INTERVIEW WITH WORLD WARII VETERAN BILL HESS

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Bill Hess is a 98-year-young WWII veteran who currently resides in Graham, NC which is about 30 miles due west of greater Raleigh-Durham area.  Bill spent his childhood years in the southern region of the “Garden State” (New Jersey) and later entered then Drexel Institute of Technology in nearby Philadelphia where he enrolled in its cooperative education program.  Bill served in the U.S. Navy during WWII and is spending time with us today to tell us about his early life, his service to his country, and his path to North Carolina.

Interviewing Bill is Joe Ragone, Director of the Regency Park Partnership, a community-service website serving Johnston, Lee, and Wake Counties in North Carolina.  Both Bill and Joe attended Drexel in the same cooperative education program, and they belong to the same local network of their college alumni association.  While Bill was in the navy, serving in the great war to end all wars, Joe was in the army during the Vietnam War, a war that Bill would have thought would never happen after his return to civilian life.

Bill, just to get started, I know you graduated from Moorestown High School (New Jersey) in 1940 and entered Drexel Institute of Technology in Philadelphia later that same year.  I lived in Pennsauken (NJ) only about 8 miles away from you.  My earliest recollections were in the early 1950s, an era of cars with manual transmissions, party-phone lines, and a black-and-white TV that only got 3 channels.  What was it like in your early years at home?

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Joe, I am glad you decided to start here.  I imagine that many of your readers will be surprised to read firsthand what every-day conditions were like back then from someone who is still able to tell about it. 


We always lived in Moorestown.  My father was a teacher in the local school system, and many of his students were farm boys and had summer growing projects.  There were no electric fridges, the ice man would come to the house with a 50-lb block of ice.  We kids used to get a hand full of ice chips from his truck in the summer, I remember that really well!

We stored our trash in big barrels in back of the garage because trash was picked up only twice a year.  Two quarts of milk were delivered to our house daily, and the bread man would come by carrying a big basket of stuff you could buy.  For those that had cars, there were no gas stations, but there would be a big gasoline pump at the curb-line, and you got gas there.

 

Many more memories, but these are some of the highlights.

Bill, while most of our readers might find these aspects of daily life very surprising, I suspect that some of them occasionally experienced some of these same conditions today – like when they go primitive camping for the weekend and then return to their comfortable climate-controlled homes.

 

Good point, Joe!

 

Moving on now, what made you decide to go to Drexel?

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My first contact with Drexel was in 1939 when I was still a junior in high school.  I received an invitation to attend a one-day orientation there as I was interested in learning more about their five year work/study program. There were others that went over there as well.  I thought you might enjoy a photograph of us, I am in the first row, just to the right of our leader with a paper in his hand.

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So you lived in Moorestown which was 17 miles away from the Drexel campus.  I assume you commuted to campus like I did.   What was that like then?

It was quite a process.  I would take a train from home to Camden, then ferry across the Delaware River to Philadelphia, then take the subway from 2nd street to 32nd street, and walk 2 blocks to campus.  Then of course, the reverse trip home after classes.

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Wow, that was a lot of traveling back then, lots of time to study on the train, ferry, and subway I bet!  Bill, you mentioned Drexel’s five year work/study program which later was called the Cooperative Program, a very big selling point for the college.  I attended Drexel myself in the 1960s and this was the only way I could afford to go to college.  How about for you?

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Joe, yes, I did attend their five year work/study program in their school of business administration.  My parents paid my tuition at the very beginning as I had to start classes first, before my first work assignment. 

 

But after I started working, I was able to save enough money to pay for my tuition, books, and fees each time I returned to the classroom.  It was important to me that I did this, and I also remember that I was very proud at graduation that I had not incurred any debts that would need to be paid back. 

I don’t need to tell you that with the cost of college tuition today and even with paid internships, there are not many students that can say they graduated with no college loans to pay off. 

Bill, I had 2 different co-op jobs while attending Drexel, one with an accounting firm and one at a title insurance company.  What did you do?

I also had two different co-op jobs. The first was with Abbott Dairy where we called the Abbott ice cream stores in Philly to get orders for the next day's delivery.  But first, we would always go up to the second floor and get some ice cream to eat while we made phone calls.  A nice perk, I believe.

