Mr. Kapp: This interview is being conducted on behalf of the Oral
History Project of the District of Columbia Circuit Court. The interviewee is
E. Barrett Prettyman, Jr. The interviewer is Robert H. Kapp. The interview took
place at the offices of Hogan & Hartson, L.L.P. on the 19th day of March, 1996,
shortly after noon.
Mr. Kapp: Barrett can you just state your full name and your date and
place of birth?
Mr. Prettyman: Elijah BaITett Prettyman, Jr. June 1, 1925.
Mr. Kapp: What can you tell me about yow- ancestral background?
Mr. Prettyman: Well, as I understand it, a Mrs. Forrest came over
here from England in 1608 and settled in Jamestown, Virginia, and a John
Prettyman settled in St. Mary’s County, Maryland in 1634. And I think they’re the
earliest known ancestors we had. My parents later went back to England and
discovered a small town ( whose name escapes me) where ow- ancestors came from.
Mr. Kapp: Now what about yow- grandparents. Did you know them?
Mr. Prettyman: Yes. When I was quite young I-did know them.
My Grandfather on my Mother’s side was a doctor. He had been a farmer but went
to medical school, became a doctor. His name was Dr. Herny Hill. And they lived
in Baltimore and he was quite a character. I remember that when I was quite young,
he would tell eve1yone he was going to take me bowling, and we’d go off and see
Jean Harlow movies. [Laughter] So, I mean, he was really that kind of a guy; he
just had a great sense of humor and he was kind of a cut-up. On my Father’s side, it
was quite different because my fraternal Grandfather was a Methodist preacher and
his wife had a rather stem visage and he was a very serious man. I used to love to
hear him preach because he had a very effective manner. He would begin his
sermon in, not a loud voice but a strong voice, and I didn’t realize this until years
later because I just didn’t notice, but as he got further and fwther along in his
sermons, his voice would get lower and lower until at the end everybody in the
church was leaning forward in the pews trying to hear, and it was ve1y effective. I
mean, it was like seeipg a stage play, it became quite emotional, so I used to love
that. So I knew, briefly, my Grandparents. I remember, for example, sleeping on
the porch at my Grandfather Hill’s place in Baltimore and hearing the ice trucks
come down the streets — the old trucks that used to cany ice to the vaiious houses -that’s
a memory I cai1ied with me because of the distinctive sound.
Mr. Kapp: Did you visit your Grandparents from both sides with any
Mr. Prettyman: I suppose in today’s te1ms it would not be frequent.
But in the early days because of the locomotion, the difficulty of travel, even going
out to Rockville which is where my Grandfather lived (the preacher Grandfather)
for quite a time, we’d have to make a special nip on Sunday afternoons in the old
Model-T Fords with what do you call that thing in the back that opened up — the
rumble-seat. Anyway, my sister and I would sit in the back there, and we’d all
drive up to Rockville. But it was like a full half-day trip to go up there and get back
again. Going to Baltimore was even more of a trip. So we would go to Rockville
every few weeks and Baltimore not as often, just because of the difficulty of getting
Mr. Kapp: I didn’t ask you where you were born.
Mr. Prettyman: I was born here in Washington, D.C. at Garfield
Hospital, and interestingly South Trimble, who is a local attorney and a friend, his
mother was in the hospital at the same time as mine, both of them having children.
So I am a few days older than South, which he of course kids me about all the time.
I might add, thinking about my Grandfather, I neglected to mention that he
(Grandfather Prettyman) was Chaplain of the Senate during \,v Wilson’s
time, and my Father was a great admirer of Woodrow Wilson. I have no idea
whether that was totally independent of my Grandfather’s se1vice or whether it was
connected, but I was always taught that Woodrow Wilson was a great hero.
Mr. Kapp: And indeed he was. [Laughter}
Mr. Prettyman: Yes.
Mr. Kapp: Just to talk a bit more about your Grandfather Prettyman.
Did you have discussions with him at all about his view of religion or his religious
philosophy or did he do any proselytizing? {Laughter]
Mr. Prettyman: Teaching, I would call it teaching. Sometimes. I
must say that it didn’t take veiy well. I didn’t pick up on it very well. I do
remember, however, a near-death bed scene when he was really dying and I went to
see him and he told me, you know, to be good and to do good things and to do them
in the eyes of God and so forth. So that impressed me because of the seriousness of
the scene, the occasion. But the other talks that we had were not in any depth,
really; he was simpiy expressing his strong religious beliefs, and my Father had
them too and also expressed them as I grew up.
Mr. Kapp: Can you tell me anything about the relationship between
your Grandfather Prettyman and your Father?
