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Interview with Abel Kessler [10/24/2002]

Glenn F. Larson:

Today's date is October 24th, nine -- or 2002. The interview is being conducted in the video studio of the Rossmoor Video Club in Walnut Creek, California. The person being interviewed is Mr. Abel Kessler, date of -- he was born September 11th, 1911, and currently is living at 1332 Singingwood Drive in Walnut Creek, California. The interviewer is Glenn Larson, a member of the Veterans History Project of Rossmoor. The camera operator is Jerry Swanstrom, a member of the Video Club of Rossmoor.

The veteran served in the branch -- the veteran served in the Army with the rank of Captain. Dates of service were from August 7th, 1942, to May 22nd, 1946. He served in the theater of the China-Burma-India Campaign. And we will go on from there. I am delighted to have Mr. Kessler, as he brings unique experience to this history project as well as the conviction that World War II was a total effort of the whole country and that everyone from the farmer growing corn to the medal honor earner did what they did best.

He claims he is 90 years old. And while I don't believe, who am I to question my elders? Very briefly, after college, he spent time at the New York Times, was drafted in the Army at the start of the war and went through officers' training. As an information officer in the China, Burma, and India Theater, which was a little known effort to keep the Japanese contained, as well as flying supplies to the Chinese nationalists, the result was that he had a front-row seat for the ongoing campaign. And on that, we'll turn this thing over to Mr. Abel Kessler. And now, you say you were born in New York City?

Abel Kessler:

That's right, Glenn.

Glenn F. Larson:

And, well, just expand on that, if you would. Whereabouts and where did you go to school and -- in general?

Abel Kessler:

I was born in the section of Williamsburg, which is just before the Williamsburg Bridge in New York City. I went to school in various public schools of the system in Erie Basin, which is a great port and a place, a part of Brooklyn, which very few people seem to know about. I grew up, actually, in that region, and it has great memories. Now, I went to school at Manual Training High School, which is right near Prospect Park in Brooklyn, and later went to Long Island University. While I was at high school, I started as a copy boy on the New York Times. And while I was at the university, I worked as a reporter on assignments until I became a reporter after graduation.

Glenn F. Larson:

How old were you when you started with the New York Times?

Abel Kessler:

Well, as a copy boy, I was 15 years of age.

Glenn F. Larson:

Well, how much were you getting paid?

Abel Kessler:

$12 a week, six nights a week, six to one in the morning, Saturdays and holidays. We got one day off a week, and I loved it.

Glenn F. Larson:

And you stuck with them how long?

Abel Kessler:

Well, it was only a summer job.

Glenn F. Larson:

I see. I see. And -- and you went to Long Island University, and you got your degree in what?

Abel Kessler:

A BA.

Glenn F. Larson:

Okay.

Abel Kessler:

Liberal arts.

Glenn F. Larson:

Um-hmm, um-hmm. And then continue on from there, briefly.

Abel Kessler:

Well, then I faced what everybody faces with the pressure trying to get a job, but I was lucky.

Glenn F. Larson:

That's right. This was in what year?

Abel Kessler:

1932 I got out.

Glenn F. Larson:

That you graduated.

Abel Kessler:

I graduated.

Glenn F. Larson:

Oh, you picked a good one.

Abel Kessler:

Yes. I picked a good year.

Glenn F. Larson:

Yeah, yeah.

Abel Kessler:

The market was pretty tight, but I was lucky. I had this reporter's job, made a fat $35 a week, which is a lot of money in those days.

Glenn F. Larson:

Sure was. Sure was.

Abel Kessler:

And again, I worked all kinds of crazy hours at night, doing rewrites, doing assignments during the day sometimes. And actually, I did a lot of sports reporting. I did some feature writing up in the Sunday section, which paid me $40 an article.

Glenn F. Larson:

Well, yeah. You were in fat city, then.

Abel Kessler:

Oh, boy, I was in heaven.

Glenn F. Larson:

Well, to skip a few years, you told me that you wrote columns for the Contra Costa Times here in Concord, in -- in --

Abel Kessler:

Well -- well, when I retired and came to Rossmoor, I stuck my head in the Times, spoke to -- spoke to one of the reporters there, and pretty soon he had me covering basketball at St. Mary's. And from then on, I did a lot of assignments from theater, a lot of theater; sports; and even something like opera, which I don't know anything about it, not even the music, except I did color.

Glenn F. Larson:

Yeah.

Abel Kessler:

I didn't do a column, by the way, Glenn, just straight reporting.

Glenn F. Larson:

And, well, you wrote up something.

Abel Kessler:

Yes.

Glenn F. Larson:

And you also wrote a column for the Rossmoor News?

Abel Kessler:

Oh, yes. For many years. It was supposed to be a humor column. I doubt that it really was.

Glenn F. Larson:

Yeah. Well, you have a lot of experience in writing and everything, then. There is no question. All right. Let's go to when you were drafted. When were you drafted?

Abel Kessler:

I was drafted. Well, the first time they called me, they said I was too old.

Glenn F. Larson:

And you were how old?

Abel Kessler:

I was -- just before I was 31.

Glenn F. Larson:

Um-hmm.

Abel Kessler:

But then they needed even guys like me; and in August of '42, they took me; and I started my military career.

Glenn F. Larson:

And take us from there to the -- all the time you were in the United States, and then we'll get on to --

Abel Kessler:

Well, I went to basic training in anti-aircraft artillery. Oh, by the way, they had asked me in an interview, did I handle any machinery? And I said "yes," thinking the typewriter. And they told me later that qualified me for the artillery. Anyway, there I was in Camp Stewart, Georgia, just outside of Savannah, learning all about a 40-millimeter gun, an anti-aircraft gun, which is called a "Bofors," and very little about the rifle, because we were a hot outfit, they told us.

