Interview of Sam Bissette
Transcript Number 095
OCTOBER 31, 2001
Good afternoon. I'm Paul Zarbock, a staff person with the University of North Carolina Wilmington operating in their library. This afternoon we're going to be interviewing Mr. Samuel Bissette.
INTERVIEWER: Tell me sir, how did you get into the military and when and how old were you? I've got a whole bunch of questions in there.
BISSETTE: Well when I was 21, I was working for a local building and loan association as a bookkeeper, as an officer of the association. Times were getting mighty rough. This was in October 1942, following Pearl Harbor in the previous December. Things had gotten pretty rough and the need for people in the military was expanding much beyond the draft because they needed certain specialties.
There was a shortage of aircraft mechanics to keep the planes in the flying schools going and I had some mechanical aptitude and it fit right in with the fact that there was a call for people to enlist in the Air Force to become airplane mechanics and so I decided that it was either that or facing at any time the draft as a single person. So I enlisted in the Air Force in October 1942 and a group of us from Wilmington, I would say maybe 25 or 30, went from here to Fort Jackson, South Carolina where we went into the indoctrination process.
It was unusual that normally that center you would be sent to a place for basic training, but the need was so strong that they sent us, they sent the group that I was with and others into Shaw Field and some to South Carolina which was about 40 miles away and set up as special so-called Air Force boot camp in order that we could receive our basic training on the Shaw Field airport grounds.
Then we could immediately then receive assignments. Well as the Army would have it and as the way things would go, why I did not become an Air Force or aircraft mechanic. They immediately classified me as an administrative MOS which was a military occupational specialty and I was sent into one of the squadrons at Shaw Field, the 455th basic training flying squadron.
INTERVIEWER: How long was boot camp or basic training?
BISSETTE: Basic training I think was shortened to probably about 30 days. We were in tents for about 30 days before we went into the squadron facilities and then we went into regular barracks.
INTERVIEWER: So you got uniformed and your shots and left foot, right foot, to the rear march type activity.
BISSETTE: Well I'd had ROTC at New Hanover High School previously so none of that was strange to me.
INTERVIEWER: What about weaponry?
BISSETTE: Weaponry, we had some of this was required, but not a great deal. I did become a so-called expert at teaching the use of the Colt 45. I could field strip and blind strip a Colt and put it back together and on the firing range. I had not had any other, I did not get any other training with any other type of weapon.
INTERVIEWER: As a matter of historical accuracy, the Colt 45 is an automatic pistol?
BISSETTE: That's right.
INTERVIEWER: So you got out of basic training and you're what, a private in the U.S. Army Air Corps?
BISSETTE: I was a private in what was called the Air Corps in those days. Later on, it was changed to the U.S. Army Air Force. So I worked in the orderly room or the squadron headquarters there as an administrative clerk for about some several months and that continued on until 1942 to 1943. The base was producing the basic flying training for air cadets steadily. We had classes going in and classes going out.
South Carolina was a network of training bases because of the flat terrain and the flying weather was good in South Carolina year round. You didn't have your summertime snows, I mean wintertime snows and the summertime problems you have in Florida and Texas. So I was part of the training group that was training pilots for the Air Force.
The next step I guess that came along was that I had been engaged to a Wilmington girl, Ruby Raynor, for about a year, a year and a half. She was in training at the James Walker School of Nursing at James Walker Hospital. We were married on September 8, 1943, in Wilmington at the First Baptist Church while I was on leave and then she moved back with me to Shaw Field and I received permission to live off base and lived in Sumter, South Carolina and went to work every morning in a car pool and back every night in car pool, but I was subject of course to 24 hour duty at any time.
INTERVIEWER: You are a private at that time?
BISSETTE: At that time I had been in, let's see, from October '42 to September '43, I had been in for about nine months, no I was a sergeant. I had three stripes.
INTERVIEWER: And you're magnificent salary was what?
BISSETTE: Started out at $30 a month and as a sergeant, I made $78.
INTERVIEWER: Which was enough to...
BISSETTE: That's right, my wife worked as a nurse and she made more than I did. She made $90, but that was in the day when you could get a haircut for 25 cents. So I stayed on at Shaw Field there with the program and was...things were getting tight in Europe and the training program was beginning to slow down and close down and we had excess personnel so these were transferred then to overseas service.
