April 30, 1998
28 pages Open
Hillary Cowart begins by discussing his childhood and family, and then his schooling (1-
3). Conflict with his father led him to leave home and join the CCC, for which he had to
fake his age (3-4). He discusses his family situation due to the Depression (4-5) and
expands on his reasons for joining the CCC (5-6). He talks about the admittance
process to enter the CCC and discusses work he did at the Fernandina and
Jacksonville Beach camps (6-7). As Cowart stayed briefly in several camps, he had
many positions, and he talks particularly about loading sand and being a night
watchman (7-9). He discusses traveling west to a Nevada camp and returning to see
his family after over two years with the CCC (9-10).
Cowart mentions medical care and uniforms, and also talks about the military structure
of the camps (10-11). He also talks about fights at the camps, as well as recreation and
women (12-13). He tells a story about courting a young lady in Nevada (13). He talks
about an average day, including when the men would wake up, and meals (14-15). He
talks about learning how to blast dynamite for road-building (15-16). He mentions
leaving the CCC in order to join the Navy during World War II (15-16). He then talks
about safety and the weather in Nevada, and describes his barracks (16-17). He talks
about the educational courses offered by the CCC, as well as the religious services (17-
Cowart lists social and professional skills he picked up in the CCC (19). He discusses
the people he met in the CCC, and shares his favorite memory of it; he also defends its
effectiveness in teaching young men discipline (19-21). He talks about reasons for
entering the Navy and details his wartime experiences, including escaping a ship that
was hit by a torpedo (21-27). He concludes by mentioning his involvement in the CCC
Interviewee: Hillary Cowart
Interviewer: Julian Pleasants
Date: April 30, 1998
P: Today is April 30, 1998. This is an interview with Mr. Hillary Cowart in his home in
Archer, Florida. When and where were you born?
C: In Plant City, Florida, in 1924.
P: Did you grow up in Plant City?
C: No, I stayed there until I was about seven years old and then I moved to outside
P: Where did you live then?
C: Out north of the Highway Patrol Station [near Highway 121].
P: So you were basically in Gainesville for most of your life?
C: That was the town closest to us. We were out in the woods.
P: You indicated that you had a lot of brothers and sisters. How many did you
C: Twelve lived to be grown. I had six brothers and five sisters.
P: You were the oldest?
C: No, there are a lot of them ahead of me.
P: Where were you on the list?
C: I was about six or seven on the list.
P: What did your father do for a living?
C: He was a minister part of the time, and he worked for the government some.
P: Which church?
P: What did he do for the government?
C: I do not know what kind of work he did up in Alabama, because I was not up
there. But he was running a hatchery in Welaka, Florida, that he helped open up.
He was the head of that for awhile.
P: That was a fish hatchery?
C: Yes, shad.
P: This was during what period of time?
C: In the mid-1930's.
P: Who else lived in your house? Did you have grandparents or aunts and uncles?
C: No, they would come visit us, but they did not live there.
P: What kind of neighborhood was it?
C: Rural mostly.
P: Where did you go to school?
C: First school I went to was S.D. Bernie School in Plant City. When we moved up
north of Gainesville, I went to school at a little country school called Rose Hill.
P: How many years of school did you have?
C: I went to the ninth grade, about three months into the ninth grade.
P: Why did you quit at that point?
C: I had to quit and start driving for my dad. He was a salesman at the time.
P: How old were you at that time?
C: I think I was thirteen.
P: What kind of work did you do for your dad?
C: I drove for him.
P: Were you old enough to drive?
C: You could get a driver's license then. It did not cost but a dollar, no matter how
old you were, as long as you could drive.
P: Did you like school?
C: I would like to have finished, put it that way. I started back, but my work took me
away from home. I took a placement test at Buchholz High School in
Gainesville, Florida, and I felt good about it, because there was another guy who
was with me. He was going to try to get his and he was going to have to take
eleventh and twelfth grade at night school up there. When they got through
testing me, they told me that they thought they could just give me a diploma. I
told them, no, I do not care nothing about a diploma. It does not mean anything
to me. I would like to go because I am short on math. I never could understand
math when it got into algebra. So I had to quit and then I left home.
P: How long did you work for your dad?
C: I would say not quite a year, because I left that same year.
P: When did you decide to go into the CCC?
C: Me and dad had a run in, and I figured the best thing I could do was leave home.
Get out from under him. There was some other things behind it. I left home and
he left after me.
P: Where did you go after you left?
C: I went to Tampa and got a job at a furniture store. I worked there about three or
four weeks, and then I came back up and found out that dad had left, too.
People were going into the CCC camp and they were older than I was actually,
but I got a lady to sign my form to say that I was seventeen years old.
P: Were you?
P: How old were you?
P: Thirteen! You must be one of the youngest ones ever to go into the CCC.
C: There were some of them in there the same age.
P: Where was your mother at this time?
C: She was in Gainesville with the rest of the family. She did not even know
anything about it. I wrote her a letter after I got in and told her that she would be
getting a check from the CCC and that I got somebody to sign that I was old
enough to go in.
P: So neither parent actually approved of you going?
C: It did not make any difference to my dad. He went off anyway. But my mother
could not have much to say, because I was sending home twenty-five dollars a
month. Back then you could pretty well live off of twenty-five dollars a month.
My mother could make things last and go places. I wrote her a letter and told her
what had happened. She knew that I had left home and that me and dad had a
run in. We just let it go from there.
P: How did you first hear about the CCC?
C: Some boys who I knew in town were talking. A couple of them went with me.
