Richard Hagerman makes his home in Wendell and served overseas in France during World War II. He has gained national notoriety for his letters to his wife during the war, some of which were published in Smithsonian Magazine.
Jim: I do want to ask you right off the bat about Pearl Harbor, about where you were when you heard about that.
Richard: I was in high school economics class.
Jim: And what was that like when you got the news?
Richard: Well, we heard it on the radio, and it really didn't register that deeply because we were still kids and we weren't involved as far as thinking about joining as yet, I think I was a junior in High School and that was about it.
Jim: What was the reaction from people?
Richard: I don't remember that there was any real exciting specifics, it's just that it happened uh the war was on and the only thing we had was a lot of rationing, but that had been going on before so I don't remember any real ear shattering moments to tell you about.
Jim: You talked about the fact that when you heard the news about Pearl Harbor you were still kids and so it didn't really register, but it wasn't too long after that, that you went from being a kid to...
Richard: Two years.
Jim: That's not real long.
Richard: No, it's not, and things build up as you went on, but you know as a high school kid you weren't real ready to jump into a lot of the world doings and uh so you don't think that much about it. You've got your sports, you've got your friends, you've got band, I mean you're doing a lot of other things and it hasn't touched until your family. I, I was an only child, my dad had died a couple of years before and so really home was kind of where I was.
Jim: What was it like to step from that into the service?
Richard: Well my first day in the service I was on KP and I, I wrote a letter and told my girlfriend that I must be a real soldier because I'm on KP. So I was awakened at 4:00 in the morning and worked until 8:00 at night and uh getting into the service I walked into the whatever center it was, stripped off all my clothes, walked into the next room they started throwing stuff at me, had me put it on as I walked along, got to the end and then they gave me a pair of shoes because I had my backpack and everything and they wanted to make sure the shoes fitted.
Jim: You were drafted?
Richard: I was drafted.
Jim: Some people talk about that feeling that you know they wanted to do something and pitch in, did you have that?
Richard: No, I didn't have that feeling so much. I was in the pre-medical study and I figured that doctors were as necessary as soldiers and so I didn't really get ready to jump in, but when the time came I know my mother was pretty excited because I was an only child. I was all she had, and she really wasn't too excited about my going to war because my dad had been in the service in World War I. So I guess I just figured it was something that had to happen, and uh I guess when the Lord decides what's going to happen you do as he lead you.
Jim: You know you talked about, it was sort of what you did, it wasn't this monumental thing, it was just what you did and there's been a lot made lately of this, the idea of this being the Greatest Generation. Do you buy that?
Richard: I think Tom Brokaw really stretched things. It was a great time and there's no question of what the nation was held together and excuse me, but there wasn't the media to make the people like the Hezbollah and the other enemies such great people who were being tortured by the United States. It was a case of going in and cleaning up the mess that was there and so we accepted that.
Jim: Did you have a feeling that . . . you mention the war now and, and I don't want to get too deeply in the war in Iraq, but at the same time it's hard sometimes not to think about some of those parallels. Did you feel kind of the white hats versus the black hats back then?
Richard: Oh yeah, yeah and the only, the only thing that happened when we left, I mean as far as the nation not being behind us and this was a joke, but when we got on the boat to head overseas the band was playing "Somebody else is taking your place." And I don't know what that was supposed to be because feel, but . . .
Jim: I know how it would make me feel.
Richard: Well of course I'm still a Lawrence Welk fan and we listen to him every Saturday night because it's the music that I was sort of brought up with and it's the music that for me is, is relaxing rather than disturbing. I have trouble handling some of the modern music because it's so noisy and so loud and it just creates a tension within me rather than a relaxation.
Jim: Were there songs that you remember back from those days?
Richard: Oh my, no. I, if I heard 'em I would, when I was Welk I remember 'em I can see 'em, but uh for me to remember some of those that I'd have to have some help.
Jim: It seems that sometimes we talk about the music and some of the things people are going through, it seems that at times it's very easy to sort of paint that whole era with a sort of golden brush, like this was just this sort of wonderful time when everyone was having you know listening to music and going to wonderful movies and there Bing Crosby and Deanna Durbin and all these people that you know that there was this sort of golden time. Do you think that's fair? I think sometimes it makes it sound a little too simple, or was it?
Richard: Well I, I think as far as I'm concerned I think it's fair, but I also think that there was a lot of sacrifice that went along at that same time and the sacrifice was not something that everybody felt, you know, "Man I'm doing this thing for my nation." I mean it was just something that as a member of the United States of America you did these things.
