Wisconsin Veterans Museum

Oral History Interview with Robert Feller

Wisconsin Veterans Museum


Toggle Index/Transcript View Switch.
Search this Transcript

[Beginning of Interview]

MCINTOSH: Okay, now we're speaking to a Mr. Robert Feller. Robert, where were you born?

FELLER: Verona, Wisconsin.

MCINTOSH: And what year, please?

FELLER: 1921.

MCINTOSH: And when did you enter military service?

FELLER: Ah, about November 2nd, 1940.

MCINTOSH: November, 1940. And were you drafted or--


MCINTOSH: Volunteered?

FELLER: Volunteered [laughs]. I didn't want to dig no foxholes.

MCINTOSH: So you volunteered US Navy?

FELLER: Right.

MCINTOSH: U.S. Navy. And they sent you to Great Lakes?

FELLER: Right.

MCINTOSH: Naturally.

FELLER: First stop.

MCINTOSH: Where else. Yes, I did too. We all went down first, and after boot camp?

FELLER: Went to Radio School at Great Lakes.

MCINTOSH: Radio School at Great Lakes. That lasted, what, another six weeks?


FELLER: Oh, something like that.

MCINTOSH: About that, yeah. Okay, and then, after, you became a technician with the radio you got a stripe?

FELLER: No. Well, [laughs] a small one.

MCINTOSH: A small one, yeah, right. Then we're off to where?

FELLER: Then I went to San Diego for the transfer to Honolulu.

MCINTOSH: Oh, you didn't stay in San Diego?

FELLER: No, I was there for one month.

MCINTOSH: Okay. And what were you attached to in Honolulu?

FELLER: USS Oglala mine ship.

MCINTOSH: Oh, it's a minesweeper.

FELLER: Yes, it was a minesweeper and layer. It was the flagship of the mine division. I was on its staff.

MCINTOSH: And your specific duties there were with the radio business?

FELLER: A messenger [laughs]

MCINTOSH: You were a messenger?

FELLER: Yeah, what my rating qualified me for [laughs].

MCINTOSH: I see. You say you weren't involved with radio at all then?

FELLER: No, uh-huh, and after Pearl Harbor I was transferred to CINCPAC 00:02:00[Commander in Chief, United States Pacific Fleet], Admiral Nimitiz's headquarters.

MCINTOSH: Okay, now don't get too far ahead of me now here. As a messenger what were your duties on a minesweeper? It would seem to me you could shout from one end to the other. You didn't really have to--

FELLER: No, you had to take messages up to the skipper's office, top deck. And I had to sweep the floors--

MCINTOSH: Do all the scut work.

FELLER: All the scut work there [laughs], "messenger" work.

MCINTOSH: Right, and that was your first ocean voyage, is on that thing?


MCINTOSH: You just toured the neighborhood and then channels and harbors?

FELLER: Right. We maneuvered around the islands out there, all the islands.

MCINTOSH: Did your minesweeper sweep up any mines?

FELLER: Not that I saw [laughs].

MCINTOSH: They didn't have practice runs?

FELLER: Yes, they did, but I was on duty most of the time I guess during that period.

MCINTOSH: I see. How many people were on your minesweeper?


FELLER: About 400.


FELLER: Mm-hm.

MCINTOSH: Okay. That was how large a ship?

FELLER: I would say it's 300 and some feet.

MCINTOSH: 300 feet

FELLER: Mm-hm.

MCINTOSH: Okay. And so then as we get into December you're--tell me about that day.

FELLER: Well, I was messenger again that morning.

MCINTOSH: Didn't get liberty that weekend?

FELLER: I had to deliver a message up to skipper's office about that time. And we heard a plane, which is unusual on Sunday morning. So we looked out the porthole, and I'll swear to this day that I--we both said, "The Japs are here." The Japs came in the way the ships come in, and our planes never do that.

MCINTOSH: Tell me more specifically what you mean by that.

FELLER: Our planes come in from the mountains, and these planes came in the way our ships came in--the ones we saw first.

MCINTOSH: Over the water.

FELLER: Right into the harbor like the ships come in.

MCINTOSH: So you knew they were strange ships even though you couldn't probably 00:04:00see the markings right off the bat.

