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Interview with Henry A. Lesa [Undated]

Thomas Venezio:

Tell me -- give me your name and your date of birth.

Henry A. Lesa:

Well, my name is Henry A. Lesa, L-E-S-A, born August the 30th, 1914, Syracuse, New York. So I'm a native.

Thomas Venezio:

And which branch of the service did you serve in?

Henry A. Lesa:

I was in the U.S. Naval Reserve, Seabees, 23rd Seabee Battalion. We went out of Hueneme, California, to the different places, but our basic training was here in the East Coast, in Virginia, and Camp Davis, in Massachusetts, I think that is. You know, I try to remember all this. I forget, you know. But it was only two or three weeks, four weeks, and then we were shipped to Hueneme. And from Hueneme we went to Vancouver -- Seattle, and got a Liberty ship and went to Kodiak, Alaska.

Thomas Venezio:

Did you enlist, or were you drafted?

Henry A. Lesa:

Oh, yes, I enlisted.

Thomas Venezio:

What year did you enlist?

Henry A. Lesa:

1942. And I was called to active duty in August. And I was in Kodiak in November. So it wasn't too long getting into --

Thomas Venezio:

Once you got to Kodiak, why don't you go ahead and tell us a little bit about where you went from there?

Henry A. Lesa:

In Kodiak we did some construction work. I worked on barracks, and my specialty was making stairs for the barracks, because in those days we had to have -- you couldn't walk into any room that showed light outside. You had a barrier that you had to go around it to go into the stairs and into the barracks, because they -- there was no sights (sic) of any of the enemy, but still, everything was that way. And we were there for two or three months, and then we went by -- I was trying to think. It was an Alaskan steamship company that took us to -- we went to Adak. Company A went to Adak. Some of the other companies were Dutch Harbor and other places -- there was -- had orders -- Company A, B, C, and D. It was five companies altogether, about 1200 people in the battalion. And I remember very vividly, I was eating chow at the mess hall. And a guy came in, and he called off 50 names, and he says, "You guys finish your meal and go get your bag, pack everything. We're moving you." So we're about 15 minutes, 20 minutes, and he picked us up. He put us on barges, and we went in the invasion of Attu. They dumped us on the beach, and our instructions was to build a mess hall. And the fighting was going on. The Army was fighting the Japs maybe four or five hundred yards from where we were. We were part of the invasion. We had guns. We carried ammunition and guns, and we lived in tents. And we finished the mess hall within a week. And from there we kept building bridges, roads, docks, and warehouses and -- besides, fighting the weather. You would have to read the book The Thousand-Mile War. It's hard to come by. I finally got one. That gives a description of the Aleutian weather and the trouble that the aviators had trying to keep up with the -- with everything they had to do because of the weather. They couldn't go on bombing sites or any of that stuff because most of the time it was so thick fog, they couldn't see. But in the course of -- I was there a year and a half, and in the course of that time, I think I saw the sun once. That's how bad the weather was. It rained every day. You would look at the mountains. There was no trees or anything at Attu. You would look at the mountains. You would see a storm coming. There would be a rainbow sometimes in front of it. The storm would go by. You would see another rainbow and another storm. This went on for a year and a half. Our clothes, we never could get them really dry. And the -- it was, you know, different things. One incident they had, they had me and another fellow carry a Quonset hut around a little pond or a lake. We carried it around. It might have been a quarter of a mile. We carried it up the other end, ended up putting the Quonset hut together. The minute we got the Quonset hut done, then they put a road to the Quonset hut and drove up. All the work we had done could have been saved by just building the road first. But these are some of the things that happened to us fellows.

Thomas Venezio:

After Attu, where did you go from there?