Jim: You talk about sacrifice . . . when did you start to feel, you talk about being in high school, you were going into medicine, you went and got your boots and all this stuff and you're doing KP and you're thinking about all that . . . when did you start to feel that you were sacrificing something for what was going on?
Richard: I didn't feel that way until after the war was over and we had to wait for points in order to get back home.
Jim: What does that mean?
Richard: That means that if you had been in, overseas, for a certain number of years you got so many points; if you had been in combat you got so many points; if you had kids back home you got so many points; and you had to have a certain number of points before you'd get in line to go back home. I was at a point where it took me about I think I don't know four or five months after the war to get enough points to get on a ship to come back home. Then that's when I was, was bothered I spent my time actually seeing things around there and there was an American University that was set up by the services that I went to for a couple of months so I could get some more credit when I got back home to college. We could take trips. I went down to Nice and saw what the French Riviera was like, and I enjoyed that part of it, but I still I was, I wanted to get home and I don't know that I cried, but I screamed you know why don't they do this faster, but up to that point it was just a case of getting a job done and not complaining about how you could help.
Jim: Why'd you want to get home so badly?
Richard: Well, I had a girlfriend back there that I wanted to get back to, I wanted to get back to school, I'd always every since the 8th grade I'd planned on getting into one of the medical practices and so I wanted to get back to get to school so I could finish that. In fact, I was taking correspondence courses during that time also in order to pick up more credit so that I could get through faster, so I could get in to helping people. As far as actually . . . at that time I thought medicine, I, I changed it into dentistry, but uh.
Jim: That's still medicine.
Richard: Yeah it is.
Jim: My grandfather was a dentist, and my Grandmother always used to get upset when people would make a comment like he wasn't a doctor.
Richard: How come you're not, yeah a doctor. Well I'll tell you I, the one thing about dentistry is you're getting me off on the subject. One of the things dentists do is to create smiles for people, and I think one of the greatest things a person can present to anybody else is a smile and I just feel that I did that for people and uh as a result that was a part of my uh doing. My other part that I think can bring smiles to people if they so desire and that is that I believe that Jesus Christ is my savior and by believing that I've got all kinds of things to look forward to. Man, it's exciting so I can smile when I've got problems, I can smile when I haven't got problems, and I can think about smiling another later on.
Jim: They always talk about how there are no atheists in foxholes.
Richard: Yeah, I've heard that. Now I'm not sure, I would think, I wasn't in foxholes, I was close enough to draw combat pay, the artillery shells could go over the top of me, but the rifles couldn't reach me, but I still was what in a combat zone. So I didn't get into the, the foxholes, but I can believe that something like that would scare you into believing, I don't want to go to hell I've got it right here.
Jim: When you were over there, was your faith a big part of your life then or was this something new?
Richard: Yes. Yeah in fact the night that I was to leave England for Europe we were lined up waiting to get on a boat and then we were told, "No, that boat's saved for somebody else." I guess that they needed that on the front better more than us, so we were turned around put back in the barracks for the night. The next day we did get on a boat, going across the channel. It was Christmas day and we had C-Rationed Turkey, C-Ration you know is a cans, and I was complaining and then I heard about what happened to the ship that we were supposed to have gotten on the night before, it had hit a mine in the channel and about nine guys had died and I don't know how many get wet. So I thought, "Well, hey you know ,maybe somebody's looking out for me." Got into Europe, we did a night jog to get where we wanted to go and that's where you're traveling with a little tiny lights and all this sort of stuff. The German's have they, well we called it the Bed Check Charlie, it was a pursuit plane that came over every night just about bedtime, and if there were any lights it shot 'em up. It went over us, we heard it shoot up a convey behind us and I thought, "You know, the Lord's got a message here for me, maybe I better say thanks and, and plan on serving him as I can." So that's, that was part of my build up as far as my faith is concerned.
Jim: It sounds like knowing a little bit about what you went through over there that, that something else it must've been on your mind was that girlfriend.
Richard: Well of course. That's why, let's see, I wrote a letter about every day and that's why you see those two boxes of letters, she saved 'em all.
Jim: What did setting down to write those mean to you?
Richard: Well, it was a case of telling her that I was thinking about her, that I was planning to make a life with her and that I was hoping that she was doing the same thing. And I figured you know she was in college. At the college there were about 5,000 red hot air cadets, you know, I thought, "Man, she's got to fight those guys as well and keep me in mind." So I thought, "Well maybe if I can write enough good stuff she'll read that instead of paying attention to them."
Interviewed by Jim Peck, producer of The Idaho Homefront: World War II