|EAST CAROLINA MANUSCRIPT COLLECTION|
|ORAL HISTORY #27|
|Major General Paul Albert Putnam, USMC (ret.)|
|November 13, 1975|
|Interview # 1|
[Major General Paul Albert Putnam USMC (ret.) was captured at Wake Island in 1941 and served four years in a Japanese POW Camp.]
I was born in the little village of Milan, Michigan, that had a population of about fourteen hundred. It is on the southeast corner, about forty miles out of Detroit and not far from Toledo, Ohio. I think its about twelve miles south of Ann Arbor, the university town. I was born there on June 16, 1903. That makes me seventy-two now. We moved to Iowa when I was six in 1909, and we first went to the town of Sigourney that had about twenty-five hundred people.
My dad moved his business with him. He was always somewhat of an inventor. He got a patent on a gadget that measured yardage of fabric on a bolt. It could be used to measure rugs, linoleum, oilcloth, or whatnot that wound round and round on a stick like thread on a spool. He called it a cloth chart and he could measure cloth by just counting with a little handle with a pin the end of it. You could rub it across the fabric and pick it out one layer at a time; and you would count how many times it went around the board. The gadget had a big chart in it with the number of times around it. It started out with a cylindrical brass tubing. You would put that in the machine and squeeze it and make it
look out like a double-barreled shotgun. That paper chart was fixed on two wooden rollers, which had steel pins in each end. One end was just a bearing, and the other end a bearing and also a key, so that when you gauged the hub of a wheel that was about so big around on the end, you could turn it. It had two armsone fixed and one wide. You'd count the layers of the cloth on the bolt and turn the knob on the end until on the left hand end you came up with the number of how many times you had been around. Then you would measure the width of the darn thing by sliding the arms out farther. The inside edge of the moveable arm showed the number of yards on the bolt. I don't know how he did it, but that was a good part of the family income for about twenty-five or thirty years. Then he sold that patent and he also sold the works and the machines he had designed for making the darned thing; and it's still being used.
My two older brothers, who had worked too long in the shop and hadn't done anything else, were glad to get out and get jobs they enjoyed. My third brother who is next older that I am by two years went to the University of Michigan in the Forestry School and spent the rest of his life at a forester. He retired about five years ago. The last ten or fifteen years he was just a consultant for the young people coming up.
Did you attend school in Iowa?
Grade school and high school and I went to Iowa State University at Ames my freshman year. It was part of the university; it was the engineering and agricultural branch. I went up there to take civil engineering. For a variety of reasons, I took one full year and about four months of my sophomore year; and then I just walked out of the Sigma Chi house. I told them I was sorry to be leaving them and that I hoped they would carry me on their roll, but I was done with going to school and being a fraternity boy and
so on. I went down to Des Moines to the nearest recruiting station and walked in and signed up as a buck private in the U.S. Marines.
So you were commissioned from the ranks?
Yes. I went down to Paris Island and from there I went to a thing they called the Marine Corps Institute. It's an educational facility and from there I went to continue their education. It is a correspondence school and they carry about fifty coursesengineering, agriculture, politics, or whatever you want. I signed up for civil engineering. I'm not a social critter to amount to anything and I got tired of trying to be a brother to forty other young kids around there, half of whom I had to restrain myself from seeing if I could wipe them out. December 1, 1923, was when I went down to Des Moines and shipped into the Marine Corps. I figured that I didn't want to be a buck private or a corporal all my life so I started taking some of their correspondence courses. I was later commissioned on March 4, 1926, down here at Eighth and Ninth Street, Southeast. There wasn't any barracks there, but that's where the correspondence school was based and I think it's still down there.
I think I had three tours in Nicaragua. The first vas very short; I think I was down there only about three months I was recalled and put into a special school.
Was this shortly after you were commissioned?
