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Interview with John Cagle, June 6, 2003 | UNCW Archives and Special Collections Online Database

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Interview with John Cagle, June 6, 2003
June 6, 2003
John Cagel was a World War II chaplain who saw service in the Pacific. He returned to the Army during the Korean War. He discusses his moving experience involved with the racial integration of a bus station. Also, he was in Alaska during an earthquake (ca. 1976) that almost destroyed Anchorage.
Phys. Desc:

Interviewee:  Cagle, John Interviewer:  Zarbock, Paul Date of Interview:  5/6/2003 Series:  Military Chaplain Length  55 minutes


Zarbock: Good morning. My name is Paul Zarbock, a staff member of the University of North Carolina at Wilmington’s library. This is part of the military chaplain’s project. Today’s date is the 6th of June in the year 2003. We’re in Asheboro, North Carolina, specifically at the home of Colonel, retired, John Cagle. Pastor Cagle was a military chaplain and served in the military for over 20 years in a variety of posts, camps and stations.

Zarbock: Good morning Colonel, how are you?

Cagle: Fine thank you.

Zarbock: Let’s start off by asking where do you hail from? Where were you raised as a child.

Cagle: I was born in Southwest Randolph County and lived near the Uwharrie River, went to school at New Hope which was about three miles away and I walked back and forth to school. I graduated from there in the 7th grade. Where we lived at that time, there was no connection between any high school that I would have attended.

Fortunately for me my father bought a place in Montgomery County that year and moved to the first house on the Montgomery County line. That gave me the opportunity to go to high school. Eldorado had a high school when we moved there. I went there a year or two and they closed that down. Then I went to Troy to high school fortunately on a bus. I finished there.

Zarbock: You were saying off camera that after graduation from high school you had a series of severe health problems. Pneumonia, pleurisy, and you were operated upon and then what were you telling me? Just about the time you were recovering, your brothers and sisters bring you a gift of what?

Cagle: The measles!

Zarbock: You know people can die of the measles?

Cagle: I almost did.

Zarbock: Did you lose weight?

Cagle: 70 pounds.

Zarbock: You were just skin and bones.

Cagle: When I first got sick I weighed about 180 or a little more. When I could get so I could stand on my feet, I weighed 110.

Zarbock: When you finally recuperated and were able to totter around, what did you think you would do with your life?

Cagle: Well I hadn’t exactly made up my mind at that point. I got another job and thinking about it, I decided I would get some education and see where the Lord wanted me to go and what he wanted me to do. It kept unfolding.

Zarbock: Had you thought that you would end up being a pastor?

Cagle: Well on the way I guess the thoughts were a part of the mental activity. .

Zarbock: But Chaplain, you were a young man, probably in your early 20’s, had other members of your family attended college?

Cagle: No.

Zarbock: Where did you get the money?

Cagle: I worked in a hosiery factory at night and went to school in the daytime at High Point University. It was High Point College at that time. In the daytime sometimes I would get a straight chair and sit in the back of the room and balance it so I wouldn’t go to sleep.

Zarbock: So you were probably only putting in 16 hours a day or something like that?

Cagle: Something like that, yes. That was from ’36 to ’40.

Zarbock: And you graduated in 1940?

Cagle: Right and that fall I went to Duke Divinity School and I was there until I went into the Army.

Zarbock: The war had started about the time you went into Duke Divinity, hadn’t it?

Cagle: Right, I don’t remember exactly when it started, but was in full force at the time and I volunteered to be a chaplain. I was accepted and assigned to Chaplain School at Harvard University for maybe six weeks. Then I went from there to my first assignment without going back home in the 864th Engineer Aviation Battalion.

Zarbock: In those days, it was the Air Corps, wasn’t it and that was part of the Army.

Cagle: Right, eventually we moved down to a training area near the Salt Lake in Utah. I was given five days leave at that time to visit my family in North Carolina. Had a day’s travel in each direction, so three days at home. When I went back, then we went to California.

Zarbock: What was your rank at that time? Were you a Lieutenant?

Cagle: Right, a Lieutenant.

Zarbock: And they were going to send you overseas.

Cagle: Oh yes, the unit went overseas and I went with them. We went aboard ship, I can’t remember the date, but we were on the sea for about 30 days and we landed in Townsville, Australia, at the end of the 30 days. We were ashore for five days. During that time, Eleanor Roosevelt was touring the world visiting troops and she happened to be there. We had her visit with us.

Zarbock: Did she speak with you?

Cagle: I don’t remember personally, but she spoke to the group, visited with the group.

