Interview: Don Lewis (dl)
Medium: Audio tape
Date: Friday, April 10, 1998
Place: Home of Don Lewis, 801 S. 5th St., Gas City, IN
Collected by: Amber Lewis (al)
Oral History of Don Lewis
al: Okay, let's start off by having you sign this agreement for use.
al: Fill out your name here. Read the paragraph. This will be on tape with my report at the library.
dl: I see. Oh, gee, I'm makin' history! Okay.
al: We are talking with Don Lewis about his life and during World War II.
dl: Yes. Um, yeah. I go by the name of Don more than I do Donald, but I was born with that name so, in the history of the war all the records carry that. Okay, you say you wanted me to start then kinda at the beginning.
dl: I was born in Kansas, Florence, Kansas, in 1922. Grandpa and Grandma Lewis lived there and Grandpa was a foreman in the oil field. My older brother, Herbert, he goes by the name of John H. now, was also born in Kansas two years before I was. We later moved to Georgia, Albany, Georgia, where Grandpa had brothers that lived there and worked there, and they were in the decorating business, painting also, exterior work. Worked there for a while, but they didn't like it too well so we moved back to Indiana and to Gas City. Lived in Gas City for, I would say, probably, maybe two to three years and then we moved to Jonesboro because Grandma, Millicent by name, wanted us to, uh, go to the Jonesboro school because that's where she had gone to school and graduated from the high school there. So we moved there and Grandpa built us a new home there on West 9th St. So, I went all through high school there, to there, and graduated from high school in 1940, the Spring of 1940.
I knew when I graduated that I would be having to go to the army because the war had already started on England and went into the war with Germany in '39. And, uh, so we knew this would about be our fate as soon as we turned twenty cause you became eligible for the draft at twenty years old. And, uh, I'll never forget when we knew definitely that we would be getting into the war. I was sitting in a little restaurant one evening in Jonesboro there with my girlfriend and we were sitting there and talking and visiting and drinking coke or something. There came an announcement over the radio that Pearl Harbor had been, just been, hit.
And, uh, we knew definitely that the United States would be going into the war then. And, this was right after I had gotten out of high school. And so, I-I didn't seriously feel like settling down with a job or anything. I just worked at what I kind of liked to do. I worked in a grocery for a while, and I worked at, which is now, Thompson Electronics. It used to be uh, uh Farnsworth, and then became RCA. And I worked there for a while. I fact, I was working there when I finally went into the service.
I started my service
And I started my service on November, the fifth, of 1942. And it was just right after I had turned twenty in, on the twenty-seventh of June. So, it didn't take them long to get my number. And uh, so the first place I went after my induction, went to a place in New Jersey, Tenik, New Jersey. By that time it was, uh getting cold from the winter weather and we were all in like a big gymnasium, and that's where we began our training, was in this gymnasium. And they would run us outside occasionally for calisthenics, which was pretty miserable. Then after for about, after about a month there, we-we went to, uh, to Verona, New Jersey. And that's where we finished our basic training. And uh, of course all of this was just over a period of, of a few months. You didn't have to go through an awful lot of training.
And so, uh, then when we-when we were shipping out from there we were going to where we were going to be located in the United States. And the first place that I went was to Long Island, Amsted, Long Island. There was a big air field there and I-I-they had joined me with an anti-aircraft outfit, which was used to protect air fields and the life, you know, the things that might risk being attacked sometime or other. And that's what we were doing there, we had our guns located around this big air field and, of course, nothing really happened, you know, the United States was never attacked. It was good training for us, anyhow.
And uh, was stationed there for about nine months, and, which was really, very good service, real enjoyable because anytime I could get a leave of any kind, a weekend pass or twenty-four hour pass, we could go into New York City. And, of course, back in those days, the city was, all the cities I guess, big cities like that, probably, were wide open to servicemen. I mean we were treated royally, really, and they-they had all kinds of U.S.O. entertainment places for the guys, and ,of course, going to the theater and movies and things like that, you could get in for just-just a very little bit of money because the really catered to the service people and, of course, you know, a city as big as New York was alive with service people. There was so many Navy (inaudible) besides the Air Force and the Army. I-I really, really enjoyed that part of the service.
And after that, we transferred to Amer- this sounds like real, real miserable service time of mine. We went to an airfield, a Bell Aircraft factory, which was located right between Buffalo, New York and Niagara Falls. And stationed there for about, oh I think about, right at seven months. And, which was really nice service, too because we uh, we had there again, we had our-our big guns located around this air- this aircraft factory in case, you know, anyone should presume that they could attack this place. But, there again, we had a lot-a lot of time when we could go on passes and all. I was a lot closer to-to home here in Indiana and could come home, a lot of times, get weekend pass and come home. And stationed there until we got ready to go overseas. And shipped us out of there.
