Theodore “Ted” Gutches, Jr.
U.S. Army 44th and 266th Coast Artillery and the Transportation Corps
Pre-WWII Hawaii and WWII Alaska
The start of my Army career, I had just made my eighteenth birthday at the end of May 1939 in New Jersey. I was a wanderer for a long time when I left home and hardly ever went back after my fourteenth birthday. I supported myself one way or another. I hitchhiked a lot. I went across the United States, twice —
— on my thumb.
Wow. And your mom said, “Ok?”
Well she knew I had to wander. And when I came back I had lots of stories to tell.
[Then] I was mulling over in my mind what I wanted to do. I wanted to travel more and I didn’t know how ‘cause I couldn’t hitchhike across the Pacific Ocean! I wanted to go to the Philippine Islands and Hawaii and on June 9, 1939 I went to the second floor of the post office building in Passaic, New Jersey, and I enlisted. [The United States had not yet entered World War II.]
Now I thought that I could go into the Air force and maybe continue flying [he had become a pilot]. They did not have an opening in the air force because at that time the Army was small. I think it was 275,000 men and they are usually very, very particular who they got. But they had an opening in the Coast Artillery.
Now the Coast Artillery was of the people other than the Air Force. It was considered to be the elite – over the field artillery, over the infantry, the engineers, everything else. And they had marvelous, exciting things that they did.
Well anyway, I joined and they said you are going to the Port of Hawaii, to Fort Kamehameha at the entry to Pearl Harbor. It had big concrete – things, and it had big, big guns in them – BIG ones – and the disappearing mounts and things like that, and barbette mounts.
A barbette mount is one where it’s set and the recoil goes down in the ground and you can turn it around and you can make it go up a little ways [almost vertical] and you get to a point where a rise in elevation reduces the range.
Well I liked the Coast Artillery because this company had its own steam engine [he shows me his hat]. This is the regimental badge of the 44th Coast Artillery. The ring is a railroad ring. They used to put the train with a gun on that. It’d recoil and go around. And there are two Hawaiian spears. But then after six or eight months – after I really got to learn the steam engine (you had to shovel coal and make a fire, not oil. And it was bituminous – soft coal. Once in a while you get anthracite, but not often because it was so expensive and the Army was very careful about what it spent in those days.) There were two guys to shovel coal and I was the engineer.
I was a PFC [private first class] then, and an army private’s pay was supposed to be $21 a month. So you made $21 a day/ once a month. [He chuckles]
Anytime I got a chance to run the steam engine, I did. But then all of a sudden, they decided, “We don’t need this steam engine. We don’t have to have the expense of it. We’re going to sell it to someone who has narrow gauge tracks up in the mountains somewhere or some other country. We are going to use Hawaii’s railroad steam engines to pull our guns around.”
There’s two carbon things in there. And you had to be careful to bring in the positive one and bring it to the negative one. The negative one was [as big around as his thumb]. And the front end of it has a little cove. And you would bring the positive one with the electric charge to it but it must not touch that other carbon! ‘Cause if you did, you’d probably knock the edge off of it and then the little ball of light would spill out. So you had to go in there and ignite it and as soon as you did, you backed off three-eighths of an inch at the most.
It took skill! And I could do it quick! And now I have this huge light up in the sky! Five thousand feet!
And [the Coast Artillery] had its own interesting things. It had its own trucks and I liked working on trucks. I could take an engine out of this truck and I’d pull it all apart and Monday morning it’s back on the line working.
You WERE a mechanic.
But I didn’t want to be a mechanic. That’s what happened when I tried to get at Hickam Field which was right next to Fort Kam. I went over there to try to get transferred and they said, “Ok, we’ll transfer you. We’ve got a place for you in the machine shop and you’ll be rebuilding engines there.”
“But wait a minute. I want to fly.”
They said, “No, we don’t have any openings for flyers. All the flying spots are taken up. You won’t get that. You’ll have to go into the shop and repair engines and clean spark plugs.”
I said, “The hell with that.”
So I didn’t do it. And besides I was interested in the Coast Artillery – especially the big guns! Oh I like that!
