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Interview with James William Lair [8/20/2010]

Eileen M. Hurst:

Today is August 20th, 2010. I'm interviewing Bill Lair at his home in Meridian, Texas. Interviewer is Eileen Hurst from Central Connecticut State University. Bill, for the record, would you state your full name and your date of birth.

James William Lair:

James William Lair, 4 July 1924.

Eileen M. Hurst:

Bill, were you drafted or did you enlist?

James William Lair:

I enlisted before I was even registered for the draft. I was too young to be registered for the draft yet, so I asked my mother to let me join the Army. And I was an only son, and she said, "This is the most difficult thing I've ever done in my life, but I'm going to do it because if I was a young man, I would do exactly the same thing."

Eileen M. Hurst:

So how old were you then when your mother let you enlist in the Army?

James William Lair:

It was just before my 18th birthday. I'd already graduated -- I'd just graduated from high school and I'd gone to college one year -- one semester. But I was afraid the war would be over before I got there.

Eileen M. Hurst:

Where were you living at that time?

James William Lair:

At that time we are living in Waco, Texas, because we have moved from up in the panhandle to Waco because my mother got the job with the Veterans Administration and the statewide office for the Veterans Administration at the time was in Waco. Because this was before World war II so there wasn't that many veterans around, so they just had the one office in the Texas.

Eileen M. Hurst:

Why did you pick the Army?

James William Lair:

Well, what happened, I went -- I went and talked to a recruiting -- an old recruiting sergeant that had an office in Waco. And I told him, you know, I wanted to join the Army and he said, "What unit would you like to be in?" I said, "I want to be in a combat unit. I want to be in a unit that's going to fight." And he said, "Well -- so he said, "What do you want to do?" I said, "Well, I guess the infantry. They fight." "No, no," he said, "you can take anything you want. At this time we have a rule that if you join, you can pick what organization you want to be in in the service." He said, "They will take everybody in the infantry, you know. So what you need to do -- " But I said, "I want to make sure it's a combat unit." He said, "Well, the Armored Force is a brand new organization. Armored Force is it. And the guy's who's organizing it at this point is General Patton, and he's trying to make it a separate unit in the service, not even be in the army, to be called the Armored Force. They're going to have fancy uniforms and all that," you know, because Patton loved uniforms. And he said -- so it sounded good. I said, "Okay, that's what I'll do." So they sent me to Fort Knox, Kentucky. That was the home of the Armored at that time. That's where I took my basic training.

Eileen M. Hurst:

How long was basic training?

James William Lair:

Oh, four or five months, I would say. Four or five months.

Eileen M. Hurst:

And then did they -- so, was that basic training for Army or did they actually do basic training for the Armored Force?

James William Lair:

No. It was the Armored Force because that was the home of the Armored Force at that time.

Eileen M. Hurst:

What kind of things did they train you in?

James William Lair:

You know, it was like basic training for any of the combat services and then they especially give you training on the armored vehicles and all that sort of thing.

Eileen M. Hurst:

Which armored vehicles did you learn to operate?

James William Lair:

All of them. They let you drive --

Eileen M. Hurst:

So they teach you everything and later on --

James William Lair:

Because they don't know exactly what you're going to do. Then when you finish the basic, then they sent me to the 3rd Armored Division, which at that time was based in Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania. That's where I went and joined there.

Eileen M. Hurst:

Do you recall what year you joined the Army?

James William Lair:

What year? It was right after -- very shortly after Pearl Harbor. Probably --

Eileen M. Hurst:

I think I actually saw some of your paperwork. I think it was 1942.

James William Lair:

Yeah, that's probably right.

Eileen M. Hurst:

At the 3rd Armored Division in Pennsylvania, did you have more training there?

James William Lair:

Well, see, they assigned me to my unit, so I joined the 3rd Battalion of the 32nd Armored Regiment and, yeah, we had all kind of training. When we got up there, we'd already been pretty well trained. When we got up there, like in Pennsylvania, it was really cold, you know, and we didn't stay long until we -- we moved from there to the port and got on the ships and went to England.

Eileen M. Hurst:

Oh, so you didn't stay long in Pennsylvania --

James William Lair:

Not long. I don't know. It was a few months.

Eileen M. Hurst:

-- for training?

James William Lair:

I don't remember exactly.

Eileen M. Hurst:

What unit did they put you in?

James William Lair:

The headquarters of the 3rd Battalion of the 32nd Armored Regiment.

Eileen M. Hurst:

Did you stay with that unit for the entire war?

James William Lair:

For the entire war, that's right. And had the same commander.

Eileen M. Hurst:

And who was that?

James William Lair:

General Walter B. Richardson. At that time he was a lieutenant colonel. He was a battalion commander. And I think he stayed as a battalion commander all the way through the war. Then, when the war was over, he begin to get -- he stayed in the Army. And as time went on, I finally ended up in Thailand and Laos. In Laos, I had an office out near the airport. I was beginning to -- we were beginning to run the moon option but we had two Caribou aircraft which were brand new aircraft for -- the Army was wanting to use these Caribous because they could land and take off very short but they were big airplanes. They would haul a lot of people, equipment, everything else. Called Caribou. Good, great airplane. So they sent two to America to test them. We flew them all over. They said this general's coming. We got this general in town. He's coming out to see you. He wants to talk about the Caribou. Okay. He showed up, he walked in. It was my old battalion commander from World War II.

Eileen M. Hurst:

Holy cow.

James William Lair:

He didn't know I was there.

Eileen M. Hurst:

Did you recognize him right away?

James William Lair:

I recognized him immediately. He claimed he recognized me. I don't believe it. But anyway, he claimed he recognized me. We talked about the Caribou, but we talked about --

Eileen M. Hurst:

World War II?

James William Lair:

About World War II. I really enjoyed seeing him. By that time, he was a major general. And then later, after the Vietnam war got started and all that, you know, in the end the guy who commanded the -- the last guy who commanded the Army in Vietnam and then he became the overall Army commander -- what the hell was his name? Abrams. General Abrams. He was a friend of this general Chan who is a police general that I knew very well. I worked with him all the time, border police, and he had been -- him, he went to staffing command school at Fort Knox -- no, anyway at wherever it was in the U.S. in the same class with General Abrams and they had become friends, right.

Eileen M. Hurst:

Richardson and Abrams?

James William Lair:

No. This wasn't Richardson. This was a Thai general.

Eileen M. Hurst:

Oh.

James William Lair:

And, as I said, he invited me to lunch one day when he was -- he -- he -- he had also invited General Abrams because he was in Bangkok visiting his -- his family lived in Bangkok, but he was the commander in Vietnam.

Eileen M. Hurst:

Wow.

James William Lair:

So I met him and I, of course, I remember him because in World War II, the two most famous combat commanders were General Richardson and General Abrams. They were friends.

Eileen M. Hurst:

And isn't that strange you find them both years later in the Vietnam conflict?

James William Lair:

Yeah.

Eileen M. Hurst:

When your Armored Division left Pennsylvania, where did you go to?

James William Lair:

We went straight to the port and got on the --

Eileen M. Hurst:

What port?

James William Lair:

-- on the ship. New York.

Eileen M. Hurst:

And you left out of New York?

James William Lair:

Left out of New York. We sailed right by the Statue of Liberty.

Eileen M. Hurst:

Where did you go?

James William Lair:

Went to England. You wondered when you sailed by -- I'll never forget that -- I hope I get to see that again one day --

Eileen M. Hurst:

The Statue of Liberty?

James William Lair:

-- when we sail back.

Eileen M. Hurst:

Ah. As it turned out, you did. Where did you land in England?

James William Lair:

Southampton. See, what we did is because they were having the biggest attacks of the German subs that they ever had during the war during that period of time, so we went over with what they said was the largest convoy that ever crossed from the U.S. to England.

Eileen M. Hurst:

Wow.

James William Lair:

I mean, in every direction, you could see -- you know they put a good distance between all the ships, but in every direction, all you could see was the ships. But they were far away from each other. But they were -- and every once in awhile, the German subs would come in and sink a ship. You'd hear the explosion and see the thing on fire and then all the sub chasers would be running in these little sub chasers trying to -- trying to get -- but the convoy kept moving right on and we sailed all the way up and went along the coast of Greenland and went way to the north and then came -- when we got to the British Isles, we came down from the north between Ireland and England to Southampton trying to avoid the submarines.4.

Eileen M. Hurst:

And where did you stay in Southampton then?

James William Lair:

Well, no, as soon as we landed in the Southampton, we got on the train and went to a little town of Codford, England. Codford, C-o-d-f-o-r-d, I believe it's spelled. Small, real small village type thing. But they -- it was on what they call the Salisbury Plain, which means it was a plain, and it was where the British had always trained the armored units, so we stayed there then for the several months before the Normandy invasion.