Glenn F. Larson:

And, well, keep going as far as where you went from there, reasonably, briefly, to --

Abel Kessler:

Well, from there -- well, right there I was very lucky again. I -- they found out that I knew something about mathematics, including trigonometry. They were looking for guys who knew that, who knew mathematics, because we qualified for what they wanted at OCS, Anti-Aircraft Artillery OCS. So they pulled me out, and went to OCS, even though I was about the worst soldier in the whole outfit.

Glenn F. Larson:

I was worse.

Abel Kessler:

I went to OCS. By the way, I don't know if this fits in here. That outfit was hot, the 441st. Later they went to Salerno and Anzio. They were stuck on a beachhead. That was the Italian campaign, 50 percent casualties. Well, okay, went on. At OCS I was fortunate enough to survive the humps, the various humps you have to survive, and a lot of guys didn't. Very little military, it was mostly mental, so I got through okay. And then I was fortunate enough to -- to have a lieutenant colonel. He had looked at my resume, found out I had been a newspaperman, and they needed a PRO, a public relations officer. And luckily I was stationed there. I was married, by the way, soon after I was commissioned, and my wife, June, accompanied me to Camp Davis where she became a nurse in a dental clinic. And I'm very proud of her. She was a registered nurse here. Well, the enemy didn't show much power after a while, and the word came down that we were going to get rid of anti-aircraft artillery. And sure enough -- we'd been frozen in grade -- sure enough they started assigning us to various branches, mainly the infantry.

Glenn F. Larson:

You were still in the United States?

Abel Kessler:

Still in the United States.

Glenn F. Larson:

Okay.

Abel Kessler:

Mainly the infantry. But again, I was lucky. I -- my commanding officer thought I should go to a special school at Washington University to be trained as an information officer. And from there -- Glenn, am I going too fast?

Glenn F. Larson:

No, no. Come on. You're good.

Abel Kessler:

From there I did -- after the training at Washington University, I was stationed at the Pentagon for a very short while before I got my orders to go to the port of embarkation, which happened to be New York City.

Glenn F. Larson:

Of course, yeah. So you were -- what? -- a lieutenant at that time?

Abel Kessler:

I was a lieutenant. And my wife accompanied me. I broke the rule. I shouldn't have taken any dependents, but I told the captain, who inquired about me, that my wife was -- this is her residence. Where could she go?

Glenn F. Larson:

Yeah, yeah. She could go home.

Abel Kessler:

Right after that I got my orders to go overseas.

Glenn F. Larson:

Um-hmm, um-hmm. Now, tell us what an information officer is --

Abel Kessler:

Well --

Glenn F. Larson:

-- briefly.

Abel Kessler:

It would take a long, long time.

Glenn F. Larson:

Yeah, yeah.

Abel Kessler:

Actually --

Glenn F. Larson:

What was their idea in those days?

Abel Kessler:

Well, is to inform the public as to -- we did boundaries.

Glenn F. Larson:

What -- what do you mean by "public" in those cases? The troops?

Abel Kessler:

The civilians.

Glenn F. Larson:

Oh.

Abel Kessler:

Well, later on it became part of -- my work became part of the troops, where I put out a newsletter, but that was in India.

Glenn F. Larson:

Yeah. Okay. We'll get into that.

Abel Kessler:

Yeah. To send information out to the public concerning the Army, the anti-aircraft artillery, and the personnel, mainly the personnel. We sent out press releases about people who were stationed at the -- at the camp, Camp Davis, as well as the school.

Glenn F. Larson:

What? About their career --

Abel Kessler:

Yeah. That's it.

Glenn F. Larson:

-- previous to the Army and things? So they got a little publicity.

Abel Kessler:

Yes.

Glenn F. Larson:

Um-hmm.

Abel Kessler:

The -- it was a -- it was a worthwhile thing. Although it was a small thing, because the news got back to their families that they got their -- Joe was in the paper, and they're very proud of that.

Glenn F. Larson:

Oh, yeah.

Abel Kessler:

It was a morale factor.

Glenn F. Larson:

Well, you know that's true.

Abel Kessler:

But also --

Glenn F. Larson:

As a public relations man, that's the primary reason for doing things.

Abel Kessler:

Well, yeah.

Glenn F. Larson:

Yeah.

Abel Kessler:

But also, there was a military thing. We could not send out pictures that showed any equipment. We had radar in those days, and radar was a secret secret. And we had to watch the photos going out that there was a -- even in the way background, that pictures like that were not shown.

Glenn F. Larson:

Wow.

Abel Kessler:

Of course, on one leave, if you consider it a funny -- a funny story, my 12-year-old nephew, when I was on leave and went back home, he showed me comic that had radar in it, and the silhouette was perfect.

Glenn F. Larson:

Yeah. Well, you just don't know. The -- Well, then you -- you got on ship and went off to India.

Abel Kessler:

Well, no. I didn't go on a ship. I was -- I was sent out on a plane, out of LaGuardia Field, a Pan American chartered plane, where the male attendants -- I guess they didn't trust us.

Glenn F. Larson:

Yeah.

Abel Kessler:

And I was fortunate. There was a lot of high-brass in that thing. I guess I was a single --

Glenn F. Larson:

They had an empty seat, huh?

