California Council for the Humanities

California Stories Initiative

Years of Valor, Years of Hope

Tulare County and the Years 1941-1946

Tulare County Library

The Friends of the Tulare County Library

And the Tulare County Historical Society

Interviews in 2003-2004

Interviewee: John Roller

 

Date: 3/25/04

 

Tape # 78

 

Interviewer: Marvin Demmers

 

Place: Tulare County, CA

 

Place of Interview: The home of John Roller in Visalia, CA

 

 

PLACES WHERE INTERVIEWEE LIVED DURING 1941-194

Tulare, California

OUTSTANDING POINTS IN THE INTERVIEW:

Life as a high school student in Tulare County, 1941-1946


MD: Today is March 25, 2004, and I am Marvin Demmers and I will be interviewing John Roller in his home in Visalia, California as part of the oral history program, entitled "Years of Valor, Years of Hope, Tulare County and the Years 1941,1946.

What is your full name and when were you born?

JR: My full name is John Roller and I was born August 13, 1927 in Hanford, California.

MD: Who were your parents and could you tell us a little bit about them?

JR: My father was Leo John Roller. He was from Kansas and he was a baker in Hanford and Exeter and Visalia here. My mother was Vella Coburn and she was born in the Yokohl Valley in Exeter and lived here all of her life and mainly was a homemaker and housewife. A man named Howe married my mother earlier, took her to Montana and abandoned her there.  My dad went up there, brought her back to this area, and later married her.

MD: John, did you have any brothers and sisters?

JR: I had two brothers and one sister. My sister, Frances Marie Howe (Roller) Moore was the oldest of the family. I had one older brother, Andrew William Howe Roller and one younger brother, George Lawrence Roller.

MD: Do they live here in Tulare County at this time?

JR: At this time, they are all dead except my youngest brother and he is living in Pasco, Washington.

MD: When did you family move to Tulare County?

JR: My family moved to Tulare County in Visalia in 1937.

MD: Have you lived in Visalia the entire time or have you lived in other areas of the county as well?

JR: No, since 1937 I have lived in Visalia the whole time.

MD: What was your father’s occupation as you remember?

JR: He was a baker and he worked for Gildo and Ernie Bof Deluxe Bakery and for John Copley at Copley’s Bakery.

MD: Did you mother work outside the home or was she just a homemaker?

JR: She worked part time in the packing industry. She packed grapes in Exeter.

MD: You mentioned you were in high school when World War II broke out. Do you recall how old you were and how would you describe life growing up in Visalia at that time?

JR: I was fourteen years old at the time the war broke out, just starting in high school and we were all quite aghast at the fact that we had entered into the war. Actually, it was with no advance warning of it. I don’t happen to believe that this was intended any other way. I don’t believe the Japanese ever intended to give us any warning before they hit Pearl Harbor in spite of what they may say now.

MD: I believe you had mentioned that you were married. When did you get married?

JR: I got married after 1945, after the war was over. Actually, I was married in 1946.

MD: Was your wife a native of Tulare County?

JR: No, she, Illene Ridgley, was a native of Oregon. She was born in Oklahoma, and her family moved to Oregon. Later they moved to Visalia.

MD: Did you have any children together?

JR: Two children, two boys. And my oldest son, John Leslie resides in Tulare and my youngest son, Terry Dean resides in Hanford now.

MD: I’d like to ask you some questions regarding your personal reactions to World War II as you recall them. What do you remember most about the day the United States entered the war with Japan ?

JR: The only thing that I can remember is that they called us up, they called my brother who worked at the Fresno Bee and they wanted him to come down to pick up papers to put a special edition that the Fresno Bee was making, putting out that day. They also asked me and all the people that we could to come down there if we could and help them distribute the newspapers for that day. Other than that I wasn’t really too impressed, the fact that we were in a war. I don’t really think it sunk it. It took several days for it actually to sink in, just exactly what was actually going on. At the age of 14, you have an awful lot of other things on your mind besides . . .

