Retired Army Colonel Lionel Eugene Rownd
Civilian Conservation Corps
U. S. Army – WWII Pacific Theater – Saipan
Commander 239th Quartermaster Salvage Collection and Motor Officer
Commandant U. S. Army Reserve School – Baton Rouge, LA
(Mr. “Gene” Rownd passed away June 24, 2018 at the age of 99. He will be sorely missed.)
I interviewed Mr. Rownd two months before he turned 98, nine months ago. He is spry and doesn’t look a day over 75. I learned so much from him! Thank you for your service, Mr. Rownd.
I would like to hear about your WWII experience, but I know you were in the reserves later as well.
Well, I was 38 years active in the reserves.
But I don’t know if you remember the old CCC, the Civilian Conservation Corps. I don’t know how much history you want here…don’t know how much information you want…
I want to hear anything you want to tell me about your history.
My dad died when I was nine years old. I had a mother and two sisters, that I ended up having to support. My two sisters are younger than I and one died in childbirth years ago and I got one in the nursing home down here. She’s ninety-five.
We lived in Hammond when I was a baby and we moved to Ponchatoula. We were there when my dad passed. My mom had folks in Springfield, so we moved to Springfield where I graduated from high school in 1936 at 17 years old.
I immediately went to the old CCCs up in northern Pennsylvania. I was one of only a few kids that had a high school education so I became a company clerk.
Anyway, if you know anything about it, it was just like being in the military except you didn’t carry a gun. You lived in barracks, you ate in mess halls, you had sergeants and whatever. You were commanded by an army captain. They had a medical officer who was a lieutenant and they had another lieutenant. So it was just like being in the army except you didn’t do anything with a weapon.
Big money was $30 a month. I sent $25 of it to my mother and they gave me $5, and I sent most of that home.
I eventually got out of there and came back to Springfield [Louisiana]. I stayed around working here and there and wherever.
When I was 21, I had a cousin that was in the state legislature here and he got me into the state police academy. After I graduated from there, they sent me up to Alexandria. And when they started building Fort Polk (Camp Polk at the time) I was sent over there. I was there when they built the first building. When I went, it was just a bare area of land out there. When the army came in there, the state troopers left.
I had met my first wife at that time and we were pretty interested in each other so I retired from the state police. Well in the mean time, I had met a colonel who was an old CCC commandant and he liked the CCC boys. So I got a job at Polk.
When I left there I was Chief of Motor Transport at Polk. That’s when I got a draft call and I went in the army [October 1942]. They sent me to Fort Warren, Wyoming and I took basic training up there. Then they looked at my record and kept me over for another 90 days to train new troops. And I stayed over for another period.
In the mean time I decided I wanted to go to OCS [Officer Candidate School] so I went before the OCS board to see if you qualified to go to OCS or not. When I sat down in front of the officer for the interview he said, “Oh you’re the boy with all the CCC experience!”
“Yeah, that’s me!”
Then they said, “Ok, we’ll try you out.”
So they sent me up to Camp Lee, Virginia to OCS and I graduated from there as a second lieutenant.
They had also sent me down to Texas for a time to a motor school for two or three weeks and strangely enough, while I was there I walked over to the hotel and the first fellow I saw was my old captain from the CCC!
He had retired and he had another outfit there. Anyway, I stayed at Fort Polk until I went in to the Army.
There were four officers they were organizing into a new company up in Illinois – Salvage Collecting Companies is what they were called. And interestingly enough it was one of the few black companies in the Army!
At any rate, I met a man named Dick Saperstien [Dick later took the last name of Steele] and a fellow named Joseph Saccone and Allen Maestri. They all ended up in that same unit in Illinois.
Interestingly enough, within the past year, I’ve had a telephone call from one of Dick’s sons who was down in New Orleans and he came up here to visit with me in Hammond. He said his daddy had died before he had the chance to ask him a lot of questions and he thought maybe I’d know about it. [He smiles] So he came up and spent the day with me here.
And then a little later on I got a call from a fellow. He was down in New Orleans visiting his daughter. He was from Las Vegas, New Mexico. He was Allen Maestri’s son!
So he came over and visited with me one day, he and his daughter. So I’ve kept in touch beyond where I thought I would.
I came home from the war and got involved in a reserve battalion here in Hammond. I went along with that until it was inactivated then I went to the Army Reserve school and ended up as Commandant of the Baton Rouge reserve school before I retired over there. I retired with thirty-one years of service over there as a full colonel – whatever it’s worth.
I’m telling you more than you want to know, probably.
No! That’s fine. I want to hear all about it. So where were you when the war began and what happened at that point?
Well I was at Fort Polk and I loaded trains of soldiers that went to Europe and then some who went to the Pacific.
You were a policeman or in the army at that time?
I was a civilian then.
But after OCS, the four of us officers were sent to form this new company.
So what was a salvage unit?