Eileen M. Hurst:

What did you do during the time you stayed there?

James William Lair:

Trained. We trained. It was through that winter and the British winters, it's not -- there's not a lot of snow or anything. You get a little snow but not a lot. They're all just cold and damp. I don't think I was ever warm in that whole period of time and we stayed in the Quonset hut where there's really no heat. And it was a pretty uncomfortable winter.

Eileen M. Hurst:

Do you remember any of your instructors or your trainers?

James William Lair:

Not really. Because I had gone to so many different training. I trained with basic training at Fort Knox, and I was with -- then I joined the actual division, so we trained, but we -- I mean the colonel was in charge of all of the training. Walter B. Richardson was my --

Eileen M. Hurst:

Now, when you were at Codford, did you -- had you specialized in an armored vehicle yet or were you still --

James William Lair:

Oh, no, no, no. I'd already been -- I had already had all kind of training. I was in the -- I was in the headquarters company, 3rd Battalion, 32nd Armored Regiment, and I was the mortar platoon. Mortar. And we had 81-millimeter mortars mounted in the half-track. Do you know what a half-track is?

Eileen M. Hurst:

Can you explain that?

James William Lair:

About the half-track?

Eileen M. Hurst:

Yes.

James William Lair:

Half-track, it has armor all and but it's open top, but it has armor and it has, you know, it has two front wheels and then it has tracks in the back, tracks in the back of it. And the tracks, you can put grommets on there and get through any kind of mud and stuff like that. And the mortar is in the -- is mounted in the half-track, but you can take the mortar out very easily.

Eileen M. Hurst:

So you can either use it mounted in the half-track --

James William Lair:

Yeah.

Eileen M. Hurst:

-- or use it on is own?

James William Lair:

And people don't know that but one of the most important weapons, and it still is today, is the 81-millimeter mortar, because you can carry it. You break it into three pieces. Three guys can carry it. You can put it anywhere, but it fires this -- it fires a good size shell. You know, the tail like a little bomb and you just -- you drop the shell in and it fires and goes back out and it's very accurate. You can hit -- you can hit things within I think the limit was probably a little over three thousand. You can fire high explosives or smoke. The big thing we fired was smoke. Because with the smoke shells, you can set up a smoke screen, so if our unit -- so when we moved into combat, we always drove down a road somewhere and drove as fast as you could go straight on down. And, in the lead, you always had two tanks, and behind those two tanks was a mortar half-track and the infantry usually rode on the back of the tanks until you got into a fight. But what our job was that when a German anti-tank gun of any kind or a German tank would take a shot at the tanks in the lead, our job was to immediately fire smoke shells. We watched the wind all the time, so if the shell came from over here and the wind was blowing that way, lay a smoke round right here and it immediately blinds that guy so he can't see you anymore. So that way you prevent your tanks from getting knocked out. That's why they have the mortar half-track right up behind the two lead tanks.

Eileen M. Hurst:

Now, your job as part of that half-track team was to fire the mortar. Did you also have to learn how to drive the half-track?

James William Lair:

Yeah. But you had to learn to drive every vehicle in the -- you know, in our battalion, the headquarters company, which we were in. We were in the headquarters company and you had the mortar platoon and you also had the recon platoon. And in the recon platoon, you had light -- couple light tanks, you had the half-tracks that you'd carry the combat soldiers, couple half-tracks, so you could make up a regular task force right out of the battalion. And our job was always to follow the two lead tanks so when they got -- or an anti-tank outfit opened up tanks or whatever it was, was to get a smoke screen out there to blind them so they couldn't knock out our tanks.

Eileen M. Hurst:

How many men did it take to man one half-track?

James William Lair:

I think our total was about six, six guys.

Eileen M. Hurst:

And what was your job in that team of six guys?

James William Lair:

I was the assistant gunner. I dropped the shell down the tube at first. Then I became everything after that. But initially that's what I was.

Eileen M. Hurst:

Did you learn it as assistant gunner?

James William Lair:

(No audible response.)

Eileen M. Hurst:

All right. So then after months of training in England, where did you go then?

James William Lair:

Well, I think we -- well, the next thing you did was we moved -- I mean you knew you were getting close to where they were going invade. There's no question about that.

Eileen M. Hurst:

How much knowledge did you have of the exact invasion? Did you guys know what you were going to do?

James William Lair:

No. Well, everybody knew it was coming but nobody knew the details, and I certainly didn't, just being a kid, enlisted man. They never consulted me on the tactics, although I was probably smarter than most of them because I was very bright, had good education and all, and so the first thing we did was we moved -- we moved from Codford to what they call a staging area. It was just a place where you could park and stay. What we were doing was waiting to get on the LST, landing ship tank, because that's what we were going to cross the Channel on. But when we were in this staging area, nobody knew exactly when the invasion was going to take place. But we were -- but the first wave that went and hit the beach in Normandy. There was no armored units in it. That would have been -- you had -- in order to land an armored division, you've got to have enough of a beach that they could get a shore and get the waterproofing off the vehicles. You have to waterproof because when you go off the LST, you may drive through some deep water that comes right up over the engine or anything else, so you have to have it waterproofed.

Eileen M. Hurst:

How do you waterproof it?

James William Lair:

It's a compound, and I think they have a lot of asbestos and stuff in that compound. But it's like a gooey compound and you put it over everything where you don't want the water to go. All your electrical connections.

Eileen M. Hurst:

Then how do you remove it when you get onshore?

James William Lair:

Well, that's you've got to have time to remove it and then you just pull it off. It's like a big -- it's -- it's -- it's a mass that you can just mold around all the electrical fixtures, everything like that, so when you drive into the water, even if the water comes up over the engine, it still runs all right. But then what you have to do is to get ashore and have enough time to get the waterproofing off because if you don't take the waterproofing off, I mean, it will immediately heat up and you're not going to be in business very long unless you get the waterproofing off. So that's why we did not land on D-Day because you had to wait until there was enough beach to get ashore and get the waterproofing off. So I don't know exactly what day it was because nobody ever told me what day it was. You don't keep up with it when you're in that staging area. There's ships everywhere, confusion every place. Now, I remember the night the invasion actually took place because we were in the staging area in England and you're -- all of sudden I woke up and there was clouds of airplanes going over heading straight for the Normandy, so there was planes with the paratroopers and all that that they dropped in.

Eileen M. Hurst:

Then did you just figure it out on your own or did they tell you this was the big invasion?

James William Lair:

No, they didn't tell us, but you knew what it was because you knew. And then we got onto the LSTs and drove -- and went right over there, but we waited on the LSTs for a while to find -- because what they needed to do was to have a beach that you could land on and get the waterproofing off before you were fired on. You know, because you had to do that or you couldn't do anything otherwise. So then when we came up and you had to wait -- they had you go in as far as you could when the -- when the tide was all the way in and you actually hit the beach and they dropped the, you know, the door in front, but then you waited until the tide ran out. You hit it at the time that when tide was at the highest, so then the tide ran out. Then the water wasn't too deep to drive through it with those vehicles.

Eileen M. Hurst:

What beach did your unit land on?

James William Lair:

Omaha.

Eileen M. Hurst:

What was it like when you landed?

James William Lair:

Well, you can look up and down each way down that beach as far as you can see was a mass of ships. I mean it was just unbelievable, as far as you could see in both directions, you could see the masts of the ships. So no telling -- I don't know how many they landed in that period of time, but they were just landing everywhere. So we were -- but when we pulled up there, we stopped and what they were waiting for is the tide to be at the highest and then we were going to hit the beach and let the tide run out. So the Navy -- you know the Navy ran the ship, so they fed us there. They gave us food to eat before we -- before we went in because I remember my mess kit. I picked up the food, was walking along the rail and I looked down there. There was a dead American sergeant floating by me upside down with his steel helmet and all. And that was the first realize that you're in a real battle here.

Eileen M. Hurst:

What were you thinking after that? You realized the seriousness of --

James William Lair:

Oh, yeah. But at the same time, I wouldn't have wanted to be anywhere else, you know, because I was very adventuresome guy. You know, you would realize when you think there has never and will never be another military operation like this. It's absolutely the biggest ever and there will never be another one that big.

Eileen M. Hurst:

And did you realize that at the time?

James William Lair:

Oh, I thought it at the time. And then you look back on it now, and there's no question. It's still the greatest military operation that ever occurred. And I think General Eisenhower was a real military genius because he planned all of it that was what -- because when you landed, everything you needed was right there and as you went on and went across Germany and all of that, all the trucks started running and bringing -- because it was all supplied off of that beach all the way until you got to the -- met the Russians on the Elbe River. It was all supplied from that beach. Constant convoys of trucks, one after the other hauling the stuff and we moved so fast that when we got into Belgium, almost into Germany, we were almost ready to cross -- I think maybe we had crossed the German border and we ran out of everything. No gasoline, no anything because the trucks, you know, they couldn't keep up. So eventually they came in with aircraft and they dropped barrels of fuel that we could put in the vehicles. Barrels and then you pumped them into all the vehicles.

