Tag Archives: World War II

From Japanese-American Internment Camp to Boys Town

October 24, 2018 by
Photography by Provided by Boys Town

Xenophobic fears ran wild after the Empire of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. The U.S. promptly entered World War II, and nearly 120,000 Japanese-Americans were relocated or incarcerated in internment camps across the country.

The Rev. Edward Flanagan, the founder of Boys Town, strived to calm the hysteria in part—while alleviating the trauma falling upon his fellow Americans—by sponsoring approximately 200 Japanese-Americans from internment camps to stay at his rural Nebraska campus for wayward and abandoned youths.

Among them were James and Margaret Takahashi and their three children.

They joined the individuals and families escaping to Boys Town from prison-like internment camps. Flanagan offered dozens of families a place to live and work until the war’s conclusion. Some remained in Nebraska long after the war. Many used Boys Town as a stopover before World War II military service or moving to other American cities and towns, says Boys Town historian Tom Lynch.

Few outsiders knew Boys Town was a safe harbor for Nisei (the Japanese word for North Americans whose parents were immigrants from Japan) who lost their homes, livelihoods, and civil rights in the fear-driven, government-mandated evacuation of Japanese-Americans from the West Coast.

The oldest Takahashi child, Marilyn, was almost 6 when her family was uprooted from their Los Angeles home and way of life. Her gardener father lost his agricultural nursery.

“It was a very disruptive thing,” she recalls. “I was very upset by all of this. I can remember being confused and wondering what was going on and where are we going. I couldn’t understand all of it.”

She and her family joined hundreds of others in a makeshift holding camp at the Santa Anita Assembly Center, surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards. Stables at the converted race track doubled as spare barracks. Food riots erupted.

By contrast, at Boys Town, the Takahashis were treated humanely and fairly, as the full citizens they were, with all the comforts and privileges of home.

“We felt welcomed and did not have fears about our environment. The German farmers nearby were friendly and kind,” remembers Marilyn Takahashi Fordney.

the Takahashi family outside their residence at Boys Town

The Takahashis were provided their own house and garden within the incorporated village of Boys Town’s boundaries. James, father of the family, worked as the grounds supervisor. The children attended school. The family celebrated major holidays—including unforgettable, bittersweet Christmases—in freedom, but still far from home.

None of it might have happened if Maryknoll priest Hugh Lavery, at a Japanese-American Catholic parish in L.A., hadn’t written Flanagan advocating on behalf of his congregation then being relocated in camps. Flanagan recognized the injustice. He also knew the internees included working-age men who could fill his war-depleted employee ranks. He had the heart, the need, the facilities, and the clout to broker their release from the Civil Exclusions Order signed into law by President Franklin
Delano Roosevelt.

Helping identify “good fits for Boys Town” was Patrick Okura, who ended up there himself, Lynch says. “It sort of started a pipeline to help bring people out,” and Flanagan “eventually took people of all different faiths,” not just internees from the Catholic parish that started the effort. “People from that parish went to the camps, and they met other Japanese-Americans, and they started communicating about this opportunity at Boys Town to get out of the camps.”

During her family’s four-month camp confinement, Marilyn’s parents heard that the famous Irish priest in Nebraska needed workers. James sent a letter making the case for himself and his family to come.

“People could leave if they had somewhere to go,” Marilyn says. “Permission didn’t come right away. It took writing back and forth for several months. Then, when we were all about to be moved to Amache [Granada War Relocation Center] in Colorado, the head of our camp sent a telegram to the War Relocation Authority. He received a telegram back with the necessary permission. We were released to Boys Town Sept. 5, 1942.”

Boys Town became legal sponsor for the new arrivals.

“It was very radical helping these people,” Lynch says. “Father thought it was his duty because they were good American citizens who should be treated well. But it wasn’t universally accepted. What made Boys Town unique is that we were way out in the country, so we were our own little bubble. Visitors really wouldn’t see the internees much. The men worked the farm or grounds. The women tended house. The kids were in school. But they were there all throughout the village.”

A similar effort unfolded at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where 100-plus Nisei students continued their college studies after the rude interruption caused by the “evacuation.”

During her Boys Town sojourn, Marilyn first attended a nearby one-room public school. She later attended a school on campus for workers’ children taught by a Polish Franciscan nun. Besides the standard subjects, the kids learned traditional Polish folk dances and crafts.

