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Gabe / on Fri, Dec 7 2007 at 9:59 am

My Grandpa

I went and dug out the tape of the interview I did with my Grandpa. When I played it back it was a real mess. I could barley make out any of it and I really hadn’t done my research before the interview. I decided it would be better just to do it again and since my Grandpa lives down in California I enlisted the help of my Aunt Stacey. I emailed her a list of questions and she conducted the interview. She then added some of her own after hearing my Grandpa’s responses. Once they were done she transcribed the entire thing and sent it over to me. I’m sharing it with you guys for a couple reasons. First, I hope it might motivate some of you that have veterans in your family to sit down with them and just listen for a little while. Second, his view of World War II games comes from a perspective that we don’t often hear. I’m not posting this to change anyone’s opinion of these games but his insight has certainly made me think about them in a different way.


Interview with ‘Grandpa’ on 12/6/07 about WWII and Gaming

Q. Your name is?

A. Ralph Robert Joseph Percan.

Q. Did you have a nickname?

A. Nope, just Ralph.

Q. Where did you grow up and how old were you when you enlisted?

A. I was born and raised in L.A. and I was 19 yrs old when I enlisted in January, 1942.

Q. Why did you decide to enlist and what branch of the service did you join?

A. I joined the Navy, and the reason I joined the Navy is I wanted to sleep in a bed at night, and not on the ground. (laughs) And have nice food, and a nice place to eat. Much better than the Army had.

Q. Wow. That was astute of you at 19 to realize that. What made you think of that?

A. There was always a saying, “Join the Navy and see the world.” So I did. 

Q. But they say good things about the Army too. I don’t know if I would have been smart enough to realize that if you join the Navy you’re on the ship and it’s a nice place to live as opposed to joining the Army or some other branch.

A. You know darn well if you join the Army you’re going to be on the ground all the time. And you’re moving. So there’s no place to have a ‘home’ or anything. They have it tough.

Q. And what made you decide to enlist? Did you really want to see the world?

A. Well, I was going to get drafted so I figured I’d go in the Navy. Because if I got drafted I could have gone in the Army because you go where they tell you then. 

Q. What was the draft age?

A. It started at 18.

Q. So you waited a year then you joined the Navy?

A. No, I went to work first. So I was working when I joined the Navy.

Q. Did you consider yourself "patriotic" before you enlisted?

A. Never gave it a thought.

Q. What was your rank?

A. Apprentice seaman when I went in. Torpedoman Second Class when I came out.

Q. Where did you go for basic training?

A. Farragut, Idaho. 

Q. And what was it like?

A. Cold. It was in the wintertime… had snow on the ground. You went through training to fire the rifle… hiding… swimming – which I couldn’t do. And I was afraid of the water. (laughs at his own predicament) And before you got out of boot camp, you had to be able to swim around the pool and jump off of a high platform into the water feet first, then swim underwater through some obstacles, then come up and go around the pool before you could get out. I never thought I would do it, but I did manage it. 

Q. And what did you think of boot camp, aside from that? I mean, were you thinking “Oh my god I can’t believe I joined,” or was it okay or… did you just go through it?

A. It was fine. Except it was a brand new camp and they didn’t have any hot water yet, so you had to shower in cold water. Took a couple weeks before they got the hot water in.

Q. Where were you assigned after you completed basic training?

A. From basic training they assigned me to go to Torpedoman school. So I went to San Diego and went to Torpedoman school. 

Q. Did you have a choice in that?

A. No. (deep laughter) I wanted to be an aviation mechanic. But I didn’t get that. You take what they give you. 

Q. So when they told you that you were going to be a Torpedoman, what did you think about that? Was it a little daunting, or was it okay?

A. No, it sounded good. I was going to go to school for a while. 

Q. They taught you how to load the torpedoes and how not to get blown up?

A. Yeah, you learn all about the torpedo, how to maintain it, reload it, how to fire it. Then from there, I went on a one or two week leave, cause I’d been assigned to put a new ship into commission, so I went home on the furlough, and while I was home I had an appendix attack and had my appendix out. So when I finally got back I had to go down to Chickasaw Alabama to this new ship.

