Skip Navigation and Jump to Page Content    The Library of Congress >> American Folklife Center  
Veterans History Project (Library of Congress) ABOUT  
SEARCH/BROWSE  
HELP  
COPYRIGHT  
Home » Text Transcript

Interview with Jake Alabaster [4/16/2004]

Marshall Wade:

Mr. Alabaster, which branch or service did you serve in?

Jake Alabaster:

I was in the Army.

Marshall Wade:

What were the dates that you served in and rank that you attained during your service?

Jake Alabaster:

Uh, went in the Army March of 1943, and was discharged January, 1946. And my rank was PFC, Private First Class.

Marshall Wade:

Were you drafted or did you enlist?

Jake Alabaster:

You know, let me just give you a quick... 1943, I turned 18. Three months later, I got my notice draft to report a certain day to go be examined to be inducted into the services. And we went to Fort Ogelthorp, Georgia, and we were there for about a week, physicals and everything else. And they released us in seven days, and we returned back to be inducted into the Army. That was March of'43.

Marshall Wade:

Were you living in Memphis at the time?

Jake Alabaster:

Yes. I've been living in Memphis my whole life, yes.

Marshall Wade:

Um, what was the first day in service like?

Jake Alabaster:

First, first day in service?

Marshall Wade:

Yes.

Jake Alabaster:

It was a completely different life from being a civilian, I'll tell you. They, I remember when we first went into the service early in the morning, 5:30. They wake you up to get up, go out and police up the area, pick up all, anything you see that's not supposed to be there. It was a different world. You had to get used to it. Believe me.

Marshall Wade:

What was, what did you feel, or what was your experience during boot camp or training?

Jake Alabaster:

Training? Well, we actually, we were, we went to Camp Butner, North Carolina, and we were there for sixth months, and we trained hard. We were actually in...I was in 277th field artillery with 105 millimeter Howitzers. And we trained real good. We had a good outfit. And then, we moved to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and they switched us over from the 105 Howitzer which, which used a sixty pound shell. They moved us to a 240 millimeter Howitzer which had a 360 pound shell. The big guns, the biggest gun that was in the service. We were on it.

Marshall Wade:

When you were after training, where did they send you to begin combat, or to enter combat?

Jake Alabaster:

Ok. After we got, after three months of training in Fort Bragg, we got word down that the Alpha was being shipped overseas, and we didn't know whether or not we were going to Japan or whether we were going to Germany. And we got notice, and it was all secret. They wouldn't tell you anything actually. When we were on a train going to the uh, New York to get on the boat, they had all the window shades pulled on the train. It was top secret. I don't know why, but that's the way it was. And then we found out we were going to Germany, the ETO, the European Theater of Operations. We left New Rochelle, New York, and on the Queen Elizabeth I. And on that ship they had 19,000 soldiers, a ship that's built for 1,500 to 1,800 people. And my cabin which was ordinarily a two people, two person cabin, there were 19 soldiers with all their gear and everything. So it was crowded and a lot of them had to sleep in shifts, sleep so much. Then they'd get out and let somebody else go to sleep. That's how crowded we shipped. And we ate twice a day I remember, 9:30, 4:30. And but the crossing was very fast. It was four and half days Queen Elisabeth hit about 40 knots, and nothing could keep up with it, so we really weren't concerned much about submarines.

Marshall Wade:

What was it like arriving in the European Theater?

Jake Alabaster:

As first time we went over to, well actually, land in Glasgow, Scotland. And then we caught a train, and we went to Birmingham, England. And right outside of Birmingham, we were bivouacked at camps. I had a camp there, and we stayed there until the invasion started. Uh, that part was pretty neat. There was nothing too bad about that. We went on maneuvers in Wales, Cardif, and um, then we got aboard to go to France, and we went to France. We landed in France, D-Day plus ten.

Marshall Wade:

What was your job, um, in your...?

Jake Alabaster:

I had two or three jobs. One job, I was FO which was a Forward Observer. Go with the Lieutenant. We'd go up there to front to direct fire back to the guns. I used, I operated the radio, Lieutenant would give me commands. I would transmit them back to the guns and observe fire. If we had to adjust our fire, one way or the other, up or down. That's one job. Another job I had was a Cannoneer which means there was two guys on a tray. We'd load that 360 pound shell. We'd pick it up and then we had a couple guys just ram it into the barrel. And you really didn't have one job. You had to do everything what you wanted, but what, what's called for.