Abel Kessler:

Yeah. They had an empty seat they put me on, and we stopped in Newfoundland for gas. This is the old prop days.

Glenn F. Larson:

Sure.

Abel Kessler:

And we stopped at the Azores Islands. And I could tell you a story about that, but it would take too long. And then we wound up in Casablanca. And, boy, that was something, coming into that scenery that I had seen only in the movies before. By the way, later the picture Casablanca was made. And then I -- I hopped across Africa, Algiers, Tripoli, Cairo.

Glenn F. Larson:

You were getting to your destination?

Abel Kessler:

Yeah.

Glenn F. Larson:

Okay.

Abel Kessler:

Every time I had to report to the transportation official, and they would send me on.

Glenn F. Larson:

Okay. But your destination was --

Abel Kessler:

-- New Delhi, India. And --

Glenn F. Larson:

Well, let's take it from there. This is a --

Abel Kessler:

Well, I didn't go to New Delhi right away.

Glenn F. Larson:

No, no. But I mean, you're just into India, and you're starting in the theater --

Abel Kessler:

Oh.

Glenn F. Larson:

-- of the CBI Theater.

Abel Kessler:

I wound up in Karachi, which is now part of Pakistan, waited there awhile; and then I went to New Delhi, where I was told I was part of General Stilwell's staff, but not immediate. I was one of many, many who were on his staff. Incidentally, I went to the war room. I saw what was going on, and I asked, "Where's General Stilwell?" They said, "He doesn't come to New Delhi never. He's always up at the front."

Glenn F. Larson:

Well, how about that? Yeah, yeah, yeah. He was noted for that.

Abel Kessler:

Yeah.

Glenn F. Larson:

And so you got to your final base where?

Abel Kessler:

Well, no. New Delhi --

Glenn F. Larson:

No? Okay.

Abel Kessler:

I was assigned from there to my final base, which was where -- in Chabua, India, the northeastern part of India right below Tibet and right next door to Burma. And that's where the flights into China started, what is called "the Hump" from India to China. I guess that's pretty well known. And these pilots were carrying high-octane gas to supply troops we had -- the equipment we had in China, high-octane gas. And once in a while those things exploded.

Glenn F. Larson:

Yeah. How far was it, and what kind of planes did they use?

Abel Kessler:

They were using a C-46. It was a cargo plane, a two-engine job. That was a monster. And they called it -- may I say this?

Glenn F. Larson:

You may.

Abel Kessler:

They called it the flying coffin. Well, they were a bright bunch of kids. I used to play games with them. I got to know them. They were all young kids, and I was 10 years older than they.

Glenn F. Larson:

Yeah? Grandpa, huh?

Abel Kessler:

Yeah. Wonderful kids. And can I say this now? At the end of the war, there were still 397 unaccounted for, of these kids, between Chabua, India, and Chongqing.

Glenn F. Larson:

Their planes down.

Abel Kessler:

Planes down in the Himalayas. It was quite a flight. They were flying over some -- sometimes uncharted place. The winds were blowing. The storms were blowing. And one fellow reported that he was over 30,000 feet, and Mount Everest was only 29,000 feet. The barometers were going crazy.

Glenn F. Larson:

Yeah, yeah.

Abel Kessler:

The altimeters, I mean, the altimeters. And they were doing a hell of a great job. Of course, people know about the Hump, but also there was a great job being done by soldiers trucking. There were truck drivers driving supplies over the partially built road.

Glenn F. Larson:

The old Burma Road, they called it, I guess.

Abel Kessler:

Well, it became known as the Burma Road, but it wasn't fully completed, and it got -- it was the Ledo Road, they called it, and also at times the Stilwell Road, in honor of General Stilwell, who was very highly regarded. He knew more about the Orient and China than books that were written on the subject. And these fellows were doing a wonderful job.

Glenn F. Larson:

Well, this was the whole -- the whole area in India, were there -- was there a lot of American troops or general troops stationed in India?

Abel Kessler:

We were very few combat troops. In fact, the Battle of Imphal, which happened just below us, where the Japanese penetrated the furthest they did in India, and there's no nobody to stop them. And it has been reported as the third most decisive battle of the entire war, which I didn't realize until recently when I read about it. The British beat them back.

Glenn F. Larson:

It was the British troops, yeah.

Abel Kessler:

We were lucky. We were prepared to go up into the -- we didn't have the troops to go into Tibet --

Glenn F. Larson:

Yeah.

Abel Kessler:

-- over the mountains the best we could.

Glenn F. Larson:

So you say there was a lot of -- so you were transferring supplies, basically. Well, you must have been transporting ammunition and everything up into Chongqing. Was that the destination?

Abel Kessler:

To China, yeah, right across the -- right across the Himalayas. There's also --

Glenn F. Larson:

Now, did those trucks and everything leave from your area?

Abel Kessler:

Yes. That was the start of the road.

Glenn F. Larson:

So you were the accumulation point, then --

Abel Kessler:

More or less.

Glenn F. Larson:

-- of, more or less, all of this?

Abel Kessler:

Well, they had several others, but this was the main place where the Hump flight began. This was the headquarters.

Glenn F. Larson:

And how long -- roughly, how long were you there?

Abel Kessler:

Two years.

Glenn F. Larson:

Oh, well, you got to know it pretty well.

Abel Kessler:

Yes. I think I did.

Glenn F. Larson:

Yeah, yeah. Well, just tell us your thoughts about the whole war in China and Burma and India.

