EM: “In 1940, in Portland, at the age of 7, I was living in a boxcar in the city dump. My mother and father were both trying to work to keep the family fed…”

What is your birth year?

1933. 

How old does that make you today?

[86.] 

What branch of the United States Armed Forces did you serve in?

[Navy.]

Where did you grow up?

Up by Mount Hood. I was born in Jerome, Idaho. In 1940, my father decided he wanted to go to Oregon- that was the place where you could grow anything. So, we packed up and came to Oregon. The book The Grapes of Wrath- I lived it. We didn’t go from Oklahoma to California, we went from Idaho to Oregon. In 1940, in Portland, at the age of 7, I was living in a boxcar in the city dump. My mother and father were both trying to work to keep the family fed, and I being the oldest had to take care of my baby sister- 7 months old- when I was 7. That was part of the problem I had in high school; I did not have any childhood. I had to be an adult at a very young age, and so to me, the rest of the people in high school were children. I wasn’t, and I just did not fit in. I didn’t until I got to where we had some more adult people, and we can talk in an adult way and manner. It was way below me. I lived a lot of the time up close by Mount Hood. 

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Can you tell me any specific memories you have from your childhood? You would’ve grown up during the Great Depression and WWII. 

[It’s] a little hard to imagine- for instance, we didn’t have electricity. None. No electricity, no flushing toilets, no showers- none of the nice amenities like that. We walked quite a ways to get to a school bus to go to school, and that went on until the Second World War started. Neither of my parents had much of an education at all- neither one of them went to high school, so they didn’t have any skills. That’s part of why we were living like we were in the early days, because nobody had anything to give to work. The war started, and Kaiser came to Portland, to Vancouver, and built shipyards. At the Kaiser shipyard, in Portland, they were launching a ship a day. They really built them- that’s what won the Second World War. We didn’t build the best ships, we didn’t build the best tanks, but we built them faster than the enemy could destroy. My father then, because they needed people with some skills, [was] sent to school where they taught him to be a welder, a pipe welder. After the war, he got a job with the gas company here in Portland. We did very well at that point, and so when I was going to high school, I had some money. 

When I was going to high school, Portland was the second most corrupt city in the United States. The Mafia ran the city of Portland; it was corrupt from top to bottom. Finally, the guy who was running the mob found out that some of his underlings had planned to assassinate him. He went to the FBI- it was either go to the FBI and rat everybody out or wait until they kill him! The FBI then came in and cleaned up Portland. 

There was a woman in the ’50s who ran for mayor, became elected, because she was going to clean it up. Her name was Dorothy McCullough Lee, and she was going to clean it up- she didn’t have a chance, not a snowball in hell. They went around here, they ignored her. I knew this because I had a job as a bellhop at one of the best hotels in Portland at the time. I was working at the old Multnomah Hotel. As a bellhop, you got minimum wage, so you weren’t making any money- when the people came in, they wanted to know where they could get a drink, and the guys wanted to know where they could get a woman. The cathouse, the whorehouse- as a bellhop, you had to know these things. They come in, they expected you to have that. You would tell them where to go to get their liquor and their girlfriend for the night, and I would say, “You go there, and you tell them that [I] sent you.” They would give me a tip, the establishment would give me a kickback- so, at that age, I was actually making more money than my father. 

What was your reaction when you heard that Hitler had died, and that the war was over in Europe and Japan- VE day or VJ day?

Actually, I didn’t hear about it when it happened. My father, working at the shipyard- as they were going through the payline one Friday, the guy behind him goes, “Dale, how do you like being frozen to your job?” My father turned to him and said, “What? What do you mean, frozen to my job?” He says, “Well, President Roosevelt says you’re frozen to your job.” My dad says, “So, what does that mean?” “What it means is, you can’t quit. You have to be here, because it’s part of the big war effort, and you have to be on the job.” My dad, being the bullheaded fellow that he was, looked at him and said, “Roosevelt says I can’t quit? Roosevelt doesn’t own me! I quit!” And he did. We moved to Yakama, Washington, to pick fruits, picking whatever farm jobs. When the war ended in ’45, we were way out in the boondogs somewhere, and we found out about it being ended when my father took the family and drove into town to do some shopping. We stopped by the gas station and my father got out his ration book, the ration stamps for the gas. The service attendant looks at him and says, “What are you doing with that?” He says, “Well, the gas is still rationed, isn’t it?” He said, “Hell no! The war is over!” {Laughs} And that’s how we found out! It was about a month or two later. It was a happy surprise. My dad worked on the farm for a little longer, and then the farmer made him angry, and he said, “To hell with this!” We came back to Portland, and he stayed with the gas company until he retired. 