FELLER: No, no, we knew right away who they were though.

MCINTOSH: You did?

FELLER: Because we were on maneuvers before and we spotted Jap subs in the area.

MCINTOSH: But you were lying still at this time when they came in?

FELLER: Yes, we were tied up.

MCINTOSH: Tied up, at the dock?

FELLER: Next to the cruiser Helena. What happened there--torpedo. I saw the plane coming in at us. Just coming from top deck down to the radio shack, and I saw this plane coming right at us. So I fell down halfway down the ladder, grabbed the railing, and scooted out. I didn't even touch a step on the way down. That was a quick trip there. And a torpedo went under our ship and hit the Helena. A concussion, in fact our seams opened on the ship, and we took on water. We abandoned ship at 8:15. This all started at 7:55. At 8:15 they 00:05:00abandoned ship, all but the radiomen and the skipper. We didn't get off until 9:30. We abandoned ship.

MCINTOSH: You made an attempt to save the ship or just [inaudible]?

FELLER: They towed us away from the--tugged it, towed us away from the Helena so we wouldn't tie her up. And we got in behind her a ways and let her sink there.

MCINTOSH: Everybody got off?

FELLER: Yes. Nobody got hurt that I know of.

MCINTOSH: I see, and the Helena?

FELLER: She was damaged.

MCINTOSH: Right, but it didn't sink though is my recollection.

FELLER: No, it didn't. Probably had to go to drydock and to the States for repair.

MCINTOSH: But she only took one torpedo?

FELLER: Well, they say the bomb went down right between us, after that the torpedo.

MCINTOSH: Oh, but they didn't hit you?

FELLER: Didn't hit either ship, I don't know, it must have blew up 'cause I could feel the ship--



FELLER: Out of the water [laughs].

MCINTOSH: Right. So the attack was in two stages. Tell me about that.

FELLER: Well, the first stage got all the battleships over across from us. They were over by Ford Island. And then, oh, probably the second stage fed 'em too, with bombs. And they took care of everything, just about.

MCINTOSH: They didn't come back at you or the Helena?

FELLER: No, and they didn't touch the Navy yard. They didn't do anything to the Navy yard. And we had big fuel tanks up in the--

MCINTOSH: That was a major mistake of theirs.

FELLER: That was a mistake, yes. They didn't touch those.

MCINTOSH: Okay, well now all that's going on, and you got out of the water. You were in the water for awhile?

FELLER: I never was in the water. I crawled off.

MCINTOSH: You crawled off and went on the Helena and then off the pier or--

FELLER: No, no. We got away from the Helena, and then they let her do what she 00:07:00wanted to do. She listed toward the dock, and we just crawled off onto the dock.

MCINTOSH: But, you went from your ship to the Helena to the dock?

FELLER: No, no.


FELLER: We went back, when they towed us back, we went back.

MCINTOSH: Got it, I see. And then, what were your orders then?

FELLER: Well, we was there for forty-five minutes to an hour--

MCINTOSH: Waitin'--.

FELLER: Waiting.

MCINTOSH: For what to do, yeah.

FELLER: And they picked us up and took us over to the submarine base. That's where CINCPAC was, commander in chief, headquarters. So, I was transferred to the staff over there. And then I was there for about six months, and then we went up to the new headquarters off the base. It was a bombproof building. We had ten feet of concrete between the first floor and the basement where I was working. And there's four feet from the first floor to second floor, and the 00:08:00roof is two feet to sixteen feet of concrete.

MCINTOSH: Did your minesweeper sink?

FELLER: Yes, mm-hm.

MCINTOSH: They never--

FELLER: No, they brought it back up.



MCINTOSH: So you lost all your gear?

FELLER: Everything. Only what I had on, yeah.

MCINTOSH: So they had to reoutfit you with all your personal belongings?

FELLER: No, they didn't [laughs].

MCINTOSH: No kidding?

FELLER: No, they never did. We got dungarees and a few clothes, but that's all.

MCINTOSH: No dress uniforms or any of that?


MCINTOSH: I guess they didn't have time for it at that moment. And so you sat in that bunker for several days before you got a new assignment?

FELLER: No, no, it was the same day. Right after we got off the ship, about a half an hour or forty-five minutes they picked us up and took us to our new assignment. That's where I stayed for the duration, with CINCPAC.


