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Interview with Ernest E. Fender [12/14/2002]

Chris Fender:

Today is Saturday, December 14th. I am in Casper, Wyoming, at the home of American veteran Ernest Fender. He is a veteran as well as my uncle. Uncle Ernie, would you like to give your birth date and your war and rank in which you served?

Ernest E. Fender:

My birth date, November the 16th, 1924. I served in World War II in the continental United States and the European Theater of Operations.

Chris Fender:

Very well. Just some questions about your -- the driving force, your inspiration to be involved in the war. Where were you living at the time that you entered into the service?

Ernest E. Fender:

I was living in San Antonio, Texas, going to school in Harlandale High School. And on November the 16th, I went down and enlisted in the Army. I actually went down to try and go into aviation cadets, but I'd had some teeth kicked out playing football. And the Army Air Corps at that time decided that if you needed to pilot an airplane, you had to have all of your teeth. So in the meantime, I had taken an examination that the Army had prepared for the Army Specialized Training Program, which I had taken while I was in high school, and I'd scored very high on it. So they wanted me to go into this program which was intended to send me to college somewhere and take up engineering because they needed engineers at that time. So when I went down to try and enlist in November of '42, the Army and the Draft Corps told me to go back and wait until June when I would ordinarily have been able to get my diploma. But they decided that I should wait until then because they didn't want to put me into the Army Specialized Training Program in the middle of the year, in the academic year. So they sent me back, and I actually got a diploma in December. Then I went to the University of Texas for a while and decided that I wasn't going to get to be able to finish there, so I went back and finished up in high school in June and then went into active service then in June of -- June the 22nd of 1943. And they then took me into the Army, I went through basic and took my Army general classification test, and I again scored -- well, 143 on it, which was fairly high, and they did send me then to the Army Specialized Training Program after I had finished basic at Fort Sam Houston in Texas.

Chris Fender:

Okay. Entering the service, did you have any expectations or any kind of overriding feelings going into it?

Ernest E. Fender:

Well, of course, I went down and volunteered the day I was 18 because I felt I wanted to get in and get started. And when they wouldn't -- they didn't want me to start until June, why, then I went back to school all right. And when I did go in then in June of '43, I did basic there at Fort Sam Houston, and then they sent me to Fort Hood up in Waco, Texas, where I took my Army basic training. And from there, they sent me to Baylor University in Waco, Texas, to enter the ASTP program. After I'd been in that program for, oh, about three months, I was able to transfer into aviation cadets and went up to Wichita Falls, Texas, where I took basic and had some basic pilot training. And then they sent us out to Merced, California, for further pilot training. And in June -- yes, in June of '44, they decided that they had all the pilots they needed to have, so they sent me back to the infantry, and from there, I went into Railway Operating Battalion.

Chris Fender:

Okay. Some questions now involving your experiences in the European Theater of the war.

Ernest E. Fender:

All right.

Chris Fender:

Just for the record for the tape, where were you stationed in active duty in Europe?

Ernest E. Fender:

Well, when I went over, we went in a convoy and we landed at Swansea, Wales, and we were there in England then for a couple of months. And then we went -- we were taken by boat then to Cherbourg, France. And our entire battalion, the 757 nd Railway Operating Battalion, we went into France through Cherbourg. And we, of course, still couldn't get clear up to the piers and anything, so we had to go in in Higgins boats and wade in the last little bit to get in on dry land. And then they loaded us up in tractor-trailers with open trailer and hauled us through the night for quite a ways, and we finally wound up in eastern France. And the company I was in, Company A, they detached us and sent us on up to Maastricht, Holland, with the 723rd Railway Operating Battalion, where we stayed until December of '44. And they were -- we were still trying to get into Aachen, Germany, up there in the fight, and it was pretty difficult right then. And then in late December, early January, the Germans counterattacked in the Bulge. And they came back in the back areas, and they collected anybody that could walk and put us up in a replacement depot to go up there as infantry with the Ninth Army to try and stop the Germans, but they got stopped themselves. So we returned to the 723rd Railway Operating Battalion and remained in there until the war ended. And then they transferred us, a bunch of us anyway, down into southern France, down to Marseille and Nice, where we started some training in amphibious landings with the destination, I would guess, of Japan. And we were there in August and had been on board a ship once, and they took us back off. And then we went back on board, and we were ready to -- to sail when the first atom bomb was dropped, and that stopped all that. We didn't -- we didn't sail out of there. Then I went back into Germany, and I served with the Office of Military Government during the first part of the occupation. And we helped put the German government back into place in the local towns and everything, to see that things stayed orderly and quiet.