What high school did you go to?

Washington High School. I was late getting out of school- when I went to school, first grade through high school, I went to 12 different schools. I still went to the same high school for 4 years. In my second grade, I went to 3 different schools that year and started six weeks late. You don’t get a lot of the basics that you need. 

When did you first hear of the Korean War? What did you know of it before you were drafted?

It was in all of the news, everywhere. At the time, it was not called the Korean War- it wasn’t a war. It was a police action; the United Nations was running it. The United States was running it, but supposedly it was a United Nations thing. We were policing North Korea to keep them from overrunning South Korea, and it worked- we had completely gone to the Chinese border in North Korea, and then MacArthur wanted to invade China. Dumb, dumb, dumb. Not a good idea. That’s when Truman fired him, and then the Chinese retaliated and sent troops and just knocked the hell out of the United Nations, and ran us back to down out of North Korea. It ended right where it started, and they are still technically at war with North Korea; there was never any treaty, never any peace treaty or anything like that ever signed. All there was was a ceasefire. 

On how he joined the Navy:

The year was 1951. I was a senior at Washington High School here in Portland. The draft was still on for the military; you had to sign up at 18 and a half. If you did, and got drafted, it was eight years mandatory in the military. If you joined the Naval Reserve before you were draft age, you still your eight years that you had to put in with the military, but you only had two years of active duty. So, I joined the Naval Reserve while I was in high school. In ’51, the Korean War was still going on. When I graduated in ’52, I then asked the Navy to put me on my active duty- “Let’s get these two years over with.” It took only until February of ’53 to get me a spot, and they sent me to San Diego, to boot camp. Then, from there, they then decided after some testing that I should go to a school, which I resisted because I did not do well in school, hated high school- they kept telling me that it was the best years of my life, and I told myself, “I sure as hell hope they are wrong!” Thank God they were. I finally said, “You’re putting in two years. If they want to send you to a stupid school, go to a stupid school.” It really was a stupid school. They said, “What do you want to be?” They gave me a list of things, and machinist’s mate sounded like a good thing; I could be a machinist. Well, in the Navy, a machinist’s mate is not a machinist; a machinist’s mate takes care of high-pressure steam turbines.  

I was thinking that because the war ended in ’53-when I was still in boot camp- I thought I might have to [go overseas] because I didn’t have any other deferment because I knew I wasn’t going to college. If you went to college, you could be deferred from the draft. I knew I wasn’t going to do that, and I was still in high school, and I really didn’t want to join the Army. Why didn’t you want to join the Army? Because people were shooting at you in the Army! I didn’t want to go where people were shooting at me! I checked around, and that’s where I found out that if you joined the Navy Reserve ahead of time- I’m going somewhere aboard a ship where they’re not shooting at me! Even during the Korean War, the Koreans didn’t have anything to shoot at ships. You have to plan ahead a little bit, not wait until the last minute. That’s when I came up with the solution to join the Naval Reserve. While I was in high school, I went to meetings on Swan Island at the Navy shipyard there. 

One of the things that happened when I joined the Naval Reserves was that you have to be fingerprinted. It was kind of funny, in a way; the fellow took me in, and inked my fingers, and filled out the form. Put my fingers for the fingerprint, and then he looked at it and said, “Damn!” He got up and threw it again, and redid it. It came out the same way, and he tore that one up and said, “I haven’t made that mistake twice ever before!” While he was filling out the form for the third time, I looked at my hands. I said, “Wait, wait. What you’re getting there is what you’re going to get. Look at the fingers. I don’t have fingerprints.” He says, “How am I going to explain that?” “Tell them it’s burn scars- that’s what it is!” Before I was a year old- learning to walk, you walk from one thing to the next and hold on- and I walked up to my grandmother’s stove. That’s how I found out I don’t have fingerprints. My grandmother was paralyzed; she had a stroke and was paralyzed on her right side, head to toe. While there, and in her paralyzed state, she had a cow, chickens, a well out back, an outhouse- she took care of that all by herself, plus her children. Her husband was a sheepherder, so he wasn’t around. The wood stove, the kerosene lamps- we used to use a huge galvanized tub to bathe in. The ritual was, on Saturday, you bathed so you’re ready to go to church on Sunday. The tub was filled up with warm water, and Dad took a bath, then Mother, and then I was the oldest child, and the fourth and fifth- two brothers and a sister. Every Saturday night. We didn’t have electric lights and running water until the war when we moved into federal housing for the war jobs. 