The Takahashis started their new life in an old farmhouse they later shared with other arrivals. Then Boys Town built a compound of brick houses for the workers and their families. “Single men lived in a dormitory on campus,” Lynch says. “Boys Town didn’t host many single women because Father would find jobs for them in Omaha, where they would stay with families they worked for as domestics.”

From Santa Anita, the Takahashi patriarch was allowed to go to L.A. to retrieve his truck and what stored family belongings he could transport. James drove to Nebraska to meet Margaret and the kids, who went ahead by train.

Marilyn’s initial impression of Flanagan was of Santa Claus with a cleric’s collar: “Father came to meet us at the station. He had this big brown bag of candy. I will always remember that candy. It was so thoughtful of him to give us that special treat.”

According to the Takahashi family’s file in the archives of the Boys Town Hall of History, Margaret said she was taken by Flanagan’s humanity, that she “could feel this warmth. I’ve never felt that from another human being. He was so full of love that it radiated out of him.”

According to Lynch, Flanagan considered the newcomers “part of the family of Boys Town.” They could access the entire campus or go into town freely.

Leaving altogether, though possible, was not a realistic option.

“They could leave at any time, if they really wanted to, but there was nowhere to go [without authorization]. They would have been detained and returned,” he says.

Marilyn’s experience of losing her home and living in a camp was dreadful. Going halfway across the country to live at Boys Town was an adventure. Her fondest memories there involve Christmas.

“Christmas and midnight Mass was very special at Boys Town,” she says. “It was something we looked forward to. I will always remember getting bundled up to face the blizzard-like winds. My father would carry each one of us to the truck. We would head off in the dead of night in that blasted cold to get to the church, which was dark except for the altar lights. The boys would be in a long line in their white and black cassocks, with red bows, each holding a big lit candle. They would begin to sing and come down the main aisle. It was an awesome sight and a special experience. The choir was exceptional. There was always one singer with a high-pitched voice who did a solo. It was amazing.”

Father Flanagan and children during Christmastime

Flanagan is part of her holiday memories, she says, as “he always made a point to come to our Christmas plays, and we would always take a photograph with him.” For the resident boy population, Flanagan “played” Santa by visiting their apartments and handing out gifts.

“We were happy at Christmas,” Marilyn says. “In the farmhouse, my father would cut a pine tree and bring it in, and the decorations were handmade and hand-painted cones with popcorn strung. He always did the final placement of things so that it looked perfect. We had wonderful Christmas days even though it was difficult to get toys because many things were not available due to the war.”

She continues: “We built an ice rink and would skate in front of the farmhouse or in front of the brick house. We even made an igloo one time. It got so tall the adults came out to help us close the top with the snow blocks because we were too little to reach it.”

Weather always factored in.

“The summers were extremely hot and the winters so severely cold,” she says. “We had never experienced snow. That was a tremendous adjustment for my parents. But, as children, we delighted in it. We’d run out and eat the snow with jam and build snowmen.”

Marilyn recalls visiting Santa at J.L. Brandeis & Sons department store in downtown Omaha with its fabulous Christmas window displays and North Pole Toy Land.

The Takahashis were content enough in their new life that they arranged for family and friends to join them there. Marilyn and family remained in Omaha for two years after the war (and anti-Japanese hysteria) ended.

“Eventually, my parents decided they couldn’t withstand that cold, and we headed back to California in 1947,” she says.

They endured tragedy at Boys Town when Marilyn’s younger brother contracted measles and encephalitis, falling into a coma that caused severe brain damage. His constant care was a burden for the poor family.

Another motivating factor for the family to leave was the father’s desire to work for himself again.

Leaving Boys Town just shy of age 12 was hard for Marilyn.

“I was heartbroken because I loved the snow and cold and all my friends there,” she says. “I did not want to go to California and live three families to a house and struggle. I knew what was coming. I also had a pet cat I was sad to leave. My pet dog Spunky that Boys Town gave me had passed on.”

Her parents had also bonded with some of the resident boys, and with some adult workers and their families.

“We went by Father Flanagan’s residence to say farewell, and he came out to bless us and to bless the truck we drove to the West Coast,” she says.

As an adult, Marilyn shared her story with archivists just as her parents did earlier.

“We considered ourselves fortunate,” Margaret told interviewer Evelyn Taylor with the California State University Japanese American Digitization Project in 2003. (This article for Omaha Magazine merged excerpts from that oral history with original interviews conducted over the telephone and
e-mail correspondence.) 