P: How did the Depression affect your family?
C: Bad. There was no work that you could get to make a dollar. You had to have
somebody who knew something about farming to live on a farm to make a living.
There was no work anywhere in town. You had to just pick up what you could.
It was real rough on people. When they put the CCC camp in, I think that is one
of the greatest things that ever happened. They were a fine bunch of boys, I'll
tell you. Men, they made men, a whole bunch of them and I got proof to show
that. I've got some pictures that I will show you. They were proud of themselves.
I was in Reno, Nevada when the war started and I stayed there about two or
three months longer and then came home and went in the navy.
P: Let me get back to the Depression a little bit. What kind of situation did your
family have after your father left? Obviously your mother was supporting several
C: My mother was taking in ironing, washing, and housecleaning for other people
who could afford to have it done. And the money I sent home was it.
P: That was pretty much all they had?
C: Right, that was all they had.
P: How many were living at home at this time?
C: Five, I believe.
P: Were any of them working?
C: No, not at the time. They were too small.
P: Did any other member of your family participate in any of the New Deal
programs? The WPA or any other thing like that?
C: I was not old enough to know what was going on.
P: What did your mother think of Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal?
C: She could not think but one thing, that he was a wonderful person.
P: What was the main reason you joined the CCC?
C: There was not any work that you could get. I was lucky when I caught a ride to
Tampa and a truck driver put me off in the middle of town. There was a furniture
store just fixing to close up and I went over and asked the man if I could work
that night sweeping up and cleaning up and if I could stay there till the next
morning. He said, yeah, go ahead. He and his wife were real nice. It was about
9:30 and he was fixin to go home. He asked me if had I eaten and I told him no, I
had not had anything to eat since breakfast. So they went out and got something
to eat and brought me back a plate and locked me up in the store. I told him,
lock it up. I will be here when you come by in the morning. Back then, you did
not mind. People just didn't do things like they are doing today. You could leave
the place open and nobody would bother it. Next morning he came back and he
brought me breakfast. I had cleaned and swept the whole place and he said,
well you have done a good job, so I am going to pay you for it. I said, no, it was
worth that just for me to stay here the night and the meal. He said, no I want you
to work for me for a couple of weeks and help me around here. I said, that would
be fine. I will sleep down there. He had a bathroom there, so I did not have to
worry about that. I stayed about two weeks and then I told him, I am going back
home and see what is going on up there. So I got me a bus ticket, came back to
Gainesville, and found our daddy had left after I left. You could not find any work
anywhere. There was not anybody going to hire a child around there. Too many
grown men needed a job. I heard about the CCC camp from some of the other
boys and they were going in and I said, I am going to try it. I asked one of the
other boy's mother's if she would sign for me. She said, yeah, she would sign.
She did and I went in.
P: So it was mainly for the money?
C: Yes, and for something to do. They told me I would get twenty-five dollars a
month sent home and I would get five dollars out of the pay for myself.
P: You had to send the twenty-five home, right?
C: Oh, yeah. You did not have nothing to do with that. They did it.
P: What did you spend your five dollars on?
C: Cigarettes, I smoked. Candy.
P: What year did you join?
C: 1939, I believe, but I am not sure.
P: You signed up in Gainesville?
C: Yes, in Gainesville.
P: Where did they send you?
C: I went to Fernandina first, and I stayed over there for about five or six months.
Then they sent us to Jacksonville Beach to build a recreation camp for the army.
P: When you went in, did anybody interview you at all to determine if you were
qualified or did they do any kind of criminal check?
P: Did they give you a physical exam?
C: Yes. They asked me if I had been in any trouble. I told them no, I had never
been in any trouble with the law.
P: Were there any CCC people who were forced to go in rather than going to jail?
C: I do not know. I do not believe so.
P: When you got it, did they explain the program and what your choices were?
C: Yes, they told us what we had to do and what we did not have to do.
P: What did you have to do?
C: You had to work. You had things to do, just like you would on any job. If you
drove a truck or something like that. Everybody wants to be a truck driver when
they are young you know. That is just like right now. You could go out there and
ask ten men what they would like to do and if they are young men, they want to
drive a truck. That is always been as long as I know.
P: Tell me what you did at Fernandina.
C: We planted trees. We worked on Fort Clinch. We planted grass. We used to go
around to that fertilizer plant across the river, a fertilizer plant, and dig up the
grass over there and transplant it along the roadbeds and stuff. I tell you, you
had to have a strong stomach to work around that doggone fertilizer factory
because it smelled so bad. That wind would bring it to the camp across the river.
P: Were you there when Fred White was there?
C: I do not know. I do not remember any of the boys at that first camp. When we
left there, they sent us to a side camp that they built at Jacksonville Beach, for
the army. We built a recreation camp there for the army. I stayed there and got
appendicitis, and they took me back to camp. I got all right, so they did not
operate on me. A little while after that I was transferred to that camp back this
side of Green Cove. I cannot remember the name of it. It was between Keystone
Heights and [Camp] Blanding Road [Mike Roess Gold Head Branch State Park].
P: Let me get back to Jacksonville Beach. What did you do there specifically?
C: We loaded sand. That was the best job I ever had. We went to the beach and
they had eight of us loading the trucks and we would load them so fast that we
could swim for about an hour before they would get back with the truck. They
realized that so they started sending two trucks. They were using that to mix the
concrete with for those tents and all.
P: So you just shoveled sand all day and it was a good job because you had the
beach and could go swimming.
C: Right. We had a ball down there.