Shipping out on the Queen Mary
We-I remember we went to, uh, Fort Dix, New Jersey. And that was where everybody gathered before-before you shipped out, and I can remember uh going down uh-going across on the ferry, the ferry that ya cross to New York to-to the docks, and we were marveling at all these big ships in port, you know. And uh, there was just, you know, it seemed like every dock had a big ship. And all of the sudden, we look at this huge, huge ship and somebody says, "Look at that ship. In't that a monster". And it filtered down the line and somebody says, "Well, that is the Queen Mary". And then the joke went all around, "Well, that's-that'll be-that's what they're gonna take us on. We know that's what they're gonna take us on". And we did not know until we-they-we were loaded because it was-there was so much chaos and confusion and so many people and all, and as you load on a ship, you don't up on top of a deck, you load through the side, the runway goes through the side of the ship. They loaded us on there, and finally, there was a-a sailor standing there with-with an English uniform on and I said, "What-what's your business?" And he says, "This is the Queen Mary".
So we did get to go over on the Queen Mary. And that was-that was nice, it was-it was a very calm trip for the most part. Uh, one time we ran into a bad, bad storm and they told us that, "You can hardly cross the Atlantic without running into a storm sometime or other". And uh, that was kinda-kind of bad because (inaudible) you were still, you know, treated just like you were in the service. And uh, you had to pull like guard duty and KP and things like that. And I remember there, one night, I had to pull guard duty. And there had quite a few hundred, or maybe even thousand, I don't know, it seemed like an awful lot, but uh, black a-army-people-men in some-the lower deck. And my job, that-my special order for the night was to walk up and down this hallway, and there was a stairway at each end going up to the upper deck. Walked back and forth down that hallway because noone was allowed to leave their room at night after midnight. And I can remember that boat was kinda rocking like this, and I had never been seasick or anything like that, but these guys in these rooms started getting sick and won’t trying to come out, we wouldn’t let ‘em open the door and come out. And they were getting sick at their stomach, you know, and vomiting, and it would run out from under the doors. And I had to walk back and forth through that. And when I’d get to the end where the stairway was, it was like a double stairway with a-a banister that ran up through the middle with a big (inaudible) post in the middle. I’d lay my head middle post to kinda-to settle myself a little bit for my next trip down to the other stairway. And I got through my two hours without getting sick. And I said then I would never, ever get seasick on the water, I know, after going through that.
D Day plus five
So anyhow, we-we finally got to uh, England was where we landed. And, of course, we went through more training there, and cause we were getting ready for the landing on France, I think which they call D Day. And we went all over there and I think it was the five days, we weren’t on D Day, we went on D Five. And it’s the worst sight I ever saw in my life because they had brought-they had- they weren’t able to pick up all of the dead fast enough because after they had finally made their landing there, they moved inland so fast that all of the dead weren’t being picked up that quickly enough, but when we did-when we got by the way, where they landed was like a big cliff, and we had to scale this cliff. There wasn’t an awful lot of beach. And uh, anyhow, but when we got to the top of that cliff, there was just, it just-it seemed like as far as you could see just bodies laying out all in body bags, you know uh, that they had picked up and-and hadn’t buried yet. And that was just a terrible, terrible sight.
Soon got you mighty well used to war and-and what war really is, I’ll tell ya. It was just something to see. So anyhow, the first thing we did was we uh moved in just a little bit and we set up our guns again and then what our main objective was, was Germany had what they called, uh the buzz bombs, or the pilotless aircraft that they would send over and-and drop on London. And that was what they had sent us over there for, was to pick off as many of these as we could before they got to England. And, of course, we were never very long at any one place. We-we just kept moving forward and--and forward and if-if they had established a little air field, why we would set our guns around this little air field where could kinda protect it, too. And uh, so then-then we-we landed on Normandy Beach. They had-I don’t-they gave ‘em all different names. There was one, Omaha Beach, I remember, but Normandy was where-was where we landed. But, we headed directly towards Germany. That was our objective, but I know we would-we would go through little towns that were just completely riddled, you know. There wasn’t a whole building left standing in the town and I remember we crossed one river, it was called the Rohr River, and there was still bodies laying in the river that had not been picked up. Some of them were German and some of them were American. And that was something, I’ll tell ya, to get u-to get used to and as quickly as we had to because where our captain was-he was- no one really seemed to care much about him, but he was kinda nervous.
