Pete Eleser – “I Was Real Lucky, All the Way Around…”

Pete Eleser veteran

Cpl. Louis Pete Eleser, Jr.

United States Marine Corps

WWII Pacific Theater – British Western Samoa

Mr. Pete is a soft-spoken 91 year-old man from Ponchatoula, LA who enlisted in the Marines as a young man and faithfully served in the Pacific Theater in WWII in Samoa. He and his battalion helped guard the islands from possible attack by the Japanese.

When the war was over, he came back home and married his sweetheart. He tried his hand at strawberry farming, like his dad, but it wasn’t for him. He soon got a job with the Post Office in Hammond, LA where he worked for thirty-three years.  

Were you already in the Marines before the war started?

“Yes, ma’am.

Did you enlist?

“Well I was going to school and wasn’t doing too good because I didn’t study [grins] Well, it was my fault.  Didn’t much care…

School wasn’t your thing.

“NO, not then. But I tell you, that military life is an education itself! I’ve seen what the Marines did for a lot of boys when they went in and it wasn’t long, they were men.

“And so, the war was going on in Europe. So a friend of mine wanted me to go with him into the Navy.

“And I said, ‘Sure I’ll go with you.’

“So we went to the office in Baton Rouge [April or May, 1941] and we took many tests – mental test, written test and other tests.  And I passed, but he failed.  His teeth didn’t meet or something.simple thing like that. Same thing happened to my brother with his eye.

“But anyway, I didn’t want to go without him. The recruiting officer wanted me to go, but I didn’t want to go without him. So I went back home to work on the farm and for Bird’s Eye Frozen Food [in Ponchatoula].

“Another friend of mine got his draft notice and he was a little older than I was and he didn’t want to go into the Army. So he told me, ‘I want to go in, but I don’t want to be drafted.’  So we went down to New Orleans to enlist.

Fullscreen capture 472014 123008 AM.bmp“We went to the recruiting office and there was a line of people there – all blacks.  We were wondering what was going on.  So the recruiting officer called us over and said, ‘Y’all come to enlist?’

“And we said, ‘Yeah.’

“He said, ‘Well, you’ll have to come back next month, cause this month we’re taking nothing but blacks.’

So when was this?

“In June. June the 5th [1941].

“And so we went walking out the door and saw a sign that said, ‘Marines Need You!’ And I looked at him and he said, ‘Let’s go join the Marines!’

“I said, ‘What’s the Marines?’ [he chuckles]  I mean, we were on the farm.  We didn’t know. And we got to inquiring and we had to go to the Federal Building and they said, ‘C’mon in!’

“And the same thing again – physical, written test, and all that. Well, we passed and they said, ‘Come back in the morning and take your oath,’ and all that stuff.

“There was two of us and one fellow from Shreveport that had come the day before and he was waiting, and there was two from New Orleans.  There was five of us at one time.  So they put us on a train to go to San Diego, to boot camp, the Marine Corps base.

“And we got to the base and one of the fellows said, ‘Let’s go in town and see what it’s like.’

“‘Oh, no,’ another said. ‘Let’s go to the base and freshen up and take a bath and then we’ll come back.’

Fullscreen capture 472014 124616 AM.bmp“[Laughs] We walked in the gate – SUCKERS!  We couldn’t understand — we had to wait three or four days.  It wasn’t like after the war.

“It was two or three or four [people] one day – build up, you know — enough for a battalion.

“So the first morning, we were in our bunks. About 4 o’clock in the morning someone was beating on a bucket and walked in the door.

‘Get up!  Get up!’  It was our DI [drill instructor] and he was a hollering, ‘GET UP!’

“It was double row of bunks three high on both sides. He said, ‘I’m going to walk to the other end and anybody’s not up, I’m turning you over in your bunk!’

“And he DID!  For a couple of’em.

“I was UP! [Laughs]

“So I said [to myself], ‘What the heck did I get into…?!’

“And I went off from there to boot camp.  And boot camp was good. Rough! But good. When I look back it was what we needed to get the civilian life out of you.  So went on to boot camp – 5 weeks or 6 weeks. We marched and drilled and did all kinds of training and stuff like that.

“And they put a scatter sheet out.  You and you going here, and you and you going there. And I transferred to Camp — right there in San Diego – to an infantry company to start training.  Everyday that’s all we do is go out and train.  Go out in the boondocks, take hikes – 5, 10, 15 mile hikes and stuff like that.

“In December, we were on guard duty.  Each company had to go on guard duty.  It wasn’t a punishment, just everyone had to take a turn to do it a month at a time. And our company, it was our weekend to have guard duty and my watch was from 4:00 to 8:00, I think it was.

“And after we finished our watch we had to go back to the barracks and wait for the rest of ‘em to come Sunday morning.  And when I got back to the barracks, I saw the company commander and all the officers — and that was unusual to see them on Sunday.  And they came around and said, ‘Nobody leaves the barracks.’ Not even to go to the PX which was right across the street.

“What’s going on?”