My second job was at a Suny-Vacuum company-owned gas station.  Even though I was a co-op, I became the top salesman selling “Upper Lube”, a small can of oil that was added to your gas.  I was driving a 1935 Plymouth at the time, and I remember that on the Sunday that Pearl Harbor was bombed, I went out and bought two new tires for my car figuring there would soon be a shortage.

I understand that your first interaction with our military were when you were still in college.  For those of us that do not remember, what was going on in the world at that time?

 

Joe, the short answer is that a lot was going on back then, Hitler was plundering Europe and bombing England, Mussolini controlled Italy and Africa, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and we entered the war against Germany and its allies. 

 

How about your own involvement with our military back then?

 

Back then, Drexel had an Army Reserve Officers Training Program, and the first two years were compulsory for all male students which could be followed by two more years in an advanced R.O.T.C. program if the Army offered this to you. 

 

In 1942 the Army told us that students selected for the advanced program would avoid the draft, be guaranteed to be kept in school until graduation, and be commissioned 2nd lieutenants during commencement. I remember thinking to myself “What is not to like about this program with the whole world at war and the prospect of being drafted as an Army private.”

My best friend at school, Ray Sommers, and I both applied for the advanced program.  Ray got accepted, but I was rejected. So it would seem that he could stay in school and then enter the Army as a 2nd Lt. upon graduation.  A short time later the Navy offered a similar program to Drexel students, and I was accepted into that.

 

Bill, would you rather have been accepted in the army program?

 

Joe, this is something I still think about often even after all of these years. Ray Sommers, who went into that army program, was one of my very best friends.  About 8 months after he accepted the army’s proposal, the army changed its mind and called up those at Drexel in this program immediately instead of waiting until after graduation.  In Ray’s case. he was given the rank of private and assigned as a gunner on a B-29 bomber.  My friend and former classmate died when his plane was shot down on a run over the North Sea.

 

Here I am at 98 years of age telling my story, while my good friend was killed at age 23,  because he was accepted in the army program while I was not.  Had I been accepted like Ray was, the story might be much different, or perhaps there might be no story at all.  Sad memory.

 

I don’t really know what to say, words cannot describe the sorrow you still must feel for Ray.

Would you mind telling us about your time at University of Pennsylvania (Penn) in the Navy program?  I understand that you received your college degree from Drexel while you were at Penn.  I bet many of us don’t even know that Drexel and Penn are right next to one another.

So after I was accepted into the navy program, I moved from Drexel over to the  Penn campus for training and courses there.  I also was made an apprentice seaman in the Navy at that time. 

 

The navy program at Penn was called “V-12” which was designed to put college kids like me on officer track.  One nice thing was that the navy put me up on campus.  I was still commuting to Drexel before going over to Penn and it was great to not have to travel daily and I used the extra time for my studies.

In Feb 1944, I learned that Penn was going to have a mid-year graduation.  I had transferred my Penn grades and classes to Drexel to see if these might help me graduate from Drexel before leaving Penn.  While I did find out that I had enough credits to graduate, I also learned that Drexel was not going to have a mid-year graduation.

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So I went to then President of Drexel George Peters Rea, and asked if I could graduate from Drexel during the Penn ceremony, and would he agree to preside over that part of the ceremony if Penn said it would be okay.  He agreed, Penn agreed, and there was one other former Drexel Student (Charlie Rell) who was with me in the same program, and President Rea and Penn were pleased to accommodate him as well.  At one point in the ceremony, Penn’s president sat down, and President Rea (Drexel) walked up to the stage and spoke about our graduating from Drexel. 

I don’t remember everything he said, but both Charlie and I were very proud, and I still have several newspaper articles that celebrated this occasion.  Unusual ceremony yes, but then these were unusual times.

This is quite a story and I commend you for arranging it.

 

What happened after you left the University of Pennsylvania?

 

Then the Navy sent me to school at Harvard in Cambridge where they had taken over the entire dorms and classrooms to train Supply Corps officers.  At the end of training I was commissioned an Ensign in the U.S. Navy.