There are occasions when Marilyn’s internment past comes up in casual conversation. “It is amazing how few people know about this,” she says. “It is now mentioned in history books in schools, but it wasn’t for a long time.” 

When she brings up her Boys Town interlude, she says, “It is always a surprise and I am asked many questions.”

The retired medical assistant, educator, and author now runs family foundations supporting youth activities. She credits her many accomplishments to what the wartime years took away and bestowed.

“The internment made me an overachiever. Because I was the eldest and experienced so much, I have become actually the strongest of the siblings,” she says. “Nothing can stop me from reaching my goals.”

Her late parents also felt that the experience strengthened the family’s resilience. Margaret said, “I think from then on we were very strong. I don’t think anything could get us down.”

The kindness shown by Boys Town to relieve their plight made a deep impact.

“We are forever grateful Father Flanagan hired my father to take care of the grounds,” Marilyn says, “because it enabled us to get out of that internment situation.”

She came to view what Flanagan did for her family and others who had been interned as a humanitarian “rescue.”

Then there were the scholastic and life lessons learned.

“A Boys Town education gives you the tools needed to succeed in life,” she says.

Even though discrimination continued after the war, the lessons she learned during the internment and the Boys Town reprieve emboldened her.

“I am grateful that I went through the experience because it made me who I am today,” she adds.

Internees were granted reparations by the U.S. government under the Civil Liberties Act of 1988. Marilyn received $20,000, and she gave it all away. 

She divided the reparations money into equal parts for four recipients: two younger siblings who also grew up in poverty (but did not experience the internment camps of World War II), to create the Fordney Foundation (for helping future generations of ballroom dancers), and Boys Town.

Forty-four years after the Takahashis left their safe haven in Nebraska, Marilyn returned to Boys Town in 1991. During the visit, she made her donation to the place that gave her family a temporary home and renewed faith in mankind. 

Uchiyamada and Takahashi families with Father Flanagan in March 1944


James Takahashi’s Letter to Father Flanagan

Soon after arriving at Santa Anita Assembly Center, James Takahashi learned that Father Flanagan was hiring individuals with certain skills to work at Boys Town.

James hand-wrote an appeal to Flanagan asking to be considered. He provided references. The priest wrote Takahashi back requesting more information, including how many were in his family, and checked his references, all of whom spoke highly of “Jimmy,” as he was called, in letters they sent Flanagan.

Here is the text of the original letter James wrote (references excluded):

Dear Father Flanagan,

Today in camp I heard that you are asking for some Japanese gardeners. I am very interested as I have been a gardener and nurseryman in Los Angeles for the past five years.

Just before the evacuation, I was gardener at St. Mary’s Academy in Los Angeles. I re-landscaped the grounds and put in several lawns. 

I am 30 years old of Japanese ancestry but was born and educated in this country. I was converted to the Catholic faith by my wife, who is half Irish and half Japanese. 

I studied soil, plants, insect control, and landscape architecture at Los Angeles City College, and am confident that I would be able to handle any gardening problem.

I would be so grateful if you would consider me for this position.

Very sincerely,

James Takahashi


Visit csujad.com for more information about the California State University Japanese-American History Digitization Project.

Visit boystown.org for more information about Boys Town.

This article was printed in the November/December 2018 edition of 60Plus in Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Toshio “James” and Margaret Takahashi with their children at the Boys Town Farm, 1944

 

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.

In Their Own Words

May 25, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Members of the Greatest Generation tell their own stories in a locally produced documentary, 48 Stars. The in-progress film features personal testimonies from World War II veterans.

War buff Shawn Schmidt conceived the project. His co-director is Jill Anderson. The Omaha filmmakers are unlikely collaborators. He’s a holistic health care provider and former race car owner-driver. She’s a singer-actress. He’s unabashedly patriotic. She’s not. But they’re both committed to telling authentic stories of resilience.

They met while she was a patient under his care. After sharing CDs of her Celtic music, he was taken by her rendition of “Fare Thee Well.”

“It was not just the music, but Jill’s voice. That song fits everything this film has to say about that generation,” Schmidt says. “They’re disappearing, and the interviews we did are like their final swan song. It gave them a final chance to have their say about their country, their life, where America is today, where America is going.”

Originally hired as music director, Anderson’s role expanded. Filmmaker Aaron Zavitz joined the team as editor and creative consultant.