Salvage is, well we were one of the only, we were the only group in the Pacific when we finally got out there. We had a black outfit strangely enough. Our job was to collect enemy material for intelligence. So we were training people how to find enemy material once you got to somewhere where the fighting was going on.
And so we trained these people here. [He pulls out a roll tube with photos] This photo is the four of us, Dick Saperstien, me, Joe Saccone and Alan Maestri.
Here’s another picture. We’re all young fellows there:
Yes you are! That’s neat! So you were trained and went straight to the Pacific or you went somewhere else first.
We trained for several months then they sent us to Hawaii. We spent five months in Hawaii. And when they were getting ready to invade Saipan, they put us on a boat and we invaded Saipan.
You came in after the invasion, or you were IN the invasion?
We were there after the main invasion. There was a unit there and there was still a lot of fighting after we got there. We didn’t hit the beach at the time they hit it first. Saipan was a little island that had about 40,000 Japs on it.
[The Battle of Saipan lasted from June 15 – July 9, 1944. The 239th QM Salvage Collection Company arrived on Saipan on June 27, 1944.]
There were three kinds of people there. There were Japs, Swars(?), and the native people [Chamarro people]. The other people besides the Japs weren’t fighters. They were just living there.
They were caught in the middle of everything.
Well, there was a big drop-off, a cliff on one end of the island, and what the Jap military did was they lined up all the military women and children and they jumped off the cliff and killed themselves – committed suicide.
Aw, no… That’s when they knew they were going to be attacked?
Well they knew what we were going to do to them, or try to do to them and they didn’t want to surrender. Japs weren’t going to surrender for anything.
Uh, that’s terrible.
[These civilians were encouraged by the emperor of Japan to commit suicide. See “Civilian Casualties” in the article “Battle of Saipan” . There are two cliffs where local Japanese civilians killed themselves – Banzai Cliff above the water on the north side of the island, and Suicide Cliff above a coastal plain also on the north side of the island. Approximately 7,000 Japanese civilians committed suicide.]
Excuse me just a minute. [He leaves the room for a moment, then comes back in a munute.]
Oh, what do you have! [I gasp]
A Jap flag.
Look at that!
Officers of the Japanese army wore these around their waists.
Oh, that flag needs to be in a museum!
I took that off of a Jap officer. He was dead.
Oh my goodness! [looking at the flag]
I can’t read that stuff. This was the kind of thing — every officer had one apparently and they got their friends and family to sign these things. That’s Japanese signatures of some kind on there.
That’s amazing. Wow. I’ll have to get someone to interpret all of the writing.
As I understood it, it was signatures of their family and friends, but I don’t read that stuff.
I don’t think many of us do around Hammond! [I chuckle]
A side thing, the day we were loading on the ship [to go to Saipan], they held us up one more day, so I sent somebody back to the outfit to see if there was any mail. That’s when I got the news that my daughter had been born. I didn’t see her until she was nearly two years old.
So after things got settled down there and got pretty much most of the fighting settled, they started moving us around. And I ended up in a group with a lot of units in it and because I had been to motor school, I ended up as the group motor officer. So I was no longer in that company that I showed you there. I maintained all of the equipment in the group organization.
Tell me about the black unit you were involved in. How was that during those times. I know there was a lot of segregation. How’d you feel about that being from the South.
Well, I accepted it as being what I had to do. I never had any trouble with it. I got along with them and there were a bunch of good men in there. They were good people. A lot of them had no education, but they were good soldiers.
That’s good. I didn’t know how you related to them or they related to you.
Well being from the South, I had had a lot of experience with blacks – not black soldiers, but blacks. So I treated them with respect and I straightened’em out if they were not where they were supposed to be. I mean, I treated’em just like I would have treated anybody else.
I never had any trouble with’em.
That’s good. I was just curious because it was a big deal back then.
That’s fine. I’ll answer any question you want.
I had a number of other jobs as well, on paper at least. I was grave registration officer. I was a little bit of everything.
As grave registration officer, what did you have to do?
Well they had three so-called grave sites there, one for the Army which I was a part of, one was the Marines, then they had a Jap burial place where they buried those guys. And what they did with them was, they would dig a big hole and just dump’em in it, you know.
It was a weird world out there, but that’s what you had.
So you didn’t record the Japanese?
No we didn’t record them. We didn’t have any way of recording them. Except by…because nobody knew their names or anything like that. They’d just say, so many and what they were.
I know we had a lot of caves out there in the hills. Saipan was a small island, but it went from sea level to over 1,400 feet.
With a ridge running down the middle of it.
I remember one day, after everything had sort of settled down there, we had civilians there and we built camps for them, and eventually the military hired some of these people to work in some of these places, to do physical work.
I remember the colonel told me to go down to the camp to get him some people, so I went down there and there were men, women, and kids in there. He wanted so many men to work, you know. And there was a military officer in command of that thing and I said I needed so many men.