MCINTOSH: In the office there.


MCINTOSH: Yeah, what were your duties there?

FELLER: Oh, I was a messenger there for about three weeks, four weeks. I don't remember how long. And the communication officer came and wanted to know if I would like to get into a different job. I said, "Sure." So he took me back to a little shack back there, and he showed me what was involved. They had four teletypes at the time, I guess, and about four other pieces of communication equipment which we don't talk about [laughs].


FELLER: It's classified.

MCINTOSH: Why would it be classified?



FELLER: Oh, I don't know. No, it's code machines.

MCINTOSH: Oh, yeah.

FELLER: Yeah. No, they're all together different now.

MCINTOSH: Certainly.

FELLER: They wouldn't even show me, and when I was in the Reserves afterwards, and they wouldn't even show me one. I was into that for a good five years, I 00:10:00guess maintaining the teletype and code machine. When I ended up--we started out with four of each, and when we ended up at about thirty of each to maintain.

MCINTOSH: By maintaining, what does that mean?

FELLER: Preventative maintenance.

MCINTOSH: You mean cleaning of the machine?

FELLER: Right, and if something goes wrong fix it or send it to the yard. We never had to send anything to the yard. I could do it all myself.

MCINTOSH: Well, that sounds like a busy job.

FELLER: It was. And more teletypes came through, why, I had to rewire the radio shack, the radio transmission. Things like the keys and the headphones and stuff like that and rewire it for the teletype.

MCINTOSH: Okay, what was your thought after that first day? Everybody was in 00:11:00total confusion. Let me--you tell me before I ask questions.

FELLER: Well, during the attack we didn't have much time to worry about anything, we just did our job. I had cigarettes, and I didn't even smoke a cigarette during that time. It's busy, not time to get worried about anything. But, afterwards they said there might be an invasion. So that's what had us worried afterwards. Other than that, we couldn't write home or call home, everything was censored. And all that week following that Pearl Harbor day, they gave us postcards, "I am okay" and then sign your name. That's all I could send home for about--

MCINTOSH: That was a week later?

FELLER: About that, yeah. We had to do that for about a month. Then we could 00:12:00write, but the letters were all censored from thereon.

MCINTOSH: So when did you get your first mail from home after that?

FELLER: Well, that was about June, I guess.

MCINTOSH: Six months, huh?

FELLER: 'Cause I was transferred from San Diego out to ship and then out to CINCPAC. My grandmother passed away, and I didn't know that for four months after she passed away that she had passed away.

MCINTOSH: And so in your free time you were allowed in Honolulu as much as you wished?

FELLER: Yes, we had to carry gas masks for eight months to a year maybe.

MCINTOSH: You were not allowed off the base without a gas mask?


FELLER: It was one of the requirements. And we had blackout, we had to be careful of blackouts, lights out at night and so on.

MCINTOSH: Every night?


MCINTOSH: For how long was that?

FELLER: I don't know, a couple years I s'pose.

MCINTOSH: A couple years?

FELLER: Even more than that.

MCINTOSH: When did you--everyone that--they talk about how much damage there was. When did this become evident to all of you?

FELLER: [laughs] Right away.

MCINTOSH: Because it was beyond what you could see, but I'm sure they didn't want to tell you anymore than necessary.

FELLER: No, no, no. There were ships sunk out in the ocean during the war, and we never heard about that. They censored the newspapers pretty good, too. It's not like now; they tell everything now.

MCINTOSH: And when you're dealing with the civilians in Honolulu, were you 00:14:00cautioned to be careful?


MCINTOSH: At all? No.

FELLER: They didn't lock, well, maybe some Japanese they locked up but not like in the West Coast [inaudible].

MCINTOSH: No, there was very few in Honolulu because there was so many of them it'd be kinda sort--

FELLER: Be hard to do.

MCINTOSH: Sort of stop the whole business from workin'.

FELLER: Right, right. Probably kept an eye on a lot of them, but--

MCINTOSH: I expect. Did you have Japanese working at the Naval base? Was that required or let go?

FELLER: I didn't get into the Navy yard that much.


FELLER: To see what, uh, I guess there were, yes. In fact there was one on the crane that morning, and he was doing all he could to help us on our side.

