William Orcutt's DNA
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June 22, 2009 – William Orcutt is a veteran of World War II and the Korean War. During World War II he was a sergeant in the Army Air Corps in Belgium. He returned to San Diego, married, and was recalled to service in 1952. As a second lieutenant in the Army Signal Corps he photographed enemy territory in Korea for military intelligence. A photograph of Orcutt was found in a collection of portraits lent to KPBS by San Diego photographer, Ken Petsch. A log book listed the address of the home his family has owned in San Diego since about 1950. In San Diego's DNA: Military Roots, Orcutt shares his extensive collection of photographs from the Korean War.
Related story: The Military is Embedded in San Diego's History
ABE SHRAGGE (Curator, Veteran's Museum and Memorial Center): Downtown San Diego has historically been a place where soldiers, sailors and marines passed through on their way to some distant outpost. We have been incredibly fortunate to find a group of portraits of young men and women taken in a downtown photography studio during the Korean War. A find like this can generate some wonderful oral history, as we found out when we tracked down Bill Orcutt at his home in Talmadge.” BILL ORCUTT (Veteran): I’m Bill Orcutt, come on it. SHRAGGE: How do you do Mr. Orcutt, very nice to meet you. ORCUTT: Come on in. SHRAGGE: Thank you. SHRAGGE: Recently we found a collection of photographs that were taken in San Diego, presumably during the late 1940s and 1950s from the WWII era and into the Korean War era, and we found this picture and we found a number on the back, we looked in the log book and we matched up the number on the picture on the log book and we found the name, Beverly Orcutt and we looked in the phone book, called the number, found you, and I would like to ask you, is this a picture of you? ORCUTT: I was just recalled at the time, at the time this picture was taken. SHRAGGE: Now recalled, had you been in the service previously? ORCUTT: Yes in World War II. I was a Sergeant in the Army Airways Communication System, which is part of the Army Air Corps. SHRAGGE: So you’ve spent a significant portion of your life right here. An amazing stroke of luck that we could find you, your picture all in the same place. ORCUTT: The surprising thing thought is that I was up in L.A. for thirty-five of those years. SHRAGGE: And in Korea what did you do? ORCUTT: We had observation posts and bunkers and our photographers would photograph the enemy territory and then the Intel would compare them to previous photos to tell where activity was. SHRAGGE: Now there are a number of pictures of men stringing wire… was this telephone, telegraph, high-speed Internet? ORCUTT: No high-speed Internet in those days, those were telephone wires and that was the signal corps job, stringing wire. SHRAGGE: Was there much infrastructure like that in Korea already or were you really building this from scratch? ORCUTT: Um mostly building from scratch, there wasn’t much there they weren’t very sophisticated. SHRAGGE: So this was in a sense bringing Korea a little bit into the modern age. There are a number of photos in your book of people, children in fact, elderly people as well…what were living conditions like for the Korean people during the war? ORCUTT: Pretty bad, pretty basic you know, they had a roof over their heads and they ate rice and stuff. A couple of people I asked (people that could speak English) what they thought of the war and they said we don’t care about the war it’s your war and it kind of shocked me you know as a young military guy I was surprised that it was our war not theirs SHRAGGE: And what did that mean to you? How would you interpret that? ORCUTT: It disturbed me, because why are we here? You know, we thought that we were helping them fend off the North Koreans but I think they considered us outsiders. SHRAGGE: This is a very disturbing image there’s no information on the back can you tell us please what’s going on there ORCUTT: One of my photographers shot this and he called it the jazz singer and the reason is the guy has his mouth open and he looks like he’s singing but he’s really yelling so he doesn’t hurt his eardrums as he’s firing the artillery. This is the kind of war that was going on when I was there, an artillery war and a scouting war. SHRAGGE: One of the most remarkable aspects of this collection is how well its been preserved and the fact that you took the pictures you identified them you sent them home to your wife who took care of them provides us with an amazingly rich record of events that have largely been forgotten I really want to commend you for the effort that you and your wife made in doing this ORCUTT: Thank you. Commend my wife because she’s the one that kept the collection I had forgotten a lot of this stuff. SHRAGGE: Well I’m very glad that we were able to bring this to life and I want to thank you again. SHRAGGE: Thank you. SHRAGGE: One of the lessons history teaches us is that the military will be part of San Diego’s DNA for decades to come. Our story is entwined with the history of the nation and the world. And it’s up to us to preserve and tell that story.