©2014, Aaron Elson
On Memorial Day 1998, I attended the dedication of a new library at the Eldred World War II Museum in Eldred, Pa. The museum director, Kurt Pfaff, invited some area veterans for me to interview. One of them was Jerome Auman, a Marine Corps veteran of World War II.
Sometime around Christmas of 1942 I was sent to British Samoa. American Samoa and British Samoa were on the front line the Japs hadnt gotten any farther than that so we were the front-line defense. I was transferred into what they called a heavy .30-caliber water cooled machine gun battalion. And we trained. Oh, man, what work! We had to carry them uphill. The tripod and the gun, the water tank and two boxes of ammunition were on a cart. The cart had wheels that look like bicycle wheels, theyre about 26 inches; a bicycle wheel has real fine spokes. You had a tongue on it, and I think they used us like mules to haul this cart. Two guys pulled it. And when you got to where you couldnt pull it any more, they had a rope to put on front and two more could help pull it. And when that got to where you couldnt pull it any more, youd carry it.
In that squad, there were 14 men. The first man carried the tripod, the second the gun, the third the water tank and a box of ammunition, and each one after that carried two boxes of ammunition. I dont think I ever worked so hard in my life.
That went on for about six months. Then we left British Samoa and went to American Samoa, and from American Samoa, we were going to board troop transports for the invasion of Tarawa.
The night before I was to ship out, my name was called to report to the first sergeant. So I trotted down to the hall. We had been sitting watching a movie they hung up a big sheet in the field and they projected a movie on the white sheet, and you could see it from either side of the sheet. They had loudspeakers set up for the sound. So I went to see the first sergeant they didnt have an office; they had a table sitting out under the trees. And he said, "Pack your bag. Youre being transferred."
What a relief to get out of work like that! I was transferred into the military police company on the island. This military police company had the brig for the whole South Pacific area. If you got in trouble, you wound up in our brig. And I spent about six months in the military police.
I could tell you a story. I might as well tell it, as long as weve got lots of time.
There was a Navy seabee company on the island, and they were in charge of the generator for the whole island. So it was a pretty big generating station. And they also had a submarine base there.
Each MP was assigned two fellows from the seabee company to take a months tour of the MPs, because there were sailors and Marines coming in, and they didnt want the Marines picking on the sailors.
There was this one fellow by the name of Frenchy Belleperche. I dont know what his right name was but Belleperche was his last name. He was from right across from Detroit, Windsor, Ontario. He was a Canadian, but he enlisted in the United States Navy and became a seabee.
Frenchy and I became very close friends. And one day, he came to me and said, "Jerome, Im in real big trouble."
I said, "What did you do, Frenchy?"
He said, "Well, you heard about the stink being raised on the island. Im going to be arrested tomorrow. Will you do me a favor?"
I said, "What is it?"
He said, "Take this cigar box."
"Whats in it?"
I opened it up. There was $13,800 in $20 bills.
I said, "What am I gonna do with this?"
He said, "Take it. Youre going back to the States pretty soon. Take it home."
I said, "Frenchy, how in the hell would I explain this much money making $21 a month?"
He said, "Oh, just take it!"
I took the box, and I put it in my footlocker, right down on the bottom, and put everything on top of it. Nobody else knew anything about this.
Well, the case came up. What they had been doing was taking what they called torpedo juice thats the fuel that you shoot the torpedoes with and they were distilling it, making 100 proof alcohol. They were selling that for $100 a gallon, and they were supplying every ship and anybody that wanted alcohol on the whole island. Frenchys share was over $13,000. He said, "I cant use it. Im going to be arrested. Theyre going to find it."
What had happened was that two fellows found out about the making of this liquor and they wanted to cut in on it. And the guys who were making it said, "No. We dont want anybody else, because were a pretty nice, well-regulated organization." So instead of leaving well enough alone, these other two Navy fellows decided theyre going to be smart and theyre going to make their own. But what they did, they took paint thinner sold it out of the barrels just like that. They didnt distill or change it or anything. I dont remember the figures, but three or four men died. Some went blind. Some went crazy. When you get on an island and that kind of stuff turns up, it is a stink. So the roof caved in on Frenchys operation.
I kept the money in my footlocker for a couple of months. Frenchy got court-martialed. I dont know what rank he held but he was busted down to the lowest rank in the Navy, and he got six months in the brig. Well, if you knew the guy, he was one hell of a nice man. And Im not ashamed to say he was a friend of mine. Almost from the first day he was in the brig, they made him a model prisoner, and he only had to sleep in the brig at night. In the daytime, he was in the officers mess doing cooking and cleaning.
In the meantime, I was going to go back to the States. At any time, no general will travel alone. If a Marine general was ordered back to Washington, he had to have a detachment of Marines travel with him. I had 16 months overseas at that time, and I got chosen as one of the Marines who were in this detachment to travel back to the States. So I went to Frenchy and said, "Frenchy, I cant take this home." On the inter-island boats theres always three or four MPs inspecting baggage. And what are they gonna do when I get back to San Diego or San Francisco? How will I explain that?"
He said, "I dont know, but I want you to take it home."
I said, "No, Im not taking it home. Here. Its yours. Youre free all day long. You hide it someplace." So I gave him his money back.
And I didnt know it, but when we came home, through customs, theres not a soul who even said, "Whats in this bag?" But how would I have explained that lump sum of money on $21 a month?
I was discharged from the Marines in December of 1945, and in 1948 I had to go to the VA in Erie for a physical, because I was discharged with 10 percent disability for arthritis in my hips and knees. I was married by then, so my wife and I went to Erie and I said, "Lets drive out to Windsor and see Frenchy." We went to Windsor and looked him up. We had a good time together for four or five hours. And he said, "You know, I wish you would have never given me that money back because I spent every damn penny of it in poker games."
I never told that story. Ive written my story. Kurt has a copy of it here [at the World War II Museum in Eldred, Pa.]. I never wrote stuff like that into it because, well, I figure thats not part of the military thing. Its a story. But I could write a book this thick if I had to write everything that I said or did.
But anyhow, to get back to the general coming back to the United States. On the way back we stopped at Pearl Harbor, and we were going to be there a couple of days. We were allowed shore leave. So I go ashore and look around, and who do I find but my squad leader from the .30-caliber water cooled machine gun, which was the Second Defense Battalion of the 22nd Marines. And I said to him, "Where are the rest of the fellows?"
He looked at me, and he said, "Youre looking at the only one that came back alive."
And I dont have to tell anybody that was there how I felt. To think, "Thank God for the transfer to the military police in Samoa." Because I, too, probably would not have come back.
The Eldred World War II Museum is located at 201 Main Street, PO Box 273, Eldred, PA 16731. For more information about the museum and library, call (814) 225-2220.