Interview with Chief Ralph W. Sturges by Angel Martinez for History 297W, Center for Oral History, University of Connecticut, April 28, 2001.
Martinez:††††††††† Iíd like to start off asking where and when you were born and can you tell me about your early life?
Sturges:††††††††††† I was born in New London, on December 25th, 1918.
A.M.:†††††††††††††† Can you tell me about your early life growing up in New London?
R.S.:†††††††††††††††† I use to live on Fitch Avenue over here when I was a young kid, and I remember thatís before the streets, Fitch Avenue wasnít paved then, it was a dirt road.† And I remember when it rained, it was one thing I remember when it rained, the gutters would flood, and we use to put sticks and things in there and theyíd float down and weíd watch them [laughs] we run along the stream and watch them float.† And then there was a down below on the other end of Fitch Avenue there use to be a dump and a laundry and there use to be a stream, a brook, that ran through there, I guess it still runs through there, I donít know, but remember when we use to go skating down there in the winter in the swamp, around the grass things.† And now I guess thereís some houses built in there.
A.M.:†††††††††††††† Where did you go to school?
R.S.:†††††††††††††††† In New London, I went, as a matter of fact, both Ida and I, both went to Butler School.† Then I forget, then we moved to Quaker Hill and when we moved to Quaker Hill, I think I was in the fourth or fifth grade, and I graduated from the Quaker Hill School.
A.M.:†††††††††††††† After High School did you go on the College or anything?
R.S.:†††††††††††††††† What I did, what happen is I didnít go to high school, I went into what they called at that time was C.C.ís, Civilian Conservation Corp.† And they, the government had camps around the different parts of the country, and one of them was up in Voluntown, near Patchaw.† I was up there for a while, and I was in Stafford Springs in a camp for a while.† And then, I think, then, where the heck did I go from there, I went to Stafford Springs first and then Voluntown, and I stayed in those camps for probably three or four years.† And then I came out and I came back and I worked for an electric company, and you know the sewer plant in New London, we were building that plant.
A.M.:†††††††††††††† You built that?
R.S.:†††††††††††††††† Yeah.† I worked as an electrician on that plant. And we use to, we did all the wiring for that plant, and then I left there and went into the army.† I went into the army I think in 1940.† And I went to Fisherís Island, there was a big fort over there, it was, what the heck was the name of it, Fort Wright.† And I stayed there for two or three years.† And then I went to a Fort Eustis in Virginia, and then, we formed a new unit, it was really a anti-aircraft intelligence unit we formed, and then I went from there to, I think I went to California, in the desert, no, no I didnít, I went from Virginia to Fort Bliss, Texas.† Then I went from Fort Bliss to the desert in California.† And then, eventually we went over seas, we went into New Guinea.
A.M.:†††††††††††††† Before the war started, you said you were an electrician, what else did you do before the war started?
R.S.:†††††††††††††††† Well I was in the C.C.ís, I was in there for three or four years, and we worked in the woods, building roads, planting trees, and things like that, forestry things.† And then I worked through the Ď38í Hurricane that was up here.† And I went to Stonington, I remember, and we cleaned up Westerly and Stonington, after the Ď38í Hurricane.
A.M.:†††††††††††††† Pearl Harbor did that change your view about the war?
R.S.:†††††††††††††††† No, do you know where I was stationed?† [Laughs]† When Pearl Harbor happened I was stationed on Fisherís Island.† And, I was home at the time, I was in New London, my folks lived on Green Street in New London, and I was home that day, and I got the call to come back to the post, and I went back to Fisherís Island.† And that was the day of infamy [laughs] and I stayed on Fisherís Island for a while, and then, what did I say, I went to [Fort] Eustis, then Bliss, then to the desert, then we went overseas.
A.M.:†††††††††††††† Before Pearl Harbor what were your feelings towards the war, in general, in Europe?
R.S.:†††††††††††††††† Well actually we didnít get involved; we were on the alert all the time.† But I use to run an observation post on Fisherís Island, and I would watch boats go out, and probably an hour later get a radio message that the boat had been sunk.† The Germans use to operate right off of the coast here and they use to sink the ships, it was really something.
A.M.:†††††††††††††† Did you support American involvement in World War II
R.S.:†††††††††††††††† Like I said, that Sunday, that that [Pearl Harbor] happened, I remember when it happened and everything went on the alert and then all the lights went out along the coast.† It never really changed me too much because I was stationed over there [pointing in the direction of Fisherís Island] and I knew I was in the army already.
