War on Their Minds
1940s   Mr. Leonard Garr
Age in 1941: 16

Interview Team: David Samet and Rich Trueblood

Q: What is your name?

Mr. Garr: Leonard P. Garr

Q: How old were you in 1941?

Mr. Garr: 1941...I didn't go into the service until 1943, so in '41 I was 16.

Q: Where were you born and where were you raised?

Mr. Garr: I was born and raised in Providence, Rhode Island.

Q: During the 1930s, how much did you know about what was going on in Japan, Italy and Germany?

Mr. Garr: We had a pretty thorough idea from what was reported in the newspapers just about every night. As you can well imagine, that consumed the news.

Q: Do you remember the very first time when you found out that something was starting in Europe?

Mr. Garr: Well, the whole world was startled by the Germans...We knew in '38 and we were conscious of fascism long before that when Mussolini was bombing Ethiopia. Well, of course the famous day that will live in infamy is well etched in everybody's mind...

Q: What do you remember about that day, how you found out and where you were?

Mr. Garr: Frankly, I don't remember exactly where I was and what I was doing, but I remember being very startled by it, just like everyone else.

Q: When America did declare war, what were your feelings about this and what was going through your mind?

Mr. Garr: Well, I was reasonably confident that I would be going into the service. It didn't look like the war was going to be ending in a very short time. I at that time, of course, was in school and I anticipated going into the service in a couple years.

Q: How did you enter the service?

Mr. Garr: I volunteered for service. I turned 18 in March of '43 and two weeks after that I was in the Air Corps. I was at Brown at the time and Brown was running a program in meteorology, which many of my classmates had entered the previous semester and I anticipated going into that, so I volunteered with that in mind, and that was the intent all around, but the Army, in its inimitable way, got its wires crossed and instead of sending me to Brown they sent me to the University of Virginia, which had a similar program. This lasted eight months, but again the Army, in its inimitable way, decided to close the program, which was at that time run by the Air Corps, so they transferred all of us to the Signal Corps.

Q: And what did you do there?

Mr. Garr: Well, there was another Army mistake. They sent us from Virginia to Iowa State University. They had a program of electrical engineering, but again they got their wires crossed and it lasted only two weeks and from there they sent us to the Signal Corps to study cryptography.

Q: When did you actually go overseas and can you describe the circumstances of your departure?

Mr. Garr: We were sent to the state of Washington to embark and that was in December, just at the time of the Battle of the Bulge. We did sail on a troop ship, which was double loaded, unescorted across the Pacific Ocean. The very first morning, about 4 o'clock, we had no previous experience with the Navy and troopships so we were all terrified to hear horrible screeching sirens and horns and very, very intense signals and over the P.A. system came word, 'Man your battle stations, Man your battle stations.' We thought we were being attacked, but actually it's just Navy routine every morning and every dusk. They go through similar maneuvers because those are the times that a ship is most vulnerable because the water is dark and will hide a submarine and the ship is silhouetted against the morning sky just before the sun comes up. We soon got used to it. It took 42 days to cross the Pacific Ocean because we were unescorted and therefore followed a very zigzag course, in order to avoid attack by submarine.

Q: At the end of your 42-day journey, where did you arrive?

Mr. Garr: We arrived in India. The Northeast corner, in the Assam province.

Q: How long were you there for?

Mr. Garr: How long was I in Assam? Well, I don't remember precisely, but probably six or eight weeks. From there they sent me to a very small town across the border in China, called Lung-Ling. that's located on the Burma Road, just at the border between China and Burma. That was a very small installation. I did all the code work myself; it was not done by machine. In the bigger installations the code work is done by machines, but here everything was done by hand because it was so small. I just had one teletype machine and that handled all the transmissions to where ever, but all the code work was done by just one man, both encoding and decoding.

Q: When you were in Southeast Asia, were you ever involved in any actual combat?

Mr. Garr: Never any actual combat. The only real danger from attack was not, strangely enough, from the Japanese, who were pretty well cleared from the area by General Stillwell, but the danger came from bandit gangs, which were split-offs from the Chinese Army. Many officers would take several men with them and form, much like what had been going on in Afghanistan, with rival chieftains and the threat came from them, but I can remember carrying a machine gun in the lead truck of a convoy and we were warned to be on the alert for these bandit Chinese guys. That's the only real threat of being shot we ever had, because, as I said, by that time, the Japanese were pretty well cleared of the area. There may have been a few stragglers in the hills, but not much of a threat.

Q: During your time overseas, how often were you able to keep in contact with loved ones back home?