Abel Kessler:

Well, of course, every part of the war was very important. I think our part was very important, but unfortunately, it didn't hit the newspapers as well. And the soldiers were getting reports from their loved ones, "What are you doing there?" The morale was low because of that. They were doing, again, I repeat, a wonderful job. The idea was, eventually, to go into China and face up to the Japanese there. We had installations in China that were being supplied, but they were only small units. Once in a while, an entire airport, that is the people and equipment that they can grab, would be flown back to Chabua because the Japanese were too close. And, of course, there was the famous Battle of Myitkyina, which I'm afraid many people don't know about.

Glenn F. Larson:

No.

Abel Kessler:

That's -- that's where we were.

Glenn F. Larson:

In fact, National Geographic hasn't probably heard about it.

Abel Kessler:

Well, it was right in the middle of Burma.

Glenn F. Larson:

Yeah.

Abel Kessler:

And we had American troops there. And they were -- they were fighting the Japanese there at one time. The Japanese had half the airfield, and we had the other half. But that was Myitkyina, which was a very important battle. But Imphal was still more important because they actually penetrated the first.

Glenn F. Larson:

This would be what year?

Abel Kessler:

1940- -- well, roughly '45, spanning it into '44 to '45.

Glenn F. Larson:

Yeah, um-hmm, um-hmm.

Abel Kessler:

Because --

Glenn F. Larson:

Still a lot of war, yeah.

Abel Kessler:

Well, there's a lot of war out there, but it wasn't --

Glenn F. Larson:

Now, did you -- with your group was there other nations represented? Britain was in there and --

Abel Kessler:

Well, we were with the Australians --

Glenn F. Larson:

Yeah, okay.

Abel Kessler:

-- were there, the British, mainly the British. I don't recall any other. We got very well acquainted with the Austrians -- the Austrians -- Australians -- I beg your pardon -- the Australians, and the British, of course. Some of those guys had been over there for five years, ever since the war, the initial wars.

Glenn F. Larson:

Yeah, yeah, 1939, yeah.

Abel Kessler:

Yeah.

Glenn F. Larson:

That's right. Tell us a little bit about how the war, in that area, actually started. Well, it started when the war in Europe started.

Abel Kessler:

That's right.

Glenn F. Larson:

And --

Abel Kessler:

-- British.

Glenn F. Larson:

And fill in what you can on that.

Abel Kessler:

What I can is, you know, it started previous to the time we were in, and the Japanese got into British places like Singapore, which is on the coast. And they gradually came west and penetrated into Burma. That's where I'm talking -- the place I'm talking about.

Glenn F. Larson:

Yeah.

Abel Kessler:

They were spreading out all over. They're in China to a certain extent, where our troops were -- once in a while had to withdraw. They were small units, isolated units.

Glenn F. Larson:

Well, they had been in China since 1933, I think, or something like that.

Abel Kessler:

The Navy -- our navy was also in China, but that's another story.

Glenn F. Larson:

Well, did they get up into India --

Abel Kessler:

Oh, yeah. This is the --

Glenn F. Larson:

-- into Calcutta and around up in there?

Abel Kessler:

Well, they're actually in Chabua. That might seem funny that they're in Chabua, far from any big ocean or anything. They were supplying oxygen. They were trained in this oxygen bit, which their pilots in the planes needed because they were flying such high altitudes.

Glenn F. Larson:

Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. The -- that's a -- so everybody was in on it doing something?

Abel Kessler:

Oh, yes. We --

Glenn F. Larson:

And -- and the primary purpose still was to supply China --

Abel Kessler:

Yeah. We even had women.

Glenn F. Larson:

-- and to put a barrier --

Abel Kessler:

That's right.

Glenn F. Larson:

-- against the Japanese wherever you could to coming -- coming west.

Abel Kessler:

Well, I guess that's right. By the way, we had a lot of women. The British had women. We had women. We had nurses.

Glenn F. Larson:

Um-hmm, um-hmm. Well, you have to with all those men, yeah.

Abel Kessler:

Yeah. But I want to say it, because in this remote area, with very little physical things to enjoy, they were -- and the climate was hot. By the way, we never mentioned the climate. During the -- I mean, we never said, "It's hot," to each other. We knew it was hot.

Glenn F. Larson:

Yeah.

Abel Kessler:

And the temperature was above a hundred often, and the winter was very nice. It was like a spring.

Glenn F. Larson:

Yeah, yeah.

Abel Kessler:

We had heavy storms, the monsoons, the rains. The Brahmaputra River, which was right alongside of us -- by the way we used to call it the brown and putrid river.

Glenn F. Larson:

Yeah.

Abel Kessler:

At one time during the dry season, you could almost walk across this mile-wide river; but during winter it was a swollen stream.

Glenn F. Larson:

The -- a lot of -- in your -- on the bases that you were at, were they reasonably well formed -- well -- were they serious bases, or was it all living in the rough all the time? Did they build up a good infra- -- had time to build up a good infrastructure on this?

Abel Kessler:

We lived in thatches. There was thatch-roofed huts.

Glenn F. Larson:

Oh, that sounds exotic.

Abel Kessler:

Well, it sounds exotic, but it's funny how you can get acquainted, and you can live very nicely. And particularly, your fellow soldiers were -- you know, they were facing -- we're all in the same boat.

Glenn F. Larson:

Yeah, yeah.

Abel Kessler:

Nobody complained much about that. We complained about little things, you know, that weren't important, really, but nobody complained about the physical things there, because we were all facing it.

Glenn F. Larson:

Where did you go for R&R?

Abel Kessler:

I went to Darjeeling, way up in the mountains, which is a garden spot of the universe.

Glenn F. Larson:

Really?

