Tag Archives: Germany

Interview a Veteran

May 29, 2017 by

The Library of Congress’ Veterans History Project of the American Folklife Center collects, preserves, and makes accessible the personal accounts of American war veterans so future generations may hear directly from veterans and better understand the realities of war.

In the summer of 2015, while pursuing a master’s degree in public administration, I had the privilege of interviewing 14 veterans from World War II and the Vietnam War as part of an internship with Rep. Brad Ashford’s office. The experience opened my eyes to a different generation of soldiers (I work primarily with Iraq and Afghanistan veterans at UNO’s Office of Military and Veteran Services).

My first interview was with Darrald Harsh, a pilot who served in Europe and was captured by the Germans after parachuting from his plane. Harsh talked about his time in the POW camp, which was liberated by Gen. George Patton’s army.

Each interview followed a basic formula, starting with an overview of their lives before enlistment.

Helen Shadle, an Army nurse who served in Japan during World War II, discussed growing up as the youngest sibling in a large family, living on a farm, hitchhiking to school, and enlisting in the Army the first chance she got. She said the military offered her the opportunity to advance in an era when such opportunities for people like her were few and far between.

Many of the veterans held back the worst details of their war experiences. For some, mundane details were among their most cherished memories of deployment.

Jack Hetterich, who served in Europe, described the harrowing conditions of the march from France to Germany in the middle of winter. He recalled how his favorite care packages were filled with hand-knitted socks and treats that could be shared with fellow soldiers.

Bob Alden, who served in the Navy during World War II, said if you have the opportunity, enlist. “You learn a lot about other places and other people—what their lives are like,” he said, adding, “You survive if you make the right decisions.”

According to George Ostermiller, who served in Japan and assisted with the post-atomic bomb cleanup of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, “There’s nothing good about a war. It made me realize how fortunate we were at the time.”

Ostermiller said the military taught him about “patience, honesty, and integrity.” A feeling shared by many of the veterans, including Alden. “You’re responsible for all your decisions, every day,” Alden said. “All through military life, you have decisions you have to make on your own.”

All the interviews ended with the same question: “What would you like future generations to know about your experiences?” Harsh and many of the veterans expressed a similar response to that question: “Love your country, stay good. Do what they tell you, and don’t hold a grudge,” he said.

The Veterans History Project offers an excellent way to give back to your community. Contributing interviewers have ranged from Eagle Scouts to nursing-home volunteers.

Each interview takes 60 to 90 minutes, and the experience can be life changing. To get started, visit the Library of Congress website. If you are interested in helping, reach out to your local places of worship and retirement homes. Connect with your senators and representatives for assistance in recording these interviews with the Library of Congress.

Visit loc.gov/vets for more information and to download an interview packet.

The author of this article, Leah Meyer, is the director of the Office of Military and Veteran Services at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. This article appears in the May/June edition of Sixty-Plus, a periodical within Omaha Magazine.

The Tail-Gunner’s Grandson

May 1, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Filmmaker Ben Drickey’s lifelong fascination with history turned personal in 2001. That’s when he documented his grandfather’s return to Germany, revisiting the sites where the U.S. Army Air Corps serviceman crashed and was captured during World War II.

Drickey’s video of the emotional trip has only been seen by family, but the project inspired him to make video production his career after years working with still photography and politics. Today, he creates documentaries and branded film content through his studio, Torchwerks.

Growing up, Drickey was spellbound by family patriarch Wendell Fetters’ stories of being a tail-gunner on a B-26 Marauder flying with the 9th Air Force, 391st bomb group.

On an ill-fated daylight bombing run during the Battle of the Bulge on Dec. 23, 1944, his plane crossed the English Channel and delivered its payload over the Ahrweiler bridge. Enemy artillery and fighter flak killed the left engine, igniting a fire, but the crew bailed out before the plane went down.

Fetters’ chute pitched him into a tree. The impact broke an ankle, but he cut himself down. Alone, injured, and afraid, the 20-year-old Iowa native took a sun reading and hobbled west behind enemy lines in sub-zero cold and snow. Two days later, militia captured him. A family housed him over Christmas, and he spent the next four months in a POW camp before the war in Europe ended. After a stay-over in England, he came home to resume his life. He worked, married, and raised a family.

Ben Drickey of Torchwerks

Fast forward nearly six decades. Drickey was attending a family reunion, where he learned of his grandfather’s plans for returning to Germany to visit the plane’s crash site. German amateur historian Hermann Josef Stolz found its debris and used a piece stamped with identifying information to trace the plane’s manufacturer, bomber group, and crew. He invited Fetters to come pick through remnants.

“The rest of us were totally intrigued and we quickly realized this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” says Drickey, who, along with his mother, two aunts, and an uncle, joined his grandparents on the summer 2001 trip. Drickey went as a video documentarian even though he was strictly working as a still photographer at the time.

“I had no formal experience creating a moving image. I borrowed a friend’s camera and pirated a copy of Final Cut Pro. But I just knew I had to go do it,” he says.

With Stolz as guide, the Americans traveled to the site, where a cross memorializes the remains of the pilot, Jack Haynes, who died in the crash.

Even all this time later, Drickey says, “pieces of fiberglass, aluminum, and rubber” are strewn about. “I was picking up things to take home.” He displays one piece on his desk in the Mastercraft Building.

He says his “ecstatic” grandfather “was like a little kid being reunited with something from his past.”

The Americans next went to the nearby two-story wood and stucco farmhouse of Josef Hayer, the man who—at age 14—first arrived on the scene of the 1944 crash. Hayer had salvaged things from the smoldering debris. Among his finds was a tailpiece with a yellow triangle on a canvas peak.

“It was the first time on our trip where my grandfather was presented with the past in such a dramatic way,” Drickey says. “You could see on his face the memories just flooding back.”

Fetters then wanted to return to Eisenschmitt, the village his captors paraded him through to the home he was billeted in. He recalled a tannenbaum atop a table and framed photos of two German Army conscripts hanging on a wall. He was fed dinner and slept in the barn, then he was taken to the rail depot for transport to the POW camp.

After nearly giving up the search for the home all those years later, Fetters noticed a familiar landmark. Sure enough, just beyond the hill sat the house. Through translation, the elderly woman occupant said she remembered that war-torn Christmas when an American airman was brought to the house. She was 9 years old then. She recognized Fetters standing before her 56 years later.

She explained that the uniformed men in the photos were her brothers, and the pictures still hung in the same spot. She invited Fetters to see for himself. He refused.

“My grandfather said, ‘No, no, no, let’s go,’” Drickey says. “He went to the car and wouldn’t come out. He was visibly shaken. We didn’t know what to do, but we were standing there in awe reliving this history with him.”

As the visitors drove off, the woman hurried behind clutching oranges as a gesture of friendship. She handed them to Fetters. A family meeting ensued. Fetters held firm. Drickey explained he’d come too far not to go back, so he did.