A.M.:†††††††††††††† Did you see any action while you were in New Guinea?
R.S.:†††††††††††††††† Yeah, In New Guinea, because I landed in New Guinea at Finch Haven, just a few days after they had taken it, and then I went all the way up New Guinea, and I went to the different islands, like Beac Island, the Philippines, and we had different landings all the way up New Guinea.
A.M.:†††††††††††††† Can you tell me what your Army buddies were like?
R.S.:†††††††††††††††† Well, my unit only had fifty-eight people in it, so we never had any like cooks or anything like that; we always ate with another group, our group was all specialists, we were all specialists from different intelligence, it was an intelligence unit, our job was to collect information and also tell the other troops what to expect and all that.† Our job was gathering information on the enemy, interrogating the enemy, and working closely with the other units.
A.M.:†††††††††††††† How did you view the enemy, the Japanese?
R.S.:†††††††††††††††† What do you mean, in what way?
A.M.:†††††††††††††† Did you hate them?
R.S.:†††††††††††††††† No, no, no, itís a funny thing, you know that theyíre the enemy, but you donít build up, actually you donít have the time to do that.† You donít have animosity for anybody, even though you know theyíre the enemy.† You donít despise them when you capture any of them; you treat them as humanly as possible.
A.M.:†††††††††††††† How about your family back at home?† How did the war change their lives?
R.S.:†††††††††††††††† I had three brothers in the war; also, I had one brother in Italy, one brother in the Pacific, and another brother at home, I mean in the states in the army.
A.M.:†††††††††††††† How about your parents?
R.S.:†††††††††††††††† Well my parents, of course at that time were getting up in age, too, so they, it was really rough on them.
A.M.:†††††††††††††† As a Native American, did you have many obstacles to overcome?
R.S.:†††††††††††††††† No, because, you know most of the people, like in the Mohegan Tribe, they were brought up in the schools and places around, so there wasnít really that much, people never actually bothered us.† We would go to different things in the tribe, but we were always a pretty friendly group, the Mohegan.† And there really wasnít that much of a problem.
A.M.:†††††††††††††† Do you keep in touch with any of your old army buddies?
R.S.:†††††††††††††††† I did.† I use to have maybe thirty-five or forty I use to write to and now there down to two.† All I got is one, two, three, all I got is three that I have thatís all left, out of fifty-eight.
A.M.:†††††††††††††† Did they all die after the war?
R.S.:†††††††††††††††† Yeah, they just died after the war; they didnít die from getting shot or anything.
A.M.:†††††††††††††† How did the war affect your town, New London, how did it change?
R.S.:†††††††††††††††† Oh yeah, it did effect New London, because New London had the sub-base and then we had Fisherís Island and they had a big camp out in Niantic, so there was a lot of military in New London, a lot.† New London [laughs] was a real thriving town during the war, because there was thousands of soldiers and sailors [laughs] there was more soldiers and sailors.† [To his wife] Right?† In New London during war.† [Unclear]† I bet you there must have been at least fifty to hundred thousand population of soldiers and citizens in New London.† Because New London was, in the Taverns, they made a boom.
A.M.:†††††††††††††† So the local economy just exploded?
R.S.:†††††††††††††††† Yeah, yeah, the economy was booming, even though you couldnít buy anything [laughs] there wasnít anything to buy.† You couldnít buy butter or sugar or everything like that was rationed.† Certain types of stuff were rationed.† There was no gasoline and there wasnít many cars.† Before World War II, there really wasnít that many cars.† If there was a car in a family that was a luxury, there wasnít many, I donít think on this street, [Ida Surges:] my father, when did he have a car?† My father had a car when I was young.† I lived in this house, you know, all my life.† [Ralph Sturges:] You know here [pointing out the window of his dining room to different houses in the neighborhood] there were no houses here, there were no houses there, and there wasnít a house next door to this one wasnít there.† And the Strafaciís next to your grandmotherís, that wasnít there.† And the one down on the corner wasnít there.† When we came here there wasnít that many houses here.† Up the street there was a few of the old houses, but thereís house been built in between some of them, but there really wasnít that many.† Your grandmotherís house was there, that was a two family house.† The village really has changed, the place here.† Did you see all the houses that been built, even on Vauxhall Street?† You know what they use to do when we were kids; they use to go up on Vauxhall Street, up on the top of that hill and the people would slid when it was snowing.† And they slide down Vauxhall Street.† There wasnít that many cars, so they use to be able to do that.