Forty-plus interviews were captured nationwide, mostly with veterans ranging across different military branches and racial-ethnic backgrounds. Some saw combat. Some didn’t. Civilians were also interviewed about their contributions and sacrifices, including women who lost spouses in the war. Even stories of conscientious objectors were cultivated. Subjects shared stories not only of the war, but of surviving the Great Depression that preceded World War II.

With principal photography completed, editing the many hours of footage is underway. The filmmakers are still seeking funding to finish the post-production process.

The film’s title refers to the number of stars—representing states—displayed on the American flag during World War II. Each interviewee is framed with or near a particular 48-starred flag that inspired the project. Schmidt rescued it from a junk store. On a visit to Pearl Harbor’s war memorials, he had the flag raised on the USS Arizona and USS Missouri.

He grew up respecting veterans like his late father, Richard W. Schmidt—a Navy Seabee in the Pacific theater. His father died without telling his story for posterity.

“It dawned on me I could interview other veterans and have them hold this flag, almost like a testimonial to what this piece of fabric is about,” Schmidt says.

He added that combat veterans’ accounts of warfare teem with emotion.

“There’s a distinct difference in energy, pain, and identification with their country and flag from the ones who did not have to kill. The ones who did kill are still hurting, and they’ll hurt till the day they die,” he says.

Whatever their job during the war, Anderson says, “There were discoveries with every new person we talked to. It’s humbling that people trust you with some of their most soulful experiences and memories.”

Schmidt says, “They opened up with stories sometimes they’d never shared with their family. I think, for a lot of them, it’s a catharsis.”

There are tales of love and loss, heroism and hate, improbable meetings, close calls, intersections with infamy, history, and fate.

Not all the attitudes expressed are sunny. Some folks became anti-war activists. Others returned home to endure Jim Crow bigotry.

Anderson says the film intentionally depoliticizes the flag: “It can’t be about God and country or honoring glory because that doesn’t match with the testimony.”

Schmidt feels an urgency to finish the project. “The generation that has the most to teach us is leaving,” he says.

He won’t rush it though.

“It’s a serious responsibility,” Schmidt says. “[The film] needs to honor these individuals who gave their time, and it’ll be done when it’s exactly right.”

Visit 48stars.org for more information.

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

Forever Heroes

April 27, 2017 by
Photography by Contributed

When I first saw him, I had no plans to write a book about Nebraska’s World War II veterans. It was just a few days after Veterans Day in November 2015. I was in a writing slump and sitting in a Fremont restaurant. When I stood to get a second cup of coffee, his cap caught my attention: “World War II—Korea—Vietnam Veteran.” When I approached him and thanked him for his service, his immediate response was to thank me for thanking him.

I remember thinking that man has a story to tell. Writing one story about a three-war veteran soon expanded into interviews with 21 World War II veterans for a book titled Forever Heroes: A Collection of World War II Stories from Nebraska Veterans.

My veterans include 19 men and two women. Seven were drafted between the ages of 17 and 24, the remainder enlisted between 1941 and 1945. Now, their ages range from 90 to 96.

During my research last year, the following statement from the U.S. Veterans Administration proved that a book on World War II veterans can’t be written fast enough:

“Approximately every three minutes a memory of World War II—its sights and sounds, its terrors and triumphs—disappears. Yielding to the inalterable process of aging, the men and women who fought and won the great conflict are now mostly in their 90s. They are dying quickly—at the rate of approximately 430 a day.”

A recent check revealed that rate of attrition has increased to 492 a day. Four of my veterans have recently added to that statistic.

This is why it’s imperative to preserve the stories from these men and women. However, it isn’t just World War II experiences that need to be shared.

The United States Congress created the Veterans History Project in 2000 as part of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. Its website states, “VHP’s mission is to collect, preserve, and make accessible the personal accounts of American war veterans so that future generations may hear directly from veterans and better understand the realities of war.” Visiting the website loc.gov/vets explains how people can get involved with the project. A printable “Field Kit” includes interview questions.

A story doesn’t have to be submitted for inclusion in the Veterans History Project. Its resource materials can be accessed even if an individual just wants to preserve—written or oral—a veteran’s story for familial records. It’s simply important that veterans’ stories are not left untold.

Not everyone is comfortable with the process of interviewing veterans, but no one should dismiss the opportunity to thank veterans for their service. It’s a simple gesture that’s simply appreciated.