Mr. Prettyman: Surprisingly, very little. I had the impression that
there was deep affection and respect on both sides, but neither was tenibly
demonstrative so there was not a lot of, you know, hugging and saying loving words
and things of that kind. They seemed, perhaps it was simply the times, but there
was less demonstrative love than perhaps you might expect now. But I certainly
never questioned their deep allegiance to each other, and ce1tainly my Father always
spoke with the utmost, utmost, respect for his Father. As a matter of fact, to be
honest, it’s ve1y much like my own feelings for my Father, complete respect.
Mr. Kapp: Were your Father and your Grandfather in regular or
frequent contact as you were growing up?
Mr. Prettyman: I have only the vague impression that they were but I don’t
remember everybody dropping in on eve1ybody else all the time or anything of
that sort. I have the feeling that my Grandfather followed my Father’s career very
carefully, but I really can’t pinpoint that in terms of how often that happened.
Mr. Kapp: Maybe you ought to give us the names and dates and
places of birth, if you know them, of your own parents.
Mr. Prettyman: I don’t know them. My Mother was born in
Baltimore and my Father in Lexington, Virginia.
Mr. Kapp: And your Mother’s name was?
Mr. Prettyman: Lucy Hill.
Mr. Kapp: And your Father’s name was?
Mr. Prettyman: E. Barrett Prettyman.
Mr. Kapp: \Vhat can you tell me about your Mother?
Mr. Prettyman: My Mother I remember mostly as having a great
sense of humor. She was very funny, she looked at things from a humorous
standpoint and she had very close friends, all of whom really cared for her a lot
because she was so much fun to be with. But she never graduated from high school,
she never went to college. She became a nurse by going to nurses school and I
think she always felt that lack of education, much more than she should have. I
would kid her and tell that it was ridiculous and for example my four years at Yale
had not really taught me very much. [Laughter} I could as well have spent them
elsewhere. But she always felt that she was essentially uneducated and of course
becoming a nurse was not easy in those days and she worked I understand twelve
hours straight on many many occasions and she was proud of that. But she still felt
that she had missed the tutoring of basic education, and some books she felt she did
not understand because of that lack of education.
Mr. Kapp: Where was the family home as you were growing up?
Mr. Prettyman: I went from Garfield Hospital in D.C. to 37 West
Irving Street in Chevy Chase, Maryland, and that’s where we spent a long period of
my early childhood. We have movies of me on the sidewalk with a Model-T Ford
there and me just barely walking, just toddling, and I actually remember growing up
there pretty well. I can see my room facing Irving Street and I can see my desk and
my bed. I remember that pretty well. My first friend in the neighborhood was
George Ferris, whose father began Ferris & Company, and George is now the senior
person there. And another close friend who remained a friend during high school
lived just a few doors up, and that’s George Goodrich, who later became a judge on
the Superior Court and has only in recent years gone on senior status.
We would go to the movies every Saturday. I think it was a quarter.
And you’d see previews and cartoons and news and serials that showed every week
like the Green Hornet and so forth [Laughter], and finally you’d get to see the
movie. We’d sit in the balcony and throw popcorn on the people below, and we did
the usual things that you did growing up. And we’d all come out with headaches. I
also remember one particular incident which remains very clearly in my memory.
There was an elderly couple up the street that we didn’t like, they scared us, they
were very serious and they looked kind of strange, and they never had children and
we just, we didn’t like them without understanding why, exactly, and I remember
one Halloween we got all of the leaves in the neighborhood and after dark we put
them all on their lawn, and the next morning when we got up they were all on my
lawn. They had moved them back. They knew exactly, [Laughter} they put their
finger on who had done it, and that remained very vivid in my memory because I
thought they were so smart to be able to detect right away who the principal
evildoer was. [Laughter]
Mr. Kapp: Was the Irving Street house the family home all during
your parents’ lifetime?
Mr. Prettyman: Until I was aboui sixieen, and then we moved to
Woodlawn Avenue in Kenwood, Maryland.
Mr. Kapp: And your parents were still both alive when you made that
Mr. Prettyman: Yes.
Mr. Kapp: Tell me a bit about your siblings.
Mr. Prettyman: I have one sister, Courtney, whose manied name is
Paddock, married to George Paddock. She is six years older than I am. She’s still
alive, she lives in Evanston, Illinois, just north of Chicago. George is in the
insurance business. They have never had children, and Courtney and I have been
very close, particularly in the last twenty years. When we were young, because of
the disparity in ages there was a certain amount of competition. I was always
making fun of her boyfriends and stealing her books that had pictures of movie stars
in them and things like that. We once had a big fight where I kicked one of her
teeth out. But we weren’t enemies, we just had the normal conflicts that you have
when you are kids and particularly when you are a few years apart. I really couldn’t
understand the stages she was going through, and she didn’t have a lot of sympathy
for the stages I was going through. [LaughterJ But even though we are very
different and have different interests and lead very different lives, we are ve1y, ve1y
close, we talk all the time, and it’s a wonde1ful relationship. And when we get to it
I will give you an example of an incident during the War that was quite memorable
to me, relating to her.