Henry A. Lesa:

Well, from there, when it was all secured and everything, we got on Liberty ships again and went back to Seattle. And we had trouble with the ship. It was leaking and so forth, but we got there. In Seattle we went by train back to Hueneme. And from there I had leave, and I came home, and I got married. And this was -- had to be in the month of June because that's when my anniversary is, June the 7th, 1944. By that time I was in just about two years. And then we had a week, and I went back to Hueneme. And we were there a little bit, not much, when they got a task force of about a thousand ships, and they were lined up for miles. We went into the invasion of Guam. And in between that we had one stop off at an island. I think it was Perry Island, where they had bombed it right down to the -- there wasn't even a stub on a palm tree or anything. In fact, they had blasted the ground because the Japs had gone in hiding in the ground. And we stopped there to have a can of beer. And to have a beer, you had to get off the ship. They weren't allowed to drink beer on the ship. They would put us on barges, put us on the beach -- we drank the can of beer -- put us back on the barge and put us back on the ship. And the accommodations for showers and stuff was hard to come by. We'd wait. We'd see a storm coming. We'd take our clothes off, wash ourselves. But every once in a while, the storm wouldn't last long, and we'd be covered with soap. We had to go back into our showers, which was mostly salt water. And this was part of the thing going into Guam. We went into Guam. We ended up building the docks. Our outfit built all the docks in Guam. And I went in -- they put me in the Quonset hut and put me into watch repair. So I got to talk to an awful lot of the people. In fact, I'm pretty sure I talked to the fellows that bombed Hiroshima, that -- because they had -- their watches had to be synchronized, because they used to fly without any communication between the planes. They flew blind, and they had to keep next to each other, really, and not hit each other, and they needed their watches for -- to time everything, so -- and this is what I ended up doing, is repairing watches for the rest of the time. And then when I was done -- the war was over -- they packed it all up, and I got it in six months. They shipped it to me. I packed it, you know, and labeled it, and they shipped it to me. It took me about six months before I got it, but I got it. It was a quiet thing. We used to get beer once in a while, which it was near beer. It wasn't the beer you get, you know, today. And the -- it was fairly quiet as far as we're concerned. I think we had one man died, and it had nothing to do with the war itself -- I think his picture is in one of those books -- out of the outfit. But we had different replacements the second time. They weren't the original outfit. Some fellows were shipped to other outfits, and some, I don't know, they had to be moved around. And that's about the whole extent of it.

Thomas Venezio:

Was there -- was there any one experience in the time that you were either in Guam or Attu that -- that there was -- that you were real concerned for your safety or the safety of the group?

Henry A. Lesa:

Once in Attu there was -- a few Jap bombers came overhead. And we were all out there with our carbines, shooting at them. Whether we hit them or not, I don't know. But at least we -- we used up quite a little ammunition. That was about the only thing. In Guam we had no resistance at all. If there was, I wouldn't have known it because I was set in -- in the company grounds and not moving around too much. I used to take -- the dentist would let me take his Jeep, and I would go to the hospital, which was at the other end of the island. We lived right next to the airport, where the planes used to rev up three o'clock in the morning. We didn't get much sleep. Three o'clock in the morning, they would rev up to go bombing. And we used to take -- I used to collect a lot of books and candy from the different fellows. And if we had any extra money, we used to buy boxes of candy, because we were right next to the ship store, and I would take them to the hospital. And I'd go bring it and give it to the boys, which were mostly Marines on Guam. It wasn't so much Army as it was on Attu. And you would see some of these fellows. Boy, it was brutal. One little hole about the size of a pencil in the front, let's say; and out the back, a hole about six inches. They used these dumdum bullets that would explode to, like -- and -- and you would talk to the nurses and the different, you know, things going on. It was quite busy there, a lot of fellows. But that's the one thing I was able to do, because being, you know, with a watch -- where I wasn't on the job building bridges or docks or anything like that.

Thomas Venezio:

Before you went in the service, did you have -- had you been in the construction trade?

Henry A. Lesa:

Well, I was in the knitting business. I repaired -- I was a machinist. I repaired machines and had equipment. I had worked on a patent, and I had made parts for the knitting machines and had a patent to, you know, make -- these were -- the knitting I did was gloves, ladies' gloves, men's gloves. In fact, I could have -- I could have avoided going to war because my boss says he could have gotten me a deferment, but he didn't tell me. So I had enlisted, and he was mad -- but I couldn't help that. He -- because we made Navy and Army gloves, and I designed the gloves and ran the machinery for the thing. So when I came back, I went back to work there, but not for long. They closed the plant down because of Japanese imports. I won the war but lost my job.