P: Did you have a choice about where you wanted to go?
C: I did not. They did not ask me nothing. They just sent me where they wanted
P: When you went over to the camp around Keystone Heights, what did you do at
C: We planted grass. We planted trees in the park and stuff like that.
P: Did you like that work?
C: It was all work, but it did not bother me. Back then, kids worked. They did not
threaten nobody. They would just tell you what to do and they would show you
how to do it.
P: Did any of your friends go with you to any of these camps?
C: I did not stay at that camp very long. Probably only three or four months. Then
they put us on a train in Gainesville, and we ended up in Reno, Nevada. They
took about twenty-five of us and the rest of the train went onto California. I was
in three or four different camps there. I was in one right there in Reno, just
across the river from Reno, and we stayed there a little while and then they
moved us about sixty miles from there to one out in the desert. All we did was
rebuild the camp. It had deteriorated some, so we did that and cleaned the place
up. Then they moved us again back to Reno and we built one of the biggest CCC
camps in the United States, about 300 or 400 yards from the Truckee River.
P: What was your specific job when you built that camp?
C: Part of the time I was night watchman. Me and another buddy of mine. That was
what I was doing when I left.
P: That was a pretty good job, was it not?
C: Yeah, it was a good job.
P: Could you stay awake all right?
C: Oh yes. We had seven big barracks and six coal burning stoves in each barrack
that we had to keep going.
P: So one of your jobs was to keep the fire going all night.
C: Right. They got the coal up there in the daytime and at night we would go by and
stoke the fires and keep the fires going in the barracks. I think there were about
six big stoves in each of the barracks. We would go through and check the beds
and make sure everybody was in there and then we would go out the back door
and come up to another one. If they had coal, we would put coal in, if they did
not they we would not bother with it. It was their job to keep their coal in.
P: When you did this, was this the first time you had ever been away from home?
C: I had never been away from home before.
P: Was this the first time you had ever been on a train?
C: First time I ever had a train ride, too.
P: What did you think about Reno and Nevada?
C: Nice place. They did not like us. They thought we were real bad. Them CCC
boys. But you know something, they were some of the best people in the world.
You can believe that or not. They did not have any trouble with us. Once in
awhile they would lock one of them up. He would get drunk or something and
they would lock him up. But if you behaved yourself, you did not have any
trouble. None whatsoever.
P: When you first got to Reno, how did you feel? Where you nervous or excited?
C: It did not bother us. There was not but about thirty of us.
P: This group of thirty, all of you came from Florida?
C: I do not know. We picked up men all the way through Georgia, Alabama and
Texas. Texas was the last place we picked up men.
P: So most of the people on the train, you did not know. Why do you think they
picked you for Reno?
C: I do not have any idea. Every once in awhile they put a thing out there on the
bulletin board, anybody who wanted to go to the west coast, sign their name. I
always signed mine, I would be the first one on it every time. We came in one
afternoon from work at that camp near Green Cove and I saw it on a table and I
signed my name on it. The next morning, five o'clock, they woke us up. They
said, boys, pack up your lockers, we're fixin' to leave. They were not kidding that
time. They loaded us up on the truck, carried us up to Gainesville on Depot
Street and put us on a troop train.
P: Did you do that just because you wanted to travel?
C: Yeah. All the kids back then wanted to go west. That was the thing.
P: Are you glad you did that?
C: Yes, very much so. I learned a lot in life. I learned how to get along with people.
Course, we had plenty of people in my family. I had to learn that early. You
learn how to get along with your fellow man and you took a bath. If you did not
they would give you a bath. You did not have any choice, you either take it or
they would give it to you. You would find out it was a lot easier taking it than it
was them giving you one.
P: How often did you get to go home when you were at Jacksonville Beach?
C: I never went home.
P: How long was it from the time you signed up in the CCC until you saw your family
C: The war broke out in 1941, December. That May I went home and I saw them
P: So you had been away from home about two and a half years?
P: Was that difficult for you, not seeing your family?
C: Not really. I'd liked to have see them naturally, but time went by real fast. There
was something different most of the time.
P: How did they greet you when you came home?
C: Oh, they were tickled to death to see me. My mother was. My mother was not
getting money from anywhere else but me. It helped her a whole lot.
P: All through this period of time, you had medical attention, right? Doctors and
dentists and that sort of thing. What kind of tests did they do? Did they test you
every year or so to make sure you were in good health?
C: Oh, yes. We had a doctor come down to the camp and checked you every three
months. They would come out there and give you a physical and ask you
P: When you first arrived, what did they do for you? Did they take you out and give
you a uniform and give you a haircut? What happened to you when you first got
C: You got a haircut, then you got your clothes, and then they assigned you to a
barracks. They issued you a trunk.
P: What about uniforms?
C: They looked something like the marine corps. When I got out, several people
would see me and want to know what branch of the marine corps I was in. I said
I was not in the marine corps. Well, what is that uniform? It's from the CCC
camp and I just got discharged and I have not gone home and gotten into civilian
P: Did you have an insignia on your uniforms or your name?
C: It did not have my name on it. I do not remember if it had an insignia or not.
P: What about the military? The camps were run by the army?
C: Yes. We had a colonel from the army. I believe it was a colonel. I am not sure.
They were good. They usually had a sergeant, too, from the army.
P: They took care of discipline? What would happen if you got into a fight, or you
had a problem?
C: Yes. Well, sometimes they would let you put the gloves on and take care of it
P: Did you ever have an occasion to do that?