It was my privilege to have 21 World War II veterans share their stories with me. Enjoy the following three summarized stories of those veterans who are “Forever Heroes.”

Ben Fischer, an operations board tracker in World War II

Ben Fischer

Ben Fischer was sleeping aboard the SS Cape San Juan, a U.S. freighter/troopship, when it was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine about 300 miles south of Fiji. It was Nov. 11, 1943, and about 5:30 in the morning.

“The torpedo knocked the engine room out and the ship was leaning to one side,” Fischer says. “Oil [from the ship’s engines] was floating around and we were given orders to abandon ship.”

He swam toward a smaller six-man life raft. The raft was framed with wood and covered with wood decking. Barrels, which Fischer estimated to be about the size of 30-gallon drums, circled the perimeter.

When he first climbed into the raft, Fischer sat on a barrel with both legs inside. As more men climbed aboard, everyone sitting on barrels switched positions.

“We straddled the barrel with one foot in the water and one foot inside the raft,” he says. “We could get more in that way. We were just as close as we could make it.”

More men were crouched on the floor. With 33 men on the raft, Fischer recalls that it was “so full that we couldn’t get another person on.” He adds, “The barrels didn’t hold us up floating anymore. Our life jackets kept us floating.”

The next day, Fischer was still stranded in the Pacific Ocean. Then, he saw a seaplane in the air. It was picking up men who were floating in their lifejackets. He stresses it was right to rescue those men first.

“I saw it up in the air, but we were too far away [for the pilot] to see us,” he says, noting that he never saw any sharks in the water and believes the crude oil from the sinking ship probably kept them away.

Ships in the area headed toward the sinking SS Cape San Juan. Men on a destroyer rescued Fischer and the other 32 men after they had been on the raft for 30 hours.

The destroyer took the rescued men to the Fiji Islands. In the hospital for 10 days, Fischer’s eyes were treated because of reactions to the crude oil.

“One man went blind, and three or four were sent home because of eye problems. I was lucky,” he says.

The San Juan was carrying 1,464 men that included Fischer’s unit, the 1st Fighter Control Squadron. Of the 117 men who died, Fischer says 13 were from his squadron. The San Juan stayed partially afloat for another two days after the attack, sinking on Nov. 13. Fischer, and other men in the 1st Fighter Control Squadron, received the Purple Heart.

After about three months in Australia, Fischer’s Army Air Corps squadron began island hopping around the Philippines. As an operations board tracker, Fischer’s responsibility was to determine if planes were friend or foe.

Two different times during the island hopping, Fischer’s ships escaped encounters with a Japanese kamikaze (suicide pilot). While on one of the islands, he received announcement of the war’s end on Sept. 2, 1945.

Upon arrival in San Francisco on Nov. 5, 1945, Fischer says he was content to make his way back to Nebraska without boarding another ship.

Ben Fischer died at age 97 on Feb. 20, 2017.

Staff Sgt. Raymond J. Mitchell

Ray Mitchell

On May 28, 1944, Ray Mitchell’s 10-man crew in the 100th Bombardment Group of the Eighth Air Force left base in eastern England. Their destination was an oil refinery in Magdeburg, Germany. Each bombing mission included Mitchell’s squadron of 21 B-17s.

“As we approached the target, about 20 ME 109s [Germany’s principle fighter planes] attacked us. We suffered heavy damage and the airplane was on fire,” he says.

The crew was ordered to bail out. Mitchell, a waist gunner, was behind the bomb bay near the middle of the plane. He explains how pulling a cable attached to the escape hatch released it.

“You have super strength at a time like this,” he says. “I pulled apparently at too much of an angle and broke it. This is almost an impossible situation now because you can’t bail out if the escape hatch isn’t gone.”

Finally able to get the escape hatch to release, Mitchell was ready to jump when the B-17 went into a spin. “It slammed me down on the floor. My radio operator landed on my back.” Estimating the aircraft was at an altitude of about 15,000 feet, Mitchell was beginning to see trees and fenceposts and Germans.

“Every time we made a revolution, I could see the sky, and then the ground, then the sky, then the ground, and it isn’t very far away,” he says. “You think about everything you did when a little kid. It’s not going to hurt me; it’s going to hurt the people back home.”

Then the plane broke in half and Mitchell was pulled outside. He managed to attach his chest-type parachute and pull the rip cord. “It was a relief to see 28 feet of silk up there. It was just 700 feet—not 7,000—before I hit the ground. It wasn’t long until the Germans showed up.” Of the original 21 B-17s in the squadron, only one aircraft was shot down on May 28. “That was us.”