“In my business, I would rather beg for forgiveness than ask for permission most of the time,” Drickey says.

He filmed inside the house and interviewed the woman, one of many interviews he conducted for the project.

The experience gave him a career path and archived a precious family legacy.

“I’m so glad I did it. It was such a learning experience for me about myself, my eye, and my ability to capture an image,” he says.

“So many things happened on this trip,” and Drickey says he can only appreciate them all by re-watching the footage.

His grandfather lived to see the video. “He thanked me for taking the time to do it,” Drickey says. “He was very pleased it will live on past him.”

Drickey has gone on to produce slick corporate videos, commercials, and short films. He also worked as cinematographer on the feature film It Snows All the Time, but nothing compares to that first personal project.

His grandfather—the airman who also served in the Korean War—passed away July 31, 2015.

Visit torchwerks.com for more information.

This article appears in the May/June 2017 edition Sixty-Plus, a publication within Omaha Magazine.

Remembering the Battle of the Bulge

April 25, 2017 by
Photography by Doug Meigs

The following interview presents my grandfather’s recollections of World War II.

A transcript of the interview, conducted in May 2005, is collected by the Library of Congress American Folklife Center’s Veterans History Project (memory.loc.gov/diglib/vhp/bib/loc.natlib.afc2001001.52021). Omaha Magazine’s version of the transcript has been updated with minor edits for clarity and accuracy.

Robert Wesley Meigs was born Oct. 11, 1922. He graduated from Twin Falls High School in Twin Falls, Idaho and was drafted on Jan. 16, 1943. After enlistment, Grandpa entered into the Army Specialized Training Program before the program was emptied to fill the 99th Infantry Division. He was honorably discharged on Jan. 6, 1946, after being awarded numerous distinctions, including a Purple Heart. Grandpa enrolled at University of Colorado through the G.I. Bill, graduated in 1950, became an engineer for Phillips Petroleum, and raised four children, including my father, John Meigs. All of Grandpa’s children would graduate from high school in Omaha.

Doug Meigs: Dad told me about how you were in the officer corps, and they were short on soldiers, so they emptied out the training colleges for infantry. Is that right?

Robert Meigs: Well, it was called ASTP, the Army Specialized Training Program. We were never told that was what it was—it was understood. But before that, I went into the service as a clerk typist, I went to a clerk typist school. Then from there I went to the ASTP, and from there into the 99th Infantry Division.

D: Had you graduated from high school yet?

R: Yes.

D: So you were just out of high school and thinking about college?

R: No, I was an assistant manager at F. W. Woolworth’s in Twin Falls, Idaho.

D: Why clerk typist?

R: Well, that was what I was qualified to do based on the entry tests. When I was inducted, we had a series of tests.

D: Aptitude tests?

R: Yes, aptitude tests, and they put me in. We didn’t know anything about what was going on. They took a big mass of people and then took their scores. I ended up in Camp Maxey, Texas.

D: Basic training was at Camp Maxey, Texas?

R: As soon as we got out of basic training, I went into the ASTP.

D: What would you have done if you were a clerk typist?

R: I would have been a company clerk. Well, I don’t know, actually. I was also in medical training. I could have also been a medical typist.

D: It would have been office work then?

R: Yes, office work: keeping records and checking on stuff like that.

D: Was there any sort of catalyst or reason why they emptied out the ASTP?

R: Oh, I don’t know. We had heard that they had closed the program down. That was about the time when we were into heavy casualties. I assume—but I don’t know anything about it—that it was for filling up the new divisions just being activated.

D: When you got in the 99th Infantry Division, did you have to be retrained?

R: Yes, we went from ASTP, clerk typist school at Camp Barkeley, Texas—where the typist school was—to Camp Maxey, Texas, which was for the infantry.

D: What was it like going through basic training a second time?

R: Just more involved. It was infantry basic training while the other was close-order drills, learning your general orders for the Army, getting acquainted with the Army, and indoctrination.

D: When they put you in the infantry, what were you thinking?

R: Oh my god!

D: I think I remember you saying a line about mushrooms and the infantry.

R: Well, that was not my quote. But some soldiers would say, “They treat you like a mushroom. They keep you in the dark and feed you B.S.”

D: So, you’re down in Camp Maxey doing infantry training, and these are the guys that you’re going to Germany with?

R: Yes, they had just activated a new division, the 99th Infantry Division. We were the fill-in for the people who were in there and had casualties, and we were put in the service of that company to fill out some divisions so that they could activate.

D: So there were a bunch of other people in similar situations?

R: Definitely. Most of the people in my squad or my platoon were ASTP people. We had enough of the original people who had been with the 99th for training and all, and some older people, but most of the group I went over with were in the same category I was.

D: What was the general atmosphere of the camp? Were folks scared?

R: No, it was just military training.

D: Was it frightening to know you were preparing to go into war?

R: No, because young people don’t have an idea what war is about. And it was the Army, and Army training was disciplined—a lot of discipline.

D: So, once you left Camp Maxey, did you go straight to Europe or did you go back to Idaho?

R: From Camp Maxey, we were sent to Boston where we departed for Europe as a unit.

D: Were there U-boats prowling the Atlantic when you crossed over?

R: Not that I knew of. They were out, but not in the area where we were. Some guys said they saw some. But I never saw any. We went over in a convoy.

D: Where did you land in Europe?

R: We landed in Firth of Clyde in Scotland, and from there down to some resort area on the coast of England—I can’t remember the name of it—and we departed from there to the continent. And we replaced the 2nd Infantry Division on the front line.

D: And then you were in Belgium?

R: Belgium, along the border of Germany. We came to the Belgian city of Buchenbach first.

D: Do you remember your first day on the front line?

R: Not really. We were taken down, and it was snowy.

D: I know you were in the Battle of the Bulge. That occurred while you were in Belgium?

R: That occurred when we went on line. We went on line in December. It was

Dec. 16, 1944, the first night of the Bulge. The action started in the morning where we were. It may have started before, but when they came through our area, I think it was the 16th.

D: How long had you been in Belgium by that point?

R: Several weeks.

D: So it was pretty soon?

R: Oh, yeah.

D: Did you have much combat between when you got there and the Battle of the Bulge?

R: No.

D: When you got to the front line, what was the atmosphere like?

R: It was in the winter, and we were in line. We had our positions. I think the division was spread out over several miles, 25 miles maybe. We were living in foxholes, and living on the edge of the woods. We had our company headquarters—units were out. And right across the valley were the Germans with a kind of stalemate—nobody would move. And in the Battle of the Bulge, they broke through our division and an adjoining division. They rolled right on back.

D: How many people are in a division?

R: 15,000.

D: So there were two groups of 15,000 and they broke through your lines? How close were you to the breakthrough?