C: Oh, every week. (Laughter) I could fight, too. I was used to it. I had six
P: Were you not smaller than most of the people?
C: Most of them, yes.
P: You must have been pretty feisty.
C: Yes, I was. They sent every new man on me that came into that camp. Testing
P: What did you normally get in a fight about?
C: About anything. Whatever somebody tried to do to mess you up.
P: Do you remember any particular incidents?
C: Yeah, we had one guy. He was what they called a leader in the barracks over in
the camp near Green Cove. He would come in drunk about every weekend and
he would start on one side and he would go down the thing, whipping somebody
if he could. He came to me and I was waiting on him. He looked down there at
me and he snatched me up there and said, aw, you are too little for me to mess
around with. About that time, I hit him. I whomped on his head and I broke him
from that. The next time he came in there, he was not going to bother nobody. I
had to fight a lot because they would sic them on me. A new man would come in
and they'd put him on me in a heartbeat. They knew what they were going to
P: Of course, the new men thought that since you were small, they would be able to
whip you. Did you do this bare-fisted or did you have gloves?
C: Sometimes they would put the gloves on you. If somebody broke it up, they
would wait until that weekend and then they put the gloves on you Saturday
night. Everybody would watch. When something was over with, it was over with.
There was not any hostility about it. Those boys got along like they were a
P: This guy who was a leader and was drinking a lot, would they have kicked him
out of the CCC if that continued?
C: Sometimes. Most times we did not rat on anybody. We did not tell anybody
what was happening. We took care of it ourselves just like I took care of it that
night. He was a lot bigger than I was, but I was a lot tougher than him. That was
the difference in it.
P: I understand that a lot of people who came in left before their time was up. Why
would they leave?
C: They would leave because they were homesick. That is the only thing I can tell
you. There was no reason for anybody to leave. If he went in there and pulled
his share of the load, he was treated just like anybody else. We had some who
left, but they should not have been in there to begin with.
P: What about entertainment? What did you do besides fight?
C: We had a lot of boys who picked the guitar. I used to blow a harmonica. We
would have things like that at night after we would come in for work. We usually
were not allowed to go to town until Saturday. You were tired, and you did not
want to go to town anyway. You worked all day and put in a full day's work
regardless of what you were doing. On the camp we were building, we had rock
to dig up and bust up and move. We built it right on a rocky place just 200 or
300 yards from the Truckee River. It was a job.
P: When you were in town, what would you normally do?
C: Go to the movie. When we were in Reno, we would go in there and watch
people gamble. Back then, they had stacks of money, silver dollars, all the way
around the wall in those gambling places. But there was not but one way in and
one way out of that town, so they did not have a lot of trouble with robberies.
Somebody would try it once in awhile, but they would usually catch them.
P: Did you do any gambling?
C: They would not let us gamble. I did not have any money to gamble with anyway.
P: How about ladies of the evening?
C: I can't talk about that. (laughter)
P: But there were certainly plenty of those around.
C: I am sure there were, yes sir.
P: Did you ever have a chance to have dates or have girls come out to the camp?
C: Oh, yes. I went with a girl out there. It was a lawyer's daughter I went with. He
did not like me, but I did not care whether he liked me or not. I liked her and she
liked me. We had a couple of boys marry girls out there. But the one thing out
there, you did not take a girl out without her mother's or daddy's permission.
That was a no-no out in Reno, Nevada. That would get you in trouble real fast. I
know, I got in trouble myself. We were not supposed to go out that week
because she was going to have her birthday and she [her mother] was going to
let her go out and go to the movie that night. Her dad did not like CCC boys, and
he was out of town a lot. He was in Salt Lake City and all. Her mother knew me
and she knew the girl was all right, so we went out one night and then her
birthday came up. Her mother said no, you already went out. So she went and
spent the night with her girlfriend and I went over there and got her. Back then,
when you were with a young girl, they [the police] would stop you. Young man,
how old are you? I would tell him. How old is your girlfriend? She told him. You
got her mama's permission? And you better have it. Yes, sir. He said, well let
us call. There was a telephone right there just outside of the theater. He called
her mother and I heard him hesitate a little bit and say, what did you say. She
said, yes, he has my permission, but I would like to speak to him before you hang
up. Boy, she told me, she said, I am gonna tell you right now young man, if this
ever happens again, I am gonna tell them people you don't have my permission
and you will go to jail then. I said, yes ma'am, thank you very much. You do not
have to worry about it anymore.
P: How old was she?
C: She was about the same age as me. I think I was about fifteen then.
P: You had to grow up pretty fast. Being a fifteen year old boy in Reno was a pretty
hard adjustment coming from a small town in Florida.
C: I grew up among a bunch of children and you learn a lot then.
P: Did you ever want to be a driver? You mentioned driving.
C: Everybody wants to be a driver. If you ever talk to a young man, he wants to be
a truck driver.
P: When you were out there, did you ever get any seniority? In other words, after
you had been in the CCC for awhile, did seniority make any difference?
C: No, it did not make any difference.
P: Let us go to Jacksonville Beach. Describe a typical day. What time would you
get up, what would you do for breakfast, work, and that sort of thing?
C: We put up some temporary camps that we stayed in over there. We would get
up at 6:00 in the morning and we would eat breakfast about 7:00. At 8:00 we
would go to work or we would be on the job at 8:00. Like I said, I was a sand
digger and we would go down to the beach and load dump trucks with sand. We
did that the whole time I was there.
P: What time would you get off at the end of the day?
P: They would bring you lunch out there?
P: At 5:00 when you went back, what would you do?
