Murray: This is August 28, 2007, Leisure World of Maryland Oral History Project of World War II. We’re interviewing Harry Zubkoff, who was born June 16, 1921. He served in the Army becoming a Staff Sergeant. My name’s Murray Seeger. I’m helped by Adel Schwartz.
Well Harry, you told us you’re from Buffalo, North Buffalo. I’m from the south side of Buffalo, about 15 miles. [Both chuckle.] Where were you on December 7, 1941?
Harry: I was working for the Bell Aircraft Corporation. We were already on a three-shift program there producing airplanes, mostly for sale to Russia.
Murray: This is also North Buffalo?
Harry: Yes, Bell Aircraft plant on Elmwood near Hertel.
Murray: Yes, my mother went there part time as an inspector.
|Photos on this page from Harry’s Army album and files|
Murray: How ’bout that. And you were 20 years old. And what was your skill, what was your training?
Harry: I had spent six or eight months at the Burgard Vocational School learning how to do things like riveting and soldering and valving and all of that, the kind of skills they were looking for in the war plants. And I went to work at Bell in the fall of 1939.
Murray: Now they were making a fighter plane at that time, right?
Murray: What was it called?
Harry: It was called the Airacobra P-39.
Murray: Right, and you said they’re largely being sold to Russia at that time.
Harry: Yes, they were. It was an unusual design aircraft because it did not have an engine in front; it had an engine right underneath the pilot in the middle of the airplane.
Murray: And it had a cannon in the front nose.
Harry: And a cannon in the front, right.
Murray: I remember that. And on the other side of Buffalo they were making the P-40s.
Harry: That’s right, at Curtiss.
Murray: Yep, Curtiss-Wright. Now, were you working on December 7th, you think?
Harry: Yes, we were working. They had a loud speaker in the plant. Around noon or 1:00 I think it was, the loud speaker came on and there was an announcement that the Japanese had just bombed Pearl Harbor. Everybody stopped working for a few minutes, and a dozen guys – within my sight – dropped all their equipment and said they’re going down to enlist.
Murray: Oh my goodness.
Harry: There was a general exodus almost every day from that point on; men were getting up, going out, and enlisting right away.
Murray: Amazing reaction.
Harry: It was.
Murray: Did you know where Pearl Harbor was?
Harry: At the time I didn’t, no, but I found out soon afterwards.
Murray: Now what was your family situation at that time?
Harry: Well, let’s say this. My parents were both terminally ill. I was the only breadwinner in the family, and I was working and taking care of both my mother and father. I had two married sisters living in Buffalo, and they pitched in as much as they could, but they both had little children, and you know, times were tough, it was the Depression, and their husbands were not making much money, so they really couldn’t help. So, that’s what I was doing.
Murray: Now, you registered for the draft at this point.
Harry: Oh yes.
Murray: Were you called up?
Harry: I was deferred because I was working at a war plant.
Murray: And you were also support for your parents I would think.
Harry: Well, I don’t know if that entered in to their calculations.
Murray: Ok. Did you continue working? When did you actually enter into the service?
Harry: July 1945.
Murray: Now were you drafted at that point?
Harry: Yeah, we were all – maybe 10 or 12 thousand were laid off in January 1945. Contracts expired; the company was, say, contracting.
Murray: That plane wasn’t very successful.
Harry: No, it wasn’t used by Americans.
Murray: The Air Force didn’t like it very much.
Murray: Now the war in Europe was over.
Harry: That’s right.
Murray: And you’re called in. Where did they send you?
Harry: They sent me to Camp Claiborne, Louisiana, for basic training. Mind you, I wanted to get
into the Air Force. I had a private pilot license.
Murray: My goodness.
Harry: But the Air Force didn’t need people anymore, so they put me in with combat engineers for basic training.
Murray: You think it was for your mechanical skills?
Murray: Where did you go for basic training for combat engineers?
Harry: Camp Claiborne, Louisiana.
Murray: Oh, Ok, I’m sorry, I thought that was another camp. Sixteen weeks?
Harry: Sixteen weeks.
Murray: And from there?
Harry: From there, they yanked me out of there just before the group was going overseas. We were supposed to go to the Pacific.
Murray: Yeah, you would have been part of the Army invading Japan presumably.
Murray: And, do you remember where you were when the bomb was dropped?
Harry: Yeah, that was in September, no, the bombs were dropped in August, and I was in Louisiana.
Murray: You were sweating it out in Louisiana. And the Armistice Truce was signed in September?
Harry: It was signed early in September. As a coincidence, I had been married on August 15th, 1943. On August 15th, 1945, when I was in Louisiana, President Truman announced that the war is officially over. But it wasn’t signed in Japan until later, in September.
Murray: Right. Your service was supposed to be what, the duration and six months?
Murray: But you have to have points?
Harry: Well, I didn’t have any points.
Murray: And from Louisiana, where did they ship you?
Harry: They sent me to Baltimore, to go to intelligence school. Fort Holabird in Baltimore. I went to intelligence school for three or four months, then they shipped me out to France.
|Fort Holabird, Baltimore, 1946|
Murray: Now what kind of intelligence were you supposed to be doing?
Murray: Now you’re going to interview people?
Murray: Do you have a language?
Harry: They taught me German. And theoretically I was fairly fluent in German.
Murray: Sprichst du Deutsch?
Harry: Not anymore. You know, when was that, 60 years ago or so? I haven’t used it since I got out.
Murray: So you finished at Fort Holabird and you’re shipped out to France?
Harry: First to France, then to Germany.
Murray: And where were you stationed there?
Harry: In Germany for a while in Stuttgart [?], then in a little provincial town called Buchen, not far from Stuttgart, not far from a famous resort called Vadmerventine [?].