Yes. I was commissioned in 1926, and I think it was 1928 when I was sent down there the first time. I had a lot of fun and I managed to stay out of the maintenance branches and whatnot. I was an infantry platoon commander. The force was a small then that aside from two full battalions, the rest of the troops, which were probably two-thirds of the total, were scattered all over the place. I was a second lieutenant, and my platoon
was sent out to a small town not too from the capital of Managua. One of the two roads that went to the north they had a full company in garrison that was doing some patrolling. The biggest part of my job there was to maintain peace and order around my area, which extended some fifteen or twenty miles in all directions. From there I was driving bull cart trains, maintaining the little station; Tipitapa was the name of the place. We did local patrolling and carrying supplies that were brought up on trucks from Managua. We took them off the trucks and loaded them onto bull carts with native drivers and took them up the road. I think the furthest outpost was sixty miles. We kept them fed and clothed and supplied with ammunition and whatever they needed.
Did you have any trouble with Nicaraguan people while you were there?
Not a bit. This intervention was primarily to keep rebels from raiding. I had tow or three very small little skirmishes with them, but they weren't in the mood to fight with us. I had only forty men total and I never left the barracks there with less than half of the platoon; I would take the other half out to see what I could find. The colonel came down to see me one day, personally, and gave me a letter; it was not a formal commendation or anything like that, but he said he wanted me to know how he felt.
Do you remember the colonel's name?
No. I'm not good at names and never have been. But anyway that was my first spell there.
I was there for five or six months and then called back and put into school. From there I pulled a quickie on them and talked somebody into sending me to flight training. So the next time I went back to Nicaragua, I was flying airplanes. We covered the whole country from one end to the other. We did reconnaissance and making sure of who the
heck we were shooting at or dropping bombs on. In spite of not being able to do much in the jungle country, out in the agricultural areas we were quite effective. My second tour was fairly short and then I had another tour of about two years down there in the flying business.
I guess the rebels were more less operating where the Marines were not. Is that correct?
Yes. That's what they were doing. They would fight fairly willingly with the Nicaraguan government troops, but they didn't like our automatic guns. We shot them a lot straighter that the Nicaraguan people; they had never hear of such a thing before.
Were they in large enough concentrations that bombing and strafing were practical?
Well, once or twice we got into a large force of four or five hundred people on a trail, but you would be surprised at how fast they could disappear off that trail or road into the brush. From there, all you could do was go down real low and see if you could make them shoot at you. For the most part when they were shooting at you, you could tell only by the holes in your wings or possibly by the flashes from the guns if they were in a shady spot instead of out in the bright sun. When they were hiding behind a bush and shooting at us, we could see if for the gun flashes; but if they were out among the bushes and standing up they blended right in with the terrain. In the bright sunlight you
couldn't see the flash either. So you had to go down and hedge hop and get shot at, find out where the hell it was coming from, and then go back and do something about it.
How could you identify the rebels from the regular Nicaraguan people?
Well, the regular Nicaraguan forces were uniformed for the most part, but it was a pretty sloppy uniform. Their field uniforms were camouflaged and so on. The bandits, as we called them, were just in native garb and you couldn't tell them from the native farmers except that they were armed.
After that I had duty Stateside. I had a cruise at Quantico and then out to San Diego. I guess that's about all of the ground duty. That was my first trip out to the West Coast, out to San Diego. Their rifle range was at La Jolla, about a couple miles inland from there and about thirty miles north of San Diego. I was born with a rifle in my hand, I guess; and although I never did turn into one of their leading shooters, I never did fail to make expert rifleman and expert pistol. Even after I was strictly an aviator boy. We were still required to take rifle although we were not supplied with riflesour troopers were, but the officers never were near a rifle until the annual qualifications on the range. So then with not even two days to brush up on your shooting, you were out there shooting for the record. But I had shot enough squirrels that I never failed to get my expert qualification and badge and so forth with both the rifle and pistol.
After some time somebody found out that I had been to school so they put me into the Marine Corps Institute, which is their correspondence school. I went to the one in Scranton, Pennsylvania. I can't remember the name of it, but it was the biggest and best of the correspondence schools, covering everything from literature to the deepest science, history, and any course that was in any college. Just because I had put in a year and a half in college, I was a qualified professor in that Marine Corps Institute. It was a lot of fun.
