Overall heroes: One WWII veteran’s memories
An estimated 42 million people are expected to travel more than 50 miles from home, up 7% from 2022. News outlets are saturated with ideas for enjoying our three-day federal holiday weekend.
Buried beneath all the hubbub is the original intent of Memorial Day: To honor fallen veterans of our nation’s wars.
As a kid growing up on the farm in Woodbury County, our out-of-state relatives would return to decorate the graves, and attend “Decoration Day” services. Of course, there was picnic food and family visits, but it was anchored by these traditions.
This weekend, as he’s done for 45 years, my husband and a couple of neighboring farmers who served in the National Guard are placing flags on the graves of veterans. The flags go up on Saturday morning, and they’ll be removed on Monday evening.
A few miles away from our farm lies the decorated grave of my husband’s father. A Boone County native, he grew up on a farm and graduated from high school in 1942 at age 17. He was drafted before his 18th birthday. One of the lucky ones, he returned home in November 1945.
When I joined the family four decades later, I soon realized that he seldom spoke about the war. Finally, during his last decade of his life, a granddaughter convinced him to share his experience. Better yet, she put her court reporter skills to work, and transcribed his memories into a printed history for the entire family.
Loneliest feeling ever
Earl joined other draftees at Camp Dodge in October 1943, where he received his shots and was sworn in. They left by train for 13 weeks of basic training at Fort Wolters in Mineral Wells, Texas. After a week back home, he was sent to Fort Meade in Maryland for infantry training, and later to Camp Shanks in New York. (At Fort Meade, he got a pass and went to Washington, D.C., where he visited the Smithsonian.)
“At Camp Shanks, we just waited for the boat and when the boat come, we got on at night, it was the loneliest feeling I ever had, walking up that gang plank,” he said. (Camp Shanks also was referred to as “Last Stop U.S.A”.)
His ship, the USS Columbia, landed in Greenock, Scotland in mid-March. After sailing across the ocean and riding a train to England, the troops were out of condition. “They took us to the top of the second highest hill in England,” Earl recalled. “It was just above Bristol, and we were there, it was just running up and down hills and training …”
They left by truck on D-Day, June 6, and by evening, arrived in South Hampton. After three days, they boarded a ship. Earl graphically described the seasickness of the troops in the bunks below deck. Five days after D-Day they landed, and he joined the U.S. 9th Infantry Division.
The first of a series of harrowing experiences followed. “Started walking, and I don’t know how many days we walked without sleep,” he said. “But one night we were walking, and I must have went to sleep walking, and I slowed down. Evidently, I woke up and there was nobody in front of me and I came to a Y in the road. It was dark … I picked it up so I could catch up to them …” Then he came across an officer who asked, “Where are you going?” He replied, “I don’t know.” The officer took out a map and flashlight, and determined they were in German territory. They went back to the Y in the road, rejoining the unit.
The drive toward Germany
On June 18, the U.S. 9th Infantry Division reached the west coast of the Cherbourg Peninsula. It was to play a key role in the Allied drive from Normandy into the German heartland. As they walked to Cherbourg, he and five others were sent with a lieutenant to find a company on their left flank. A sniper shot them, and he was wounded in his back. A medic attended him briefly but all of them were left there in the middle of a pasture until dark because the sniper still was a threat. The next morning, the most seriously wounded, including Earl and his captain, were flown to a hospital in England.
After surgery, and time spent healing, he was sent back to his outfit on the move in eastern France by then. They traveled through France and Belgium, and after reaching Germany, they “leapfrogged” in tandem with the 3rd Armored Division tanks.
Earl’s memories included fighting deep in the Huergten Forest along the border of Germany and Belgium. “There were places where you never saw the sky all day, the trees were so thick,” he said. On the 23rd of September, they dug in a line outside of Schevenhutte, Germany. At daylight, he heard tank fire strike a tree, splintering it above his fox hole. Shrapnel broke his right elbow, passing through his helmet, skinning his left ear lobe, nicking his collarbone, and striking his arm.
“They got me down to the aid station in town and gave me a shot of morphine, which helped,” Earl recalled. “And then I took my helmet off and seen the hole in it, felt the blood on my ear, and I guess I got real pale because the captain gave me a big shot of whiskey. They put me on a hard litter and loaded me into an ambulance. I don’t know if it was France, Belgium, or Holland, but the nurses there all had big pointy funny-looking hats,” he said. He was flown back to a hospital in England.
Battle of the Bulge
After surgery, and more healing, he was sent back, ending up with troops in Fontainebleau, France. “We were sleeping in Napoleon’s horse stable … the palace was across the road there, and … it was Christmas,” he said. “They had black outs. The Battle of the Bulge started there.”
The troops were packed into boxcars, and the only time the train stopped, turning off its lights, was a night when they heard the German planes overhead. He reached his unit on the edge of the Bulge. They endured miserable cold in fox holes that winter, fighting through forests, and finally reaching the Ruhr River.
