©2002, 2009 Aaron Elson
Sergeant Lester Suter was a member of Headquarters Company of the 712th Tank Battalion.
Before the war, I was a roustabout. I went out at night, didn’t work, spent all my money, just hustled a dollar.
My father died when I was seven, and my mother worked at a jacket factory. She made 14 bucks a week, and Jesus, we were hungry. In fact, going to school, I even took buttered lard bread with salt and pepper on it for lunch.
The nun there — I went to Catholic school — wanted me to take a luncheon program that was free. I said no, I don’t want free stuff. So I sat at the other end of the eating hall and I ate my bread.
Then one day, I became hungry when I got off of school. I went home and ate my mother’s sandwich for that night, and oh, was I depressed. I was poor, poor, poor, as poor as you could get. I went to school in the snow with tennis shoes on that had holes in the sides. I’d run to school, so I’d get there faster, and man, my feet were freezing, but they asked me to take their free shoes, no way for me, because I didn’t accept charity.
When I was 23 I went to California. I went because I’d messed up in St. Louis, and I figured the quicker I get out of town the better off I am. So I got a job driving cars — when you hauled a car to California you got paid 25 bucks. But then, because it was a four-passenger, or a six-passenger car, you’d take passengers that you’d charge 15 to 25 bucks, so you could get a hundred and a half for driving a car. I didn’t know this until I met these guys in St. Louis, and I paid them 15 bucks to drive me to California. But when we got to Tulsa, Oklahoma, this one fellow says, "You can drive." We had two cars. We had a 1939 Packard and a 1940 … I don’t remember the model. We drove them to California in September of 1939. I wound up in Pasadena with $13.50.
How did I mess up? I messed up by quitting a job. I got married to a gal in St. Louis. I was living with her. I didn’t worry about working, so to me it was a free ride. What do you want to work for? Have fun all day and sleep with a gal at night.
In California, the first thing I did was go out looking for a job because I only had six or seven bucks after we paid our rent. I got a job shingling roofs. The guy said, "I’ll give you two bits a bundle for every bundle of shingles you put on." And these goddamn shingles weighed 90 pounds a bundle, but they came by boat and they were water-soaked, which brought them up to about 125. So on this house, I had to carry those shingles up a rickety ladder, and then shingle.
I did eight bundles, but I put them on crooked, so at the end of the day he says, "I can’t pay you. You did the job wrong." So I had a sunburned back because I wanted to get a nice suntan, and so I said, "Shit, I worked all day, got my back all sunburned, hurt it with those goddamned wooden shingles." I was really irritated. The next day I didn’t show up. The ball game was over on this shingle business, so I had to go out and look for something else.
Then I got a job setting pins in a bowling alley, 15 cents a line. You’d set a line here, and then you’d jump over and set the other line, and you’d jump back and forth and you’d make about $2.75 a night, and my shins would get all hit with those things because the pins would fly everywhere and they’d hit me in the shins. But I had to take it because I needed the two bucks or $2.75 I’d make each night.
I was working there, and all of a sudden I saw that shoe factory that was working nights there in Pasadena. That was the Joyce Shoe Company. So I said, "Man, I’m going down there and tell these guys I’m a shoe worker and try to get a job." So I went down there and I got ahold of this one guy and I told him I was a shipping clerk back in St. Louis for Brown’s Shoe Company. He asked me a few questions, and because one of my friends worked at Brown’s I’d learned a little from him about it, so I told him what I knew. And he said, "Well, that proves you worked there." So I got my break right there. I went to work, 14 bucks a week, and I worked night and day, Saturdays and Sundays. I saved up enough money in about a year and a quarter to buy myself a new Oldsmobile. The Oldsmobile torpedo body, first hydromatic shift. It was a fantastic looking car, absolutely great. I pulled up at the factory that the Joyce Shoe Company was building in Ohio, because the guy that was running the factory was a clerk out in Pasadena before. As I pulled up, Mr. Joyce was there, and he says, "Who’s that guy pulling up?"
The guy looked at me, and he says, "That’s the guy that runs the shipping department for you in Pasadena."
Mr. Joyce says, "What? He drives a car like that and he’s only a shipping clerk?"
I went in there and he called me over. He says, "I want you to get in touch with me when we get back to California, because I want to know how you got that car working for me."
When I went back, Joyce and I got together. He was the president of the company. I told him what I knew, and before I knew it, I had a pretty good job with him.
Then I went and got married. I started driving to St. Louis because I left a girlfriend back in St. Louis that I said I was gonna come back and marry someday. So I’d drive to St. Louis about once every three or four weeks and I’d see her for the weekend and drive back. And driving back on a Sunday night or Monday morning, man, I was falling asleep, four hundred miles from Columbus, Ohio, to St. Louis. I’d slap my face, roll down the window so it would be cold in the car, anything to stay awake. And I’d get back in Columbus about 7 in the morning and go to work. I courted her long-distance and I finally married her in September of 1941.
After that, we rented an apartment in Columbus, $40 a month. Joyce had appointed me purchasing agent for Columbus. I told him some good ideas, saved him half a million bucks. I was a rough-talking young kid, but still I was recognized as having the brains.
A year later, we had a baby. Her name is Sharon. She’s living yet today. We had the baby in September, and November 18 or 20 I went in the service. They drafted me right after she had the kid.
I had tried to join the Air Corps two times. My depth perception was bad and they wouldn’t accept me in the Navy or the Army Air Corps.
Then I went to Fort Benning, Georgia. They told me when I left someplace in Indiana — Jefferson — they took 400 of us at 5 o’clock in the morning and we got out and stood in the snow and cold and got on a train. And I asked the guy, "Am I gonna get in the Air Force?"
He said, "Oh, yeah, you’re going in the Air Force."
I thought I was going to Florida. Well, we wound up in Fort Benning. I became a tanker.