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Interview with John Vanden Berg [Undated]

Jason Martzke:

What was your basic training like?

John Vanden Berg:

Basic training at Jefferson Barracks was learning about the various weapons that one would use, and a lot of drill in marching, a lot of, again I think to the rookie, to the recruit, senseless things. For example, we had to clean the showers and the bathrooms and the latrines and all that. We did it to perfection, but it was never good enough. That's one thing you learn in the service, you know: you can always do it better. But I think also at that time, they decided that, hey, these guys have to learn that there's somebody in charge, and he's going to tell you what to do, and whether you've done it well or not. He's going to stand in judgment on you. So at basic training we did a lot of marching, we did a lot of standing in lines, and we were criticized rather frequently. It just wasn't right: Either your bed wasn't made right or you didn't wear your shirt just the way you're supposed to wear it. You didn't get there quickly enough. You didn't do the job well enough. That's what basic training was.

Jason Martzke:

Very disciplined then.

John Vanden Berg:

It was disciplined. That's a good word. Disciplined. To see if you could take commands from someone who was your superior.

While I was at Ephrata Air Base, again, I was there as an individual, I was not part of any unit, I was just a part of that base. Somebody must have seen my record somewhere. Dutch background, and some college, and some other things that were rather positive I think, so they said I would be going in to the Army Specialized Training Program. And in order to determine which ASTP I was going to go into, I was transferred from Ephrata to Moscow, Idaho, to the University of Idaho. So I was transferred out of the service, well, I shouldn't say out of the service, but out of that camp. And I was sent to Moscow, Idaho. So I went to Moscow, Idaho, and there I was tested for mental ability, and physical ability, and whatever they wanted to test me for, foreign languages, and they said, you are going to go to Yale University and study Dutch for the invasion of Europe. So I went to Yale University in early 1943. And when I got there, I was interviewed by, I forget the man's name, but he was an outstanding authority on linguistics, and he says, 'You should not go to the Netherlands,' (I had a Dutch background and knew some Dutch.) He says, 'You should to southeast Asia,' and so instead of going to Yale for the Dutch language, I went to Yale for the Malay language. So that was the beginning of what really became my army career after almost 2 years in the service. This was early 1943. In fact, I'd been in the service for two years, serving alone in many camps, never really with an outfit except the initial five or six months.

And from then on, I had that training that I was talking about: all kinds of arms, explosives, how to combat hand to hand. That was my experience with the training at OSS. I went to Washington, D.C. for that training. I went to Virginia and we really were in the depths of the forest there. We had exercises at night. It was just pitch black and you had to get to some location without the use of a compass. How are you going to get there? And we had exercises with blowing up bridges or defending bridges. Or blowing up a house or defending a house. How are you going to go through there? So I had that kind of training. What to do with prisoners when you have them, other than kill them, if you get a prisoner. What would you do if you were a prisoner? And one of the tests I had there was to try to work with so-called foreign natives: Malay natives, because that's where I was going. And everything that I suggested they did the opposite. I mean, total frustration, and how do you react to that frustration. Well, then I had a test in the city. I was supposed to get into a building somehow and got caught. Why were you here? So then I had to have a story why I was here. This was in a black room, absolutely black, and they had a spotlight on my face, and they interrogated me, and then I went into a little room with an officer, and he said, 'John, you have failed.' What was I supposed to say? Well, I thought my good Calvinism would say, 'Hey, so what? It's part of God's plan for your life. Get on with the rest of it.' But they did that to see how I would react. Because I had not failed. So then I was in O.S.S.

Jason Martzke:

We kind of have this image of CIA being very hush-hush and secretive. Was OSS similar to that too?

John Vanden Berg:

Yeah, it was. That's what they were called: the hush-hush boys, or words to that effect.

Jason Martzke:

What kinds of things did that entail to keep things secretive?

John Vanden Berg:

I suppose that all military operations are confidential no matter what division you're in or what branch of the service you're in. But some of those are much more obvious. For example, if you're on a battleship, there's a very good likelihood that you're going to be out at sea someplace, attacking enemy ships. If you're in the Air Force, there's a very high probability that you're going to be flying in a plane or be part of a crew in a plane bombing a city or bombing some camp. But in the OSS, you could be doing anything. You could be parachuting into a country, blowing up bridges, you could be just watching the traffic go by at some spot off an island as I did on one occasion. These were all very small operations. You didn't have big gangs of troops. You had half a dozen people or twenty people or whatever it might be. And some of these guys went in alone or with just the two of them, wherever they had to go. So it was really special operations. That's what it was.

Jason Martzke:

When you got to Ceylon, you went to Kandy. Was that the headquarters?

