AACHM Oral History: Robert Fletcher
Sun, 09/11/2016 - 1:02pm
When: April 7, 2016
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Robert Fletcher was born on December 2, 1932. He worked for 15 years for the Veterans Administration, then Sears, eventually retiring from the City of Ann Arbor. Robert went into the service in 1950 and, after engaging in a police action in Korea, was captured and spent 33 months in a prison camp, an experience that deeply affected his personal life and work - eventually leading to his serving on an advisory board for former prisoners of war in Washington, D.C.
- [00:00:16.82] INTERVIEWER: Mr. Fletcher, first of all, I want to thank you for agreeing to be interviewed for our living oral history project.
- [00:00:23.25] ROBERT WARREN FLETCHER: Thank you.
- [00:00:23.65] INTERVIEWER: And I'm going to start with some demographics and family history.
- [00:00:28.19] ROBERT WARREN FLETCHER: OK.
- [00:00:29.29] INTERVIEWER: So I'm first going to ask you some simple demographic questions. And these questions may jog your memory, but please keep your answers brief and to the point for now. We can go into more detail later in the interview.
- [00:00:42.98] ROBERT WARREN FLETCHER: OK.
- [00:00:44.59] INTERVIEWER: Please say and spell your name.
- [00:00:47.59] ROBERT WARREN FLETCHER: Robert Warren Fletcher. R-O-B-E-R-T capital W-A-R-R-E-N F-L-E-T-C-H-E-R.
- [00:01:02.10] INTERVIEWER: What is your date of birth, including the year.
- [00:01:04.95] ROBERT WARREN FLETCHER: 12-2-32.
- [00:01:08.27] INTERVIEWER: How would you describe your ethnic background?
- [00:01:11.86] ROBERT WARREN FLETCHER: Mixture. My mother was Cherokee Indian and French Canadian, and my father was Mohawk Indian and African American.
- [00:01:27.70] INTERVIEWER: What is your religion, if any?
- [00:01:29.50] ROBERT WARREN FLETCHER: Protestant.
- [00:01:32.56] INTERVIEWER: What is the highest level of formal education you have completed?
- [00:01:36.37] ROBERT WARREN FLETCHER: Two years at community college.
- [00:01:41.40] INTERVIEWER: Did you attend any additional school or formal career training beyond that?
- [00:01:46.85] ROBERT WARREN FLETCHER: No.
- [00:01:49.40] INTERVIEWER: What is your marital status?
- [00:01:51.50] ROBERT WARREN FLETCHER: Married.
- [00:01:55.18] INTERVIEWER: How many children do you have?
- [00:01:56.39] ROBERT WARREN FLETCHER: Four living. We had five total, but four living.
- [00:02:02.19] INTERVIEWER: What was your primary occupation?
- [00:02:06.01] ROBERT WARREN FLETCHER: Well, I worked about almost 15 years for the Veterans Administration. I left there and went to work for Sears and Roebuck for seven years. And then for 12 years, I was in the business for myself. And then I had a heart attack and then I went to work for the City of Ann Arbor, and retired from there.
- [00:02:26.17] INTERVIEWER: OK. And so when were you in the service?
- [00:02:31.39] ROBERT WARREN FLETCHER: I went into the service on May 1, 1950.
- [00:02:38.47] INTERVIEWER: Now, we're going to move into part two-- memories of childhood and youth. This part of the interview is about your childhood and youth. Even if these questions jog memories about other times in your life, once again we're going to focus just on this area for now. What was your family like when you were a child?
- [00:02:58.17] ROBERT WARREN FLETCHER: Very loving and very caring.
- [00:03:02.69] INTERVIEWER: How large was your family? How many in your family?
- [00:03:04.68] ROBERT WARREN FLETCHER: Seven.
- [00:03:05.15] INTERVIEWER: OK.
- [00:03:07.51] ROBERT WARREN FLETCHER: Three boys and four girls.
- [00:03:09.43] INTERVIEWER: All right. Almost an even match there.
- [00:03:13.91] ROBERT WARREN FLETCHER: Almost.
- [00:03:14.81] [LAUGHING]
- [00:03:16.05] INTERVIEWER: What sort of work did your parents do?
- [00:03:18.67] ROBERT WARREN FLETCHER: My father worked at the Ford plant in Dearborn, and my mother was a homemaker.
- [00:03:30.05] INTERVIEWER: What are some of your earliest memories as a child?
- [00:03:34.68] ROBERT WARREN FLETCHER: Earliest memories? The love and care my mother gave to us and the family gave to all of us. My sisters and my brothers-- they always were looking out for each other. That is the most fondest memories I have. I did the same thing with my children. I taught them to look out for each other, as a family, not as individuals.
- [00:04:02.35] INTERVIEWER: That's really important.
- [00:04:03.84] ROBERT WARREN FLETCHER: Oh, it's very important in life to me.
- [00:04:06.62] INTERVIEWER: I would agree. Were there any special days or events or family traditions you remember from your childhood?
- [00:04:16.10] ROBERT WARREN FLETCHER: Every day was special.
- [00:04:19.31] INTERVIEWER: I like that.
- [00:04:20.71] ROBERT WARREN FLETCHER: Every day was. I'd come home from school and Mother would be baking bread. And she always have a little bitty pan, about that high. And she'd put some bread in that for me. And I'd come in the house, and oh, it smells good. And she would say, well, we got to wait until it cools down. Oh, but Mom. She says, nope, got to wait. And then she'd pull it out, slice it, and put homemade butter in it, and say here. That was--
- [00:04:46.84] [LAUGHING]
- [00:04:49.19] INTERVIEWER: It sounds wonderful.
- [00:04:50.45] ROBERT WARREN FLETCHER: And it was good.
- [00:04:54.79] INTERVIEWER: What holidays did your family celebrate?
- [00:04:57.69] ROBERT WARREN FLETCHER: They celebrated just about all of them-- Christmas, Memorial Day, 4th of July. Well, back then it was the 1st of May. They called it May Day then, Workers Day, in other words. So my family celebrated all the holidays.
- [00:05:17.10] INTERVIEWER: Was there any that your family created other than the traditional holidays?
- [00:05:22.64] ROBERT WARREN FLETCHER: No, not that I know of.
- [00:05:27.05] INTERVIEWER: How did you do birthday celebrations?
- [00:05:29.47] ROBERT WARREN FLETCHER: Well, birthdays were individually celebrated, not as a group like they do today. We were poor, and so your parents couldn't afford to buy anything for you. So Mother would bake a cake and put a candle on it, or ten, or how old you were. And everybody-- you'd blow the candles out. You'd cut up the cake and sing Merry Christmas-- or, happy birthday. I'm sorry. But that was pretty much it.
- [00:05:56.07] INTERVIEWER: All right.
- [00:06:02.32] I'm going to go back to school for a second here. Did you play any sports or join any other activities outside of school?
- [00:06:10.51] ROBERT WARREN FLETCHER: In school I played sports. I played basketball and I played football, and I also ran track. And I excelled quite well.
- [00:06:20.66] INTERVIEWER: What do they call that? A triple threat?
- [00:06:22.26] ROBERT WARREN FLETCHER: Yeah.
- [00:06:23.16] [LAUGHING]
- [00:06:27.98] INTERVIEWER: What about your school experience is different from school as you know it today?
- [00:06:33.95] ROBERT WARREN FLETCHER: As I know school today, the teachers had more disciplinary control of the classroom, which I feel is great. I felt it was great for us. I feel without the teachers being able to take their class into control, it loses-- the kids lose. And their parents don't come in. I told all teachers when I had my children, if they do something today, call me today. I will be here.
- [00:07:09.89] And I would go and I would talk to them, and I would tell them, now, if I have to come here again, you're not going to like it. Your class will laugh at you. I said, so don't make me come again. That usually was all it took.
- [00:07:27.52] INTERVIEWER: So in terms of educational opportunities, I want to ask you about what you saw then when you were growing up and now, specifically for minority students.
- [00:07:40.96] ROBERT WARREN FLETCHER: Well, when I grew up, there was a very narrow area for minority students. You went into the teaching field. You never saw bankers. You never saw lawyers. You never saw any of the professional-- in the sense of the word-- black people. There were teachers and preachers and people of this category.
