By Robert Ottesen
As told to Marcia Baugh
In Yokohama, Japan, 1945
My wartime story began in Berkeley, California in 1942, where I was living with my mother and two siblings. Both of my parents were born in Norway. They met while on board a ship coming to the United States. My father died of pneumonia when I was 6 years old, leaving my mother to support us. She was not confident in her ability to speak English, although she spoke quite well. She worked in a school cafeteria, which was right around the corner from our home. This was during the Depression, and times were hard. She would bring home leftover food from the school, seems it was always baked custard. To this day I have not acquired a taste for it.
I wanted to join the Navy, however the Navy had all the recruits it needed at that time. I wanted to go to college but didn’t know how that would be financially possible. On New Year’s Eve 1942, a “Greetings” letter arrived addressed to me, but my mother decided to keep it and give it to me the next day so that I could enjoy my New Year’s Eve. When I woke up on New Year’s Day 1943, around noon, my mother handed me the envelope. I had been drafted into the United States Army.
My instructions were to appear for a physical examination. February 5, 1943 found me on the second floor of a building in San Francisco, California. We were told to strip down to our socks. There I stood in a roomful of strangers wearing only socks. It was chilly in San Francisco in February. I was subsequently sent to the Presidio in Monterey, California where I arrived on February 20, 1943. It was an organizing area, where we were dispatched to our assigned outfits. I was assigned to Camp Polk, LA. I spent four days on a train, crowded with fragrant recruits, as there were no showers along the way.
We arrived about 9:30 p.m. on day four of the terrible train ride. We were lined up and asked if we wanted to volunteer. For what, we didn’t know. Some big burly guy – turned out he was a professional wrestler – grabbed me around the waist and walked us both to the front of the line.
He announced, “We volunteer.” Turned out we had just volunteered for KP and latrine duty. I will always remember Private Satterfield for that. We were assigned quarters, which consisted of wood-floored tents. I was tested more than once by my tent mate First Sergeant on my bed-making skills. Over and over my cot was dumped onto the floor. “Not good enough.” That guy had a wicked sense of humor.
More fun in basic training included the rifle range. First of several positions for firing a rifle is to lie on your belly and fire at the target. Wow, five out of five bull’s- eyes from that position. My captain was shouting “This kid’s a natural. No wonder, his middle name is Gunner.” The next position is sitting with the rifle balanced on your knees; I began firing. Completely missed the target four out of five. Now the shouts were more like “What a lost cause!” The United States Army was training a 19-year-old. It was training I needed, especially growing up without a father. There were fun times too, seeing Bob Hope in person, as he had us rolling in the aisles.
We were activating Company B of the Quartermaster Battalion of the 16th Armored Division. I made Corporal after about two months of training. I was chosen to train others in close-order drill, something I had learned while in grammar school in Berkeley with the traffic patrol. I was selected as the “guide-on” carrier for our battalion. We would march out onto the field, I would break out of the ranks, run to a peg set in the field on the parade grounds. The rest of the battalion would line up on me. This was performed perfectly during practice.
Then the day of the General’s formal review arrived, I broke ranks, ran out to the peg, everyone lined up, on me. The result: HDQRTS Company of our battalion ended up outside of the review grounds. I had somehow chosen Company A’s peg by mistake. This was supposed to show the General how well trained we were.
After my experience with latrine duty there was only one thing I had wanted to know. What does a soldier have to do in order to avoid ever having latrine duty again? The answer was, be a good soldier and get a promotion. Those became my goals. After that training fiasco, I was called into the Company office thinking, “Oh no, now what have I done wrong?” I was surprised to learn that I was being sent to Camp Lee, Virginia for three months of Non-Com Quartermaster Schooling.
I arrived in Camp Lee via Camp Chaffee, Arkansas, on another terrible train. The standing-room trip lasted two-and-a-half days. By the time I arrived my feet were so swollen I could barely walk. However, being young and healthy I recovered in a few days.
While I was in Virginia, Hank Sharp called. He was a friend from Berkeley, a brother of a gal I had dated. He was a Navy pilot and wanted to know if I could meet him while he was nearby and had some time off. We met and went to a small airfield in Petersburg, VA. He had a Navy trainer plane available to him.
We climbed aboard, he strapped me in, and we used the address system to communicate. He asked if I was OK, told me he was going to do a snap roll, but before I could answer we were doing them, as well as power dives, and inside and outside loops. When we got back on the ground he asked me if this flight was a little more exciting than other flights I have been on. I had to tell him that this was my first flight. Then he confesses that he was only slightly out of control during the flight, there should have been some recovery time between the snap rolls. All men are afraid of something, but flying is not one of mine. To this day I am very relaxed on any type of flight, having lived through that flight with Hank.