So in the summer of 1944, as a matter of fact, about a month or a month and a half after D-Day, why I was part of a group that left Shaw Field, went on up to Greensboro for overseas replacement depot for about a month with some of the most rigid discipline you could possibly imagine and then took a troop train to Boston, Massachusetts, left Boston on what was the former S.S. America which was then a troop ship, U.S.S. Westport.
We went unescorted across the Atlantic in the middle of 1944, loaded with German submarines, on a ship that was 990 feet long, 15,000 troops, 2,000 Marines, 800 nurses and they were all packed in there and fed and everything 24 hours a day. In 5-1/2 days despite the zigzagging back and forth across the Atlantic every 7 minutes changing course to keep from being tracked down by subs, we arrived in Liverpool.
Liverpool was good to see. It was good to get back to land. Then it was a question of going down to a replacement depot at a place called Stone and from there, we were assigned to various Air Force units and I had the good or bad fortune you might say to be stationed in West London which was the location of a transport group.
I had found myself in the 9th Air Force in a transport wing, the 302nd and our duty was transporting C47's various routes that we had throughout carrying supplies and everything around.
INTERVIEWER: Were the V1 or V2 rocket bombs being used against London at the time that you got there?
BISSETTE: When I got there, we were having both buzz bombs and V1's. We had some pretty interesting and difficult experiences. The barracks I was in, two of the 24 people had had injuries on the job. The base headquarters had been, the main gate had been blown up. The empty detachment had been blown up and the station hospital had been hit all by random falling of buzz bombs.
INTERVIEWER: Again for historical accuracy, would you tell us what was a V1, what was a V2, how did they differ and how were they similar?
BISSETTE: I can't tell you enough about the mechanics of them to be able to say except that they were the children of the buzz bomb. The buzz bomb was nothing more than really a rocket propelled device for taking 1000 pounds of TNT and placing it without aiming wherever it might fall. The V1's were coming in and I know that we had to reconstruct at base intelligence, we had to reconstruct a buzz bomb, one of the last of the models of the buzz bomb from the fragments, it was reconstructed.
There were several instances that were there about the bombing. One of them I think was interesting. When I got into London area, the first evening, we had got in about 5:00 or 5:30. A call had not been issued at all for nighttime chow. We were there and all of a sudden we heard a bell ringing somewhere and the loud speaker said a bomb alert.
We became conscious of a throbbing noise coming overhead in the distance. It was getting dark. We could see a little orange light which was coming directly overhead as we approached. And we were all fascinated. We had heard of buzz bombs and there was one up in the sky that was coming. Well about the time it got to us, the throbbing stopped, the light went out and it started whistling and we were on the second story of a brick agriculture college.
Nobody had given us any instructions at all. I ran for the nearest stairway exit. Some of the men dove over the side of the building. Several of them had fractures for the falls that they took trying to get out of the way. We had seen there were trenches below and I headed for the stairway and dove into a trench.
The bomb hit probably 1000, 2000 feet away, but it was quite an explosion. That was my introduction to the bombing.
INTERVIEWER: We find a curious parallel. It's the last day in October in the year 2001. There have been a series of random violence, acts of random violence. Your situation with the buzz bombs, V1 and V2 bombs, are essentially the same, random acts of death and destruction.
BISSETTE: That's correct.
INTERVIEWER: How did this influence morale?
BISSETTE: The people that were in he military very quickly became accustomed to that. They would listen to the bomb alert, bomb on the way, final call type of thing and they would head to the trenches. The populace, the English populace was amazing. I went to a theater one evening on leave and on the screen flashed a little square that said "bomb alert".
In a matter of a couple of minutes, a bomb on the way and there was an air raid shelter just outside the door in the street and I was ready to get up and leave and nobody left in the theater. I was turning my head and turning around and I couldn't get over it. This man sitting next to me pushed a package of cigarettes over and said "Have a cigarette, forget about the damn bomb".
And you're sitting there and the building shook when it fell. Nobody missed the movie. Nobody went to the air raid shelter. I think that's a little vignette into how stoic the British people were.
INTERVIEWER: And how frightening the situation was.
BISSETTE: That's right. Anyway to go on a little further, why I was there for a few weeks and then the transport group that I was with was moved to about 10 miles outside of the city of Oxford and we began our preparations soon after that for going in as soon as Paris had been cleared. In the meantime, D-Day, Normandy invasion and everything has all been taking place. All of this was going on.