- [00:08:09.45] Today, you are seeing more and more lawyers, teachers, the President the United States, which I thought I would never live to see. You're seeing more and more African Americans getting into the broad brim of the field, which I feel is great. We needed this a long time ago.
- [00:08:33.14] INTERVIEWER: So you talked about then and now. And so what work is still left to be done, do you feel, in terms of the educational arena for minorities?
- [00:08:43.88] ROBERT WARREN FLETCHER: I think we need to have-- and I don't know the answer to that, because what is happening is we have too many African American kids dropping out of school. And they end up in prison and that's not good. We need them to be educated because this is a wonderful functioning world they're living in. But you've got to have the education. If you don't have it, you're left behind.
- [00:09:12.14] And that's the biggest problem I see. I don't know what the dropout rate was when I went to school. It was very narrow. And today, it is just too much. And I was talking with the wife, and I told my kids, you don't have to go to school. But you'll never accomplish anything. I don't care what you say.
- [00:09:39.03] As they grew up, we took them to the poor areas, we took them to the middle class areas, we took them to the rich areas. And I'd say, which one would you like to live? And they'd say, oh, that one there. I said, why? Oh, they've got nice homes and cars. I said, well, how do you think they got them? Oh, uh, money. I said, no, come on, come better than that. Education. And you won't do it without it.
- [00:10:10.97] I'm a very lucky man to say that all my kids graduated from high school. I have three daughters that graduated from college.
- [00:10:19.50] INTERVIEWER: That's wonderful.
- [00:10:20.33] ROBERT WARREN FLETCHER: I have one son who graduated from community college as a licensed mechanic. He did not want to go to college. We tried to talk him into it. He said, no. I just want my mechanical license. So out of the five kids-- the other son of mine, he got his degree in medical. His mother is a nurse, and so he got it in managing doctor's offices. So he's doing quite well for himself.
- [00:10:49.82] So that's the main thing I see, is that my wife and I were involved highly with our kids in school. If she wasn't there, I was there. If she wasn't there, we both were there. This is the way it worked. I'd come in from work and come in like I never changed.
- [00:11:08.53] [LAUGHING]
- [00:11:11.25] I didn't have enough time for plays and things. And I'd just rave how good they were. And I always said, there's nothing in this world you can't do, but you've got to get an education to do it.
- [00:11:23.69] INTERVIEWER: And parent involvement is really key as well.
- [00:11:26.64] ROBERT WARREN FLETCHER: I feel it is the key. It is the most important role, all from kindergarten through high school. You just can't go through grade school and stop. You've got to go all the way with them.
- [00:11:39.54] INTERVIEWER: So in terms of-- going back to your growing up and your family when you were a child and growing up, were there any special sayings or expressions during this time that you could remember?
- [00:11:49.81] ROBERT WARREN FLETCHER: You know, I thought about that. And I really couldn't come up with one. I just couldn't think of one. I tried my darndest. But when we were young, and we got to eating, we ate first. Then we left, then the adults ate. And they would be in there talking, and you'd better not be listening.
- [00:12:12.03] [LAUGHING]
- [00:12:13.34] You got out of that. So I don't know. I really don't know.
- [00:12:20.29] INTERVIEWER: What about a Bible scripture or anything along those lines?
- [00:12:26.55] ROBERT WARREN FLETCHER: No, my mother was a great person for the Bible. And so she had a different one every time. I'm not a scholar of the Bible, I'll be honest with you. The only one I know is the 23rd Psalm.
- [00:12:38.33] INTERVIEWER: That's a good one to know.
- [00:12:40.84] ROBERT WARREN FLETCHER: And we'll probably get to that.
- [00:12:43.52] INTERVIEWER: Yeah. OK. So were there any changes in your family life during your school years?
- [00:12:51.58] ROBERT WARREN FLETCHER: Yeah. My father died. In 1942, my father died. He died in the summer of '42. And I really never got to know my father. I was just starting to know him. And I was just starting to maybe, as it goes, get interested in the family and ask the questions.
- [00:13:12.23] And this was really devastating to me because my father and I had started doing things together. And when he died, I asked my mother-- I said, when will he be back? And she said, no, he won't be back. And I said, why not? And my mother was always a person that had patience. She always had patience. And she explained it to me, and I still couldn't accept that as a child.
- [00:13:43.07] And it took me a long, long time to accept it. And Mother remarried about a year later. And my stepfather told me do something, and I looked at him, and I told him, you're not my father. You don't tell me what to do. Mother said, what did you say? I said, Mother, I told him he's not my father. He doesn't tell me what to do. And I was never afraid to talk to my mother, even though I might get punished, I was not afraid to talk to her. I would tell her the truth.
- [00:14:15.92] And she said, you get out there and get it done, then you come on in here and sit down. And I did, and she said, why would you do that? Because he's not my father. My father is dead, and I'll never accept anybody else. But he's feeding you. Mother, I said, when I get to be 17, I'm leaving here. And I said, I'm not joking. She said, no, you need to stay in school. I said no. But that was the difference.
- [00:14:44.33] INTERVIEWER: OK. That was the big difference.
- [00:14:45.94] ROBERT WARREN FLETCHER: Yeah, it was.
- [00:14:49.52] INTERVIEWER: So I'm going to ask you a series of questions-- a group of questions here. When thinking back on your school years, what important social or historical events were taking place at the time, and how did they personally affect you and your family?
- [00:15:07.46] ROBERT WARREN FLETCHER: I think the largest-- let me get a drink of water.
- [00:15:21.97] Probably the best social event was the legislation in the state that killed all discrimination in buying of homes, restaurants. Michigan always pretty much had that law-- and opened the door for other entrepreneurs, especially African Americans, to go into areas where they never could go before, and open businesses. And what was the other part of that?
- [00:15:58.55] INTERVIEWER: It was just what social historical events were taking place at the time, and how did they personally affect you and your family?
- [00:16:05.72] ROBERT WARREN FLETCHER: I would say the social event would be integration-- total integration in the state of Michigan, and the opening up of selling homes and buying homes. Because they had a tendency to-- realtors spear you. Well, your people live over here. And I said, whose people? Who are you talking about? Oh, uh-- and I said, you made a statement. Clarify it. I didn't mean anything. I said, yes you did mean something by it or you wouldn't have said it. I said, leave and I'd call another realtor. But that's me, and a lot of people wouldn't have probably done that. But I've never bit my tongue.
- [00:16:54.23] INTERVIEWER: I'm going to continue along that line of questioning-- you lived during the era of segregation. Can you speak about that? was your school segregated? Was there an elementary school near your home? Was there a high school for black students in the same area?
- [00:17:09.14] ROBERT WARREN FLETCHER: OK. First one-- I lived during the time of segregation, but Ypsilanti was a very small town before the bomber plant opened. And I really grew up not seeing or feeling segregation. I could go into any store, and they just about knew the family from my dad. It weighed on me and everything else, and it never bothered me.
- [00:17:36.81] Then the bomber plant opened, and then-- I'm not just saying Southern people. That's where people make a big mistake. All poor people moved in. And they start hiring them at the stores.
- [00:17:50.34] One time I went into Kresge's and needed to buy a pencil. The lady would walk away from me every time I would go to approach. And at that time, the manager was up on the top, and he could see the whole store. And I went up and I said, why won't she sell me this pencil? And he said, you go back down there. So I went back down and she'd move over. And he came down after about our third try, and said, you, go home.
- [00:18:22.40] And I never saw her in the store again after that. He apologized and gave me the pencil. And I said, no, I got three pennies. And he said, no, it's yours to keep because people shouldn't treat you like that.
- [00:18:34.76] So I never really grew up with segregation, until the bomber plant people moved in. And then you start hearing the n word, which I had never heard. And I went home and I had to ask my mother. What are they talking about? And she said, son, I could tell you something that would make you bitter for the rest of your life, but life's too short to go around being angry at people. She said, they don't know what they're talking about. Just let it go. OK. Fine.
- [00:19:06.36] Then when I went into the service is where I really ran into segregation. I went down to Fort Knox, Kentucky, and I was the only African American in a group of about 12 from Michigan. And we went in a restaurant at the train station and sat down. And the waitress-- boy, she was having a hard time. Finally, one of the guys said, hey we want to get waited on. And she said, oh, oh, just a minute. She went and got the manager. He came over and he says, well, we can't serve him in here. And we all said, who?