John Vanden Berg:

That was the headquarters for all of Southeast Asia for the Office of Strategic Services. And it was actually kind of like a tea plantation but the military had put up temporary housing for us out of the local stuff. We didn't have any wooden buildings, these were buildings that, they used local stuff to make the walls but it was a civilized place, it wasn't a rough place or anything like that. It was really quite comfortable. They had a nice place, a day room, for personnel of the camp to get together and a lot of visitors came there, all associated with OSS in one way or another....It would have been pretty difficult to hide that fact that OSS was operating there. But it was really out of the war zone. It was not a war zone; we weren't in danger of being attacked by the Japanese, not in Kandy. So from that point of view there was no risk involved from being in that camp, nor in Trincomalee either. These were isolated places so far as the war effort was concerned, and not a great deal happened there.

Jason Martzke:

You said earlier that you did some training in Trincomalee with the other people in your group. What was that kind of training?

John Vanden Berg:

Our specific mission was to go to an island off the coast of Sumatra, which is in Indonesia, and OSS had placed some Indonesian and Malay people there, so there was a camp on this island. And one officer and I, plus [three] fellows were to go there by submarine and we were in Trincomalee to get ready to make that trip, which we did. That didn't involve a great deal: learn how to inflate a rubber raft and to pack it with the supplies that we were going to take in, and just to get onto the submarine and off the submarine. That was essentially what we had to learn. And obviously you don't have a submarine out there in the ocean for you to practice on; this was all simulated. When the time came, we went out to the submarine with this raft wrapped up in a big roll. We actually went out to the submarine in a boat other than the rubber boat itself, and we got onto the submarine....I can't remember how long this took, it probably wasn't all that long to go from Trincomalee to this island off the coast of Sumatra. We were met by the Malay natives who were there. They came in a little kayak that they paddled in, they gave us the codeword. It was Malay for banana: pisang. So when they met us they said pisang. Then we could respond to that. This was at night. Then we got out the rubber boat and all our equipment. The equipment among other things included an electric motor. They didn't want you to have a gas motor because that would make noise. But the thing didn't work, so we had to paddle the rubber boat... .[The natives were there] mostly to observe shipping and transportation and these guys could also take their own canoe or whatever they had and go to various places to observe what was going on. So they got information and then they radioed it back to Kandy....They were looking at what kind of boats were going through those areas, how many and when and things like that. Because this was a time when the US was on the move- and I don't think they ever went to Sumatra, they went north of that- but they were interested in where the Japs were, and Sumatra incidentally is just across a short body of water from Malaya, and Malaya was one of the very definite places of invasion for the US.. ..The camp on the island was just stuck in the woods next to a very small- you could hardly call it a river- but there was a body of water that you could go from the Indian Ocean into the island on this body of water, and it had radio equipment. This was all in the open; there were no buildings there. I think they threw a couple canvases from tree to tree to get some cover and they cooked their food on a little fire, which was a mistake because I think it was their downfall. And we had hammocks for sleeping. Everybody slept on a hammock. And that's about all there was.

Jason Martzke:

How do you think you changed as a result of your military experience?

John Vanden Berg:

Certainly more appreciative of foreign cultures, which is a big subject today. I had a good chance to meet the native people of India and Sri Lanka, those places particularly, but even to a degree Australia, I met some people there. I also had, obviously, a good chance to meet all kinds of people who were different from my own immediate background- Dutch, Christian Reformed. That was a broadening experience too, so I'd say just broadening my outlook on life was very important in those four years in the service. And also the different qualities that people have; you can sense people with leadership capacity and others are followers, others are happy-go-lucky, and others are very serious, so a lot of diversity both in race and in the qualities of the people themselves.

Jason Martzke:

Do you think that being involved in the military was difficult on your faith?

John Vanden Berg:

No. I've always had a strong faith. I didn't wear it on my sleeve but I had no problem living my life the way I thought it should be lived and getting along with people who lived their lives in different ways, who had different philosophies, theologies, view on life, if anything my faith was strengthened and what at Calvin we call a world and life view was made deeper. So I think from that point of view, the military will tell you who you are because you have to be yourself in the military. You don't have pop and mom with you, you don't have your church with you, but you have your faith with you. Or lack of faith.

Jason Martzke:

So you think that being thrust into different situations as a part of the military had a positive effect on your faith?

John Vanden Berg:

Very positive. Anytime you run into a new situation, you have to find out: Who am I here? What am I in this situation? Why am I here? What am I doing? So that was very positive. Plus the incredible places I've seen, different people I've met, it's a very wonderful training in diversity.

Jason Martzke:

Overall, if you were going to characterize your experience in the military with just a word or a phrase, how do you think you would do it?

John Vanden Berg:

It was a very broadening experience. That's how I would summarize it. I was with guys from Dartmouth and Yale, and MIT I think, so I had a certain level of camaraderie that I might not have had, although you can always find these people with a bigger unit..., so I have a lot of experiences that I think were very exciting and adventuresome and helped me develop, and I think that it would have been practically impossible for a person to have had, had he or she been a part of a big unit which moved as a unit. You know, we're going to say that this infantry unit is going to go here. Well, then the whole gang would go, you know. And you're under this corporal, that sergeant, that lieutenant, that general, and finally under Eisenhower. Well, the ranks under which I served varied from place to place so I had just a great deal of diversity in my experience not only with personnel but also with places.

 
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  October 26, 2011
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