Patton was trying to get his stuff up front. We were there ready and alert to leave Oxford to go directly into Paris as soon as Paris was cleared. Well Paris was cleared and we moved in before they even cleared the snipers out of all the buildings. It was a risk to walk in uniform in the main parts of Paris. I don't know about the environs.
We got settled in what was the largest terminal building of any airport in the world at Le Bourget. It was known for being the terminus for Lindbergh's flight. And so I was there stationed on the second floor in that building and at that time I saw the dignitaries of all times come and go through the building and met and worked with a number of them in connection with the news media.
Ted Malone, Charles Collingwood, Hicks, the other news people of the day. Ted Malone was the Westinghouse reporter and he was working out of our office with the 813th evacuation squadron going up to the front lines with nurses evacuating. We were flying the planes into the front lines on metal airstrips and bringing the wounded out and so he was there in and out of our office.
Finally he ended up and did a Westinghouse program on myself and two other fellows for half an hour, transmitted it back to the U.S. It was broadcast and my wife heard it in Wilmington and then Malone did what he said he was going to do which I didn't think he was going to do. He called her when he was back in the States and came back to Europe and gave me reports that he talked to her on the phone. So that's a little story, a wartime story I think is interesting.
INTERVIEWER: What was your duty assignment?
BISSETTE: My duty assignment was the NCO in charge of the S2 office at Le Bourget and then later, there was a later move. When the French needed Le Bourget and we gave it to them, and then we moved to the villa Coubet Aerodrome which was south of Paris, west of Orly and east of Versailles. We were within five miles of downtown Paris. I stayed there for at least, nearly a year.
INTERVIEWER: Performing the same task?
BISSETTE: That's right. Performing intelligence work, keeping up with the front line positions, being certain that the operations were flying, we were landing, and we did lose planes and nurse crews when they landed inadvertently behind German lines because the intelligence had not reached us fast enough to be able to mark those lines. So we had some casualties of that type.
INTERVIEWER: How was the morale?
BISSETTE: The morale was on an individual basis. It was just like it is with people today. You have the people that are very negative, you have the people that are positive and you have the people in the middle who couldn't care less.
INTERVIEWER: How many people in S2?
BISSETTE: There was myself and at that time I was a staff sergeant, a tech sergeant, we had myself and they later combined the public relations office and the public relations office officer was an additional duty to the intelligence officer. There was an NCO that did most of the work. The intelligence officer, he did a lot of playing. The two of us did a lot of the work. I say that without any personal reference cause I wouldn't dare name him, but he was the type of person that enjoyed having a good time and if he could spend overnight in Paris every time he could, why we knew where to call him.
INTERVIEWER: And he had a dependable staff to make sure that the work was done?
BISSETTE: We were the people that did the work, that's right.
INTERVIEWER: Now you and I know what we're talking about when you say S2, but would you take just a couple of minutes and tell...
BISSETTE: Well the general military breakdown of an organization is based upon the functions and I don't remember which designations...but one is operations, one is supply, one is engineering. In the Air Force units, there was an engineering officer and there was a supply officer and there was an intelligence officer and there was a personnel officer, so this was a division under the Army Air Force chart of organizations.
S2 was intelligence and our duties were anything that related to being certain that the planes were flying safely, that we didn't have any problems in our units, blackmarketing money was another problem. We had some problem with suicides among the troops. And when we did, we wanted to be sure what the problem was, whether there was any infiltration in connection with the unit that was involved in it or what were the factors. So that gives you a rundown.
INTERVIEWER: Aircraft. What kind of aircraft were you flying?
BISSETTE: We flew the workhorse of all aircraft which were the C47's. C47's were twin engine aircraft that were probably about the safest aircraft ever built. After the war was over, the C47's were the ones that supplied all of the airlines that were starting up, but particularly for this country and particularly for South America. As a matter of fact, there's some of them still flying in South America that I understand.
INTERVIEWER: Did you ever do any flying? Did your duties include any flying?
BISSETTE: I had no military duties involving flying except a couple of assignments in which I had to fly to be able to perform them. But I did not fly. I was desk bound. I sat there with a telephone, typewriter at base headquarters and hopefully tried to help run what was being run about the mission of the particular organizations.