C: We would clean up, take a bath, and eat supper.
P: What time would you go to bed?
C: Well, it was according to if you wanted to stay up and play cards. I read. I
always like to read.
P: Could you stay up as late as you wanted? Was there a curfew?
C: I think 10:00 lights were out. No later than that.
P: When you went to your job, were you supervised by the park service?
C: No, we had leaders in there. We were not in the park service. When I left there,
we were building a road up Peavine Mountain. I had been working, digging holes
from the blast. We were blasting a cliff off because if not they would have had to
go around. It would have been a half mile or so out of the way, so we were
making a road on the face of this cliff. The boy doing the blasting was fixin' to
get discharged and the leader, this older fellow in his fifties, was in charge of the
project and he came to me and he said, Cowart, how would you like to learn to
shoot that dynamite? I said, I would like to. I was drilling holes for it and that
was the hard part. He said, well, when this man leaves, I am going to teach you
how. I said, that would be fine. So he was gone for a couple of weeks and this
other guy came over there. He put a guy who was doing something else on
trying to shoot the dynamite. That guy did not know [how to shoot dynamite], and
everybody was scared of him. First day he messed up quite a bit, so Mr. George
came back and I was drilling holes. He said, what are you doing drilling holes? I
told you I wanted you to shoot this dynamite. I said, no, they put that guy in. He
said, that boy ain't got sense enough to shoot that stuff. He is going to kill
somebody. I want you to do it. I told him, all right. He got out there and me and
him got three or four holes set up and he showed me how to do it. From then on,
I did it until I was discharged. I came there one night and they told me to pack
my bags, you are ready to go. So that was it.
P: So you did not chose to leave?
C: No, I wanted to leave. The war had broken out, and I left to come home to join
the navy. I was just seventeen when I went in the navy. My mother had to sign
for me to go into the navy.
P: What about this dynamite? How did you set it off?
C: With a cap. We had fuses, but most of the time we used electric caps.
P: How far away would you have to be?
C: I would go out there about 150 feet. It was according to how big a shot you were
going to make and where it was at.
P: You never killed anybody, did you?
C: Oh, no. We would pass the word and everybody would get out of the way. They
wanted to blow a stump up one day and I put a half a stick of dynamite under it
and it did not faze that big old stump. I told the boys, I will fix that thing. Ya'll get
out of the way. I dug some holes around it and I put eight sticks of dynamite
around it. Mr. George had gone to town. I hollered fire in the hole, everybody
got back and I counted to ten and pushed that lever down and that dab blamed
stump came out of that. When Mr. George came up he said, Cowart, how many
sticks of dynamite did you put under that thing? I said, two. He said, man do not
tell me two. How many? I said, eight. He said, do not you ever do that again.
You will kill somebody! I said, I got that stump out though, did I not?
P: Where there ever many accidents at the camp?
C: Very, very few. Somebody would get hurt once in a while, but it was mostly
carelessness if they did.
P: Did they give you special safety training?
C: We learned to do first aid and stuff like that.
P: How were your foremen? Were the foremen who you worked with good? Were
C: Yes. The leader we called him.
P: Did you ever have any LEM's, these local experienced men working with you?
C: I never did, no. I never heard of them.
P: Were there ever any World War I veterans in your camp?
C: I am sure some of the leaders were. It was army personnel.
P: What would you do in Reno when the weather got bad?
C: You worked.
P: What would it take for you not to have to work?
C: When it go so bad, you could not do nothing. I walked to the mess hall [once]
from my barracks and I could not see out. We had a trench coat, but the snow
was up above my head and I could not see.
P: You are a Florida boy. Did you have a hard time with the cold?
C: No, it did not bother me too bad. I really enjoyed it. I will tell you the truth. It
made a man out of me. It made a man out of a bunch of young boys. I think it
was the best thing that ever could of happened to this country. I do not care
what anybody says.
P: Speaking of the mess hall, how was the food?
C: Good. Plenty of it. We got a lot of beans, which I loved anyway. We had green
beans, dry beans, vegetables, corn bread, white bread, and all kind of different
P: Describe your barracks out at Reno.
C: It was about 200 feet long and about 40 foot wide, maybe a little more. There
were times I got to be the night watchman and if the boys got the coal in, they
had a fire that night. If they did not, they did not have any fire. I told them, I am
not going to tote your coal in there. It was my job to make sure everybody was in
bed. If I saw some blanket pulled up over a head, I would go and pull it back and
see if he was in that bed. If he was not, I would write it down. Next day, he
would go see the captain.
P: Did they have electricity?
C: Yes, we had lights.
P: How about bunks. How many did you have?
C: There were about four foot apart, lined up on each side.
P: Did you have to make your bunks every day?
C: Every day. When you got out of it in the morning, you made that bunk. Just like
if you were in the army.
P: Was it noisy in the barracks?
C: No, not after lights out.
P: What did you do about your laundry?
C: That was where I come in. I used to do a lot of laundry. I made a lot of money. I
would make more money laundering than I did with all of the money I got paid. I
did laundry, shined shoes, or anything to make a dime. I always had money.
There were not many times I did not have eight or ten dollars on me.
P: You would collect laundry from other people and they would pay you to do it?
When did you do it?
C: I would get up early. At night, I was the night watchman.
P: Where would you wash the clothes?
C: In the barracks. We had a room set aside with a washer and a wringer. We did
not have a dryer, so I would hang them up to dry.
P: Did you wear your uniform every day?
C: Every day.
P: Did you mind wearing a uniform?
