the boss used to let me use his car. That was nice of him. That was in ‘39 and he had a ‘37 Chevy. It was quite a thing. Anyway, then I wanted a car and my dad wouldn’t let me have one. But I’d looked at a couple of ‘em. And it ended up that one day I was doing chores and the farmer came in the barn and said, “Wally, there’s someone here who wants to see you.” Here was a car dealer with a ‘31 Model-A which I had looked at. Well, it was $75.00, but that was three month’s wages, you know. I said, “Dad wouldn’t let me have one.” “Well,” [the farmer says] “do you like it?” I said, “Yeah.” “Well,” he says, “I’ll buy it for you.” He gave it to me. That was pretty nice of him.
The farmer did? The farmer did. Then, of course, I started dating my wife regularly. And we went together for two years before I went into service. Then I came home on leave thirteen months later and we got married. And she came with me.
And she went with too? Yeah.
When did you get married? Let’s see, we have been married sixty-…, you’ve got me almost stumped here. Let’s see, it was ‘42 when I enlisted, ‘44, January of ‘44. See, I went into the service in December ‘42. It was a year and thirteen months, or thirteen months later, I should say, when I got married.
What is her name? Catherine.
What was her maiden name? Vanderwoody.
When did you decide to join the military? Well, I can’t say a specific time; but then a buddy of mine from Randolph (Wisconsin) at that time—friends of my wife’s folks, their son—and we decided that we’d be going in January anyway in the draft ‘cause I was nineteen years old, see. And we decided, well, maybe we’d like to join the Air Force and, “Yeah, that sure sounds good to me.” So that’s when we decided to go. So we went to Milwaukee and enlisted in the Air Force on December 7th and was inducted on the 9th of December (1942).
And that was the Army Air Corps at the time? Army Air Corps, right.
Did they have a separate enlistment station than the Army or did you go to the Army enlistment…? That I don’t even recall. All I know was that I went to Milwaukee. I mean, there was not a man that come see us, we went to see him, see, because we knew we’d have to go in a month or so anyway.
And what was your rank in the Army Air Corps? Sergeant.
Did you have a specialty? I was in communications, telephone and teletype.
So you actually learned how to use the teletype machine? Right. And, of course, telephones are all together different than they are today. There you had to string a wire from one to the other to get communications. There wasn’t such a thing as wireless phones.
But then when they landed on this one island—the first island that we landed on after the Marines—then the lieutenant says, “You’re gonna have to get these generators going.” Well, then I said, “I don’t know anything about electricity. I never went to high school or anything like that.” He said, “I don’t either.”
But, you see, they didn’t have an MOS (Military Operational Specialties) for that, and that’s why it fell down to me because I could string telephone wires, maybe I’d have to string them too. I didn’t know what 110 or 220 [amps were], but I sure got an education there. But that is how I learned, you know. And I had to take care of them (the generators).
And actually, my MOS only called for a corporal as the telephone operator and an installer. But because of what I was doing he saw to it that I got an extra rank, because he says, “You’re doing an awful good job,” he says, “you deserve one.” So he got me an extra rank, which was nice of him.
So you operated the generator also. Generator and the switchboard, and took care of the telephones and everything.
And where was this? It was in the Pacific.
And that’s the theater of war you went to? Yes, Asiatic Pacific.
Where did you go to school at? Boot camp and your school? My basic training was Atlantic City (New Jersey). That was an Air Force training camp. Then they sent me to Camp Crowder, Missouri. That was a Signal Corps [school]. That’s where I said, “What am I doing here?” because I enlisted in the Air Force to be a mechanic. They says, “Quit your bitchin’,” and handed me a wrench and a telephone poll. But that’s the way it happened at that time, see. And I tried to get out, but no way. And from there we…, after I got through with school, they assigned me to a Signal Corps; 930th Signal Corps in Gainesville, Florida. And there I tried to get out, go to the Air Force. “Tough!” [they said].
Then we got up to maneuvers, up in Oregon, and a buddy of mine in headquarters says, “Well,” he says, “an army regulation came out that all men that are miss-assigned can be reassigned by request.” So I put in my application and about three weeks later I was transferred to the Air Force. So, I was the only one with my MOS in our outfit, see, because I had to take care of all the telephones, which turned out alright. So I was satisfied with all that. I didn’t get to be a mechanic, but in a way, I was. I got a good education and I was an electric man, because it helped me when I got home. Then I went to [the] G.I. Bill of Rights school to be an electrician. It all turned out good.
