A Dame and a Sailor.Kay Wells and Robert James
interviewed by Anthony Todd Carlisle.
Kay Wells and Robert James were carefree youngsters when World War II started. Wells was a blushing 22-year-old bride, living in Cleveland, Ohio, with her whole life ahead of her. James was a 17-year-old senior in Pittsburgh's Central Catholic High School whose days were filled with athletics, family, church and occasional mischief.
Life as they knew it changed forever on December 7, 1941. That was the day Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, pushing America into the European war. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt said it would be a day that lives in infamy. For both Wells and James, it was the beginning of an adventure for them. War came to consume their lives.
Wells and James were no different than other young people at that time. War, as always, meant young men leaving home to fight and, possibly, to die for their country. World War II, like other wars, was a rite of passage for boys, many just graduating from high school. They went from being boys to becoming men quickly. James' passage came by way of the Navy. James will tell you that his passage into manhood was not made alone; James was guided by his father, George. In fact, it was James' connection with his entire family that helped him through the war.
Wells spent the war on the home front. Nonetheless, she was very much an instrumental part of the war effort. Just like other women her age during that time, Wells left her home and went to work in a military defense plant. Wells helped to make goods vital to the war effort. Also, just like other women during that time, it was Wells' first job outside the home. In addition to working, Wells volunteered her time during the war by dancing with soldiers at local events. She would be among the first to volunteer. Wells had three main reasons for being patriotic and throwing her support behind the war effort. Those reasons were her brothers, Moe, Tony and Mikey. Wells said she wanted to support the "hellions."
Kay Wells was born Feb. 18, 1919 in Cleveland, Ohio under the "High Level Bridge," as she likes to say. Wells said that was the running joke for Cleveland residents. It was a real bridge that ran from the East Side to the West Side of Cleveland. Wells was the third child in a family of six children. Her family was new to the country. Wells said her father and mother moved to the United States from Italy.
Wells' father, Tony, only had a little time in America. He died at the age of 32. Wells' mother, Josephine, was left raising the family.
"My mother raised us without a man, and she had it pretty rough," Wells said.
By the time war came, Wells was out of the house and a married woman. She married Frank Wells in 1940. Wells said she remembers the attack on Pearl Harbor like it was yesterday.
"We had two friends of ours who were killed," Wells said. "They did work for my husband. They had quite the memorial for them at the plant."
The news of Pearl Harbor had a shocking effect on her, the couple's friends, neighbors and family. Wells said no one expected the attack to occur, and everyone was scared.
"I was scared for the family," Wells said. "All I could think about was, will they come over here and bomb us? My mom even said that in Italian; ' I hope they don't come this way."
For Wells' mother, Japan's attack and the start of America's involvement meant sending her sons off to war. Her brother Jim, whom the family called Moe, went into the service first. Moe joined the Army. Tony went in the military next. Tony tried to sign up for the Army first, but he had a silver plate in his leg and 72 stitches.
"The Army wouldn't take him, but the Navy would," Wells said.
Wells' half-brother Mikey went into the Army. The brothers spent time in Africa, France and Italy. Wells said she was more worried about her mother than her "hellion" brothers. Wells' oldest brother, Joe, didn't serve in the military.
"I felt sorry for her," Wells said. "She had three boys in the war. I could imagine how my mom felt going to bed at night, wondering if her boys were safe. She wondered if they were being protected. I think she just held her breath through it. "
Wells said the brothers kept in touch as often as possible. She said they were getting letters every three days like clockwork. However, they never knew where the boys were.
"They couldn't tell you where they were," Wells said. " And they had to be very careful of what they said in their letters. They would just say, 'we're fine, and please send my care package.'"
Wells said she and sister Grace would send the brothers Italian pepperoni, Italian cheese, brownies, cookies and candy. Wells said she was never really worried about her brothers not making it through the war, even though they had hazardous jobs. Tony was part of an amphibious boat crew that took soldiers ashore. Moe handled explosives, and Mikey was in artillery. Wells said Moe had a flame thrower explode on his back. Tony was hurt after his boat exploded.