C: That was the only thing I had. I did not mind.
P: Talk a little bit about the CCC newspaper called Happy Days. Did you ever see
C: I never did get one. We did not have any out where I was at.
P: While you were there, did you ever have the chance to take any classes?
C: Yes, we had an educational officer. I did some reading and studying and stuff
like that. That is about as far as it went for me.
P: I would imagine that there were probably a lot of young boys who probably did
not know how to read and write.
C: That is right.
P: Would they give them a chance to take classes?
P: So you were offered classes, but not required?
C: Right, they were not required. I liked reading, so I took reading. I really ought to
have been taking math, because that was my hardest subject. I still did pretty
good in math.
P: What did you do about religious services?
C: You were welcome to go to church in town. They had services there. If you
wanted to go to town on Sundays, they had a truck to take you to town if you
wanted to go to church. But a lot of those people did not want CCC boys in their
P: Did you ever go to church?
C: Never. My daddy was a preacher, so I had enough of preaching. He did not live
like no preacher.
P: Did you learn a lot of new skills while you were at camp?
C: The biggest skill I learned was how to get along with my fellow man.
P: Did you learn any professional skills, carpentry, or anything that would help you
C: I did a lot of nail driving. I would not say I was a carpenter, but I nailed many a
board on the wall. We built those barracks, every one of them.
P: Tell me a little bit about the people who were in the CCC with you. Were they
from all over the country?
C: All over the country. We picked them up in Georgia, Alabama, and Texas.
P: Did you make a lot of good friends while you were in there?
C: Very many, yes.
P: Do you still keep up with some of them?
C: A few, but not many. I have forgotten so many of them. I got a letter one day
last week from this guy, he remembered me, but I could not remember him.
P: When you first joined, you were in for six months. Is that right?
C: I do not know.
P: Did you have to reenlist at all?
C: No. There was not any limited time that I knew of.
P: Where there ever any black enrollees where you were?
C: No, it was all white.
P: There were some arguments that the CCC was a fascist organization.
C: No, no, no. Somebody is putting out some bad information.
P: Somebody said the other end of it, said it was like being in a socialist camp.
P: You do not think it was too regimented or too organized?
C: No. It was the finest things to ever come to this country.
P: When you look back on it, what is the best memory you have about the CCC?
C: I enjoyed every minute of it. I worked and I worked hard, but I do not regret a
day that I put in there, not the first one.
P: When you think back, what did you dislike the most about it?
C: I do not really know of anything I disliked about it.
P: Do you think it was an effective program in soil conservation and building? Do
you think they accomplished what they set out to do?
C: They are cutting trees right now that they have been cutting for years. This
country did not have hardly any trees at all. They had cut it down to where there
was nothing. All these big trees you see now were planted by the CCC, but they
do not give them credit for it. They replanted all these forests and built these
dams up in some of the other states. It was just a wonderful thing. I do not see
nothing wrong with none of it. Not a thing. If there is anything bad, you made it
bad yourself. It was not anything to do with the CCC. It was your own personal
self. If you acted right and treated it right, there was no other way that it could
P: You said earlier that it really made a man out of you. Why was it so effective in
making men out of young boys?
C: I understood what was going on and how it was helping me and how it was
helping others. I saw them come in, fighting, scraping and not wanting to do
nothing. Then after about three or four months they started calming down and
turning to and doing the work they were supposed to do. You just could not
imagine the difference in one when he first came in and then six months from
then. You would be amazed in the difference. He found out he could not whip
everybody first thing when he came in, because they set me on him.(laughter)
They used to do that to me every time a man would come in.
P: How, specifically, did it change you?
C: It taught me that every man has got his life to live as he sees it. And that nothing
comes away free. You have got to pay for everything you get. You cannot
borrow it or steal it. You have got to pay for every bit of it, one way or another.
That is what it taught me.
P: Do you think you had a more difficult time because you were younger? Most of
these individuals were eighteen.
C: I do not think so. I think it was better for me really. I think if they had these boys
who are causing so many problems right now in there, I believe that they could
settle them down. I really do.
P: What do you think would have happened to you if you had not gone into the
C: God knows. I do not know. I would have worked, if I could have gotten a job. I
have never been lazy.
P: Why do you think they ended the CCC? It ended in 1942.
C: Because of the war. They needed the men and they were ready for it. Those
men who were in the CCCs, they were already trained about anything you could
do but shooting a rifle.
P: Did you have drill and all?
P: But you learned discipline.
C: Discipline, right.
P: Why did you decide to go in to the navy instead of the army?
C: Because I had two brothers in the navy. I had one brother on the Yorktown and
one brother on the USS California.
P: So you left Reno and came to Gainesville. Then what did you do?
C: I joined the navy here [Gainesville], and they sent me to Jacksonville. That was
where I was sworn in and then they shipped me to Norfolk, Virginia.
P: This was in April, 1942. Where did you go after that?
C: I left there and I was supposed to go aboard the USS Washington, but it was
sitting at anchor in Norfolk. The five Sullivan Brothers got killed and then
President Roosevelt said no more brothers aboard the same ship. I was
supposed to go that day out to the USS Washington, but my brother Bill was on
it. Then the orders came in. I did not know nothing about it, but they came and
told me. So I went back into the waiting detail and they sent me to Jacksonville,
Florida. We stayed there about two weeks, waiting on orders. I put in flying
every day. I made more doggone air time than the pilots made. Every four hours
they would change the pilot and crew. I was just the right weight. They had a
sandbar over on the outside where they were taking off. They put me out there
on the wing, all the way out there and got that other Pontoon up enough to where
it would miss that sandbar. The first time I ever rode on it, I thought they forgot
about me. If they had waited another ten seconds, I would have bailed off that
thing. But he started to wave at me. I ran on up there and jumped up and got up
in it. He said, you thought I forgot about you, did you not? I said, yeah, if you
had waited another four or five seconds I would have been gone.