He explains, “You’re not supposed to weaken and talk, so it was a lot of Staff Sgt. Raymond J. Mitchell, 39460300, USA” The eight-digit number was his serial number. “You say that over and over and over. They ask you what group you’re from, what kind of airplane you were flying, what altitude were you when you came across the Channel, things like that. Then you just repeat your name, rank, and serial number.”

Mitchell was a prisoner of war at Stalag VII A, located just north of Moosburg in southern Bavaria. He says the thought of freedom “goes through your mind all the time. It was never any doubt in our minds who was going to win the war, but whether you were going to be around when it was over.”

On April 29, 1945, around 9 a.m., gunfire was heard. Then, at 10 minutes after 12 in the afternoon, an American flag was raised. It wasn’t long before Sherman tanks crashed through the fence that surrounded the POW camp. “Literally, thousands of prisoners bolted out of there,” Mitchell says.

On May 1, Gen. George S. Patton, Jr., commander of the Third Army, arrived at Moosburg “in his jeep with his dog, and a pistol on each hip.” It was two days after liberation and Mitchell was still in the camp. “I was a POW about 11 months and a few days, but before I finally got out, another 10 days had elapsed because I was one of the last to leave.”

Now at age 94 and 72 years after his service in the Army Air Corps, including just over 11 months as a prisoner of war, Staff Sgt. Raymond J. Mitchell, 39460300, U.S.A., answers his own question: “Was I proud to serve? You bet.”

 

Infantry Rifleman Mel Schwanke

Mel Schwanke

Am Army officer in World War I probably would have been proud to have his son enlist in the Army during World War II. But what happens when the son wants to enlist in the Marine Corps?

Mel Schwanke knows from experience. He says his father hollered in resistance. And since a 17-year-old enlistee would need parental permission, the paper would not be signed. “So, I talked my mom into signing my papers.”

As an infantry rifleman, Schwanke was trained on firing the Browning Automatic Rifle. The .30-caliber rifle was an air-cooled, gas-operated, magazine-fed weapon.

On Easter Sunday, April 1, 1945, the naval ship carrying Schwanke’s platoon arrived at Okinawa. The Battle of Okinawa became the largest amphibious assault, the last major battle in the Pacific Theater, and the bloodiest campaign in the Pacific. There were more than 250,000 total casualties. Together with Schwanke’s 1st Marine Division, the 6th Marine Division, and five divisions of the 10th Army, a total of 183,000 troops fought on Okinawa.

Excessive rain meant slow movement through mud on the island. High temperatures, together with the rain, resulted in high humidity. Also, the Japanese were occupying numerous caves. They had constructed an estimated 60 miles of interconnected passages in tunnels, which Schwanke says made combat difficult.

Seven days before Okinawa was secured, on June 12, 1945, Schwanke had his most life-changing experience of the war. Of his original platoon of 63, he was one of only five men who survived the island.

“We had some Japanese trapped in a cave under us and we were lobbing hand grenades down at them, and they were throwing hand grenades up at us. Sometimes we would catch them and throw them back down and they would explode immediately.”

Because he was on a walkie-talkie to call for a flamethrower tank as reinforcement to help get control of the cave, Schwanke was distracted. Suddenly, a buddy yelled, “Mel, get rid of that thing at your feet.” It was a Japanese hand grenade.

“I went to reach for the sucker and it went off right in my face.” He explains the grenades were made of scrap metal, so metal pieces shot in all directions when they exploded.

“One piece severed my watch band, one went in right next to my eye and my hearing was affected. Lots of pieces lodged in my stomach, in my leg and arms, and a big one by my spine.”

Schwanke lost most of the sight in his left eye, which still won’t rotate in its socket. “I have to turn my head to see,” he says. Pieces of shrapnel too close to his spine could not be removed.

For 11 months, he was at the U.S. Naval Hospital in San Diego, California. He endured multiple surgeries to remove shrapnel pieces and extensive physical therapy to renew his strength. He was presented the Purple Heart while recuperating.

Reflecting on his almost two years of service during World War II, Schwanke, 91, says, “I was absolutely proud to serve and have no regrets about joining the Marine Corps.” Schwanke adds that, at the end of the war, his father was also proud. “My dad was OK by then that I was a Marine.”