Eileen M. Hurst:

When the tide went out and it was time to unload onto Omaha Beach, where were you? Were you in your half-track?

James William Lair:

No. No. I was up in the front looking. It's the biggest show you could possibly ever see. I didn't realize that they were starting to go out and I looked and then I started running like crazy because my half-track was getting ready to go off. So I just -- as it went off I run and jumped and grabbed the back of it -- and climbed up it.

Eileen M. Hurst:

The war almost went on without you because you were busy watching it.

James William Lair:

If I hadn't caught up with it, I don't know how I would have caught it. I knew my unit and all so everything --

Eileen M. Hurst:

Did each half-track have a number or name or anything?

James William Lair:

I don't -- I didn't see any. You knew the unit.

Eileen M. Hurst:

So you always had the same half-track?

James William Lair:

We sat right there in that half-track for the whole war.

Eileen M. Hurst:

Were you with your same crew?

James William Lair:

Yep.

Eileen M. Hurst:

So it was all you same guys through the whole thing?

James William Lair:

And you know we were -- we had a charmed life. There's no question about it. We took heavy casualties in the whole unit and all that, but we never had a single man in our half-track even wounded. And we had -- we were in combat almost constantly. But the reason why we never got wounded or killed is because we became -- we educated ourselves in a hell of a big hurry. So, okay, you got -- you fire the mortar. That's what you got to be able to do any time is to fire a mortar. But the mortar shoots very high trajectory shell, all right? So the first thing you wanted to do is make sure you're behind something because you can fire over trees, over anything, and then you get an observer out so he can make the adjustments to make sure you're on target, right. But, because you're always behind something, they can't shoot you. And so you got to be good at that. You got to make sure you can do that. The ones who don't, get killed. And I think in my half-track, we became really good at that. And that's why we lived through it. And you know when we -- after we had landed in Normandy, we went up into what they call the hedgerows, which is right off of the -- because when we went to Normandy last year, I drove into the hedgerow country and I saw exact -- because when you pulled up to those hedgerows, they were like -- they were about head high of a big pile of earth, right, and then trees growing on top of that. And they formed little fields and there was a gate somewhere going into each individual field, but they didn't need a fence, because you had cattle and stuff in the -- but all you needed was a gate at that point. The cattle couldn't get out. But they're not very big. Okay. So when we -- we drove on up a ways and we stopped. We're already in the hedgerows, right, and you know, like in many cases you don't know what's going on. We're just sitting on the road there, so they -- then a call became came back from probably the battalion headquarters, something, said that you should send two or three guys out over the first hedgerow, or maybe the second hedgerow and so that you're not surprised by Germans could come over those hedgerows and attack you from the side because nobody knew where they were. So the three of us went over a couple of hedgerows. One of them was the -- was our squad leader who was -- his parents had come from Germany. He was born in the U.S., Sheboygan, Wisconsin, but, of course, he learned German at home because his parents, when he was born, his parents couldn't speak English so he learned German at home, but he spoke English like anybody. But it was very fortunate for us that you had him there, so we went over a couple of hedgerows and we were waiting and all of a sudden we could hear voices. You got to listen carefully and it wasn't English they were speaking, you know, so we -- there were three of us then, Sergeant Herman(ph) and me and another guy, we went up and we had a place where we could look over into the next hedgerow over to the next hedgerow. All of a sudden a German soldier came over that hedgerow and he had his rifle and he dropped down and started sneaking down with the rifle when Sergeant Herman yelled at him and told him to put up his hands. He immediate he dropped his rifle, threw up his hands, and said, "Don't shoot, don't shoot." Herman fortunately could understand it, and Herman said, "Okay, you tell your friend" -- because we knew there were others over there -- "to come over the hedgerow, leave their weapons behind, come over that hedgerow," and we were still over on the hedgerow, right, so they all came over. It turned out to be a whole German infantry platoon, 35 people.

Eileen M. Hurst:

So your first day on the beach --

James William Lair:

Yeah. They came over that hedgerow, they dropped all their weapons and left them.

Eileen M. Hurst:

You three guys? Just you three guys?

James William Lair:

Yeah. Then he had them come over to this hedgerow because we were right behind them, right. There was a place where you could come through the trees to the hedgerow, top of the hedgerow. So Herman was down there talking to them, so we had them come over. As they came over, we -- we told them to drop their weapons and then we searched and make sure they didn't have some weapon with them. And the lieutenant came over. And he had a pistol. He still had his pistol in his holster. I took the pistol and kept it, and I eventually brought it home with me. I still have that.

Eileen M. Hurst:

Wow.

James William Lair:

That pistol, one of my prized possessions. But then when we went back to the road where the unit was sitting, we came walking in with 35 German prisoners.

Eileen M. Hurst:

What a surprise. Then what do you do with them?

James William Lair:

You feel like Sergeant York or something. No. What happened was you just call the military police and they'll send a unit up there and they'll pick the prisoners up and take them wherever they put them.

Eileen M. Hurst:

That was a pretty eventful first day on the job.

James William Lair:

Oh, it was. But, you know, it was that kind of thing that makes the unit. You become sure that you can do something. And then you begin to believe that you can take care of yourself. And the more you believe that, pretty soon you really can take care of yourself. I think that's why we never got anybody killed because you fire a mortar, you fire over something so always when you set up and you know you're going to be firing, make sure you get behind trees, a building, something, so they can't shoot you. And we were so good at it, I think that's why we survived, because my platoon we never had anybody killed or wounded.

Eileen M. Hurst:

Did you have casualties in your unit though?

James William Lair:

Oh, yeah, in the other units. We had, the 32nd Armored Regiment had more casualties than any other unit in World War II. There was a lot of casualties. But, I think the reason we survived was because we learned very quickly and became very proficient at what we were doing.

Eileen M. Hurst:

How long did you stay between Omaha Beach and the hedgerows?

James William Lair:

Oh, we went -- we went right over. When we landed, we went up to the top of the ridge and I -- when I went to Normandy last year, I could see exactly where we landed, where -- and where we went up to the top and then I drove up to the hedgerow. What we did is we -- right to the hedgerow where the those Germans came over. It still looks exactly the same.

Eileen M. Hurst:

Really? And then you continued inland?

James William Lair:

What we did there, we waited there for a good while and then they -- of course, you never know if you're an enlisted man, and even the lieutenants, they don't know what the hell's going on or what's going to happen next, you know, so we're sitting there and eventually they -- they -- we just waited there and they brought in a lot of other stuff, so we had lots of stuff there. And then eventually, it's probably the next day or so, I think we may have stayed as much as two days, just sat on the road. Then all of a sudden they came in with an order that said they had us go up to this certain place and then all of a sudden then, they came over with airplanes and as far as you could see it was just wave after wave -- I think there were three waves. The first wave was the big bombers, and they said it was a mile wide. I think a mile, maybe a little over a mile. The big bombers came over. They dropped all their stuff, and then the fighter bombers came over and dropped their stuff, and then next group was fighters and they had hit individual targets, and we were all waiting in a line. And as soon as they stopped all that, then we jumped off and tried -- because what they believe that they would have killed most of the Germans who were in front of you. It certainly wasn't all of them. And then we were going to attack right through that, and what it was called was St. Lo breakthrough. St. Lo is the big town there. So we drove through that. And once we got through that, we took -- we picked up a few shots at us and all, but we basically drove through and then we started driving -- it was kind of parallel to the ocean -- but going into France and we drove all day, just about all day, you know, you were driving at highway speeds right down that road. And when you'd come into little towns and sometimes you'd stop because something was going on. The Germans had no idea you were anywhere in the area. I know I'll never forget. We stopped at this one crossroad and all of a sudden this German soldier came out from the side road on a bicycle. He was in -- as soon as he saw us, he didn't -- they had no idea we were anywhere close. You talk about somebody pedaling. He was flat pedaling that bicycle and went on across and kept going.

Eileen M. Hurst:

Why didn't they know?

James William Lair:

There was no way they could have known. We had driven so fast. They didn't know. What it was, we drove -- it was called the Falaise Gap. What they did was on our side we were going down one side, and I forget, I think the British were in there somewhere, but they were going down on the other side and we were supposed to drive down and try to surround the Germans who were fighting against us. They wanted to surround it. But they didn't wanted to close the gap. It was called a Falaise Gap. You could see it in all the history books.