R: I don’t know—pretty close. It was close enough that we were in a quasi-retreat. Then we got cut off, and we were behind enemy lines for a couple days as a unit. And going back up was, of course, after the first instants of the Bulge.

D: So, what was it like when you got surrounded?

R: Well, you didn’t know who was where.

D: Was there a lot of hiding? Or were you fighting? Could you see Germans marching by? It’s hard for me to even picture it.

R: It’s hard to describe because everything was so convoluted. We weren’t into any hand-to-hand; it was mostly artillery duels and patrols to find out where the other side was. On the morning of the breakthrough, it was just bedlam.

D: Did you wake up to gunfire?

R: Yes, we were under artillery most of the night.

D: So, did you basically not sleep while you were in combat?

R: We slept the most we could. We had four or five guys in a dugout, a foxhole.

D: How deep were these foxholes?

R: They were deep enough to where you had to stoop to get in—maybe 6 feet by 6 feet.

D: So when you were in the Battle of the Bulge, was the ground frozen or was it muddy?

R: It wasn’t frozen. There was a lot of snow, a lot of rain. It was extremely muddy. We were in the Ardennes Forest. The snow would pack in on the trees, and it would melt. But the water would be dripping off the trees for days. It could be a bright day but it would still be wet. The 99th Division was also called the “trenchfoot division.” Trenchfoot occurs from too much moisture on your feet and not enough circulation. They don’t really turn frozen, but they turn black.

D: Kind of like gangrene and frost-bite mixed together?

R: Yeah, there were a lot of amputees and toes lost.

D: Did you have any problem with trenchfoot?

R: Not trenchfoot. I think I froze my feet one time.

D: How did your feet freeze?

R: Just exposure.

D: Was it any particular incident when you were stuck or stranded?

R: Just living out in the winter. It was in December, with a lot of snow and a lot of inclement weather. One of the problems was the Air Force couldn’t fly to attack the Germans from the air because of the overcast.

D: You said prior to the battle it was just a lot of artillery. Do you have any personal stories, like the foxhole you were in being hit?

R: No, not a direct hit, but it came close. The first morning of the Bulge, we sent out patrols, and every company had a command post, and every command post along our regiment took direct hits. Before that, a lot of patrolling went on. We were patrolling on the enemy side, and they were coming back. So, they knew all the locations.

D: Were you on any of those patrols the night before the Bulge?

R: Yes, I was on a couple.

D: Was it like a different atmosphere, like you knew something was going to happen the next day?

R: Oh no. That patrol was days before the Bulge. We were trying to get prisoners and vice versa, but the Germans didn’t capture any of our men. 

D: Did you ever capture any Germans?

R: Yes.

D: What was that like?

R: They would give up since we had tanks. This was after the Bulge and we were beginning to move forward and advance. We’d find these pockets and then our guys would surround them and they’d take prisoners and we’d take them to the rear.

D: Were there any times when you were taking prisoners that you remember in particular?

R: No.

D: Back to the Battle of the Bulge, when every command post had direct hits, how did you know what to do?

R: At first, we didn’t know what to do, but we just followed our officers, and the leaders. After that was when they pulled on by us, and left us behind the lines. That period of time is kind of fuzzy, hazy in my memory,

D: What was the hierarchy of units, in terms of division, platoon, etc?

R: It goes division, ahead of the division is the corps, then it goes into what you called “triangular divisions,” and each division had three regiments, and each regiment had three battalions, and each battalion had three companies, and then you have your squads.

D: Were the companies broken up?

R: No, we were pretty much all together as a company. But people were all over the place trying to find their units. You’d meet a guy and he’d want to know where the unit was that was in that area, and they’d try and direct him to where they were located now.

D: Did you ever get separated?

R: Not really. We stayed together as a unit.

D: Then you guys got up to some sort of elevated or mountainous area? Dad told me you had taken refuge there.

R: Our division was in what you call the Elsenborn. Our unit was in reserve, at Elsenborn Ridge. We weren’t directly on line; we were waiting to replace somebody.

D: What was the process? You got up to the ridge, and could you see the German Army trudging forward?

R: No, we knew they were on the edge of the forest, they had their gun emplacements and they had their troops there.

D: Was the Bulge like they had a huge mass that just broke through all at once and then you saw the mop-up coming while your guys tried to regroup and find each other?

R: Pretty much. Our groups would try to hold up the main elements. In fact, it wasn’t our particular unit, but a lot of units in the 99th Division held up the German advance. You read an awful lot of history, and you read about the 99th and how keen they were in holding it.

D: Were there really heavy casualties in your area?

R: I used to have statistics, but I’m not certain. We probably had 20 to 30 percent casualties.

D: What was your role in your unit?

R: I had the Browning Automatic Rifle.

D: Once you realized the Germans were coming through, did you guys set up and put your tripod down for the B.A.R.?

R: No, it wasn’t that kind of fighting. They ran through. And we more or less retreated. Why? I wasn’t in on the decision-making. While we were on the line, it was kind of interesting; we had built corduroy roads for evacuation.

D: Corduroy?

R: We cut out trees and used the trunks for roads to keep out of the mud and the snow. And while we were on the line before the Bulge, that was mostly what we were doing and stakeouts, setting up ambushes, and patrols.

D: When you say “on the line,” you guys were at the very front?

R: The very front.

D: Up at the Elsenborn, when did you know the tide was turning and the Germans weren’t going to breakthrough and get the oil and all that.

R: I’m not sure, but at some point, all the units that could move were put up in trucks, and we were rushed to the Remagen Bridge.

D: So, you had already been put under Gen. George Patton by that point?

R: You know I’m not even sure, but that’s what I heard later. I didn’t even realize we were under Hodges’ command, but somebody told me we were under British command for a while, too.

D: So, you go from the Elsenborn Ridge on trucks to the Remagen Bridge?

R: After the German breakthrough with the Battle of the Bulge in December, we started north, then they trucked us south to the Remagen Bridge in March. We made the Rhine crossing at Remagen. In fact our unit, I think, was the very first unit across the Remagen. Our platoon was about 30 or 40 guys.

D: Where would you be in the placement of men crossing?

R: Somewhere in the first 50.

D: Could you see the first guy going across?

R: Yes, I think I followed him.

D: What was it like? Were you in groups waiting for artillery bursts, and just ran you across the bridge?

R: What happened was the Germans were trying to blow up the bridge, but the artillery couldn’t reach it. It could reach the west side, the side away from Germany. Then somebody, a sergeant or someone, timed it and figured out they were coming in bursts. And those bursts would hit the entrance to the bridge, so when we got that worked out, after a burst, they would shove people across, and once you got on the bridge you weren’t in any danger of artillery fire, but you were in danger from small arms fire.

D: The artillery was landing where you would get on the bridge?

R: Close enough.