I had two cruises out West. The first was around San Diego at the rifle range as I told you. The second one was turning out very much the same until I got the idea that I didn't want to be that forever, and I put in for flight training and got it. I think, luckily, and fortunately, too, because I enjoyed every darn minute of it. I went through flight training school and got my wings with hardly any problem whatsoever. But on my first flight check I busted flat. The instructor took me off in a corner and cussed the heck out of me. He said that he knew damned well that I could do better than that and he was not going to report that bust, but that he would go out and check me again the next day. He said if I busted that one, he would see that I was busted too. The next day I was flying just like a hawk.
I was down at Quantico and stayed there for a bit and then went back to Nicaragua. I think I was down there about six or eight months on my first flying job. Then I went back Stateside about six months or so and then went back down to Nicaragua again and stayed about two years.
I went back to school again, to the highest school that the Marine Corps have for their people. Then I was here in Washington at the Pentagon on the joint aviation staff. That turned out to be a very interesting job, working with an organization that was something like the League of Nations except it was military. I was on the intelligence committee with an infantry colonel in the British Army and a cavalry colonel in the French Army. I represented the U.S. Being a flyboy, I was thoroughly qualified. We had to be a little careful in just how much intelligence we let the other fellows know that we had. There was a little juggling back and forth, but it was done all in a friendly way and helped in the understanding of national positions. We never have any hint of where
we got our information, of course; that was just unthinkable. It operated out of the Pentagon and had major sections like intelligence, supply, operations, and so on. It did nothing for any one country, but each country chipped in to help the organization. We were a little bit wary of what we said in the intelligence outfit. We never told where we got our information. It was interesting with the Englishman, the Frenchman, and the “Damn Yankee” in there. I was there for about three years in the late 1930s.
Then I went back on the West Coast and was sent out to Hawaii. This was before Pearl Harbor. And then, just before the war started, they began putting details out hither and yonder; my squadron of fighters went to Wake Island. Jimmy Devereux had been sent there with some old five-inch coast defense artillery and some three-inch anti-aircraft guns. Unfortunately, while we were still there, the Japanese decided that they wanted that place. We had nothing much to work with. I had only half my squadron, twelve planes out of twenty-four. Jimmy had four batteries of the old ship's five-inch broadside guns and some old World War I three-inch anti-aircraft guns. Neither one of us knew what we were doing there. We just found ourselves there. We began to see funny looking airplanes coming over very high and we held a debate. He didn't want to shoot them, but I could go up and find out what they were. I got close enough to identify them as Japanese airplanes.
You were not expecting an attack?
We knew there was a possibility of it, but we weren't really expecting it. I don't think the people back in headquarters really expected it either, either on Wake or Honolulu. Jimmy shot down several of the Japanese planes. As I said, I had twelve airplanes there, and their first surprise raid cut that number so I had only nine planes left.
A couple of them were damaged so I didn't dare let them into combat. So I was working with nine able bodied airplanes, that were faster than the little Japanese puddle jumpers.
What type of plane was it?
They were F4s. They were brand new to us. I think we had had them ten days when we were sent out there with them. The Japanese came in with two or three full squadrons and two or three carriers with fighters riding coverage for the dive-bombers and for the high seaplane bombers. They had probably a hundred aircraft together against my twelve. It wasn't any fun, but it was satisfying to find out just how good my boys were. As I said, our planes were a bit faster than theirs, but theirs were much more acrobatic and lighter and had more wingspan per weight.
What did the rest of your squadron do since you had only nine planes fit for flying?
Well, a maintenance and repair organization had gone out ahead of us. They didn't have much in the way of equipment or spare parts, but we had about three times as many mechanics as we had pilots. We did have a few spare parts, and of course every time one of the planes was disabled and managed to get back we had lots of spare parts. There were three operating planes left when they came ashore and took us. Of course, I burned those three operating planes.
What did you think of the Navy's decision to turn back nd not rescue you?
Well, that was before the Japs had really come in force, and they didn't know how good they were or how many they had. I didn't know they were coming until I saw their planes coming over us; we never had any advance information they were comingat least I didn't. I don't know if Commander Cunningham had any prior information of it
more than just a few hours. I knew nothing of it until I saw the ships. It was a fouled little affair some of the time, but most of the time it ran right smoothly; and, of course, we got the hell bombed out of us. We did put bailing wire on the three or four of the plane we thought would hold together long enough to get off the ground, and they did. I was right proud of my boys.