Q. What type of ship did you serve on?

A. Destroyer. The USS Capps DD-550.

Q. What was it like being on the ship?

A. It was a little more confined [than a house], but it was nice. You had enough room to get around.

Q. Could you feel it moving?

A. Oh yeah. You have to get your sea legs.

Q. Did you ever get seasick?

A. Nope, but a lot of guys did. In fact a lot of old timers would get sick first couple days out.

Q. Until they got used to it, huh?

A. Yeah. We had a chief that was—hell he had over twenty years in—and every time we’d take off, he’d get sick the first couple days if we’d been on shore awhile.

Q. And what sorts of jobs did you have? Besides being Torpedoman you must have had other duties.

A. You had guard duty… that’s all. We rotated. Kept the torpedo tubes clean… kept the K-guns clean…

Q. What’s a K-gun?

A. A K-gun is a Y-shaped gun on the sides of the ship that fire depth charges out, like when you’re going after submarines, to bring the submarines up. And they also have depth charges at the back of the ship, which just roll off the back end.

Q. What campaigns did you take part in and what was your ships role?

A. Well, after we put the ship in commission we went on a shake-down cruise to Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, then we came back and they repaired whatever they felt was wrong with it. Then we were assigned to go to the North Atlantic, to Scapa Flow, Scotland. And we operated out of Scapa Flow, patrolling around. At that time the Scharnhorst was raising hell with our shipping lanes, and they wanted to try and get it to come out, so we got a fake convoy we would escort, trying to get it to come out after us. 

Q. Was that a German ship?

A. Yes. A big battlewagon. But they never did [show themselves]. From there I came back home on leave, and then we went to the South Pacific. I went to Hawaii, all through the Marshalls and Marianas, Kwajalein, Iwo Jima… many of the South Pacific islands. We played a supportive role in many of the theaters in that area. Then eventually I went into the China seas.

Q. Did your ship ever come under attack?

A. I forget where it was, but we had torpedoes fired at us and I saw one go right along the starboard side of the ship.

Q. Can you talk about how you felt? Angry, scared?

A. Scared. But actually you felt scared and at the same time you felt good, because it was going (gestures alongside)–it didn’t get you! It was going by you!

Q. Was that from a U-boat?

A. Oh, it had to be. And we dropped depth charges in various areas [going] after submarines. And sometimes you’d see slicks and stuff would come up. But you couldn’t tell if it was a direct hit or not because a lot of times they’d send up crap to make you feel like you got them… so we never really knew if we got any or not.

Q. Would that cause a huge explosion in the water?

A. No, you wouldn’t notice it because it was so deep. But you’d see the stuff come bellying up through the water.

Q. So when you were under fire did you ever have to man the torpedo tubes and actually fire them, or… you can’t fire torpedoes at U-boats, so you just dropped depth charges, right?

A. Right.

Q. Was there anything you did on the ship for recreation or to try and relax? Was there even time for that?

A. Yeah, we played cards… learned to play chess… But I forgot how now. (laughs) But I was pretty good at the time. And you’d sit in the sun, when you had time off. And being a Torpedoman, we had a closet shack we operated out of… we’d go in there and have coffee… (chuckles) put a little [alcohol] in the coffee.

Q. What was the hardest part of your service?

A. (long pause) I was very fortunate. I don’t think there was really anything that was hard about my service, other than being away from home. At one point I was assigned for a year as Shore Patrol in Manila— 

Q.—What does a Shore Patrolman do?

A. That’s the same as Military Police. But we also had control over the Army as well, so we’d have to go through the restaurants, and bars… the red light district, to see that everything’s going alright.

Q. So, in other words you’re supposed to watch over the American soldiers that are stationed in those areas to make sure that there are no problems? 

A. Actually, what you were really doing is making sure that the American [soldiers] were keeping their noses clean and not having trouble with the [locals]. Trying to keep the peace.

Q. And so what happened?

A. I was off duty and I was walking around, and a Shore Patrol buddy of mine was having problems with a guy, so I walked up behind the guy and (gestures a bear hug from behind) locked his arms so he couldn’t hit. My buddy took a swing at him, he moved his head to one side, and [my buddy] knocked my front teeth out. (laughter) I had to wait all weekend for a dentist, so my nerves were just hanging out. 

Q. Wow. That had to hurt. Being in the Navy you weren’t likely to see face-to-face combat, but did you ever see it’s aftermath? 