Mr. Kapp: Just, maybe, to return for one more moment to yom
Mother. Would you desc1ibe what influence you think she had on your life and on
your choice of profession. Whether she had any impact on that in any way or how
you practiced?
Mr. Prettyman: I think less of an impact than rriy Father. She
impacted primarily I think in terms of personality, a ce1tain devil-may-care attitude.
I just enjoyed her a lot. I thought she was kind of neat to be around, but other
than encouraging me in every way and really not standing in my way, she said
no when I was about to be bad but she did not put on the brake. I remember, I
guess we’ll talk about this later, when I was standing on the b1idge at Ocean City
about to hitchhike across the country, and she and my Father were there, and I know
now that they were scared to death, but they never said a thing, they acted like it
was going to be a really good time for me, and so she did not stand in the way of
things I really wanted to do.
were you?
Mr. Kapp: At what age did that hitchhiking incident occur? How old
Mr. Prettyman: That was in 1946, the year after I came back from the War.
Mr. Kapp: Aside from what you’ve mentioned about your
Grandfather Prettym?, can you tell me what role religion played, if any, in your
family life?
rv1r. Prettyman: Well, it played a strong role early on because we
went to church every Sunday and I went to Sunday school, and there was always my
Grandfather’s influence. I have to tell you that it became less significant as time
went on, so that I very seldom attend church now. It was almost as if I had a
reaction to so much religion. I reached a point where I felt I was not getting that
much out of the sermons arid in some respects I regret that, but that’s just the way it
happened to develop.
Mr. Kapp: At what time of life did that occur?
Mr. Prettyman: I think certainly around the deaths of my parents, if
not slightly before.
Mr. Kapp: And those occurred when, Ban·ett?
Mr. Prettyman: My Father died in 1971 and my Mother died a couple
of years later, in 1973.
Mr. Kapp: Maybe we could return here to some of your early
memones. I think it would be helpful if you would tell us a bit about your earliest
memories of schoolmg, elementary schooling in particular, if you have such
Mr. Prettyman: The first school I really remember was Somerset
School in Somerset, Maryland, halfway between Chevy Chase and Kenwood. And
the principal thing I r?member there is that one day one of the teachers, a female
teacher, got mad at one of my young classmates and picked him up by the hair, and
that impressed me tremendously, as it did everyone else. But I really remember
very little about that school, other than the usual playing in the playground and
trying to absorb mathematics and all the rest of it. Then I went to St. Albans, and I
boarded part of the time but not for ve1y long — I think that was mainly when my
parents were away on trips. And of course I remember that much better, much more
clearly. At St. Albans I was not much of an athlete; I tiied to ·play end on the
football team but I was awfully light, and I tried to play soccer but I wasn’t very
good at it; played a little bit of tennis. Essentially I was into writing and drawing. I
was managing editor of the St. Albans News, I did some writing and drew the
cartoons for the yearbook, and so I was much more into that side of things. My two
best friends at St. Albans were George Goodrich and Jim Birney, and we were
known as the “threesome” because we always stuck together. I had a lopsided time
at St. Albans because I was into all kind of devilment and would get thrown out of
class sometimes, and one term I had fifty-eight demerits, and if you get sixty you ‘re
expelled. I had about a week to go, and Jim and George accompanied me around
school all day to prevent me from getting the last couple of demerits so that I
wouldn’t be expelled. [Laughter] And I finally caught onto the system and was
elected a prefect who gives demerits rather than gets demerits, so I beat the system
that way. But I had a wonderful time at St. Albans. I would get a lot of A’s and
F’s, which drove Dr. !.,ucas nuts. He was the headmaster, an ex-Marine preacher
who just despaired of me because he said I wasn’t concentrating and giving my all
and doing my duty, all of which was completely true.
Mr. Kapp: When you were at Somerset School, how did you perceive
yourself as a student, if you remember Did you think of yourself as a good student
or poor student?
Mr. Prettyman: I don’t really remember. I remember a general feeling
that I was never a top-flight student, at least until I got to Law School, although I did
well at Yale, I mean I was on the Dean’s List in my last year at Yale, but I had the
impression that I did things that I really enjoyed doing, that I was interested in,
and my attention flagged on those things that didn’t seem to have much relation to
me or to my life. I was terrible in languages, for example. I took six years of
French and could hardly say anything. But I did do well in Math for some strange
reason and I did extremely well in English, writing, literature, that sort of thing, so it
was really what captured my interest.