 

And after that?

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Well, I had 2 weeks leave left, and went back home to get married.  Then I got orders to go to San Francisco as the disbursing officer on the APA 219 Okaloosa, a Haskell-class attack transport that was still under construction in a Washington State shipyard.

I remember my new wife and I, along with my parents, went to the North Philadelphia train station to get the train to San Francisco. We said goodbye to my parents and boarded the train. As the train pulled out of the station, the conductor announced “next stop 30th street station enroute to Miami, Florida”.

This was typical of the hectic times during the war.  New wife and I got off at the 30th street station and got ourselves rerouted to San Francisco.  Since the ship was not yet commissioned, the navy put my wife and I up in a private home in San Francisco. 

So what did you do while you were waiting for the Okaloosa to be ready to go to sea?

 

I would take a trolley out to Treasure Island in Puget Sound every day for training like firefighting just to keep me busy until the Okaloosa was finished.  Some weeks later my ship showed up in San Francisco and I said goodbye to my wife and boarded as a supply officer and paymaster.

 

Bill, what about your service?  Where did it take you, what did you do?

 

Joe, I served all of my time on the Okaloosa as its disbursement officer, which was one of 2 supply officers assigned to that ship.  I was responsible for handling funds, and the other supply officer was responsible for getting supplies on board for the 500 crew and officers that were the ship’s normal complement.  Our primary mission was to transport soldiers to and from places where they were needed, including into battle.  We went to almost every important point of military operations in the Pacific, including in both China and Japan.

 

You said there were 500 personnel on your ship. What about the number of troops you might be assigned to transport?

 

That number could be as high as 2,000 troops, and we almost always carried the maximum number.

 

What were some of your duties as disbursement officer?

 

I had several duties, and as you might suspect, most were not very interesting.  One thing I would do regularly when in port, was to sign a U. S. Treasury check for any amount that was necessary, strap on a 45 caliber pistol, procure a jeep and a couple of my clerks, go to a bank, cash the check, come back and secure the funds in my safe.   Twice each month I would take cash from my safe to the mess hall to pay the crew.  Then I would go to the officer's dining room and do the same for them.  

Any other duties you want to share?

 

Some of my duties were not associated with funding.  For example, I had to take four-hour shifts in the radio room decoding messages that were sent to the entire fleet 24 hours a day.  Only officers could decode these after the radio clerks recorded them.

 

You might find this interesting - when I first got on board, the ship contained a fully equipped photographic darkroom, but no person was assigned to use it. I suggested to the ship’s captain that he put me in charge of it.  After that, whenever “General Quarters” was sounded, whether this was a drill or the ship was in real danger, I would take the ship’s camera, and go to the highest point on the ship to take pictures of any ensuing action.

 

Bill, that is interesting and glad you remembered it so you could share with us.  Now you earlier stated that your mission was to transport soldiers to and from where they were needed.  I think that now may be the time to expand on this, and hope this will not be a problem.

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No problem here.  Our primary mission was to land fighting forces on enemy strongholds, and we carried 24 personnel front-landing craft and two larger ones for jeeps and trucks.  If a landing were going to be opposed by the enemy, we would hoist landing craft into the water, and hang huge cargo nets over the side of our ship for the troops to use to climb down the side of the ship to get into the landing craft. 

While this was happening, the landing craft would circle around in the water and one-by-one they would move to the nets to receive troops as they climbed down the nets. This would be happening just offshore while the enemy was firing on our troops as they came ashore.

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I must tell you that this did not happen very often – most of the time we were moving troops from place to place as part of some grand plan to attack and defeat the Japanese.

One incident was different. We had 2,000 army troops on board to unload on an island held by the enemy. We were there four days after the initial invasion and had orders not to fire at the Japanese fighter planes because every third bullet is a tracer bullet that lights up, and the Japanese fighters would use that lit stream to crash into the ship doing the firing.  There was another ship close by us that did not follow this procedure and opened fire. The Japanese fighter crashed into the ship and one of the enlisted men on our ship got hit by flying fragments and ended up being awarded a purple heart for being wounded.