A. (instantly his mood changes) Yes. On the Philippines. Mass graves. Open graves of all those people they shoved in.  It was hard to see. It makes you feel bad. Manila looked like it had been a futuristic-looking city before the war. The building designs looked more advanced than ours architecturally. But everything was in ruins. (thoughtful pause) What was really hard was to see these little kids… and grown ups… carrying one gallon cans… and after we got through eating we’d throw our leftovers in the garbage can. Then these people would come by and scoop their gallon buckets into the can, and that was going to be their dinner. (this is still an upsetting memory)

Q. And they were just locals on the islands?

A. Yes. It really got terrible over there. Everything was demolished.

Q. Where were you on VE day (May 7-8, 1945) and what did you think of it?

A. I don’t remember where I was, I think I was in the Philippines, I’m not sure. But I thought, “Well, that’s half of it… Now we have another half to go.” (Referring to the Japanese who didn’t surrendered until three months later, August 14-15, 1945.)

Q. Did you hear about the plan to drop the atomic bombs before it

actually happened?

A. No. That was way, way above my pay grade.

Q. Where were you when you heard that the Japanese had surrendered?

A. You know, I have no idea.

Q. Do you remember hearing though?

A. Oh yeah, but I have no idea where I was.

Q. Do you remember hearing that the atom bombs had been dropped?

A. Yes.

Q. What did you think of that?

A. I thought it was kind of bad in a way. Good and bad both. It helped bring the end of the war, but also killed an awful lot of people.

Q. Were you surprised that they dropped it on a city, and not on a military target?

A. It didn’t occur to me to question that. It was a military decision.

Q. Is there anything you did in the service that you were especially proud of?

A. I’m proud to have been a part of the war effort.

Q. What was the process of leaving the Navy like?

A. Rough. When I say rough, I mean that I was in China at the time. I was going to fly into Hawaii, and our seabags were all on the tarmac. And when it got time to go, I went to get my seabag, and it was gone. So I went to check to see what happened, and was told it must have gone on the plane which left just before mine, and that plane went to Australia. The only thing I had were the clothes on my back. So that’s the way I left China to come home. We flew to Hawaii and got on a boat, and I met a guy on the boat that gave me some dress blues and loaned me $100. Everything was in my seabag… money, clothes, souvenirs from all over the world, a diary I kept in the war… my ribbons and medals from our supportive role in the battles.

Q. So you served for just over four years, and once you were out and back home, do you remember the first thing you did?

A. Well, I’d met Marie, your grandmother when I was home on leave, and we’d become engaged while I was serving… so when I got out, she was waiting for me, and we married a few months later. Otherwise, I think I just called my old work and said, ‘I’m home, I’m ready to go back to work again.’ 

Q. What did you do for a living after the war?

A. Same thing I did before. Machinist. At National Supply ARMCO Steel. It was National Supply then they sold to ARMCO Steel. I started out in the machine shop, then I became an Industrial Engineer, and after I retired I did some consulting. 

Q. You worked for one company all your life?

A. Yes. 

Q. How do you think taking part in the war changed your life?

A. It made me appreciate life more. Gave me a little more respect for other people. Things aren’t always as bad as they seem. There’s always something to be grateful for, if you’ve got the courage to look for it. 

Q. What do you hope that my generation and future generations learns from World War II?

A. There’s not really a need for a world war. Talk things out [diplomatically]. Be friendly when you can. Think before you jump.

Q. What do you think about gamers playing video games based on World War II?

A. I haven’t really paid enough attention to the games themselves to be able to tell you truthfully, but I would think, if it’s just people shooting one another, I don’t think it’s a proper thing for young people to do. I think it sets a bad example for them, because they get into the mood of doing that, and that begins their lifestyle. And that’s not the lifestyle you want.

Q. When groups of gamers are playing these games together it is common for some of them to play as the enemy. They might play as Germans defending the beach at Normandy for example. What’s your opinion of that?

A. Well, it ties back in to what I already said. I don’t think it’s an appropriate game. I think they can make games that will interest kids, that don’t have to include war. We don’t need to be killing each other in games. There’s other ways of strategizing and using the kind of skills that make those games popular.

Q. Is there anything you would like to say to gamers who are fans of these sorts of games?

A. If [the games] are what I think they are, I think [the gamers that play them] should stop and take a look at what you’re actually doing. Try to reason through and ask what’s the advantage of what you’re doing. What kind of an education is that giving you?

Q. Do you think they would have a different opinion if they’d been through an actual war?

A. Yes. Definitely.


I’d like to thank my Grandpa for answering all these questions and sharing his story with me. I’d also like to thank my Aunt Stacey for helping me with the questions and for transcribing the interview.

-Gabe out

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