MCINTOSH: On the crane?

FELLER: Mm-hm. In the Navy yard. That's what I heard, yes.

MCINTOSH: And the newspapers?


FELLER: Well, I got the first edition, I guess [laughs].

MCINTOSH: From the Honolulu Times?

Fuller: Yeah.

MCINTOSH: Or whatever the paper is.

FELLER: Well, it might be a reprint. I don't know, but it's--

MCINTOSH: Could be, yeah.

FELLER: I know I got one somewhere that's an original.

MCINTOSH: Were most of the folks pretty surprised at what went on there?

FELLER: Mm-hm, very much surprised.

MCINTOSH: And what was your rating by this time?

FELLER: Ah, when I was discharged or?


FELLER: I was chief radioman.

MCINTOSH: Chief radioman. You had an office?

FELLER: No, I just had my little workspace.

MCINTOSH: A workspace. What were your duties in that high powered office?

FELLER: Well, at the end then I was in charge of the electricians, not the electricians, the electronic technicians.


Fuller: I was in charge of those guys.


MCINTOSH: Now all the messages that came out from Nimitz's department went through you?

FELLER: My machines [laughs].

MCINTOSH: That's what I meant.

Fuller: Mm-hm, m-hm.

MCINTOSH: You and your machines.

FELLER: There were officers in the code room. I don't know, about twenty of them maybe.


FELLER: Maybe even more than that at times, and I could be working on a machine. I worked on machines right in the code room. And if they came and talked to me I had to cover my machine up, they couldn't see it. No officer could.

MCINTOSH: They worked in the code room, and they couldn't see your machine?

FELLER: They couldn't see the inside of a machine.

MCINTOSH: Okay, I give up. Why was that?

FELLER: Classified.

MCINTOSH: I understand, but these people were doing classified work.

FELLER: Not my kind of classified work [McIntosh laughs]. I was the first one in 00:17:00the Pacific Fleet to be able to do this, first enlisted man.

MCINTOSH: To be able to do specifically what now, Bob?

FELLER: Maintain these machines.

MCINTOSH: These machines were teletype machines?

FELLER: Code, code machines and teletype. I'm not talking about teletype, I'm talking about code machines. They couldn't see the inside of one.

MCINTOSH: In other words, when they had their message that they wanted to send they had to run it through one of these machines--

FELLER: Right.

MCINTOSH: And then the code letters went out from there?

FELLER: Mm-hm. Five letter code.

MCINTOSH: Five letter code, yeah. Who sent that message out?

FELLER: The radiomen.

MCINTOSH: The radioman, he just was handed a sheet of paper and--

FELLER: A five letter code. He didn't know what was in the message.

MCINTOSH: And that was by radio?

FELLER: Right.

MCINTOSH: And he sent it out by Morse code.

FELLER: Mm-hm.

MCINTOSH: And he had to key in all the--

FELLER: Right. MCINTOSH: The old fashioned gear.

FELLER: Earphones and--

MCINTOSH: Well, was there anything different? Who could look in that machine, 00:18:00that they were not allowed to, besides you?

FELLER: There was one officer over in the Navy yard in charge of all these machines.

MCINTOSH: These code machines?

FELLER: He was the one that taught me a lot about 'em.

MCINTOSH: And how many machines did you have?

FELLER: I ended up with about twenty of them.

MCINTOSH: Did they require daily maintenance?

FELLER: Well, I kept a schedule to do one, one day and another one another day unless one broke down. Then I'd have to leave that one and go and do the--

MCINTOSH: What was the main problem with them? What would you say they broke down?

FELLER: Oh, they get dirty. They had contacts all over the place, and then they got dirty. I had to use, it's illegal now to have it, I guess, or use it. It's a carbon tet [tetrachloride] I used to clean 'em.


MCINTOSH: And that was a daily job, this cleanin' those?

FELLER: Mm-hm.

MCINTOSH: But that didn't take you all day long, did it?

FELLER: Well, no. I got done with all of 'em, and then I'd turn around and go back and start over again.

MCINTOSH: Start over.

FELLER: Right.

MCINTOSH: I see. Was there any problem getting' the food or any of that essential stuff those first few days over there?