And we talked to the Jap fellow that was there and I noticed there were a bunch of women sitting around in a circle, and he said, “How many men do you need?” And I looked around and didn’t see where they were. So he went over and started kicking the women out of the way and the men were underneath them! They were sitting on the men.
Oh no! [I laugh] I guess they were their couches!
And strangely enough, the women there wore nothing from the waist up. They were bare.
So the military finally gave them t-shirts. And they cut holes in them!
[We laugh!] I love it!
That was quite an experience. I’m probably telling you more than you want to know.
Nooo, no! That’s the kind of stuff you don’t read about in the history books!
Well, dengue fever was quite prevalent there.
Dengue fever [pronounced “dingy” fever]?
It’s a disease and it’s pretty serious. I got dengue fever.
So what happens to you with that?
Well they sent me to the hospital. There was an army hospital up there on the hill. And we had nurses out there. Women [nurses] were out there eventually. I stayed there a week or so and then got back and got going again. It was a crazy experience in many ways.
How sick did you get?
I couldn’t get out of bed for a week. It was pretty serious.
[Dengue fever is a mosquito-borne virus very closely related to West Nile Virus or Yellow Fever]
How long did you stay on Saipan?
I stayed until the end of the war. In fact the day the war ended, the planes took off and I heard them come back in that night. In the meantime, after we controlled the Japs more or less, they flew planes over just about every night. I remember one night, I was out there and this Jap plane flew over me and dropped a bomb. The bomb was close enough to me that it through stuff all over the top of me!
And I was coming down the hill one day, there was a Jap machine gunner up there shooting at me.
Yeah, I was lucky to get through that thing.
Did anything ever hit you? Did you ever get wounded?
Strangely enough I never did get wounded. I got shot at a number of times, but I never got wounded, thank God. But a lot of my friends were killed or got wounded. I guess I was just lucky.
I remember I went up to headquarters one day in my jeep, and that was later on when the fighting had stopped, and I was coming down the hill and there was a Jap was up on the hill and he had a machine gun and was shooting at me. I could hear those bullets running right over the top of my jeep. I blew out a front tire! I rolled on into the tent base where I lived there on a flat tire.
But you know, you think back on little things that happen to you and you don’t think much about’em at the time.
That’s the part I like to hear about. [I smile]
And when [the US] started invading Iwo Jima, they were going to take one section of our outfit and I thought they were going to take me, but I was motor officer at that time they said, “No, you’re not going.” So they took Allen Maestri for the invasion of Iwo Jima.
Did he make it through?
Yeah, he made it.
Well there was a marine outfit on the island as well as the army outfit, and I was in my tent one day where I was living, and I saw only about twenty yards away, a Jap officer and thirty-something men, came down the hill. We had heard about them being up there, but they came down the hill and the marines were standing over there with a marine colonel who was commanding the island, and this Jap captain took his weapons off, his sword and everything, and handed them to this guy. Surrendered to him.
I’ve got a little book [Oba: The Last Samurai by Don Jones] that I found when I was traveling out in the country one time and went in a little book store one evening, and I found this book about that particular incident. The American officer that took the surrender, he had to go to Japan some years later and he wanted to look this guy up. And he found him. And they got acquainted and they went all around the area and they wrote this little book together. [For more info about Sakae Oba click here]
I’ll be! Wow!
Well I bored you enough.
No, no, no! So that was a tough thing for the Japanese officer to do if the Japanese usually didn’t surrender.
Yeah, well, eventually we got to a point, we moved all the Japs we could get – could control. We moved them all to another island. We moved them off of there. The ones that stayed were renegades sort of. They’d come down and we’d get in a fight. We killed several of them and I took that flag off one of them.
But there was no way to explain it really.
I know there was a point system that determined how soon you got to go home when the war was over. How soon did you get to go home?
Oh, four or five months or so [after VJ day]. I don’t know how they did it, but one day they said you’re going, so I caught a boat, went back and came home. I came to San Francisco and then to Camp Fannin, TX where they discharged us. From there we were able to come home.
And then you got to see your daughter.
I got to see my daughter.
Well, thank you so much!
Well, you’re very welcome young lady, if I helped you any.
Oh yes! Well you’re helping me and you’re helping a lot of people after me to understand. Because I was born in 1962 and people younger than me and even my age, just don’t realize – they knew World War II happened, but they don’t understand the consequences that could have happened.
And the more I learn about it, the more I realize, “Oh my gosh! We could very easily be speaking German or Japanese right now!”
That’s right, that’s right.
I’m amazed, the more I learn about it, how close things were and how tentative things were, and how easily things could have gone the other way.
So I think it’s extremely important for people to know about that. And the further we get away from it, the less people are paying attention, so I’m kind of doing my part to let them know.
Well that’s a nice thing to do.