"They were all daredevils," Wells said. My mother would say, 'those are my boys, the crazy loonies.'"
Wells didn't have to worry about her husband, Frank, being drafted. He was 20 years her senior. The military was not drafting men Frank's age. Frank was 42 at the time. Another reason Frank didn't go to war was because he was a troubleshooter for Oliver Corp., which was formerly the Cleveland Tractor. The company made parts for the war. Frank went around the country when there were problems. "He wanted to go," Wells said. "He wanted to go even after he went to work for the foundry. His employer would say that he's more important there than he would be in the service."
Wells too became a valuable member of the work force. Just like other women of the time, she answered the call to work in the defense plants. Wells worked at Parker Appliance. The company made nuts and bolts for airplanes. She had to buy her own tools.
"They started you out at $1.72 per hour," Wells said. " That was a lot of money. A lot of women were working. Most of the plants that were making things for the war all turned over to women. We learned how to do a lot of things. People were shocked. The women were not going to sit at home. Our boys were doing a job, and we were going to work. Patriotic is what they called it, but I just think women were bored to death sitting at home."
In addition to work, what else kept Wells busy, while supporting the war effort, was the local shows for military men. Wells said companies would have nights they sent girls to the shows to entertain returning soldiers. Wells said she always volunteered, and she enjoyed dancing with the soldiers. Wells said her husband was supportive.
"He would say, 'Kay, go and have some fun,'" Wells said.
Fun is definitely what she had. Wells said many of the big name acts during that time performed at the shows. Wells named Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin, Joey Bishop and Bob Hope as some of the entertainers she saw.
Work or play, war affected every part of living. Withstanding the life and death aspect, war even touched the mundane of life, such as food. Food was rationed, along with gasoline, tires, shoes, and alcohol. Women couldn't get stockings. Wells and her sister kept their brothers in cakes and candies and the brothers , in return, kept them in stockings.
"Silk stockings were just impossible to get," Wells said. "If you got a pair of stockings, you were lucky, and, believe me, when you got them, you guarded them with your life."
According to Wells, everything went to the war effort. "The war came first and you came second," she said. Wells said people were more careful with food, and they rode streetcars instead of a car.
"You couldn't help but think about war. Everybody was war conscious," Wells said.
Wells said there were always stories about friends who were killed. The neighbors would discuss the letters they received from family members serving. Neighbors seemed to become closer during the war years. Wells said she lived in a mixed neighborhood. People were always on the look out for a visit in the neighborhood. Wells said she remembers when Mr. Walker got that visit. Even though his family was black and it was the early '40s, the neighbors still rallied around the Walkers during their time of need.
"I remember when Mr. Walker's oldest boy got killed," Wells said. "We saw that Army wagon or jeep. My mom saw it first, and she said, 'Mr. Walker got a jeep in front his house and a captain walked out.' I said, 'hope it's not bad.' The next day my mother talked to Mrs. Walker, who said her son got killed. He was a pilot.
"They sent the body back and there was a memorial for him. Mr. and Mrs. Walker took it very hard. For a long time, everyone was so careful how they approached the Walkers. That was the first person that got killed in our neighborhood. All the neighbors got together and made dishes and took to the family. I think the war made us closer."
For Robert James, the war meant a new closeness with his family. James was born in 1923 in the small town of Newton Falls, Ohio, with a population of 1,500. He grew up in Youngstown and at the age of seven moved to Weirton, West Virginia. He lived there until he was 13. The family moved to Pittsburgh in 1937 when James was 13.
James came from a family steeped in military history and war service. James' father and uncles fought in World War I as United States Marines. Because of the camaraderie among James' dad and his brothers, war and military were subjects often discussed in the James house. He remembers seeing his father and uncles in the corner speaking in whispers about aggressions occurring around the world--Japan and China fighting in Manchuria, Mussolini in Ethiopia in 1935, Hitler invading Poland in 1939.