The gun would come and get it all set up to put the projectile in it. We have a projectile that weighs more than a Volkswagen automobile. You open the breech and you have six men carrying this one big projectile on a rack. They bring it up to the breech and four guys with a ramrod come and shove that projectile up into the breach of the big gun. Then they back away and here comes about six guys with bags of powder. Raw silk bags. They have to ram those bags up in behind the projectile. Now we close the breech. KA-LUMP! And now you wait for the signal from the leader on how to aim the gun – so many degrees this way, so many degrees that way, so many degrees up or down – and fire. He pulls the string, and the detonator which you had put into the breach, shoots a flame out of it and lights up those silk bags with the powder in it and sends that projectile 30 miles out into the sea.
That’s amazing! What’d you do about the sound?
Oh boy! (He puts his fingers in his ears and chuckles)
And they had some guns — the 155’s which are a little over six inches. The 155 GPFs had wheels on them. They were a present from France from World War I. And they said right on them that that’s what they were. Six and one-tenth inches. There were guns from six inches to sixteen inches in diameter. And those shells weighed well over a ton.
They could do some damage!
It was exciting! I liked the Coast Artillery!
There wasn’t really a threat at that point, was there?
No. We really didn’t have any idea that anything was going to happen.
Then the end of my tour – now in between I did some other things – I went to Japan, China, I went to India, I went to Borneo, Brunei, and Sarawac, the Philippine Islands. We were testing radios. Hallicrafters radios was trying to get the military to accept their radios.
Hallicrafters. Man, they made beautiful radios.
I’ve never heard of them.
And they were very light! The radios we getting up to that time were made by the Signal Corps in New Jersey. I think it was Monmouth, New Jersey. And they were heavy. I mean, you could drop them off of a cliff and nothing would happen to them. And they were very simple. No sophistication here. But with the Hallicrafters, it was different. And they wanted us to take these radios and I went with a sergeant and a few other guys. We went to these places really quick, set up radios to test them out to see how far we could reach with them – if we could get someone from forty to fifty miles away. But we moved along very quickly and then we went back to Hawaii.
I was on the last military vessel to leave Honolulu before the Japanese attacked. I had just maybe a day or two before arrived in San Francisco. And I was at Presidio, San Francisco when — I was in the supply shack. It was Sunday morning. I was pushing my helmet, my rifle, canteen across the desk to the supply sergeant. I was saying, “There you can have it. You can have it now.”
He had a little radio up there. The little radio was playing music. All of a sudden the music stopped. “The Japanese have attacked Pearl Harbor.” With that, nothing ruffled this guy. He just come behind my stuff and he said, “You’re not leaving.” [Mr. Ted chuckles]
Anyway it wasn’t very long I was there. I was just like all the other guys. We were supposed to be in transit going somewhere. This was just an intermediate stop off place. Well all my stuff had already been sent by train. It went back to New Jersey!
They said, “You’re going to be reassigned up to Sitka, Alaska. You’re going to set up radio stations,” which I did. I was the chief operator.
How long were you in Sitka?
Oh, almost a year. And then Captain _____ -– I can’t remember his name now – kicked me out, but I went to more exciting things.
I was smart alecky. That was my trouble. I was going to be with my men. And I had five or six guys who were part of the radio section and I was constantly trying to teach them something. And when I was told to man the radios, everyone of them guys, “Into the radio shack!”
A couple of them complained about it. “You can’t use all of us at one time!”
“I’ll use all of you one time or another as I get to ya. Get to the radio shack.” But I think they respected me for that!
But all of a sudden, one day a captain called me into his office.
I said, “Yes, sir. You called me?”
He said, “Corporal Gutches?”
“I know what you’re about to say, sir. I’m busted.”
He says, “Yes.” He said, “How’d you know that?”
I said, “I’ve been knowing it for days!”
He said, “How did it get out of this office!”
I said, “I’m not telling you a thing.”
How did you know?
Somebody told me. He said, “I’ve got good wind from the office. You’re gonna get busted. And you’re gonna get shipped out. You got everything set up now. Everything working smoothly. They’re gonna send you out.”