Mr. Kapp: What role did your parents play in your earliest education?
For example, in your elementary school education? Were they active in regards to
your education? Did they talk to you about it?
Mr. Prettyman: Very. They were very concerned. They would go in
and have conferences with Canon Lucas. They would have long talks with me
about my future, how I was not going to become anything if I didn’t settle down.
They were very conc€:med. They were very supportive. I think they had between
them a nice attitude, and that is they were obviously loving, they cared, they wanted
the best for me, but they weren’t going to put up with just anything I wanted to do.
And I had, you know, I had to work. [Laughter] So to the extent that I didn’t
succeed, I don’t think it was their fault in any way. It was pmely my own untoward
Mr. Kapp: You grew up in Depression times and came to adulthood
shortly after the Great Depression. What do you recall about ·the Depression and
the impact of that on your family and discussions that your family may have had
during that period — do you have any recollection about any of that?
Mr. Prettyman: No. It’s interesting that my sister does, and she has
stories about how difficult times were and the fact that they could barely make ends
meet. But I wasn’t aware of it at all. To me it was just a pe1fectly n01mal, regular
life with no deprivations. I just wasn’t aware of it. We ate three square meals a
day, you know. Had a nice house over our heads.
Mr. Kapp: Can you tell me about your reading interests in elementary
and secondary school?
Mr. Prettyman: I loved the normal things, Treasure Island and Les
Miserables I remember. I loved S.S. Van Dyne, the mystery stories, I loved
Kidnapped, Treasure Island, The Three Musketeers. And earlier than that, I’m sure
I read the childhood mystery stories. I don’t remember the names of them but I
always loved mysteri?s and I’m sure I read those when I was young. Like the
Hardy Boys, books that like. But I read quite a bit.
Mr. Kapp: It was a significant part of your early life would you say?
Mr. Prettyman: Yes, I would say so.
Mr. Kapp: And when, do you recall your earliest experiences of
Mr. Prettyman: Oh yeah, I still have my themes that I wrote in high
school and probably earlier than that. And this is the kind of tlring my Father would
do: I would take the comic strip Dick Tracy or Dan Dunn and I would concoct a
story and I would draw the figures and wtite above them and I’d have a new sheet -just
as you do in a comic strip — I’d have a new sheet for each scene as the plot
developed. My Father collected those and put them into book fonn. I still have two
books that I wrote when I was God knows how old, I mean, maybe ten or something.
But that’s the kind of thing he would do to encourage me. And I took six years of art
when I was living on Irving Street in Chevy Chase. There was a woman up the street
who taught art, and that had a big impact upon me, I loved art work. I was never
terribly good at it but I enjoyed it. My Father knew that the art and the writing
combined with the reading were important, and so both he and my Mother both
encouraged me to do that as much as I wanted to.
Mr. Kapp: Can you describe your travel experiences as a youngster?
Mr. Prettyman: I was never on an airplane until World War IL Part of
that was probably be(?ause my Father had a fear of enclosed places, and so he never
went on an airplane in his life.
Mr. Kapp: His entire lifetime?
Mr. Prettyman: Yes. When he went on senior status he got a letter
which he showed me with some amusement from the General Counsel of the FAA,
and it said in effect, “We’re sorry to see you leave. You’ll be interested to know that
we keep statistics and you’ve written more air law than any other Federal Judge in
the history of the country.” [Laughter] And my Father said, “”My God, I hope this
doesn’t get out,” and I said, “Why,” and he said, “Because I’ve never been on an
airplane in my life.” So we would go either by car or by train, and even if he sat on
the Ninth Circuit in California by designation, he would take a train. So we saw
quite a lot of trains. But during the summer, partly I think because of finances, we
always went to Ocean City, Maryland. I was at Ocean City before I was born
because when my Mother was pregnant with me we were in Ocean City, and we
went there virtually every summer. Now those were the days when of course you
did not have a bridge over the Bay but rather old ferries, so you’d go down and
you’d wait in these long lines, miles long, and finally drive on to the feny and that
was a 45-minute ride across the Bay, and then you’d get off on the other side and
drive on. So you didn’t just run down to Ocean City every weekend [Laughter], it
was a big trip down and we stayed for at least a month and then we’d take that long
trip back. And years later when the ferry was still going and I would hitchhike down
to Ocean City, I woul.d hitchhike to the end of this long line and get out of the car,
walk a few miles, get on the ferry, and hitch my next ride on the feny and get down
hours before the guy who gave me the frrst ride. [Laughlerj
Mr. Kapp: Did your family have a home down there?