"There were these little wars popping up right through my childhood," James said. And finally in 1939, when I was a freshmen in high school, bingo, Hitler goes into Poland. Poland at that time had the largest standing army in Europe. Most of it was cavalry. Hitler had redesigned the use of the tank. By moving into Poland with his tanks, he was able to overtake it so fast, particularly, if you compare it to the static trench fighting in World War I. They were fighting for 18 months in a trench, and Hitler now is gobbling up nations within weeks. It was frightening."
James and his friends both marveled at and feared Hitler.
"We regarded Hitler as the devil incarnate," James said. " He was, from our perspective, a true military genius. Just like Midas, everything he touched turned to gold. Everything Hitler thought of in a military sense turned into a victory. So, we were wondering what kind of maniac this guy was? What kind of genius?"
James said the signs of war, though, didn't prepare him for Pearl Harbor, or, more specifically, the day after Pearl Harbor. James said Dec. 8, is a day that he will always remember. He remembered returning home from Mass, turning on the radio and listening to President Roosevelt ask Congress to declare war on Japan and Germany.
"That was such a chilling thing to hear those words," James said. "Pearl Harbor in and of itself was one horrendous wake-up call. It was a wake up to what? The next day, December 8, when you hear your president calling and asking the Congress to declare war. Man, that was the final blow. It was like being hit in the heart with a sledgehammer. It was really dramatic. We just stood there transfixed."
Talk of war spread through his community. James said he remembers mass confusion, concern and worry. Parents didn't want to send their children off to war. James' parents, George and Helen, weren't any different. They were fearful for their son, who would be graduating that June. James was the eldest of four children, which included Flo, Dorothy and George, who is 15 years younger than he.
"I wanted to go in," James said. "My dad didn't want me to. He was a Marine in World War I. His younger brother was a Marine in World War I. My mother's oldest brother was a Marine in World War I, so this was almost like a tradition in my family. This was something. I grew up seeing my dad in his uniform at different times, and hearing him speak so glowingly about the Marine Corps. He talked about how he came out of the coal mines of Somerset County as a raw bone kid to enlist down here in Pittsburgh."
It would be some time before James followed his father's footsteps. What James did follow was his father's advice and went to college. James studied engineering at the University of Pittsburgh. He struggled with being in school, while his friends and family members were joining the service.
"Little old ladies would see you on the street and come up to you and berate you for standing there, for being alive, for being here because their sons, their grandsons, were in the service," James said. "And you look big and healthy, so what the hell were you doing now? Why aren't you over there? They felt as if they were getting cheated. Their kids were in the service and here you are, a slacker. So, you slunk around the streets. You felt just terrible that you weren't in the service."
James' stint in college, however, didn't last long. James discovered that he and math were incompatible, and he decided to let his deferment run out. James could have theoretically sat out the entire war. His deferment would have been up in 1946 by the time the war was over. The problem James now had was his being drafted meant he couldn't choose the branch he wanted. James' father definitely didn't want his son to become a Marine. He told him to go into the Navy. George James thought his son would be safer in the Navy. That choice, however, was no longer up to James--so they thought.
James reported to the in-processing station Downtown to take his physical. He almost didn't make it beyond the physical. He had a heart murmur. His heart murmur nearly classified him as a 4F case. The military ranked individuals from 1A to 4F. If you were 1A, that meant you were ready for service. Those ranked 4F were unfit to serve for various reasons, one being health. It was James' family doctor, a draft board member, who discovered the heart murmur. To this day, James thinks his family doctor was in cahoots with his parents to keep him out of the military.
"We're all in this little cubbyhole waiting to be examined," James said. "All of us are siting in our skivvies, shivering in August. I don't know why it was so damn cold. I don't think we had air conditioning. I know we were shivering. Maybe, we were all scared.