Thomas Venezio:

Henry, did you receive any awards or citations from your Army service -- your Navy service?

Henry A. Lesa:

Well, I got two ribbons, one for the Attu invasion; and I got another ribbon for the Guam invasion. I got other ribbons here, but I don't remember what they are. They could have been for shooting or whatever. I'm not sure. I didn't look at them this time. The last time I looked at them was five or six years ago. So it took us quite a while to get them. We didn't get them when we come out of the service. I was, oh, I don't know -- 15, 20 years after, I had to go to a place in Colonie, and they got them for me. There's still another -- another ribbon or another thing I'm supposed to get. I got to find out what that is and get it.

Thomas Venezio:

When you were -- when you were over there, how were you -- were you able to stay in touch with your family at all, especially having --

Henry A. Lesa:

Well, we got letters. Sometimes it would be all cut up because they censored them. And I found out that my -- she was working for the government in Schenectady. She was a keypunch operator. She took care of all the parts that the different places would order. She made all the cards up for that. And they had a lot of the stuff there in Schenectady Army Depot. She got sick. She got pneumonia, ended up like tuberculosis. She ended up with about a year in Army Medical. The Hun Memorial, they called it. She had to sleep outside in the cold and the whole thing. They ended up collapsing her lung and taking out seven ribs so that the lung wouldn't come up. And she had just got through coming out of the hospital, and we got married. And so she was -- and the whole thing, the government didn't take any part of it. She got sick, and she paid for it all herself.

Thomas Venezio:

When you went in, were there many -- many guys your age in that same Seabees unit or --

Henry A. Lesa:

Well, there was a lot of people, anywhere from 25 to 30, 35. And then there were some people that were the chiefs and stuff like that. They were in charge of the different things. They were, like, 45, 50 years old. And the officers were up there. They were -- a lot of the officers were people that had businesses and were in big construction that could handle what we were doing out there.

Thomas Venezio:

You -- you brought some pictures along.

Henry A. Lesa:

Yeah. That's the Attu one. Those would go with this -- this would go with the other book afterward. But that one there has -- all right. This one here has all the -- this is all signatures from the different people when -- when we retired. In fact, this is where I first -- See Winters, he was the officer in charge of everything. I didn't get to see many of these. Like, this fellow here, I very seldom saw him. You didn't get to see them. They bounced around a lot. And, see, they had quite a picture. This is the officers. I don't know if you can get a picture of that. And we had all the -- this is Headquarters Company. These were all officers. They're wearing all hats. This is the company that I was in, Company A. And then --

Thomas Venezio:

And do you still have reunions with some of these guys?

Henry A. Lesa:

Oh, yeah, yeah. Maybe intimately, more or less, with a half a dozen. Because I palled up, the second time out, with one fellow that lives in Morrison, Illinois, that I hear from him quite a little. But these are all the -- there's quite a few, you know -- there's a -- I'm just trying to see the -- here's some pictures. There's always cartoons and bunk beds. And this, here, now it looks like there's holes in them, which is about right. This is some of the terrain in these places. It was really --

Thomas Venezio:

-- pretty rugged.

Henry A. Lesa:

We had some incidents. We had one incident. We were -- everything came in on barges, on ships, and then put on barges, and then the barge would be unloaded in the thing. And we had a couple of officers that felt they were better than everybody else, and they kept pushing people and so forth. We had a couple of Texans that got smart to this guy. We were unloading pipe and tank material to put up big tanks for the gasoline, and they caught him. This was -- I worked the night shift from six at night to six in the morning, unloading the barges and the ships. And they were taking off pipe, oh, maybe six-inch-diameter pipe, about 40 feet long. And they waited until his back was turned, and they butted him in the backside with the pipe, and they dumped him in the ocean. He come out of that ocean. And in the ocean, there, anything over four minutes, your life is gone. You got to be out of there in a hurry. He came out of there spitting and sputtering. For the rest of the time, we didn't see him on ship again. He got the message. I don't know if this is one of the barges. I'm just trying to see. Oh, no. This is just one of those landing --

Thomas Venezio:

-- landing --

Henry A. Lesa:

-- ships. But we didn't have any cameras, so trying to get pictures was hard. We had to go by what they issued out, you know.

