Early Life

Armed Guard Training

Atlantic Convoys

North Sea and Atlantic Action

Segment stub for 21436

SS Benjamin D. Wilson

Liberty Ships

Lourenço Marques and Montevideo

End of War

Reflections

Annotation

Robert Villars was born in New Orleans, Louisiana in January 1925. His father held his job as a clerk throughout the Great Depression. Villars was a Boy Scout and made Eagle Scout while attending school. He signed up for the Navy when he was 17 years of age with his father's blessing. He could not enter the service until he was 18 in January 1943. Villars was intrigued by newspaper articles about the oncoming war. He remembers the attack on Pearl Harbor [Annotator's Note: the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii on 7 December 1941]. He wanted to enlist because of patriotism. He wanted to be in the Navy to have a clean place to sleep unlike trench warfare in World War 1. He was inducted into the Navy on 10 January 1943 in New Orleans.

Annotation

Robert Villars received his boot camp training in San Diego. He nearly got into trouble for pilfering a lemon pie during that time while he had KP duty [Annotator's Note: kitchen patrol]. Following boot camp, Villars received additional training at radio school in San Diego. He had a jump start since he knew Morse Code. Henry Fonda was there while Villars was. Villars did well in radio school. Because he ranked so high in the class, he was rated as a 3rd class petty officer, which is equivalent to a sergeant in the Army. He considered going to communications school but was swayed to join the Armed Guard by the lure of numerous ports of call with plenty of women and reduced shipboard discipline. He did not mind being assigned to merchant ships because it was more relaxed. Duty was four hours on and eight hours off. There was round the clock radio watch on the ship. A Naval officer was onboard for the maximum 28 Armed Guardsmen assigned to a ship. The ships mounted eight 20mm guns [Annotator's Note: Oerlikon 20mm antiaircraft automatic cannon] plus one large gun forward and one large gun aft.

Annotation

Robert Villars was assigned to the SS Grant Wood which was built in Jacksonville, Florida. After the shakedown cruise, the ship had degaussing installed to circumvent attracting torpedo hits. The ship was to join a convoy and follow the master ship to avoid German U-boat wolf packs [Annotator's Note: groups of German submarines]. Villars entered the fight in May 1943 when the corner was turned on German submarine control of the Atlantic. The German secret military Enigma code being broken by the British. That was a large factor in the turning of the tide. The PQ17 convoy was slaughtered just prior to Villars shipping out. Merchant shipping was being directed to the Russian port of Murmansk in order to aid Soviet forces putting maximum pressure on the German forces facing them. After initial landings in England, Villars sailed the North Sea and felt it was a suicide mission. A ship on the tail end of the convoy was on the "coffin corner" where it would be easily picked off. British warships protected the perimeter of the convoy. While in England, Villars had liberty. He saw the extent of black-market that existed in Britain. When the Wood departed England, it headed further north into shorter days and colder climate. The barrage balloon attached to the ship for antiaircraft protection was released. The ship headed into the minefields. German torpedo boats, E-boats, could pursue them there. The crew had to be on alert. E-boats had already attacked and destroyed Allied ships preparing for the Normandy D-Day [Annotator's Note: Allied invasion of Normandy, France on 6 June 1944] assault. There had been large losses in personnel. As Wood sailed on, heavy firing intensified. A man on watch reported a huge explosion that sunk one of the ships. It was a spectacular sight. When the Wood made it back to port, a great celebration was occurring. Villars learned that the English had sunk the German battleship Scharnhorst. Villars conjectures that the convoy he was part of was bait for the Scharnhorst to pursue easy prey. That resulted in an ambush that sunk the massive German vessel.