- [00:19:43.71] And he said, colored people have to go around back. I said, oh no. I don't go around nobody's back door. I don't even go around my own back door. So I said, I'm going. And we all walked out.
- [00:19:56.31] And after I went to Fort Knox, it was very segregated. I didn't realize it. They all went this way and I went that way, and I've never seen them since. And the military at the time was very segregated. I went to 367 field artillery as a field artillery gunner, and then I was transferred to the 761st Tank Battalion as an infantryman. That's where we took our basic training, there, and ended up going to Japan.
- [00:20:36.67] INTERVIEWER: So I want you to just continue talking a little bit more about your time in the service.
- [00:20:40.97] ROBERT WARREN FLETCHER: Well, when I took the train to Fort Lewis, Washington-- then I caught a plane and went over to Japan. I had six weeks of basic training-- just enough to learn how to salute, just enough know what an officer and his badges look like. And after that, we didn't have any combat training. They called it combat training, but to me, no.
- [00:21:15.07] I was in Japan in June, about two weeks before the Korean War started. And I was 17 and the Korean War started. They said, well, you're going to Korea to do a police action. And I could not understand what a police action was. So I said to my platoon sergeant, Jerry Morgan, I said, what's a police action? Oh, he said, we'll crack a few heads. We'll be home in a couple weeks. I said, oh, well let's go get it over with.
- [00:21:49.75] Bullets start flying and you see a lot of your friends get killed, and you become very hard and very callous. And I came-- then I was captured by the Chinese. And I spent-- this was in November-- and I spent 33 months in prison camp with the Chinese.
- [00:22:17.21] The first year, '50 to '51 was devastating. The average nighttime temperature was 50 to 55 below zero. And we got captured with all summer clothes. In the service, being black, you got the last. Everybody else got their boots and their winters-- we didn't. But you don't know this, see, because you're up here and they're feeding you.
- [00:22:47.67] Well, after being in prison camp for 33 months and the Chinese trying to teach us communism-- and that's the greatest thing in the world, they kept saying. Your people would enjoy it because they're free. And I said, freedom is being able to come and go as you please. I said, can the people in China do this? Oh, yes. I said, no they can't, just like the North Korean people can't go South. So I said, don't give me--
- [00:23:18.99] I had a good friend, Clarence Adams. We slept head to toe of each other in the barracks on the floor-- straw mats. He believed in communism, I'm sure. And that's his belief. I don't take a man's belief away from him. And he used to go up every night to the Chinese and he'd come back.
- [00:23:42.13] And after about a month and a half, he came back and he said, Fletch, you're irritating them. You're not going along with the program. He said remember one thing-- they've got the gun, so why don't you shut your mouth? I said, thanks, Clarence.
- [00:24:07.35] And then on in, I never had-- they asked me, what is your opinion? I said, I don't know. You don't have-- no I don't. And from that point on, we got along real well. The one thing-- they were smart people. Everybody thinks they're dumb, but they're not dumb. But they did. They said, we're going to allow you to write letters home. This is after almost a year. And we'll give you the paper and pencils and everything you need.
- [00:24:40.09] So I'm sitting here wondering, I said, why are they letting us write home? So I wrote my letter like I was coming out of the backwoods. T-E-H was A-W-S. [LAUGHTER] These other guys, oh boy, they're writing. So they knew they had education, and those were the sectors they went after. They said, leave him alone. He's crazy. He can't-- he don't know anything.
- [00:25:20.11] So I never was bothered with them. I never bothered with them. And that's why-- I guess why I was very fortunate. I was able to out-think them at that point. They'd bring in everybody, once a month-- oh, you could write a letter home to your mother. And I'd do the same thing. And none of those letters really left the prison camp-- not one of them. My mother had-- early '53 I wrote two letters home. They're out at the museum out there at North Campus, that I wrote home. There's probably more than that, but I know of three. And she had those when I came home. No, they weren't about to let the educated ones get away.
- [00:26:13.55] INTERVIEWER: Well, I certainly want to thank you for your service for our country.
- [00:26:17.17] ROBERT WARREN FLETCHER: Well, thank you.
- [00:26:17.94] INTERVIEWER: I certainly want to thank you. And I need to say too, if you ever-- as we're doing this, you need to take a break, just say you need to take a break.
- [00:26:24.53] ROBERT WARREN FLETCHER: No, I'm fine.
- [00:26:24.88] INTERVIEWER: You're fine. OK. Anything else you want to add to that time?
- [00:26:31.49] ROBERT WARREN FLETCHER: Well, people ask me, if you had to do it over again, would you do it over again? I've met enough South Koreans and I've been back to South Korea twice. The Korean government paid for my trip there. I had to just pay for the airplane for my wife. So we both went twice.
- [00:26:55.69] I was shocked when I got to that country in the 2000s when I went back first time. And I was literally shocked. I did not know that country. Modern homes, inside plumbing-- everything was outside-- thatched roofs, mud houses-- don't see one. You don't see one.
- [00:27:21.15] I looked around and I said, where am I? And my wife said, what's wrong? I said, there's no mud houses. There's no thatched roofs. And we went to the museum-- their world museum, which is fantastic. And when you walk in, there's a mud house with a thatched roof. And there's a big sign, this is what it was.
- [00:27:45.04] Then we went back five years later. We went back. I told them I didn't want to. And they insisted. They also called me and wanted me to go back a third time. I told them no.
- [00:27:59.18] But each time was a different venture. Each time was-- stirred up some real bad memories of guys I knew very well. I can't call their names today. I guess that's part of the healing process. But they were like brothers to me that we buried. Well, we couldn't bury them. At 50 below zero, the ground was like this concrete floor. We tried and tried and tried, and finally we just laid them on the banks of Yalu River, covered them over with snow. When the spring flood came, they washed down.
- [00:28:40.21] But we tried. And it just-- you couldn't do a thing. You couldn't even scratch that much of the ground. And Johnny said, leave them. Leave them. We'll bury them later. So we left them. That is one of probably the worst things, that I can remember-- that they tried to get us to leave them. And it was very hard.
- [00:29:07.98] The other thing was, the Red Cross-- the Romanian Red Cross-- '51, '52-- they were communist. So they allowed them to come through and check the camp. Oh man, they gave us these quilts to go on our bunks and new uniforms, new tennis shoes. So they came through and they allowed the-- because they were communists-- allowed them to kind of go individually. One of the guys had a list of all the POWs in that camp and all the POWs who had died.
- [00:29:45.64] And this one guy from Romania spoke English, and he said, is there anyone here that has messages to take back? This guy says, yeah. I've got a list of POWs. He said, good. So he took the list, and he turned it into the American embassy in Romania.
- [00:30:08.82] And '52-- yeah. That's when my mother got a telegram from the war department saying, we think your son is a prisoner of war but we can't prove it. And she was a little elated, but not to the fullest. She was-- she didn't really believe it until I came home. First time she saw me, she gave me the biggest hug and kiss. And she stepped back and she said, son, you're not the same person that left here. I said, yes I am. She says, no you're not.
- [00:30:56.16] And I truly didn't understand her. I figured, well, I didn't change. But I had. I'd become very hard, very callous, very little feelings for people. Somebody would say, oh you know, so and so got hurt. I said, well, he shouldn't have been doing that. It's not my fault, and keep on walking. War does that to you, and that's one of the things you have to go through and post-traumatic stress.
- [00:31:25.19] I don't know how my wife stayed with me so long, because I tried to get her to leave. I had post-traumatic stress so bad at times. I'd get up at three o'clock in the morning and just go. And she would say, what time did you get up? I said, I don't know. It was daylight almost. And it wasn't. It was dark. Where'd you go? I said, down to the river, tried to catch some fish. I didn't do anything. I just had to be moving. I just had to be moving.
- [00:31:55.10] And then in 2000-- [LAUGHTER] I'll never forget it. You know what? She said, Fletch. I said, no I don't. She said, we should go see about these post-traumatic stress classes. I said, if you've got post-traumatic stress, go and do it, because I don't. [LAUGHTER] I still had those urges. And sometimes I had the urge to want to hurt somebody, but I would never hurt my family. No, no, no. And I'd just get them and they're hard to get rid of.
- [00:32:38.80] And finally, a psychologist there at the VA was talking with me, he said, come on with me. He took me down and I talked to another psychologist. And then I ended up with Dr. Carnahan and she was wonderful. At first I said I'm not going to like her. I said, she don't know what's going on.