Abel Kessler:

Well, it's up in the Himalayan Mountains.

Glenn F. Larson:

Yeah.

Abel Kessler:

They say you can see Mount Everest. But the whole time I was there, it was a -- just a fog in front of it, but you could see Kanchenjunga, which is the second highest. Now, the British had built that up previously, previous to the war. The British had built a wonderful vacation spot. They sent their kids up there to school in April when the heat got too hot down below. And of course, their mothers were with them, and they had their gymkhana clubs, and they were living pretty good up there, and we had an R&R there. By the way, Kashmir was another place we could have gone to -- we had a choice -- where all the trouble is now.

Glenn F. Larson:

What do you mean, you had a choice?

Abel Kessler:

We could have gone to Kashmir or --

Glenn F. Larson:

They had a -- they had an airbase in Kashmir as well?

Abel Kessler:

Yeah. We had an R&R --

Glenn F. Larson:

Oh, I see.

Abel Kessler:

-- those who had the R&R.

Glenn F. Larson:

Yeah, yeah.

Abel Kessler:

They had a certain amount of time, they got.

Glenn F. Larson:

What is it? Srinagar or something like that, the town?

Abel Kessler:

I'm sorry.

Glenn F. Larson:

Well, so -- all right. So those were the primary places that you could go for a little rest.

Abel Kessler:

Yeah, rest and recreation.

Glenn F. Larson:

Yeah, yeah. There and --

Abel Kessler:

Of course, we had our cinema, as the British called it.

Glenn F. Larson:

So how was your food?

Abel Kessler:

You know, we couldn't eat a lot of things. We couldn't eat anything that -- any native foods, so to speak. We couldn't have milk. We didn't have milk. I didn't have milk for two years, fresh milk. We had condensed milk. We couldn't eat certain grown things because the agriculture was fertilized by things that we don't fertilize with. And yet down in Calcutta, where I used to go occasionally on assignment, you could go to Firpo's, the best restaurant in India, which was off limits, because everybody went there.

Glenn F. Larson:

Of course, yeah.

Abel Kessler:

Very fine European food.

Glenn F. Larson:

Oh, you didn't miss your chances to go there, then.

Abel Kessler:

That's right.

Glenn F. Larson:

Well, what was your impression of India, in general, as a 30-year-old? What was your impression of India as a 30-year-old?

Abel Kessler:

Well, mainly, my impression was --

Glenn F. Larson:

Forgetting you were in the Army.

Abel Kessler:

-- was the culture. These people made the most of what they had. You got to admire them. I would go through -- on my work I would go through little villages where the women would put cow dung up on the -- on the sides of walls. That may sound funny to some people, but that dung dried up and was used for fire, to supply -- it's like their firewood.

Glenn F. Larson:

Um-hmm.

Abel Kessler:

And they didn't have any facilities like we have. The women would come to -- in the small villages, they would come up to a central place where there was sort of a fountain, and they would splash themselves with water, and they made the most of it. You have got to admire them. Once in a while -- well, the first time I saw one of the holy men sitting there like a statue. And I was away on a trip about five days, and I come back. He was still there. And, you know, you start to wonder, and then you hear about all their religion and various things, and you begin, not only admire them, but to respect them, because in New Delhi and places like that, there were -- at Calcutta you had a lot of facilities. There was one Calcutta hotel that had air-conditioning.

Glenn F. Larson:

Wow.

Abel Kessler:

At the same time I often saw families at mid- -- at twilight roll out a reed rug on the street, mother, father, and children, and go to bed like this was the normal thing to do. And you -- you got to feel that was what they did --

Glenn F. Larson:

That's sure different.

Abel Kessler:

-- they had to do.

Glenn F. Larson:

Yeah. I'm sure it affected everybody. Where did the people -- the soldiers at the base, did they mainly stay on the base and everything, or was there, you know, communication between the civilians at all for the average soldier?

Abel Kessler:

Well, no. They -- they had their R&R, and sometimes they had assignments. Some of them flew various places in India.

Glenn F. Larson:

Well, that's true, yeah, yeah.

Abel Kessler:

And they had contact with the natives who worked. They worked. They did certain tasks. We had natives doing our laundry and things like that, mowing the lawn and all that with hand -- hand machete kind of things.

Glenn F. Larson:

Roughly, how many planes, would you say, at a time were in the air? Any guess on that?

Abel Kessler:

No, I can't -- I can't guess. It's a continuous flight.

Glenn F. Larson:

Yeah.

Abel Kessler:

One plane would take off, and another one would be ready to go or be returning. And we had some fighter planes come in sometimes. And one plane one time come in, and his landing gear didn't -- didn't come down. And, boy, this guy slid in right -- right in on his belly, so to speak, with sparks flying out. By the way, our fields were -- had these iron -- these steel --

Glenn F. Larson:

-- mats.

Abel Kessler:

-- mats, yes. And in some places there were emergency fields where it was just --

Glenn F. Larson:

-- just dirt.

Abel Kessler:

-- dried dirt.

Glenn F. Larson:

Yeah, yeah. They --

Abel Kessler:

Well, they did a great job, these pilots.

Glenn F. Larson:

Oh, I'm sure they sure did, and they were so young, yeah.

Abel Kessler:

We had a flight that went up and down the Valley of Assam, and they turned their plane -- they called it the "Assam Airlines." They -- they wrote that, and they served tea on it. They tried to emulate a passenger plane back home.

Glenn F. Larson:

Well, anything else you got to say about the whole experience over there that --

Abel Kessler:

Well, I guess I could write a -- write a volume.