FELLER: No, no, we had a good mess halls all the time. Civilians maybe had a problem, but we didn't.

MCINTOSH: Right. You know the Navy increased the number of people there considerably. I'm sure while you were during the war [inaudible].

FELLER: Oh, yes. Built new barracks down below CINCPAC over there, and that's where we--our sleeping quarters were over there, and the mess halls were over there. It's right between the CINCPAC building now and where the football stadium is. Right down in there is where barracks were.


MCINTOSH: Where was the enlisted men's club?

FELLER: I don't know if we had one.

MCINTOSH: Oh, I see.

FELLER: [Laughs] They didn't have such a thing during the war I don't think. Well, they had one down the submarine base. I remember that one, but where the new barracks were, I never knew of any.

MCINTOSH: Well, your time off was spent in Honolulu where there were plenty of bars there.

FELLER: Right, yeah [laughs]. We got to go ashore once in awhile. Not too many times.

MCINTOSH: In your free time what would you usually do?

FELLER: Ah, one time we took a bike and went up to the valley. That's way up in the hill and--

MCINTOSH: Yeah, I've been there a couple of times.

FELLER: We coasted all the way down into town with our bikes. Go to museums and whatnot, go to Waikiki Beach.


MCINTOSH: A lot of girls there for you?

FELLER: Not too many.

MCINTOSH: Not too many?

FELLER: [laughs] They were all taken, I guess.

MCINTOSH: Oh, they were?

FELLER: [laughs] Well, sailors around.

MCINTOSH: Right, not many of the sailors were married in those days.


MCINTOSH: And have you kept in contact with the folks that you were with during the war years?

FELLER: Oh, there's one. I just found out that he was up in Minnesota. He was off the Oklahoma, the one that capsized out there, the battleship, and I finally got ahold of him and wrote to him without an address. I just saw what town he was in. He happened to be a postal carrier.

MCINTOSH: How lucky.

FELLER: Didn't have to worry about it then. But he passed away before I ever got to see him then.

MCINTOSH: Oh, you didn't exchange letters?

FELLER: Yes, I was supposed to meet him down in Pearl Harbor, and he never made it.


MCINTOSH: So you've been back to Pearl Harbor?

FELLER: Back about three times now, I guess.

MCINTOSH: Three times?

FELLER: After that.

MCINTOSH: Yeah, I've been there a couple times, on my way to Korea the first time. So they didn't have the memorial then for the Arizona.

FELLER: No, but that was a different war too again.

MCINTOSH: I'm sorry?

FELLER: That was a different war too again.

MCINTOSH: Yeah, it surely was. And so when you finished your career, shortly after the end of the war?

FELLER: Well, I enlisted for six years. I was in there six years, one month and eleven days.

MCINTOSH: Oh, I didn't realize you went Regular [Navy].

FELLER: And then after I was out I went in Inactive Reserves. In 1954, I was discharged in 1946, and in '54 I guess during the Korean War they came at me to 00:23:00join back up again so I went active reserves. I never had to go anywhere .

MCINTOSH: You didn't have to leave home?


MCINTOSH: You stayed in Verona?

FELLER: Right. I had meetings every week for awhile and then once a month a day or two days a month.

MCINTOSH: I bet you thought there was a good possibility you were gonna go over there to the next war.

FELLER: I was kind of worried when they started picking guys out.

MCINTOSH: Especially, yeah, so you've had so much experience, I would think that they would selected you out as being somebody they needed over there.

FELLER: Well, it's funny they didn't. Of course I had a lot of time in WWII and I was in Naval Security if you know what that is. It's an agent [??] security. That's what I did in the Reserves.

MCINTOSH: Where was your meeting for the Reserves?


FELLER: Down on East Washington Avenue. It's out at Truax now it's--

MCINTOSH: How big was your Reserve unit here in Madison, roughly?

FELLER: Ah, we had about twenty, twenty-five.

MCINTOSH: Did you use your GI bill when you got out?

FELLER: Education. I went to vocational, I was an electrician. Went to vocational for four years.

MCINTOSH: Well, you made good use of it then.

FELLER: Well, I would have been better off if I could have went to college, I guess [laughs]. I had my jobs three years before I was out of service, so I couldn't turn that down.