Mr. Prettyman: No, never did, which is interesting because they knew
they were going every summer. My sister thinks that that’s prutly because of
finances, they just never had enough to purchase a home, and perhaps prutly because
of the Depression. My Father had a fear that the ocean would ·come up or that the
roof would cave in in a storm or something, and he just didn’t want that
Mr. Kapp: And you’ve continued yourself to go to Ocean City with
some frequency?
Mr. Prettyman: Yes, I go summer and winter.
Mr. Kapp: And you now own a house down there or no?
Mr. Prettyman: I own a condo. I owned a house which I gave to
Noreen McGuire.
Mr. Kapp: Still on the subject of traveling. You mentioned earlier
that you had taken off from Ocean City on a hitchhiking trip. Can you tell me about
Mr. Prettyman: Yes, it was after the War and I just had that urge to
get going and see the countt.y, so I had a little bag, had a few toilet ru.ticles, a change
of underclothes in it, ?t was a very small bag, and I got out on the bridge at Ocean
City. I kept a diru.y of it which I still have. I’ll never forget the first ride. This old
farmer gave me a ride in a jalopy and we were put-puting down the road, and he
said, “Where ru.·e you going?”, and I said “San Diego”. [Laughter] He looked over
at me and thought I was absolutely out of my mind. [Laughter} Dropped me off
about a mile down the road. But, yeah, I hitchhiked across countt.y in the summer,
went through the hottest parts of the United States, you know, Kansas, St. Louis. I
didn’t have much money, so I slept in the park sometimes. I slept in “inside,”
closed hotel rooms that didn’t have any windows because they were on the inside
of the hotel. But they would get so hot that you had to leave the doors open because
otherwise you’d suffocate. Sometimes you’d wake up and there’d be a chunk on
the floor of your room who had wandered in during the night. [Laughter] But I
went all the way out to Salt Lake, down to San Diego, up through California
on the West Coast, back through Canada, through Massachusetts, Connecticut and
down again. Took about five weeks. Had some wonderful adventures.
Mr. Kapp: Why don’t you tell me about those?
Mr. Prettyman: Well, one I remember particularly. I was on the other
side of Denver just oefore the mountains begin. I had been standing in the rain for a
long time, and this guy stopped and opened his window. “Do you drive?” And I
said, “Yeah.” He said, “Okay.” I got in and he said, “Now we’re going to Salt Lake
City, I don’t want you to stop. We’re going straight on through,” and it was then
just getting dark and he climbed into the back seat. The next thing I knew a bottle
came out the window past my ear, and I looked back and he was out cold. So we
drove up into those mountains, and it got to be the middle of the night, practically
no cars, totally black, and I made a sharp turn and the back right tire went off the
road and the whole car went around and straight down. And I thought I was a
goner, but when the car got quite a ways down it crashed into some heavy brush, so
it was sitting there facing almost straight up. And way up there you could see the
road. So I got out and tried to get this guy awake and I couldn’t wake him. I was
slapping his face. Finally, he came around and I’ll never forget the look on his face.
He was still about half-zonked. He gets out and he looks at me and he looks at his
car and he looks up at the road, he looks at the car, he’s rubbing his eyes.
[Laughter] He obviously is thinking something strange and honi.ble is going on.
Well, anyway, I climbed up to the road and finally flagged down a big truck, and the
driver rolled the back of the truck over the edge of the road and lowered a hook way
down, and it reached the car. We put it under the car and he pulled it up to the road.
And this guy, the former driver of my car, said, “Well, you don’t know what you’re
doing, and he gets into the front seat and instead of putting it in forward he puts it
reverse, and we almost went right off the edge again, just barely stopped in time. So
he said, “Okay you drive,” and by that time I was very awake and drove the rest of
the way. I was with him two or three days, until we got all the way down to San
Diego, as a matter of fact, and he was drunk the entire time, absolutely bombed, and
we finally got to his ?ouse, and the little wife was there on the porch, and he invited
me in for a meal before I took off again. I went in and it quickly became apparent
that she was ve1y religious, ve1y straight, and she did not have a clue that he ever
drank a drop. In fact, it was clear from a few things she said that she had the
impression he had never had a drink in his life. {Laughter] That’s one mem01y I
Another one is that I got violently ill, food poisoning, around the Great
Lakes, and I was in a room that fortunately had a telephone. And I called down in
this creaky old hotel and they got some doctor over who obviously was on his first
case [Laughter], he was so nervous, and he came in and thought I was dying, and
he gave me some medicine. I was there for a couple of days, just staggering
downstairs to get some tea and crackers and then staggering back up again and being
sick again. It was a really terrible case. Ptomaine, I’m sure. Anyway, I kept going.