Commander Cunningham made the decision to finally surrender. Was this in consultation with you and Devereux?
With Devereux, but I was not consulted at all. I think I'm right that he discussed it with Devereux.
You were on Wake Island, but I understand some of the troops on Wilkes Island did not know that surrender was imminent until after they had already surrendered. Is this true?
I think so, but then that other little island was not so close that they could really tell anything about it. Radio silence had been ordered. When they attacked, Devereux did send out word that he was being attacked but not until the Japs were there shooting.
When the Secretary of War ordered the Navy to turn back and said something to the effect that Wake Island was a liability, didn't that make you feel forsaken?
I don't remember hearing that until after the war was over, but I knew that it was not worth its weight in sand. It was too doggone small; it wasn't big enough to operate off of.
You made an often quoted statement that “this is as far as we go” during the midst of the invasion.
I have only faint recollections of that now. I had lost several men and had only about sixty officers and men total. I checked in with Devereux and he told me to just go ahead with my airplanes, if he needed me he would holler. He gave us some rifles, too, but he didn't have enough spares to give us one per man. We did have two or three Browning automatic rifles.
When you were captured, where did the Japanese carry you?
As far as I can recall now, they took us straight to Japan. We were imprisoned in an old Japanese barracks compound. We even had mattresses to sleep on.
Were you treated pretty well?
I was surprised at how good we were treated. There were two nasty little bastards there, and whenever they could manage to not get caught by the boss, they could make life miserable for us. But I was really surprised at the decency they did give to us. About one in a hundred were nasty little brats, but I've seen some nasty little Marines, too.
What are some of the things that you remember about those four years that you were a prisoner?
The main thing I remember is the good morale of my Marines. They were sorry to be there but they weren't ashamed of being there; I wasn't either.
Did you ever worry about your future?
No. I 'm not a worrier. It did occur to me tow or three times that being captured and so on might not look too good on my record.
Did you worry about the war getting over and the fact you were a prisoner in an enemy county?
I never had the faintest idea about the war being lost; that never occurred to me.
What did you do to occupy you time?
They gave us time out in the yards and there was room to play some small games. They encouraged us to playmostly volleyball. Somehow they go hold of some indoor baseball equipment. I don't know where they got those. Until we got the balls all beat up, there was quite a bit of ball playing.
Did you have any work to do?
They made us dig up, plant, and tend vegetables gardens for our own use. There was a certain amount of land within the compound. The outfit I was with had quite a number of Navy and Army men, with Army being the most numerous. Outside of the compound there was about half a mile walk to some farmland. I can't say if it was a quarter of an acre, half an acre, or a full acre, but we were given shovels with which to spade it, and forks and rakes to refine the spading, and we were given seeds and plants. The officers were not required to do manual labor but the enlisted people did. So that we could get our fresh greens, they planted enough there to provide all of the vegetables we could find use for; but, of course, meat was very scarce. I can't say if this is a reliable piece of information because it was a long time back, but we got meat, I would say, about two ounces per man once every three weeks. Along towards the end that stretched out to a couple of months between bites of meat.
Didn't the Red Cross supply packages?
Not for the first couple of years that I recall. Now that is a long ago recollection; but I think our first Red Cross packages came towards the end of the second year. As for the Japanese, we never had any reason to charge them with stealing any of that good
chow. A little portion of vegetables and rice was their diet, and they didn't want any of that crap that the Americans were eating.
Did you do your cooking?
Yes. We had our own cooks. Devereux's outfit had a mess unit; and later some Navy people straggled in, and a couple of them were cooks.
Were the officers separated from the enlisted men, or were they all together?
We were separated, but in the same barracks.
There were no separate prison units for officers?
Yes. They tried to keep them in separate buildings, and for the most part they were in separate buildings. But I recall one other barracks building, a double-decker, and it had enlisted on the bottom deck and officers on the top deck. The reason for that was because the enlisted men were routed to an hour earlier in the morning, and they didn't want them running through our sleeping areas. It was very thoughtful of them. They had a very distinct line drawn between their officers and their enlisted men.
In addition to the vegetables that you grew, I imagine that the major portion of the ration that they provided you was in the form of rice.