- [00:33:06.47] INTERVIEWER: You decided that in advance, that you weren't going to like her.
- [00:33:08.78] ROBERT WARREN FLETCHER: Oh, yeah. So we talked and she said, can you come back next week? And I said, come back for what? Sit here and talk to you? I said, no. Well, come back and talk. I'll look for you now. Gave me the time and everything, so I went back.
- [00:33:32.42] And we got a little bit more serious. And she says, let me ask you a question. When's the last time you ever told your wife you loved her? I said, I told her that when I married her, and that's good enough for me. She said, what? I said, why do you women have to always have men to tell them they love them? We do things to show you we love you. Yeah, well, we still like to hear it. I said, forget it.
- [00:33:58.85] She said, your assignment is going to be go home and tell your wife you love her. I said, not living. I didn't for about three weeks. I was going every once a week to see her. I said, I just can't do that. And she said, oh, you're scared to let your guard down, aren't you? [LAUGHTER]
- [00:34:19.60] So finally I did, and I came back. And she says, oh, you did? Feel better too, don't you? I said, yeah. But I finally let the shield down that I'd built up so long. And then I think the communication between my wife and I changed. We've always had good communication, but it's been-- your job is to do this. My job is to do that. Don't bring me your problems. You handle your job, I will handle mine.
- [00:34:51.40] And when we had a problem with the kids, then it's our problem. And we both have to work on that. It never was, you take care of the kids. No. When they were tiny, I'd bundle them up and take them, and go. She was working two nights a week, and I would go with them to let her get some rest. Well, you could-- I said, just go on to bed. I'd take them and sneak out and be gone.
- [00:35:17.78] But she brought me right out of it, to the point that I kind of felt guilty. All these years-- my wife and I have been married for 54 years--
- [00:35:31.15] INTERVIEWER: That's wonderful.
- [00:35:32.23] ROBERT WARREN FLETCHER: And all these years, I was not able to verbally say this, because of this shield that I had built. Post-traumatic stress is wicked. I'll tell anybody. Some people get over it, some can't. You always will have it. There are certain triggers. I can't watch certain movies, and especially movies of the military type.
- [00:36:02.45] My grandson says, Dad-- he calls me Dad. Dad, let's go to a movie. I'll pay. I said, OK. And we went and saw this movie, We Are Soldiers. I came home and I was in a twizzy. And he knew it. He knew it during the movie. And it really got to me, because it was so close to being true. That was the most accurate movie I've ever seen of being true.
- [00:36:32.74] And he said, was combat like that? I said, yes, it was.
- [00:36:38.24] INTERVIEWER: And tell me the name of that movie again?
- [00:36:40.10] ROBERT WARREN FLETCHER: We Were Soldiers.
- [00:36:40.82] INTERVIEWER: We Were Soldiers. OK.
- [00:36:43.77] ROBERT WARREN FLETCHER: Very good movie.
- [00:36:44.76] INTERVIEWER: OK. Now, one of things that you started to talk about was family, and that moves us right into the next section. But before we go to that section, I want to ask you about were there other African Americans that were prisoners of war with you, or were you the only one?
- [00:37:02.75] ROBERT WARREN FLETCHER: I think this was the largest group of African American POWs. There were approximately close to 500 or 600.
- [00:37:15.64] INTERVIEWER: Oh wow. OK.
- [00:37:17.48] ROBERT WARREN FLETCHER: Well, you've got to remember the 24th Infantry Regiment was all African Americans. The artillery was all-- 367 was all African American. Our Signal Corps was all African Americans.
- [00:37:33.79] And when the Chinese let us come into the gauntlet-- that's what we called it-- and they circled each individual unit. So you couldn't tie up so you got strength. Oh, they knew what to do. Please believe me.
- [00:37:50.72] So there was-- I couldn't-- we first encountered them. We fought five days with them. And out of 250, 139 of us surrendered, and 39 of us came back alive. And you can count other units that were-- you'd fight as long as you had ammo, and then you'd run out. And you have no objective but to surrender.
- [00:38:19.84] So yes, there was. I would say totally, in other prison camps, I would put it about 800 African Americans. Total.
- [00:38:30.93] INTERVIEWER: Yeah. And it's good you're sharing that, because, like myself, a lot of people probably don't even realize that and know that. So you start talking about coming back and family life, so you've already talked some about that. But one of the questions here is for you to tell a little bit about your married and family life-- about your spouse. You've gotten into a little bit how you met. Even in terms of when you were dating, engaged, married. And you said you've been married 54 years so congratulations.
- [00:39:02.07] ROBERT WARREN FLETCHER: Yup. Well, that's not very hard to do.
- [00:39:05.81] INTERVIEWER: It's not?
- [00:39:07.55] ROBERT WARREN FLETCHER: No. I got married right after I got out of the service, which was a big mistake.
- [00:39:12.45] INTERVIEWER: OK.
- [00:39:14.26] ROBERT WARREN FLETCHER: I'll tell anybody. Before you get married, you have to know who you are, and I didn't know who I was. All my buddies were married, and I said, oh, that's the thing to do. They seem to be very happy. So I got married, and after a couple years, I said, you know this is not for me. I still had that individual attitude. If I wanted to go do something, I went and did it.
- [00:39:40.95] And my ex-wife would say, where have you been? I said, whoa, wait a minute. Are you a police officer? I said, why are you questioning me? Well, you didn't-- I said, oh, don't ever question me again, please. Well, that didn't set too well, so we fought a lot-- not physically, but verbally we fought a lot.
- [00:40:05.62] Finally, I told her, I said, when are you leaving? I said, I've had enough. I said, either you leave or I'm leaving. And you can have the house, as far as I'm concerned. I had bought the house in Ann Arbor. I said, you can have it. I can always buy me another house. Nope, I'm gone. So one day I came home and she was gone. And at first, I was kind of really upset about it, but then as things went on I felt much better.
- [00:40:31.43] She filed for divorce right away in Pennsylvania, and got a 90-day divorce. I had met my wife-- I used to play semi-professional softball. And we were playing for the championship game. And she was dating a friend of mine. And I'd ask him about going to the game, if he wanted to go. It's the final game, the championship. And he said, yeah. He said, can I bring a friend of mine? I said, sure. You can bring two or three if you want.
- [00:41:08.17] So he said OK. So he brought her to the house because I was going to drive over. And I looked at her, I said, boy, you're the prettiest girl I've seen in a long time. I said, I'll about marry you. Oh, no no, no. I said, OK. You'll see.
- [00:41:26.39] Well, I lost track of her. I was single then. I got a divorce. And she tickled me. Ask Ernie. I said, Ernie, I said, that lady Carol-- you still got her phone number? He said, somewhere. I said, give it to me.
- [00:41:44.77] So he did and I called her one day. And she said, well, you're married, aren't you? I said, no, I'm divorced now. I said, no. I said, would you like to go out to a dinner or to a movie? Yeah. I said, OK. They had broken up.
- [00:41:59.88] So we went to dinner and a movie. And then it kept-- just her and I. So we dated about three months, four months. And I said, let's get married. She said, no, no. You've got too many girlfriends. She said, every time I'm at your house, the phone's just ringing of the-- [LAUGHTER] I said, they're just friends. No, no, no, no. They're women.
- [00:42:30.79] So I said, OK. Forget it. I said, because I can find somebody to marry. That's no problem with me. So about two days later, she was at the house and she said, are you sure you want to get married? I said, yeah. But if you don't, don't worry about it. She said, yeah, that's a good idea.
- [00:42:56.49] So I said-- she had said, well, do you want a big wedding, small wedding, or what? She said, well, I'd like maybe 25 people are so. I said, fine. I said, you go head and plan it. I'll take care of it. She said, no, my dad will. I said, hold it. Let's get something straight. You're marrying me. Your dad don't get none of our bills. Remember that. If we can't do it, we don't buy it. We do it together.
- [00:43:26.56] Oh, but dad's going to be upset. I said, I don't care if your dad's upset. I said, he don't come in and take over my place. OK. So we dated in about-- this was April, May and June. She said, I don't want a big wedding. Let's go to the minister and get married. All right. Fine. I said, save a lot of money.
- [00:44:02.73] So that's what we did. And we went to the Presbyterian church minister and got married. And that's been, like I say, coming up on 54 years in July.