Thomas Venezio:

Yeah.

Henry A. Lesa:

But they did get, you know --

Thomas Venezio:

That's pretty good pictures.

Henry A. Lesa:

See, there's a Quonset hut. There's quite a few, you know.

Thomas Venezio:

That's great.

Henry A. Lesa:

But I read the book this year. It's The Thousand-Mile War. And the book was interesting, but they dwelled on all the officers and not the enlisted men. I just felt it was -- in fact, the whole book talks about Kodiak, Adak, Amchitka, and a lot of the other islands, and Attu, and the invasion of Attu, and left out the 23rd Seabee Battalion completely. They talk about all these officers that flew the planes and all their problems and everything else. It is quite a book to read.

Thomas Venezio:

__+ Seabees.

Henry A. Lesa:

This fellow __+ Pete Larose (ph), he was in the service with us. I think he's still alive, this fellow here. I don't know who this man was that wrote it, but this is the song for the Seabees.

Thomas Venezio:

Henry, who's in this picture?

Henry A. Lesa:

Well, this is one picture of me, whether you get it, with my brother-in-law. Did he get it? Okay. I don't -- I had regular photos, a big photo taken when I got married, because I got married with my -- I had to wear my Navy uniform. And this is me repairing watches on Guam. And this is the front of the Quonset hut, advertising my business.

Thomas Venezio:

What's this picture here, then?

Henry A. Lesa:

Oh, this is our first reunion we had in Springfield, Massachusetts. We started that. I forget what year it was. We put down there, "This belongs to me," and so forth, but didn't put any dates. But we had been having reunions for the last 30-some years, so it had to be 30 years or so ago. And we have been in quite a few places, Florida, Charleston. We have been in -- we're going to Kansas City this year.

Thomas Venezio:

When you -- I see you got the other book from --

Henry A. Lesa:

This is the one from Guam.

Thomas Venezio:

If there's anything special in there --

Henry A. Lesa:

I don't remember anything special. The -- basically, the -- I don't know whether these were fellows that were in our outfit or not, because you didn't get to see, you know, because -- I got to get this a certain way, there. Oh, I remember when Roosevelt came to see us, the fellows were dropping like flies. We were at attention on a blacktop parking lot, like a big place, and it was so hot. And they didn't even put us at attention -- I mean -- at rest. We were at attention, and the fellows were just passing out to beat the band. But it shows him coming, here, in the car to review us. We were one of the first of the battalions that actually saw service that quick. These are the officers from --

Thomas Venezio:

Maybe what we can do is, we'll get some pictures out of the book and --

Henry A. Lesa:

Hmm?

Thomas Venezio:

We'll get some pictures, too, out of the book and include them with the interview. When you got done with the service, you went home. Then you went back to the knitting plant, initially?

Henry A. Lesa:

Yeah.

Thomas Venezio:

Then what did you do?