On his boot camp experience:

I went to the school after I got out of boot camp, to Great Lakes, Illinois. The funny part to me was, when I went to high school, you had to have three years of math. When I went to this school, the older guys that went to the school were telling me how tough the first week was, and that you’re going to have to do a lot of homework. I said, “No, I’m not going to do that. They’re not going to kick me out of the Navy if I flunk out!” So what was the first week of school? Arithmetic! Add, subtract, multiply, and divide. I says, “Where did you guys go to school? You had to be a high school graduate! Where did you guys go to school, if you think this is tough!” Well, most of them were from Alabama, North Carolina, South Carolina. Then they said, “The second week of school is going to be tough.” I said, “What’s that?” How to use hand tools. I said, “Okay. This is going to be fun.” It was fourteen weeks like this, until graduation. Out of the class of 76, I came in 6th. That’s when [I] quit thinking of myself as a loser, because I hadn’t done well in school, and people told me that I was stupid. When I got through with that class, I said, “You’re not that stupid. You can do all right.”

On his service aboard:

They assigned me to a ship out of Newport, Rhode Island- and I do mean out of. Of the two years in the active duty [Navy], I spent 122 days at sea, mostly in the Mediterranean during the summer and Caribbean during the winter. {Laughs} I was on an oiler, the USS Allagash AO-97. The Navy taught me one big thing- how to run a still. Every ship has a still; you can’t drink sea water. You have to have a still to make it into water you can use; it has to be even better water than you can drink for the boilers. We ran steam at 600° Fahrenheit, 490 pounds per square inch- so when I say high-pressure steam, I’m not kidding! If a line broke, the steam was so hot that you could not see it. What you did was take a straw broom, and run it along the pipe until you found where it was coming from; when it found where it was coming from, it would [burn] the straw off. In the Mediterranean, we were in Greece, France, Italy, Portugal, and then we went to the North Sea- England, Norway, Denmark, back to Dundee. What was it like to be in a previously occupied country? Actually, I got a medal for that- it was the WWII occupation medal, because we were that long in Europe. The war ended in ’45, it’s nine years later, ’54- they still didn’t have anything. Money was non-existent, practically. An American dollar got you just about anything you wanted in Europe. So, that was different. 

I met a celebrity while in Naples- Lucky Luciano. He was the head of the mafia in New York, and was deported back to Italy. He met every American ship in Naples- he wanted to talk to the Italians aboard ship. I went ashore, and everyone said, “Lucky, this is EM.” He said, “Oh, you’re Italian?” I said, “No, wrong.” He goes, “What?” [I said,] “The name is derived from French.” 

While we were in the Caribbean- and I went to most of the islands in the Caribbean- I rolled out three different hurricanes. Two in the Caribbean, one in Newport, Rhode Island. What were those like? That was awesome. It was really, really- I got all hyper because of it! You were on the water during it? Oh, yes! Aboard ship. It’s safer to be on the water than on land. There’s more of the ship underwater than above the water. We had a 36-foot draft- from the water line to the bottom of the keel was 36 feet. I said to a number of the people, “We’re deep enough in the water that we ought to get submarine pay!” There were ports we couldn’t get into because it wasn’t deep enough. When we were in Newport, we were at anchor. The hurricane came aboard the east end of Long Island, across Block Island, and right up straight directly into Newport. It just really wiped out the city of Newport- it really tore it apart. One of the funny thing that happened- our ship kept a liberty boat aboard the ship. Everyone else, including the captain of our ship, launched other boats and took it over to the Navy dock to keep it safe. Wrong move! When the hurricane quit blowing, there wasn’t any Navy dock anymore- it was all gone. There we are, in Newport, with all of the ship anchored, and we had the only liberty boat in the harbor. We had to go around to all of the different ships, and get people to take them ashore. Normally, because you went into the Naval dock, they had Navy guards, Marines, to keep you from getting ashore if you didn’t have a pass. Well, we just docked wherever we could and got people aboard and off. We decided that while we were there on time that we would go have a beer before we had to make the next run. The shore patrol saw us in there, and of course, we’re not dressed in our nice blues, and he wanted to know how we thought [we should be there]. I said, “You guys are from shore patrol, which means you’re from one of those boats.” “Yes?” I said, “Would you like to get back there tonight?” They said, “Well, of course!” I said, “We’re the only boat taking people to and from the boats. We’ll have one beer, we’ll go back to work, and you will leave us alone!” They said, “Fine, just don’t get so drunk you can’t control the boat!” {Laughs} So that was a bad experience. What was really bad about it was [that] we would come back to the States for the holidays- Christmas, New Year’s. So here you are; you’re used to where it’s hot, and then all of the sudden you’re back in Boston and freezing cold. You would be glad that the holidays were over, and that you could go back to the Caribbean. 