Eileen M. Hurst:

Yep.

James William Lair:

Then as the Germans broke through, they'd go through that hole, and you could knock out most of the vehicles with air and with the ground fire and all that. We didn't get all of them but you got an awful lot of them. I think the Germans had already decided that they were going to fight their way back to the Siegfried Line in Germany. So we drove on across France, and there was a lot of fighting, but I think the basically the Germans had already decided to give that whole area up and go back to the Siegfried Line. I think it became our task to try to beat the Germans to the Siegfried Line, and we basically did it. We ended up, we went right into the Siegfried Line and then we stayed that night in the pillboxes. They were right there. Siegfried Line is a big line. It has pillboxes where you can get out of any kind of shooting.

Eileen M. Hurst:

So you just kept driving as fast as you could --

James William Lair:

We had individual fights along the way.

Eileen M. Hurst:

Along the way? How many days did it take you to get from Omaha to the Siegfried Line?

James William Lair:

I don't really remember. It's quite a -- it's a certain amount of time. It wasn't -- so I don't know exactly.

Eileen M. Hurst:

Well, are we talking, like, days or weeks?

James William Lair:

It was probably a few weeks, I would guess. Yeah. Because we went -- when we landed it was pretty much spring. By the time we got to the Siegfried Line, it was later. And we -- what happened when you got that far, you had travelled so fast that your vehicles are all wearing out, you know. Another thing, we'd outrun all the supplies so we didn't have any gasoline.

Eileen M. Hurst:

Oh, so the half-track wasn't going to go anywhere.

James William Lair:

Half-track, tanks, everything.

Eileen M. Hurst:

But you did make it to the Siegfried Line?

James William Lair:

Eventually. But they started dropping gas -- they started dropping gas in barrels with parachutes, and you had pumps so you could just pump it into the vehicles and we just kept going as much as you could. And you had battles.

Eileen M. Hurst:

Can you recall any of the battles in the places along the way?

James William Lair:

Not really. I don't remember the names. They're probably in that book. But, you know, we had -- but.

Eileen M. Hurst:

As you travelled through --

James William Lair:

There was a lot of heavy fighting all the time.

Eileen M. Hurst:

Because there were still Germans --

James William Lair:

And somebody drive into someplace and the Germans were completely shocked that you were there. But the German army was a good army, so they -- they got the most out of their people. I don't think there's any question about that. You know, I never forget one night -- we were driving and we stopped on this road and I was sitting there and I got to looking and it got light enough I could see, I could see somebody's laying in that ditch. So I get out and went over there, and it was this really young German soldier, and so he surrendered. So I got him out and we didn't know what to do with him so we just took him into the half-track and he's sitting next to me and I talked to him because he could speak -- I'm very good at picking up a working knowledge of a language and he knew some English, so we talked. And I remember I asked him, I said, "Looks like Hitler's losing the war." I said, "You know, we're going to -- He said, "Don't worry, Hitler will find a way." He believed that the Germans would win. I said, "Don't look to me like they're doing too good." I mean, I treated him very good. Eventually, we saw a military police unit and turned him over and I'm sure they took him to -- he might have ended up in the U.S. They brought a lot of German prisoners to the U.S. But, anyway, I thought it was a good experience, but you saw this kid, he just didn't know what to do. But he still thought the Germans would win.

Eileen M. Hurst:

Wow. Do you recall any other memorable experiences like that along the way?

James William Lair:

Yeah. Not particularly. I forget, you know. One of the things I remember extremely well is we were -- this was later and it was getting cold. It was a cold night and a very cold rain was falling and we stopped on the road. They never told you when were you going to go on or when you're going to stop. We were stopped right in front of a funeral home and, you know, it was raining like hell and the half-track's open, so I went over and looked in that place and there was a whole bunch of caskets and there was a -- one casket unoccupied but right next to it was one with a dead German guy in it, all dressed in his suit and all. So I just laid -- I slept in that casket and slept good because it was warm.

Eileen M. Hurst:

Wow.

James William Lair:

But, you know, you got very used to seeing -- now when I saw a dead American soldier, it bothered me, but the dead Germans didn't bother me at all.

Eileen M. Hurst:

So you slept right next to that?

James William Lair:

Yeah. I mean, it gave you a different feeling when you looked at the dead German than if it was a dead American. I don't know why. That's the way it is.

Eileen M. Hurst:

So, what did you do once you got to the Siegfried Line?

James William Lair:

Well, first, we stopped there, because we had to wait for some gas and stuff to come up. And we stayed -- because we stayed in the pillbox because if you got artillery or something you're safe in there. But it wasn't very long until we drove right straight on and we drove into Germany and we advanced pretty rapidly up to the Rhine. We were on the hills overlooking the Rhine River Valley. You could see Liege -- no, not Liege. The first big town that's right on the Rhine river and so then -- but we stayed in for a long time. We stayed away from that. We stayed on those -- in fact, they didn't know when they were going to drive on, so where we stopped was right next to a German house and the Germans were all gone, so we actually lived in that house for a few -- for a while, while we were waiting. They never told you what's going to happen. And then all of a sudden one night, the order came out be ready to move at daylight and we turned around and went back to Liege, Belgium, which we had taken a long time before. As soon as we got to Liege -- it's a big city. We set up a perimeter around Liege. That's when the Germans made what they call it the breakthrough that they made into -- and they had what they call the Battle of the Bulge. So but --

Eileen M. Hurst:

You were at the Battle of the Bulge, correct?

James William Lair:

Well, what we did, we first put -- we were around Liege because they wanted to make sure the Germans didn't take Liege. We didn't know exactly where they were going. Because Liege had become a big supply point. Trains all brought the stuff into Liege, so they wanted us to -- and as soon as --

Eileen M. Hurst:

When you got to Liege, were there Germans there yet or --

James William Lair:

No, no, no, they hadn't reached there yet. We just set up -- we want to the make sure they didn't take it because it had become a big supply point for the U.S. Army.

Eileen M. Hurst:

Now, earlier you told me a story about Liege when you got there?

James William Lair:

Yeah. Because this when we first got there on the way in. But we drove up to the edge of Liege in the evening. It was getting late, not dark yet, and we stopped there and then they said, "Well you're going to stay here overnight. Go ahead and dig in." So we started. And the city of Liege started right across the road. There's a road around it. All of a sudden all the people came running out of Liege. And this bunch of girls run up to our position. And this one young girl grabbed a shovel out of my hand, started digging like crazy, because they were so glad to see us because you talk about the people who hated the German, the Belgians really hated the Germans because the Germans goose-stepped across their country how many times in history. So then it started getting dark. They told us don't not leave your positions under any circumstances. But these girls started asking us to go to their house and they said, "It's right there. Our house is right over there." They wanted us to go over there and have dinner with them. We ended up we went. I forget how many of us there were from my half-track. Probably seven or eight guys, we went over there and they had a real --

Eileen M. Hurst:

Left your post and went over and had dinner with the girls?

James William Lair:

Their whole family was there. Mother, father, so it was -- we had a nice dinner. They had a nice house. And it was one of the most pleasant evenings I ever spent in my life, you know, because it was like being at home, you know, because I'm still just a kid. It was like being home to see the mother, the father and all the kids. Everybody was very hospitable, and they had a good dinner for us. I remember one of the girls asked me to look at the back door and there was blood all over the back porch and she told -- she said a German had gotten shot and killed right there on that porch and there was blood there and she said they had two or three cats and she said the cats ran up and started drinking the German's blood and she roared with laughter, you know. They really hated the Germans.

Eileen M. Hurst:

Who shot the German on their back porch?

James William Lair:

I don't know. Probably some of our people, I suppose. Because there was fighting that went on early. I'm not sure about that.

Eileen M. Hurst:

So they must have been --

James William Lair:

Somebody on our side, anyway. But I don't know. There was a lot of shooting going on.

Eileen M. Hurst:

So then after you had that nice evening in Liege you went back to your post?

James William Lair:

Well, the next day we -- in the morning we crossed into Liege, but by the that time the Germans had decided to pull out of Liege. Well, we didn't know that but they had. So we drove in and started driving down one of the main streets and -- and the people of Liege all collected along that street, so it was like a -- it was like a victory parade, I've never seen anything like it. They were cheering us and people were running up and throwing things in the half-track, like bottles of wine and food of all kinds. I remember I was up by the radio there where you could look down and all of a sudden I see this package on the radio and what it was, it was ice cream and it was beginning to melt a little bit. Then one of the most things I've never forgotten we were stopped there and this little old lady came up and she -- she handed me a Joan of Arc medal, silver Joan of Arc medal, and she said in English, "This will get you home safely to your mama." I never forget that. That was such a memorable experience.

Eileen M. Hurst:

Did you save that medal?