Henry A. Lesa:

Well, I lived in my sister-in-law's house, because he was in the service, and she was living with her parents. And I worked until they closed me down. I went looking for a job, and I found a job making storm windows. So I stayed with that about a year, making storm windows. I ended up -- I got the job, and within a few weeks, they made me the foreman, and I was in charge of the place. And, you know, I was looking for something else. And a fellow used to come and bring us glass for the storm windows, and he asked me if I wanted to go to work for them in a glasshouse. So I worked for a glass company on Broadway. And I stayed there a couple years. And they decided to go in business for themselves, the fellow that brought me there, and his brother. So I went with them, and we opened up a place in Gloversville, and I ran the shop. And we were buying bow windows and windows and putting them together and selling them to the builders. And they stopped us with the bow windows. So I decided to build the bow window. So I made one by hand on the floor of the building with a router, made the whole thing, taped it up in a box, and went out, and sold a hundred of them to a fellow that was governor of New Hampshire or something, one lumber company in New Hampshire. And then from there we kept building more and growing, and then we went wholesale. We quit selling retail. And it ended up that when I retired, I had a hundred people working, and we were in Rotterdam, in the old Army Depot. And all of this was knocked down. These windows weren't put together. They'd be all knocked down. They could be put together in three quarters of an hour or so. And they were all dovetailed, so everything fit. And to this day, the original ones, the pieces that were made at the end, would fit the originals, if anything was rotten or went bad. The company went bankrupt, finally, because my boss didn't want to keep the business. Well, he merged with our competitor. And everything that the competitor had, came up to Schenectady, and they kept all our stuff, and the rest of the stuff was sold. And they took the products that I made in comparison to their other that were better products, and they sold it. And the fellow, the manager, didn't run the place right, couldn't run it right, and run it to the ground, and they went bankrupt. So somebody bought it out of Cobleskill. So it's gone.

Thomas Venezio:

How long have you been retired? What year did you retire?

Henry A. Lesa:

What?

Thomas Venezio:

When did you retire?

Henry A. Lesa:

1979, in August, the minute I got to be old enough, I was gone. They -- they pushed me to get retired. I wanted to stay. In fact, I went back and worked mornings for two years, part-time, at a half a cut in salary, just to keep busy. And then finally I figured it was a waste of my time. I did my own making things. I made tons of stuff.

Thomas Venezio:

You continue to go to reunions. Do you belong to any of the --

Henry A. Lesa:

No.

Thomas Venezio:

-- veterans' clubs?

Henry A. Lesa:

No, no. I don't belong to the American Legion, which I think sometimes -- you see, I went in, in August, and by November I was oversees. And an awful lot of these people that cry this and that, and they're looking for all kinds of sympathy, never left the United States. And I don't want to be bothered with that. I figured, I did my job, and that's it. I don't need to be with a bunch of guys bolstering and bragging about what went on. It happened, and I got done. I did my job, and I came home.

Thomas Venezio:

And it sounds like you were pleased with the job that you did.

Henry A. Lesa:

Well, we did what we were told to do. We won our part. In other words, we still own Attu. And I figured that we did -- under the conditions that -- actually, that was something new. The Seabees was something just dreamed up, new, and we were pioneers in that field. We did what we were supposed to do.

Thomas Venezio:

Any other thoughts, Henry, that you want to add to this?

Henry A. Lesa:

Well, not really. I mean, we're still the best country in the world. So from there, I feel that a lot of these things that are happening around here, some of these people are not going to wake up because they're killing themselves. And the rest should wake up to the fact that the world is -- can be a good place to live in. I mean, with all this, you know, the stuff going on in Afghanistan and Israel and Palestine. That's it. It shakes me up, because, well, they don't realize what -- what life is worth. You know, the business of -- See, this is where we were all with the -- our -- I don't know where -- I got to find it. I think this -- I don't know if I'm in the --

Thomas Venezio:

Which company?

Henry A. Lesa:

Yeah. This is the one that would have my picture in it. Now, some of these fellows have passed away, a good lot of them. In fact, a lot of them, we can't find them. That's me.

Thomas Venezio:

There you go.

Henry A. Lesa:

This guy --

Thomas Venezio:

Isn't that great?

