Oral history by: Justin Brager
Date submitted: December 4, 2012
Listen to Justin Brager’s Interview of Eugene Victor Routen
Print Version (pdf)
I interviewed my great-grandfather Eugene Victor Routen. He is a survivor of the Dust Bowl and a WWII veteran. He went on to make the military his career.
Eugene was born at home in Seminole, Oklahoma, on April 17, 1919. It was Easter Sunday that year. He had two older brothers, Jesse and William. There were two little girls but they died as babies. Two years after Eugene’s birth, Raymond was born. His papa was a share-cropper. He had to give part of whatever they grew to the landowner every harvest-time. Times were always hard. He remembers having only one pair of overalls to wear–nothing else, no shoes, nothing. They were so very poor. The families picked cotton, all of them, to make a little extra money to get by. He recalled that when he was six, he had to drag a big long sack, picking cotton and crying, but not willing to quit. The boys finally got shoes when the weather got very cold and frosty. Eugene started to go to school in the second grade but quickly caught up, borrowing books so he could do his homework. He looked up to his teachers as people with knowledge of a wider world, and he wanted that.
The family struggled along, living hand-to-mouth. His papa managed to keep everyone fed from year to year. Then in 1931, when Eugene was 12 years old, a drought hit his farm. The drought started killing off the crops. There was no rain. His papa would plant corn in the fields and by the time it was three feet tall, it was drooping and wilting. He was smarter than some folks, though. Eugene’s papa cut it all down and made hay out of it to feed the animals. The family had a mule or two and a cow, along with some chickens. The heat was so bad in Oklahoma by this time, Eugene and his family could see the dust clouds north of their farm. Where they lived in central Oklahoma they didn’t get much of the dust. But the problem for them was without water there was no way to make a living. So his papa decided that they were going to California like a lot of other people were doing. On August 28th, 1931, they packed up a Chevy his papa had bought for $ 70. His Papa had sold the mules, the wagon, the plow, the cow and the chickens. All of the money went into buying that car.
When they finally got driving they took Route 66 out to California. Eugene says they called it a highway but it really wasn’t. It might be paved going through a town, but the rest of the time it was dirt. Sometimes it was washboard rough. Eugene said it was, “rough enough to shake your teeth out.” Their car averaged 20 miles an hour. It took the family 11 days to get from
Seminole, Oklahoma to California. Along the way, they slept wrapped in blankets on the ground. They ate what they brought. Eugene’s mother made pancakes or biscuits and they would have that with syrup.
When they got to California in early September, they went to Santa Rosa because they had relatives there. They cut grapes and picked cotton. Then, they went down to Chowchilla and Fresno, following some of the Bramletts, Eugene’s mama’s people. Then they went to Phoenix, Arizona because they heard there was cotton to be picked there. After Phoenix, everyone moved right back to Oklahoma by January. When they arrived back in Oklahoma, they found they had nothing there. Eugene said, “It was the worst decision because there was nothing left.” When they arrived at what had been their farm they found no buildings at all. There was just evidence of a fire. After asking around Eugene’s papa found out that the wife of someone he had once had a disagreement with had decided to go out to their farm and burn everything down after they left. The sad thing was that his papa and the man had solved there disagreement unknown to the wife. So they had to live with friends. His papa’s health began to fail. He had cancer in his intestines. Eugene’s father couldn’t work anymore, so he did the only thing he could do which was to become a bootlegger. Eugene’s oldest brother Jesse helped in this. Eugene decided it was not the life for him because he saw no future in it. It was illegal and he believed that education was his only way to better himself. His papa passed away in 1933.
Eugene learned all he could in high school in Oklahoma and told his mama that after he graduated he was going back to California no matter what. In 1937 he graduated as valedictorian. He wanted to go back because he remembered how green and lush it was. He also hoped to find a college there. In that same year, Eugene, along with his mother, his three brothers, and a cousin, packed up what they had. They bought a 1928 four-door Pontiac for $25 and headed out to California again.
This time, they went to Visalia, a small town in a large agricultural area. They decided to go here not only because there was family there but also there was a junior college. Eugene picked tomatoes, apricots, and peaches. His brothers were picking too. In time, they were able to rent a small house. They became financially stable enough to buy a decent car to get around in. The $25 dollar Pontiac they initially purchased had barely made it to their destination. However, the older two boys wouldn’t let Eugene and Raymond drive that car they helped purchase. So Eugene and Raymond studied up on their driving skills and bought a $15 Pontiac and went to the DMV to obtain their own licenses. Then, Eugene and Raymond demanded to drive the other car, but their brothers still wouldn’t let them drive. Eugene didn’t want to spend his life picking fruit and cotton. One day, he went into town to the grocery store and applied for a job. He was hired. In the fields and orchards he worked 10 hours a day for 22 ½ cents per hour. On that day, he got his very first 9 to 5 job.