And I remember when we got pretty close to Germany and we had-we had gone by a convoy. A convoy which, you know, was a string of trucks hauling equipment and-and personnel as well. Uh, we stopped one night-we had to stop overnight-and our captain came along and he was posting guards, which we did every-every place you went, you know, you posted guards, and he said the special order was that nothing moved after dark. And uh, so anyhow, we-there-we had a man got killed that night. One of our men shot another one and we never saw our captain after that. They shipped him out of there right away. And they put a first Lieutenant in his place and, but it’s just things like that that happen, you know, I-you meet all kinds of people in the Army.
We had, it seemed to me, most of the group that I was with was from the East, from New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and that area. And there was, for some reason or other, there was a small contingent from Texas because there was even, they were American citizens of course, but they were Mexican descent, I mean, and there were, practically all of the full blooded Mexican I guess, you know, but they had become American citizens, but uh, quite a few Texas people, too, other than Mexican. But, we looked-learned that it was these people, the big braggarts, the ones that had the big things to say, were, when you put ‘em under stress, they couldn’t handle it nearly as well as the quiet type person. And we lost several of those, the closer we got to the combat, the more this would happen.
So, we finally got up into-to Germany, we crossed the Rhine River. And uh, we were always moving along behind the infantry. The infantry was always ahead of us. And uh, but our-each battery of my outfit-had four forty-millimeter guns, and four quad-mount, four fifty-caliber machine guns mounted on one mount. The machine back-sat behind the forty-millimeter gun and backed up that gun. And uh, we had four of those in our battery, and in our company, we had eight of each. But each battery, which was a battery of-no, each platoon-which was our one platoon, we only had one truck to move our equipment, our men, two guns, and everything. So, when we had to make a move, they would send for a trucking outfit that would come in and move our guns for us. And then they-they would go-go back and leave us where we were. And we sufficed then with our one truck that we had.
Well, when we got up closer to the action, I mean, where you could see some of it and all, it got-we were gettin’ a little nervous, and there we were, we only had one truck. And, the Germans, during the Bat-what they call the Battle of the Bulge. We were in Germany, by this was, what, just before Christmas of 1944, I guess. Yeah. The Germans started this push against our troops, and we learned, in short order, that our infantry had pulled back, and they were behind us because we couldn’t pull out of there by not having the trucks to move. We had to stay there. Well I’ll tell ya, everybody was pretty dog-gone scared at that point.
And I’ll never forget when we saw, first hand, we really saw the Germans. And you-it looked like a hedgerow. We were kinda on top of a hill and way down in this valley, of course it was in the dead of winter, and there was some snow on, so the hedgerow was dark. But, it looked like this headrow was moving, and, come to find out, it wasn’t a headrow at all. It was a Panzer division of Germany, just side-by-side moving up this hill. Well, there we were. We were steaming. We had sent for trucks because we-we knew this was gonna happen, or felt sure that this was going to happen. We had sent for trucks, but they could-they had come as close to our rear as they could, and a German outfit had cut off the road coming through and they couldn’t get to us. So, there we were. Well, they said, you know, you just got-you got to fight if that’s what it takes, you know. And, so it seemed like it took a long time before they ever really started to move closer, you know. And finally, these trucks did get that-they got that road open from our rear and the trucks got up there by us and, of course, the drivers were just, you should have heard them cause here, they were back in Belgium somewhere, you know, where there was no war going on at that time. Then they had gotten themselves right into the middle of war. And they were wanting to get out of there, I’ll tell ya. And finally, we got everything ready and uh, they started to load us out of there and the Germans were starting their push, coming up that hill. And I remember, that we throwing stuff onto a truck and everything. And it was just like bees around, lead flying by. They were shooting at us, you know, and you just-you were so concerned about getting out of there that it just-it didn’t really concern you that much, you know, that, and it just, oh, I’ll tell ya, it was-it was a struggle.
And we had occasions where-where uh-just before this happened, that uh, the Germans, they would shell our positions at-right, just before daylight it seemed like, every morning they would shell us to beat the dickens. And, you just got to where you were so used that, uh, we would-everybody would be, you know, just-there would just have a skeleton crew on the guns at night, pulling guard duty, you know, but on something like the shelling started, everybody was out and to the guns and ready for whatever might happen. I can remember being there and you just-you just hear the shells just right and left, everywhere. You never know when one was gonna have your name on it, you know. And you just-there again, you just get so used to it that sometimes you get so nervous that kinda, that you didn’t even care if one did have your number-number on it anymore. And so, but anyhow, we finally got out of there and got pulled back onto uh-to Belgium, and the Belgian people were awfully, awfully nice to us. And, this was-I think that the Battle of the Bulge started on the twentieth of December because, I remember, we were in Belgium, and they had set us up again near a little air field there in Belgium. Some people that lived in the area there, on Christmas Day, a man and his wife, came walking up to our-our little camp there, and they had a small Christmas tree, decorated, and a bottle of champagne. And they said the champagne was special because they had been saving this when they knew that they were liberated, and they knew at that point, that the end of the war would soon be coming. (Inaudible).