"When I get examined, the doctors heard a heart murmur. These doctors begin whispering, and one of them tells me to run up the steps. So, I ran up the steps and come back and this heart murmur disappears. Then I sit, and the heart murmur would come back. My family doctor is trying to have those other doctors make me a 4F. The other doctors make me go run up the steps again. I run up the steps again. I come back, and the murmur is gone. They convened some more. I must have ran up those steps in that hospital about eight or nine times. And when they said run, I didn't just casually jog. We were trained in our day to be disciplined, to obey authority. So, I ran as fast as I could up those damn steps. With my lungs bursting, they finally said, I was OK, and gave me an A1 status. That was in July. Bingo, I was in the service by the middle of August."
After passing his physical, James was told to go down the hall for Army recruits. Instead of doing so and defying his father's authority, he defied the military's authority and went to the Navy recruiting station.
"There was a Lieutenant Commander standing there. I went to him, and I handed him my papers," James said. "He asked me, what was I doing here? 'You should be down the hall.' I said, 'I don't want to be in the Army; my dad was a Marine, and he wants me to be in the Navy.' He said, 'Why do you want to be in the Navy?' I said, 'For the same reason you want to be in the Navy.' He said, 'OK, (he stamps my papers) you're in the Navy. Just like that.'"
James, even today, doesn't know how he pulled that off. Through his prayers, nerve and chutzpah, he ended up in the Navy. That was August 16,1943.
James saw this minor miracle as the beginning of his father's hand and guidance through his military service. In fact, James took his oath at the same location his father did for service in World War I. James' father traveled 70 or 80 miles to the Smithfield Post Office where he enlisted in 1916. Now, he was doing the same thing 27 years later.
"As I stood there, it was sort of symbolic," James said. "I could honestly feel sort of like a kinship of stepping in his footsteps, following him to a degree."
James took a train to Chicago for his seven-week boot camp. A medical shot in the arm that went awry was the worst part of boot camp, according to James. He was in shape and came from an authoritarian home, which meant taking orders was not difficult for him.
After boot camp, James went to Key West, Florida for anti-submarine warfare school. He was training to be a sound man, a person who listens for submarines. James was not pleased with the Navy's decision to send him to Key West. James had wanted to be on an aircraft carrier and work as a mechanic, fixing airplanes. He had asked to be an aviation mechanic, and he took a military aptitude test. James, who is tone deaf, thinks his dreaded violin lessons he took as a kid, and math and science courses he barely passed in college, are the reasons why he was chosen to go to the anti-submarine school.
"I had taken violin lessons when I was a little kid, and I was tone deaf. I couldn't even tune the damn violin," James said. "Here they have me listening for submarines. Little did they realize that a stone ear was protecting them. To this day, I still don't know if it was the violin lessons, the math and science courses that I almost flunked or that I just did poorly on the aptitude test as the reason why I was made a sound man."
After sound training school in Florida, James took off to his first assignment. He went to Miami and was assigned to a patrol ship escort. His ship didn't have a name, and it was half the size of a destroyer, which is about 400 feet long. James' ship was a 188 feet and carried 100 men and 10 officers. His ship did a lot of patrols right off the United States' coast. What made James' ship special to him was that it was commissioned on March 4, 1944, his sister's Flo's birthday. The ship sailed to New Orleans and was on its way to the Bermuda. However, before going to Bermuda, his ship was sent to New York to pick up a tanker. James remembers going past the Statue of Liberty.
"It was the first time I saw it," James said. "I experienced such an emotion, a sense of awe. There was a gratitude and appreciation of America."
Shortly after that experience, James was overcome again. He saw another connection to his family, specifically his father. He saw the USS Pennsylvania docked. It was an old World War I battleship, which was the sister ship of USS Texas, on which his father had served.
"My heart leaped a second time," James said. "There were all these little different connections. My ship was put in commission on my sister's birthday; right after that, I see the Statue of Liberty, and then I see the USS Pennsylvania, giving me a link with my dad. I was sort of a sentimental individual, and fancied myself becoming a writer some day. I saw all of these things as important little incidents that would spark my creative juices one day."
Life on the ship was pretty ordinary for the most part, according to James. James was a Third Class sound man, and, during his tour, he eventually made Second Class. He could have been First Class, but, by the time he would have been promoted, he was preparing for discharge from the military. James spent the war listening for the enemy. He thinks his ship only came in contact with an enemy submarine twice.