Annotation

Robert Villars and his friend Charlie returned home to New Orleans in January 1944. A big party was thrown and everyone including the press wanted to know about the Scharnhorst sinking the previous month. The ship Villars had sailed on was in a convoy used as bait to draw out the large German warship. Villars feared the German battleships such as Scharnhorst and Tirpitz. The Tirpitz was damaged by British torpedo and unable to assail Villars' convoy. Multiple enemy capital ships would have played havoc with the merchant ships in a convoy. Storms and weather were treacherous in the North Sea. Men had to remain inside and not be caught in the heavy weather if at all possible. Men could easily be swept overboard. Crew slept with their lifejackets. Wearing an arctic suit was perilous. Secrecy of destination was so imperative that once heavy weather gear was delivered to the ship by PBY aircraft to prevent the crew from knowing where they were headed. Villars never made a run to Murmansk. He did not like sailing on a tanker because shore time was limited. Bulk cargo took time to load and unload allowing for more time onshore. He preferred a Victory ship [Annotator's Note: a class of quickly produced cargo ship] with its faster cruising speed than the slower Liberty ship [Annotator's Note: a class of quickly produced cargo ship]. On one voyage, Villars' ship broke down and left the convoy. Upon rejoining the convoy, word came that a ship was torpedoed in the position formerly held by Villars' ship. Villars' first Atlantic voyage had been aboard the SS Grant Wood round trip to the British Isles. It took 18 days to get across the ocean. The convoy averaged about eight knots. Morale was hampered when a crewman on a tanker died and was buried at sea.

Annotation

Robert Villars returned to the Armed Guard center at the New Orleans Naval Station [Annotator's Note: in New Orleans, Louisiana] and agreed to be transferred from the SS Grant Wood to a different ship, the SS Benjamin D. Wilson. Sailors had their assignments determined at the center. Villars was happy to have shore duty for a few weeks. Placement in the Armed Guard was preferable to many sailors. That was despite merchant ships being vulnerable to enemy attack. One cargo ship was even torpedoed at the mouth of the Mississippi River. Villars himself spotted an enemy submarine in the Indian Ocean. After a period at the Armed Guard center, Villars shipped out on the Benjamin D. Wilson from Mobile, Alabama. The ship joined a convoy on the East Coast and then sailed through Gibraltar and the Mediterranean. While in the Indian Ocean, onboard espionage or sabotage was considered a possible threat to Villars' ship. The SS Jean Nicolet had previously been sunk by the Japanese with its survivors mistreated and abandoned by the Japanese. As a result of that, the Wilson crew had made plans, particularly after Villars found out his abandon ship station had no provisions or water. The Navy gun crewmen decided to stay in their gun tubs while the merchant seamen abandoned ship after the Wilson was torpedoed. When the enemy submarine approached, the sailors would man their weapons and fire on it. Small arms were few on the ship. Villars was given a pistol and told to save the last cartridge for himself to avoid Japanese capture. The radio room where he was positioned was a crucial spot on the ship if it was to be taken over. Taking over communications would be important if a saboteur was aboard. That was a fear that Villars had.

Annotation

Robert Villars noted that the crews on some of the Liberty ships [Annotator's Note: a class of quickly produced cargo ship] he sailed on could be very dubious characters. The officers, Armed Guard, and crew had different mess halls aboard the ship. Union rules highly regulated what could be done and by whom aboard the ship. As a Navy Armed Guardsman, Villars found it hard to accept at times. Relations with merchant seamen was fairly good. During combat, some would man guns as needed. Food was not good. People would get sick. The Armed Guard took drastic action in order to gain better chow.

Annotation

Robert Villars and his merchant ship pulled into the neutral port of Lourenço Marques. [Annotator's Note: Lourenço Marques has been known as Maputo in Mozambique since 1976. Villars sailed on the SS Benjamin D. Wilson.] The sailors had to dress as civilians rather than military. Germans were all over the place. It was an interesting port of call. Local food was not appetizing to the crew. A confrontation occurred between the ship's captain and the purser. The captain was discovered floating in the water at the port. The reason for his death was unknown. Villars thought it might have been performed by a professional. Two more men were killed in the hospital. Another man committed suicide. An English man, Captain Cooke [Annotator's Note: unsure of spelling; no given name provided], took over the ship. Complaints were made to him about the ship's food. About ten men were sick due to the poor chow. Villars thinks the food could have been laced by design. It could have been biochemical weapons that were used by enemy agents onboard. Men were hospitalized as a result. Villars was infected for ten years after the war. The death of the captain of the ship hurt morale and created tension in the crew. The trip to Montevideo [Annotator's Note: Montevideo, Uruguay] on the Wilson was excellent. That port was good duty even though many Germans were there. Uruguay was split between sympathy for the Allies and Axis. It was good duty. When the Wilson entered port there, the Graf Spee could be seen. [Annotator's Note: The German pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee had been scuttled by the crew just outside the harbor.]