Beginning of the end
But anyhow, uh, then, after that, why we went into, oh I can’t think of what they call it now, but we moved back to-it was General Eisenhower’s former headquarters. But it was a huge, huge place, and they had big barracks and all, and here after all-all of they had been through, why they put us in there, and we had to stand inspections all the time. We were-they were having parades and stuff like that, and now this was back-back in-in France. And uh, we-the guys just griped all the time, you know, we had been fighting a war and now they're wanting us to play soldier.
But that went on for-for several months and, uh, eventually it-it just uh-it uh-they started well, let's see, the war was over then, the war, yeah-we were-we were-the war in Japan was over before? No, I think the Germans surrendered first. Yeah, they did. The Germans surrendered first because after they were out of it, the-Japan, got their-the bomb, well that was just uh. But um, no, we-then we had fin-they had finally shipped us out of this, to quit playing soldier. And uh, we were-we were sent to another air field then, and we were protecting this air field because they were still sending-sending planes over, you know, reconnaissance planes as well and uh, something that we would, even back when we were in England, we, let's see, we were always sta-we were, for the most part, stationed around an air field. And we would watch the planes, the bombers, go on their missions over France and then to Germany, and we would count 'em and they would come back. And it was just-it just got to you when you'd see how many didn't make the trip back. You'd see some come back and land, and you didn't see how they could ever fly that plane. You could see through 'em they were so riddled. And uh, so that-that was really an interesting thing because wae kept track every time we'd see a mission go, that we would make note of it, you know, and then count them when they came back, you know. And I might-I should have noted, too, that uh, on these, with our guns, and all, we lived like a bunch of bachelors all together.
A band of brothers
There would be maybe as many as twelve guys with these two guns, and you lived like that, you know, I mean, some of the guys I'd went through the whole-whole deal to Germany and then back to wherever I was, you know, discharged, I had gone overseas with. And you really got acquainted with these people, but it was just like a-a little family, and we had our own-own cook and everything, and you just-you-you lived separately from-from the other-other crews, and you never had any occasion, like when we got overseas, to everybody get together at once. I didn't know, maybe that's why they wanted us to play soldier when we got back to-to that Eisenhower's former headquarters.
But uh, then we-we-I-was such a happy, happy day when we first learned that, uh, the war was over in the United-for the United States and Germany. And they-it was no time at all till, they started right away, and to getting people sent back home. And we had a point system, which dealt with how many years you had been on the service, how many years you had been overseas, and how much combat you had seen, and everything like that. I uh, so it wasn't too awful long till-till um, we got work done to where I-I could go because I had had, oh, like five different campaigns uh, in Germany, and-and see there, that made which pretty well up on the list. And I might add, too, though, that I never shot an enemy point blank. You knew that in some of the firing we did, well like with our guns, and we-you'd set 'em at a certain uh level, certain altitude, and a certain azimuth to either side. And uh, you knew how far that gun was going to fire, and if there was something within that range, you'd shoot it, but we never actually saw what we hit, you know, or anything like it, except when they, during the Bulge, and they had to fight dirty because uh, they-they said, after we, the skeleton crew, pulled out of there, that the few people that were left behind set those guns just down as low as they could and fired at the infantry because there was nothing else to do, you know, it's survival of the fittest.
But anyhow, got shipped from uh, I never got back to England, and left-was shipped out from-from Antwerp, Belgium, back to the United States, and wasted no time at all getting-getting-came back to uh New Jersey, Fort Dix, New Jersey, and we were shipped out from there, then to Indiana, but I can't think where. Atterbury, Camp Atterbury, down by Indianapolis, and right-they started right away to-running you through, to getting ya discharged. And it took like a couple of days. You went through all sorts of physicals and checks and everything, you know, and I remember after the first time, I thought I'd better call home and see-let the folks know that I-they didn't even know, really even know I was back in the United States yet. And, so I called home and they told me that a cousin had died. Chuck Linville, his sister, Irene, the twin to Eileen, had died. And so, I sent the word then, tryin' to get to come home for the funeral, cause the funeral was the next day. And I, somehow, I know I'll get-get there. And Grandpa says, "We'll come and get you". And, "Now just where will we find ya?" And I told him, and I remember, they-they came that-that night. I went through and pulled a lot of strings and talkin' to everybody, all the officers, and then finally got a pass to go home for three days. And they came and picked me up, and went back, and as soon as my three days were over, I-back to Atterbury. Went to the same barracks that I had been in. And there was no one there that I knew, those people were all gone. And uh, I was there like all day long and nothing, nobody, said anything or any-, so finally, I looked up an officer and I told him why, what-you know, what had happened. And he said, "Well, we'll get to the bottom of this". So finally, they had-nobody had any record of me or anything. As for as they was concerned, I was discharged. So anyhow, pulled-pulled a few strings and talked to a lot of officers and everything, and finally got me back on the list. I-I'd just went through the whole separation phase again, and, from what I had done before, finally got on. And I was discharged on Grandpa and Grandma's wedding anniversary, on December 13, 1945. That's all. Is that enough?