P: What kind of planes were these?
C: PBYs [a lookout plane used on the coast]. They were flying up and down the St.
Johns River and on the coast. They would go down the St. Johns River and
come back along the coast into Jacksonville.
P: So you would just go along for the ride?
C: Yeah, I was just riding. I did not have anything to do. Just sitting around that
doggone barracks all day. We were waiting on orders. I did that for about two
weeks and I came in one day and there was a man waiting on me. He said, boy
they have been waiting on you for four hours. You better come on and let us go.
I said, where are we going? He said, I do not know, but we have orders. We
caught a train and we went to Miami, Opa-Locka first. We stayed there overnight
and then the next morning they called out some names and mine was one of
them. I got on a bus and we went to the Everglades Hotel. The navy had took it
over. We had quarters up on the eleventh floor, next to the top. We stayed
there, and I did duty running on these sub chasers. After about two weeks I
came in one day and they said, pack your goods, you are leaving. We got on a
bus and went down to Leighter Air Base, LTA [a blimp base]. I went to duty there
and I helped land the first blimp that came in there. On my off time I was running
a pool hall and a bowling alley for the navy to make some extra money. One
night they came in there and said, Cowart, they want you at the infirmary. So I
went to sick bay and they gave me a bunch of shots. I said, what is this about
and they said, boy you are fixin' to ship out. I said, I wish they would leave me
alone. He laughed and said, well you are fixin' to leave. He said, you are going
to go catch a train. We got on the bus and got on the train and we got about
twenty miles up the track there and had a wreck. We hit a car crossing there.
This buddy of mine was sleeping in the top bunk and when it hit, I jumped out
and he came piling down on top of me. He was hollering up and down the car,
we had a wreck, we had a wreck. I finally got him stopped. We waited there
about thirty minutes and they came back and said it killed a girl, cut her head off
when she ran across in front of the train. We left there and went on to New
Orleans, the armed guard center, in Algiers, across the river from New Orleans. I
stayed in the armed guard until I was discharged. The navy manned the guns on
these merchant ships. You tell people [you are in the] armed guard, and they
think you are a guard for a money train or something. We were gunners on
these merchant ships during World War II.
P: So you stayed in New Orleans?
C: No. They shipped me to New York. I caught one ship out of New Orleans and
we went down below Cuba to Trinidad. We were running bauxite ore for
aluminum and I stayed on it about eight months. It was rat infested and did not
even have the American flag on it. It was a Panamanian freighter and had a
solid Greek crew on it. We went into Mobile, Alabama to catch a ship and we
were walking along the wharf. They had a bunch of those brand new liberty
ships they had just built. I said, that is a good looking ship. I hope one of ours
looks that good. And then we came by this old rust bucket and I said, look at that
thing. That is a piece of junk, ain't it? A guy said, you do not have to worry about
it, it has a foreign flag on it. I said, yeah, we won't be on that thing for sure. He
said, look at that old gun up there on the back. It is not even put together. We
went looking around and could not find the SS Moldova [Panamerican ship] and
we came back and there was a sailor standing there. We said, have you seen
the SS Moldova? He said, that is it right there. I said, you are crazy, that is not
even an American ship. He said, look at it. It is on the wheelhouse there, SS
Moldova. We went aboard that thing right at dinner time. They had our dinner
ready. We had a mess cook named George. There were thirteen people named
George on that ship. They had pieces of beef about that big around and they
had seven or eight holes cut in it and they would push a whole pot of garlic in
them and they would boil it. Then they would give you one of those big pieces. I
never did like garlic and I liked to starve to death on that ship. I am a diabetic
and have been for years and I will always believe that is the reason I am a
diabetic. They liked that thick, heavy cream and they had that by the case. They
used it in their coffee. I would get cans of it and put it in my jacket when I was on
watch and punch me a couple of holes in it. I bet I threw thousands of those
things overboard empty.
P: Did you ever see any action?
C: Oh, yes. I saw seven ships sunk in one night in the Caribbean, down there next
to Trinidad. Submarines sunk seven of our ships. Submarines were down there
as thick as hair on a dog's back. They could go into Argentina, but if one of our
ships wanted to go in there, we had to undo our guns. But the German ships did
not have to do anything. They could just pulled in there.
P: Did you ever get hit with a torpedo?
C: Yes, we sunk.
P: How did you get off?
C: Dove off. When they said abandon ship, that was what we did. About one
o'clock in the morning.
P: Where many people killed?
C: Three. It was in the engine room.
P: Were you picked up fairly quickly?
C: About seven or eight hours. One of the lifeboats was out there and I got in one.
I was floating out there with my life jacket on. I had a little light that I would turn
on and swing around. I had a little whistle, but the waves would fill it up so you
would have to blow it three or four times to make it work.
P: Did you think at any point that you were not going to make it?
C: I thought I was not going to make it that night. We had several ships sunk in the
convoys that I was in after that.
P: Did you always have a convoy when you traveled?
P: How many would you usually have in a convoy?
C: Sometimes twenty-five to forty. Merchant ships, liberty ships.
P: What did you have as an escort? Destroyers?
