Documenting the American South Logo
oral histories of the American South
Excerpt from Oral History Interview with George Esser, June-August 1990. Interview L-0035. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Remembering service in World War II

Esser attended the Virginia Military Institute until Pearl Harbor hit in 1941. His chemistry studies led him to the Chemical Warfare Service, which had so few people that Esser easily won an officership. He remembers his service here, including his arrival in Europe a few months before the end of the war there.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with George Esser, June-August 1990. Interview L-0035. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

This didn't really bother me as much because I went to VMI. Went to VMI because it had been in my family, and father had gone there, and my mother's cousins had gone there, and it was cheaper. But, I guess, in retrospect I hit it just at the right time. Well, pearl Harbor came during my last year.
FRANCES WEAVER:
Ah, you stepped right into a commission.
GEORGE ESSER:
I was the last class that stepped right into a commission. I told somebody the other day I'm probably the last generation that has never taken a test in the Army. I mean, traditional exams, but psychological testing or classification testing, that sort of testing. I never took a test like that. But I went through the war.
FRANCES WEAVER:
Where did you serve?
GEORGE ESSER:
When I went to VMI, they had caivary, infantry, and artillery. And everybody that I had known had been in the calvary. So I signed up for the calvary, and that meant that learned to ride horseback, which is a great privilege. But it wasn't very useful [Laughter] to war.
FRANCES WEAVER:
That's right. Not in the Second world war.
GEORGE ESSER:
I had my degree in chemistry, believe or not. So they took six of us who had degrees in chemistry and transferred us to the Chemical Warfare Service because the Chemical warfare Service had so few officers. That was a break, too, because it meant that by September of 1942, when I had only three months into the service on my part, I was company commander of a company of officer candidates in an officer candidate school. I had just turned twenty-one the previous month. I had officers whose average age was thirty-eight.
FRANCES WEAVER:
Where were you stationed?
GEORGE ESSER:
At Edgewood Arsenal, Maryland, which is twenty miles north of Baltimore, just south of Aberdeen. I'll never forget, I mean, there was a former first sergeant who was then a second lieutenant, and he roomed next door to me. On the night he arrived, I stayed up with him all night, practically, drinking bourbon. But a couple of days later, I had another second lieutenant who had just gotten his commission, but he was from civilian life. He was about thirty-eight, and he didn't like one of my orders, and he said he wasn't going to obey it, and I said, "You will or." So I walked out, and there was actually a tent area and this little orderly room, little porch, and I was standing on the porch. Ed Selinsky, who was the former first sergeant, went up to this guy and says, "You obey the lieutenant or you'll have me to put up with as well." [Laughter]
FRANCES WEAVER:
[Laughter] That helped.
GEORGE ESSER:
So I had no more problems with Lieutenant Preston. But anyhow, at VMI I read widely but I was in the sciences so I didn't have a lot of courses that actually made me think about where the world was. You know, today they do a lot better job in, I think, any engineering degree or any scientific degree in giving some better background. Oh, I had a course in economics and it was sort of a joke. The man that was teaching history was a lot more concerned with the developing European war than, understandably, he was in the past. So I went into the war, and I ended up, let's see, I left Edgewood and went to California with a new unit, and ended up as a company commander of a combat company that fired a 4.2 inch mortar, which is a pretty wide mortar. It fired the equivalent, it was the size as 105 hundred millimeter shells. That is, the same diameter, but it had a lot more high explosive and white phosphorus in it. On the other hand, it didn't have nearly the range of an artillery weapon. There were three companies, and each company had twelve of those, and we were sent to Europe in late 1944. We didn't get into combat until February of '45, and the war was over by May of '45.
FRANCES WEAVER:
Did you go into France?
GEORGE ESSER:
We landed in France, and actually our first combat was in Holland and Germany. I ended up on the other side of the Elbe River. Actually saw the Russians.
FRANCES WEAVER:
Did you meet the Russians?
GEORGE ESSER:
Yeah, met the Russian troops. Another experience that lives with me is I was in the second day, I guess—we were liberated the afternoon before and the next morning I was at a concentration camp.
FRANCES WEAVER:
Oh, were you?
GEORGE ESSER:
So I saw, I'll never forget talking to a man who was there who had been a professor at the University of [unclear] in Belgium.
FRANCES WEAVER:
Yeah, Joy and Bill Murphy go there. He teaches at [unclear] from time to time. They're going this fall.
GEORGE ESSER:
By the time the day was over, that man no longer lived. So because we had been sent in late, we were also returned home early because we were destined to go to Japan. They dropped the bomb, so I did not have, because I had not gone in until '42, I didn't get out right away. But I had already decided before I left VMI that I was not going to pursue chemistry. Because I learned, from taking calculus as a matter of fact, that I could think well two dimensionally, I did not operate well in the three dimensional things like calculus and deferential equations and engineering generally. And I've never regretted that.