“Somebody had a radio and they turned it on. The Japanese just bombed Pearl Harbor.

‘Where is Pearl Harbor?!’  Some of the older Marines told us where it was.

“So from then on, it started picking up.

“That first night, during the night they got us up.  Supposedly they spotted some ship close to Mexico down there so they got us up and all along the beach they lined us up and put us in fox holes and were not to allow anyone to come in from the water — from the ocean.

“So one boat was coming in – a Higgins boat – a small boat.  And they hollered in the loud speaker, ‘Halt!’

Fullscreen capture 472014 15932 PM.bmp“And it kept coming.  So they fired a volley in front of them.

“And it looked like they had air breaks!! [laughs]

But it turned out to be some Navy personnel out there and they weren’t going to listen to a bunch of Marines — but they did!

And it really picked up after that. But anyway, that’s when it started.

“And we got ready to go on board a ship to go overseas.  We were on the USS Lurline which was a passenger ship, but it was converted to a troop ship for the war effort during the war.

“So we’d load the ship, go down there and get all sweaty and then come out of there to get air.  Some of us got ‘cat fever’ – got sick.  It was kind of like the flu.

So they went to leave [for the Pacific] and they left us [on the mainland], and got replacements [for us].

“We were transferred to another company to wait our turn. And as recruits came in, they were building up [the battalion].

“The 2nd Marine [Division] had been in Iceland [because of a threat of German invasion during 1941]. They served in Iceland and when their term was up they came back and broke up and some would come into different companies to build up the strength. They had experience there that they could teach us.

“There were three battalions in a regiment.  So the regiment was training to go overseas, but we didn’t know where or nothing.

“Oh, the day before we were supposed to go overseas, we were having a boxing thing at the camp.  And when you box, you’re supposed to tape your hand and your wrist.  Well I was practicing with the gloves on without any tape or nothing.

“And I fell and broke my hand right in here [back of his hand] and when they taped it, they put something in here [for him to grip] and they taped it up where I just had these two fingers [thumb and index fingers on his left hand].  And that’s how I got aboard ship carrying my sea bag.

“And after we got about three days out, we turned our old rifle in and they give us a new M-1 rifle in cosmoline – grease.

Fullscreen capture 472014 55947 PM.bmp“And we had to clean it….and I was [fumbles with his hands like it’s taped up] and I was out of time.

And with only two fingers on one hand!

“It was an experience. We had to go to school on the thing.  We didn’t know what an M-1 was.  Had to take it down [apart].

How long did you have to keep your hand bandaged up?

I don’t remember…about a month.

Oh wow.

And then after that, if I do that [opens and closes his hand] I could feel those two bones.  It didn’t heal properly.

“So, we got ready to load up to leave and they got us up about 5:30 or 6:00 [AM] and we got all cleaned up outside the tents and everything.  In other words, “Hurry, and then wait.” [chuckle] That was the morning — early, and we got aboard ship at 12:30. [chuckle]

“And there was one ship. That’s all.  We had a little escort, to escort us out of the harbor and that was it.  We were on our own! We were a little worried about that because the war was just started, you know.

The USS Lurline that he was supposed to be on survived a near miss by a Japanese torpedo.

“And it took a long time.  It took 19 days to get down to Samoa because the ship would zig-zag so the Japs couldn’t follow us.  And at 6:00 in the evening, they would dump the garbage out at night.  You weren’t even supposed to throw a cigarette butt out or nothing because [the Japanese] would pick it up and tell where you were.

“First we arrived at Pango-pango in American Samoa. And I think they set some troops off, I don’t know. And then we went on the next day to British Samoa.

“And it was friendly natives and all, you know?

“What they were doing, the Japanese had started island-hopping.  They’d take one island and another one.  We only had one battalion and [they] put us on an island on standby, just in case.  And of course if something were to happen and somebody invaded, we would have got some help.

“So that’s why I say I was lucky.  I was put there — but then, [we’d get] what they call “rock happy” – because over and over [we’d] drill, you know, would have alerts.  You never knew when it was the real thing, like that, you know – nerve-wracking! (Rock Happy = mildly deranged as the result of long overseas duty at a remote station, usually an island.)

It made you jumpy.

“Yeah. It stayed like that.

“Then they brought the 1st Marines in from the east coast to train and stay there.  And it was over and over like that.

“And so, that’s why I say I was lucky in one way.

Fullscreen capture 472014 51504 PM.bmp“But it got nerve-wracking!  Some of the fellows couldn’t take it. They shot themselves and stuff like that.

Oh my!

“Just cracked-up.

Was this still early in the war?

” ’42, yeah it was ’42.

You stayed there for how long?

“I only stayed there for eighteen months.”

In the second half of Mr. Eleser’s interview, he shares about what it was like living on the island and his bout with elephantitis and how it affected the rest of his service during WWII. He also recalls his short visit to the famous star-studded Hollywood Canteen in California.


One Comment Add yours

  1. gpcox says:

    Mr. Eleser has a great sense of humor. I always love how all the vets somehow manage to say – “Hurry up and wait!”

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