Chris Fender:

As a member of the Railway Operating Battalion, what were -- what were your basic responsibilities, the majority of things that your time was faced with?

Ernest E. Fender:

When we were up in Maastricht, of course, our job at that time was to get supplies and munitions and everything up from the landing areas back in France. And so there in the rail yards, why, we had a marshalling yard and it still got a little bit of activity. One -- oh, not long after we were there, a couple of German planes came in and strafed the yards and kind of messed up things for a while; but all of that passed. And while we were there in Maastricht, Holland, it was the time when the Germans had started to use the Buzz Bomb, and we could set there and watch them go over after it got dark. They launched them somewhere back up in Germany, and they went right over us there in Maastricht, Holland, headed for England, for London. And they sounded just like a John Deere tractor. They went putt, putt, putt just like an old John Deere tractor would as they went across. And as long as they were making noise, we knew that they were still going on and weren't going to come down anywhere where we were.

Chris Fender:

That's good. When you were -- when you were performing operations or when you were organized to go down to the Battle of the Bulge, did you at the time have any thought of historical significance or what you were doing might mean down the road or was it just kind of the next thing that you were asked to do?

Ernest E. Fender:

Well, it was the next thing to do. But it was colder than -- than hell. That Christmas was one of the coldest Decembers and Januaries they'd had in years, and we really didn't have all of the winter material with us that we needed to have; but we got through it. And there wasn't anything, I guess, truly -- impact or anything like that. It was just we were asked to go down there, and we went. They, thankfully, ran out of gas or turned the other way, and we didn't get them there where we were. We had some -- I had some friends, though, that were right down in the Bulge, some tank outfits, and they caught it pretty heavy.

Chris Fender:

What -- when you look at your tour of duty in Europe and maybe even in the continental U.S., what do you think was maybe the darkest time for you during the whole experience?

Ernest E. Fender:

Oh, I can't really say that there was a darker time. I was just a kid. And while it wasn't fun and games, why, it wasn't serious until you get over there and you hear those bombs going off. Why, then you -- then you kind of grew up in a hurry, decided that maybe it was serious. Then, of course, when we were down on the southern coast of France getting that training in amphibious landings and so forth, why, we knew that was serious because we figured we would probably have to go and invade the islands of Japan. That's what they were training us for. And I've had people ask me many times since, well, wasn't I sorry that they dropped that atom bomb and didn't I feel bad about it. I'm sorry I didn't feel bad about it because I'm sure it saved my life and thousands of others of us that would have had to go on the shore there because those Japanese would have fought us with pickaxes and pitchforks and anything they could get because they were never giving up.

Chris Fender:

Kind of the other side of it, since you were pretty young and going and seeing the world, what was for you maybe the happiest time of your involvement?

Ernest E. Fender:

Oh, I got to -- when -- after the -- after Germany gave up and things had kind of settled down a little bit, I got to go with the special services, go up and go skiing on the Zugspitze, a mountain there in Germany. And when I was up there, met a kid by the name of O.C. Frazier (ph) whom I'd grown up with about 15 years before and hadn't seen him in 20 years or more, and there he was, up there skiing. He was from Colorado and I'd gone in from Texas. And that was one of the fun things or different that happened. And another thing that happened, my father had been with the Air Force in San Antonio, Texas, as a civilian employee, and he had volunteered to go to England and work on the airplanes over there, B-17s and so forth. So he had gone over in 1941, and he went into an area of England in Warrington where they had some airfields. And when I came in in late '43, it just happened that I went to the same area and I met some of the people that my father had been friends with over there. And that was kind of a fun thing, to know that I'd been where he was. He went through the Battle of London and the Battle for Britain and everything with the Germans really bombing the heck out of everything there, and he was actually in more danger, I guess, than I was; but I got to get out of going into Japan, too, so that was a pleasant thing.