Hank ended up in the South Pacific where he dropped a bomb down the smokestack of a Japanese cruiser. On a later flight he ran out of fuel, had to ditch his plane a few miles off the coast of Taiwan. He was captured by the Japanese, who occupied Taiwan at that time. After the United States dropped the atom bomb, the Japanese took him and eight other prisoners out and beheaded them. That was a very sad day. Hank was very capable and had an offer to go to work for Lockheed on his return home.
Quartermaster training was very valuable, and I liked the qualities I saw in the trainers. It would have been easy to live for Saturday nights, but I focused on my goals back home. I wanted to attend college, although I didn’t know how that would be possible.
Training at NCO school for Quartermasters started with everyone removing any stripes they were wearing, to level the playing field. However, we had to leave on any Division patches. I was wearing my Armored Division patch. One day our assignment was to dig a foxhole. There were only two of us with Armored Division patches on our shoulders, and we were picked out and instructed to dig our foxholes very, very deep. We were to crouch in our foxholes, while tanks were driven over the hole. When the tanks drove over the rest of the trainees, their tracks straddled holes. When the tanks drove over the holes inhabited by the other Armored Division chap and me, they drove their tracks right on top of our holes burying us up to our chests in dirt. We needed outside assistance to be extracted from our burrows. The experience was very educational.
After school in Virginia, I returned to my outfit in Arkansas and was subsequently sent out on a cadre to form a new Quartermaster Railhead Company. From there, we were sent out on 3 months of Louisiana maneuvers. Half of all the participating troops were assigned to the “Red” army and the other troops to the “Blue” army. The war games began. I was taking surplus food supplies not issued the night before, to Camp Polk in a truck with a green flag signifying neutrality.
However, big mistake! I was still wearing my blue army band on my helmet. I was captured by the red army and searched and questioned. I gave only my name, rank and serial number, as we were taught. Their search uncovered an envelope in my pocket I had received earlier from a young lady. On the back of the envelope were the following instructions: “Postman, postman do your duty, rush this letter to a little cutie.” I was 20 years old at the time and doing everything possible to prove to everyone that I had indeed reached manhood. I was mortified, as they silently passed it from officer to officer. They glanced at me but nobody said a word. I begged them, to just shoot me, but they mercifully allowed me to continue on my mission. After maneuvers, our company was moved around like poor relatives to various camps in Louisiana, Arkansas and Texas until our overseas orders came and we shipped out to Camp Beale near Marysville, California.
I boarded the SS John Lykes in San Francisco heading to the Philippines in January 1945. It took us 57 days, with stops along the way. The condenser, used to produce our drinking water, broke down. This stopped us for repairs in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, alone. We were assured that it was so late in the war there were no Japanese submarines around. It was so hot sleeping in our bunks below deck, we brought our blankets up on deck and fought for sleeping space, just to be cooler. Sleeping on a steel deck with only blankets for padding was a new experience for most of us.
The first land we saw was Guadalcanal, which was controlled by the U.S. at that time. New Guinea was the next stop. We just sat in the harbors at Finchhaven and Hollandia, never leaving the ship. We were waiting for other ships to join a convoy and head to the Philippines. We arrived in Northern Luzon, and made a tricky descent down cargo nets into violently bobbing landing barges, which kept crashing against the ship. We made it to the beach. We sat on the beach for 4-5 hours awaiting orders. There was fighting up in the hills about 2-3 miles away. Our orders had changed, and we were sent to Subic Bay, spent a week sitting in that harbor. Orders were changed again, this time we went to Manila. We got off the ship in Manila, came back the next day for our vehicles, but they were gone. Some other company had taken our vehicles. What to do? Wait for the next troop ship to arrive and take their vehicles.
The Red Cross was waiting on shore with a treat. Would we like a Coke? Sure! It was made with warm water that had been treated with iodine and Coke syrup. There was no ice. It took me about 25 years before I could order another coke.
Filipinos were hired to help us run our ration and P.X. supply dump. We knew a few were stealing food and cigarettes, but we couldn’t catch them in the act. Two Filipino men would carry in water in clean garbage cans on a bamboo pole. Turns out the bamboo pole was hollowed out to hide the things they were stealing. We finally caught one man stealing sugar in this manner. When questioned he explained he needed the sugar for his wife. She was breastfeeding their baby, and due to a lack of adequate food she wasn’t producing enough milk. He said he needed the sugar for her and their baby’s welfare. I was 20 years old and couldn’t tell if he was lying or not, but the possibility of sending the man to prison if he might be telling the truth was too heavy a choice, so I just fired him.