Annotation

Robert Villars sailed through the Straits of Magellan after leaving Montevideo, Uruguay. He saw the local inhabitants and enjoyed bartering with them. The ship went to Chile and took on nitrate. Rain had not occurred in 65 years so water was extremely scarce. The ship went through the Panama Canal and returned to New Orleans [Annotator's Note: New Orleans, Louisiana]. He left the Wilson [Annotator's Note: SS Benjamin D. Wilson] and was given leave [Annotator's Note: an authorized absence for a short period of time]. He was next assigned to the SS Henry Austin. The ship carried troops. Pranks were played onboard by the Army troops. The ship sailed through the Panama Canal. The ship was carrying troops for the invasion of Japan. It was traveling alone just like the Indianapolis [Annotator's Note: the USS Indianapolis (CA-35)]. The radio messages received from enemy broadcasts were demoralizing. As the radio man, Villars would not tell anyone about them except for the ship's captain. He heard about the atomic bombs. The ship was at sea and finally reached the Philippines. The troops were unloaded. Villars was sick and hospitalized before coming home on a LSD or landing ship, dock. He reached Portland, Oregon before going home and being discharged. He had never spent any time on a fleet vessel during his time in the Navy. He avoided a higher rating so he would not be called upon to be a radio man in an amphibious invasion. He would rather serve on an ammunition ship where he would never know what hit him if the time came. He was a Radioman 3rd Class at discharge. It was what he had been rated after completing radio school.

Annotation

Robert Villars found that life was cheap as a result of his time in World War Two. He particularly saw that in India with the local population and their extreme poverty. He realized how much better life was in the United States. The G.I. Bill allowed Villars to attend college. The war caused him to contract a prolonged sickness but, nevertheless, the war was still a good experience. Villars was discharged in February 1946 in New Orleans [Annotator's Note: New Orleans, Louisiana] and started Loyola College [Annotator's Note: now Loyola University] in a few days. His time in the service was used to apply to his retirement. Villars views The National WWII Museum's [Annotator's Note: in New Orleans, Louisiana] mission as being very important. He recounts how the war resulted in Allied victory. He was nearly killed five times even though he was not in a major battle. It was the luck of the draw. The German submarine service lost 30,000 men. In July [Annotator's Note: July 944], Villars remembers the SS Jean Nicolet. [Annotator's Note: The SS Jean Nicolet was sunk by the Japanese with its survivors mistreated and then abandoned at sea by theie captors.] In December, Villars remembers the Scharnhorst and its sinking with the hundreds lost. It shows the futility of war. The Hood and Bismarck are also examples. [Annotator's Note: British and German battleships, respectively, lost with extreme crew losses in the Battle of the Atlantic.] German submariners had more compassion for the survivors of their sinkings than the Japanese. There was little medical treatment available to crewmen aboard the ships on which Villars served. Villars is amused that Navy crews showed initiative when they found that they could scavenge liquor. His service was an experience that he will never forget. Some men Villars encountered suffered physically and mentally from the war. He felt he had good pay as an Armed Guardsman, but merchant seamen were paid even better.

All oral histories featured on this site are available to license. The videos will be delivered via mail as Hi Definition video on DVD/DVDs or via file transfer. You may receive the oral history in its entirety but will be free to use only the specific clips that you requested. Please contact the Museum at digitalcollections@nationalww2museum.org if you are interested in licensing this content. Please allow up to four weeks for file delivery or delivery of the DVD to your postal address.