D: Was that where you got shrapnel in your shoulder?

R: No, I got shrapnel on the other side, after I crossed the bridge. I don’t remember if it was a day or two after crossing, when we were going forward.

D: While troops were crossing the bridge, were there a lot of casualties?

R: Yes, but like I said, because of the position of the artillery, to my knowledge I don’t think we lost that many people there. But once we got in on the other side, then we were in the rear of the retreating German army, and they hit us with small arms fire.

D: You get across the bridge, then they get your platoon across, and then the company, then the Luftwaffe bombed the bridge, but the engineers built another bridge. Is that right?

R: Yes. When I was wounded, we went back to the hospital in, I think it was Liege, Belgium, and we crossed the river on a pontoon bridge. I came back to the hospital for some time, and then I rejoined the unit. By the time I rejoined, they had started mopping up what was called the Ruhr Pocket.

D: What was the Ruhr Pocket?

R: The landscape was pretty much the plains. We were like pincers—going around and surrounding German troops, getting all the Germans. The Ruhr Pocket was a big area. The U.S. captured thousands upon thousands of prisoners.

D: What exactly happened when you were wounded?

R: It was artillery. There was shrapnel. There were two other guys—two or three other guys who were killed. And I got small shrapnel in my arm, which is still there.

D: What were you guys doing, doing mop-up activities or patrolling?

R: Going forward, we were pushing the Germans back.

D: So, were you firing at the time, running and firing?

R: Just going forward, having the artillery fire at me.

D: Were you aware that artillery was firing at you at that point?

R: Oh yeah.

D: Were these two guys people who had been with you since ASTP, were they clerk typists too?

R: No, they were in our unit. That’s the thing—I don’t recall their names.

D: Was that a really traumatic incident, when the artillery hit you, was it really destructive on your bodies, were you really close together?

R: They shielded it.

D: So, you were on a corner?

R: I was on the outside, they were just advancing.

D: When you got hit, did you retreat with your wounds, or did somebody come and get you?

R: They sent a medic, a medic came up and looked at you, and they sent you back to the medical evacuation.

D: Were these other two guys in really bad shape?

R: I heard that they were gone.

D: You guys didn’t have any conversation after being hit?

R: No.

D: Were you close enough to speak to one another or were you spread out?

R: Spread out. I’m not even sure of the number of casualties, I just know there were casualties.

D: Do you remember lying on the ground with a shrapnel wound?

R: I remember when the shrapnel hit, and somebody called the medic up.

D: Were you standing at that time?

R: No, crawling on our hands and knees.

D: Oh, so you were advancing on your hands and stomach and it hit you in the left arm?

R: Previous to that when we were on the line, we had some casualties, but have you ever heard of a buzz bomb? They were ram-jet powered bombs Germany fired mainly at England. The engine would stop and it would glide. The target was London but they didn’t have the sophisticated guidance technology. One day, one broke over our line, and their warheads were wrapped in wire. When it exploded, it spread shrapnel. I remember poor old Ned Potter, and he was on line, and he was hit, right across here, and it made a couple marks across his penis.

D: Was it deadly for Ned?

R: He had to go back to the hospital, and he wasn’t in the hospital I was in. This happened before I was there. But he finally came back and he was telling about it, and they put a curtain around his bed, and all the nurses and everybody would come over because they wanted to see the guy with the wounded penis.

D: Were those buzz bombs pretty heavy-duty then?

R: Oh yeah, they were huge, and I’ve heard that was what it was that hit us. But I couldn’t even tell you. If it was, it was one that didn’t reach its destinations. It just fell short. But when it hit, it really exploded.

D: How much of an area would it have taken off?

R: Oh gosh, I have no idea.

D: So, after you got wounded, troops took you across the pontoon bridge. Then, after you recovered and returned, heavy fighting still raged?

R: Oh yeah, we took a lot of our casualties then. There we were destabilizing pockets of resistance.

D: In the Ruhr Pocket, what was the largest group of Germans you captured?

R: I didn’t have to force any of them to surrender. I think the most I had to take back to the rear was two or three.

D: What was it like walking with these Germans as prisoners? Were they tied up?

R: No. You had your gun pointed at them out in front of you.

D: Did you ever have any try to take off or some that wanted to escape?

R: No. They were pretty anxious to get out of there.

D: Any Germans speak English over there?

R: Oh, probably in some of the camps. I don’t remember. Some of them spoke pidgin English, some of us spoke pidgin German.

D: Were many of your friends injured in the mop-up?

R: Several of them were. A guy lost an eye. While we were going forward, I saw this sergeant crouched in front. He’d direct the guys where he wanted them and about that time I heard a “kerplunk.” There was a sniper who had got him right in the gut. He just begged for us to shoot him. We called the medics, but he didn’t make it back. Then, I think the same sniper shot at my unit. They missed me luckily but finally one of our guys figured out where he was.

D: Dad mentioned how you were out with a platoon, and a sniper was picking off guys and you had to play dead until nightfall.

R: Well, that was the same time with this sniper.

D: So it started with the sniper hitting your sergeant in the stomach, then did you guys all fall to the ground?

R: Yes. We were all down, trying to get where we weren’t targets.

D: So, you got down and got away to the edge of things?

R: Yeah, after they had neutralized the sniper, then they came out and evacuated.

D: That sergeant got hit, and he was down a couple hours, and the medics came but he had to wait?

R: There was some wait I don’t remember how long it was. We were moving so fast, the memories go. What I should have done was kept a diary.

D: Did you send letters to Grandma Maddy?

R: Oh, yeah. There was a special mail that you could send back.

D: About how often did you mail her?

R: Madeline said it wasn’t very often, but it seemed to me like it was quite often.

D: So, what was the last German city you remember?

R: Wurzburg is where we ended up. It was on the Main River. And that was after the war was over, and we were occupying. We were there for about two months after March of 1945. We also spent a lot of time occupying the town of Randersacker waiting to be transferred to Japan.

D: And that’s where you heard about the bomb?

R: And when Roosevelt died.

D: What was it like occupying the town?

R: We did guard duty.

D: Were the residents unhappy?

R: Yes. We would take over homes for billets. We’d take over two or three buildings to sleep, like barracks, and we had our mess hall. And we’d go into Wurzburg for assigned duties. After they dropped the bomb, the war was over as far as we were concerned.

D: So, what happened next for you?

R: From there we went to what they called “cigarette camps,” where we were deployed back to the U.S. They were back in France. Before the bomb, we were told we would be shipped from Germany through the Panama Canal to Japan. But that was only rumor. So when the war was over, we were redeployed to the cigarette camps. And from there we were assigned points according to how many days we were in combat, how many days we were overseas, and they added them up until you could be shipped back overseas.

D: Did you have to wait around long?

R: I must have waited around. The war ended in the spring—May 8, 1945—and I got back in November.