For more information, pick up a copy of Forever Heroes: A Collection of World War II Stories from Nebraska Veterans. The book is sold at The Bookworm, Barnes & Noble, Amazon, and elsewhere.

This article was published in the May/June 2017 edition of Omaha Magazine.

The graveyard in Normandy.

Celebrating Omaha’s World War II Veterans

April 25, 2017 by
Photography by Doug Meigs, Headshot by Bill Sitzmann

As a kid, my grandfather’s World War II experiences were the stuff of legend.

Army private first-class Robert Wesley Meigs fought in the Battle of the Bulge. He crossed the Remagen Bridge and survived a German artillery blast. The explosion killed two of his fellow infantrymen, and the shrapnel remains in his arm to this day. As Allied forces marched onward—and he got out of the hospital—Grandpa returned to the front. He even helped to liberate a concentration camp; he remembers how the starving victims scattered across the countryside when U.S. troops opened the gates.

But he didn’t talk about the war with us grandkids. A case full of his medals—including a Purple Heart—remained tucked away, out of view. Our father told brief anecdotes, but the stories were incomplete. And we were scared to ask for more details.

Then one day, during my undergraduate studies, a military history class gave me an opportunity to sit down with my grandfather. A class project was my excuse to pry into his role in the Greatest Generation’s fight against global fascism.

A transcript from the 2005 interview is now collected by the Library of Congress Folklife Center’s Veterans History Project, and an edited version is posted on Omaha Magazine’s website, here.

Today, Grandpa is 94 years old. I am still learning from him—about life in general, and about his time in World War II. But the stories and perspectives of his generation are becoming increasingly scarce with the passage of time.

One Veterans Day not long ago, I thanked Grandpa for being a hero. He corrected me. “The real heroes never made it home,” he said with a stern face.

In the fall of 2016, he moved from Nebraska to Idaho to live closer to my uncles after my grandmother had passed. Before leaving town, he shared an unexpected anecdote: “Did I ever tell you about the time I was peed on?” Grandpa said, laughing, as he recalled another soldier’s “misfire” in the crowded foxhole. It was a crude awakening after he finally managed to catch a moment of sleep between German artillery bombardments.

The stories of World War II and the experiences of veterans are as diverse as the Americans who contributed to the war effort. Omaha Magazine’s May/June issue celebrates Omaha’s veterans of World War II with a multi-part story package. The issue’s publication coincides with the 73rd anniversary of D-Day and the Allied storming of Normandy on June 6, 1944.

Omaha Beach—one of five Normandy beachheads—is synonymous with America’s entry into the war. My grandfather did not participate in the invasion. But the entire nation would soon know the infamous codename of D-Day’s bloodiest beachhead. The city of Omaha eventually became his home. His children graduated from local high schools. My father met my Nebraska-raised mother in Omaha, and the rest is history.

Our May/June issue is especially rich with local history stories. Higgins Boats (boats utilized in D-Day beach landings) were actually invented by a man who grew up in Omaha. After Andrew Higgins’ expulsion from Creighton Prep High School, he joined the Nebraska National Guard.

The Omaha metro remains home to many World War II veterans. Several of their stories (excerpted in this issue) are captured in a new book by Joyce Winfield, a retired Midland University professor of journalism. Leah Meyer, the interim director of UNO’s Office of Military and Veteran Services, explains how others can contribute their own veteran interviews to the Library of Congress.

But there are many ways Omahans continue to celebrate the lives of World War II vets—evident in the work of two local filmmakers. Ben Drickey followed his grandfather on a trip to Germany, revisiting his time in the war. The film project kickstarted Drickey’s career in film production. Meanwhile, there is the story of Shawn Schmidt’s 48 Stars, a film that tells the stories of World War II veterans in their own words. Schmidt’s father fought in World War II, but the son never had a chance to document his story. Now, he is making up for lost time while there’s still time with other World War II vets.

Omaha Magazine salutes the veterans of World War II, and all of the men and women who have put their lives on the line for America. We hope you enjoy the issue!

This letter appeared in the May/June edition of Omaha Magazine.

Doug Meigs is the executive editor of Omaha Publications.

Remembering the Battle of the Bulge

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.

Bravissimo! The Holland Performing Arts Center

August 10, 2016 by
Photography by provided

Dick and Mary Holland didn’t sit in their well shaded home all summer, waiting for the grand opening of the performing arts center that bears their names. By early May, they’d toured construction progress a dozen times.