After the war
al: Well yeah, but-
dl: Or is it too much?
al: What about after you came back?
dl: So, when I got-came back, I uh went to work at the VA Hospital. Herb, Uncle Johnny, my brother, older brother, he worked there. And Grandpa, of course, had worked there for years and years, so it just-it just seemed the thing to do for me, to go to work at the VA Hospital. And I went and worked there, and the job I got was an attendant-an attendant on one of the buildings there. They-they had a lot of the World War I veterans there, and most of 'em, you know, were mental-mental problems. And but I-it was just so close after the war that, the first thing you know, there started to be World War II veterans coming in there. And I remember that, uh, they would-I would have to take a group of people from my building, where I worked, to the hospital portion. And, they were given shock treatments, electric shock treatments. And uh, it just-it just knocks 'em out completely. It's electricity, you know, shooting it through your head, and I had taken a group of guys over there one time for their shock treatments, and you had to stay with 'em because, you know, I forgot a good little length of time after the treatment, then, you know, they were themselves again, or as much as can be, and there able to navigate it into their own power. And then I'd take 'em back to the building.
But one time when I went over there and took them, there was a friend that I knew from Fairmount, and he was a World War II veteran. They had him in for shock treatment. And I just-you know, when you see somebody, you know, your own age and all, you just got a lot closer to home, and uh, I just thought, "Hey, that this is not for me", you know, I just can't do it.
And it so happened that my dad's brother came to Indiana for a family reunion, and he insisted that I go to-back to southern Georgia. To "come down there and see what you think, you might want to work there". And I was-well I had been out of the service for six months and then I went to-to Tonsville, Georgia. Stayed there for just a short while, and I thought, "Hey, I'm so close to Florida, I might as well go all the way". So, went to Tallahassee, Florida, and uh, worked for the Gulf Oil Company for three years, and really liked that job. It was fantastic. They uh-they were looking for oil in the state of Florida, and my job I was working, they called it land officer, and I had to keep the map of the state of Florida, listing what companies-what oil companies had properties leased in the state of Florida, and keep track of the progress as well as we could from their drilling. And, of course, with the Gulf Oil Company, I had to keep close account of-of the drilling progress. And uh, finally, where-to where they furnished me with a car and I traveled over the state of Florida, just checking on different places where they were drilling because they-they drilled from like the panhandle out towards Alabama, clear down to Miami area. West of Miami, out in the Everglades and worked there for a little over three years. And uh, they weren't finding a lot of oil in the state of Florida, and so they started cutting back. And uh, so we got the order that they were gonna close our office. And uh, but anyone with over three years seniority, could transfer to Houston, Texas. And, so I told them, "Hey, I'm in Florida by choice". I-because I wanted to live here. And I said, "I don't somebody to tell me I had to go to Texas". Texas never sounded very attractive to me, anyway. And, so I backed-I didn't go. And, as an afterthought later, I really wished I had, but uh, cause I think I could've really done well if we get in Texas, you know, where because it's a booming business in Texas. Texas and Oklahoma. But, fooled around then, and had to find something else to do.
So finally, I went to the university, I heard there was an opening, the school of music of all places. But, they needed a-they had a separate registration for all music students, it's separate from the rest of the university because of all the fees that students have to pay uh, each student has to have certain teachers, certain teachers they want or you assign them teachers and things like that, so it had to be a separate registration. And, so I worked there for years. And really , really liked the job. The only thing I didn't like about the job was the pay. I always said that the job had a lot of prestige, but no pay, which was very true because, and I think the biggest drawback was that I didn't have a college degree because anyone that had a college degree, seemed to be making pretty dog gone good money and they got the bigger raises. And that's kinda the way it worked. But anyhow-
al: What exactly did you do there?
dl: Was a registrar for the school of music. It was a separate registration from the registrar's office.