Interview: Louis Valiante, WWII P-61 Black Widow Crewman
Heatherly: Tell me about your early years.
Valiante: “I was born in June 11, 1922. We lost my maternal granddad in 1927. Also my paternal grandmother the same year. They both were our favorite grandparents. I loved them both. I went to Catholic school and the first and second grade were in the same room. I was appointed to read to the first graders while the nun taught the second graders. Then in 1928, my Dad who had been in the World War One, was very sick. He had been mustard gassed and had to have a major operation. He did not go to the Veterans hospital. Our home doctor said he knew a surgeon who would do the operation and my dad would be recuperating at home. My Dad did not go back to work until 1933. Our doctor came to our house twice a day until my Dad got up his stamina. Being a vet he was given a very easy task for the city.
Then in 1929 came the depression. It did not affect us too much. I think the operation my dad had was partial removal of his right lung. He always was a tired person after he got off work. Neither parent ever came to watch us in sports.
H: Do you have any siblings?
V: “I have one brother who is deceased from pancreatic cancer. I have a sister living in Rochester, New York. I call her pretty nearly every day. She is a super sister. She has two boys and adopted two girls. Great family.”
H: Tell me about your school days and how you started in music.
V: “I went through junior high school and also high school where I played in the marching bands and orchestras. Also five of us guys started a band and we played on weekends. We didn’t make much but had one opportunity to play in Boston for Frankie Carle’s band and that was my first paying gig. This was during the era of big bands. I played with him only when he came to Boston, and I sure did enjoy it. My drum instructor got me the gig because he was already slated for a gig he could not get out of. That started in 1937. I also played in a VFW Drum and Bugle band and won the national championship competition in the Boston Garden in August of 1938.”
H: What else did you do in school?
V: “I also did my maternal grandmothers shopping and little chores for her every day. I also worked in a grocery store on Friday nights stocking shelves for the customers buying the next day. On Saturday, I was the delivery boy. Any purchases made the customer didn’t take home I delivered them.”
H: What did you do after graduation from high school?
V: “My Dad got me a job where they were making chain link fences. I was never a very big kid and the spools of wire weighed more than I did! So I made out an application for a job at Raytheon Corporation and got a position right away. I was very happy and told them I had to give my employer at least a week’s notice before leaving. They granted me that option and made me feel very wanted by them. After I went to work there I decided to go to radio school. My shift was from 4 PM till midnight. So my school hours were from 9 AM till 1 PM. I did my homework on the transportation system and also had lunch. Then Pearl Harbor hit and my hours changed radically. My schedule was from 5PM till 7:30AM with no room for school. And we were enclosed in chain link fencing and was checked entering and leaving the plant.”
H: When did you decide to enlist in the military?
V: “We were making equipment for the armed services. So one day I thought I should enlist in the service. My brother was already in the service and down in Florida for basic training. Anyhow I decided the Navy was for me. So took the mental tests and passed very well. Then the seaman brings out the Japanese color test book. Man, did I fail that. I am color blind. I was not a happy camper. But the seaman was very helpful. He told me that if I ate carrots this would improve this problem. You could have called me Bugs Bunny but it made no difference! So I gave the Navy up. I decided the only option was the Army and I enlisted on November 5th, 1942. I was sent to Fort Devins and had to stay there because everything I tried on was way too big for me. Eventually, I was tailored for a uniform and also shoes.”
H: Where did you go once you had a proper Army uniform?
V: I was sent to Camp Edison, right on the coast of New Jersey. In December, it was colder as holy Toledo! There was no hot water because the latrine froze. The only shower we had was during a weekend we had to go home on a pass. My buddy, who was from Maine, and I were going to Boston and he was going on from there. When we arrived at Grand Central Station our train had already left so we got a hotel room and bought a bottle of wine and stayed there. Next morning, as we were looking for breakfast, the clerk at the desk asked if we wanted to watch the New York Giants football game. He said they were free and we agreed. He invited us to eat our meal there and it also was free. We had a super day and boarded the train that night to go back to camp. This was my basic training. I never had held a firearm in my hands before now. We had a Gunnery Sergeant who had been in the Marines and opted out in I think 1938. But when Pearl Harbor hit he reenlisted. He left me with one statement I have never forgotten. He said, “If you are second fastest with this firearm you are dead.” He also said, “I do not ever want you to forget this.”
H: Where did the Army assign you after completing Basic Training?
V: Well after our Basic Training we were shipped to Kansas City, Missouri. We all thought were slated to go to Fort Monmouth, New Jersey as that was the radio school for all GIs. We were assigned to a hotel there and our classes started about 4pm at the Midland Radio School. The instructors were great and so was the school. We were there for three months. We were the highest graduating class that school ever had. Our grade was a 98. And I was lucky to make a 90. So there were some real smart cookies in our class.”
H: Did you have additional military schooling?
V: “We were then sent down to Camp Murphy in Florida. It is now Cape Canaveral. We were assigned for schooling on coast artillery radar. By the time we finished they had no more use for that type of radar so they sent us up to Warner-Robbins Air Base in Macon, Georgia. We hung around there not doing much but did go on maneuvers in Alabama. That radar equipment was an absolute loss. Every time a round was shot we had to retune the antenna system. We never would have won the war with this type of gear. Finally orders came through and we went back to Boca Raton. This was radar equipment that worked! We had no idea what it was going to be used for so we just continued our schooling. It was more that interesting. Then came orders to go to Hammer Field in Fresno, California. That’s the first time I was introduced to the P-61 Night Fighter. It was a sleek looking plane and black as the Ace of Spades. Beautiful and sleek. This plane carried three persons aboard: a pilot-bombardier, navigator, this guy is really a smart cookie and in the rear of that pod was the radar operator. I was lucky. I was a technician, instructor, and operator. I taught the pilots how to verify an object as being something we should hit with our armament. This was one phase of my life I absolutely loved. Getting even with those turkeys. They could not see us because they had not perfected radar and they were sitting targets.”