Henry A. Lesa:

This guy went to work for Reynolds, and he was one of the big shots, Reynolds Aluminum. And he ended up -- I think he had -- I think died. Him and his wife both had cancer, so... In this book they put us all in hats. But whether they've got pictures here of Guam, I don't remember. I think they do. Quonset huts and the -- we had quite a place there. Shows the harbor. See, we used to have to put all these big iron things down to make a dock. Up in the Aleutians, we had great big planks and swing the hammers, like they did on the railroad, put the spikes in. We'd put the great big nail -- one guy would go ahead with the hammer, start them. And the guys would go behind him, going down. They had a whole row of them to see who would get the row done first. Competition, it was always going on. But this gives you an idea of our construction. Some of these fellows were heavy construction equipment, you know, bulldozers, and stuff like that. But they have a lot of -- which I haven't touched these books in quite a while. I forget, you know, the -- We had a chapel, and the chaplain is still alive. He lives in Massachusetts. We have had a few reunions there where he came to the reunion. And we had quite a chapel. I don't know just where it is in here. But it gives you -- Aviation supply depot, we took care of a lot of things. We used to watch the planes take off because we were right next to it. Every once in a while, one would take off and go in the ocean. Something was wrong with it. These were planes that were the ones that came on ships. The wings folded and all this stuff, and then they'd put them on land. But they tell you about recreation, but I don't remember any recreation. Once I had tickets to go see some movie star in Attu, and I wouldn't go. I says, "Why should I go look at somebody like that and then be heartbroken the rest of the time? I'm here." You know, I figured it was foolishness, because, you know, it just gets you -- See, I didn't see any of these, the __+ dance at Port Hueneme __+. Well, some could, but I didn't get to see it. But these are things -- you know, a lot of people don't realize they had a lot of entertainment in the different things, but -- And this is the religion. There is a picture of the chaplain. Let's see if it was Father Lynn (ph). No. That's another one. This is the fellow that was with us, Father Lynn. He was real nice. Sit and talk to him sometimes, you know, because he had a good attitude. That's a big item, you know, whether they have the attitude. See, there's a picture of the chapel. You had the steeple and everything we built it. That's the first -- right there they had the Japanese cleaning the grounds, and I got to talk to a Japanese, one of the first of the -- our enemy, because in the Aleutian Islands, we got no prisoners, because they all had the hand grenades under their arms. And if they put their arms up, and they killed you and themselves. So we were just told to stay away from anything. But these are the things. So I don't know, you know.

Thomas Venezio:

Well, that's great, Henry. Thank you. Thank you for sharing all that with us, and we're going to get some pictures.

Henry A. Lesa:

Well, I got, like I say, the ribbons. The pictures, most of the -- I didn't have many pictures because of the fact that we weren't -- didn't have cameras. Whatever pictures they took was the only things, and that's it. But coming home we had -- I think I took a week off before I went to work. That was about it. The New York State, I think, gave us a couple hundred dollars, and that was it. I went to the place over there, where -- I'm just trying to think of it -- where they make the guns. And they had told me that I had hemorrhoids and to get them taken care of when I came home. So I went over there, and they told me they had no record of it. And I told them to go somewhere. And that's it. I didn't bother with them anymore, because I have never been in a veterans' hospitals or anything. I got my own. I go to the hospitals. I go through Blue Cross and Blue Shield and everything else. All my operations and everything is done -- I've had rupture operations and cancer, colon operation. And now I go to the cancer place in St. Peters for chemo. Right now I'm on aspirin pills, believe it -- not aspirin -- arthritis pills that he told me -- that kills the cancer. I'm just trying to think of the name of it. But I'm taking that, and I take some vitamins, trying to get back up -- trying to get my strength back a little bit. I'm doing better, you know. I sleep.

Thomas Venezio:

It's important that, as young people come to our schools, that they understand what happened in the past, and they hear it from people like yourself who were actually there.

Henry A. Lesa:

Well, the thing is that we lost -- I lost three years and something of my life to make our lives better, not to be under somebody else's rule. And I figured I didn't ask anybody to feel sorry for me, and I didn't ask anybody to try to compensate me for it. It was part of what had to be done, and I did it. I could have let it go and had been drafted. But I figured I would be better off picking where I want to go. And I picked the Seabees because there I know I could work at least and do something, so... (End of recording.)

 
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  October 26, 2011
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