Mr. Garr: There was no direct contact, but of course we had mail. I would say three to four times a week, sometimes interrupted by significant periods of time, when you would get eight, ten letters all at once. But we were writing back and forth. There was no telephone or radio contact of any kind, but we did have airmail.

Q: Did you have any conversations with your comrades overseas that particularly stand out in your mind, about what was going on in the world?

Mr. Garr: I can't remember anything specific. We were generally aware of the outlines and the progress in the war because the Army would post brief news reports, which we were all privy to. We had a general idea of the progress in the war.

Q: What did you miss most about the United States?

Mr. Garr: I think just about everybody in the service is homesick, longing to be home with the ones you know and love the most. Of course, in the service, virtually everybody who is anybody forms personal contacts and makes fast friendships, sometimes they last for a lifetime. I did have two, three, four, five very intimate friends. I brought you a picture of some of them.

Q: Have you kept in contact with these friends?

Mr. Garr: At the present time, no. Sort of wound down, everybody parted their separate ways.

Q: Before, during and after the war, what was your attitude towards the Japanese and the Germans, on a personal level?

Mr. Garr: There was of course a great deal of propaganda and you didn't need much. People who were killing your loved ones and your friends and who were attacking your country are considered vile and there was a great deal of animosity on all sides. I think it's hard to know how much propaganda is just propaganda and how much of it is grounded in truth. Usually some of it is grounded in truth, but there were reports about the Japanese be-heading captured Americans soldiers. I'm sure it did happen. How much, we didn't know, but the service tends to whip up that kind of reaction. Of course (10 second pause) we were all conscious of what the Germans had instigated in the war and there was personal animosity all around with just about everyone.

Q: Did you lose any friends or family during the war?

Mr. Garr: I did lose some friends. When I was at Brown, there was one man I remember in particular who was a pilot and was shot down over Germany and died. That's the one that stands out most in my mind. Going through the yearbook I'm sure there were several others, but their names don't come to mind at the moment.

Q: Does any particular experience in the war stay with you as being particularly memorable?

Mr. Garr: I can't think of anything except the danger on the convoy where we were so exposed in foreign land. Jungle on all sides, Burma Road is nothing much more than cleared away jungle. It's just dirt with jungle both sides and steep ravines through the mountains. I think it's the most fearful time, but it was the only real danger.

Q: What did you on your off time, when you were overseas?

Mr. Garr: Well, we did get a furlough, which allowed us a week, 10 days, sometimes two weeks, a year. We were allowed to fly anywhere that the Air Corps was flying. We just showed up at the airfield and registered to board any flight that was going wherever you wanted to go. So I and two of my friends went to New Delhi, actually we visited Old Delhi also. We visited Mahor, in India and also we went to see the Taj Mahal. I have some nice pictures, unfortunately I turned the house upside down and I cannot find them.

Q: When you returned home, did you participate in any celebrations?

Mr. Garr: No, I can't remember participating in any celebrations. Of course, my college education was interrupted. I went back to Brown and studied. I had a year to finish.

Q: What was it like seeing family and friends again?

Mr. Garr: After three years absence, it was certainly most enjoyable to be home again.

Q: Were you aware of the imprisonment of over 110,000 Japanese-Americans in detention camps?

Mr. Garr: Yes. Of course we had as much information as the general public, whatever was published. It did come out in the news.

Q: How did you react to this?

Mr. Garr: It seemed, to me, to be a horrible thing. The country is founded on the great melting pot, as many, many ethnic groups, religions, races, and so forth; it is really considered the strength of the country. These people were citizens like any other. It seemed extremely extremely stupid to put people who were not specifically accused of anything. If you have someone who is suspicious or is engaged in some activity, that's one thing, but just to arbitrarily lock up people seemed to be just the reverse of what this country is all about. As a matter of fact, on that particular subject, as strange and paradoxical as it may sound, my company had a Japanese officer. Again, prejudice was involved. I think he was the longest ranking 2nd Lieutenant in the United States Army (laughter). He was overdue for promotion maybe 4 times, but they kept passing him over and I'm convinced it had to do with the fact that he was Japanese. I'm surprised they sent him overseas, in light of all the other events and the internment of the Japanese. If they were nervous about his service than they certainly shouldn't have sent him overseas. Well, it's a paradox.

Q: Did your faith affect you at all during the war?

Mr. Garr: Not anymore than in civilian life. There is a certain degree of anti-Semitism in many many people and it exists in people who are in the service and people who are not in the service. And I did experience some hatred by some members of the company, but it wasn't pervasive. I stayed away from them; they stayed away from me, that's about it.