H: What was it like inside the aircraft?
V: “The plane was crowded up front. The pilot was ok, but the copilot-bombardier-navigator was a crowed person. He sat behind and slightly above the pilot. It was an awkward situation for this person. Both were looking at the same scope I believe. The copilot had control of the bombs or torpedoes. He sat about a head above the pilot. I thought it was a cramped area, but they got things done from that setup. The radar operator was in the rear separated from that area. There was plenty of room and we had communications with both men up front. Many times a target was identified by the radar operator.”
H: How did the P-61 perform?
V: “This plane flew very well and was superfast for that time. It could do all the maneuvers the P-38 Lightning could do but had more armament. It was also black which is why the crews called it the black widow after the spider. To me, at that time, it was absolutely the best available. It could and would
do the tasks assigned. It was kill or be killed.”
H: When did you get orders to deploy overseas?
V: “Well after receiving orders for transfer to overseas I was in line when the captain came up to me and said, “You are not going.” I told him, “I have orders in my hand,” and he tore them away and said, “This is where you are going!” The orders read Walla Walla, Washington. I said, “Where the hell is Walla Walla?” Well I found out. And I am still here. Love it here. Got here in October, 1944. I was promoted to staff sergeant and was communications chief for all the B-24 planes on the tarmac. I have lost count but it was either 28 or 32 planes here. This was with the 15th Air Command. Had a Captain Finch, from Topeka, in charge and he was a great guy. He had already done his 24 bombing missions over Germany. I had almost thirty guys working for me and never had to tell them what to do.”
H: Why did the Air Corps change your orders to keep you stateside?
V: “The reason I was unable to go with my group to the South Pacific was because Congress passed a law allowing only one son in the same theater of the war. It was called the Sullivan Act. That is the only disappointment I have had. Other than that things have been good to me.”
H: What did you do after the war ended?
V: “Well after the Japs surrounded we were up for discharge. We were going to go to Geiger Air Base in Spokane but they closed it and we waited another week and we were to be sent to McChord Air Base over on the western part of the state. Well again they closed and we waited another week. The sent us down to Fairchild Air Base at Sacramento. They were signing our papers and we were signing theirs. So we were discharged and so were they. Well I had doubts in my mind about the Japs signing the surrender but I didn’t think they would be honest so I signed up for another 3 years. Have been discharged twice. What you might find is I went into the service as white. But was discharged as black. The typist hit the wrong key. And I have not changed it. I was discharged on February 9th, 1946 and again in 1949.”
H: Why did you stay in Walla Walla?
V: “The reason I stayed here was because Captain Finch had a civilian secretary and she introduced me to her husband. He taught me lots about living. We used to fish together on the Touchet River at Waitsburg. They used to invite me to her mother’s place and golly could she cook. They picked me up at the barracks on a Friday night. Then they brought me back every Sunday. So when I got discharged I lived with them for eighteen years. I worked for one company for five years until I left and started working for Pacific Northwest Bell Phone Company. Put in 31 years. Enjoyed that time very much. Up till now I did not have time for music or anything else. Got up at 5am and fed the steers and chickens and horse and usually a couple of pigs. Here I am a city boy and knew nothing about farm work. Had sometimes about 300 to 500 laying hens. We sold a case of eggs to three different Safeway stores in Walla Walla. Plus I worked an 8 hour a day job with the phone company.”
H: Did you ever marry?
V: “My first marriage was when I was 40 years of age. We were married for 7 years. It did not work out too well. Mysecond marriage was for 34 years. Never had an argument with this sweetie.”
H: When did you start playing music again?
V: “We both retired in the early 80s and went south to California for the winters. That’s when I got back into music. We went to a pizza place called The Klondike in Arroyo Grande, California. They had New Orleans jazz every Friday night. It was standing room only. As the music was going sometimes I would get a couple of soup spoons and play with the band. After the second time I did this the owner bought me a set of spoons and they wanted me to play with them, and that led to more playing. The drummer liked to sing so one night he threw the sticks at me and told me to get up there and play. So I did. After a while another piano player asked me if I would play with them on Thursday nights. Up till then I had not played a set since February of 1940 as I did not have time or the opportunity. After coming back home I did get to play at the Senior Center in Walla Walla with some members there.”
H: Where did you start playing the washboard?
V: “How I started with the wash board was back in California. One guy brought one in and he started playing but had no rhythm. So he asked me to try it and golly I loved it. There was one clarinet player who had played with some big bands, and he was super good. He had that in my left ear and we knew what each other was going to do, He came back to California to take care of his very sick mother. Good son. We were only down there from October till the end of March.”
H: Do you have any concluding thoughts?
V: “If we could let the soldier do his job and get politics to shut up we would win every time we went to war.”
From left to right: Thatcher Cater (voice/guitar), Louis Valiante (percussion) and Bob Johnston (bass) at the Power House on New Year’s Eve of 2014.
Louis Valiante, selfie.
Christopher J. Heatherly is an avid writer, traveler and educator. He holds degrees from the University of Oklahoma and Monmouth College.