A.M.:†††††††††††††† So youíre saying New London was influenced, affect by World War II?
R.S.:†††††††††††††††† Oh yeah, New London was really affected.
A.M.:†††††††††††††† How did you feel when the war ended?
R.S.:†††††††††††††††† You know where I was when the war ended?† I was in the hospital.† I was at Fort Devens, Mass[achusetts] in the hospital.† I came home from the war before the war ended before they dropped the bomb.† I came home the same month, it was in August, and I left the Philippines in August and came home.† Was flown home all the way to the hospital.
A.M.:†††††††††††††† How did you hear the news that the war was over?
R.S.:†††††††††††††††† It was on the radio.
A.M.:†††††††††††††† So while you were sitting in the bed you heard the news?
R.S.:†††††††††††††††† [Laughing] Thatís right.† I stayed in the hospital for a year, but I had severe exhaustion and when I went overseas I weighed a hundred eighty (180 lbs), when I came home I weighed ninety (90 lbs).† I had severe exhaustion, hepatitis, I donít know what else, but I stayed in the hospital for a year and I got out and I had to stay in the army for a while, and then I got out.† I put five years and three months in the army.
A.M.:†††††††††††††† What did you do when you got out of the service?
R.S.:†††††††††††††††† When I first got out of the service, the state or the federal government gave you, I think, fifty-two weeks of unemployment, so I took a lot of that and I went to school, and then I went to school in Philadelphia, in criminology.† I went to the Pennsylvania Institute of Criminology.
A.M.:†††††††††††††† What did you go on to do?
R.S.:†††††††††††††††† Well, I worked with a legal aid for a while and I also represented a crime laboratory.† A researching crime laboratory in Philadelphia, and then I came home.
A.M.:†††††††††††††† Do you remember the year you came home?
R.S.:†††††††††††††††† I came home here, I think, around  48 or  49.† And then I worked for a detective agency and I became the paymaster for all of the industries around here.† I was the paymaster for everybody but the Electric Boat.† [Laughing] I paid everybody in this area but Electric Boat.† Thatís the only place I didnít pay.† And then I went from there, I had some friends who came to Connecticut from Chicago and they wanted me to help them get established, and they worked for the Curtis Candy Company out of Chicago.† Theyíre ones who made the Babe Ruth candy, and I worked for them for a while, I worked for them for four or five years.† And I went from them, I went to the Borden Cheese Company, and sold for them for a while.† And then I went from there and became the public relations director for the Salvation Army in New England and I did their public relations.† My job was to cover all the major disasters in New England and then raise the money to pay for them.† So I use to interview people like the Rockefeller, the Kennedy, [laughing] and anybody who had money, I found them and had them help us pay for the different disasters or whatever happened.† And let me tell you, there were no dull moments.† I did that for about eight years.† I started sculpturing way back, I use to sculpt marble, and I remember Legoís Boat Builders, they wanted me to help them design their boats.† So I went, after being a sculptor, I learned how to design sailboats, racing sailboats.† So I helped Legoís for a while.† Then I retired.† I think worked there fifteen years [unclear].† And then I went into getting the tribe situated, working on the tribe.† Thatís when I got them recognized, got the contracts ready to start the casino.
A.M.:†††††††††††††† What year did they get recognized?
R.S.:†††††††††††††††† I got the tribe recognize in [goes over to his desk], I can tell you that easy, [file in hand] March 7th 1994.
A.M.:†††††††††††††† You were a Chief.† How long were you Chief?
R.S.:†††††††††††††††† Iíve been a Chief since Ď89í.
A.M.:†††††††††††††† Are you still very much involved inÖ?
R.S.:†††††††††††††††† Oh yeah, yeah, Iím still the Chief; Iím the lifetime Chief.† Iím one of the few chiefs in the country thatís recognized by the federal government, as a real Indian Chief.† You see, when we got recognized all the papers and all the documents that I signed with the federal government to make the tribe a tribe and then to get them to have the casino, all the contracts, with the government and the federal government were all signed by me.† So that meant that the government recognized me as a full Indian Chief. †Iím one of the few, really the only one in the east, thatís been recognized as a full Indian Chief.† Iím really a positive Indian Chief, according to the federal government.† And then the only lifetime Chief, I think, on the east coast.† I donít think thereís another Indian Chief on the east coast thatís lifetime.