In connection with the public relations officer, I had a man that was a staff sergeant, one of the most unique people I have ever seen. I thought a great deal of him. His name was Joseph Matragma. He now lives in the outskirts I think of Rochester, New York. I located him recently and we had contact with his wife and children, but he is incapacitated. He is on I think his final...he's in a terminal situation with a very difficult problem.
But they could communicate with him that I had gotten in touch with him and I had ...there was one story about him that I told his wife that I thought she would like. One day we had a group of people come in and he organized transportation into Paris for this party of PR people. This was a traveling USO troop. So he got that worked out and took the VIP's, the names of the day, he got them taken care of.
A short while after, he was out, not in that day. He was on assignment and in walked a very tall, good looking girl, the tallest good looking girl I think I have ever seen in my life. And she says sergeant, where's the PR person? I told her I was sorry, he was not there. I told her I was with S2 and asked if I could help her. She said she sure hoped so. She said "I'm part of the USO troop and we had need to get into Paris. Our flight has been cancelled and what can you do?
Well following his same process he used, I went and commandeered the engineering officer's car, the personnel officer's car, the adjutant's car and I didn't have any drivers because the one tall girl was one of the 12 Rockettes and she brought all 12 into the office. So I arranged transportation to get that whole gang back in and since I was on duty, I couldn't go with them. But they were very appreciative and that was an interesting day. I don't think any man that I know of has had 12 Rockettes all in a room by himself at one time.
INTERVIEWER: Not unless you were dance master (laughter). Bring me up to schedule on the time. What year are we talking about?
BISSETTE: Well we're talking about 1945. Now the early part of '45 and then we get into V-E Day and V-E Day was the day that all of us were looking for in Europe because that was the cessation of us in Europe. So in Paris, the place went wild and we of course were about three miles outside of Paris, but it went wild. It went wild where we were. I don't know where the fireworks came from, but they had fireworks all over everywhere. It was quite a celebration.
The next thing we were immediately concerned about right quick was where were we going to be sent because they had already started moving people from the European theater of operations to the Pacific and I had avoided being transferred previously on a job they were trying to do. Everybody that was three stripes or less went to the infantry without any field training or anything else to supply some of the voids that were caused by the Battle of the Bulge in Christmas 1944.
Christmas '44, our mission had been to fly 20,000 troops from Marseilles to frontline air strips and bring them there to back up, for the reinforcements there which we did leading planes two at a time and leading them out three minutes apart down in the staging area in Marseilles. We moved 20,000 troops and never lost a plane, never lost a man. Anyway all that was behind us. Now it was V-E Day.
Those of us that were there, our units found out that those of us that had been there a good while, there was no question about it, we were not going to the Pacific so we sat around and just waited until the whole thing began to work itself out. I waited from September which was the complete cessation of the war.
I waited until December before transportation was available for us there to be able to go back to the United States. So came the time to go back to the U.S. and that was the first part of December. I went back much slower than I came across. I went back on a freighter called the Colby Victory and there were 450 feet long and it was a rough trip.
We got into a North Atlantic storm in December. The Queen Mary lost a propeller, I think there was a ship lost. We got back in the New York harbor and I know what people feel when they see the Statue of Liberty. To us, it meant a great deal. So finally we got home. It was a rough trip.
From there, it was a question of going to the process of ending up, I ended up in our North Carolina Fort Bragg two days before Christmas. My mother and my father and my wife came over from Wilmington to Fayetteville and brought me back home and as far as I'm concerned, that was basically the end of the war and two or three months later, I was back on the job.
INTERVIEWER: But you got home for Christmas?
BISSETTE: Got home for Christmas. That was probably the best Christmas I could possibly ever have. The experience of being in Europe during wartime, looking back now and doing a little reflecting, the blackouts in Paris during the wartime, after Paris had been liberated, while there were Germans within 90 miles of Paris, it was quite an experience to see the city beginning to be reborn and things coming back to life again.
The day of November 11, 1945, at 11:15 in the morning, I can tell you exactly where I was because I was in front of the American Embassy and in front of me was the Armistice Day parade, November 11th parade, and I saw in one vehicle Dwight Eisenhower, Charles DeGaulle and Winston Churchill, the three greats of that day no farther than where I'm sitting here now to the entrance to Randall Library.
That was an interesting day. So there were a lot of events and things that did take place in that period of time. It was a strange mixture. Somebody said how on earth could you have any better duty than to be in Paris for about a year, a year and a half during the war and my answer of course was to be in Paris when there isn't a war (laughter).