Zarbock: What was the attitude, this would be important to a historian, what was the attitude of the troops towards Mrs. Roosevelt?

Cagle: Oh, they appreciated her. She was a great girl. After the five days, we went back on the same ship. Then we went to New Guinea and we went ashore. Then we went up the Coast of New Guinea to Lae.. Lae, New Guinea is of course the departing point for Amelia Earhart where she had her last flight.

Zarbock: Your life has brushed up against some important historical figures or well known historical figures.

Cagle: Let me say the town itself was totally destroyed.

Zarbock: By whom?

Cagle: The Japanese. The people had moved out into the jungle. One of the soldiers knew where they were and carried me on a jeep as far as we could go on the vehicle. Then we walked the remaining part of the way into the jungle. As we started up a little slope, a young lad about four or five feet tall, I guess, came running down a trail and he said, “Oppo! My name Oppo! My name” and he was our guide and carried us up to where the people were.

They had cut away the timber I suppose at least an acre, maybe two acres and cleared it out. They had taken the logs and built houses and taken the tops of the trees and put them upside down to make a roof. Hundreds of people gathered around us. I had in my pocket the New Testament. One of the members of the group had a bible of their language and we stood in the midst of that crowd. I would read in English and he would read the same thing in his language. He told us how they loved their missionary and wanted to have him back. That is the story of that particular day.

Zarbock: What an inspirational day.

Cagle: One to remember forever if I forget everything else.

Zarbock: Indeed.

Cagle: After a while, we went to another island to build an airfield. It was a challenging job. During that period of time as I recall they said it rained an inch each day for 30 days and I suppose building the air strip in that kind of situation would be a little challenging.

Zarbock: And it was hot I assume?

Cagle: Well the rain kept it from being too hot.

Zarbock: How about bugs?

Cagle: No, didn't bother us. Nature had helped to prepare the place for that airfield. Maybe a half a mile or so, a very tall, I guess you’d say, mountain, which was a volcano. In the years past it had spewed out the lava almost down to the ocean. We leveled off that lava and they got steel planks and linked them together and laid them on that leveled off lava and that was an airfield.

Zarbock: Were you living under canvas at the time?

Cagle: We were in tents, yes. Our services would usually be in the mess hall tent.

Zarbock: Were you the only chaplain, sir?

Cagle: The only one in that particular unit. Of course we had Catholic men and whenever there was a Catholic Chaplain in the area, I would make contact, make arrangements for him to come and do services with the Catholic men. We didn't have too many Jewish men, but I think at least one time, that I can seem to recall, we had enough Jewish men that they had their own service, a Jewish service.

In a larger unit, there would be a Catholic chaplain and a Protestant chaplain. So after that we went back to Northern New Guinea, almost to the tip of the island. When we got there, the Infantry hadn’t finished their job. From the ship, we could see them on the shore up on the hill fighting.

They were far enough away that we could go off ship and camp right along the beach. One man got killed and another two injured, wounded. We were supposed to be going further on into the island to build an airfield or to work on an airfield that was already there. The Infantry didn't go fast enough. We had to go to another place to build an airfield.

One night a Japanese plane come in to bomb us. He went way out over the ocean and then came back at us. Our people with the lights had caught him in the light and you could see the rotor of his plane just going in the light like this. Apparently it blinded him and when he got to where he should have pulled the string and let the bomb go, he didn't do it.

He went right over the beach into the side of the mountain and killed himself. So we were spared that. But we had to leave there and go over to Owe Island which is just a few miles off shore there. It’s a little flat island, it wasn’t 100 feet high at the highest I suppose, maybe three miles long and a mile and a half wide. Our men leveled off the center of it for an airfield. The third day after we got there, the first plane landed.

The reason of course for the plane to land was that it was in trouble. The reason he could land was because this little flat coral island didn't take much work, just get a bulldozer and level it off and there you had an air strip. Well we were there for a while and then we went back over to the island we were supposed to have gone to.

Zarbock: What would be a normal and average day’s activity for you as chaplain? The men are out constructing the field.

Cagle: I would probably visit from one place to another, talk to this one and that one and just be at home.

Zarbock: You’re making pastoral calls there.

Cagle: It’s pastoral visitation if you want to call it that. Let me tell you one other humorous thing I guess you’d call it. The Japanese had stored a whole bunch of stuff in a cave near the ocean. Of course we located it and some of us were you might call it dumb enough to go in that cave. We got whatever we wanted that was in there and I got a Japanese rifle and had it sent back to the United States. It’s now in Eldorado in a museum. So if anybody wants to see my rifle, go to Eldorado to the museum and see it (laughter).