Why, or when, did your service end?

In February of ’55, they ushered me out, and I came back to Portland, where I took up a whole other career. They couldn’t get me a job as running steam engines, because no one but the Navy had high-pressure steam engines, so they wondered if I would take a job with a company called Western Electric. I said, “I would go interview. What do they do?” They made telephone office equipment and install it. I think office, I think desk- I think no, no, no. It’s the machine that operates off your dial, in the old days’ rotary dial. Believe me, what a mess those machines were.  

Did you ever have any more experiences with the military after this?

The only thing was that you have to be in the Navy for eight years, and I’d had a couple of years in reserve before I went into active duty. I was still obligated to the Navy to be what they called the ‘Ready Reserve’, which you didn’t go to any meetings, you didn’t do anything except that you had to keep them informed of where you were, in case they wanted to call you back for any reason. Being a Korean War veteran earned me [something]: the G.I. bill. I knew I wasn’t going to college, so when I went to work for Western Electric, I could get on-the-job training. They had to teach me how the system worked, where the other people that they were hiring off the street [they didn’t]. There was two things they tested you for before they hired you- one was your mechanical aptitude, and two, if you were colorblind. That was important. When I said I wanted training, they had to send me to school and teach me how everything worked. The other thing that I got, being a Korean War veteran, the state of Oregon had a veteran’s loan department, for housing. You got a loan to buy a house, and a very, very low interest rate compared to what everyone else was paying. That was nice. 

On his job with Western Electric:

[At Western Electric] we had five, sometimes six people on the crew. We went down Highway 97, from the Dallas to Klamath Falls, and put a new telephone system in every town on the way down. We came into these little towns, hailed as heroes. But, we were young and rowdy, and the saying was, “Lock up your daughters, they’re in town!” Here we were, welcomed with open arms when we came into town, and [we’d] finish the job and they’d throw rocks at us. We raised hell every night. We worked hard all day and played hard all night. I thought, “You’re in your 20s, but someday you’re going to want to settle down.” You can’t do that with this job. You’re always going to be on the road somewhere- how are you going to take care of a family if you’re always not home? I saw that with the other guys I was working with- it’s not worth it. I thought, “There’s got to be a better way.” And I quit and went to Los Angeles. When I got to Los Angeles had a double-page ad for workers for a phone company. I went down to their office, and said, “I’m your answer!” “What?” I told them my background, and they said, “We can’t hire you. You worked for Western Electric, and we have a deal with them that we don’t hire people away.” I said, “You need me. I’ve got the experience, you’re hiring people off the street that don’t know diddly.” I didn’t look anymore for a job; I went back to the little rooming house where I was at, and about a week later they called. 

Did your military service affect how you think about wars today?

Oh, yes. Like I say, when I went into the Navy, I did poorly in high school, and I was told that I wasn’t too damn bright anyway. My father had a saying- “You’re French, English, and Dutch, and you’ll never amount to much.” So, okay. That’s where I was at. I went into the Navy and into that school, and like I say I graduated 6 out of a class of 76! That taught me that I’m not as dumb as everybody says I am. It made me more self-confident, so after that- if somebody told me that [I] couldn’t do this or that, no. Don’t give me that crap.

How did your service affect your life?

That’s how it impacted my life. It made me more confident of who I was, and what I could do, and how I could do it. I have never, ever looked back and thought that I had done the wrong thing. Throw it at me, I can do it, whatever it is. 

Author’s Note: EM was not able to provide any personal photographs from his service in the Navy during the Korean War. The photos included are provided for the reader’s reference, but do not describe EM’s exact experience or his surroundings. The images are cited to their respective owners. 

USS_Allagash_(AO-97)_and_USS_Shangri-La_(CVA-38)_in_1962
The USS Allagash AO-97, circa 1962, retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/USS_Allagash_(AO-97)

Author’s Note: This project was recently featured in Portland’s Street Roots Newspaper. Read the article here: http://news.streetroots.org/2017/11/10/these-veterans-have-lived-something-extraordinary-portland-student-listens-shares

This interview has been lightly edited for readability. However, to maintain integrity, and to respect the stories of the veteran, content has not been altered from the original transcription. This interview was originally recorded and later transcribed. Questions partially retrieved from:

“Guidelines.” Veterans History Project. Library of Congress, n.d. Web. 23 June 2017. <www.loc.gov/vets/guidelines.html>.

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