 

Bill, that was quite a responsibility from where I am sitting, and I am sure there was a lot of pressure on the entire crew to do things right and protect the troops you were carrying into battle as best you could.  In your years of service, is there one particular memory that you don’t mind sharing this with us?

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Joe, there certainly was, and I am glad to talk about this again.  Our ship was stationed in the Philippines for a while, and we were always practicing putting troops into landing boats, and then bring them back on board.  We would do this day after day because it was very important part of our mission.   One day while we were practicing, and unknown to any of us, a lone B-29 bomber named the “Enola Gay” took off from Tinian Island, a scant 1,600 miles away.
 

With no escort, it flew due west for about the same distance and dropped the first atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima.  Well over 100,000 were killed and that got the attention of the Japanese military. The war in the Pacific ended less than a month later.  We resumed seeing a movie on deck the next night.

Bill, when were you finally discharged from your service?

 

I was sworn in on 1 July 1943 and received my honorable discharge from the Navy on 28 September 1946.  On that date our president was Harry S. Truman.

 

What did you do after that?

 

After I was discharged, I spent a year teaching public school.  I also became a part-time auto insurance agent for Nationwide and had more income from that job than from teaching, so I left my teaching job and have been self-employed ever since.  

 

Years later, after the internet was formed, I came upon a series of free on-line courses that prepared students for an entry-level job in the medical field.  Around that same time, public school students were starting to learn about the internet, and later some curriculum courses were beginning to be converted to on-line. I started canvassing high schools offering to teach their students these on-line medical courses, allowing schools to set their own tuition fees with the understanding that I would teach for a percent of whatever the school charged. 

 

Bill, that is simply amazing.  You got out of the Navy as a young man with us having no Internet.  Then more than 30 years later you were actually teaching community college on-line courses.  How you ever made such a transition is beyond me.

 

Joe, there is more.

 

By 2005 I had teaching contracts with fifteen community colleges in seven states, with my wife interfacing with the on-line students with her computer, while I kept the framework in tack.   We would take ocean cruises and use the ship’s computer room to run the courses. But as the internet continued to grow, in-school teachers discovered and adapted my business model for themselves, and I slowly lost all the schools one by one.

 

Still a remarkable transition and business model.  So may I ask what brought you to North Carolina?

 

I got divorced and then married the love of my life Barbara who had a daughter, Jacki.  Barbara and I lived in N.J. and Jacki was at Elon College near Greensboro, N.C.  Jacki later became a registered nurse, married a young man who was also a RN, and they both went to work at Alamance Regional Hospital in Burlington, N.C.  After that happened my wife told me “we are out of N.J. and are going to North Carolina.” 

 

We had a good life here together, in the same state where her daughter lived and worked.  We had a place in the mountains and often spent winters in Florida.  My dear Barbara passed away 2 years ago, and her memory lives on with me every single day.

 

Bill, perhaps another difficult question, but after WWII ended, did you ever envision that America would become embroiled in conflicts like the Korean War or a war in Vietnam?

 

Good question. Yes, I actually did.

 

When, since the time of the caveman, have there not almost always been wars, conflicts, fights?  Look what is happening today in Congress, the break into the capital building, and the dictatorships in South America, another of many examples. 

 

Joe, think of the conflicts we get in right now - a war escalates from a small beginning when people deal with one another and one of them feels wronged or cheated.  Think about minor conflicts or disagreements that you may have had just in the last five years. That kind of conflict on a large scale is called a war.

 

Thank you again Bill.  I just wanted to mention how much we seem to have had in common, even though we are 20 years apart in age.

 

We were both born in southern New Jersey and our childhood homes were only 8 miles apart.  We both enrolled in Drexel’s school of business administration.  And although we took different paths in the service to our country, we even had similar occupations there, with you being a naval pay disbursement officer, while I was a pay-team-leader for an army infantry division. And we both ended up in North Carolina, this time 47 miles apart and in the same local alumni network.

 

Good luck and good health to you Bill.  Let us pray that we will all benefit from the experiences of you and others in the last great war!

At that time, I remember hoping the world would be at peace, at least for the rest of my years.  But in the back of my mind, I was not really hopeful for this.

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