MD: Having mentioned that, when the war was over, when the war was ended, do you remember and recollect that time; were your feelings any different about war from when the United States entered vs. when the war was over? Did you feel differently about war?

JR: Oh, yes, having experienced a bit of it myself, I felt a lot different about it. I was glad, very, very glad it was over with and they were quitting shooting at us.

MD: Were you day-to-day activities at home or at school affected in any way, at the fact that our country was at war?

JR: Of course, it was affected inasmuch as our priorities were completely different. Being in school, we have to get up and go to school, and the fact that you couldn’t run around freely at night or after school was a hindrance. I shouldn’t say a hindrance, but it was different. Also, the fact that a lot of things that we would like to get or buy weren’t available. Our lifestyles were completely different during the war than they were before or afterward. For one thing, the town at night was not lit up. We had what they called the brown out here. That meant all the streetlights were off and then you had a little light coming from the store windows and such, but it was kind of like semi-dark most of the time.

MD: Were you fearful at any time as you recollect as a young man that the Japanese would invade our country. Was that something the seemed to bother the residents of Visalia?

JR: Originally, when we first entered the war everyone was afraid they were coming in. But we got over that. There was one incident where a Japanese submarine shelled Santa Barbara, an oil refinery down there and to my knowledge that and only one other occasion did the war actually touched this country. Really, I didn’t see much to be afraid of after the original shock had worn off.

MD: I think one of the interesting things about our country is that with the exception of maybe a few wars in the past, the Civil War and some of those, major wars and conflicts that our country has been in have all been on foreign land. Our buildings and infrastructure and all these have been unaffected by major war. So, just something different, something to note.

JR: No we weren’t. Actually, as far as the actual battle part of it, no, we weren’t affected at all. Like you say, there was that one incident in Santa Barbara and then they had one incident up in Oregon with one of the balloon bombs went off and killed a few people, three or four people, and that was the only thing. Well, I should qualify that and back up on that. We were having a lot of trouble on the gulf coast with German submarines sinking ships off our coastline. This is far enough away that they didn’t influence us here in this part of the country, in Tulare County.

MD: Just going back a bit to your school days, was the war discussed? As a boy amongst your friends, did you discuss the war among friends and other classmates in the schoolroom? Did teachers discuss wartime activities and things that were going on?

JR: Of course, any 14-year-old boy at that time felt that he was indestructible and most of us couldn’t hardly wait to get into it. We followed the newspapers and things that were going on around us and this was a common source of discussion. A lot about what we would like to do.

MD: You had mentioned that you enlisted in the Navy during the later part of the war. Did you have any brothers or sisters that also enlisted in the service? Can you tell us a little bit about that?

JR: My older brother, Bill, enlisted in the Navy as soon as he could get into the service and spent most of the war in the Aleutian Islands. My sister’s fiancé, Albert Moore, at that time was drafted into the Army, he ended up going to Europe, and my kid brother, George, didn’t make World War II. He had to wait till Korea to get into the service. That’s the only ones in my immediate family that went.

MD: How about yourself. Can you tell us a little about your experiences as a sailor in World War II, where you served, what ship you were on, what campaigns, if any, that you were involved in?

JR: I was on two ships. One was the Robert H. Smith, a destroyer-mine layer, and the second ship I served on was the USS Earle, which was a destroyer-mine sweeper. We got into the war right during the Okinawan campaign in July of 1945. At the end of the war, ships were all over the Pacific area near the coast of Japan ; there were grid patterns in order to rescue survivors of B29 planes that were ditched. At the time of the atomic bomb, we were way out at sea and did not see or experience those bombs.

MD: Just out of curiosity, did you incur any kamikaze attacks?

JR: Yes we did.

MD: Why don’t you describe that for us, if you could, what that was like.

JR: Well, you have airplanes coming in and shooting at you and whatnot and you were shooting back at them. That’s about all I can say.

MD: Did you see ships that were actually hit by Kamikaze?

JR: Yes. One of our relief ships was sunk just before it got to relieve us, so we had to stand until we could get a replacement out there. We had to stay on the picket line. Ships on the picket line provided an antiaircraft screen for the larger ships.