Mr. Kapp: You had something more you wanted to say?
Mr. Prettyman: I just forgot to mention that in my early friendship
with George Ferris, we had the P&F (Prettyman and Ferris) Shoeshine Company,
and we had a wagon with all of the paraphernalia on it to shine shoes. We would go_.
from door to door and solicit shoes and most of the neighborhood people gave us
shoes, and right there on the sidewalk in front of the house we would shine all these
shoes up and give them back. I forget what we charged, like ten cents. And we
were doing just great until two girls our age came along, and they went into
competition with us [taughter], and they did it for less and did it better and they
were driving us out of business. So finally all four of us agreed to split up the
neighborhood. They would do one side of the street and we’d do the other, and of
course my Father got a great kick out of that because he said it was clearly an
antitrust violation, [Laughter] and we all ought to be ashamed of ourselves for
dividing up the territory. {Laughter}
Mr. Kapp: Tell me about your earliest recollection of having dreams
and aspirations and ambitions for your future and what those may have been.
Mr. Prettyman: I did not have a clear idea at all of what my future
would be. I had a feeling that it might involve writing of some kind, simply because
I liked to do it and I was getting good grades on themes. I enjoyed using my
imagination, I enjoyed the writing. But whether I was going to be a teacher or
what, I just had no concept at all. You have to remember that 1 went directly from
high school into the Service. Certainly in high school I was having no real dreams
of a future because the War had begun in ’41 and I was graduating in 1943, so for
the whole last two years we were thinking of nothing except the service and what
was going to happen to us there. We were not thinking about future careers because _.
we didn’t know whether we were going to have any future. So during the last two
years of high school when we would normally be thinking about our chosen
profession, we were not thinking about that at all.
Mr. Kapp: Why don’t you tell me about your militaiy experiences?
Mr. Pre!tYIDan: I graduated in June of 1943. I went into the Service in
August. I was briefly at Johns Hopkins University at one of those programs that’s
supposed to get you ready for officer candidate school. I didn’t like that. I got out of
it and got right into the Infant:Iy, which my parents thought was absolutely insane to
do, but you know in those days the attitude was so completely different. I was 18
years old, we were all caught up in the War and the fervor of getting over there and
killing Ge1mans. It was just something that got hold of a lot of us, me included, and I
did not want to go to Officer School; I wanted to be in the Service that would most
quickly get me over there, and that was the Infant:Iy. So I went into the Infant:Iy,
trained at Fort Benning, Georgia, and was …
Mr. Kapp: You were how old then?
Mr. Prettyman: I guess 18 when I got out of high school, does that add
up right? 1925 to 1943 — 18. Yes. I was 18. And training camp was ve1y rough.
Went over to England on a ship that was not fun. [Laughter] There were so many
troops on it that we had to switch from being on deck one time to being below deck
the other time, and then we’d switch around again, and when we were below deck
everybody was sick. Some of the soldiers who were there were having serious
second thoughts abo-ut going into combat, so we had a couple of people who shot
themselves in the foot, the hand, whatever, to get out of service.
We landed near London and went by truck to an encampment site,
where we continued our training, waiting to move on to France. At one point
headquarters got the i?ea that gliders would be needed, so we had a crash course in
how you get yourself and all your equipment in and out of them. Later, the GI’ s who
actually went over in those gliders were sitting ducks, and a lot of them were shot
down, so although I trained for that, I never had to fly gliders.
It was during this time that my sister, who was in the Red Cross in
Scotland, arranged one night for her to come to England. She got some kind of
special pass and came all the way down, and I walked — it seemed like about fifteen
miles — to this little town that we’d agreed to meet in, because-I think it was the
nearest town to where I was training. And we got there ve1y, ve1y late at night, and
it was a tiny inn, and the landlady was so impressed with what we were doing that
she put the last charcoal she had on the fire, and my sister and I met there and we
wrote a letter to my parents. One of us wrote the whole fust page, and then when
you turned it over it was the other one of us, so you couldn’t tell that we were
together until you got to the second page. {Laughter] But that was a very
emotional time because neither one of us knew what was going to happen to the
other, and certainly it sealed the love and friendship that we’ve had for each other
ever since — not that it was lacking before, because we obviously did this to see
each other, but it certainly gave us something in common that we’ve always
remembered and my parents were thrilled to get the letter. And then I had to walk
all the way back, and as I recall I got back about dawn and we had something like a
20-mile hike that day. {Laughter} I was in no shape for about a week. But
anyway, this was dufi?g the period of buzz bombs so I experienced that for quite a
bit, which is an unexplainable sensation, those bombs that you would hear coming,
and then there would be no sound and you had no idea where they were going to
land. Anyway, finally they put us on these landing craft and we went over. I was
in the Ninth Army, 84th Division and just a private, and we went over and landed
on Normandy Beach, which fortunately had been taken [Laughter} sometime
before but nevertheless ….