James William Lair:

Oh, yeah.

Eileen M. Hurst:

Do you still have it?

James William Lair:

I'm not sure where it is, but I've got it. I kept it. But, you know, she was very sincere. And, you know, she could tell I was just a kid.

Eileen M. Hurst:

Wow.

James William Lair:

So, you know, I'm sure she was thinking he's got a mama somewhere that's worried about him.

Eileen M. Hurst:

She was probably a mama herself.

James William Lair:

Yeah.

Eileen M. Hurst:

Where did you go after Liege, after you went through Liege?

James William Lair:

We drove all the way to the Elbe River where we met the Russians.

Eileen M. Hurst:

What was -- how did you participate in the Battle of the Bulge?

James William Lair:

Now, what happened in the Battle of Bulge came out, we were already at the town of Stolberg and when the Germans attacked and they picked the time because it was really bad weather, none of the planes could fly, so we didn't know, you know -- but we were waiting. We thought we were going to be attacking to the Rhine River and crossing the Rhine River there. But they told us be ready to move out at dawn and we drove straight back to Liege and set a perimeter around Liege because Liege had become a big supply point for the whole area, so they wanted to make sure the Germans didn't take that. We waited there for a couple of days until the weather cleared and they could find out then exactly where the Germans were and then we took off and drove down into the Battle of the Bulge.

Eileen M. Hurst:

And was there fighting going on there?

James William Lair:

Oh, yeah. All the way. When you got down there, General Patton had come up from the south. He was south and we had come down from the north, so we all met there and took the area, and the Germans took off.

Eileen M. Hurst:

So, at the Battle of the Bulge, your unit being a mortar unit, what did you guys have to do and how did you set up your mortar?

James William Lair:

Oh, no, no. We always stayed -- when an armored unit is driving somewhere, going, you always have -- in the lead you have two tanks and the next vehicle behind those two tanks is a mortar half-track because the mortar's job then is to -- if an enemy tank or any tank -- anti-tank gun opens up on those first two tanks, you want to drop a smoke round --

Eileen M. Hurst:

So all along when you're driving along with those tanks, that's what you were doing? That's what your half-track is doing?

James William Lair:

You're watching for it. Yeah. You're watching to see if they get shot at by an anti-tank gun from anywhere. The first thing you got to do is try to see exactly where that shot's come from, what area and you always keep track of which way the wind is blowing. So if the shot comes from here and you're over here, then you drop a smoke round here and it goes right across and blinds them so they can't --

Eileen M. Hurst:

Now, do you -- when you see that happening, is your unit supposed to act automatically when you see it or do you have to wait for communication for somebody to tell to you fire that?

James William Lair:

We pretty much act automatically.

Eileen M. Hurst:

You were trained enough to see that if they were fired on you knew exactly what to do and you --

James William Lair:

Oh, yeah. Well, advancing you know that the Germans are going to eventually shoot at you and what you want to do is keep that -- your lead tanks from getting knocked out so you lay a smoke round to blind them. You see where the enemy's shooting from. You might get an order to fire. You might just go ahead and do it. What you need -- we survived. We never lost anybody in my half-track because we were extremely smart. We learned so much that you always want to do when your column stops, you don't know when you're going to get shot at, is you always make sure you get behind something. Because a mortar has a high trajectory, you can fire over trees, houses. If you're behind something like that, they can't shoot at you. That's why you survive. But you can still get that round off and do exactly your job. But you do it without getting killed.

Eileen M. Hurst:

Would you say that most of the mortars that you fired across Germany were smoke rounds?

James William Lair:

More than high explosives. You had high explosives. Because that's how you protected the tanks by laying a smoke screen.

Eileen M. Hurst:

So really your job was as much to protect the tanks as to be the aggressor?

James William Lair:

Yeah. If you fired the high explosive, you're usually firing at German infantry. Most of the time we used more smoke than anything else.

Eileen M. Hurst:

Well, after the Battle of the Bulge then, you continued across Germany, you continued -- you had enough supplies and fuel at that point to make it all the way to the Elbe River?

James William Lair:

Oh, no, they dropped a lot of -- and you --

Eileen M. Hurst:

All along the way they continued to drop --

James William Lair:

And you had a constant flow of trucks that were coming all the way from the Normandy Beach because all the stuff that went into Germany that whole war was unloaded at Normandy Beach and put on other trucks that took it in. You know, I think if you look at the whole history of the World War II, it was such a big operation and -- but General Eisenhower was a real master of planning. He really -- he's the guy. I mean if you -- the most important single guy for us winning that war, I think, was probably him and his ability to plan operations. You know there's a movie out about Eisenhower. I watched it the other night and it's pretty good. That's pretty well told in there.

Eileen M. Hurst:

Now, when you got to the Elbe River, what did your unit do?

James William Lair:

Well, when we came to the Elbe River, they had -- of course, when we first came near the Elbe River, they had captured a railroad bridge across the Elbe that had not -- I mean it was still possible to go over that railroad bridge, but it was also obviously that bridge was greatly weakened by bombing and shelling, so they decided to put up a pontoon bridge just south of the big bridge. So when we crossed, we crossed on that pontoon bridge and went right into the city. And we were having a lot of fights with the tanks and anti-tank guns right around the capitol building. What the -- what's the town right across the Rhine River there? I know it as well as my own name. It will be on that map where you cross the Rhine River.

Eileen M. Hurst:

The Rhine or the Elbe?

James William Lair:

The Rhine. You know, it's sort of almost like the war between Belgium and Germany, but it's all German. Anyway, that's all right. Here let me see it for a minute. (Looks at map.) It was always the fact that you were right behind the Germans. See, their idea was to -- their main idea was to trying to get to the Siegfried Line and set up a defense there so you couldn't get into Germany. But we -- we basically outmaneuvered them.

Eileen M. Hurst:

So, actually, I see the map of all the towns and battles that you went through with your unit and I know that there was fighting at Cologne. Your unit was involved in that battle?

James William Lair:

Yeah.

Eileen M. Hurst:

And what was that like?

James William Lair:

It was just a regular battle. You had the German tanks and our tanks.

Eileen M. Hurst:

And you just fought it out?

James William Lair:

We fought it out. Infantry. And we fired a lot of our mortars, especially smoke to blind the German tanks. Because the German, that's one of the big things about the war is that the German had a much better tank than we had. Our tanks were greatly inferior. And you know, they couldn't -- because they had this tremendous gun on them and our guns -- we eventually got better guns on the tanks, but not -- think were never that good. I mean, I'll never forget, one day we were in this town -- I don't remember exactly where it was -- and there was a German tank sitting down right in the middle of the street and as you came in, he knocked out one or two of our tanks. Then we got behind this building and there was one of our tanks was right there and what we would do is he would just turn our -- our tank would turn his gun and then he'd just pull out slowly until he could see the German tank and he would shoot at it. And shells just bounced right off the German tank. And then he'd pull back. The German tank just sat in the middle of the street, like, you know, what are you guys trying to do. He finally cranked his gun around and fired a shot that went through both walls of that building and through the tank. Through our tank.

Eileen M. Hurst:

Wow.

James William Lair:

They had us outgunned with no question. You know. That's -- they were -- we eventually got some tanks with better guns but never one as good as -- I think the last tank because we only got two of them and it was almost the end of the war already. It was called the Abrams. I think they called it the Abrams, and it became the number one tank in the U.S. arsenal after the war was over. But it had a big gun that would penetrate all that stuff. But you just barely got them. The war basically was already over.

Eileen M. Hurst:

Now, when you got to the Elbe River and you crossed the river on the pontoon bridge, you couldn't go any further; is that correct? Because we were going to let the Russians take Berlin?

James William Lair:

Yeah. Yeah, the Russians -- we were right across the river from the Germans.

Eileen M. Hurst:

Did you have to wait for the Russians to arrive?

James William Lair:

I don't remember exactly. When we go up the river, we just waited there and then pretty soon we saw the Russians were there. And they weren't the least bit friendly to the U.S.

Eileen M. Hurst:

No.

James William Lair:

You could tell. I made the statement in front of all my people in my unit -- in my unit there, that what we ought to do is cross the river and just keep driving into Germany -- I mean into Russia. We're going to fight them. We're going to fight them one of these days, and now we got the greatest army the world has ever seen.

Eileen M. Hurst:

You knew that even as a young boy at that time?

James William Lair:

Because we have the greatest army that's ever existed in the world. We got the strength. We could drive straight through Russia.

Eileen M. Hurst:

What made you know that Russia was going to be our next war?