Marshall Wade:

What was it like having to be responsible for the next fire of a gun?

Jake Alabaster:

Pretty, pretty...well, on that gun we had where we have a Gun Sergeant who looked at all the mechanical parts of the gun, and the Lieutenant was always there. We had a crew of about 15 around that gun. The gun was real big. The barrel was thirty feet long. The gun weighed 32 tons. We had tanks to transport that gun. Um, and you could stand.. .when we fired, uh, you stand behind it. It makes a loud noise, but if you stand on the side of it, it would knock you down. The concussion would knock you down. So it was a big noise, yeah.

Marshall Wade:

When was your, when did you first see combat?

Jake Alabaster:

We saw combat. We landed in France, and we actually set up guns two days after we landed, and it was about the 12th or 13th. We were right outside of um, I remember St. Mere Eglise, a little town in France there, and um, I'm trying to think back. That was the first time, that's when we first set up. And as landed off, we came on an LST which was Landing Ship Tanks. And we rode off. When we got there, it was like 3:00 in the morning, and we, we, stood still on the water. All the water receded. The tide went out, and when we rode, we were actually on the land. Then we rode our tanks off. And I never forget as we got into our tanks and got into the countryside there a couple miles, you could, you know, you could hear machine guns everything going off. And it was a German, it was French, a French man that probably owned that land over there. He was out plowing his field with the war going on around him. He was oblivious to what was around him. He was just going about his business. We was just talking how, how could he be doing that, but that's the way it went.

Marshall Wade:

What all happened in your um, in your service, during your, during combat?

Jake Alabaster:

In respect to what now?

Marshall Wade:

What operations or what assignments where y'all given during...? Well, we started off in France, and we went on through to Paris, and when we got to Paris, we were, the whole outfit, the whole Army, they put us on hold for a month, a solid month. We went to, before that, let me tell you. Back in Avranches, France, I got hurt. And I, they sent me back to the hospital in England. And then I met up with my outfit again right before we went into Germany, but as I was seeing in, uh, September. In September, we reached to outside of Paris, and then we went on to, oh, I can't remember the name of, we were there for a month. And they say we ran out of gas. But actually, everybody said they was, they were waiting for Russia to get closer to Berlin all the time, so they put us on hold. But we enjoyed that month stay. You know, it was like a vacation, actually. We had good beds, good showers, had a bed to sleep in. So it was really good.

Marshall Wade:

Were there many casualties in your unit?

Jake Alabaster:

We had, being in an artillery unit, we were not on the front line, but yes, we had several men killed. I remember one time, we were in a bombed out house, and headquarters was a bombed out house and Germany, actually in Germany. And I went outside for a reason. I forget what it was. And so I went outside. I was going to one of the tanks or something. The Germans started shelling with the 88 Millimeter guns. I mean they were popping them in there just as fast. And I was caught outside. I was stood upside, just crouched up beside one of my tanks and just held on for about ten minutes, and but when I got back into the house which was about 75 feet, one of my buddies in the house...a shell had come into the room where he was, blew half of his face off. That was a terrible thing to see. But as we were going through France, we shelled a German Calvary unit which was horse drawn artillery. They would draw on the artillery with horses, and we had shelled them, and as we were advancing up, we saw all these dead Germans. They were stacked up with the horse and everything else. It was a pitiful sight, pitiful sight, but that's war. It's either them or us.

Marshall Wade:

What were some of the most memorable experiences during your service?

Jake Alabaster:

During the war?

Marshall Wade:

Yes sir.