I attended some parties with Filipinos while in Manila. They had been controlled by the Japanese and hadn’t heard any American music for a long time. I was a passable singer and knew a lot of the words to the early ’40s popular songs. First time in my life I had been in popular demand. One night we were having a party when there was an earthquake. One chap from New York had never experienced an earthquake before. He was scared to death, ran around screaming as he thought we were going to die. The Californians just looked at each other and asked the usual, “Wonder if this is the big one?” Ho hum.
The cooks were not as clean as they needed to be and 60 percent of our Company got hepatitis. I spent over 50 days in the hospital. It was not a bad place to be. Most of the time I was there, it was only to be on a special diet to help my liver heal. It was a Catholic school, with a swimming pool. There were day trips for the patients. One trip was to Corregidor, the island at the entrance to Manila Bay, which had famous defense tunnels. I walked into the largest one about 100 yards, looked around and came back out. Months later while reading a copy of Stars and Stripes magazine in Japan, I learned there were Japanese holed up in those tunnels, and if I had ventured a few more feet in I might not be here today.
There were always pranks and dares among the troops. I was our company’s leading non-com so it was my duty to assemble our men for morning reveille formation and report to our Second Lieutenant. He was a pompous donkey, whom no one liked. It was my job to shout in a rapid-fire voice, “All present and accounted for, sir.” I was dared to say instead, “What in the heck are you standing out there for, sir.” I said it so fast he didn’t catch on, but all the regulars were snickering. I got by with it.
The US dropped the first atom bomb while I was in the hospital in the Philippines, which I believe was August ’45. It is my belief that it saved many thousands of lives on both sides. The Japanese were nowhere ready to capitulate and in fact were preparing for a long, long battle. They were assembling a number of armies while we were preparing several major invasions on the home island. The armistice was signed on September 2, 1945, which is my birthday. I thought my birthday would always be celebrated as a holiday, but alas, it was not to be and few people remember the date of VJ Day.
While stationed in Yokohama we were housed on the top floor of a five-story building. We had been fortunate in obtaining a GI-issue phonograph that weighed some 35 pounds but were unfortunate in that we only had one record. One side was “The Great Speckled Bird” and the other side was “The Wabash Cannonball.”
One day after a hard day’s work at our ration depot, four of us were returning to our quarters in a Jeep and were in the alley alongside our building when said phonograph came crashing down with a thunderous roar on the hood of our Jeep. One of our comrades, after hearing this record for the 500th time (as he put it) decided that if the speckled bird was so great, he was going to see if it could fly.
I arrived in Japan on Sept. 11, 1945 and for the first two weeks we were required to carry our weapons with us at all times. There were no problems, except a few incidents caused by a few U.S. troops. I was there until February 1946. One day while walking down the main street in Tokyo I came upon General MacArthur. I saluted him and he saluted me back. He looked very tired of saluting.
By February 1946 I had enough points to go home. Points were earned for a variety of reasons, such as number of years served, number of years served in a foreign country, and number of dependents. I had never been shot at, and I had never shot at anyone. I came home and thanks to the GI Bill I was able to attend UC Berkeley. Within 10 days of discharge I was attending classes. A dream come true! I got some college credits for some of the training I received in the Army. I worked part-time, ate a lot of beans, and graduated in three-and-a-half years.
By the time I graduated I had used all but 11 days of the GI Bill education benefits. Following graduation I worked for a commercial insurance brokerage firm in San Francisco. Later I worked for Utah International in San Francisco, for 30 years, and subsequently for General Electric when they thought owning a natural resources company might be fun.
We bought our second home under the great Cal-Vet Program. So, although I had to give the Army three years and 20 days of my life, I received several tremendous boosts on my return to civilian life.
Thinking about this interview brought to mind some old pals in the Army. I am trying to find one of them on the Internet. While I was in the Army hospital in the Philippines, I visited with men who were badly injured. I have tremendous sympathy for the families and the men and women who were injured or killed, not only in WWII, but in all subsequent wars as well. Now, when it comes to donations to worthy organizations, my primary response is to veterans’ groups.
Too bad WWII was not “the war to end all wars,” after all.
This story is a transcript of interviews conducted with Mr. Ottesen in 2010 as part of the Tuolumne Veterans History Project, an all-volunteer effort to record Tuolumne County veterans’ memories of their wartime experience. These stories are archived on the Friends and Neighbors website as a public service, and typically have not appeared in the print publication.