Murray: Now what is your job?
Harry: Well, you know, the basic job of counterintelligence was to investigate cases of sabotage, espionage, subversive activities, that sort of thing. But we, basically we were being used at the time for two purposes. One, to trace down wanted Nazi war criminals and to get evidence against them for use in war crimes trials. And the other one was to help build up a network of people who would continue to provide us with information. And, we were worried at the time about the increasing hostility with Russia. In the intelligence business, we were taught so much about the Nazi paramilitary organizations and all of their political organizations, etcetera, and we started taking lessons in the same things in regards to the Russians and the communists. So we were working on both trying to figure out what the communists were doing and also tracing Nazi war criminals.
Murray: Had you been promoted by now?
Harry: Just normal promotions, Corporal and Sergeant. They wanted me to go to officer candidate school, but I didn’t want to commit myself to a longer term in the Army.
Murray: But you must have impressed some people, you must have done well whatever you were doing.
Harry: Well, in those Army aptitute tests. And of course all the reports I wrote were models of English composition.
Murray: That’s because of the good education in Buffalo public schools.
Harry: I got to tell you that some of the officers couldn’t read or write English in my view.
Murray: You stationed in this small town in Germany all the time and traveling around?
How far away did you get?
Harry: I was sent on several missions. I spent some time in a DP camp trying to find these couple infiltrators.
Murray: Did you have some identified or just smelling around?
Harry: Smelling around mostly. Well we did have a few.
Murray: Was that over in the east part of Germany, toward Munich or in that area?
Harry: Yea, we were in Munich. There were Displaced Persons camps all over the area. I spent some time in one near Dachau, the concentration camp at Dachau. It set up a DP camp mainly for Jewish people, who couldn’t tell the difference between that and the concentration camps.
Harry: And I had a lot of interaction with them, who found that American Jewish soldiers were a breed apart.
Murray: Good or bad?
Murray: They didn’t think the other American troops were sympathetic or understood the problem?
Harry: Well, they didn’t know that Jewish people could be warriors or in the Army.
Murray: Did you speak Yiddish?
Harry: I had a little Yiddish. And German is largely or partly based on Yiddish.
Murray: That’s right. So how long was this duty?
Harry: A year.
Murray: Did you find it interesting?
Harry: Oh, fascinating. Now did you ever hear of the Jewish Brigade from Palestine? There were some Jewish guys in the Jewish brigade who wrote a book [book based on them] about their experiences. They were also chasing Nazi war criminals and finding them and killing them. And there was a period of time when my superiors were wondering if I was one of the guys who was finding them and killing them.
Murray: Now is this one of the times when you felt your officers were not sure about Jewish soldiers?
Harry: Not my officers, no, but others in the military government. You know, intelligence and military government were at odds with each other ...
Murray: Right from the get-go.
Harry: Right. And they did a lot of things that the intelligence community really wasn’t happy with. You may have heard how they brought over all the Nazi scientists, and we were against that.
Murray: I think the same thing in trying to fit them in the post war government.
Harry: True. We had started out with a de-nazification program and found out that many of the ex-nazis were being placed in responsible jobs.
Murray: Experienced bureaucrats.
Murray: I lived in Germany, I was a reporter in Germany. And this was still being talked about a long time afterwards. So you were there a year. Then what happened to you?
Harry: I came back, got discharged.
Murray: Got your points?
Harry: I guess so. It was after a year and a half they brought me home.
Murray: Where’d you muster out?
Harry: New Jersey.
Murray: Did you go back to Buffalo. Did you use the GI Bill at all?
Harry: Yes. I did, I used the GI Bill to get a commercial pilot’s license. I was working as a flight instructor and commercial pilot for a small aviation school in Buffalo called Mastercraft Aviation – until 1949, when we no longer had any students. The whole bottom dropped out of that aviation market. The post-war world was going to be a flying one, but it didn’t develop that way. And a friend of mine from the intelligence community called me and said we just got a new organization called the Central Intelligence Agency, CIA, and I’d like you come down and work for us.
Murray: That was brand new. Harry Truman did sign the papers for that.
Harry: Right. So I came to Washington, and they wanted to hire me, but what they wanted me to do was go overseas and be a spook. Now I had a brand new baby boy, and my wife didn’t want me to go overseas, I didn’t want go. So I turned the job down.
Murray: What did you do then?
Harry: I got a job at the Veterans Administration, and worked there for a year. And then I got a job with the Air Force in the Pentagon, a 90-day job with the Air Force. That was in 1950. And 36 years later I retired. A long 90 days.
Murray: What kind of work did you do?
Harry: It was the best job in the world. What I did in the Pentagon was put together compilations of news clippings about military affairs which grew and grew as more and more people were writing about the Department of Defense.
Murray: Did you have to get up at 4 in the morning?
Harry: Well, I did, actually at 2. We called it the Current News. Subsequently the earliest edition became the Early Bird edition. It’s still in existence.
Murray: It’s famous.
Harry: Yeah, and I was famous for a while.
Murray: Did you have any uniformed working for you?
Harry: In the beginning we had uniformed people, but, around the mid-1950s, early ’60s, till then we had uniformed people. As our job expanded see, we did more than put out news clippings. We also were writing speeches for the Secretary of the Air Force and also for the Secretary of Defense. So I had a small research outfit, mainly writers, and they were military people. Around the mid-’60s, they took all the military out, put them in a separate division. It was all civilian. I was the chief of that division from about the mid-’60s to the mid-’80s when I retired.
Murray: Well thank you very much, Harry. It’s a marvelous story. I appreciate your coming in.
I Googled the interviewer, Murray Seeger. He was a seasoned journalist and wrote the book “Discovering Russia: 200 years of American Journalism”. He passed away three years before Harry, at age 82.