- [00:44:15.23] INTERVIEWER: July what?
- [00:44:17.08] ROBERT WARREN FLETCHER: July 2nd.
- [00:44:18.00] INTERVIEWER: July 2nd.
- [00:44:19.55] ROBERT WARREN FLETCHER: Oh, yes.
- [00:44:20.33] INTERVIEWER: OK. Well, congratulations.
- [00:44:23.37] ROBERT WARREN FLETCHER: Thank you.
- [00:44:25.96] INTERVIEWER: Now, you mentioned you went to the church. And you said you were Protestant?
- [00:44:30.37] ROBERT WARREN FLETCHER: Yeah.
- [00:44:31.72] INTERVIEWER: So I want to ask you a question about the role of the church then and the role of the church now, in terms of in the community. Do you have any thoughts on that?
- [00:44:44.27] ROBERT WARREN FLETCHER: Well, my parents were mostly Methodists or Baptists. When I was a kid, we went to church for almost a full day. And I used to say to myself, when I get grown, I'm not coming back here. I don't care for this long sitting in the church listening to the same thing. I said, it's too much for me.
- [00:45:07.93] So as soon as I was able to make decisions-- sound decisions on my own-- I told my mother, I'm not going back to church. She said, why? I said, too long, can't take it. Everybody else is outside playing. I can hear them and I'm sitting in here listening to the preacher preach. It don't make sense to me.
- [00:45:32.82] Now, I go to church. It's one hour, which is just enough for me. And it's Presbyterian, and it's really not the preaching. It's what they're saying. And when you go to-- to me, to a Baptist or Methodist church, you get the really hell and damnation preaching. Presbyterian is smooth and once in a while they'll bring in a gospel oddity [INAUDIBLE]. And the people in the audience just stand up. Oh, they just love it.
- [00:46:10.55] And then they get their choir. And I said, see, the choir's dead. I said, they sing these songs but they don't have any life to them. And that's a big difference to me.
- [00:46:26.35] INTERVIEWER: So let me ask you this. That was good in terms of your personal experience. In terms of the role of the church in the community, did you see a role then versus now-- a different role now of the church getting out into the community?
- [00:46:40.78] ROBERT WARREN FLETCHER: I did not see a role in the church then. I did not see them helping other people in any way when I was young, because I wasn't interested in it. I'll be honest with you. And after I came home from the service, I did not go to church. Because my feeling was that God had punished me enough and I couldn't understand why.
- [00:47:08.39] Here I was, just 17 years old, and I had to freeze and go through the tortures of being in prison camp, and lice eating me up. And, why? But I never looked at the trials and the tribulations. I never looked at them. It was me, me.
- [00:47:27.32] And then about three years before I met my wife, I started going to a Presbyterian church with a friend of mine. Because the services were one hour, I enjoyed them. And I kept going, and my wife was a Presbyterian member too at the time, which was surprising. And she was going to the same church. You don't see somebody if you don't look for them.
- [00:47:53.51] INTERVIEWER: That's true. So you talked about going into the service at 17, and now we're going to move into work. So once you came out of the service, what was your main field of employment? And how did you first get started with this job?
- [00:48:12.25] ROBERT WARREN FLETCHER: Well, my main employment was the 52 weeks I had coming-- 52- 52-- 52 weeks at $52. It was 26 weeks when you added it up. I did nothing when I first came out, because I just could not see direction. I had post-traumatic stress. I was confused. I re-enlisted back in the service, then I backed out of that. I didn't know what to do. I just didn't know what to do. I didn't have any guidance of any sort.
- [00:48:49.97] But I knew I had to do something. And eventually a year after I was home-- oh, I slept in my car. These people talk about oh, they sleep-- I know what they go through. I did it. I did it. All winter, I had a house I could go to and just get into bed. Just something just kept me-- it wasn't pride. It was post-traumatic stress, now that I look back at it.
- [00:49:16.34] And I slept in my car. I'd leave it running for a while, turn it off, and wrap up in a blanket, and sleep. But it took me a good year before I said I've got to go to work because my unemployment had run out. I didn't have anything coming in. And I went to work for the Veterans Administration. This was '55.
- [00:49:46.30] And I worked there until '65. And I left the VA shortly after my second child was born. I wasn't making enough money. And I told my wife-- my wife was a nurse. And she said, well, I'll go back to work full-time. No, you won't. Because I was-- I guess a pride thing with me. That was attacking my masculinity-- that I was not capable of providing.
- [00:50:23.41] So she didn't go back. She stayed part-time. And we always said-- I said, if we're going to have kids, somebody's got to be at home for them. Because if school calls, somebody needs to go to school and see what the hell is going on. Not waiting until tomorrow-- now, because tomorrow they've forgotten what they did, unless it's horrible. And I don't think our kids would do anything horrible, but they'll do a lot of mischievous things.
- [00:50:54.45] So she stayed home until all the kids were in school full-time, and then she went back to work midnights. So when she came in the morning, I'd go to work. I left the VA and went to work for Sears and Roebuck. And I worked about seven years-- six years for Sears and Roebuck.
- [00:51:16.70] And they were moving everything down to Livonia. I was in the service department. They also sent me to Chicago to see if I was could be trained to become a store manager. And I passed all their tests, and they said, Bob, we'd like to send you. I said, well, I've got to think about this. I got a family-- a growing family. And I just can't say, pull up roots and go. It's simple if you're money hungry, but I'm not.
- [00:51:45.71] So Carol and I talked about it, and she said, well, you can do it. I'll be behind you. I said, no, no. It's not-- it's the kids. What will they do? Will they go to an area to where the kids don't like them? Now, we've got a fight on our hands. I said, so it's more than that. Yeah, but this is your opportunity. And I said, life is an opportunity itself. Don't give me that.
- [00:52:15.02] So we talked it over, talked it over. And she still ended up saying it's your choice. And after two weeks I told the store manager, Mr. Jones here in Ann Arbor, I said, I'm sorry, Mr. Jones. I can't accept this. He said, why? I said, because of my family. I said, I can't unroot my family and move them here. There's no guarantee I'll be at this store for over a year, and then uproot them and move them over here.
- [00:52:44.70] I said, they won't have any friends. They're all screwed up in their heads. And to me, kids have to have friends. That's part of their maturing. And he looked at me and he said, yeah but you-- I said, money-- hell, I could make money. I said, but I can't keep my kids happy and keep them maturing normally. OK, Bob.
- [00:53:12.59] And so I didn't take it and my wife was glad, because in Ann Arbor they can get a very good, rounded education. And they can come home and talk to your parents about what's going on. As assistant store manager, you're set to be working 10, 12 hours a day. You come home, you're tired. You don't really want to hear it. And it's not fair, as far as I'm concerned. It's just not fair.
- [00:53:41.99] So I didn't take the job. I became assistant service manager for Sears. I did all incoming merchandise. And that was a good job, and I got paid extra for it. I got a good pay for it really. But I just had that bug to try it for myself. And I went into a bicycle sewing machine repair shop.
- [00:54:12.72] INTERVIEWER: Sewing machine, did you say?
- [00:54:13.86] ROBERT WARREN FLETCHER: Oh, yeah.
- [00:54:14.72] INTERVIEWER: OK.
- [00:54:16.00] ROBERT WARREN FLETCHER: Because I'd been trained on sewing machines on Stadium Boulevard. And did quite well for about 12 years, and then the recession hit, and things kind of went [WHISTLING]. Then I had a heart attack and had to go in the hospital.
- [00:54:38.82] Then I got out and went back into the bike business. And things just didn't transfer over. I started-- about six months later, my blood pressure was back up.
- [00:54:53.99] INTERVIEWER: Pressure of owning your own business, huh?
- [00:54:55.67] ROBERT WARREN FLETCHER: Yeah. And with an A personality-- [LAUGHTER] three, four hours of sleep and then you're back at it, figuring out, why didn't I do this much this year compared to last year? I didn't sell many bikes? Why? It's just killing you. I didn't sell sewing machines. I did mostly repairs on them. So people would bring them in and I would fix them.
- [00:55:27.64] I don't know if I could do it today, but I used to be able to do it. But we did all right. So I sold the business-- got out of it-- had another heart attack. The doctor said to the wife, he's going to kill himself. She told me I was getting out of it or getting a divorce. And the kids were not grown yet, and I looked at her and said, no, we're not getting divorced. Oh, yeah, she said, I'm not going to see you kill yourself. Either that business goes or we go.