A.M.:†††††††††††††† What do you think about the movies about World War II?
R.S.:†††††††††††††††† To be honest with you, I havenít really; I donít go to too many movies.† I know that people have told me, what the heck is it, Finding Ryan?
A.M.:†††††††††††††† Saving Private Ryan.
R.S.:†††††††††††††††† Yeah, they tell me thatís a good movie.† I never, you donít bothered with it once you hear the ending.
A.M.:†††††††††††††† How about after the war, did you see any of those movies that had just came out them?
R.S.:†††††††††††††††† You know when we were first married [referring to his wife Ida] which was fifty-two years ago; we use to go to the movies all the time, on Saturday night.† But we havenít been, [to Mrs. Sturges] Ida when was the last time you saw a movie?† [Unclear]† Television is a great place to watch.† We really donít go to that many movies.† You know watching that Millionaire [Who wants to be a Millionaire] you really got to be up on your movies.† If you donít you canít go too high on that show.
A.M.:†††††††††††††† What do you think about todayís generation and do they fully understand the impact of World War II?
R.S.:†††††††††††††††† I donít think, itís just like I never, nothing in World War I ever impacted on me.† And I donít think that kids today realize what went on in World War II.† The book that whatís his name wrote about the generations, Brokaw, they claim that that book tells more of what went on during World War II then of any other time.† I donít think kids today are impacted [by the war].† I think it is because of the Vietnam War [unclear] the country up so bad that I donít think kids today really, if they had another war, I think they have a heck of a time trying to get the kids into the service.† I think one thing we should of done, but we didnít do, was not to make it military, but I think it would have been good for every kid to go into the service.† To become self-reliant, so they would train them and become more reliant on themselves, then to do like they are today, running around with gangs and things like this.† I mean kids look for something, kids have a tendency to join things, and if [unclear] draft them and only had the kids go for two years, it would have been a big help to them.† I think a lot of kids would have gone in there and become self-reliant and been better citizens when they come out.† Because now they donít have anything, thereís no real way for young kids to get anything, other than sports, thereís no way that these kids can go and have some type of training or understanding.† They keep hollering about the failures, its not the failures its so much it is that the kid got out and learn how to become independent.† The kid got to be trained somehow, independently.
A.M.:†††††††††††††† When you got out of the hospital after the war did you have trouble assimilating back into normal life?
R.S.:†††††††††††††††† Well, yeah, I think when you get over something like that, I think you have a tendency to not be able to; you donít spring right back into thinking of things you did before.† I donít think I ever went back thinking of what I did before I went in the service.† I donít think that ever came up.† I just never; that type of life never occurred to me.† I use to have, I remember, walking, if I was alone, like at night, you have a tendency to look over your shoulders.† You have a tendency to wonder whoís around you. †I donít think you get over that for a long time.† I think itís just something that you built yourself into and then you donít get out of it.† I donít do it now, but I donít go out walking at night either [laughs].† But I seemed to have a tendency to do that.† I think its some of the things you did, habits that you have.
A.M.:†††††††††††††† How were you received when you came home?† Did you get a heroís parade or anything?
R.S.:†††††††††††††††† No, I wasnít looking to be a hero or any of that.† I think I just came home and blended in with things.
A.M.:†††††††††††††† Your tribe, how did the war affect them?
R.S.:†††††††††††††††† Thereís more Indians per capita that served in the services in the wars of the United States then any other group of people.† They have a terrific war record, most of them.† We had, I donít know how many, we had quite a few guys that served in the war.† [Unclear].† Youíll find the Indians, and you know the odd part of it is, the Indians when they surrendered out in the west they said they would never raise any arms again, so really the Indian didnít really have to defend this country, they didnít have to pick up arms again.† They never refused to be drafted.† They never do.
A.M.:†††††††††††††† Why do you think that is?
R.S.:†††††††††††††††† Well, I think the Indian are probably more dedicated to this country then they are, then they think about not defending it.† I think theyíre more dedicated and they think a lot more of it.† I know thereís a lot of them that never refused because when the draft came to them they just took it.† They didnít have to, but they did.
