Interview With James E. Wells

From the interview with World War II veteran, James E. Wells of Quincy, WA conducted by John Croghan on July 1, 2004 by phone from the Fort Worden History Center.  Mr. Wells was drafted in 1944 and assigned to the 14th Coast Artillery at Fort Worden.  He was subsequently reassigned to the U.S. Army Co. G-355th Infantry Regiment-89th Division-3rd Army, which took him to France and Germany under General George S. Patton.  He saw action in the Battle of the Bulge; later he was stationed in Belgium and discharged in 1946.  Here he tells of firing the big guns at Fort Worden:

“We had one shoot on the 16 inch guns.  I got in a little bit of trouble with that.  We had grandstands built for a demonstration for generals from all over, even lots of officers from Canada.  There were refreshments made and everything.  A target was towed up the Straits and we were supposed to fire over it and then fire under it and then zero in on it.  I was given the readings for it, and I guess I kind of messed up a little bit, because the first shot blew the thing clear out of the water.  Nobody even got to sit down or have a sandwich and it was all over.”

More about the guns:

“Those things shot a 250 pound projectile with 200 pounds of powder.  About every third shot they had to saw the riflings out of the barrel because they would protrude out of the end of the barrel. They were very expensive guns to fire.  When we were cleaning and maintaining them, we’d put a fatigue hat, the old type that were round with a bill, in the breech.  After they were fired, they had that blast of air come through to clean out all the debris and prevent misfiring.  You could put a fatigue hat in there and close and lock it and turn the air on, it could blow that hat for about a quarter of a mile.  That was big sport to see how far you could blow your hat.  When they fired the guns, the evergreen trees on the hills would lie right down.  When the trees snapped back up, the branches would fly.  You didn’t really hear the muzzle blast, but you could feel it where I was underground when the gun was fired.  They had powered carts to drive the projectile around, to ram it in.  The projectile was all handled by machine.  The only thing handled by manpower was the powder bag.”

His tour of duty in Europe:

“I joined Patton at the Maginot Line in France.  We travelled fast.  It was a pretty cold winter and we dug in.  I kept an extra pair of socks against my stomach so I’d always have a dry pair.  I slept in the ground quite a few nights.  I sustained one accidental wound that put me in the hospital in Nuremburg for about a month, then I was in a convalescence camp when Patton died.  After I healed, I went with what was left of our outfit to Ghent, Belgium just outside Antwerp.  We built one of the camps where they reprocessed men before they  sent them home, they were all named after cigarettes—Philip Morris, Pall Mall.  It is a little island that you have to go underwater through a tunnel to get to.  It was just sand, so we took landing mats and made roads and everything with them.  We also built a stockade for German prisoners, using their labor.  We were supposed to work them eight hours a day and feed them three times a day, but we wanted to get the thing built so we worked them 12 hours a day and fed them twice a day.  Somebody got to the Red Cross.  They kicked us out of there for inhuman treatment.  They put an Air Force detachment in there to take our place and sent us into Antwerp.  We lived in an old abandoned diamond factory and were the traffic control and the police for the city of Antwerp.  I got transferred into the military police for a short while. It was good duty, we were right in the heart of Antwerp near the central station.”

He describes his return trip to the United States:

“We came back on the Wasp, an aircraft carrier.  They had the bunks on the hangar decks down underneath the flight deck.  Those bunks were up so high you almost needed oxygen.  We hit a hurricane on the way home.  We were supposed to be in New York in four days.  We had rations for about five days.  We were out there for eight days, eating baloney sandwiches.  The ship rolled 40 feet, there was water over the flight deck and all the forward rooms flooded.  All the Naval officers were back there sleeping with us in the hangar decks.  The ship had four propellers.  By the time we got to New York, there was one operational.  It was pretty hard to try to stand up and eat at one of those tables when the ship was jumping up and down and going sideways.  A lot of people got sick and couldn’t eat.  But I’ve got an iron stomach, so I gained a little weight on the way home because I was using everybody’s meal tickets who couldn’t eat.”

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