MD: Did you lose any friends or relatives in the war?

JR: We all lost friends and relatives during the war. Classmates, school mates . . .

MD: The noise we just heard: there was a bowl falling off the sink. We’ll just continue on here.

As you recollect, what effect did that have on your personally loosing friends or relatives. How did that affect your views on the war and the war effort in general?

JR: I don’t know that it really affected my views on it because we all knew that we would lose friends and relatives and everything. None of us liked to lose them. It kind of goes with the territory.

MD: A natural part of war I guess.

JR: I don’t think anybody ever gets to the point where they enjoy it.

MD: What did you do when the war ended? Did you come back to Visalia? Tell us a little about what went on in your life when the war was declared over?

JR: After we came back and I was discharged from the service, when we came home and went right to work in the Visalia Cannery before I had the chance to go to school. Then, after working on the produce run there, I started to go to COS and I guess it was too unsettled and I didn’t last too well at COS so I went to work for Standard Oil Company.

MD: Was COS a pretty small school at that time?

JR: Yes, it was much smaller than it is today. I don’t think I could even give you an approximation of what the attendance was at school, but a lot of GI’s were flooding the schools. We even had a small city built up here on the west side of Mooney Blvd., south of Mineral King, that housed GIs and their families that were going to COS.

MD: What kind of courses did you take there, out of curiosity?

JR: I just kind of took a lot of junk courses. Trying to make up for some of the courses that I didn’t make in high school, English, Algebra and Chemistry. That sort of thing.

MD: Did you graduate from COS?

JR: No, no.

MD: What one event of the war, the war years, stands out most in your memory and can you tell us why that one event was important to you?

JR: The most important event that stands out in my memory was the day the war ended. I was two days over my 18th birthday. At the time we were staging, getting ready for the invasion in Japan and we didn’t have to do it. To me, that was the most important one.

MD: That was pretty important. I’m glad we did not have to sacrifice more of our men and women and that the war had ended.

JR: And all I can say right now is thank goodness for the ‘A’ bomb.

MD: Having mentioned the Atomic Bomb, what were your thoughts about the day the atomic bomb was dropped on Japan ? How did people in our country and in Tulare County and Visalia feel about that?

JR: I can’t answer that question because at the particular time they dropped that, I wasn’t here. I don’t know what the reaction was here. I know the people around me. It’s true, the bomb killed a lot of people in Japan , but it was better them than us. Of course, I found out later that they were projecting the casualty rates that we would take if we had to make the invasion of Japan , and it would have been horrendous. The fact that we killed 150,000 people would, in the long run, the number of lives of the people that didn’t get killed was . . . their casualty rate was miniscule compared to what they would have taken and we would have taken if we’d had to continue the war. So I’m glad they did it.

MD: Let’s switch gears here a little bit then. I’d like to ask you a few things regarding your family and home front. You’d mentioned that the country was just coming out of a Great Depression when the war had started. What were things like in Tulare County just before World War II?

JR: Just before the war started, jobs were hard to find. And they were generally low paying. The unemployment rate was . . . I have no idea what the actual figures were but they were very high. If you had any kind of a job you were considered lucky and as we proceeded into approaching war they were starting some military installations here such as Rankin Field in Tulare and Sequoia Field in Visalia. They were bringing in cadets from the outside to train who were being well paid. We had this whole big work force that was being processed in there. While the wages weren’t all that high by today’s standards, they were much better than what we had been getting before. We were seeing the light at the end of the tunnel as far as making a living and everything. Also, the Visalia Canning Company was running almost at full capacity there, during their season. Before the war they were shipping a lot of the produce to England .

MD: So the war may have actually improved the economic circumstances of the folks in Tulare County?

JR: Stimulating our economy here in the county and of course, when the war first started we had a terrific drain of manpower from this area, people going into the service. Just about everybody that was old enough to go were lining up at the recruiting stations and they were shuffling people. So all of a sudden there was shortage of workers around. Almost anybody could find a job then. Another thing that was opening up to them, I don’t think people considered too much, women were being used in the workforce too.