James William Lair:

Because you could tell the Russians didn't like us at all. They were very unfriendly and if you studied the history of Russia and all, I didn't think there was no question. They wanted to -- the Russians had control of Russia at that time. They made up their mind that they were going dominate the whole world. All right. They got along with us at that time because they needed us pretty badly. That's the only reason. And they were always unfriendly as hell. So I mean it just -- it was obvious, so, and I believed we would end up fighting them some day. But then the war ended.

Eileen M. Hurst:

Where were you when the war ended in Europe?

James William Lair:

Germany. That's where we were sitting right there on the Elbe River.

Eileen M. Hurst:

Do you remember when you actually heard the news?

James William Lair:

Maybe it was right there that we heard that the Germans had surrendered and Hitler was dead. The Germans had surrendered. And then we stayed in Germany for a while. For quite a while. A long time. Because the 3rd Armored Division was scheduled to go to the Pacific and be involved in the invasion of Japan.

Eileen M. Hurst:

Where in Germany did you stay?

James William Lair:

See, we stayed near -- we moved to two or three different places. First place we stayed was Klein-Umstadt. It was a little town right by the railroad station and our job was to guard the -- there was a railroad engine sitting right in the station and our job was to -- and I think they had some cars that had some valuable supplies or something on it, so we were supposed to keep people from getting the supplies off of that thing, so we stayed right there. And then eventually we moved to Durmstadt and we stayed -- then we moved up into the mountains. Beautiful country and I forget what the nearest town was. We didn't go to town any way, but we stayed there. Those mountains are a real beautiful place. We stayed. What the U.S. Army did was they just commandeered houses, so we stayed in this nice house, my unit. And the lady who owned the house, she came every day and cleaned the house and she watched everything. If we did something to hurt the house, she really get mad, you know.

Eileen M. Hurst:

And she was a German lady?

James William Lair:

Yeah.

Eileen M. Hurst:

So did you take good care of her house?

James William Lair:

But she came and checked it, and she cleaned it, did everything. She wasn't bad. She was pretty friendly. But you could -- that's what she was doing was protecting the house. She didn't want us to damage her -- it was a nice house, big. And we stayed there for I think pretty much the rest of the war. But then eventually, you know, when we had driven from Normandy, we passed to the south of Paris. You could see the Eiffel Tower. And I always wanted to go to Paris because, you know, when I was a kid, high school I read all these Ernest Hemingway books. I loved Ernest Hemingway. He was -- he loved Paris. When you read those books, he always talks about what a wonderful city Paris is, right? So all of sudden I see on the bulletin board and it said if anybody wants to go to Paris, please talk to us right over here, and so we went and talked, and I and this other guy. Nobody else wanted to go. But he said he would like to go -- we went and talked to them and they said all right, because we could ride the train to Paris free and they had -- the Red Cross had taken over these little hotels in Paris. And you could stay free in those little hotels and you could eat there also, no charge, run by the Red Cross. But we didn't really have any money because the Army hadn't even paid us for a long time. You know, they always did that. The Army never kept up, so most of the time you didn't really have any money. They owed you money but you didn't have it. So -- but what we did is in my half-track, we -- I think we had seven people and of the seven, I think only two of them smoked. But they gave every soldier in combat got a carton of cigarettes a week. So now we got all these cigarettes and the half-track had many compartments and places where you could put the cigarettes.

Eileen M. Hurst:

So you had stashed all the cigarettes?

James William Lair:

So we stashed them in the half-track. So when it came up, we didn't have any money, but we knew that on the black market in Paris, they were giving so much a carton for American cigarettes. We knew the exact price. So each one of us took what they call a muse bag. It's a canvas bag like that. But anyway, you could put 20 cartons of cigarettes in that bag, so each one took a bag with cigarettes, 20 cartons, into Paris. We went into this little hotel and then we came -- it was time for to us figure out what we wanted to do selling the cigarettes. So I walked out by myself in front of the hotel and this really seedy looking little Frenchman sidled up to me and said, "Cigarette?" I said, "Yes." So he said, "Follow me." So I followed him. And he kept walking and walking and going into more seedy looking areas, so I began to think is this guy going to try to knock me in the head and take my cigarettes or what. But we -- then he finally stopped at what was like -- it had several rooms and they had tables in each room and there was -- it was more or less like a bar but it was scattered out all over, see. So he went into this room and sat down behind the table and had me sit beside him. But we were behind this table and then put the cigarettes between us there, counted them out and then he paid me exactly what I knew what the price was supposed to be. He paid me and then he ordered these two little shot glasses full of some kind of clear liquor, you know, to drink a toast, right? But I wouldn't drink mine and he knew it. Because I was worried that he had something in there that would knock me out and he'd take my money, see. And he knew exactly what I was thinking. He was an older guy, so he drank his down and then he picked mine up and drank it and laughed. He wasn't mad at all. He knew exactly what I was thinking. He was very friendly.

Eileen M. Hurst:

So you took your money and saw France?

James William Lair:

Okay. Then I had -- yeah. And then you could -- Paris is full of all kinds of museums and everything and I loved those sidewalk cafes, good food. And we spent a lot of time -- the Red Cross had taken over -- you know, if you go up the Eiffel Tower, about halfway up, there's a place where they have food, everything. They have really good French food up there. So you could go up there and it was a wonderful menu had everything on it. Because then we had enough money to pay for it. I think the Red Cross had taken over that restaurant area, so it was run very honestly and you got really good -- but the French were doing all the cooking and everything. So we really -- then we went, there's no city in the world that has more museums than Paris does, so we went to that. And we'd sit in the sidewalk cafes and just had --

Eileen M. Hurst:

So how long did you get to stay Paris?

James William Lair:

At least a week.

Eileen M. Hurst:

Oh, wow.

James William Lair:

You know, because -- and the hotel, that little hotel we stayed in was run by a lady, who was a French lady but she worked for the American Red Cross. I spent a lot of time talking to her. She liked me because, you know, I'm just a kid. She had a son probably my age, but she was very nice to me. And I enjoyed talking to her, because her English was good. That's why they hired her, I'm sure.

Eileen M. Hurst:

And then you went back to your unit and you thought you were preparing for the invasion of Japan. When -- do you recall when you heard about --

James William Lair:

No. When we were in Paris, the Japanese surrendered, so I knew the war was going to be over when we went back. But we were sitting in a sidewalk cafe and this kid came around selling newspapers. And, you know, I was pretty good at picking up a working knowledge of whatever the local language was. And he was screaming, selling those papers about the dropping the atomic bomb, said they had dropped an atomic bomb and almost immediately Japan surrendered.

Eileen M. Hurst:

So you were actually in Paris enjoying yourself when you knew the atomic bomb was dropped?

James William Lair:

And you knew the war was over.

Eileen M. Hurst:

Oh. And so then -- what were the streets of Paris like when that news hit?

James William Lair:

Everybody seemed to be pretty happy about it. I didn't see no big change, but everybody seemed to be -- because everybody knew. And I think the French were -- they really wanted the war to be over. They were really tired of that, the ordinary people.

Eileen M. Hurst:

So then you knew the war would be over. How -- once you returned to your unit, how long before you could go back home?

James William Lair:

It was a while. I don't remember -- because then you had to figure out how they were going to get all those troops back to the U.S. Because we had so many in Germany. So what we did, when we finally left, we went by train to Marseilles, you know, on the -- and that's where we caught a ship and went out through the -- what's the big strait there with the statue? -- because you're on the Mediterranean Ocean and then we sailed through that and went out in the Atlantic and went across, but we got on the ship down there.

Eileen M. Hurst:

The ship to come home? Across? Do you remember which ship it was?

James William Lair:

I don't remember the name of it. But what they were, this was much better than the trip over because we were on British ship. It was a British liner, but they weren't set up to handle that many people. So going over there, no matter how cold it was, we spent every other night on the deck and, you know, a lot of freezing rain and all that sort of thing, but you had to sleep because they didn't have no room inside.

Eileen M. Hurst:

So what'd you do? Take turns?

James William Lair:

Yeah. You'd go up with your platoon and we had a called a shelter house and blanket and so you could cover up with the shelter and not get wet. It was pretty uncomfortable. But you had to spend every third night -- that's right. Every third night you had to sleep on deck because there just wasn't enough room where we slept inside. It was in the swimming pool where I always slept, and they had stacked -- the beds were five high, one right against the other, you know, stacks of beds and you just had too many people on that. It was an ocean liner, not a big one, but it used to run between Southampton and the southern -- South Africa. But it was a nice liner, but it was -- it just wasn't set up to handle people like that. And like the food, the first thing you got up in the morning, first thing you did was get in the line to have breakfast, right, and it took hours. And by the time you finished breakfast, you get right back and get in line. They only served two meals. And then in the afternoon you'd get the next meal, so you spent the whole day waiting in the food line.

Eileen M. Hurst:

That was the trip over?

James William Lair:

Yeah. Because they just didn't have any room.