Please give us a brief review of your service, including the theaters of the war and possibly any campaigns you were in? Well, of course. Let’s see. I didn’t get into any hand to hand combat like the infantry, but we had some trouble there with the Japs on this island, infiltrating all the time and air-raids. But see, we were in photo-reconnaissance, in intelligence. That’s what our airplanes were for, P-38’s. Well, we took care of, oh, let’s see, the Philippines, Borneo, and what’s the one I’ve got here…? (He briefly looks at his papers.) Indonesia, I think, or something like that. Well, anyway, it’s in there. Oh, here. New Guinea, Borneo, and the Philippines, that’s it. My memory is getting a little short sometimes. It’s good, but short. When you get my age, it happens.
What was it like being in the war? It was nerve-racking, very nerve-racking. We’d get these air-raids, and I’d have to shut down the generator because we couldn’t have any lights—visibility, you know. And I had to keep the telephones going. You could say you had to sleep with your ears open and your eyes shut, see. Air-raids or any Japs infiltrating, it was nerve-racking, that’s what it was. I was a nervous wreck when I came home.
Were you? Oh yeah. Terrible!
Did you sleep in tents or on the ground? Tents, yeah.
The telephones, were they sound powered phones or did they have electricity going through them? What do you mean?
Did they operate on sound or did they have electric current going through them? Current. We had to ring ‘em. And it was battery operated, see? It’s a field phone, they called it. It was about like this (shows with his hands), see. And that was the only telephone we had.
So you had to change batteries once a while? Yeah.
Did each phone have its own battery? Yeah. Yes. But you had to string a wire between them or they wouldn’t work. And that was one of my jobs. Kept it all going.
What was the name of the outfit that you were in? 38th Photo-Reconnaissance. It was intelligence is what it really was, see. They took photos before, during, and after the raids, up ahead, see. And our planes didn’t have no guns at all. Just four P-38’s.
What was it like when you heard that the war was over, you were coming home? Oh, boy! It was great! We just whooped and yelled. All the search lights went on, see. In those days they had search lights to detect the planes so they could shoot them. All the search lights were on and everyone was just a yelling and whooping.
But we had an inkling already because we had everything all packed up because we were going to move further to the front. Of course, we didn’t know where. And they dropped the first A-Bomb. Well, they suspected they might give up. Then they dropped the second one, then they cancelled our orders and, of course, the war had ended. That’s when they shipped us to the Philippines to come home, from the Philippines. I was there for three months, then they shipped us home. Then I landed in San Francisco Christmas Eve of ‘45. No ‘44, no ‘45, ‘45.
What was the trip home like for you? Well, it was on a liberty ship. I don’t know if you’ve heard of them.
Yeah. I was on one of them. It took us seventeen days to get home.
Did you get seasick? No. But going over I got seasick. Oh, was I sick…most of the time. Finally, I got up on the…, I got in with the crew. It was twenty-eight days going over. And we stopped in New Zealand, Australia, and New Guinea, see. And I worked in the kitchen then, and they let me sleep up on deck. Well, that made a lot of difference. I wouldn’t be down in the hole where you can’t see nothing, it was just…, and everyone was sick. It was terrible! And the toilets weren’t working good and the crap [was] all over, running. Good thing is they had little berms there that the water didn’t run right onto the ship from the toilets. They ran over, t was a mess. Terrible! But what can you say. You’re in it and you do the best you can.
What was the Waupun area like when you came home? Was it different from when you left? Well, I came home to Randolph, that’s where my wife was from.
Was that different from when you left? Not really. No, you kind of pick up like from when you left, you know.
For myself it wasn’t that way. I mean, up here (pointing to his head), see. You try, but it didn’t work that way. I had an awful time when I came home to adjust to it.
Was there any help for you, VA or anything like that? Not at that time. They didn’t have the PSD or whatever, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, at that time, see. They gave us the three hundred bucks and you were on your own, see. No, it wasn’t until the early ‘80’s, I think, that I first got good help. I’d been going to the VA before that, but they never did anything about that, see. I know when I came home I just had, I had an awful time. I’d hear a little noise and jump out of bed, you know. Hit the fox hole, you know.
I had one time a guy throw a firecracker when he was working. Oh, I jumped and said, “Don’t you ever throw one again!” But half hour later, he threw another one. I grabbed him around the neck and I said, “You SOB,” I had a hammer in my hand, you know, I was hanging wire, “you do that again I’m gonna kill you.” And I was going to hit him on the head. You know, that’s your reaction, you’re taught that way. Good thing I didn’t hit him because I’d have probably killed him, hit him on the head with the hammer, you know. But that’s the way it was, your reflexes. And nightmares, nightmares always thinking the Japs was coming in or bombs were dropping. Oh, yeah, it was….