All the sailors worked four-hour watches at sea. They were on call for four hours and off for eight hours. The four-hour watches were rotated.
"Someone would wake you up 15 minutes before you went on watch because you always relieved someone 15 minutes before their watch was over. It was sort of a custom. You didn't go to the bathroom, you didn't wash up or go shower. You just put your clothes on went to the mess deck. There was always a pot of coffee and cold cut sandwiches. You eat a sandwich and go to your station."
James said once the sailor was relieved, he could go back and grab some sleep, but had to be up at about 0700. When you weren't on watch, though, there was time to read and write letters.
James made $122 as a Second Class sound man, and he made an extra $5 monthly for being the ship's mailman. That allowed him to be among the first people who went ashore in port.
James saw his stint in the Navy as a big adventure. He was in Casablanca, New Orleans, New York, Miami, San Francisco, Cuba and Panama. James said he never felt he was in real danger. The ship was never under attack. He said he didn't experience a lot of fear, though he knew other guys that were frightened. Some of the sailors walked around with life preservers. James said the most frightening experience was being at sea during a hurricane.
"I read somewhere that at sea in a hurricane it sounds as if someone let loose all the demons in Hell," James said.
James said they were caught in two hurricanes in which the ship had to go through 40-foot waves. The waves would lift them up and the ship would then slide, as if at an amusement park roller coaster.
"When that sea hit the side of the ship, it sounded like someone was hitting the ship with a sledgehammer," he said.
Faith in God, the people on the ship, the leadership and his family are what helped him get through. James also took a fatalistic approach.
"I figured if I'm supposed to live, I'm going to live. If I'm supposed to get through this, I will. If I'm not, there's nothing I can do about it. I went about my work, and I was never really afraid."
After the Germans surrendered in 1945, James' ship became a radar rescue pick up ship. The ship was redesigned to enable it to carry large weather balloons. The balloons were released and they would be used to pick up weather readings using the ship's equipment. James said his ship was just one day out of the Panama Canal, heading toward the Philippines when the bombs were dropped on Japan, ending the war.
"Our job would have us 600 miles from Saipan. We would have patrolled little sections," James said. "Japan still had quite a formidable Navy left. We were very happy when they dropped the second bomb."
"With the war over, it was just a big thrill, especially in California. You see in those old Life magazine photographs of women grabbing sailors and servicemen and kissing them. Boy, I wish that would have happened to me. We were out to sea."
James contends that his only big adventure of World War II happened after the war was over. His ship was still patrolling around the San Francisco coast because the Japanese floated mines off of Alaska. The mines would follow the currents and could be anywhere from a few miles to several hundred miles off the coast. This one day, James was on his bunk asleep. The general quarters alarm sounded, but it wasn't enough to wake James. The ship rolled, knocking him off his bunk and waking him up. James heard a thunderous boom, the alarm was going off and he thought the ship was under attack.
"I run topside, and every gun we have is being fired," James said. "People are shooting 45s, 22 mms. Tracers are bouncing off the surface of the ocean, and then we even turn to our big cannon that we never fired during the damn war."
James finds out that the captain wants to sink a mine floating in the ocean. He went to his tactical officer and asked him for his rifle. James said he just knew he could hit the mine. James drew once again on his father. His father had been an expert riflemen in World War I. James had been a good shot in boot camp.
"I just assumed I inherited my dad's gift," James said.
James said he came down on the target and waited for the ship to roll. The mine was about 200 yards out.
"When the ship came up, I pulled the trigger, and there was this big explosion," James said. "I assumed I hit the target. I took the rifle, and I threw it back at the tactical officer. I said, "Now, can I go back to my bunk. I was a big man. I've told that story in taverns and to my bowling and golfing buddies. I say, 'Did I ever tell you how I saved the West Coast during World War II?'"