This one night a soldier was awakened by something. He listened and discovered that there was a Japanese soldier there and he eased his rifle around. Apparently the Japanese soldier discovered there was something going on and he started to run away and that guy pulled the trigger and killed him.

From that place we went to the Philippines. On the way we had a series of ships, one after the other. While we were on the sea, I don’t know how many Japanese kamikazes came. You know what a kamikaze is.

Zarbock: Yes, self destruct.

Cagle: Well all the ships of course fired at them. I don’t know how many were there and I don’t know how many got hit or how many aimed at the ship and missed it. Right behind us there was a ship that one of those things went right down into the whole middle of the ship.

Zarbock: A Kamikaze plane?

Cagle: Right and of course I’m assuming that everybody in that particular part of the ship was killed. The ship drifted back behind us and as we went on, we left it behind. I don’t know if it sank or what happened. We went onto the Philippines. The war had moved on beyond us of course, but they needed the airfields. We spoiled some farmer’s rice paddy there by making an airfield of it and putting oil on it so they could pack it down .

One of the most unexpected things for me was I was out near my tent on a sand dune. One little boy maybe 10 years old or so came running up and said to me, “Would you do a funeral for us”.

Zarbock: You’re in the Philippines?

Cagle: In the Philippines. I said, “ I didn't know, where and when?” “Now”. I said, “Oh yeah, I’d do it.” So I followed him and as we came into one side of the cemetery which is still sand dune. The funeral party was coming in on the other side carrying a casket box. We met at the middle of the cemetery and they shoveled out sand, finally got the hole big enough where they thought they could get the casket in.

The men got a hold of it on the sides and put it over the hole and started to let it down and one man’s leg broke a hole through the sand and went under the box and they had to get him out and get the box out and dig some more and put it in and cover it. I’ll tell you more about that when we get off the tape.

Zarbock: Did the funeral party, did they speak English?

Cagle: Oh yes. The war was over before we left the Philippines. I came home from there and temporarily got out of the service. After returning from the Philippines, I was assigned to Rankin Memorial Methodist Church in High Point where I served for five years. At that time the Korean War was going full blast. I had five years there and it was time to move so I decided to go back into the Army.

I went back into the Army and was assigned to the 155th Infantry outfit in the United States, temporarily assigned to them and walked around here and there and did what I could.

Zarbock: Where was the 155th stationed?

Cagle: Well it was stationed it was in Georgia. We went on a training trip over to Texas and got in a sand storm. We found a building to get into to keep from getting too much of a beating from that.

An interesting story that happened during the time was at that time the Army was being integrated. We had a black soldier there who got some sad news from home. A member of the family had died and he was given leave to go home for the funeral. I was selected to transport him to the bus station to get on a bus to go home. When we arrived there, we both just rushed into the bus station.

It so happened that that was the white part of the reception area and we were ordered out of that place because he was black. I had taken him in there without realizing what I was doing. I would have done it anyway I guess.

Zarbock: But you were both in military uniforms?

Cagle: Yes, we were both in military uniforms. Fortunately the bus had just left and it gave us an excuse to leave in a hurry and we got in the car and I took out after the bus, broke the speed limit and got the bus to stop and got him on it. Then I was free to go back.

So I was with this outfit for quite a little while. Then after leaving there, I went to Korea. This was the last year of the war actually by that time, and I was with the 5th Field Artillery Group. I conducted services for the Group. They were scattered out in three areas in addition to the Headquarters outfit. I think, as I recall, I had 15 services a week, one in the afternoon, one in the morning each day and then three on Sunday.

I went down to the unit of the Korean soldiers one night a week and had a service in one of their huge tents. I think it was a mess hall tent. I enjoyed that and I think they did too because the attendance there was really good.

Zarbock: What about the language barrier between you and them?

Cagle: Well part of it I guess had to do with the language because I couldn’t speak their language. I don’t know how much they understood what I was saying, but I know they understood a great deal of it or they wouldn’t have been there. .

The line now between North and South is almost identically over the spot where my tent was. Our outfit was pushed back at the end of the war. I don’t know if it was partly because of an agreement or whether it was more advanced and severe push or what it was. But anyway we had to move back. I’m sure we left guns in there that were tremendously valuable and I suppose they turned them around and aimed them in our direction. We had to move out.

Zarbock: But you’re suggesting to me that you not only moved out, you moved out quickly.

Cagle: You better believe!