Glenn F. Larson:

Well --

Abel Kessler:

There were -- there were certain difficulties that the soldiers faced, which I -- I'd like to mention. It wasn't all honey and cream, even though they were stationed in this area. It's a psychological problem. And believe it or not, our rate of suicides in ratio was just the same as it was in Europe, I mean, when you take the population figures. Why it happened? You would have to go to psychiatrists to answer that question. There was always the threat hanging over us that we would go, that we were going to China. We were going to go into china. That -- that wasn't eliminated until the A-bomb was dropped.

Glenn F. Larson:

Well, that's a good point, yes.

Abel Kessler:

But nobody spoke about it. You know, when you keep something in, it sort of festers. And there were -- there were some other factors that were pretty -- not so funny, but we used to say there were more soldiers killed by Jeeps than by Japs. The roads were -- were very narrow. There were very few hard top. There was a little stripped hard top asphalt that we used to call Shangri-la --

Glenn F. Larson:

Yeah.

Abel Kessler:

-- and huge drainage ditches on the side because the monsoons, the rains, were so heavy that you had to dig these drainage ditches. And even though there were governors on the Jeeps, sometimes they managed to -- to flip.

Glenn F. Larson:

Oh, yeah. They're --

Abel Kessler:

And that was one of the tragic things.

Glenn F. Larson:

And you were there right through the end of the war, then?

Abel Kessler:

Right through the end of the war. And then some of us we were held over to process the soldiers who were going home. And that's where something happened that, to this day, I can't talk about it too much. I was one of the units that processed 44 soldiers to go home -- this is after the Japanese surrendered -- all happy, going home. They went out at night, hit a mountain.

Glenn F. Larson:

Oh, boy.

Abel Kessler:

No survivors.

Glenn F. Larson:

Oh, boy. Oh, boy.

Abel Kessler:

From then on, no flights went out during the day.

Glenn F. Larson:

Yeah. Well, you have a picture here, Abe, of you being a war correspondent or something here.

Abel Kessler:

Well, yeah. I was -- I was a --

Glenn F. Larson:

How did you want that? Like this? Okay. All right.

Abel Kessler:

I was -- that, actually, is back in the States. The British had sent over a demonstration battery to show how they performed during the Blitz of London.

Glenn F. Larson:

Um-hmm, um-hmm.

Abel Kessler:

They were telling us, our troops, about it.

Glenn F. Larson:

Is that okay? Is he saying that this is enough?

Abel Kessler:

They were telling the troops about that, and I was sending out stories to various places about these British and what they had gone through and how our people were involved in it. By the way, our pilots were the main ones, the main people who were instructed on that, because -- this is another part of the war that had nothing to do what part I was in. The planes, the British planes, would return from bombing troops, and the crew would be so jubilant that they came through a bombing mission.

Glenn F. Larson:

Sure.

Abel Kessler:

And they may have been showing firing --

Glenn F. Larson:

-- out of India?

Abel Kessler:

No, no. From Britain over to Germany.

Glenn F. Larson:

Oh, oh, okay.

Abel Kessler:

These are the British who came to demonstrate.

Glenn F. Larson:

Oh, I see.

Abel Kessler:

And they were so happy they came back in one piece. But when they got out of the plane, they would see these little -- little shrapnel dents in their plane. And they reported that after a certain amount of flights, this got them down. They patched these -- these little punches up each time they went out, but they would see the marks there.

Glenn F. Larson:

I see a lot of new ones there.

Abel Kessler:

And that's what they reported to us. They were trying to tell the anti-aircraft guys that even though you're missing the target, the fire isn't -- has an effect, a negative effect, perhaps, because it has an effect on the -- those who were in the plane, who see the bursts of the projectiles that are going in here.

Glenn F. Larson:

We showed a picture here of you being a -- an Ernie Pyle type of person. And I presume, as you say, it was in the States, because your uniform is clean.

Abel Kessler:

No. And by the way, I wish I was one-hundredth of Ernie Pyle. He was a great, great reporter. He told the GIs about the war.

Glenn F. Larson:

Did he get over -- did he get over to your area at all?

Abel Kessler:

I don't know if he did. I don't think he did.

Glenn F. Larson:

Well, he was primarily Europe.

Abel Kessler:

Yeah.

Glenn F. Larson:

I shouldn't be talking here. But then at the end, he went over to the --

Abel Kessler:

Yeah.

Glenn F. Larson:

-- to the Pacific.

Abel Kessler:

By the way, we were -- we were really spic-and-span. We were under military --

Glenn F. Larson:

Oh, okay.

Abel Kessler:

We were -- our laundry, the dhobies -- we called them the "dhobies," the native word -- who did our laundry, they were doing laundry, and we had no excuse. We were -- by the way, we were allowed to wear safari jackets. This is without a tie.

Glenn F. Larson:

Um-hmm.

Abel Kessler:

We had that -- the British were -- were allowed --

Glenn F. Larson:

-- spic-and-span?

Abel Kessler:

-- to do that.

Glenn F. Larson:

Oh, were they?

Abel Kessler:

Were allowed to wear --

Glenn F. Larson:

Yeah, yeah.

Abel Kessler:

So we emulated them --

Glenn F. Larson:

Wow. Okay.

Abel Kessler:

-- which was a great thing in that climate, to have your collar open.

Glenn F. Larson:

All right. So you came back. You got them squared away back there in India, and you came back here. Is there anything else you want to say about the -- about the war, in general?

Abel Kessler:

Well, there's just so much.