Yes. And then they captured a good-sized commercial ship loaded with wheat. They brought it in and took wheat out of it and distributed it throughout the prison camps. They wouldn't eat the damned stuff; they thought it wasn't fit for human beings. So, for quite a while, we had bread but very little rice.
Did any of your men ever try to escape?
Well, one small group of about six worked up a very elaborate plan, because we really weren't very far from salt water. There were a couple of brilliant young fellows
who developed a strong understanding with a couple of the guards. But there was really no serious planning, because they never could make their plans show a real good probability of “yes” instead of a probability of “no”. I don't know of any really serious attempt to escape. It was forty miles from salt water, and then you would have had to run up and down the beach waving a white flag saying, “Come and get us.” Of course, it was different for those imprisoned in Germany, but a white man in Japan was quite evident.
If I remember things correctly, a couple of the communications boys, with the help of a couple of the guards, got together a lot of radio components, some wires, and we had a radio.
What did you pick up?
Oh, I don't know; mostly just music. It was off in a corner of another barracks, and I don't know exactly what they did get. But I have some dim recollection of one of the boys claiming one night they had two-way communications for about a half hour with a United States submarine which had surfaced offshore. The Nips finally got the whole thing and hell was popping there for a while. But those boys, with the help of one or two guards, did have some short-range transmission.
So they did barter with the Japanese guards?
Yes, They would do almost anything for a fountain pen. Quite a number of boys had a fountain pen in their pockets when they were caught.
These things were not taken away from them?
Some were taken away, but I know there must have been twenty or thirty of them around the compound there.
Did any of your men ever go berserk or anything of that nature and try to climb the fence?
Two of them went out under the fence one night. They found some nice geisha girls and came back before daylight in the morning. But the third time some Nip saw them with the girls, and it didn't work so well. They gave them a good beating with a stick about the size and shape of a broom handle. That left a nice streak across their asses. One of their favorite places to hit was across the back end, between your hip and knee. It made walking rather uncomfortable.
Was there much punishment or harassment from the Japanese aside from those one or two?
No. Aside from that very small number of nasty little brutes, we were treated like gentlemen. We had our own galleys and cooks. We had our own organization. Devereux for his outfit, me for the flying boys, and Cunningham for the Navy boys that came in.
Was it a very large prison camp? Were there just prisoners from Wake Island, or did they bring in prisoners from other places?
I seem to remember in the last year of the war they had another small camp somewhere down along the beach, but I never saw it and I don't actually know that it was there. We had infantry troops, artillery people, the anti-aircraft artillery people, the supply people, all Navy and Marine Corps.
I have heard Wake Island referred to as a the Alamo of World War II. Do you have any observations on that point?
I know that a good share of the boys, if they could have gotten their hands on a gun, would have been very happy to start a little shooting with the Nips--not with any
thought of escaping, because how can you swim from there to Honolulu. It would just have been so much fun to go out and kill a few Nips.
Where in Japan was the prison camp in relation to Tokyo and other major cities?
There are two main islands in Japan and we were on the southern one and on the southern part of that, closer to the eastern side of the island than the western side. We didn't know where the hell we were until after the war.
It was not until after Hiroshima that you were rescued?
Yes. I think both of the bombs were set off before we got out of there. Some of the Japanese were awfully mad about it, and there was some grumbling about why didn't they get even by shooting our people. But the wise ones prevailed entirely. We got some dirty looks and called some names but for the most part there was no retaliation.
Did you have any sources of information about what was going in the war?
Oh, they kept us right up on it.
Did they actually give you factual information?
Right up to the time of the big bomb. They were quite accurate, geographically, but they never lost a skirmish in the whole damn war.
How did they reconcile the fact they were pulling back?
One of the interpreters, who was a nice fellow and who had gone to UCLA, kept us pretty well informed. He came in every day to see how we were getting along, and he would take some of our gripes back to the officer and so on. We owed him quite a lot. There were a couple of others who could speak a little bit of English. Two of them that I recall were quite glad to be buddy-buddy with us to brush up their English; that was in
the last year and a half or so. They knew they were going to loose and they thought if they cold speak English they might be a little better off.
Did they ever confide in you about their feelings toward the war?