Mr. Kapp: You were crossing the Channel at that point?
Mr. Prettyman: Right. But I acquired through that landing the most
extraordinary respect for those people who had taken that beach, because I still
don’t understand how they did it. The cliffs overlooking that beach and the fortress
that that place represented were amazing, and I just don’t see after being so seasick
and landing on that beach how in the world they ever got up there and took it. I
still think it’s a miracle. And years later I visited that cemetery several times and
was very, very moved by it. We certainly owe those people a lot. Anyway, we
moved by truck across most of France, getting bombed here and there, but we
didn’t hit our real combat until we got near Aachen, inside the German border.
That was the first time in the middle of the night when our tmck stopped that I
heard German voices, people in the town. So we took Aachen and then moved out
beyond it. It was very interesting. I have no concept of time at this period. I have
no idea how long this was. I remember we would go out on patrol, which was
absolutely frightenin&. I was what they called a sniper scout, which meant that I
carried a carbine and would be out in front of the squad. I thought it was to rout
out the enemy but I think now it was to draw fire. [Laughter] I was expendable, to
say the least. And I remember particularly when we would go out on patrol,
everybody would try to avoid that duty because it was so dangerous. But there was
one fellow — big guy who’d been a cop in San Francisco — and he volunteered for
all these patrols. It turned out he just loved to kill people. He had a semi-automatic
and would like cutting people in half. That’s a mentality thatl have seen since, but
that’s the first time I’d ever seen it. Very frightening. Good man to have on your
side. [Laughter]
Anyway, this went on for some time, and finally one day we were out
in a field and I think we were lost. I don’t think we were supposed to be there.
There was a huge field and way over beyond were trees, almost impenetrable trees,
and we were walking along and rifle fire started, and the first shot went right by me
and hit the guy in front of me. I remember he was from New Jersey and I
remember that he had told me he had a family, a wife and some kids. We all dived
for holes that the Germans had built and left, and I remember that guy — we
couldn’t get to him and he just died slowly. You couldn’t crawl out because by
now everything was coming in. This was in November. My hole was partly filled
with water and it was very very cold, and I don’t know how long we were out there,
but at least several days, and I remember when we woke in the mornings we’d yell
around to see who was. left. I remember pa1ticularly there was a ve1y nice guy who
was in one hole over from me, and he was there until the last day and then he didn’t
answer. But anyway, when it finally let up I crawled out, and I really didn’t realize
there was anything wrong with me. I think I was just so frozen and in such shock,
but I couldn’t walk, and they dragged me back and cut off my boots and my feet
were frozen. So they took me back, which turned out to be the thing that saved my
life, I mean it was wonderful that it happened because my unit was mostly
destroyed later in the Battle of the Bulge. That outfit went on to the Battle of the
Bulge and was virtually wiped out. So anyway, they put me in a tent, I remember it
so well, and a nurse came in and she staited talking in a ve1y soothing voice. I was
lying on a cot, she kneeled down and she took my hand and she started talking to
me in this very soothing voice, and I broke into tears, just absolutely hysterical. I
must have cried for an hour, just everything coming out that was all pent up, but I
had just been so scared for so long, under tremendous pressure and not really
realizing it, because you’re just thinking about the next moment, how am I going to
get through five minutes from now, so you don’t realize that you’re bad off. She
knew exactly what she was doing because you got a lot out of your system.
And then they put me on a train which went tlu·ough Holland and
Belgium back to Paris, and I was in a hospital, a unit, that was for GI’s with frozen
feet. And you’d lie in bed with your feet uncovered, and they’d come in and stick
pins in you to see if you had any feeling, and they were always taking these guys out
to cut their toes off or_ cut their feet off. Your feet were black, and so you didn’t
know whether you were going to lose yow- feet or not. And they told me later that I
came within half a day of losing one foot. But eventually the shell cracked, came
off, and I still had my foot. So I lucked out again. Then I flew on my very first
flight — I still couldn’t walk — they flew me to London. I was in a hospital there.
They flew me from Paris to London, and I was in the London hospital. The reason
that was so interesting was that they had a unit there for people who had s01t of gone
over the edge, and they had a little band that didn’t have a dn.immer. And so they
got me out to play the drums, even though I couldn’t work my feet too well.