One day in 1939 he was listening to the radio and he heard that Germany had invaded Poland. He knew that war was coming. There was no way around it. The United States would get into it. After Eugene heard this, he went to his mama and told her he was going to enlist in the National Guard. In October of 1940, he joined the California National Guard. In March of 1941, the regiments were mobilized as part of the 40th Division, which meant the National Guard became the Army. Eugene was part of the 185th Infantry Regiment. After all this he went down to San Luis Obispo to train. He found that the military was, and still is, very structured. It operates on a system of chain of command. This structure especially goes down to how soldier’s day is planned. For the first time in Eugene’s life he lived within a structured system. He got regular pay. It wasn’t a lot, but it was regular. Eugene got medical and dental care. He had a purpose. He would serve Uncle Sam. There was a certain security in that. He knew where he fit. He liked that.
Then the Army gave him orders to go a base in Los Angeles. One day when he was on leave visiting at his mother’s house, he and his brother were listening to the radio and his brother asked him where Pearl Harbor was located. Eugene said he knew of the place but never been there and asked what happened, and that’s when he found out that the naval base known as Pearl Harbor had been bombed by the Japanese. Eugene said, “I sensed that there was going to be a war because of the actions of the American government.” Then, in 1942, Eugene got orders to move to Hawaii for further training.
Form there, Eugene went to Ft. Benning, Georgia, where he became an instructor in tactics and strategy. Then in 1944, his regiment was deployed to the Philippines. This is where he found out that war is a horrible thing. He said, “If someone that was in a war says they were not scared, they were lying.” Since this war was in a jungle it was very difficult because the enemy could be right in front of you, out of sight or in a tree. This made it hard on Eugene and all of the soldiers. When he was there he received a battlefield commission moving his rank to lieutenant. He was an enlisted man and moved up to lieutenant which is an officer due to the officers getting killed. One story Eugene told me was about when company before them said they captured an airport. The commander told Eugene to go to the airport and set up a guard. Obeying his commanding officer, Eugene and his platoon set up guard at the airport. It was nearly night and everyone was digging foxholes. Eugene and his radio man had dug a hole big enough for the both of them to fit in. Once the hole was almost done, Eugene told his radio man to get in the hole and that he would be back. Eugene told him that he had to go talk to someone a little ways away. Once Eugene got there and was talking to them, a shell flew through the air and landed in the hole he was supposed to be in and instantly exploded, killing his radio man.
Another story he told me was when they were in Mindanao in the Philippines. He said they were doing a patrol alongside a river when they saw a boat with six men in it rowing toward them. Worried, he sent his troops into cover. He continued to watch the boat and said he was going to get them out to talk to them and if they try anything funny to shoot them. When the boat got close, Eugene ordered the natives to come out of the boat. They did as they were told and got out. Eugene noticed that one man was carrying a bag. Eugene asked them what was in the bag and the native dumped the bag at his feet and three Japanese heads plopped out. The native headhunters said that he had brought the heads for Eugene. He asked them how they got their heads and the native said that they were sleeping and they just chopped their heads off. Eugene had many close calls but fortunately was never wounded. Then, one day he got news through the radio daily and found out that the Japanese surrendered.
He finally returned to California in 1946. Once out of the service, Eugene did not know what to do and immediately wanted to reenlist. He got a job digging post holes for the Edison Company in the valley. He didn’t like this and rejoined the Army. It was easy to do this because the Army had released too many officers and since he was an officer they welcomed him back. After getting back in the Army he was stationed at Ft. Lewis Washington as a member of the 23rd infantry. During that time period he was sent to Ladd Field Air Base Alaska for six months as company commander in 1948. Then in 1950, he was stationed at Ladd Field Air Base until getting orders for Saginaw, Michigan in 1953. There he served as a National Guard Advisor and Army Reserves Organizer. In 1954 after taking a brief class in chemical warfare, Eugene received orders for Iceland and was there for one year. After returning to Iceland he went to Georgia and then to Ft. Ord in California, where he served as staff training officer for two years. In 1959 through 1961, he was head of the ROTC in the Long Beach High Schools in Southern California. In part of 1961 and 1962 he was the Professor of Military Science at Brown Military academy in Glendora, California. In 1963 Eugene he retired as a Lieutenant Colonel.
After his military career, he decided to sell real estate in 1964. He did this for years doing very well for himself until the market cooled down. After this, he worked in the mortuary in Pacific Grove doing all kinds of necessary jobs.
My great-grandfather went from being a very poor share-cropper’s son to having an honorable career in the U.S. Army and retiring as a Lieutenant Colonel. He was a Dust Bowl refugee when he was very young. He and his family came to California with little more than the clothes on their backs. I am inspired by him and how he always wanted the better for himself and his family. As a boy, he knew there was a better life out there for him. He believed education was the key. Once WWII started, and he found himself in the U.S. Army, he planned how to become an officer. Though not in his original plans, the U.S. Army was a good fit for him and he made it his career. I learned from him that it is important to have goals and remain motivated to achieve those goals, but if things change, one has to be flexible and see what opportunities there is in another direction.