FELLER: Family friend was an electrician in town here, and he said, "Come and work for me."

MCINTOSH: So, you worked somebody in Verona?

FELLER: No, in Madison.

MCINTOSH: Oh, where is that?

FELLER: Well, this is on East Gorham--ah no, West Gorham and University Avenue. 00:25:00He had his shop down there. And I worked for Service Electric, they were out on East Washington Avenue after that. I worked at Staff Electric. Worked at two powerhouses, one in Portage and one down in Illinois.

MCINTOSH: On a temporary basis you mean?

FELLER: I was down in Illinois for four years, and I was up at Portage powerhouse, oh, for about four months, I guess, until I got a job back in Madison.

MCINTOSH: Was the experience you had in the Navy serve you well doing this powerhouse work?

FELLER: It helped, yeah.

MCINTOSH: I'll bet. It seemed like you probably had some pretty good training in the Navy.

FELLER: Ah, it was good. I couldn't use too much. If I had worked for Western Union where they had teletype maybe I could have--

MCINTOSH: Done more.

FELLER: Had a better retirement, I don't know.


MCINTOSH: Oh, yeah probably would. Did you join any veterans organizations?

FELLER: Oh, I belong to the--I'm a life member of the VFW, the Legion, and the Pearl Harbor Survivors life member.

MCINTOSH: Tell me about the Pearl Harbor Survivors group because I've never talked to anybody in that. How often do you meet and so forth?

FELLER: We have a chapter here and one in Fond du Lac, I guess, but that one in Fond du Lac isn't too active. The one in Milwaukee is real active. We have a memorial service down on the Sunday close to December 7th down in the memorial building in Milwaukee.

MCINTOSH: How big a group is that?

FELLER: Oh, when we get together there's about fifteen, twenty survivors come. There's seventy-five to a hundred of us veterans in Wisconsin.

MCINTOSH: Most of them Navy?

FELLER: No, no. No, they take everybody there.

MCINTOSH: Sure, I understand that.


FELLER: Then we have a Pearl Harbor dinner, one in the spring and one in the fall. We have a picnic down in the park in Menomonee Falls.

MCINTOSH: Boy, that's a real active group.

FELLER: We get together quite often, yes.

MCINTOSH: Three times a year, that's a lot.

FELLER: And one of our members down there is the secretary of the national Pearl Harbor Survivors. It's real active.

MCINTOSH: Now, this Pearl Harbor Survivors group takes all branches of service you said.

FELLER: Yes, Marines and all.

MCINTOSH: Sure. I understand that.

FELLER: Coast Guard, all of 'em, Army.

MCINTOSH: Sure. Well, that's pretty good. I can't think of anything else to ask you.

Mrs. FELLER: Tell them what your last experience of, when you went on December 00:28:007th, with Gene.

FELLER: I did.

MRS. FELLER: Oh. The guy made a--

FELLER: Yeah, I was a special guest on the memorial.

MRS. FELLER: He interviewed--

FELLER: I told you I was a special guest on the memorial.

MCINTOSH: Because?

FELLER: I don't know, just because I went out there that year. My son got permission, or was invited, an invitation for me and him to go aboard the memorial that morning.

Mrs. FELLER: The guy interviewed you, and they put it on tape, and they sent the tape to us.

FELLER: I told them I didn't get the tape [Mrs. Feller laughs], a blank tape.

MCINTOSH: Oh. Was that a local radio station or a TV station?

FELLER: No this was CINCPAC.

MCINTOSH: Oh, CINCPAC. Oh, the official.

FELLER: So somebody from CINCPAC--

MCINTOSH: Oh, well then I can understand how it got screwed up [Feller laughs]. 00:29:00Yeah [Robert and Mrs. Feller laugh].


MCINTOSH: Right. So, that's very good. Well, you had a concentrated experience there, being in one spot and never moving.

FELLER: It was a great experience. I'm glad I was there, but it was a terrible experience that morning. Never forget it.

MCINTOSH: I expect. That must have been a total state of confusion I'm sure on everybody's part.

FELLER: Everybody did their job though.

MCINTOSH: Right. Well all right, I can't think of anymore. That should do it, unless you have something that we didn't cover.

FELLER: I don't think so [laughs].

[End of Interview]