Zarbock: I mean if you started abandoning equipment…

Cagle: Yeah and one soldier was killed during that time that I know about and I don’t know how many more had been killed. We moved out and shortly after that, I rotated out and came back and was assigned to Fort Gordon, Georgia . I was there for quite a while before I was rotated .

Part of the duty there was interesting in the fact that I had never done anything like this before. I had to do a service for the soldiers who had gotten themselves into trouble and were in military prison.

Zarbock: So you were the Stockade Chaplain?

Cagle: Well at that moment, yes. I can tell you more when the tape is off.

Zarbock: Well tell me one now, could you? Most people are not acquainted with military stockades.

Cagle: Well it was just like any other…they were in a building on the post. They were upstairs and it was just like any other building. There were dozens of them in there. I don’t remember how many. I went up the stairwell and into where they were, had the service, went down the stairway and went back and that was it.

From that assignment I was sent to Germany. I was assigned there to the 3rd Armored Cavalry . They had people in different places. One of the Battalions was up in Bamburgen and then there were other troops all the way up on the line between East and West Germany. My job was to conduct services for all these people in all three places.

So once a week I would drive up to the borderline between east and west and do a service there. Then I would come back to Bamburgen and do a service there and then I’d go back.

Zarbock: How long of a drive was it? Was it hours?

Cagle: Well yeah, it was maybe an hour and a half, two hours, I can’t remember. It was a good while. After a couple of years, then I was transferred to another place in Germany, but you see the chaplains over there on the picture, I was assigned to that for about a year. Then I was brought back home.

When I came back, I was assigned to Fort Carson, Colorado and was there for three years. I found that quite interesting, more snow than I had ever seen. One day I was on the road and it hailed enough to cover the road so you couldn’t see the road.

Zarbock: What was your rank in those days?

Cagle: I was a Major at that time. I can’t remember for sure. I can’t remember when I got the Lieutenant Colonel thing. But the Colonel rank was a Reserve rank after I retired. I didn't have that while I was on active duty.

Zarbock: At this time in your career, were drugs beginning to be a difficulty?

Cagle: I never heard a word about drugs from beginning to end.

Zarbock: What about alcohol?

Cagle: Didn't have it I guess, what little they had was probably in the Officers’ Club (laughter).

Zarbock: So it wasn’t beginning to present a problem?

Cagle: No, it didn't present any problem. I think there was some in the Officers’ Club and there may have been some that I didn't know anything about in other places, but I was not aware of any problems.

Zarbock: But it wasn’t an epidemic.

Cagle: Oh no, no!!

Zarbock: Contemporary chaplains have frequently mentioned how much of their life is spent with problems relating to alcohol and drugs.

Cagle: I don’t have any information on that at all.

Zarbock: I’d like to point out, didn't you mention you were 89 years young this year.

Cagle: I’m past 89. From Colorado, after I was there for an appropriate period of time, I was assigned to Alaska. That was the most interesting assignment, I guess, from my personal point of view that I had ever had because it was so unusual from the point of view of weather and the earthquake and all the things that either got your interest or disturbed you.

I think that earthquake was a 9.2 as I recall. It happened on Good Friday in 1964. Some things I seem to remember you know. It happened at just about our supper time. Our supper was on the table when it started and it was on the floor when it finished.

Zarbock: This is in Anchorage, Alaska, is that correct?

Cagle: Well we were not actually downtown. Anchorage was destroyed. If we’d been there, I might not be here now. We were far enough out that it toppled things. We had a pipe organ in the chapel ,and it bounced some pipes enough to lift them out of where they were, and turn them over.

Zarbock: Could you hear the earthquake?

Cagle: I was on my knees before it was over. It’s so distressing that you didn't know whether you were going to live or die. My assistant at that time, it was after the work day, was over and he was driving somewhere on the road. What he described was that it felt like he had four flat tires on his car. He pulled over and stopped, and said he could look over the forest and the forest was waving just like the ocean. It was unbelievable, unimaginable.

Of course that was nothing to be happy to see, but since it happened, it’s something you can’t forget. I’ll tell you a couple of interesting things. The days were so long and so short depending on the time of the year. I played golf from 10 at night until 2 in the morning. In the wintertime, we’d go to work before daylight and come home after dark.

Zarbock: Was there daylight during the day in winter?

Cagle: Oh yes, there was some.

Zarbock: But it was a short day?

Cagle: Short day and it got 42 below zero one morning when we were on maneuvers. That’s a pretty cool day to be out.

Zarbock: Did the weather affect morale of the troops?

Cagle: I don’t think so. I think we adapted to it. One experience there that I never would have dreamed of anywhere else. We had a funeral one time in the wintertime. Now how do you think you would dig a grave in that kind of weather? Would you have any idea what happened?