INTERVIEWER: I'm going to ask you in your mind to split off to social conditions. What did you learn from being a military person? Second, what does war, what had the war taught you?
BISSETTE: Let's take them one at a time of course. What was it like to be a military person - I learned some things that are good and some things that are bad. I had already had had plenty of discipline in connection with ROTC. I didn't have to have the military discipline to know that you obeyed your orders. You did what you were supposed to do. You found out how to make a bunk so you could throw a quarter on it and it would bounce and things like that.
I also learned that there's a lot of people in the military who have positions of responsibility that didn't have any business at all having those positions. Also those people in the military that I despise were those who had authority, never had had any authority before and used that authority to berate and abuse the people that were serving under him and I had some examples of that that I had to bite my tongue.
I had a situation happen one time to where it was my duty to take the detail out and take the flag down at Shaw Field, South Carolina, at sunset. I was supposed to do that. At the same time later in the afternoon, our squadron was supposed to send over detachment for physical training which we did and one day we lost our match over there that we were playing, whatever it was, we lost and as losers, we were supposed to go around the track three times.
I was looking and the sun was going to be setting in 15 minutes. I was under orders from my commander to go there, I was under orders from the PT instructor to stay at the field and run the laps and that's not a position a person should be placed in. I thought the smart thing to do was do what my commanding officer tells me and not what a PT instructor tells me so that's exactly what I did.
The next day there was a request from the PT instructor for a court martial for me for not obeying an order. The company commander said we can work this out. He said, "Let's be smart. Have you got a handkerchief?" I said I did. He told me to go wipe one of the panes in the window. So I did that. He said, "Fine, I'll put you down for squadron punishment. It will not be recorded in your service record. There's no record of it. I will tell the PT people it's been taken care of. Case closed." That was a smart man.
When we were flying front lines and I was keeping the situation map which was a large map about 8 feet high and 10-15 feet wide, which had all the front lines marked on it in pins, it was my job to be certain that we had the pins in the right place and that we weren't...I had an assistant intelligence officer who came in who was a school teacher from New Jersey. He said, "You've got one marked wrong, sergeant. We took that place yesterday." I said the intelligence reports I had didn't show that we had taken it. He said, "Move the pin to where I say it is". I said, "Well where is the information coming from". He said, "The Stars and Stripes have it this morning that we took that position".
I said, "Sir, I cannot change....". He said, "You're disobeying an order?". I said, "Sir, I can't do that." He said, "All right, I'll talk to the captain." So he talked to the intelligence officer captain and I never heard another word. That's the type of stuff that I did learn that's negative.
On the positive side of it, I learned friendships. I learned the fact that you need to do unto other people the way you would have them do unto you and stand up for your friends and above all, if you can, be sure that you don't let liquor turn your tongue to the point that you get yourself in trouble with the things you say. I was a teetotaler so that wasn't a problem for me, but I saw a lot of it.
INTERVIEWER: But as a youth apparently, you learned one of life's biggest and most important lessons, that being, sometimes no means no. It doesn't mean maybe. It doesn't mean dad will get me out of this. When you're in the military, sometimes no means no.
BISSETTE: That's right.
INTERVIEWER: What about...what did you learn from war experience? What did you learn from the wartime?
BISSETTE: Well the old expression, war is hell and for a man to have given up his wife and left the United States for months on end caused because some person elevated himself to a position of importance through every trick he did which Adolph Hitler did in Germany and then turned around and took the whole new crop of Germans coming along and completely brainwash them -
I learned that democracy with all of its problems and with all of its imperfections and with all the criticisms that we can level towards the political process, in spite of that, it isn't perfect, but it's the best thing that we have been able to come to for the individual who has to live under it. And one of the worst types of things we could have is evidenced by the present situation with the Taliban and the war that we're now conducting in Afghanistan because you have a group that's completely taken over.
INTERVIEWER: I've enjoyed your presentation. Do you have anything else that you would like to add?
BISSETTE: Not really. I appreciate the opportunity that the Randall Library has given of recording some of these thoughts and other than that, I really don't have anything further to say. I think that accomplishes what you asked me to do.
INTERVIEWER: Then I wish you a pleasant afternoon sir.
BISSETTE: Well thank you for the opportunity.