MD: Was that pretty prevalent in Tulare County and Visalia and the surrounding communities?

JR: I don’t think we knew the status as much as they did in the larger cities where they had the big war production plants going. They had a lot of women working out at Sequoia Field that probably would not have been working if it hadn’t have been there. Another thing, as war progressed along, younger people like myself could find jobs just about anywhere we wanted to and work just about as many hours as we cared to work.

MD: You mentioned that your father was a baker at Sequoia Field and you also mentioned that you worked with him or for him one summer. I was wondering if you could tell us how you got your job there and what you thought about working at Sequoia Field and what Sequoia Field was like. Just a general description of what things were like there.

JR: I would have to say, my father got me the job there at Sequoia Field, working with him because they were having trouble finding somebody to come in there. I was game and willing to work. My main job was that I was washing pots and pans and cleaning up stuff. Oh, I did a little helping with the baking. I fried the donuts and iced the donuts and did little things like that. It was good work experience. The only down side of it was that I didn’t like working nights. When the summer ended and I couldn’t work nights any longer, I was going to have to go back to school, but I could go to work on the flight line at night, or get up early in the morning and work in the mornings, either before or after I went to school. I guess the schools kind of turned their head and didn’t see this because it was really a necessity of the time that we do it.

MD: Was there any special security measures because Sequoia Field was essentially a military installation for training pilots and those types of things, was there any type of special security measures taken at the time or could you just basically go on the base there.

JR: no, we had to go through a checkpoint, we all had badges, identification badges to go, and we knew most of the guards. They had their military guards and they had their civilian guards that manned the gates and stuff. As far as the perimeters, they had little security around the perimeters, but we were never considered a high-risk security problem.

MD: Did you get an opportunity to get to know any of the pilots training there? Any of them who might have stood out in your memory?

JR: We talked to quite a few of them. None that stood out in my memory, however since this has all occurred I have met a few people like Bruce Baird that we’re kind of in regular correspondence with now. Most of them were just people that you talked to and you’d be around them. The jobs that I had; our contact with them was not that much. We could just sit around and become acquainted with them. They were training and we were providing the services so they could be trained. That was about it, so we never developed much of camaraderie or a relationship with anybody other than the people we worked with.

MD: I just have one other question with regard to Sequoia Field. You mentioned that you worked on the flight line for a period of time there. What type of work did you do there?

JR: When I worked in the mornings, we pre-flighted the airplanes. By pre-flighting, we checked, mainly did the walk around checks that the pilots would do every time they took off. We would have to take the cowl wrappings off and check the oil and everything, and see that everything was fastened down and no obvious things were broken or should be called to attention. We started them up, warmed them up, checked the engine performance, the magnetos and stuff, and Okayed whether it was ready to go to the flight line or not for use that day. Each one of the pilots before they took off had to do the very same thing, but we just did it first thing in the morning for them. Even though it had just been done, they still had to re-do it when they came. Just what they called a walk around.

MD: Okay. Did your family purchase war bonds or participate in any other programs to support the war that you remember?

JR: Oh, yes. They purchased war bonds. Every place you went was selling war bonds, war stamps. We had contests in school for selling war bonds. We had recycling contests to see who could bring in the most scrap metal. When you went to the movie, they would have an intermission during every showing that the ushers would go through the audience and sell war stamps or war bonds, either one. Every place you went into,the bank, bar, you could . . . I remember in one of the contests we had at school there, the FFA program there in the school, we bought a Jeep with war bonds and we even got our name put on it. We didn’t actually buy it for ourselves. The Army told us what the price was for the jeep, and the High School students bought enough war bonds to pay for that jeep. So our high school name was on that jeep when it was purchased for the army. I remember going into Security First National Bank and seeing two large bombs with the price tag to raise war bonds for those. Other businesses did this and the government raised war bonds by telling people what the equipment costs.

MD: Very interesting.

JR: You’d go down to the Security Bank and you could see a big 500 lb. bombs sitting out here, and if you bought a war bond, you could sign it. Once it was paid for, it was shipped back to ordnance depot, and activated later on.