D: Were you eager to get home?

R: Sure, everybody was. I wish I kept a diary. We didn’t do much of that. I didn’t, at least, and I don’t think many of the guys did.

D: Did you run across any concentration camps while you were in Germany?

R: Yes. Our unit relieved one. We came in and opened it up. They made the mistake of opening the gates, and these inmates went nuts over the countryside and were going into farms and picking up rabbits and anything they could get. I remember one had a rabbit by the neck and a bayonet. It was pretty horrible. Then, at night, you’d see all these little fires around where they were squatting.

D: Was it like a refugee camp all around?

R: Eventually, when they rounded them up again. For a while they were on their own.

D: Were you aware of the concentration camps?

R: Yes.

D: What was your role on the liberation of the camp?

R: Support troops.

D: What was the atmosphere when you heard the first atomic bomb was dropped?

R: Relief. The war was ending for all practical purposes.

D: Was there a different attitude from the first to the second bomb?

R: I don’t remember. It just meant there was a good chance we wouldn’t be going to Japan. When the war ended in Europe, the war was still going on in Japan, and they were still sending troops in to meet the Japanese. After the bombs dropped and they surrendered, there was no need for the big armies of Europe to go to Japan. Then the problem of redeployment came up, and we went from Germany to the cigarette camps in France before we were shipped out and landed in New York. When you think of it, there were 12 to 13 million people in uniform. There was always something going on. There were huge movements of people.

D: You have a lot of medals. What are they from?

R: Most of those were for campaigns and a Purple Heart. We also got a unit citation from Belgium for our defense of Belgium before and after the Bulge.

D: Was it pleasant in France after the war ended?

R: No. It was cold. We had these big barracks and cots. Are you familiar with meat wrapping paper? We’d sleep on these cots, and the cold would come from underneath, and it was bitter. So, we’d go down to the meat market and get rolls of the meat wrapping paper and make them a pile thick to insulate the cots. I remember that, but everything moved so fast.

Doug Meigs is the executive editor of Omaha Publications.

A Treasure in Stained Glass

April 16, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Sometime around 1904, when Omaha Bishop Richard Scannell visited Europe to invite young men to serve as priests among the German-American members of the Omaha diocese, the Rev. Bernard Sinne was among those who responded.

Sinne was born Dec. 9, 1878, in Elsen, Westphalia. He was ordained to the priesthood May 5, 1904, in Freiburg. The following August, Sinne was appointed pastor of St. Mary Magdalene Church in Omaha. He was 27 years old and served as pastor for 57 years.

Before Sinne left Germany for Omaha, he was told by his bishop that he was “a goat to go to Omaha, where he would have to ride horseback all day and sleep in an Indian tent all night.” Sinne ended up in Omaha doing neither.

What Sinne did do was build and preserve a church that holds the most beautiful stained glass windows in Omaha, windows from the studios of Franz Mayer in Munich, Germany.

There is no other church in Omaha, no other church in the state of Nebraska, and probably no other church in the United States that has such a fine collection of stained glass as does St. Mary Magdalene at 19th and Dodge streets. This church could be considered the Sistine Chapel of stained glass in the United States.

It wasn’t an easy thing to do, to keep St. Mary Magdalene Church above ground. In the 1920s, the city administration decided to lower Dodge Street because the incline was too great. The church was then “built down” to accommodate the new street level.

After building the church down and turning the basement into the main level, Sinne ordered a new set of windows from the Franz Mayer company for the new main level.

In 1926, Sinne was honored for his work lowering the church and his many years of service at St. Mary Magdalene. At the ceremony, he admitted that the cutting down of Dodge Street’s hill “was the greatest cross that ever visited me. But with your assistance, we have been able to bear the heavy expense [estimated to be $150,000].”

There are other churches in the United States that have stained glass windows from the Franz Mayer studios, but none have two full sets, spanning a generation, that display the work of artisans from Munich so well.

Ironically, representatives of the Franz Mayer company had forgotten about their windows in Omaha. It seems that the destruction brought about by two world wars had devastated the company’s records. It was only after an inquiry was made about the “Good Samaritan on the Battlefield” window did they search their remaining records. To their surprise, they realized they had shipped stained glass to Omaha in the 1930s.

Of all the windows in the church, the “Good Samaritan on the Battlefield” is probably the most unusual. This window was installed between the two world wars, at a time when German immigrants to Omaha were involved in a difficult question of identity—were they Americans or were they Germans?

With Hitler on the rise in Germany, the question of patriotism took on new meaning for both  Sinne and his many German parishioners. In the battle scene depicted in the Good Samaritan window, we see written in Latin, “Pro Deus et Patria.” For God and Country.

The Good Samaritan window is also significant because, while working with a representative of the present-day Franz Mayer company, the church discovered the original cartoon for the window design.

Other windows in the church also have stories to tell. The window that depicts the Evangelist Luke bears a dedication to the contractor Benno Kunkel, who built the present church for $40,000.

As the German community in Omaha moved west into St. Joseph’s parish and the bishops were working to build St. Cecilia Cathedral, Sinne quietly made St. Mary Magdalene Church into an Omaha artistic treasure. In so doing, he also left us with some mysteries.

Why is there no window depicting the crucifixion at St. Mary Magdalene? Most Catholic churches have a window that shows the crucifixion. Instead, opposite each other in the church, windows depict the birth and resurrection of Jesus. Furthermore why in a church named after St. Mary Magdalene, is there no window dedicated to her? Instead, there are two windows dedicated to St. Cecilia.

What will be the future of this Nebraska treasure of stained glass? In a city that often seems dead set on demolishing its past and replacing it with more glass and steel boxes, the future does not look bright for these historic windows or the church.

Many of the windows are now more than 100 years old and are in need of repair. Parts of some windows are missing. The church itself needs extensive repair, and just like a masterpiece by Rembrandt that has an elegant frame around it, so the building that holds these stained glass treasures has to become the elegant frame that holds the windows up.

We owe it to the memory of Sinne that the art treasure he has given Omaha be preserved and restored. Some men build a cathedral on a hill to demonstrate their power, other men build a church (and decorate with windows from the Franz Mayer company) to show their love.

Researching the Windows

The gravel walk to the Douglas County Historical Society is strewn with red maple leaves. It is early in a dry November. Already, the Crook House next door to the society library is decorated with Christmas garlands.

Then Monsignor Sinne had given an interview to the Greater Omaha Historical Society in 1959. The interview was conducted in the rectory at St. Mary Magdalene Church. That tape is now in the possession of the Douglas Historical Society, and I am on my way to hear it. The interview was conducted by the Rev. Henry Casper, S.J., author of the History of the Catholic Church in Nebraska, and an unidentified woman.

The old tape player in the historical society’s listening room is covered in dust. Sinne’s voice, the voice of an older man, sounds dusty, too. He was 83 years old at the time of the interview.