Glenn F. Larson:

Yeah. You said a lot the other day.

Abel Kessler:

There's so much. I really don't know where to start.

Glenn F. Larson:

Just in general, just in general about the war, yeah.

Abel Kessler:

I can't tell enough about the -- about the soldiers who were there, how they did their job. That's all you could do. You know, the guys in combat deserve all the publicity they got. God bless them.

Glenn F. Larson:

Right.

Abel Kessler:

But these kids were doing what they had to do.

Glenn F. Larson:

Um-hmm. Loading the planes --

Abel Kessler:

And they did the best they can, you know.

Glenn F. Larson:

-- and fixing them and everything.

Abel Kessler:

The military used to say there are 10 soldiers behind one soldier up at the front.

Glenn F. Larson:

Um-hmm.

Abel Kessler:

And I believe that.

Glenn F. Larson:

Um-hmm.

Abel Kessler:

So I can't say too much about them. They -- I have the greatest admiration. And, you know, this is their youth. They're kids. They were young. They were 20s, when they should be out doing all the things that 20s should do, the bad things as well as the good things.

Glenn F. Larson:

Um-hmm.

Abel Kessler:

Can I tell one funny story?

Glenn F. Larson:

You can tell anything you want.

Abel Kessler:

I had a corporal who was a great kid. Once in a while these guys would have a few days -- had a leave of two or three days, we would allow. That's all you could. He had a girlfriend in New Delhi, which was a long way off. Well, he hitched a ride -- that's what they did -- to New Delhi, but he had trouble getting back, so he came back too late. So I had to demote him to about a private, but I re-moted him a week later. But there were things like this happening, which were funny, even though they got out of line once in a while -- but nobody ever got out of line very bad that I know. There wasn't any things that I --

Glenn F. Larson:

Yeah. Just -- the Stars and Stripes, did that get out to your place?

Abel Kessler:

Not Stars and Stripes, but we had our own newspaper stationed out of New Delhi, and -- and our unit -- our -- we got a lot of publicity in that unit as well, as I think you saw the article I wrote for the Quartermaster General about these youngsters doing their job. We called it "the Bump Before the Hump." The "bump" being the tough road that they had to go before the Hump, which was the glorified place.

Glenn F. Larson:

About how many miles was that altogether?

Abel Kessler:

Well, they're constantly building it, you know.

Glenn F. Larson:

Yeah, yeah.

Abel Kessler:

Jeez.

Glenn F. Larson:

I mean, not as the crow flies, but as the car goes.

Abel Kessler:

It was hundreds of miles, and it was constantly being built, and it was the toughest kind of engineering because there were washouts and things.

Glenn F. Larson:

Were they running in conveys?

Abel Kessler:

You have to get an engineer.

Glenn F. Larson:

Did they run in conveys, then? Lots of trucks together?

Abel Kessler:

Oh, yeah.

Glenn F. Larson:

I can imagine, yeah.

Abel Kessler:

I wasn't into that operation so much. But, you know, I think there's a -- there's a man here in Rossmoor who was an engineer.

Glenn F. Larson:

He built the road.

Abel Kessler:

Several years ago, he told me -- yeah. Gee, I wish I could remember his name now.

Glenn F. Larson:

Yeah, yeah. Well, that would be fascinating --

Abel Kessler:

Yeah.

Glenn F. Larson:

-- building that road.

Abel Kessler:

Oh, they had -- they had quite a job.

Glenn F. Larson:

There have been a few books written on that, yeah.

Abel Kessler:

They had quite a job. Incidentally, did you know we had civilians flying the Hump?

Glenn F. Larson:

No.

Abel Kessler:

Yes, sir.

Glenn F. Larson:

There were contract civilians.

Abel Kessler:

Contract civilians, and they came from all parts of the world -- of America.

Glenn F. Larson:

Well, of the world.

Abel Kessler:

One fellow had been a jail guard.

Glenn F. Larson:

Yeah?

Abel Kessler:

And I remember their -- their clubhouse very well, where one day I happened to wander in, and one fellow had a note on the wall, "Will the SOB who took my maps" -- only he said another word -- "please return them? I'm going to fly the Hump, and I haven't got enough maps." And there was a guy who -- who flew the Hump. He didn't -- a private pilot in China. And this is a story that's unbelievable.

Glenn F. Larson:

Yeah.

Abel Kessler:

Incidentally, he looked like a person you would take in a play, and he would be a milquetoast guy; he never had an adventure in his life. He took a plane that had only one wing, and he cannibalized it, you know, took a wing from another place and put it on that, even though they weren't mates; and he flew out of China lopsided.

Glenn F. Larson:

Good gravy.

Abel Kessler:

And then he came back and flew the Hump in one of the planes. They were contract -- they were well paid.

Glenn F. Larson:

They were dedicated.

Abel Kessler:

The military wasn't --

Glenn F. Larson:

Well, they were still dedicated, yeah.

Abel Kessler:

They had their own clubhouse in Calcutta with a pool, steaks, and whatnot. They didn't have to go by the rules we had to go by.

Glenn F. Larson:

Yeah. Well, that's interesting. Yeah. I know. No. I don't know if anybody really knows that's what actually happened.

Abel Kessler:

No. I don't think they do.

Glenn F. Larson:

No. I was rereading a book on Bill Mauldin's cartoons one time.

Abel Kessler:

Oh, yeah.

Glenn F. Larson:

That's why I brought up the --

Abel Kessler:

Well, he was the great one.

Glenn F. Larson:

-- the Stars and Stripes.

Abel Kessler:

He was the great one.