MD: How about something that was real popular back in those times were the Victory Gardens. Did you family maintain a Victory Garden here?

JR: My family had a big Victory Garden here. Most of the farm here, we had four acres of it here and we raised a good part of our food. Our school down here, we had a vacant lot they turned over to us to raise a Victory Garden there at school as a school project. This was the in thing to do, to have a Victory Garden. Really, it was quite fun.

MD: Did you feel that the things that your family did, you yourself and your family and other people in the county, made a real contribution toward the war effort? Was this something that you felt was significant or were these just things that you were told to do?

JR: No, we always thought we were really contributing to the effort there and really and truly we were. This is probably the last time in our history that we had known that people were behind the war and they got with the program. Everybody pulled. Almost everybody had to do without. With us here, having the farm we didn’t have to do without a lot of stuff because a lot of the stuff that was rationed we grew, so it didn’t affect us. We had our own beef that we raised and butchered. We had our eggs and our chickens. About the only thing that we ever had a problem with was shoes, we could only buy one pair of shoes a year, something like that, but things were in kind of short supply, but I can’t recall of anything ever being non-existent. We just couldn’t get as much of it as we would like to have had. But we had sufficient.

MD: What about entertainment type things? What did your family do for entertainment?

JR: About the only form of entertainment we had was radio and my father was not a great moviegoer, so we’d go to the movies and I think we hit about every movie that came along and a lot of our information we got through the newsreels in the movies. As far as seeing what was going on around us, I will say the government had a good propaganda program going at that time and if you ever get a chance, you should see some of those old propaganda movies.

MD: They were clips that preceded the movies as I remember? Is that right?

JR: There would be special programs that actors would get out and do bits of movies pertaining to the war effort. It was strictly for propaganda purposes, put out by the War Production Board.

MD: Did most people who went to the movies and saw the clips, did they really believe that was the truth, that was the way of it, or did they kind of really know it was propaganda?

JR: Well, propaganda is really the truth exploited. False propaganda is false propaganda, but if there is enough truth to it, it just expands a little bit on it.

MD: A little bit of an exaggeration.

JR: Point at the goods points, just neglect to show the bad parts. I really shouldn’t use the expression brainwashed, but we had a lot of brainwashing going on. Even the President, every evening on the radio he would have his fireside chats where he would just sit back and talk to you, not really as a President, but just as a person leading the country. Kind of a down home type atmosphere.

MD: How did people in Visalia generally feel about FDR? I know he was one of our country’s more prominent Presidents, but what was the general feeling towards him.

JR: Well, they elected him four times. That should answer the question. They must have liked him or they would have kept putting him back in office.

MD: He was quite a President.

JR: And he had some pretty good competition too.

MD: Let’s talk a little about the community, Visalia and the surrounding area. Was Visalia affected by any types of industry conversions? Were there plants that existed that were converted over to manufacture of war implements, armaments or things of that nature that you recall?

JR: I know there were businesses that were converted over because they couldn’t get the raw materials to work with, but they converted over into different things. Now, I cannot be specific and tell you of anybody that did that. I could do some research and come up with it, but there were several companies that actually had to go into a different line of business because of the shortage of raw materials. Actually for the most part I don’t think there were too many people hurt by the shortages or by having to make the conversions. They probably came out better off than they were because there was a market for just about anything they could produce.

MD: To your knowledge, there were no plants in Visalia that manufactured war products or things such as apparel or things that the GIs would be using overseas or any of those types of things?

JR: No, I can’t think of anything along that line or what you would consider war material. However, the agricultural industry here, the Visalia Canning Company at that time, during fruit season, would run at almost full capacity and almost everything that they processed was going for overseas production. They couldn’t get workers to fill in the gaps left by the people that left for the military so they actually utilized cadets out here from Sequoia Field. On their free time they would come down to the cannery and work for extra money. I know I worked in the warehouse all summer long before I could get to go to work out there at Sequoia Field and there again we could work just as many hours as you wanted. If you wanted to work a double shift, they’d let you work a double shift. This had always been basically a farm community and almost everything at that time was farm related. We had, between Visalia and Tulare was the Tagus Ranch out on the 99 Highway. To process the fruit there they used German POWs. We had a POW camp right there. A lot of work in harvesting the fruit.