A.M.:†††††††††††††† Now, you joined the army.† You didnít get drafted?
R.S.:†††††††††††††††† No, that was another thing.† During the war all the people that were in the service, probably before  40 or  41, not after Ď41í was anybody in the regular army, they were all drafted.† Before that, all of my records all say R.A., regular army.† That was different, but it didnít mean anything afterwards.† After a certain date we were all in the army period.
A.M.:†††††††††††††† What was your highest rank?
R.S.:†††††††††††††††† I came out of there a corporal.† Because we never had, when we started we only had fifty-eight people and everybody stayed the same rank all through the war.† Because it wasnít like a unit that lost people and moved up.† We never, it was an intelligence unit, so it stayed the same.† We didnít have to have the unitís replacements; we didnít need to replace anybody.† They all stayed the same.† That was unusual, because some units would lose people and they move up.† But our particular unit never, we were fortunate.
A.M.:†††††††††††††† Did you know, since your unit didnít have any casualties, but did you know anybody that died in the war?
R.S.:†††††††††††††††† Oh yeah, when I was at Fisherís Island, a lot of those guys, they broke up that unit and formed units from that.† And a lot of those guys never made it, they were in different units that probably got shot up.
A.M.:†††††††††††††† In your unit were you the only Native American in there?
R.S.:†††††††††††††††† Yeah, in my unit I was.
A.M.:†††††††††††††† What was the demographic?† Was it mostly Anglo-Americans?
R.S.:†††††††††††††††† It was mostly all American, you know English.
A.M.:†††††††††††††† How would you assess your whole war experience?
R.S.:†††††††††††††††† I think itís an experience that, I wouldnít say I enjoyed it at all.† But I would say it was an education.† It was an experience that was very valuable in lots of ways, but you wouldnít want to go through it again.† Iíd say it was something that I wouldnít want to risk my life.† Its something I wouldnít want to do again.
A.M.:†††††††††††††† Do you think you learn from it and it has helped you a lot in your life?
R.S.:†††††††††††††††† Oh yeah, I think so.† Like I said before I think that the more, if they had the draft today I donít think they have as many problems with kids that they have.† Itís because kids donít have [unclear] you take a guy nineteen to twenty-two heís hasnít got, whatís he got to do?† He either got to go to school or else he got to flounder around and join a gang or whatever.† You look at yourself, where you got to go, what you got to do with your life when you become eighteen, nineteen, or twenty.† If you donít go to school where do you go?† What do you do?† You donít have anything and thereís anybody out there to help you.† I can see where a lot of kids join gangs, because itís a natural instinct for people to join things.† But you canít blame them because thereís nothing being done for them, thereís no place for them to go.† Yeah, they can join the service, but that isnít something that everybody thinks about doing.† Where if they had the draft they would have known, which is where youíre going to go for two years and the two years would have been a big help for them.† Then when they come out they would have known whether they wanted to go to college or where they wanted to go.
A.M.:†††††††††††††† And they would have learned a skill.
R.S.:†††††††††††††††† Right.† If they learned a skill, you know.† Another thing, you take the [unclear] now to go into the service, when you come out the first thing they want to do is go to college.† Because they learn that this is the way youíre going to get anywhere; that you got to get an education.† Because today if you donít have an education, even with me up there, [at the casino on the Mohegan Reservation] I canít use people that donít have some degree of education.† You got to have certain skills in computers or something.† I canít just say, ĎOh weíll give you a jobí, I canít give you a job if you donít have any skills.† Itís not like I donít want to give them something, you cant because they donít have the skills.† Iíll tell you one thing though, I think young people today, with the computers and everything, they really, some of them are really wizards on them.† Some of them young guys are really wizards with the computers, even with designing them.† [Unclear] you use to have to wait days for pieces of† , today I can in two minutes bring it up on the computer and show you what its going to look like, but you need that today.† You canít exist without computers now.† With our business if we didnít have the computer we wouldnít be able to do anything, because we could never keep up with [unclear].† Thereís millions of dollars involved in the thing that you canít keep up, if thereís a glitch in those computers, you could lose millions.† But its like the same way with you in school, you could never keep up with your homework if you didnít have a computer.
A.M.:†††††††††††††† Theyíre so important that you canít live without one today almost.
R.S.:†††††††††††††††† Yeah, you canít exist.