On the tape, which breaks up from time to time, Sinne relates his experiences as a young man and new pastor in Omaha. You can still hear a German accent in his voice. In the interview, he admits that when he came to Omaha his first impression of the city was seeing all the beer signs. When asked about that, he remarked, “Lord in heaven!”

We learn from the tapes that Leo A. Daly was one of the architects of the Blessed Sacrament Chapel. The Leo A Daly company still works in Omaha today (and maintains its international headquarters in the city). After getting an architect, the monsignor went to Chicago to get a construction firm. He claims, all together, the work on the chapel cost $275,000.

All in all, the taped interview does not reveal much about the windows at St. Mary Magdalene. But the oral history does shed light on the monsignor’s personal background. He came from a wealthy German family. This may account for where the money came from to decorate the church and buy the windows.

It’s disheartening to realize that the interview recording—which lasts more than an hour—does not answer questions we would like to ask Sinne. At the end of the tape, I realize this voice from the past is also a voice from another world.

Then, there comes a surprise. Besides the two cassette tapes, the Historical Society has a manila folder with newspaper clippings about Sinne. Mixed up among the yellowed clippings is a copy of a short article from the World-Herald on Thursday, Aug. 6, 1914. The article says that Sinne had three brothers: Two of them were in the German army, to be posted to Cologne, no doubt preparing to fight in WWI. The third brother was in the United States and “responding to the reserves call.”

The tape rewinds. The monsignor’s voice sounds weary. I pack the laptop and sling my backpack over a shoulder. The old door to the library creeks open as I leave and walk down the wooden steps. I kick at fallen red maple leaves on the way to my car.

Did it happen that Sinne’s brothers fought on different sides during WWI? Could this be the reason for the war memorial window, for the Good Samaritan on the Battlefield? Could it be that Sinne had this window installed to remember his brothers? More unanswered questions.

The late afternoon sunlight is brilliant while casting long shadows. This glow of a dwindling autumn holds not the promise of spring. It lends its light only a short while.

Robert Klein Engler is a member of St. Mary Magdalene parish and works part-time at Joslyn Art Museum. He holds degrees from the University of Illinois-Urbana and the University of Chicago Divinity School. Visit archomaha.org for more information.

“The Good Samaritan on the Battlefield”

This article was printed in the March/April 2017 edition of 60 Plus.

Prince of Cups

August 10, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Most folks use cups only for drinking. Not Andrew Dale. The unconventional 12-year-old athlete from Omaha uses cups to travel the globe, forge international friendships, and hone his world-class sport stacking skills.

“Not many people know that stacking is a sport,” says Dale, Nebraska’s top-ranked stacker. “It takes dedication and lots of practice to become a top competitor. You actually sweat from it.”

Sport stacking—governed by the World Sport Stacking Association (WSSA) and sanctioned as a Junior Olympics sport—is both an individual and team sport where competitors stack plastic cups in regulated sequences as quickly as possible.

In his basement stacking lair, surrounded by scores of trophies, medals, and an army of aerodynamic cups, Dale demonstrates why he’s nationally and internationally ranked. His expert hands fly into a blur, growing and shrinking pyramids of cups as they tap out a distinct beat.        

Sport stacking was pioneered in 1981 by Wayne Godinet at a Boys & Girls Club in Oceanside, California. Bob Fox, a Colorado elementary school teacher, took the sport to the next level in the late `90s when he founded Speed Stacks and the WSSA. While primarily a youth sport, divisions range up to seniors.               

Dale casually began sport stacking in 2012 after watching a 2002 video of Emily Fox—Bob Fox’s daughter—setting one of the sport’s early world records.   

“I thought it was just awesome, so I started stacking at home with plastic drinking cups,” says Dale, who currently holds world and national records in the 11-12 division, and is WSSA-ranked  No. 5 worldwide and  No. 4 in the U.S.

Although sometimes peeved to search in vain for cups, Mark Dale appreciated his son’s enthusiasm for what he initially thought would be a passing fancy. So, Mark and his late wife, Kate Dale, allowed the house-wide stacking, the missing cups, and the percussive clamor of practice, eventually granting Andrew’s wish to compete in his first tournament in Maryland in 2013.      

“After day one, he was first in his division across the board,” says Mark, adding that Andrew’s performance pleasantly surprised him and Kate. “We came back the second day for the finals, and now we’re nervous!”

Nerves gave way to celebration when Andrew finished first across the board and won the national championship, shortly after which he was invited to join the Team USA Junior Olympics sport stacking team.

“It’s very rare to get invited after your first tournament. When I was first getting into it, I never thought I’d actually become one of the fastest kids in the world. I thought I’d just be a regular kid, just stacking cups,” says Dale, who is consistently humble about his incredible talent.

While Dale enjoys stacking and excelling in competitions, he also loves the camaraderie of the sport stacking community, which gives him the opportunity to make friends worldwide. He scrimmages and hangs out online with friends from South Korea, Malaysia, Germany, Canada, and cities across the U.S.

Dale’s stacking career allows him to explore the U.S.—he’ll be in Houston this summer for the 50th Anniversary Junior Olympic Games—and travel internationally, too.

“It’s so interesting to see new places in person. It’s just amazing,” he says.

Dale’s been to Montreal, where he finished second in the 2015 World Sport Stacking Championships, and his mother Kate’s hometown of Seoul, South Korea, which was especially poignant after her passing from cancer in February of 2016.     

“Kate and I really tried to instill maintaining humility and the Golden Rule in Andrew,” says Mark, who is as proud of Andrew’s sportsmanship as his talent. “I’m thrilled with his discipline and astounded at how calm and collected he is at these major tournaments. To be considered a top competitor in the world in anything is a remarkable, unbelievable achievement.”

Visit youtube.com/user/SportsStacker16 for more information.

GenO

Die Geschichte von Omaha Bier

September 16, 2015 by

Since 1587, when Virginia colonists first created ale using corn, beer has been a big part of American history.

The first known brewery in the New World opened in 1612 in New Amsterdam (now New York City). The Massachusetts Provincial Council mandated in 1775 that each soldier receive a daily quart of spruce beer (flavored with spruce tree needles) or cider during the Revolutionary War.

Omaha’s first hops-and-grains manufacturer, founded by Frederick Krug, came nearly two centuries later.

Krug trained as a brewer in his hometown of Niederzwehren, Germany, before leaving the country at age 19. He founded Fred Krug Brewery in 1859 at 26 years old. The original factory was in a small building near 10th and Farnam streets.

He moved his business in 1867 to a plant at 11th and Jackson streets and soon occupied the entire block. By 1880, Omaha had four large-scale beer makers: Storz, Willow Springs, Metz, and Krug, the largest of them all.

On October 17, 1894, Krug unveiled a new plant at 24th and Vinton streets. The new brewery employed approximately 500 men, many European immigrants like their boss.