Eileen M. Hurst:

Wow. Well, at this point, let me ask --

James William Lair:

But when you went back, it was a regular troop ship set up to handle troops, so you had good food. You had plenty of it. Very comfortable. But it was built as a troop ship.

Eileen M. Hurst:

Let me ask you a little bit about the daily life and the living conditions. This whole time that you were overseas, how did you stay in touch with your family back home in the United States?

James William Lair:

Write a letter. That's all there was. There was no other way.

Eileen M. Hurst:

Did you have regular mail service even when you were --

James William Lair:

I don't know how regular it was. But the mail, every once in a while, you'd get a letter. I've still got some of the letters somewhere. Because the only one I ever wrote to was my mother. Because I didn't like to write letters anyway, but I knew I had to write letters with her because I was the only son and her big hopes for whatever I would do -- anybody in the family would do, she thought it was going to be me. I mean I was the apple of her eye, and my two sisters didn't resent that because we got along really well anyway. But Mom was the big hopes that I was going to be the guy who would be successful and do everything. And it all turned out that way. Because then when she -- when I went to Thailand and spent all those years, she made at least two visits to Thailand. Pretty lengthy visits. She got along really well with my wife's family. I eventually married. But even before I got married, they would always take care of my mother. Actually, the guy, he's -- Sid was my wife's older brother. I think he's still alive. All the people I always got my information from all have died on me. But I think Sid's still alive, but he -- he was here when World War II started, going to the university. He went to MIT. In fact, he was later declared as a distinguished student.

Eileen M. Hurst:

Professor?

James William Lair:

No. Distinguished student from MIT. And after he became the big man in Thailand, he used the MIT to, for example, I remember this one team from MIT came and set up all the red lights in Bangkok. It's a huge city. So that it would handle the best traffic pattern, they sent people from MIT to study the whole thing and set it up. He also -- he was declared as a distinguished student at MIT, and he was a very smart guy.

Eileen M. Hurst:

When you were fighting your way across France and Germany, what was the food like? What did you guys do for food?

James William Lair:

When we first landed, you had two kinds of rations. You had one called K-ration and K-ration was just little tins with some meat dish in them and you had crackers and you would carry a little package. It was enough for a meal. So three of those little packages would take care of you for the day, right. But that was what we landed with. But then they came out with other rations that got -- it got better. See, what was the next -- anyway, we ended up getting what they call the ten-and-one rations. They were really good. What it was was -- of course, we being in the half-tracks or tanks that made it a little bit easier about the food because what you would do is you got a box. It was about this by this by this, (demonstrating) and ten-in-one meant rations for ten men for one day, and it had some really good stuff in it. Like you had milk in cans but fresh milk, so you'd have cereal, for example, you would have -- it was pretty good food in those ten-in-one rations. You still had the kitchen -- the company, we had a kitchen. But the trouble is is the kitchen couldn't stay up with the combat troops all the time. But see, Eisenhower declared that every combat soldier will get one hot meal a day, no -- it's going to be that. You're going to get them one hot meal a day. Usually the hot meal came about 3:00 in the morning because when else are the cooks going to -- they had to come up with their truck and serve. You're right on the front line, so that's about the only time they could do it with any degree of safety. And they pretty well served the same thing every time. It was a breakfast with pancakes and Vienna sausages. But the Army made really good pancakes.

Eileen M. Hurst:

So that was considered your one hot meal?

James William Lair:

Yes.

Eileen M. Hurst:

And then you had rations?

James William Lair:

If you got some place where there was no fighting going on for a while, then you'd get regular hot meals.

Eileen M. Hurst:

They would set up --

James William Lair:

The kitchen would work out of a two-and-a-half ton truck or, if you had a temporary building, they could use a tent. They would set up a tent. There's no question they did a good job. Under all circumstances, the food wasn't that bad.

Eileen M. Hurst:

Did you always have enough of the other supplies, ammunitions clothing, that kind of thing?

James William Lair:

Yeah. Clothing, our clothing. When we landed at Normandy, we didn't -- we wore the same -- I wore the same clothes for 30 days. You know, like at night I could take off my pants and just stand them up in the corner. And they made you wear the wool uniforms, because the Germans said they would not recognize the fatigue cotton uniform as a uniform. It had to be that wool, wool shirt and trousers. But Europe is very cool. You didn't really suffer from the being too hot much, because Europe is cold. I mean I spent -- I went -- we went up to Belgium and that all that other trip, it's cool every night. It's cold, so it's not -- it wasn't that bad. But then what they had was what they call shower units. They would come in and set up these tents and they'd have the hot showers in those tents, big tents.

Eileen M. Hurst:

How often did you get a hot shower?

James William Lair:

I don't know. But whenever they could get to it, a shower unit would come up and set up. So what you did when you went in one end, you threw your clothes in a pile, took everything out of the pockets and left them with your vehicle, and you threw them out. When you came out the other end, they had clean clothes laying there. You could pick out your size and then were you clean.

Eileen M. Hurst:

Did you feel pressure or stress?

James William Lair:

No. No, I never did. Any day you could have got killed, but I never worried about it, but I never did. I don't know why. Everything I ever went through -- that's why today people talk about people having stress. I don't even know what the hell stress is.

Eileen M. Hurst:

Well, that was a good thing. Was there anything special that you did for good luck?

James William Lair:

Well, if you got the hole and shells were popping all over and you didn't know you were going to live for the next five minutes, I prayed a little bit. Everybody does. No matter who they are. I guarantee you.

Eileen M. Hurst:

What did you do for entertainment when you weren't in battle?

James William Lair:

Well, I always read a lot. Because I knew I was going back to college. You know, I was majoring in engineering. Engineering's a hard course. So I knew --

Eileen M. Hurst:

Don't tell me you were out in the field reading engineer books.

James William Lair:

I was reading books that I thought would keep my mind in good shape when I went back to college. That can be any good book, so I didn't read comic books. You know what I mean? If you read serious books, it exercises your mind, so I always had at least two books in my pack. So any time I had -- we weren't doing anything, I would read. I like to read, but I think it helped me, because when I got back here, went back to college, it seemed to me like I'd forgot everything I ever knew and I was really worried that I would flunk out because engineering is a tough course. I mean it's a really tough course. There's no question about it. That's why today I go to A and M once a while. I'm invited by the engineering department, and they tell me that the only people at A and M who majored in engineering are almost entirely Chinese and Indian. Americans don't take it because it's too hard.

Eileen M. Hurst:

Oh. Did you ever have any leave when you were overseas, other than your trip to Paris?

James William Lair:

No. That's all. I mean where would you go? There was no place to go.

Eileen M. Hurst:

Did you keep journal or a diary at all?

James William Lair:

No. But my memory's really good.

Eileen M. Hurst:

What did you think of your fellow soldiers and the officers?

James William Lair:

Oh, in my unit, the people that rode in my half-track were the best people I've every known in my life. We did not stay in touch with each other. I thought we would never be out of touch because we were in danger all the time and we became -- we trusted, we had confidence in everybody doing their job. That's what's going to keep you alive. But we didn't really -- the only one I saw is the guy who was -- he was in my unit. It was a good guy, a really good friend. And I got a call here one day from this guy who said that my father, he lives now in Arizona and he's coming to visit me and he wants to see you because he says that you saved his life. And it was this guy who was my -- a good friend, you know.

Eileen M. Hurst:

Did you get to see him?

James William Lair:

Yeah, when he got here, they gave me a telephone number, so I called him and then I went up and spent the day with him in Dallas.

Eileen M. Hurst:

Do you recall his name?

James William Lair:

I know it as well as my own, but I don't come to me. What was his name? I have it.

Eileen M. Hurst:

Is he one of the guys in that photograph?

James William Lair:

Yeah.

Eileen M. Hurst:

Okay. We will attach a photograph of Bill's --

James William Lair:

I'll come up with the names.

Eileen M. Hurst:

Okay.

James William Lair:

But he came to Dallas and I went up and we spent the whole day together.

Eileen M. Hurst:

When did you save his life?

James William Lair:

I saved -- I didn't believe I had saved his life. I believed I probably screwed up. But what happened was we were -- this was right into Normandy, after we landed we were still in those hedgerow things. And we stopped in this hedgerow field overnight, and when we stopped then, we parked on the edges, but they told us that everybody could dig in in the middle of the field, so you sleep in a slit trench because you may get artillery and all. So we all dig in there. And I was on guard. So all of a sudden, a tank outfit that wasn't our unit at all was parked on that side along the hedgerow and sometime during the night they decided to pull out. I'm sure they got an order to go somewhere or do something. So they cranked up the tanks and they drove -- they drove across -- around the edge, along the hedgerow and went out the gate and I was watching them go out and all of a sudden I was out in the middle of the field and my group of people were all dug in right out there. And all of a sudden I looked around and there's a tank. He had -- his outfit had left, but he couldn't get his tank started. He finally got it started and he came right across the middle of the field. I was watching those other tanks. I didn't hear him until I turned around and he's right on top of this hedgerow of one of my people, the guy -- the one who I went to see up in Dallas. That's when he told him I'd saved his life. I felt I screwed up because I should have seen that tank ahead of time. But, see, when that happened, they were getting right at his slit trench, so I ran and jumped up on the side and started pounding on the driver's helmet yelling at him to stop and then he stopped. He was right at that slit trench. And John finally jumped up out of that ditch.