It was the site of his most terrifying experience. His unit was positioned overnight in a semi-circle, an estimated hundred yards long, and he was on one end. He took the first watch, and then headed to the opposite end to wake the sergeant, who would take the second watch. “There was snow on the ground, but it was so dark in that woods, and I couldn’t find him. I just started walking and walking, and the more nervous I got, the faster I walked, and pretty soon I heard harnesses jingling.” He realized that he had walked into a German camp. “And you talk about scared,” he said. “That’s the most scared I ever was. I figured sure I was going to get taken prisoner.”
But he walked away, reaching a road, and at daylight, he was back to where he started. “There was a tank in the middle of the road, flailing for land mines,” he said. “I’d came up the road that hadn’t been cleared of mines, and never stepped on a mine.”
After crossing the Ruhr River, his company hitched rides on the tanks headed toward the Rhine River, in pursuit of the German troops. Along the way, the infantry disarmed everyone in the small towns, sending them west as prisoners.
The strategic city of Remagen had the only remaining bridge across the Rhine, and it was a critical objective for the transport of Allied troops, tanks, and vehicles into the interior of Germany. Earl and his unit rode into Remagen on trucks, and found the bridge had been captured by the 9th Armored Division. As they were crossing the bridge on foot, Allied anti-aircraft intercepted German planes and artillery attempting to bomb it.
Earl and his sergeant hit the ground next to one another, and afterward, the sergeant said he’d been hit. Earl found a spent shell lodged in the sergeant’s backpack, but he was unharmed. It was March 1945, and Earl turned 19 years old.
Fallen soldiers, captured towns, victory
They spent the night in a nearby small town, and the next morning, the first round from a tank knocked Earl down into the cellar of a house, where he ate raw potatoes while surrounded by intense shelling. When he emerged, four of the Allied tanks were on fire.
The next day, he and four other men were sent on a fool’s errand by a lieutenant. Taking cover in a hay shed, a mortar shell killed a soldier only a few feet away. Earl made his way across three fences signaling for the three others to follow, but only two made it. The third one stayed behind in an abandoned building because of a broken leg.
Earl tried unsuccessfully to convince the lieutenant who had sent them there to rescue the soldier. Finally, after dark, Earl and two others returned with a rifle and a litter to rescue him. As they reached the window, they heard German voices coming from within. It was too late. They slipped into a granary overnight. “I tried to sleep there but the rats were running so bad I couldn’t sleep,” he recalled.
He recounted a battle to regain a small burg, and being only one of three left in a platoon of 39 when it was done. Soon after, Germany surrendered. They made their way to Berlin by train on May 8. “We saw the Russians going home, and they had their trains piled with everything they could steal,” he said.
Earl and other soldiers spent their furlough in London, Paris, and Berlin before leaving for home from LaHarve, France, on the Liberty ship. “It was the worst storm going through the Channel, everyone was seasick, and packed in like sardines,” he said. “I wouldn’t stay in the hold with all the heaving, but made a place for myself on the deck with a fold-up cot.”
He thought he landed at Boston, but he knew he was discharged at Fort Sheridan in Illinois. “We came on the train home, and Pappy picked me up at the station at Boone … ” He trailed off.
“Have I done enough?” Earl asked his granddaughter, ending his monologue.
More than 400,000 Americans died in the war, and about 176,284 of the 16 million who served in World War II were living in 2022. At the end of his service, Earl was awarded two Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star.
After marrying his Boone County sweetheart in 1946, the couple cashed in war bonds from her Signal Corps Service in Washington, D.C. They bought hogs and rented a barn next to the grain elevator where he worked. They lived in a farmhouse without running water or electricity, moving three times during the first seven years of marriage. On winter mornings, the water in the bucket on the kitchen floor often was frozen.
The cigarettes he was given during the war, along with his C rations, may have calmed his nerves at the time. They also could have contained whatever post-combat anxieties he may have brought home, but he never was able to kick the habit. Decades later, a doctor told him that he had a heart attack sometime during his life. Small wonder!
After serving in Europe during the war, he had no desire to return to relive those battles. In fact, he preferred not to travel at all, and he was most comfortable in a pair of work overalls. A founding member of the Boone County Pork Producers, he actively promoted pork and was named an Iowa Master Pork Producer in 1994. He served on the school and elevator boards, and was a 60-year member of the American Legion. He received a Meritorious Service to 4-H Award and a 4-H Alumni Award.
For 35 consecutive years, he sat on the north bleachers of the livestock show ring at the Boone County Fair in support of his children and grandchildren. He was proud of their talents outside the ag arena, too. When our oldest daughter needed to rent a baby grand piano for her senior recital, he surprised us with a check.
Earl combined corn in November 2008, and a few days later lay down to take a nap after lunch. He never woke up, dying at the age of 83.
At his funeral, a neighbor said his teenage sons were astounded to learn of Earl’s war record. “They thought he was just our neighbor who waved when he drove by in the pickup,” he told my husband.
“Have I done enough?” is the unspoken question that Earl and other veterans have continued to ask over the years in this country, through their work ethic and civic contributions.
They left their homes, families, and friends, and fought across the globe to achieve or maintain our freedom. This weekend, as we celebrate Memorial Day, we all should ask ourselves Earl’s question: “Have we done enough?”