Jake Alabaster:

Well, the most, one of the most, most Battle of the Bulge which was in December of '44. We were really advancing all through France. Everything was at a standstill, and all the sudden, the Germans broke through the lines. And uh, they started advancing pretty good. Now we were in a little town called St. Vith which is about 15 miles, this was in Belgium, 15 miles from Bastogne. And we got caught there in the Bulge. And one day during the heavy fighting, we got words down to destroy our guns because they were expected to break through, and they wanted our guns destroyed. And we were with destroy the guns. We had what we called a phosphorous grenade. We'd open up the breach block, pull the pin on the grenade, put it in there, close it. It would melt steel to steel so you couldn't use it. And after another hour, we got another order down, don't destroy them. Just hold off for further orders. And actually, they didn't have the breakthrough. They broke through another line and captured an artillery battalion which we always traveled with, and the Germans captured them. It was approximately 110, 115 men. And they took them in trucks to a little town called Malmedy, and whether you ever heard of Malmedy , that's where the Malmedy massacre was concerned, was, was took place. With the German dead, they'd march these soldiers out, and let me just say this. The weather was the worst weather, the worst winter they had in Germany in 35 years, snow on the ground, 10 below zero. They marched these soldiers out there in St. Vith and Malmedy, and a German truck pulled up his awning and machine gun, killed, they killed every, all of them except maybe seven or eight. They escaped through the woods, and they, and that was called the Malmedy massacre. And my wife and I made a trip back to Germany where I was during the war. I think it was in '85, and they had built a big round wall, circular wall out of fieldstone, and each soldier's name is inserted into the wall, and on that exact spot is where they killed them. It was, and when we, everybody heard about that, when they captured a German, they didn't show him too much mercy either. Yep, but one of the most touching things I ever...I got frozen feet during World War II in the Bulge. My feet froze up overnight, and they had turned, they had almost doubled in size, had turned real red. And they sent me back to little evacuation hospital, and tent hostile actually. And all they could do for me was put my legs up straight the seven days I was there. But what was so sad, one day as I was laying there with nothing to do, a Lieutenant, Captain walks in, and he wanted to see the doctor. The doctor came out, and he says, "I understand my brother got wounded and he's here, and the captain looked at him very sad (starts crying).. .and he said, your brother just died. (Long pause)

Marshall Wade:

Do you want to pause for a second?

Jake Alabaster:

I'll never forget that. I'll never forget that. I had many experiences. I got hurt, hit with shrapnel here once, uh, frozen feet, and then we had a weapons carrier that was truck that overturned, hit a mine and overturned, and I was very lucky though. I mean some of the guys got gangrene, talking about gangrene is something in the hospital there (clears throat). Their feet had turned black, black as your hair, and the gangrene set up in the feet, all they do is crack the toes off. It's just, they were bad shaped. Luckily, I was very lucky. I caught mine in time. Thank God for that. Uh. Go ahead. I'm sorry.

Marshall Wade:

Keep on.

Jake Alabaster:

No. That's alright. Go ahead.

Marshall Wade:

Ok, Um. Was there any medals or citations that you or your unit...?

Jake Alabaster:

Yeah. I've got some here that I'm proud of. Can you see this in the camera? Do you want me to lift it a little higher. That's good, alright. This is me when I was, this is right after the World War, after the war ended. I was 20, 20 years old. '46,1 was 20 years old, yeah. But anyhow, they call this ETO medal, European Theater of Operation. I have five bronze stars, five little bronze stars which is five major battles. And or course, this is a good conduct medal. This is the Battle of the Bulge medal. [Continues to show medals] I was in General Patton's Army, Third Army and the Seventh Army. This triangle has steps on it, and it's called seven steps to hell. That was the Seventh Army. We were, actually, they would send us to different outfits when they needed support, real support. Ok, what else?

Marshall Wade:

Or uh, during the war, did you stay in touch with your family?

Jake Alabaster:

During the war? [Yeah] Oh yes, I usually wrote letter all the time. I have one letter, but I don't know exactly where it's at.

Marshall Wade:

What all did you write to them about?

Jake Alabaster:

Well, you know, you could only write, nothing...your mail was censored. It, uh. It, whoever censored the mail saw something we shouldn't talk about. Where we were, where we visited at. They would cut it out. But I would write a letter, uh, at least two times a week. Yeah, I had a bunch of letters. I used to write when I was basic training, I used to write a letter just about every day, and uh, I'd write home sometime, tell them to send me something to eat. You know, you get tired of eating K-rations. But then they made what we called a C-ration. It was a can that would warm up in our steel helmets, and we'd go into a German house we raided and find potatoes there, and we'd sit up there all night long making fried, French fried potatoes you know. Uh, things like that.