A new century brought with it new opportunity—and new advances in…uh, medicine? Advertising in 1910 extolled Krug’s beer brands as “a tonic,” stating it “leaves no bad after effects.” Brand names included Cabinet, Fred Krug, and Luxus.

Krug’s capital gains helped them support an amateur baseball team, called The Luxus after the brew, which reached the 1915 National Amateur Baseball Tournament in Cleveland. The Omaha players lost 11-6 to home team the White Autos as a record-breaking crowd of more than 100,000 watched. That event is considered one of the highest-attended baseball games in history.

The loss symbolized things to come for Krug. The thirst-quencher known to cause startling behavior (and subsequent memory loss) gained political adversaries, who succeeded in getting the 18th Amendment passed. Prohibition hit the nation at midnight on Jan. 16, 1920, and pubs and breweries closed while speakeasies filled the void. The Krug plant reopened in 1933 following the repeal.

In 1936, the Falstaff Brewing Company of St. Louis acquired Krug and remodeled the plant that operated as one of the country’s best-equipped breweries before folding. They experienced a half-century of business before closing for good in 1987.

The new American at the helm of the company served on the board of directors of the German Savings Bank and of the State of Nebraska immigration board. He also owned Krug Park, an amusement park in Benson.

Krug and his wife, Anna, lived just south of downtown on 20th Street.

Krug’s brewery was a family affair. His sons, William, Fred H., Jacob, and Albert worked there. Frederick Krug and three of his sons are buried in Prospect Hill Cemetery, believed to be Omaha’s oldest.

Krug Brewery1

Retirement on the Road

July 30, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

This article appears in 60-Plus June/July 2015 edition.

Fritz Sampson says he likes to travel slowly, but the words “travel” and “slowly” can conjure up thoughts of lounging over three hour-long dinners in Italy, or spending an entire afternoon wandering through a village in France.

For 65-year-old Fritz, “traveling slowly” means moving about 200 miles a day across Europe and Asia by motorcycle.

Last March, Fritz undertook a 115-day motorcycle journey through southern Europe, the former Soviet bloc, and Mongolia; but his plans were cut short by more than three weeks after an accident
in Mongolia.

It’s an itinerary that sounds crazy, but, when explained calmly by Fritz, seems perfectly reasonable.

“Whether it’s breaking a shoulder, or getting stopped by police, or running out of food, things are going to happen,” Fritz says. “And that’s why you take the trip, because it’s an adventure.”

According to Sampson and his wife of 40 years, Mary, he always had a daring spirit.

“That’s what I loved him for, was his sense of adventure,” Mary says. “No one is comparable to Fritz—he’s all out for the experience.

The couple met on the Model United Nations Team at Creighton University and married in 1975, right out of college. They, and their two children, moved to Germany in 1998 while Fritz pursued a degree in international tax law. His career took him everywhere from China to Belize; but he still craved different ways to see the world.

Fritz2

A long-distance cyclist, he rode for years all over the United States. But as he aged, he turned to a new mode of transportation: motorcycling.

He bought a new Harley Davidson in 2007, and in 2008 rode with his son, Marty, from Omaha to Tierra del Fuego, an island chain off the southernmost point of South America.

“One of the reasons I do this—I like meeting people on the road,” Fritz says.

After his South American excursion, Fritz was itching to do a similar trip elsewhere. He read about two motorcycle adventures on travel blogs that looked really interesting—one to the Russian far east, another in outer Mongolia—and decided to combine the two by retiring and traveling to 17 countries. He planned to begin in Ireland, meet Mary in Turkey, and eventually end up in Mongolia and Russia, but had no other itinerary.

That meant he spent a week in Bulgaria because he felt like it. He chose to go to Kazakhstan instead of Turkmenistan because he met a fellow motorcyclist who was headed there. And when he told local policemen in Turkey the name of the hostel where he was staying, they told him he shouldn’t sleep there and took him to a friend’s house, where they hosted a barbecue for him.

He also had a run-in with corrupt police in Azerbaijan, lost 22 pounds, and experienced that fateful fall in Mongolia that cut his trip short and left him with a broken shoulder.

There’s only one thing he’s cutting out of his routine: off-roading on his motorcycle, which led to his accident. But he still wants to ride on motorcycle trips across the continental United States, Alaska, and Mexico.

After all, he says, those are “easy” rides.

Fritz3

 

Fritz 1

Hosting a Foreign Exchange Student

September 24, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

“Never say never,” says Brenda Christensen when asked if she’ll ever host foreign exchange students again in her family’s home in Elkhorn.

Christensen and husband Mike Morris have hosted three students since 2009, all from Tonsberg, Norway. “We talked about it extensively as a family,” she says. “Everyone had to be in, or we weren’t going to do it.” That “everyone” included Christensen and Morris’ three kids: Wells, 20, Greta, 18, and Tatum, 13.

Marthe Gjelstad was their first student, staying with them from August 2009 through June 2010. “The kids found her in an online [foreign exchange] student profile,” explains Christensen. “We were so in love with this girl. It couldn’t have been more perfect. [And] we were so heartbroken when she left.”

During Marthe’s stay, Christensen says she claimed the school’s Prom Queen title because everyone—both students and teachers—loved her. “She was so funny, loving, and oh my gosh, we just adored this girl. Just beautiful inside and out.”

That was the first time Christensen believed her family would never host a foreign exchange student again “because everyone would be measured up against Marthe, and that really wasn’t fair to anyone else.”

But remember—never say never. Eventually, the Christensen-Morris family took in Marthe’s neighbor and friend back in Norway, Kristin Lien. She stayed with them for only four months. “That was a good experience, too,” Christensen says. “Kristin wanted to embrace, see, and learn everything American. She just wanted to do it all, and she was very social and outgoing.” Like Marthe, Kristin grew very close with the family, especially the Morris kids.

When Kristin left, Christensen once again said that they would never host a foreign exchange student again. But then from August 2012 through June 2013, they took in Marthe’s brother, Markus.

“Markus was more introverted,” she says. “He was more interested in academics, and he wanted to live a year as an American teenager. But he wasn’t nearly as brave or outgoing as the girls.”

The Christensen-Morris family remains close with the Gjelstad and Lien kids and their families. Photo taken in Norway, August 2011.

The Christensen-Morris family remains close with the Gjelstad and Lien kids and their families (Photo taken in Norway, August 2011). Back: Markus Gjelstad, Wells Morris, Vegard Lien, Asbjorn Lien, Vidar Gjelstad, Kristin Gjelstad. Middle: Mike Morris, Kristin Lien, Marthe Gjelstad, Greta Morris, Rebecca Gjelstad. Front: Brenda Christensen, Berit Lien, Tatum Morris, Hakon Lien.