I was surprised. I thought I had a place to stay there for however long.
I said, “No court martial?”
[The captain] said, “You want one?”
I said, “No!”
I took off the stripes. “There.” [It] don’t bother me!
So what was the reason?
I didn’t stay to find out. I said, “Am I dismissed?”
He said, “Yeah! You’re dismissed.”
“Sir! Thank you.”
I walked out. I got my stuff packed up and the next boat that was going south to Seattle, I was on it.
So I went to school to learn how to use landing barges. These were the Higgins boats that were built in New Orleans. With the great Marines in ‘em.
And it wasn’t too long that my boat was put on a big ship and so was I and we went north and all around the curve of Alaska out toward the Aleutians.
And the next thing you know, I’m piloting that thing into shore and the Japanese were on that island! But they fell back. They did not confront us on the beach.
We got on the beach and I unloaded some men.
I was loading a couple of trucks and then I came and I was bringing a D8 Caterpillar ashore. This guy was told that as soon as he hits the gate – and the gate was down – he should raise his blade and go straight ahead. But he didn’t. As soon as he got it on the gate, he turned to the right and he broke the cable. I couldn’t close the gate. So if I couldn’t close the gate, I couldn’t sail that boat.
So that means I have no boat. What I’m supposed to do is go on the beach and help unload other boats and get the supplies to the soldiers.
I said, “I’m not gonna do that. They’re shooting up there. I’m gonna see what it is.”
Well, I went and as it turned out, I saw a soldier that had been hit. He wasn’t using his rifle, so I took his rifle. And I start chasing after the Japanese. Well, there was a little group of us and we were deciding which way we’re gonna go because the Japanese kept falling back and falling back to the northeast. And that’s where they had prepared trenches and stuff to fight us off and get rid of us. They were just falling back for that – slowly.
Well we were standing in a group talking, “You want to go this way? You want to go that way?” I didn’t really know anything about infantry, you know?
I was a coast artillery guy. And by this time they had disbanded the coast artillery. There was no more. They decided that because the way airplanes can come from any angle, there was no point in keeping the coast artillery which had guns for shooting [out in the sea].
Anyway a bomb went off. I didn’t know it was a bomb. I thought somebody had pushed me and knocked me down. I fell in the dirt. I kind of shook myself a little bit and got up. All of a sudden I felt very hot and wet. And I went like this with my arm [he reaches around behind his back] and remember I was all dressed for winter. And I could feel my jacket was all ripped up. I look at my arm and it was all bleeding.
I almost passed out. So anyway, they took me to medical and were picking out the shards. There’s some scars there from it [he points to places on his inner right arm]. They were tee-ninetsy pieces of metal and gravel. That’s what had torn up my jacket. In fact my jacket was falling off of me. They picked out as much as they could. And that was going to give me trouble later on. But they powdered me real good with sulfanilamide and said, “You’ll be alright. Those are very superficial cuts. You shouldn’t even say you’re wounded.”
An officer came in and said, “I don’t recognize you! Who are you?”
“Corporal Theodore Gutches.” [saluting]
And he said, “You’re not a corporal anymore!” He says, “You’re not supposed to be here! Get you’re a** out to the beach and unload boats!”
“And I’m putting you on unsatisfactory pay status!”
“Eight dollars a month for three months.”
[He laughs] But I didn’t care, you see. Every time I took a job, especially the radios. The radio job called for a certain rank and was going to be given that rank, no matter what. I never did soldier for money. If I didn’t have enough money to buy it, I just didn’t buy it! But if I did, I would! If I was broke, it didn’t matter. It wouldn’t be long and [they’d] be giving me more money. And they’re gonna feed me besides that. [He shrugs]
So were you just a private then?
I was a private while I was there on the beach. And all of a sudden I was given a position on a wooden tug boat. That’s important! A wooden boat could go over a minefield and not attract the mines. I felt safer plus it made such nice noises while it was in the sea with the wood shifting against – and you got to know the sounds. A sound would start at one end and go all the way to the stern!
Anyway, we were given the chance to volunteer for things. And I was one. I was gonna volunteer.