World War II meant different things to Wells and James. Yet, on the other hand, World War II meant very much the same--duty, honor and service. Wells and James lived through the "Great One" (or "Two," in this case) and are able to talk about it. They saw and know the devastating effect war has on human life. And even so, they are able to tell stories that capture sun rays of a dark time. They are able to tell funny stories and share light human moments, which transcend the horrors of war. An example of this is Wells' recollection of when Japan surrendered.
"Betty called and she said, 'Kay, wake Frank up, and tell him to meet us Downtown. We are going to celebrate. The war is over.' You could hear the horns blowing, bells ringing. I don't think anybody slept for three days."
For Wells, the war meant leaving home for the first time and taking a job, where she had to not only use but buy her own tools. The war gave her a sense of independence, and a sense of confidence in her abilities. She was a part of the war effort. In addition, Wells, because of circumstance, was able to see the war beyond herself. She watched the war through the eyes of her brothers. She learned and understood the reality of war. By the grace of God, all three of her brothers made it home in one piece. Wells said each brother reacted differently from their war experiences. None of them talked about the war.
"Before the war, Moe was never home," Wells said. "When you wanted Moe, you had to go out looking for him. When he came back from the service, he was quiet and withdrawn. I think he hated what happened there. He was like that for a long time. Tony was different. He was a hellion all the way around, and when he got home he was full of hell, period. He said, he had some making up to do. My brother Mikey was half and half. Sometimes he would just get real quiet. It was like he was mulling things over in his mind. He snapped out of it afterwards. All three of them were devils."
When Wells thinks about the war and her experiences on the home front, her feelings are clear and concise.
"I felt I done my duty in accepting the rationing," Wells said. "It was my country. I live here. For my freedom, I didn't think it was very much to have to give up."
James went into war knowing that he could possibly give up the very thing he was still learning about--life. James went into the Navy as a boy, still in his teens. He was na´ve, shy around girls, and hadn't lived on his own. By the time the war was over and James was discharged, he was in his 20s, he had become quite the lady's man, and he had been around the world. James had grown into a man in that short time. He saw dying, which taught him how to live. James blossomed. Nonetheless, he will tell you that his service sometimes leaves him with mixed feelings.
"I wondered at times what it would have been like to be on a Navy ship through combat," James said. "I was blessed that we either got to places too soon or too late, therefore none of us was hurt. I don't carry any battle scars in my old age. I don't have joint problems or any dramatic effects that other people have from war experiences. So, I'm really, on one hand, most grateful, blessed and fortunate. On the other hand, a little part of me, asks, 'What would it have been like?'"
Even though James didn't go through any battles, his tale also underscores what it is like for a veteran trying to adjust again to civilian life. After the war, James headed back to the University of Pittsburgh to become a lawyer. After a counselor remarked how old he would be by the time he graduated from law school, James decided Pitt was not the school for him, and he went to Duquesne University. James eventually went into the journalism program at Duquesne, graduating in 1950. James said getting back into every day life was difficult.
"I just wasn't with it. I couldn't pay attention in class," James said. "It wasn't until my second semester of my freshmen year that I settled down and could take coherent notes. San Francisco had been a carefree time, and everything there was the future. Well, the future was now, and when I got home, the future became a frightening thing. I probably experienced some type of psychological thing that I was not aware of until several years later."
Even so, James wouldn't trade his service in the war for a million dollars. His shooting of a Japanese mine was a defining moment. It brought the war to a full circle for James, who was separated from the military March 16, 1946. James' connection to his father and his family could be viewed as a microcosm for America during World War II. The war was about loved ones, connections and family. The war was about faith that America had the high moral ground and would and could defeat aggression, ensuring democracy would prevail. James, like other Americans, saw the war in terms of a tradition of America's warrior legacy and past. It was also that warrior legacy that allowed Americans to believe that the country would win the war. It was the basis of James' knowing that, when he shot the Japanese mine from 200 yards out on a rolling ship using a 1903 Springfield rifle, it would be nothing but bull's-eye.
"I just knew that I could do it because of my dad," James said. "That's the kind of faith I had. I had a blind faith about the link between my father and me."
Entered: 21 September 2000.
Last Updated: 21 May 2001.