For the most part, Christensen says that they were home-free of difficulties with the students. “We had to occasionally force Markus out of his comfort zone to get him to experience things. [Otherwise], all three had great English skills,” she says.

After seeing some of the other foreign exchange students secondhand, Christensen is very glad that she and her family hosted three very good kids. “Sometimes, [foreign exchange students] aren’t well-behaved. They’ll get into drinking or drugs or break curfew. Other times, the families didn’t think about the commitment, and it’s a huge commitment.”

Clearly, the experience has been wonderful for the Christensen-Morris family, as they’ve even seen their students since. “We have seen Marthe every year. Last year, we traveled to Italy, and she met us there. Kristin came back over last year, and we met her parents in Chicago. We established a beautiful relationship with both families.”

Like the Christensen-Morris family, Trisha Powell of Bennington loves hosting foreign exchange students. She and husband Michael and their two kids, Olivia, 10, and Jace, 3 mos., have hosted six foreign exchange students from Germany, Sweden, Finland, The Netherlands, and Slovenia.

But Trisha and Michael aren’t just host parents; they’re also very active in Ayusa International, a nonprofit organization that promotes cultural exchange programs for high school students around the world.

“We work with several families who choose to host year after year,” explains Powell. “We also ask our families to help refer other families who may be interested, [as] we are always looking for host families willing to open their homes and hearts to an Ayusa student.”

When a family is ready to host a student, a local Ayusa representative takes them through the application process to find and choose a good student match. The steps are:

  • View information online (at ayusa.org) about Ayusa’s program and types of students who are interested in living with a host family and spending a year in the United States.
  • Complete the Ayusa online hosting application. Ayusa provides a list of questions, requests five references, and asks that families sign a program agreement.
  • Once the application is submitted, an Ayusa representative assists with completion of the additional hosting requirements: a criminal background check and in-home interview. When a host family is approved, they may login to select a student.

Throughout the Ayusa exchange program, a local representative works with the family, student, and school to make certain the stay is mutually beneficial. “Students come from all over the world, [and] all of them come to experience the American way of life and a year in an American high school,” Powell says.

“American culture is often very different from what they are used to,” she adds. “Different food, different schools, a different way of life with a different family—[that] can sometimes be stressful for the first bit of time here.” But Powell says most foreign exchange students get used to everything after a while.

Powell highly recommends hosting a foreign exchange student. “Many times, a lifelong connection is made with students and their families,” she says. “We have several American host families who will visit the student in their home country, attend graduations, and even weddings! Many students come back to visit their host families, too. It’s a wonderful way to bring other cultures to your home and to share your cultures and traditions.”

Christensen also has great advice for families looking to host:

  • “Research the experience and the student thoroughly. Ask lots of questions of families who have hosted and select a student who will be compatible with your family.”
  • “Make sure all family members are completely engaged and committed.”
  • “Be flexible and compassionate. Remember, these kids are away from their countries, homes, schools, and families for 10 months.”
  • “Be realistic. This is not always going to be fun and easy. Don’t host a student during a year that you know will be busy or hard.”
  • “Be open to learning more and loving more than you can imagine!”

Although Christensen says her family doesn’t have any plans to host another exchange student, never say never.

For more information about foreign exchange programs and Ayusa International, visit ayusa.org or call 888-552-9872.

Q&A: Ted and Jerry Ramm

February 25, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Builders Ted and Jerry Ramm have a long family legacy in residential construction. Several generations of Ramms have built homes in the Omaha metro, dating back over a century. Today, the brothers head up Ramm Construction, Inc. We asked Ted Ramm to share with us a bit about their business, their family history in the trade, and just what’s in store for home construction in the months to come.

Q: When did you and Jerry start Ramm Construction, Inc.? What kinds of homes do you build?

A: We established Ramm Construction in 1999. Both Jerry and I are owners. We build 20 or so homes per year in the Omaha area, specializing in ranch and two-story homes in the $250,000-$600,000 range. Our “Normandy” model home is at 3116 N. 192nd Ave. in the Elkhorn View Estates subdivision in Elkhorn.

GM4V7763 copy

Q: Tell us a bit about your family history in the trade. How did you get your start?

A: Jerry and I were born into this business. We are actually four generations deep in homebuilding going back to the 1800s. Joseph Ramm, our great grandfather, moved to Omaha from Germany in 1905 and began a homebuilding business. His son, Al, continued the tradition, as did his son, Thomas Ramm, our dad. Dad built about 10 or so homes per year his entire career, right here in Omaha. In Dad’s business, we performed a big percentage of the work ourselves, including framing and finish carpentry, cabinets, roofing, exterior decks, siding, and hardware installation. We literally grew up on and around the jobsite. We were trained as carpenters in the business we love. Dad is an incredible role model.

Q: How do the two of you share the responsibilities of managing the family business?

A: I act as project manager on our homes. I oversee the sales, and I’m the customer’s start-to-finish contact, helping with design, pricing, design and finish selections, contract modification, customer support, etc. I have a Construction Management degree from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Jerry has 15 years’ experience running a framing crew and is an accomplished trim and framing carpenter. He performs most of the trim carpentry on our homes. Jerry’s duties also include acting as job superintendent. We both offer day-to-day supervision [at the jobsite].IMG_7986 (2) copy 2

Q: Who make up the majority of your clients? Have you focused on that segment of the market?

A: Our niche seems to be with young families. Both Jerry and I are married with children, and I feel like I can relate very well with young, growing families. We feature great family plans and build in many subdivisions in the Elkhorn area and West Omaha popular with young families. My mother has told me that it is a privilege to build homes for people…You are fulfilling a basic need of shelter and that is very special. I enjoy getting to know our customers and becoming part of their lives.

Q: What is your forecast for the Omaha housing market in the next year or so?

A: We are very bullish about the housing environment. We have experienced strong sales over the last six months or so, especially in the Elkhorn area. We are fortunate to offer lots in most of the Elkhorn neighborhoods, including the recently developed Andersen Meadows on 178th and Blondo, and Windgate Ranch, which will have buildable lots later this year. The combination of the low interest rates, an elevated housing demand, and the strong economy in Omaha make it a great time to build.20090828_cc_3178 copy

Q: Tell us a bit about the two of you personally, and what you’re involved in locally.

A: I was the 2011 Metro Omaha Builders Association president and a longtime board member. I’ve performed as both an estimator and project manager on multi-million-dollar commercial construction projects as well. I’ve also been mentor for Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Midlands for 15 years, and been head coach of multiple kids’ sports teams, including soccer, basketball, and baseball. I currently coach my son’s sixth grade baseball team. I can’t wait for it to warm up and hit the baseball diamond! Jerry is married with two children. He’s an avid outdoorsman who enjoys fishing and hunting, as well as attending sporting events. He also likes to build things even in his spare time. He volunteers with Habitat for Humanity.