First one was, because of the ships we had sunk – like Massacre Bay — our boats coming in would get their propellers wound up in all the cables of the sunken ships. So somebody had to go down and cut’em. They had one civilian who, in one afternoon, taught us how to dive. He said, “When you get to this stage, there’s a wooden platform and the derrick that you were on lower you down on the platform to where you could cut the cable.
There were four other guys who had volunteered at the same time I did. We had a canvas diving suit and a big brass helmet. One of the things you learn is when you go down in the water is you let water inside the suit as an insulator. Because it was going to be cold, you want the water [inside]. And you have a little valve at your chin to regulate how far the water was up inside your suit. You wanted it just up under your chin. So you’d hit that valve and keep that water right there. If you didn’t hit it, the water was gonna creep up.
I’m down in the water and all of a sudden I hear, “BOOM, BOOM, BOOM!” I heard about four booms and I said, “Uh, oh.” I knew that was one of the Japanese observation aircraft and they always carried about six bombs. And I think I heard five. And then he dropped a bomb at starboard side forward [of the ship from which Mr. Ted was diving]. I was port aft working on a cable. When that bomb went off, it squeezed the suit together and all that water went up into the helmet!
What’d you do?!
Well immediately, the two guys who were pumping air for me, they left!
But the other guys who were cranking to get me up – I was only down about fifteen feet – they cranked me up and got me out of the water and unscrewed my helmet.
And they said, “Are you alive?”
And I said, “Yeah.” All my teeth were loose. My nose was broken. My eyes were the blackest eyes you ever saw. And there’s a scar [above my eye where] something had cut. And the cook sewed it up with mercerized thread! He had too! It was impossible to get to medics!
You’ve had some close calls!
Well while I was in the campaign up there, the Japanese were still fighting us. And there was a banzai attack or two. Thank God I was not involved in that. I heard the screaming and the cursing and everything. It was not that far away. As the Japanese attacked, they attacked with bayonets tied to a stick or a rifle and they attacked our troops and it was hand-to-hand fighting and they fought hard. And you could hear all the screaming. Our officers said, “You don’t move! You don’t get into that! You stay here because they might get here next! Be prepared!” And we were waiting for somebody.
Well after we had Attu secured, they asked for volunteers to go to all the other islands around this bigger island, Attu and Kiska. And I volunteered to go with five or six men. We would go with a small boat and go and search the island. We found evidence of them being there, but, thank God, we never got into a firefight with them.
They left, or you just couldn’t find them?
They left. Somehow they got off.
Now what had happened – it has a strange ending to it. The Japanese had actually started to evacuate the islands. They still had troops fighting us on Attu, but they were taking troops off and taking them to Kiska. The Japanese had submarines as big as our destroyers – huge! As a matter of fact they had a hanger on ‘em for an airplane! They were much more sophisticated than ours, but they didn’t know how to use them! You never heard of these big submarines doing anything! They kept them someplace like a harbor somewhere. But they hardly ever used ‘em. They would use them to evacuate Kiska.
I’ve left out an awful lot of stuff – It was an exciting and different kind of life. I don’t know anybody that did the kind of stuff I did!
He continues his story telling me about his adventures with a traveling theater group when he was fifteen, sixteen, and seventeen. They performed plays and many Gilbert and Sullivan Operas. His favorite was H.M.S. Pinafore of which he could perform any of the parts. He even sang me a few measures!
But when I went into the army, there were duties I pulled with the army – especially during the war. There was excitement. And half the time you didn’t know whether you were covered or not – that somebody was watching for you and watching and looking at what you couldn’t look at. And you didn’t know where the enemy was coming from. You knew you had buddies around you to help and you was helping them. I tell you it was exciting!
Where did you go to OCS?
The school was right off of Lake Ponchartrain in New Orleans. That’s where I met my wife.
I see! She’s from New Orleans?
Oh! You can bet! Deep South!
While I was the chief radio operator for the 266th Coast Artillery, I sent in a letter requesting to go to OCS. Then I forgot about it! I was on the tugboat and the war was actually coming to a close. We were closing in on the Japanese and we knew that the next thing was either, we were gonna attack their homeland, or something. But that was the next feasible step, to us. I got an order to report in three months to the school at Lake Ponchartrain (New Orleans, LA).
