Window to Winn with Bob Holeman

(Bob Holeman conducted this series of interviews with local World War II in 2011-12.  Most of those 34 American heroes have passed away in the decade since).

            Many a young man who fought for America during World War II learned some skills that would carry him for a lifetime.  This week’s interview for the Winn veteran series is one of those stories.

            Rudolph Foster grew up on Laurel Street and graduated from Winnfield High School back in 1939 when there were only 11 grades before graduation.  He was in the first class to attend the newly-opened Huey P. Long Trade School and, two years later, was among the first students to receive his diploma.  “They weren’t specialized like they are today.” He explained.  “We studied a little bit of everything back then.”

            Pearl Harbor happened before Foster got a chance to enter the working world.  “Some folks got drafted, others hid,” he explained.  While he didn’t exactly enlist, he did extend his options by enrolling in a radio school in Shreveport.  He proved to be an excellent student in the field and found that with these skills, he could now enlist with more say-so in his placement.

            “I was able to enlist in the Army because of that training.  Mrs. McBride, the preacher’s wife at First Baptist Church, gave me a Bible.  It was special to me during my service.  She presented a Bible to every serviceman from FBC.”

            Traveling first to Alexandria, Foster was sent to Fort Beauregard for a 30-day processing.  Ironically, the Army had no size 13-1/2 shoes for the young enlistee and, according to Army regulations, no soldier could participate without a complete uniform.  “So for 30 days, they couldn’t make me do anything except eat and sleep.”

            But that problem was remedied in California where the men were shipped for basic training.  He recalls the daily routine included a 30-mile hike “right down in the woods.”  Specific training was next and due to his background, Foster went to Radio School.  The first stage was simply work on a 9-volt radio.  Once the trainee could make that work, he would move on to advanced training in radio communication.  For that, he was sent to Utah and, for a time, at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.

            “Then we went somewhere in Arizona where we were taught how to climb telephone poles.  If you didn’t fall off the pole, you passed.”

            Prepared with this training, Foster and others like him were shipped to Leyte Island in the Philippines to help establish communications as Allied Forces prepared to move its invasion towards Japan.  “We didn’t land until Gen. McArthur had returned and proven the area was safe,” said Foster.  “Ours was a 32-man switchboard team.  We had a boss and when he hollered, we jumped.  All of the communication came out of one tent and we would have to string wires from that tent, through the jungle, to a phone on the other end.”

            Naturally, there were no telephone poles in the jungles of the Philippines so the radio men had to climb coconut trees to string their wires.  “You can imagine, wires ran like a web from that tent to places all over the island.  Now, the local natives had no way of climbing these trees because they were straight up.  So they’d give us a little knife to cut down coconuts for them to eat.  Often, they’d catch them before they hit the ground.  He explained that the work could be hazardous, for the Japanese would often cut the phone wires, then lie in wait to shoot at Americans who came to make the repairs.  Soldiers were sent ahead of the repairmen to help ensure their safety.  He said no one shot at him during his deployment.

            But there was a second hazard.  While he never fell out of a coconut tree, he said he “burned” three trees (and several telephone poles during his working career).  That’s apparently telephone terminology for losing your footing and making an uncontrolled slide down the pole.  It’s hard on the repairman’s arms, legs and face, he said.

            While on Leyte, Foster was on a detail that stretched an 80-mile line to an Air Force unit where his brother, Weston Garland Foster, also a radio man, was stationed.   “You wouldn’t believe it but when the operator turned the crank to ring the phone, my brother answered.  The next day, he hitched a ride and came down to see me.”

            His story got local when he said they wrote their mother “but she said she wouldn’t believe we were together unless we sent her a picture.  So we found someone to take our picture, standing side-by-side.  That picture went back to north Louisiana and she went to showing everyone on Laurel Street.  And there were a lot of people living on Laurel Street back then.  Well, those ladies started making up big boxes of food and sending them to us.  It was enough that all 32 of us on the radio team could eat.  But the novelty wore off and the boxes stopped coming.  I asked my brother if we ought to ask Mama to show that picture around again.  She did and, sure enough, here came the Care Packages once more.”

            As the Allies moved north and the capital city of Manila had been secured, the communications center was moved there.  He was in Manila when the end of the war was announced.  He recalls that there was “lots of celebration with that announcement but there was still a lot of work we had to do before we got to come home.”

            The return trip was memorable.  The voyage over on a nondescript naval transport had taken 32 days from San Francisco to New Guinea.  For the trip home, the aircraft carrier Yorktown was brought into Manila Harbor.  Foster said he was the first man, apart from the crew, to be taken aboard.  He was shown to an empty room with eight bunks.  After so many months of sharing a tent, this looked pretty good and he got first choice.  He picked his bunk and waited.  It seemed like an hour passed until the next man arrived.  “Where do I go?” he asked.  Foster indicated the remaining bunks.  “Anywhere you want…except where I have my stuff.”  Introductions and hometowns found that the newcomer was Loy Gaar of nearby Gaars Mill.

            The Yorktown took only 12 days to cross the Pacific.  Foster was discharged in Texas but the trip home was not that difficult.  “My brother came and picked me up.  Mama told him to come get me so there weren’t any questions.”

            During the course of the war, this veteran had found romance.  It happened while he was training in Utah.  “There was a New Year’s Eve Party where the Baptist Church had invited all us servicemen.  I didn’t really fit in so I went and sat in a chair in a corner, watching all the people having a good time.  I noticed this girl, sitting in a chair in the other corner, crying.  I went to talk to her.  She was from Idaho, there visiting her sister, and she didn’t know what to do.  I asked her if she wanted to dance or something and we did.  I walked her home to where she was staying and that was the start of a romance.  We decided to get married.”

            He remembers it as Groundhog Day 1946 that he traveled up to Twin Falls, Idaho, to marry the girl he comforted, Mabel Brewer.  They moved back to Winnfield to start their life together where he had gotten a job with the city.  Then one day, the boss of his 32-man switchboard team drove up to his home.  He had been with the phone company prior to the war, had returned there following his service and now wanted Foster to come to work for them.

            “For my interview, they had me climb up a pole.  I did and they hired me on the spot.”  He worked there from 1946 until 1984 when he retired and began his own business in the telephone field.  In their years together, the couple had 5 children, 9 grandchildren, 19 great grandchildren and 1 great great grandchild.