Glenn F. Larson:

Oh, my God, Willie and -- Willie and -- Willie and Joe.

Abel Kessler:

He caught black humor. He caught black humor like nobody does.

Glenn F. Larson:

Yeah. I'll bet the --

Abel Kessler:

Oh, I remember several of them.

Glenn F. Larson:

I bet the brass hated him.

Abel Kessler:

I don't know. I never heard the brass complain about him.

Glenn F. Larson:

Oh, you didn't?

Abel Kessler:

No.

Glenn F. Larson:

All right. So we got home, and then what to do to keep yourself occupied and bread on the table?

Abel Kessler:

Well, we got home. We came into Seattle, by the way. We waited a month outside of Calcutta for this boat, the Marine Angel. We were beginning to think that the angels and heaven didn't exist. A month on the water; came back to Seattle; waited on the dock, patient-like, like all GIs do; and somebody said "milk."

Glenn F. Larson:

Milk.

Abel Kessler:

At the end of the -- the other end of the pier, there was a lady with a cart, milk. And there was a riot.

Glenn F. Larson:

Real milk.

Abel Kessler:

Real milk. And I crossed the country. I tried to get discharged here in Seattle so my wife could join; couldn't do it; went across the country back to Camp Dix, where I had started, where you weren't allowed to take your wives or girlfriends or anybody. Of course, we all called our girlfriends or wives to come down.

Glenn F. Larson:

Yeah.

Abel Kessler:

And I was discharged from there. By that time, nobody --

Glenn F. Larson:

Take your hand off --

Abel Kessler:

Oh, thank you. By that time, people said to us, "You should have been here. We had a great time celebrating." The parties were all over, but we didn't care. We were home.

Glenn F. Larson:

Oh, yeah.

Abel Kessler:

We were home. Although some guys were nasty. I don't know if I should repeat that. One guy just said to me, "Are you tired playing soldier?" Can you imagine that? He was my age.

Glenn F. Larson:

Yeah.

Abel Kessler:

Oh, well, there's that kind everywhere, you know.

Glenn F. Larson:

Sure, sure.

Abel Kessler:

I had a --

Glenn F. Larson:

So how did you sneak back into civilian life, then?

Abel Kessler:

Well, I was lucky. I went right back into my post, but I was --

Glenn F. Larson:

In New York?

Abel Kessler:

In New York. I was head of a trade association doing PR, but I was very restless. And my wife said I had changed a great deal, which is another story. And I -- I jumped. I started jumping from various -- I was in demand, luckily. I jumped to doing publicity for a television manufacturing thing and so on and so forth, and I was lucky enough to start my own business, and I did very well as a PR guy, and -- but the most important years of my life were overseas.

Glenn F. Larson:

Really?

Abel Kessler:

Oh, yeah.

Glenn F. Larson:

Yeah?

Abel Kessler:

Yes. My wife wasn't with me, but she wrote me every day, but it left the biggest impression on me. Where could a guy out of Brooklyn get such an experience worldwide? I saw the world. I came back one way -- had went one way and came back the other way.

Glenn F. Larson:

Right. Right. There's compensation both ways, I guess.

Abel Kessler:

Well, it was a compensation in experience, not moneywise. You know that. But we didn't think about money. Isn't that funny? I never heard anybody gripe about money.

Glenn F. Larson:

Well, that's a good point. The -- when everybody's in the same boat, you don't have problems.

Abel Kessler:

Yeah. Nobody griped about money. They griped about other things.

Glenn F. Larson:

Yeah, yeah. Well, anything else you want to convey to the public here?

Abel Kessler:

Gee, I don't know. You have been very good to me, very kind; and you're easy to talk to. And maybe I -- my mouth went too -- too far.

Glenn F. Larson:

No. Don't worry about that. I'm just wondering if there's anything more you want to say to the people.

Abel Kessler:

I know I left out something, but I can't think of it at this moment. I should say something about the women who -- who wrote to these fellows and how important the mail was and their families.

Glenn F. Larson:

Well, say it out loud. That's great.

Abel Kessler:

Boy, the mail was so important, so important; and it came in bunches, you know.

Glenn F. Larson:

Well, your job over there, too, was probably censoring -- wasn't it? -- some of it?

Abel Kessler:

Well, yeah, it was. I, luckily, didn't have too much censored, but I got a --

Glenn F. Larson:

No. I meant censoring the troops' mail.

Abel Kessler:

That's what I meant.

Glenn F. Larson:

Yeah.

Abel Kessler:

I did very little of it. Very little of it was military secrets that they -- of course, one letter I wrote while I was in around across Africa came with a bunch of holes in it. I thought I could tell where I had been. But it seems that was not -- every place I had been was cut out. So even the officers were censored, you know.

Glenn F. Larson:

Well, Abe, I think we've got a pretty good idea of the China-Burma Theater, and that it was an extremely important part of the war situation.

Abel Kessler:

Thank you for saying that, because that was my main purpose in this interview, because there's so little known about that theater.

Glenn F. Larson:

Bringing it to the attention, yeah.

Abel Kessler:

I have had -- I have had veterans who were in World War II didn't know and many, many civilians who had no idea what it was all about.

Glenn F. Larson:

I'm sure.

Abel Kessler:

Did we have troops in India?

Glenn F. Larson:

So on that, great. It's been good, and I hope we continue this friendship for a long time.

Abel Kessler:

Thank you, Glenn. We are going to continue. I know that.

Glenn F. Larson:

All right. (The interview concluded.)

 
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  October 26, 2011
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