So when did you get out of the Army?
Okay let me tell you about that. That’s an experience.
All of a sudden some little pieces of metal come sticking out of my back, and when I’d go to put a shirt on it was catching in it and it was cutting my back and I knew I had to go to the hospital. So I reported to the officer and I said, “No good. Metal is trying to get out of me.”
He sent me to Walter Reed in DC. I’d go there for outpatient and they’d treat me a little at a time. Everytime they’d take out a little bit. All in all, they took out over 300 pieces!
[He laughs.] The were little teeninetsy things. They were like little splinters! And they did a whole lot of tests and found out I was deaf in my left ear.
They said, “You’ve got to resign your commission.”
I said, “You’re kiddin’!”
They said, “No. You’re deaf in your left ear. You can’t tell the direction of sound.”
‘Not one single soul in the forts where I go to knows that I’m deaf. Not a one!” I had figured out how to learn where things were and was always able to get into a position to hear everything with this good ear.
He said, “But WE know. You resign your commission now.”
I said, “For a guy like me with only two weeks of high school and becoming an officer, I’m on my way up!” [He smiles]
Anyway, I didn’t care about rank. It didn’t impress me at all. I did resign my commission. And now I had to find a place to work. My father in law, when I had asked him if I could marry his daughter, he arranged for us to be married that year. I met her August the 23rd, 1946 and we were married December the 28th 1946. And most of that year I wasn’t even there. Correspondence.
How did you meet her?
Okay. I’m sitting in the barracks. It’s a Saturday evening. I and four or five other guys – we’re polishing brass and fixing the uniforms and stuff like that. We had decided to stay in rather than go running around in town. And all of a sudden this colonel walks in.
He said, “I need five volunteers to go dance with these girls who came from New Orleans. They’re at the rec hall waiting for you guys. [Pointing] You, you, you, you, and [pointing at himself] you!”
I said [whining], “I don’t want to do that.” Well you don’t much argue with a colonel.
“Class A uniform! Get your tails down to the rec hall within the next hour!”
Well, all of us were there.
I walked in and I look down at the end of the hall there, and there’s this GORGEOUS female! Oh my God! Wow! My heart – I thought it was gonna bust through my chest!
I said, “I got to know who that is!” So I started walking toward her and she’s talking to another soldier. And I first thought, “I gotta get rid of him!” He doesn’t have any stripes. I was a corporal. I out-ranked him! But before I got there, he suddenly turned around and walked off. So I walked up and I said, “Would you dance with me?”
She said, “Oh, yes! I’d be glad to!”
I said, “What about your boyfriend?”
“Oh, I saw you coming so I sent him off to get some drinks.”
She saw me coming! There was electricity between us before we even met!
Well I have something I want to show you that my husband found last night online and I want to see if you can identify this person. (I show him a copy of a photo of himself as a young soldier in Alaska (the photo at the beginning of this article) that he has not seen since his copy was lost in Hurricane Katrina.)
That IS you!
This was taken up in Alaska!
Yes! And here’s another one. (I show him another copy of a photo of him in Alaska.)
Look at that! I was a corporal then. Ha!! [he cackles out loud]
Son of a gun!! Now I never could get – a picture or anything about me when I went on the internet trying to get me!
My husband knows how to search real well.
Well I need to learn something from him!
We found it on this site. Evidently you had given the Harbor Defenses of Sitka, Alaska these pictures and they still have them.
Oh yeah, I was the chief radio operator and I set up five radio stations.
Well here are some more pictures that are small. Here is one of your commanding officer.
Yeah, he’s the one who kicked me out of the company!
And then I went to OCS (Officer Candidate School) – and I made it.
That’s when you got 2nd Lieutenant?
Yes. That had to surprise him. ‘Cause he thought I was a ”no-good-nick”!
But you showed him.
I showed him.
[He looks back at the first photo ] Son of a gun. [He chuckles]
(Click here for a video of Mr. Gutches reacting to his photo.)