You got bombed a lot over there? Oh, yeah. We’d hear ‘em. “Well, I guess that one didn’t have our name on it,” you know. You kind of humor a little bit to, you know. But just lay in that fox hole and just, just hope that the next one won’t hit you, that’s all. But it’s one of those that you just go through it and pick up again when it’s over and do what you have to do.
Were any of your brothers in the Army, in the war? No. Well, they weren’t in the war. My brother Garrett, he was drafted towards the end of the war and he ended up in Germany with the occupation forces. He’s four years younger than me. My oldest brother was drafted right away in the beginning when the draft started. But then he got 4-F for some reason or other, and he worked at National Rivet. And my next brother, Don, he worked at National Rivet and he got deferred there, so he didn’t get in either. I could’ve, I guess, if I’d have stayed at National Rivet, but I didn’t want to, [I wanted to] fulfill my duty to go.
And you got married during the war? Yes.
Did you have children? Yes. Well, let’s see, a year later then our son was born, in January, a year after we was married. In fact, he was a year old before I seen him. In fact, he was two weeks old before I knew he was born, that’s how mail was at the time, you know. We didn’t have such things as cell phones and emails that they have today, but that’s the way it goes.
You had just one son? One son and the one daughter. Now our son was in the…, let’s see, I was in sixty years ago, forty years ago my son was in the Army, and twenty years ago my daughter’s son was in the Navy.
Really? So your son was in the Army and your grandson was in the Navy? In the Navy, twenty years apart.
Was your son in Vietnam? No, he was in Germany during that time. So he got credit for the Vietnam Era. And our grandson was in during the Lebanon Crisis. He was in the Navy then, he was down there.
And you said that you took advantage of the GI Bill. Yes.
How did you do that? Well, I got paid so much a month; I think $90 a month or something like that. And I went to school one afternoon a week in Beaver Dam, under the G.I. Bill of Rights to be an electrician.
And you worked in the National Rivet Company? Not after the war. Then I worked for Vans Electric in Randolph as an electrician.
Did you retire from there? No. No, I ended up in…, was in California for five years, or three years, and I worked there as an electrician. Then we moved to Waupun; I didn’t like California. It was good, but I didn’t like the busy-ness. It was rough. So then we moved to Waupun, and I worked for Mink Brothers at that time. And I ended up managing the store, doing the selling and buying and everything. So I worked there for eighteen years. Then we had a fire, and it took everything. Then I worked for Waupun Supply for eight and a half years, retired from there.
When did you move to Waupun, what year? ‘59.
And you lived here ever since? Yes.
What did the Waupun Supply do? Wholesale plumbing.
Is there anything else you would like to tell us about the war years, or before or after? Oh, not really, I pretty much explained it in here (he points to his papers.)
Oh, there are always a lot of little incidents, you know, that you kinda snicker about later. We’d try to make humor about it, too, while we was there. You do the best you can, you know.
I remember one time, we had to help some Australians, no not Australians, we had to tear up (take down) a tent that someone was moving out [of]. And I found…, at that time Life Parker pen was a great thing, you know, a life-time pen. They didn’t have ballpoints at the time, and the Australians were nuts for them. So I traded it for a bottle of gin. That night some buddies of mine and I had a little party. Little things like that, you know. So you make the best of it.
Where did your wife live? She lived in Randolph.
She lived in Randolph? She lived at home first with her dad because her mother had died, so she was keeping house for her dad. And then in October, right after the war ended, he had got married and she moved to town till I come home.
Is she still alive, your wife? Oh, yeah. We’ve been married sixty-two years already. Still together.
I greatly appreciate you coming here and talking. It is just one of those things, you know, it’s…, like I said before, it’s a million dollar experience, but I wouldn’t give a nickel to go through it again. I think it helps. I think it helped a lot of guys become self-sufficient and being a man. It’s too bad we haven’t got a draft today that’s compulsory that all the young men to…, unless they have a good reason for it, you know, because a lot of them need direction, and the Army gives it to them. I think it helped me, you know, to learn to be self-sufficient, to take care of yourself, and be innovative and doing things you…, to survive. So I think it’s helped me throughout my life, so it’s not been a wasted time when I think back. So other than that, I’d say that I think everybody should go through it because of the discipline part of it, you know. And they realize what it is.
I guess that about wind’s it up.
Thank you. You are welcome.
Walter passed away at age 91 on 20 December 2014.
Last updated on 07 Jan 2015 .
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