Q: What was your opinion of President Roosevelt before the war started?

Mr. Garr: I was very taken with President Roosevelt before the war was started. I felt that he had virtually single handedly saved this country from disaster. There were marches on Washington, the country was in dire straits as far as its economic situation was concerned, and he changed the banking laws and made many other animations that really turned the country around. I was very impressed by him.

Q: Did your liking of President Roosevelt continue throughout the war?

Mr. Garr: Well, it was tainted somewhat, because while his achievements were not diminished in any way in my mind, but his character and morality were somewhat tainted because he knew very well what was happening in Germany during the Holocaust, the slaughter of so many Jews and he refused to take any into the country.

Q: How did you react to news of his death?

Mr. Garr: I was affected by it; I thought it was a terrible blow. He was outstanding, one of the outstanding Presidents of this country. I was pleased with Mr. Truman, who surrounded himself with some very very intelligent, moral men in spite of the fact that he was no giant himself, he did do the right thing.

Q: What was your reaction to Trumans decision to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and what was you understanding, at the time, of what exactly an atomic bomb was?

Mr. Garr: We had a pretty clear picture of what happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I cannot say that I was against it. I felt that it saved many thousands or maybe even hundreds of thousands of American lives. If we had had to invade the islands of Japan, there would have been a tremendous amount of American lives lost, as lives were lost in the islands of the Pacific in great numbers. It is true that it was a devastating thing that so many civilians had to die and some even worse, but it did end the war. I am convinced he made the right decision, horrible as it was.

Q: At the end of World War 1, some people predicted that there would be another World War. At the end of World War II, did you anticipate any future wars?

Mr. Garr: No, we were all very upbeat at the end of World War II; we were convinced that it was the war to end all wars, as the phrase was expressed at the time. There was talk of United Nations and victory, of course, was complete. We did feel that it was the war to end all wars. Turned out to be far from the truth, but that's how we felt.

Q: What was your opinion of the foundation of Israel after the war?

Mr. Garr: My opinion was that it was long, long overdue and it seemed to be an enormous achievement. It was proposed by the British and finally it was a haven for an oppressed people around the world. I thought it was a great achievement.

Q: What do you think the lessons of World War II are?

Mr. Garr: Well, the main lesson is that there is no such thing as a war to end wars. War in itself is a horrible undertaking and in any fight of any kind there are usually no winners but there are two losers. One of course is a greater loser than another, but it's a fact that we have come to so much strife from it, it does not speak very well for humankind. We made enormous achievements in space; we go to the moon and beyond. The developments in science, physics and astro-physics, understanding the universe proceeded by great leaps and bounds, but we're still killing each other. It sends chills down my spine. We have to find a way to work together and have to find away to share the world. It's been the haves against the have-nots. People have to learn how to give up a little in order to get a lot.

Q: If you could change a single major decision, either militarily or politically in nature, that the U.S. made, would you and what would it be?

Mr. Garr: You're talking about decisions during World War II? Well, militarily I wouldn't change anything; I'm certainly not qualified to do that. The only decision I can think of that, in my opinion was dastardly wrong was the internment of the Japanese.

Q: What do you think of today's generation of Americans; how are we different and how are we the same?

Mr. Garr: What generation are we talking about?

Q: The echo-boomers.

Mr. Garr: It is my hope that we have learned from the past. There are many definitions of intelligence, but one is the ability to learn from experience. This would cover a dog, a human, whatever. Let's hope that this generation will learn from the experience of the previous generations.

Q: Several people have likened September 11th to the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Did you have any flashbacks to that day?

Mr. Garr: No, I can't say that I agree with the analogy at all. I think that it's misguided. The attack on Pearl Harbor was the attack of one nation against another. This was deceitful in many ways, the Japanese diplomats were in Washington shortly before, but it was clearly an act of war and it was one nation against another. But here, you have just a few individuals who are engaging in acts of terror. It's hard to know how to combat that. People in the world who'll commit suicide in order to kill several people are not a nation. It's the tail wagging the dog. There are very, very few people who can cause such an enormous amount of trouble, anguish and death in the world. Even if the Palestinian people wanted peace, a few people who do not want peace and have been able to disrupt the process from their side and from our side. They have veto power. Can't say I think much of President Bush's attitude of raging war against Iraq, Iran and Syria. I hope that's just a saber rattling because otherwise it's down the tubes we go again.

Q: Do you have any parting advice for the youth of today?

Mr. Garr: Yes. Learn from experience. Do not go down the same path, find a way to peace.

Thank you


Mr. Garr compares 9-11 and 12-07-41 (Quicktime)