Chris Fender:

Were you -- were you awarded any medals or citations for your --

Ernest E. Fender:

No. No. I got the -- I was -- I never got into any trouble, so I got a good conduct medal.

Chris Fender:

Okay.

Ernest E. Fender:

And, of course, all -- we received three battle stars to put on the ETO ribbon because we were in different areas that -- where the fighting was still going on in central Europe in the Rhineland and one other one. I forget now what it was. But that was the extent of my medals.

Chris Fender:

Okay. I want to ask some questions about your life during the war when you were over in Europe. You mentioned your father was stationed over in England before you went over.

Ernest E. Fender:

Right.

Chris Fender:

And so you probably didn't get much of a chance to see him or speak with him when the two of you were involved.

Ernest E. Fender:

No. He was coming back when I was going over.

Chris Fender:

Uh-huh. Could you maybe say something about how you were able to keep in touch with him maybe since you were both involved in the service or what your relationship was like with him during that time.

Ernest E. Fender:

Well, the only -- really the only contact we would have was through the V-mail letters, which all the people in the military had access to. Actually, I suppose I wasn't a very good son when I went over there because my mother had to get a hold of the Red Cross one time to have them come and get me and tell me that I should write to my folks because I was doing other things I guess.

Chris Fender:

Okay. So that was my next question actually, how you did at staying in touch with the rest of your family.

Ernest E. Fender:

After my father came back from England, he'd been away for several years, and -- well, he and mother got together, and 21 years later than my birth, why, mom had another son, my little brother. I worried that out for quite a bit. At that time I was actually back in England, in London, going to college for an air conditioning course. And I spent all my money calling San Antonio, Texas every, day to see if my little brother had appeared yet, and I ran out of money, so I had to quit calling.

Chris Fender:

Just day-to-day, food wise, distraction wise, what was life like?

Ernest E. Fender:

Well, I enjoyed my time in the Army. It was -- it gave me a chance to go places and see things and do things which I would never have gotten in any other way, and I enjoyed myself. I did a lot of hunting and fishing in Germany. I was able to help some of the -- when I was in the military government, I was able to assist some of the farmers and everything down in Bavaria because during the war, the animals that they'd had there, of course, had nobody hunting them. And they have large or they had a large number of razorback hogs down there, pigs, that just raised heck with their potato patches. And they were tickled to death to have me come out and shoot some of their pigs for them, and I did. And I shot some of their elk. As a matter of fact, I had a pair of lederhosen made out of the hides of an elk that I shot over there. So yes, it was an enjoyable time for me, and I did not really feel that I lost years out of my life because I did get to do and see things which I wouldn't have.

Chris Fender:

You mentioned your award for good conduct. Were there any pranks that you or anyone else pulled in your battalion or anything like that that you want to share, any practical jokes on any of the guys?

Ernest E. Fender:

No. I didn't get -- I was the kind of a kid at that time that tried to do exactly what I was told, spit and polish and take care of my equipment and everything in the way that I should do it. I was always ready to volunteer to do something, so consequently, I got stuck with a lot of details that some of the rest of the guys didn't want to do. One of the things which happened right after I got into the Army is the second day I was in, I got called for KP duty, kitchen police duty; and I spent 18 hours cleaning and washing okra. I don't care much for okra.

Chris Fender:

I can understand that. Did you develop any relationships with superior officers while -- either while you were stationed here or abroad?

Ernest E. Fender:

Not really. I had some good friends, yes. A couple of three of the guys that I was in the Army Specialized Training Program with went over as infantry, and one of them got captured and was a POW for a while. And I got together with him, and actually when I came back from overseas, I stopped to see him in Pennsylvania. And he had married his high school sweetheart by then. So those were about the only friends that I really had when I was in the military.