- [00:55:59.57] Oh, god. Taking one vacation in seven years. We don't have time. I said, how much money do you need to go on vacation? No, we're going. I said, oh, no. I don't have time to go on vacation. Oh, yes you do. I ended up going on vacation.
- [00:56:23.44] INTERVIEWER: I was going to ask that. That was going to be my next question.
- [00:56:25.38] [LAUGHING]
- [00:56:26.35] ROBERT WARREN FLETCHER: No, I ended up going. She put the kids on me. Every day-- Dad, we're going on vacation. When are we leaving? I said, your mother's going to take you. No, Dad, we want you to come. I told him, [INAUDIBLE]. All of them-- so I just had to take off for them. I always felt the kids were what really, in many times, kept us together, especially times I was exploding.
- [00:56:59.08] And my daughters-- both of them, my two oldest daughters-- said, oh, Dad, we understood. I said, I'm glad you did because I didn't. I would explode-- literally explode, and then walk out of the house and come back in, and say, hey, let's go to Dairy Queen. But they understood.
- [00:57:24.25] My son and I-- my oldest son-- he and I had a problem. I didn't know how to handle him. I didn't know how to talk to him, because I never had a father to talk to. And I'd be doing something, and he'd come in and he'd have a problem, like with his motorcycle. He'd go out in the back 10 acres and ride it, and come in.
- [00:57:47.49] He'd say, Dad. I'd say, what? He said, it's cutting out. I said, oh, it is? I said, do you know what's wrong with it? No. When I'm coming along not normally it does. And I said, yeah. I said, what do you think it is? He said, I don't know. I said, what do you think you should be looking for? I don't know. I said, until you can give me a better answer than that, I'm not going to help you.
- [00:58:12.68] Oh, he exploded. He went into the house, told his mother. Dad won't even talk to me. Dad won't help me. She comes out. [LAUGHTER] What is wrong with Joe? I said, I have no idea. Well, he said you won't talk to him. I said, yes I talked to him. You won't help him. I said, if I do the job, then he won't know what to do. I want him to diagnose this. If he's wrong, I'll tell him he's wrong, Carol. So don't you come out here telling me my business. So you go on back in the house. I said, and I mean now before I say something you don't like.
- [00:58:59.19] She going back in house and he came out. Dad, can you help me? I said, sure, I can help you. But you've got to tell me something, son. You've told me a little, but you have to diagnose it and tell me. And I'll tell you real quick, no, you're wrong.
- [00:59:18.94] So he guessed at a few things. I said, no. It's your ignition breaking down. So I told him to start it up, take the wire loose, and pull it away, and you should be able to pull it about that far away and still have an arc. And it would stop, then it would start, then it would stop.
- [00:59:38.15] Oh. So he went up to the motorcycle place and got points and condensers. And he didn't know how to put them in. And I helped him do that, stopped my work. He went out in the field. Oh, it was great. Oh, thank you, Dad. Oh, you're welcome.
- [00:59:58.64] But other than that, we had a hard time with him. He got into drugs quite heavy. That was some trying times. And he ended up out here at the boys reformatory or boys jail. And the judge says, OK, I'm going to send him home with you. I said, no you're not. The judge said, huh? I said, no sir, you are not sending him home with me. Now, you understand that? He said, yeah, why not? I said, because he's got a drug problem and nobody's looking at it, and he needs help.
- [01:00:40.10] Oh, OK. Well, the judge knew of a place up in Minneapolis, Minnesota-- Minneapolis, Saint Paul drug place. And so we took him up there, and he was court ordered up there.
- [01:00:54.88] INTERVIEWER: So did he get the help and how is he now?
- [01:00:57.15] ROBERT WARREN FLETCHER: Oh, shoot. He knew how to fake those people out. He was very intelligent-- highly intelligent, highly intelligent. When he was in the sixth grade, he was reading at a 12th grade level. He had read all of the-- I can't even remember the name of the movies that were out. What are the space movies? He had read every one of those books. I said, how long did it take you, Joe? Oh, he said, about a day and a half. Eight chapters, eight books.
- [01:01:32.10] INTERVIEWER: Now, that leads me back to the retirement. You talked about the children, you talked about your heart attacks. And so the question here is, how did your life change when you and your spouse retired and all the children left home?
- [01:01:50.57] ROBERT WARREN FLETCHER: Well, my life changed really nice. I thought it was really nice to have the house quiet, and none of them were around bugging me. Well, we raised our grandson too. We had one grandson we raised from the time he was that high, and up until he was grown and went to college. Jerome-- he used to ask us. Dad? I said, what? How am I going to go to college? I don't have any money. I said, well, don't worry about. I said, your grandmother's going to take care of it. I said, I don't eat for the next year. She's going to teach-- you go to college, young man.
- [01:02:29.98] INTERVIEWER: Even if she doesn't feed you, huh?
- [01:02:31.56] ROBERT WARREN FLETCHER: That's right. And so she did. She had set the money aside as time went on. She's always been the banker. I've been the spender. And Jerome finished college up at-- oh, which one did he go to? Up above Grand Rapids.
- [01:02:54.59] INTERVIEWER: Ferris? Was it Ferris?
- [01:02:56.26] ROBERT WARREN FLETCHER: No, the other one. There's another one up there. But he went there and he enjoyed himself, and graduated.
- [01:03:04.52] INTERVIEWER: He did finish?
- [01:03:05.43] ROBERT WARREN FLETCHER: Yeah. Oh, yes. Like I told him, you don't quit. No, no, no, no, no. That's a no no.
- [01:03:14.19] INTERVIEWER: So this section was about work, retirement, children leaving home. But I want to back up for a second, because I want to ask you the question about employment opportunities for minorities-- African Americans then versus now. I think you'd hit on this a little bit earlier, but add a little bit more on that.
- [01:03:33.85] ROBERT WARREN FLETCHER: Well, today, the opportunity for African Americans today to move up is great, as long as you've got the education. If you want to stay with McDonald's or Burger King or some of those, that's where you're going to be if you don't have the education. Become a custodian. And a lot of places now require at least a high school education to become a custodian.
- [01:04:05.80] So opportunities-- when I was young man, that's all you could become. We used to call them janitors. And you didn't have any opportunities to really-- or you went into the teaching profession. But you had an education. And when I was in school, I went to Harriet Street School, called Perry Street School now. Probably may not remember it as Harriet Street School, but that's what it was. Dominantly African Americans-- we had about 10 white families that went there.
- [01:04:49.55] Then they redistricted everything, which I knew nothing about redistricting as a young person. And then it became mostly dominantly black, but we had teachers-- mixed teachers. We had black and white teachers. I'll tell you one thing-- the black teachers were tough on you. They wouldn't take no crap off you. Oh, no.
- [01:05:13.38] And it was good. That's what I needed. I'm just speaking for me. I can't speak for all of them. I got my hands hit with that old triangular ruler. Whew, I just quiver. Now, she says, I'm going to call your mother. Oh, don't do that, please. Because I knew what Mother would do when I walked in that house. Oh, you're running the school now, huh? No, ma'am.
- [01:05:43.44] But no, that was the biggest difference.
- [01:05:46.22] INTERVIEWER: In terms of employment opportunities.
- [01:05:48.20] ROBERT WARREN FLETCHER: The employment opportunity was nil really, for African Americans, unless they had an education. Like right now, the VA in Ann Arbor is probably one of the most prejudiced places that a person of color would like to be hired into.
- [01:06:07.49] INTERVIEWER: Right this very day.
- [01:06:08.61] ROBERT WARREN FLETCHER: This very day. I know of three people who have a college education, applied for-- and they've got 18-19 years with the VA. And according to the VA, you hire first within before you move to the outside. They've applied for positions that start out at about $80,000. They hire some white person from the outside. VA is very prejudiced. And I've talked to people over there, and nothing. It won't change.
- [01:06:48.13] INTERVIEWER: So there are issues then, and it continues to be issues now, is what you're saying in certain areas.
- [01:06:53.64] ROBERT WARREN FLETCHER: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. Big issues.
- [01:06:57.95] INTERVIEWER: OK. So I'm going to move us into the historical, social events, which is part five and the final part for the interview. Tell me how it has been for you to live in this community.