Eileen M. Hurst:

And the tank was right there?

James William Lair:

The tank was right on him.

Eileen M. Hurst:

Good thing the tank guy heard you.

James William Lair:

But when John told the story later years, I had saved his life because I had stopped that tank from driving over him, right?

Eileen M. Hurst:

Yes.

James William Lair:

But I felt that I had screwed up by getting in that position in the first place, for not watching more carefully. But anyway, I'll never forget that, because they were right on top of me, and then he jumped up out of that hole and I was looking right at the tank and the ground was soft, so if it had gone over him, I think it would have killed him.

Eileen M. Hurst:

I'm sure. Do you recall when you came back to the United States, where did your ship dock when you came back?

James William Lair:

Boston.

Eileen M. Hurst:

So when you got into Boston, were you immediately discharged?

James William Lair:

No. No. We got to Boston and they moved us into a military camp. I don't know exactly where it was.

Eileen M. Hurst:

Uh-huh.

James William Lair:

And then when we got into the military camp, we'd only been there a day or two and then they put us on the train and we came all the way to Texas.

Eileen M. Hurst:

On the train?

James William Lair:

Yeah. And we -- we stopped in Austin or someplace down there and then we -- and then I got on the bus and came to Waco. That's where my mother was living.

Eileen M. Hurst:

What did you do in the days immediately after your discharge when you returned to Waco?

James William Lair:

Oh, I don't remember exactly. But not long -- when I landed, it was on the -- when I finally got home, it was pretty much the beginning of the football season. So my mother knew -- she liked football and I did. She arranged with her lady friend of hers and the husband because Texas University was playing Texas A and M at Austin and that's the biggest game of the year no matter what year it is. And so we drove down and went to the ball game.

Eileen M. Hurst:

And then did you go right back to college after that --

James William Lair:

Yeah.

Eileen M. Hurst:

-- on the G.I. Bill?

James William Lair:

By the time I got out of the Army, you know, it was probably within two weeks, I was back -- I was back at A and M.

Eileen M. Hurst:

And did you get your degree from Texas A and M?

James William Lair:

Yeah.

Eileen M. Hurst:

What was your degree in?

James William Lair:

It was in engineering. It was actually in geological engineering.

Eileen M. Hurst:

Geological engineering?

James William Lair:

Yeah. Which means it's a kind after cross between petroleum engineering and geology. So you can work -- you can work with the oil rig that's getting the oil out of the ground or you can be --

Eileen M. Hurst:

Because your intention was to go to work --

James William Lair:

In the oil business.

Eileen M. Hurst:

-- in the oil business because your family had done that in the past?

James William Lair:

Well, you know, at that time, the big place -- the big place where they were drilling new wells was in the South America.

Eileen M. Hurst:

So you figured you'd go down there?

James William Lair:

I figured -- that's why I started Spanish in college because I thought that's probably where I'd end up, but that didn't happen.

Eileen M. Hurst:

Did you maintain any of the friendships you formed during World War II except for that one guy when you had that later?

James William Lair:

Not really.

Eileen M. Hurst:

Have you gone do any of their reunions?

James William Lair:

I went to -- I think, let me see. Reunions, I don't think I went to the big -- see, Waco had a chapter of the 3rd Armored Division Association, so we had a lot of reunions in Waco. We usually had a monthly get-together in Waco. And I just got a thing from the 3rd Armored Division Association. I'm a member. I became a lifetime member. And they're getting ready to have what will be the last reunion. They said this will be the end of reunions. They're going to have it in Georgia.

Eileen M. Hurst:

Are you going to go?

James William Lair:

I would like to, but I haven't really made up my mind fully to go or not. I think I probably ought to. I know I'll never see anybody I know, but it still would be a good place to go. I may go.

Eileen M. Hurst:

Did you join any veterans organizations?

James William Lair:

Well, you know, we had there -- it's the 3rd Armored Division Association. We always had about a monthly meeting in Waco, just the people that lives around this area. It was just a fun thing. We also had the meeting and then we ate together. And that's about it.

Eileen M. Hurst:

Did your military experience in World War II influence your thinking about war or about the military in general?

James William Lair:

Well, yeah, I think it had some influence anyway. Because I think -- I mean the U.S. remained all these years a free country, mainly because everybody else was afraid to do anything to us because we could protect ourselves. I think that still needs to be -- but we treat -- I think there's no country in the world that's treated the foreign countries as well as we have. We help them when they really get in trouble. But at the same time, we keep their respect because we will kick the devil out of them if they don't. And I think in foreign affairs, that's what you have to do. Because if you remember who was it, Teddy Roosevelt said in foreign affairs, walk softly and carry a big stick. And Teddy was right.

Eileen M. Hurst:

Bill, did you earn any medals or citations during World War II?

James William Lair:

I got a few medals over there. Nothing -- no really big thing. You know, but the trouble is, if you understand the amount of problems in the war, especially between War II because, you know, we hadn't been in many years, World War I. Once we got into combat, there were guys doing brave things every damn day. But nobody got any medals, so all of a sudden an order came out from division headquarters saying we want you to start writing up when somebody does something because we need to give out medals. We know people have earned them but we haven't given them because nobody has -- has written it up. So then, you know, I mean that was the -- because you're too busy fighting the war to worry about writing people up for medals. So, you know, I think -- I think medals are good, but for guys who get the big medals, it's got it be some unusual thing. But there's guys that's doing things that probably deserve the medal every day, but you just don't go that way. But the ones who actually end up getting the medals have probably done something really unusual which they had to show a great disregard for their own safety. But I remember when the order came up, we'd already been in combat for over a month and they said we got to give out a few medals. Because we're getting nasty letters from headquarters.

Eileen M. Hurst:

Bill, how would you say that your service in World War II affected your life?

James William Lair:

I -- I believe it made me an awful lot better person because in the first place, it made you know that you could actually do something really dangerous without getting scared out of your wits. You know what I mean? And I think that's true. I think you need to be able to do that. Especially if you work for the CIA. Where I went -- where I went -- they sent me to Asia and said teach them how to fight guerilla warfare. We did that and we fought a lot of guerilla warfare.

Eileen M. Hurst:

Actually, the next part ever your interview is going to deal with after World War II and how your experience in World War II affected that career, which was you never actually became a geological engineer. You became a CIA case officer during the Vietnam era. So a lot of what you've told me now about World War II in your military experience affected your future career.

James William Lair:

Absolutely. I mean because it trained me not only of how you do yourself under very stressful conditions but how it affects other people and how you can train people to still be able to do their duty when their life is in great danger, and that is what I did in Southeast Asia. So, you know, there's no question that my World War II experience and my education and everything all affected the whole thing.

Eileen M. Hurst:

Bill, is there anything else about your World War II experience that you'd like to add that I haven't asked you about? Any other memorable experiences or incidents that you haven't shared that you would like to?

James William Lair:

Well, you know, one thing that I always remember is that at the end of war when Roosevelt died, right? Roosevelt died. Roosevelt came to Europe. He came to Germany after the war ended, a very short trip, he went back and he died shortly after that. And then when Truman became president, he came on a visit and I remember very well seeing him, you know, because you gather a big group around and he made a speech and all that. But, you know, if you looked at Truman, he's not the kind of guy you thought a president should look like. He looked like a seedy little guy who sold dry goods, and that's actually what he was. But I believe that in the end he turned out to be one of the best presidents we ever had, because you look at what he did. He stuck his thumb right in the eye of the Russians and said you're not going to take over the world and he sent our troops in to fight them in North Korea. And it wasn't popular. He knew it wasn't popular. He knew it was going to get him into a lot of criticism, but he did it because he thought it was the right thing to do. Then when he left the presidency, he went straight back to his hometown. He lived in the same house. He had the same amount of money. He gained nothing material from his being in the president. And to me, I think that makes him one of the best presidents we ever had. He's the first one who really stuck his thumb in the eye of the Russians. I think he was a naturally good man.

Eileen M. Hurst:

Bill, I'd like to thank you for your interview and I'd like to thank you for your service.

 
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  October 26, 2011
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