Chris Fender:

Okay. I have some questions now for you actually about things you did after your active service in Europe because you've remained heavily involved through other organizations. Just primary questions. Do you recall the day your service ended, where were you at when --

Ernest E. Fender:

Yes, sir.

Chris Fender:

-- when you were --

Ernest E. Fender:

Yes, sir, in Frankfurt, Germany. I took a discharge in Frankfurt, Germany, and went to work for Army Exchange Service; and that was in June of 1946. And the next day, I hitched a ride into Paris, France, just to go down and see Paris after it had been liberated. And I joined the American Legion and the VFW, both of them on the same day in Paris, and I've been involved with both of them ever since, the veterans' organizations.

Chris Fender:

Upon returning home, did you -- what were your next plans? Did you go back for any more schooling?

Ernest E. Fender:

Yes, I went back to college. I went to Denver University for a while and was taking up -- actually, I was going to try to get into commercial engineering. And I finally got tired of that and decided I wanted to coach and teach, so I changed over and I did that. I finished up and got a bachelor's degree in school administration and physical education, and I got a master's degree in the same. And then at a later date, I went and took a master's degree in physics and chemistry, and finally wound up with a professional diploma in counseling and -- guidance education and counseling, psychology. I have served as a schoolteacher for some 20 years, and I worked for the federal government with the U.S. Department of Labor as the State Director of Veterans' Employment and Training for the State of Wyoming, again, working with veterans and seeing that they had the opportunities for employment, counseling, training, things of that nature, and for VA benefits. So I've spent most of my life working in the public sector with children, teaching, and with youth programs as well as veteran issues. And I still serve now at the present time on the Wyoming Veterans Commission appointed by the governor.

Chris Fender:

Did you -- for all of your schooling after you returned, did you receive any support from the GI Bill for --

Ernest E. Fender:

Oh, yes. I got my bachelor's degree and my master's degree under the GI Bill. It was a fine program and really gave us the opportunity to go ahead and go to college. A lot of the guys took advantage of it.

Chris Fender:

As you've said, you remain active even to this day in the VFW --

Ernest E. Fender:

Yeah.

Chris Fender:

-- the veterans' organizations in the state. Do you have a specific position or rank?

Ernest E. Fender:

I was the state -- the department commander of the VFW in 1968, and twice I've been the department commander for the Disabled American Veterans. While I was in the service, after I joined the -- at the Railway Operating Battalion, I injured my leg, so I do have a service connected disability and have been very active with the disabled American Veterans as a result.

Chris Fender:

Before you actually joined the VFW and the American Legion in Paris, was there a point while you were in Europe during the war where you knew that that was something that you were going to commit yourself to or that --

Ernest E. Fender:

No, I can't say that because the one thing that I knew I wanted to do was to go back and go to college and get my -- get my education because I wanted to do that.

Chris Fender:

What motivates you now to stay involved with the various veterans' organizations?

Ernest E. Fender:

Just to see that the guys that serve the nation are treated reasonably and that they are cared for in case of those who were severely disabled or have some infirmities that would not allow them to really take care of themselves without help.

Chris Fender:

This next question is something that I've been thinking about actually for a while here, and I thought you might be in a unique position to help me with it.

Ernest E. Fender:

Okay.

Chris Fender:

As someone that's been involved with the VFW through -- over the years, you're kind of a practicing historian, just having witnessed a lot of things that have happened. The term "the greatest generation" has gained increasing focus in the last few years with it getting more media exposure, Tom Brokaw wrote a book, there were videos about it a lot of TV stations did, a lot of stories have been kind of paid more attention to in recent years. What's your take on that distinction of the greatest generation?