Only indirectly, because they knew that if word ever got out to the front office, they would have wished they hadn't. Some of them knew what was going to happen long before it happen; they could see it coming. I guess a lot of them could, but you know the Japanese had a term like our “Give me liberty or give me death,” just like our old-time people who wanted liberty or death.
When you were rescued, just how did that come about?
They gave us motor transportation to a seaport; I've forgotten just which one it was. The day before, two Navy officers showed up and told us that the war was over and that they had come ashore to get coordinated with the Japanese as to the evacuation of prisoners. There were two or three other smaller prison camps, so there were three or four of those little teams around. Of course, where I was, was the biggest of the camps in Japan. There were some other prison camps on some of the other islands. On the whole I had no gripes. I was mad at them off and on, but afterwards with looking back on it, I have no gripes with the way they treated the Americans so long as the Americans knew they were prisoners of war.
I imagine the Japanese were rather bitter. How was the clothing situation?
They gave us the Japanese winter uniforms.
Was there adequate heating in the building's?
Well, we didn't think it was adequate. The buildings were wooden but did not have double walls like our houses. The heat was not from stoves or anything like that.
The officers had specially built rooms that were at least fifteen by twenty feet. Our bunks were six feet long, and they were against one wall; there was a four-foot passage down the middle, and then there was another row up against the other wall. So I'd say the rooms were about eighteen feet in the narrow dimension and twenty-two or more in the longer dimension. We weren't crowded. The enlisted were housed exactly as the Japanese troops were. Most of them were wooden barracks with just one room up in one end for the NCO in charge. There were tow other small, separate rooms for the other NCOs of sergeant or above. The rest of them were just like any squad room, except they didn't have cots, they had mats on the deck.
But the officers had cots?
Some of them did, but others just had a deeper, nicer, big pad.
You said that you were given transportation to a port. Were you then picked up by an American destroyer or something?
No. They were transport ships. Some of them went off on cruisers, and I think one of the aircraft carriers picked up quite a lot of them.
What was your feeling to see an American ship for the first time in four years?
It makes your stomach turn over. Yep. It stirs you up some. It was quite a relief.
Mrs. Putnam said that she heard from you only about three times during all of that period. Had you received any mail from her?
Yes. I got perhaps half a dozen letters from her. The young fellow who had gone to UCLA would see to it that extra letters would go out now and then.
What about your career after the war?
Well, they gave me a little rehabilitation thing to acquaint us with the changes in our units. We had entirely different aircraft and different artillery and infantry weapons and so on. I don't think any of the boys, officers or enlisted, were knowing what they were supposed to do in less than three months. It was quite a big change. Even the organization had changed. There were new units we had never heard of. I sure couldn't reconcile any of the aircraft that I had to fly when I came back with anything that I had been flying before I went.
They were more complicated, weren't they?
Yes. And much heavier.
Where were you stationed after you were reoriented?
I was at San Diego for a while. This is where my last station had been before the war, and my wife had stayed there all through and bought a little house that we still own. The kids didn't even have to change their schools. She's a Virginia girl, and I was surprised that she hadn't come back to the East; but they stayed on right there in Coronado. She was drawing y pay, not a hundred percent, but it was enough to keep them just about the way she wanted; and she worked school teaching and a couple other jobs.
When did you retire?
I believe it was in 1956. I was right proud of my wife when I came back and saw what she had done.
I imagine there was more strain on the wives back Stateside than there was on the men in the camps.
Yes. But she made enough to buy that little house that we still own. She kept the kids in school. She taught a kindergarten outfit and so on. She is not the type that goes off the dock; she doesn't fold up.
Can you think of any other experiences or stories that come to mind concerning any other aspect of your career--personalities or events that would be particularly or unique? Did you have any contact with General LeJeune or General Julian Smith?
Well, I do recall seeing them when they would make inspection trips. There are a lot of characters around in the Marine Corps, but I can't come up with names anymore at all. I don't know, I've spent all of this time trying to forget this wartime stuff--while I was gone and whatnot.
I wasn't necessarily thinking about World War II but about your earlier career or subsequent career.
I went to Air War College at Montgomery, Alabama; and of course they sent me to the Marine Corps infantry schools. But I've been trying for so doggone long to just blot out the whole thing....
[End of Interview]