C: Destroyer escorts. They were smaller than destroyers. Destroyer escort is a
smaller ship. Sometimes we would not have but half of them because they could
not put them out.
P: Did you ever do much sailing up the east coast?
C: The first ship I was on went from Trinidad on around into South America. We
were hauling bauxite. We made that run back and forth to Mobile, Alabama.
After I had been on there nine months, the next ship I got on was in Savannah,
Georgia. It was a brand new liberty ship. We went from there to New York and
went into New Jersey and loaded up with ammunition and headed for England.
We hauled mostly British ammunition, because we went to mostly British ports.
P: That was ammunition that we manufactured?
P: How many of those trips did you make?
C: Oh, ten or better, I imagine.
P: This was in 1944?
C: Before 1944 and then on up into 1944.
P: It got a lot less dangerous after 1944 and 1945.
C: No, there were still plenty of them [submarines] out there. In fact, the day the
war ended, we had just come out of Gent, Belgium. We carried a load of British
ammunition there and unloaded and the Germans flew over and dropped a bomb
and messed up the lock. We were stranded there. That was during the [Battle of
the] Bulge. We left the ship and were told to join our troops. They made that
breakthrough and they did not need us then. They sent word that all the navy
who had started out to join their troops to go back to their ships. So when we got
back they had got the lock fixed to where we could get out. They let us out and
we went into Flushing, Holland, and anchored there. The boys up on the after-
gun deck had big sights on them. We had a 538 deck gun and they were
watching people on the beach with the sights. You can bring them right up to
you with those big sights. I was looking part of the time, and I saw this periscope
coming up and I hollered at the boys, submarine! They wheeled that thing back
around and one of them run over there and opened the ammo locker and
grabbed one of the 538 projectiles and slapped the powder bag in behind it. We
just were fixin' to fire and the radio operator came running out of the radio shack
and said, don't shoot, don't shoot! The submarine is surrendering, the war is
over! That is how close we came to almost sinking them. If they had waited
another minute, we would have sunk that ship.
P: So you were on the 538s?
C: We were in port and I was a boatman, second class petty officer, in charge of the
P: When you first started, what kind of weapons did you have?
C: We had an old four inch fifty [caliber], made in 1911, and we had a thirty caliber
Lewis machine gun. It was drum operated. It just stuck on a piece of pipe
coming up out of the floor. That was the only armament we had.
P: You shot those standing up, did you not?
C: Yes. You just held it like a rifle.
P: You did not have a harness or anything?
C: No, you did not need a harness for that.
P: On the liberty ships, the guns were more sophisticated?
C: Oh, yes. The first liberty I was on had a three inch fifty on the fore and aft. And
had eight, twenty millimeters
P: Did you operate one of those or were you in charge?
C: I was on three inch fifty when I was seaman. I was the gunner on it.
P: How accurate were they?
C: It was training according to how accurate you are. On a lot of those ships, them
boys [were not prepared]. I do not know what it was. The captain did not let
them do it or they did not request to do it, but when I got to be a boatman the first
thing I did was call my officer and told him I needed to get these men up on these
guns. I said, they do not know much about these guns. We had a 538 on that
one and he said, well, I will talk to the captain. I said, I want to fire them. I want
to put up balloons and fire at them and throw drums over the side and try to
shoot them. I said, that is the only way we are going to learn how to use these
guns. Those men never shot one of those guns before, and I had not either. He
went up and talked to the captain and the captain fell back in the convoy. He got
permission from the escorts that we had going with us, and we started firing at
these drums. They got good. We did not miss many of them.
P: Did you have any attacks by air?
C: We did. Our ship and another ship were credited with shooting down a plane.
We do not know who got it. We were the tail end of the convoy and one of the
two ships shot the plane down. That was the only one [we shot down].
P: What about when you got through the service. Give me sort of an outline of what
you have done and where you have lived since that time.
C: After I got out of the service, I came to Gainesville. I helped mother while I was
in the navy by helping her buy a house. I went to work to for an electrical
contractor and worked for them about a year at forty cents an hour. It was not
enough for me to live on and when I asked him for a raise, he would not give me
one, so I quit. I had already talked to a man who was head of the union about
joining the union. He said, yeah, when we get some work, but we do not have
any work right now. Everything was up in South Carolina at the bomb plant. I
did not want to go up there and he said, wait and we will get some more work
here. They started building Flavet Village [Florida Veterans housing on the
University of Florida campus] and he called me and told me to go to work. I said,
how much are you going to pay me? I been working a year just about and I
figured to start off as a second year apprentice. He said eighty cents an hour,
which was double what I was making, so I went to work there. I went on up to
journeyman. I worked up north--New York, Chicago, Pennsylvania, Wyoming--
most of the time. I would go up there two or three months at a time and get on a
good job, making a lot of money.
P: Doing what?
C: Electrician. I was working on one where we were working fourteen hours a day,
seven days a week. Double time for overtime. I made some money on that.
That was my last trip up there. I was a diabetic and I was having a lot of trouble
with my feet, so I had to retire after I came back.
P: So you worked most of your life as an electrician?
P: When did you retire?
C: I had a heart attack and that is what stopped me. I do not remember when I
P: When did you get involved with the national CCC organization?
C: About three years [ago].
P: Have you enjoyed the meetings?
C: Very much. I have known Fred White, but I did not know he was a CCC man.
He was a plumber, and I knew him as a plumber. Fred is a fine man.
P: Well, Mr. Cowart, thank you very much. This concludes the interview. I certainly
appreciate your time.