Ernest E. Fender:

That's a little difficult question to answer because it has seemed to me that those of us who were in World War II were probably treated a little bit differently and maybe a little better because of the GI Bill, things of that nature, than those who were in later conflicts or even in World War I. Take the fellas that went to Korea. That was kind of forgotten and people didn't really appreciate what the guys did over there. And, of course, the same thing happened with Vietnam. There was a great deal of unrest. And Tom Brokaw has really, I think, opened up a lot of people's eyes to the fact that we have a nation here, and it's here simply because of the service of the citizen soldier who went in, not those that were necessarily career people, but they spent their time to help make this nation, to make it possible to have it. Otherwise, we wouldn't have a nation. And the people of the United States were right from the Mayflower Compact where they made a commitment to take care of anybody that was hurt defending the colony. And that's kind of carried down through all of the wars and conflicts that we've been involved in until we, of course, got to the Vietnam War, where there was so much unrest and people were just undecided as to whether the guys that were over there should receive the same kind of respect and service from their nation as they did for World War II. And Tom Brokaw did a lot to help that feeling in the nation. I sense a greater deal of patriotism in the nation now than there was 30 or 40 years ago. I worked also with the Boys State program with the American Legion. And the last few years, I think that the young men that we've been getting in the program are much more patriotic than they used to be. We have a very high rate of 18-year-olds now signing up for the Selective Service system, which they're supposed to do by law, but back in the '60s and '70s, a lot of them didn't do it. And I think things are better now as a result of these things.

Chris Fender:

That actually kind of leads into another question I wanted to ask you. Since you worked with veterans from subsequent foreign wars like Korea, Vietnam, Persian Gulf recently, so with that experience, as an uncle, as a grandfather, as a great-grandfather now, do you see another generation maybe receiving such notoriety as yours did? Do you think it's possible for another generation to get such a distinction?

Ernest E. Fender:

Well, that's difficult because I think that the nation, the people, the citizens now of our country, are more aware of the fact that those that are in the military are there serving a purpose, and they are there because they're needed. And they will support it, perhaps better than they did during the '70s -- the '60s and the '70s and the Vietnam War. Yes, I think that the nation is more inclined to support the things that happened to the United States. Take the airplanes and leveling the World Trade Center. I think that galvanized the whole nation and put us in the same boat. And it makes it better for those that do serve in the nation's military armed forces, yeah.

Chris Fender:

So you think maybe, just kind of conjecture now, just opinion, do you think that that's maybe what it takes for us sometimes is some kind of event like that?

Ernest E. Fender:

Wake up.

Chris Fender:

Yeah, some kind of tragedy, that that's what -- that's what kind of compels us as a people to rally around each other?

Ernest E. Fender:

I'm sorry to say that yes, I think that that's a feeling that is engendered because the further we get away from a war or some event which really stirs up the nation, the further we get away from it, the more we're forgotten. And we've got a gentleman in our -- in our DAV Chapter here who's written a book with the title The Forgotten Men. He was in the Bataan Death March and was a POW for several years in Japan. And yes, that's the kind of thing that happens is the further we get away from an altercation, the more it goes out of the public mind.

Chris Fender:

Those were the -- actually the questions I had for you. Is there anything else that you wanted to add that we haven't really talked about?

Ernest E. Fender:

No. I think you've gotten a pretty good shot at me. War is not funny. It's a very serious thing. And we should not just decide that any time we have a little argument with somebody that the way we can settle it is get our airplanes up or our fleets out and go whip up on somebody. This nation wasn't built that way. And I -- it is hard for me to realize the depth of the hate that we have engendered around here and around the world. When I was in Marseille, France, at the close of World War II in Europe, when we were down there in our training, we were told and we knew it to be true, not to go into Marseille just a single. If you go in there, go in two or three of you together. And while we were not told to carry side arms or some method to defend ourselves, we knew darn good and well that we had to --

Chris Fender:

Is that right.

Ernest E. Fender:

-- because it was dangerous for us to walk in Marseille if we didn't have some method of defending ourselves when we went down there because even then, the Americans, for some reason, engendered some bad feelings as far as the Navy population and specifically those of eastern decent, those who came from some of the mideastern countries, they didn't like us then and they don't like us now. I don't know why.

Chris Fender:

Okay. Well, thank you very much.

Ernest E. Fender:

You bet.

Chris Fender:

Again, this is Chris Fender interviewing Ernest Fender in Casper, Wyoming, Saturday, December 14th, 2002. Thank you very much.

 
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