James Drouillard: "I Wanted To Go"
Young men across Minnesota willingly answered the call to arms when America entered World War II. Many men felt it was their patriotic duty, some sought adventure and a chance to see the world, while others saw it as an opportunity to improve their lot in life. Jim Drouillard of Grand Portage, Minnesota, enlisted in the Navy for all of these reasons. He recounted his experience in a 2006 oral history interview with Karissa White and Brian Horrigan.
JD: [I] learned a good trade and then in 1943…some of my friends were gone so I figured well, time for me to sign up. So I signed up for the Navy for four years in '43. October.
KW: Were you eighteen when you signed up?
JD: No. I was seventeen.
KW: Seventeen. So you were able to enlist when you were seventeen?
JD: Not legally but my mother signed. She thought it would be [a good] idea. It was rough. In them years…we could have stayed home. She'd have taken well care of us. She was a fabulous person. She was a jewel. I mean I couldn't have asked for a better mother. But three kids and that’s rough during Depression years.
BH: You yourself realized that you wanted to get out and make some of the money.
JD: Yes. It wasn't her idea. It was my idea.
BH: You're the first person we've talked to who was in the shipbuilding. Maybe you could talk a little bit more about that for us.
JD: Well, they had a big shipyard there in West Duluth. Big cement plant. Big steel plant. And a shipyard. And they were building cargo ships, Victory ships. Of course they had to take them out the [St. Lawrence] Seaway. They were going twenty-four hours a day and the people I was living with, my aunt and her husband, he was a foreman down there. They worked ten hours a day seven days a week most of the time. I went in the Navy and from there I went…left the country.
BH: Were you unionized? In the shipbuilding.
JD: There might have been but I don't remember having any affiliation with any unions.
KW: How long did you work there for?
JD: About six months. It was right after that when I went in the war.
KW: Did you go with anybody or was it just you? Any friends?
JD: There were some other guys around. One friend of mine that I worked with. He went in the Marines. I tried to get in the Marines but I couldn't pass the eye test because I'd been welding and I couldn't pass the test so he went in and I waited a little while and then I went and passed the test and got in the Navy.
BH: You could have stayed in the shipyard?
JD: Oh, yes.
BH: Because that was essential personnel. You could have…you weren't going to be drafted if you were a shipbuilder, right?
JD: No. I don't know. I didn't question it. It's just that I wanted to go. I always thought for a young man the Navy would be great experience.
BH: Why is that?
JD: What they had to offer. And it still is. Any service I think is. Of course nowadays I wouldn't go. If I had it to do over again. That’s my own personal feelings. But both of my sons went in when they were old enough. After they all graduated from high school.
KW: And the war. Had you heard a lot about what was going on over in Europe?
JD: Oh, yes.
KW: Did you notice like a lot of young men that were not around or working?
JD: Everybody was working. There was a shortage of help in the cement plants and the steel plant and the shipbuilding trade. But you had to have some kind of a trade unless you wanted to be a laborer.
KW: Did you see more women working?
JD: Oh, yes.
BH: If you were a teenager and you were working in the shipyard and if you choose to leave to go into the service, who does that leave to do the work [left] behind?
JD: Oh, there seemed to be more coming. It was just my own personal choice to go. That's what I wanted to do.
BH: See the world. Was that one of the reasons you wanted…
JD: Education and do your part.
KW: So patriotism was a factor.
JD: Oh, yes.
KW: It was 1941 when the attack on Pearl Harbor happened. Where were you that day when you first heard the news?
JD: I was in Grand Marais.
KW: Were you in school?
JD: Yes. Yes. I sure was.
KW: How did you hear about it?
JD: Newspapers and radio I guess.
KW: What was your first thought about it?
JD: At that age it was hard to understand what was going on and why. Why it happened.
BH: But you knew there was a war going on in Europe already.
JD: Oh, yes. Yes.
KW: So you knew at that time too that you eventually were going to enlist?
JD: Eventually I would. Eventually I'd have probably been drafted I suppose. I could have got a deferment. But I didn't think that was right.
BH: A deferment because of your…father was…
JD: Well, my mother, and I could have stayed in school, I guess, and the work in the shipyard. It's a pretty hard…pretty hard on your mother to clothe, feed and put three teenagers through school. So both my brother and I decided that she'd done so much for us now it's time we went on our own.
Drouillard, Jim; Karissa White and Brian Horrigan, Interviewers, Minnesota's Greatest Generation Oral History Project, Minnesota Historical Society Oral History Collection, 2006.