MD: Do you recall if there were any businesses or industries that were complete shut down because of the war effort in the Visalia area?

JR: Not that I am aware of. There may have been, but I’m not really aware of any of them.

MD: OK. You also indicated earlier on that Visalia had undergone brownouts or blackouts.

JR: They called them brownouts.

MD: I wonder if you could describe your feelings about that and were there any particular air raid shelters or air raids that you had to go through and if there were shelters you had to go to and where those were located.

JR: The brownouts and everything; they were kind of fun. It wasn’t completely dark, but then it wasn’t real bright like town is lit up now. You could go down Main Street here and you’d have to look a little carefully at who was walking toward you, but there was always enough light coming from the businesses so it wasn’t like it was pitch black or anything like that. As far as an air raid shelter or an air raid drill. I can’t recall that we ever got involved into anything like that. We may have, but I missed it.

MD: In what ways did people in Visalia and the surrounding communities pull together to assist or help in the war effort that you remember.

JR: Can you give me a for instance?

MD: Well, were people willing to sacrifice personal needs and wants so there were more materials to be provided to the military machine or . . .

JR: We kind of got into the habit of saving everything that we could. I’m not talking about just my family but almost all the families and everything. There was very little waste. The public got behind the war effort and really did a good job with it. On the other side of the coin, they really didn’t have a whole lot of choice. If they didn’t save, they couldn’t get. We had gasoline rationing, meat was rationed, and butter was rationed. And then they started using margarine and this sort of thing. And you could only get so much shortening, so much sugar and things like that, so you really kind of had to save to make it go as far as it could. I think the whole community did a wonderful job of conserving and because of that, we didn’t really feel the pinch very much. I’m sure there are other countries in the world and other places in the United States that felt it much worse than we did. Like I said, basically we were an agricultural community.

MD: Rural.

JR: Rural setting and rural people are used to doing things for themselves. I think they actually subsist better than city people can.

MD: Well, I have only two other questions for you tonight, John, and these are particular. I’d like you to think about these before you answer. The first is how do you think the World War II years in Tulare County affected you personally?

JR: Growing up during World War II was kind of an experience. It wasn’t a bad experience or anything like that. In a lot of ways it was a good experience because we learned to share with people. We learned to make things go as far as they could. We did without. We are probably much better off for having to do it than if we’d had everything we wanted to do with. I hear all the time about teenagers saying, "Well, there is nothing to do, nothing to do, nothing to do," and I don’t think that I can honestly say I ever felt like a teenager. It seemed like we came up to a certain point and after that time we all grew up faster and matured faster and I think it was a good experience for all of us.

MD: OK.

JR: That we actually had to. I’m not saying that the war was a good experience, but I mean having to make do in the area here because of it was a good experience.

MD: Secondly, how do you think the World War II years affected the way Tulare County is now?

JR: Well, I think that is quite obvious. Tulare County has not stopped growing yet. They just kind of started in. There was a few years where we just plodded along and then started to come together and grow and grow, and it’s kind of an ever-growing thing, constantly . . . like an explosion. Once it starts, you can’t stop it. It just keeps right on moving. I would have to say that the county itself has done a remarkable job because of it.

MD: OK. Well, John, that concludes all the questions I have tonight. I would like to, on behalf of the Tulare County Historical Association and the citizens of Tulare County, thank you for your thoughts and remembrances tonight. It has been a pleasure speaking with you.

JR: It has been a pleasure talking to you about this and if there is every anything we can discuss or talk about, I would be more than happy to talk with anybody that wants to.

MD: Thank you very much. That concludes our interview.

Marvin Demmers/Transcriber: J Chubbuck 4/24/04/Editor: JW 10/28/04

Editor’s note: Words in italics are as a result of a phone interview with John Roller on October 29, 2004.