Zarbock: I think that’s why the invented dynamite.

Cagle: No, the grave was dug in the summertime and covered up with planks to be used by whoever needed it. You drive up there with the casket and put it in there. A truck would drive away to somewhere where they could get dirt that wasn’t frozen and bring it back and fill the grave. You see why I say Alaska was an interesting place, don’t you?

Zarbock: And I can see where you either got interested in it or just counted the days before you got out.

Cagle: You had to be one way or the other. But it was so exciting that you didn't get bored with it.

Zarbock: Did you have many counseling sessions with people?

Cagle: Well there wasn’t any troubling stuff as I recall. It was more friendship and conversation and that kind of thing. Of course at Anchorage we had the good chapel that you’ve seen the picture of and we had a wonderful choir. We had good attendance. It was one of the best assignments I had really.

Zarbock: Chaplain, I’m going to interrupt and ask you a question I’ve asked all of the other 22 chaplains who I interviewed. Here we go. The question is any time during your military career as a chaplain, were you ever ordered, was it ever suggested, was it ever hinted that you would do something that you found objectionable religiously and spiritually?

Cagle: I don’t recall any. The Commanders were supportive and the Commanders wanted me to do the job. I tried to do it, they approved and as far as I know they were satisfied with it for the most part. I don’t know that I could ever do a job so completely good that everybody would be totally pleased with it, but I didn't have any complaints.

Zarbock: All other chaplains have said the same thing, that they were never ordered, nor were they coerced into doing something. The Commanding Officer appreciated the activities of the chaplain and gave them free reign.

Cagle: I think that describes it.

Zarbock: Although some of the chaplains have said especially in the Navy where some of the ships’ Captains may be indifferent to a religious life.

Cagle: Well I don’t think I’d want to be a Navy chaplain on a ship because of the lack of space. Thirty days is enough on ship (laughter). Well let’s see where we were?

Zarbock: Well you’re in Alaska in the best assignment you’ve had.

Cagle: From Anchorage, Alaska we went to Fort EustusI served for, I can’t remember exactly how long, maybe six months or a year, a relatively short time.

Zarbock: Is that the Quartermaster Corps?

Cagle: I don’t remember that much about it. My recollection is it’s just a military post. I don’t think I was there more than six months so I didn't do much there except what was done actually in the chapel for services and that sort of thing. From there I retired. That’s about it.

Zarbock: If the clock of time could be reversed and you were back in your 20’s, would you do it again?

Cagle: I would love to and correct some of the stumbling blocks (laughter). Yes, I would do it again.

Zarbock: It wasn’t all a cruise on the Caribbean, was it?

Cagle: Oh no, it was like a job that had many days work and many kinds of work, adjusting to this and adjusting to that. I might as well tell you a few more things about after I retired since we’re on this. When I was retired, I was assigned to a church in High Point and served there for four years.

Then I was reassigned to a couple of churches in Davidson County and served there two or three years, I can’t remember how many. Then finally as a full time pastor, I was assigned to Arcadia Methodist Church in Davidson County. That’s where I retired from the church.

When I formally retired from the church, I moved here to Asheboro. There was a little church over here that was about to go under because it wasn’t built good enough to make it go and I served there for a year or two. Then I did some part time associate visiting homes here and there as necessary. I did that for a year or two, I can’t remember. Then I did a little assistance with a Methodist minister here in Asheboro who had health problems. I helped him because of his health, not because he was not there, but because of his health.

Then I’ve been attending First Methodist since and teaching Sunday school and doing whatever I’m asked to do. That’s about it up until the present time.

Zarbock: I’m going to ask two final questions. Pastor, does anyone ever win a war?

Cagle: No, I don’t think so.

Zarbock: Number two, would you look right into the camera lens. Remember I said off camera, you’ll never be a day older than you are today. The videotape will always make sure as long as there’s electricity that you’re going to look today the way you’re going to look 100 years from now. Gosh knows that the world’s going to be like a 100 years from now and frankly I don’t care. Look right into the camera and please send a message to your grandchildren. What did you learn from your 89 years including the many years that you served the Lord, what have you learned from all that?

Cagle: I think what I’ve learned is that we need to be careful in dealing with many things in many ways and try to be guided by common sense and the good Lord. If we do that, I think life will be pretty good. However long it is, is more or less immaterial. If we made the most of what we have, that’s it.

Zarbock: I’m proud to have met you sir. Thank you for the time.

Cagle: Thank you very much.

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