[Laughter J I played the drums — you know up, above but not the bass — and it was
really strange because everybody in the band was cuckoo except for me. And all of
a sudden right in the middle of a song, somebody would fly off the handle and drop
his saxophone and run off. [Laughter] You never knew quite what was going to
happen. [Laughter] Then they sent me back to the U.S. on a hospital ship, which
was wonderful, completely different from the ship coming over. [Laughter] We
had room, they treated us well and we had good food. That was a great trip. And
then I was in Camp Butner in North Carolina, so I was off my feet. But anyway,
finally I got out of the Service after close to nine months in the hospital.
Mr. Kapp: Tell me what, if you can remember, what your attitude
about that War was at that time. Do you have a recollection of that?
Mr. Prettyman: Well, it changed. In the beginning I had this glorious
concept that I was going, if necessary, to give my life for my country, and that the
other side was made up of horrible people, and that I was on the side of right and
justice, and I could hardly wait. And then reality sets in. And you’re frightened all
the time so that you’re ruining your clothes, you’re sick a lot. I only weighed 125
pounds when I went in, and God knows what I weighed by the time I got back to
Paris. I don’t know, but my guess is I’d lost all kinds of weight. And what you find
out is that the Germans are scared too, and they come from families. They’re having
the same frights and terrors that you are. You find the reality of it is that it’s just a
horrible, horrible experience. Years later I experienced that again in Vietnam.
Very, very different war, but you find that there’s nothing glamorous about it, and
there’s nothing good about it. Which doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have to be done
sometimes, I’m just saying it’s not fun, it’s not glamorous. It’s just a horrible
experience. Having said that, I do honestly think I’m a better person and a
happier person for having gone through it, and I’ve said this a lot and really mean it,
that in that hole, when I really thought I was gone, I remembered thinking to myself,
if I ever get out of here by some miracle, I’m going to eat a lot of steak and drink a
lot of beer and know a lot of women, and I’m just going to wake up happy in the
morning because if i ever get out of here it will be a bloody miracle. And that has
affected me. Not many days go by when I don’t think about that — when I’m feeling
down or lousy or have a cold like I do now, whatever — I’m thinking hey man
[Laughter}, done a lot of living since I thought I wasn’t going to live at all, so it’s
Mr. Kapp: What about as you look back on it do you have a view with
respect to the righteousness or lack of righteousness of the cause?
Mr. Prettyman: Oh yes. I don’t think we had any choice. In the same
way that I don’t second-guess Truman on the dropping of the bomb. I just think that
there are some things you have to do when confronted. Now I don’t agree with all
the times that our leaders have thought we were confronted. [Laughter} I mean, I
did not believe in Vietnam. But in a situation like this, whether-or not you think
Roosevelt was hying to get into the war or not, the fact is we were attacked, we had
absolutely no choice but to counter-attack, and I think there was no question but
that Hitler had grand designs. I just don’t see any point where he would have
stopped if he’d taken Britain. Maybe, but he and the Japanese certainly had grand
designs so I don’t second-guess anybody on the fact that we had to fight that war.
Mr. Kapp: Is your thinking about that war affected in any way by the
attitudes, whatever they were, that you developed during the Vietnam War?
Mr. Prettyman: To this extent, I suppose. Having been through that
and seen that same kind of fear and bloodshed and wounding and killing visited
upon a new generation, you want to make very very sure that it’s for a good cause,
that it’s essential that you’re there. I think no one who’s been through it could
possibly think that you want to do that except under the most extraordinary
circumstances. And I guess I was never convinced of the extraordinary
circumstances. More?ver, there was so much phoniness about Vietnam, which we
can talk about later, that that was depressing too. The fact is that, at least in World
War II, the rep011s were basically accurate; people were getting a slice of what was
gomg on.
Mr. Kapp: Before the Vietnam War I think many Americans thought
that America was always right in its decisions in respect to war. Our generation
tended to think that way. Was your thinking about that affected by your view of the
Vietnam War, would you say?
Mr. Prettyman: No, I don’t think so. I don’t think I assumed
anything. I did assume it during World War II because I was young and I had the
admirable view that most young people have, but I didn’t second-guess myself later
on that. I always observed that in a war, we just plain had to fight. But I did not go
from there to assuming that the United States necessarily was always right. I
think I took each war in its own perspective. And that’s why I was always
somewhat confused about Korea, because in a way I admired Truman for taking
positive action at a time when it really looked like there was a threat to South Korea
in a way that could impact us. I suppose it’s the same sort of thing as if China
attacked Taiwan today. But at the same time, it’s difficult to put your finger on
exactly what our interest was in Korea. So I’ve never had a definitive opinion about
Korea. I can see both sides of that question, easily. I don’t feel the same about
This concludes the interview held on March 19, 1996.