Marshall Wade:

Did you receive many letters or was it hard?

Jake Alabaster:

Yeah. The one thing my mother used, my mother during the Battle of the Bulge, was during the Battle of the Bulge, My mother, I got a package from my mother. It was big baked bread, and inside that bread, there was a canteen of wine that she made. She had to hide it because it was against the law to send bread through the mail, I mean liquor through the mail. And it happened to come to us during the Battle of the Bulge when we were really cold. And all my guys, all of my friends, we gathered around. We had one drink, and that's about all you could get about one drink when you pass it around like that. But I'll never forget that ever. It was good timing.

Marshall Wade:

What was, you said you didn't really like the K-rations?

Jake Alabaster:

K-rations, you out in snow, ten degrees below zero. You open up a K-ration. It was a package of lemonade to make cold lemonade, you know. K-rations were no good. The C-rations, they weren't bad. You get corn beef and hash and things like that that you could warm up and. It tasted pretty good too. Now we had a kitchen in our outfit, and when they could make something, it was good, yeah. It wasn't too bad, you know. K-rations, not for me. Spam either, got tired of eating Spam.

Marshall Wade:

Um, did you all have plenty of supplies or?

Jake Alabaster:

Well, actually, no. We walked around in our combat boots during the Bulge in that snow. We didn't have the rubber overshoes, couldn't get them. Couldn't get them. There was a lot of black market.. .how much time do you got? The batteries going? [cut in tape] [long pause] While you looking up questions, I would like to just like to say this. That I appreciate Lausanne School and Marshall and Greer and the gentleman over coming over here to record things for future generations should find out. You know there statistics show that 20% of World War II veterans are passing away every year. So, in the next few years, there will be very few of us can sit down and tell you what actually went on during World War II. I think it's a great thing. I want to thank everybody for that, giving me the opportunity to tell my story.

Marshall Wade:

What, do you recall the day that your service ended?

Jake Alabaster:

January the Sixth of 1946.1 was discharged at Fort Knox, Kentucky, and I remember the Captain called me into the office and he said, "Alabaster, would you like to apply for a pension?" I says, "Captain...," I says, "If I do, how long will I have to be here?" He says, "It will be approximately two more weeks you have to stay here." And I said, "Well, if I don't apply for pension, when can I go home?" cause I hadn't been home in three years. He says, "You can go home tomorrow morning." I says, "No, I don't want to apply for a pension." Which was a great mistake. I was young you know, and I didn't know better. And I could have applied for pension, drawn a little money each month for all those years, but we live and learn.

Marshall Wade:

How did the war change you?

Jake Alabaster:

Well, when I got home, I was a little bit nervous. I didn't, I was, it was hard to get to civilian life right away. It was just tough. You know, you're used to getting up in the morning or staying up all night long during the war, you're on duty 24 hours a day. You're liable to get killed 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It didn't matter. Uh, it took me a while to get used to, back to civilian life, really.

Marshall Wade:

Um, in or, how old were you when you got, when you came back to the states?

Jake Alabaster:

I was 20 years old, 20, 20 years old I think.

Marshall Wade:

Did you go back to school? Uh, no, not really. I was (clears throat) made my big mistake. I really should have gone and got a G.I. thing to go to college which I didn't do. Went into business, and that's the way it was.

Marshall Wade:

During the war, you said you made a lot of friends. After, when you got back, did you keep in touch with them?

Jake Alabaster:

Yes. My outfit has a reunion every year, and I've been to about maybe five reunions. My last one I went to was about two years ago. It was up in Pigeon Forge, Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. And the thing about it is each year that you go, you see less of your comrades. They dying away, and the you see a lot of widows there. The soldier's wives, my friend's wives. They come... [break in tape]

Marshall Wade:

What happened, what did you do after the war in terms of your career?

Jake Alabaster:

Uh [END OF INTERVIEW]

 
Home » Text Transcript
  The Library of Congress  >> American Folklife Center
  October 26, 2011
  Legal | External Link Disclaimer Need Help?   
Contact Us