- [01:07:11.83] ROBERT WARREN FLETCHER: Well, it's been very easy for me to live. I've always had a job. I bought a house here. Then I bought a second house here, and then I bought a third house here. And so my living here has never been a problem for me.
- [01:07:28.10] And it hasn't been a problem for my kids, as long as they can go to Ann Arbor High School. If you buy a house where that other school is, we're not going to live with you. I said, boy, that would be great. [LAUGHTER] But no. Ann Arbor has never been a hard city for me to live in. I know a lot of people here and a lot of people know me. Even before they realize that I was a veteran of Korea-- and it hasn't been hard really at all.
- [01:08:06.07] I think the one thing you haven't covered was my wife.
- [01:08:09.64] INTERVIEWER: OK. I sort of asked a little bit, but let's go back and talk about her.
- [01:08:14.00] ROBERT WARREN FLETCHER: My wife is Caucasian.
- [01:08:15.68] INTERVIEWER: OK.
- [01:08:17.05] ROBERT WARREN FLETCHER: She had her degree in nursing-- five year nursing degree at the University of Michigan. And she was working part-time and they got a new director in. And she said, well-- all the part-time people had to go. So she let them go, and she found out she had no nurses. So she tried calling them back, and my wife said, no, I'm not coming back.
- [01:08:43.07] My wife went to work for the State. And what she was doing-- she had one of the jobs of testing doctors and pharmacists for drugs.
- [01:08:56.39] INTERVIEWER: Testing the doctors and--
- [01:08:58.06] ROBERT WARREN FLETCHER: Pharmacists. Randomly they had to go in-- they never knew, but they had to go with the person, urinate in a little jug. And then that was sent to them, and then they tested it. Then the state decided, oh, that's too much money. We can't afford under our good governor. So he cut out all that program.
- [01:09:20.49] So she said, well, I don't know what I'm going to do right now. She got a nice severance package. And I said, well, just take your time. Stay home. And she did for about a week, and then she went over to the VA and put in her application.
- [01:09:38.44] INTERVIEWER: A week wasn't very long.
- [01:09:40.61] ROBERT WARREN FLETCHER: I'm sorry. She went to Beyer in Ypsi. No, a week is not long. That's too long for her. She went to Beyer, and after about 10 or 15 years with Beyer, they needed a new director of nursing there. And she applied for it, and she ended up taking-- she was one of the finalists. Only difference, she didn't get the job. She just had a degree-- RN degree.
- [01:10:08.54] So she came home one day, and she said, I'm going back to school. And I said, fine. So she went back to school and got her Master's. And we have a home up in Northern Michigan, up by Alpena-- year-round home. We were going up there and she says, what do you think if I go back and get my Ph.D? I never said a word. We're driving along and she said, did you hear me? I said, yes I heard you and I think you're crazy. I said, you're talking eight to 10 years. I said, I'll be retired by then. Yeah but what has that got to do with me? [LAUGHTER]
- [01:10:57.06] I said do it then. So she went back. In four years she got her Ph.D.
- [01:11:03.36] INTERVIEWER: Oh, that's wonderful.
- [01:11:04.69] ROBERT WARREN FLETCHER: And worked full-time.
- [01:11:05.81] INTERVIEWER: Wow. And had a husband to look after too.
- [01:11:09.95] ROBERT WARREN FLETCHER: And some kids, and some kids. But she has enjoyed herself. And she then left. Beyers closed. And she didn't do anything for-- she can't stay empty. For a couple weeks-- and she said, well, I'm going to go to the VA and put in my application. And she did and she was working in research. And she worked there, and then there were two of them. And they said, well, they didn't have enough money to support the two positions. They only had enough money to support one.
- [01:11:52.83] And since Mrs. Fletcher's been here the longest-- she said, what if I go to part-time three days a week? Would that be enough money? They said, yeah. She said, OK. I'll work three days a week. And the other person was a young person. The could work full-time.
- [01:12:08.13] INTERVIEWER: Right.
- [01:12:10.24] ROBERT WARREN FLETCHER: So that's what she does. She works Monday through Wednesday. And I have put up with her Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday.
- [01:12:18.56] INTERVIEWER: Sounds like you're pretty proud of her though.
- [01:12:20.05] ROBERT WARREN FLETCHER: Oh, I am very proud of her.
- [01:12:21.55] INTERVIEWER: I can tell. I can tell. I have a couple more questions, then we'll be wrapping it up.
- [01:12:26.00] ROBERT WARREN FLETCHER: OK.
- [01:12:27.09] INTERVIEWER: When thinking back over your entire life, what are you most proud of?
- [01:12:33.72] ROBERT WARREN FLETCHER: There's a couple of things I'm most proud of. One is my wife. The diligence she had to stick with me and to save everything she could save, and not spend, spend, spend. And she was very patient, very lovable.
- [01:12:52.21] Second thing was that I got a call from Jesse Brown who was Secretary of Veterans Affairs, back in the early '70s, late '70s-- yeah, late '70s-- late '80s, late '80s. And he said, Mrs. Fletcher, we'd like for Mr. Fletcher to be on the advisory board for former prisoners to war here in Washington. We meet twice a year. And she said, well, he isn't here. And I'd hate to tell you yes. And he'll hit the ceiling. So when he comes home, he should be home in about a half hour.
- [01:13:36.78] So I was home and the phone rang, and his secretary or whoever it was said, we'd like for you to be on the advisory board, Mr. Fletcher. I said, yeah, what's the advisory board? We meet twice a year, and I said, no, I don't want to be bothered. Thank you very much, and hung up. And I said, I've got to go do something. She said OK.
- [01:13:58.64] So they called back, and they said, we want him to be on this. She said, fine. He'll be there. Well, I ended up putting 21 years on the advisory board.
- [01:14:10.86] INTERVIEWER: Oh my goodness. That's wonderful.
- [01:14:13.84] ROBERT WARREN FLETCHER: I resigned this past May. And they want-- they've been postponing the meeting since August, to give out the plaques and stuff. So they finally said it would be July this year. So [INAUDIBLE] be bothered. This is the 10th time they've postponed it, and I just don't want to be bothered. I'm fed up. So she sent them a nice email saying, I'm sorry. We have other obligations. I said, why didn't you tell them the truth? You don't do that.
- [01:14:52.93] But no, I've had-- it's been a joyful 54 years, mainly because of her. She takes very good care me, makes sure I take my medicine. If I don't, she's right there.
- [01:15:07.25] INTERVIEWER: That's wonderful.
- [01:15:08.22] ROBERT WARREN FLETCHER: And she's kept me alive.
- [01:15:11.94] INTERVIEWER: OK. That's great. So what advice would you give to the younger generation now?
- [01:15:24.32] ROBERT WARREN FLETCHER: What advice would I give to the younger generation? I used to speak to some of the Pioneer students-- one of the history classes. And when I finished, I would say this-- the first thing you say is you don't have enough money to go to college, or any money. But you never said you could go into service and earn enough money to go to college. You're doing something for this country. You're earning money to go to college. It's called work, but it pays off in the end. As a young person-- work has never killed a young person yet.
- [01:16:08.62] I've had three or four of the African American students come back and call me. Mr. Fletcher, you don't remember me, but you were in my class and spoke. I went in the service and put in three years, and now I've got enough money to go to college. And I said, it works, don't it? He said, yes. I want to thank you. And I said, well, thank you very much for your service.
- [01:16:32.64] But that's the thing I usually end up telling kids that tell me I can't go to college. So what are you-- yes you can. It's up to you. Sacrifice six years or whatever it takes to get that in this stage. But that's the only thing I tell them myself personally. Military is a way of serving your country, and they need young people to serve this country because this is their country. And pretty soon you and I or none of the old people will be here, and it'll be theirs. What are they going to do with it?
- [01:17:09.71] You've got to know what this country has to offer to you and what you offer to this country. If you don't know those two things, you're in a big, big bind. And the kids who drop out of school, that's the bind they're in. They're just wandering. They just don't know what to do.
- [01:17:28.14] You see them every day on the blocks. You see them on the corners. They don't know what to do. The ones that are prosperous, they're going to community college. I went to community college. The place was almost empty. You can't even find a parking place out there anymore, it's so full.
- [01:17:42.99] INTERVIEWER: It's true.
- [01:17:45.57] ROBERT WARREN FLETCHER: Wow. My grandson, he started working with me in my shop at home. And he said, Grandpa, I'd like to be a carpenter. I said, it's a good trade. I said, but probably the only way you're going to become a carpenter is go out to community college and take their course, because this learning it by rote and by ear is no more good. You've got to have the certificate to get a good job.
- [01:18:15.11] Well, he went out there and he forgot. He didn't pay his last time when he dropped out. It was still on the books. So he came home and he wouldn't say nothing. And I said, well, what happened down at community college, boy? Well, they told me until my bill was paid-- I said, what bill? $400-- I can't remember the figure. I said, yeah, you've thrown that away so many times you don't even know what to do with it, haven't you?
- [01:18:46.41] Well-- I said, no, no. You know your grandfather don't like excuses. And I call that BS. So tell me the facts. And he sure did, and I went in the house. And I talked to his grandmother. He talked to his grandmother. And I said, OK. I'll loan you the $400.
- [01:19:11.86] And so we paid the-- gave him the money. He went over and paid it. Now, to get into class, he needs $1,200. [LAUGHTER]
- [01:19:26.79] INTERVIEWER: Went up a little bit, huh?
- [01:19:28.15] ROBERT WARREN FLETCHER: Oh, yeah. But he don't have no money. So I said, Kenan, you're getting to be an expensive tab. I said, you go talk to your grandmother and see what she thinks. And she read him the riot act. So we lent him the $1,200 to go to school. I told Carol, I said, he's worse than our own kids. He's just a grandson, but dang, he thought he lived here 24 hours a day.
- [01:20:07.85] You asked about empty house-- I've never had an empty house.
- [01:20:12.15] INTERVIEWER: Somebody's always been in and out.
- [01:20:13.59] ROBERT WARREN FLETCHER: Well, my grandson-- he grew up and he started his business. He lived there until he was 30, 32, something like that. Then he moved out. Then my next to the oldest daughter got divorced. She moved back with her son. And she's still there, which is great. I told my kids, I love them dearly. You can stay, but you do what you're supposed to do. That's the only thing I say. If your mother says you're going to do the dishes every day, you do them. If you don't want to do them, pack your bags and go. That's the only way I can put it to you.
- [01:20:50.36] INTERVIEWER: It's interesting because you often hear parents say people are coming and going. And so I hear that a lot. So it's good they have someplace to go home to.
- [01:21:01.04] ROBERT WARREN FLETCHER: It is. And I've always told them home is where you should be.
- [01:21:04.37] INTERVIEWER: Right.
- [01:21:05.21] ROBERT WARREN FLETCHER: Then you could think it over, talk to us, and see what we can work out.
- [01:21:08.32] INTERVIEWER: Right. So what I'm going to do now is give you a chance for any final thoughts that you want to leave us with.
- [01:21:16.69] ROBERT WARREN FLETCHER: Well, I would say my final thought is that I've enjoyed this. I've enjoyed the questions. I would like to speak briefly of the advisory board. When I went on the advisory board in Washington DC, I was the only African American. I was the first African American on it. And they were all officers-- colonels, generals. And I was an enlisted man. And then Dick Macaulay came on and he was an enlisted man.
- [01:21:49.25] Sergeant was the highest rank. I was a PFC, and they treated us like they wanted to walk on us. 70% of the ideas they got, they got from us. 60% of the POW treatment they got from us and the doctors.
- [01:22:16.50] And Doctor McNish, we did a survey after-- they gave seminars for VA people and post-traumatic stress and everything else. And I went to three. I spoke at three of them about my post-traumatic stress. And I found that they were the best things that really we did, in educating nurses and doctors. See, this VA hospital knows nothing about POWs. POWs have first priority at all VA hospitals.
- [01:22:59.93] And a good example was, I went down to Detroit-- didn't say a word for a sleep study. The guy looked at my record. Oh, he said, you're a former POW. OK, you come on right now. Got done, took me over to this other doctor, and he says, oh, you're a POW. Wait a minute. Well, let me get on this phone. He called somebody and said, hey, let's expedite this thing right away. We got a POW here and we can't be waiting around.
- [01:23:26.84] OK. He called him by name and hung up. He said, oh yeah. We'll have everything taken care of before the week's out. You think that would happen at this hospital? No, no, no, no, no. No, they don't even know what a POW-- I don't think they know what the words mean-- really I don't.
- [01:23:46.02] INTERVIEWER: So you felt the advisory board gave you an opportunity to really share that with people on the national level?
- [01:23:53.70] ROBERT WARREN FLETCHER: Yes, it did. Yes, it did. And we used to have people coming in from American Legion, VFW and everywhere else to sit-in on some of our seminars or some of our sessions. I think the second greatest thing that ever happened to me-- I was the first and only African American to become Commander of American Ex-Prisoners of War. All white-- largest organization-- was the largest POW organization in the world.
- [01:24:29.23] INTERVIEWER: Congratulations.
- [01:24:31.65] ROBERT WARREN FLETCHER: And my wife and five other ladies expedited that thing. Oh, they didn't want me. And toward the end, they got very nasty. And toward the end, they were just too much. So I told them-- I couldn't quiet them down enough, and I just walked out. I said, before I hurt somebody. One lady ran over to me and she went to put-- I said, don't touch me. Whatever you do, don't touch me. Please. Because when you touch me, that's a sign of war. And she backed away. I said, thank you. Walked out, went upstairs, went to bed, slept good, got up, had a dinner that night I went to-- introduced a couple of people I wanted to get a plaque.
- [01:25:35.29] They knew about it and they said, Fletch, we're so proud of you. How did you do it? I said, like nothing-- I can do it with anybody. As long as they don't touch me, I'm fine. They can call me anything they want to, but don't put your hands on me. Because once you touch me, that's war, and I will try to hurt you bad.
- [01:25:58.62] But those were probably my wife-- when they wanted me to run, a group did, I told them no. Because I didn't think I stood a chance being an African American in kicking people who were from the south. She got on the phone and made about 15 calls. And she said, we're behind you. You're going to run. She's white. You're going to run. She said, you're going to run. Your name's already been submitted.
- [01:26:29.89] INTERVIEWER: So how long did you hold the position?
- [01:26:31.58] ROBERT WARREN FLETCHER: It's a one-year position.
- [01:26:33.09] INTERVIEWER: OK.
- [01:26:33.97] ROBERT WARREN FLETCHER: It's a one-year position.
- [01:26:35.06] INTERVIEWER: Yeah. That's great though. But you know, it takes you back to-- when we talk about then and now, in terms of experiences, be it employment, education, and the military-- things have come a ways-- a long ways-- but there is still more work to be done.
- [01:26:52.63] ROBERT WARREN FLETCHER: Yes, there is. No, don't think that we're home free. No, no, no, no, no, no. There's a lot of work to be done. And I think a lot of the work has got to be aimed at the African American community and their attitude. Man, I'm not talking about getting on your knees. No. I'm talking about learning how to talk. Like my kids would come in with this street talk. When they hit the door-- stop it. They'd look at me. I said, now, turn around and go back out that door, and when you come in this house, you speak American English. That's what your mother and I speak. OK?
- [01:27:34.53] But that was one thing we insisted, that they speak very good English. Because if you speak good English, you can get a job. You don't need an education. But if you can't speak, nobody wants to hire you.
- [01:27:47.95] INTERVIEWER: Well, one of the things that you've done today is you've given us a wealth of information, not only for young people but for adults. And just sharing your story, we really, really appreciate that. So I just want to say that on behalf of the African American Cultural and Historical Museum of Washtenaw County, thank you very much for doing this interview.
- [01:28:08.84] ROBERT WARREN FLETCHER: Well, thank you very much. I was proud to do it.
April 7, 2016
Copyright: Creative Commons (Attribution, Non-Commercial, Share-alike)
Rights Held by: Ann Arbor District Library
Sears Roebuck & Co.
City of Ann Arbor
Willow Run Bomber Plant
United States Army
Prisoners of War
Black American Veterans
24th Infantry Regiment
Harriet Street School
Beyer Memorial Hospital
Ann Arbor Veterans Administration Hospital
National Advisory Committee of POWs
Race & Ethnicity
AACHM Living Oral History
Robert W. Fletcher
Richard A. McAuley Jr.