But the privilege of joining them on a progress tour in late August proved that they see the great effort with fresh eyes on each visit. Both Dick and Mary asked pointed questions of project manager Steve Smayda, and Holland had friendly greetings for the men laboring on the job.

He’d recently treated the workers to ice cream, hiring three of those ding-dong trucks and sending them to the 11th and Dodge work entrance. “I’ve never been around guys so damn proud
of what they are doing,” he says. He’d long since donned his yellow hard hat to become the first to sing from the new concert hall stage.

“La Donna Mobile?” “No, something from Faust,” he jokes, but more like scales. The former member of the Opera Omaha chorus then offered a few baritone notes.

DickHolland1

Make no mistake, the Hollands are enjoying their singular involvement, starting with a major gift and a hand in planning the $92 million Holland Performing Arts Center at 13th and Douglas. Any discomfort comes from their more specific roles in that Oct. 21 grand opening performance, emceed by Oscar-winning actor Richard Dreyfuss.

A news story reported that Dreyfuss was chosen partly because of starring in the movie, “Mr. Holland’s Opus.” That got a groaning “I hope not” from Omaha’s Mr. Holland. As for that opening night, “We’re certainly going to be there, but I haven’t asked for anything.”

Such reluctance won’t surprise anyone who has followed the story of the Hollands and their “enormously successful” investment with Warren Buffett. When the Omaha World-Herald ran a big spread on their philanthropy (“Giving Their All”) a few years ago, it was noted that they don’t talk about their fortune “and declined to be interviewed” for the article.

When questioned by this writer last year for the University of Nebraska at Omaha magazine Alum, Dick added to the basic account in a Buffett biography. Married a month after his 1948 graduation from then Omaha U., Holland took over his father’s advertising agency and the newlyweds moved into their present home near 80th and Pacific in 1957.

That left him short of funds when he found Buffett, the first person he’d met whose investment ideas “made sense.” So Dick borrowed $10,000 on his life insurance policy and Mary contributed a “significant” amount from her own resources. The rest is history oft-told by biographers of “the Oracle of Omaha”: The insightful ones who invested $10,000 with Buffett in 1957 and let it ride through the founding of Berkshire Hathaway, Inc., saw it grow to roughly $280 million.

Still, the Hollands remained in that same modest house, but gave away millions to causes ranging from the fight against poverty to arts organizations. Last year, $43 million remained in their charitable foundation, despite the many gifts.

Anyone tempted to second-guess their large contribution to the Holland Center must challenge two points: “Our top giving goal is to raise a whole lot of people,” especially children, “out of poverty.” And they both place great importance on the arts.

Born in Dundee and a graduate of Brownell Hall, Mary majored in childcare at Mills College in California. Dick, who grew up near 60th and Pacific, and Mary had attended the same Brownell dances, but didn’t meet until after World War II, when he returned to studies at Omaha U. “Mary still loves to dance,” Dick says, “and she’ll dance till the stars fall out of the sky.”

On music, “We’re all over the map,” he observes. “I like the modern Russians, Mozart, Brahms, some Beethoven. Mary likes some things I don’t particularly like, those compositions full of approaching doom. We go to some Broadway shows twice. We always go to Fiddler on the Roof twice, but this last time we were in Arizona.”

Mary puts it this way: “Life isn’t just reading, writing and arithmetic. It’s more than that. Music penetrates the soul. It causes us to reflect. Painting, dance and creative writing work that way, too. Observe the joy it brings. Not just the applause and cheers, but the quiet pleasure.”

Though Dick’s singing in the Opera Omaha chorus was his most recent performance participation in local arts activity, he came close to a career as an artist. His father, Lewis, had been a talented painter, and Dick won an art award while playing football at Central High School.

“Growing up,” he recalled, “I was nuts about Grant Wood and Thomas Hart Benton. Now I like the contemporary—the Jackson Pollock is the best art at Joslyn.”

He started college planning to be a chemical engineer, like his older brother William, but military duty in that field turned him to art on his return to the classroom at Omaha University, the alma mater of Dick and his three siblings. “I never carried it far enough,” Holland explained. “I was just learning to draw, to paint, but I was still an amateur.”

He dreamed of going to the Art Students League in New York City, but then met Mary. “She wasn’t going with me, and I needed to make money” to support her “in even half the style to which she was accustomed.”

That explains the goal, one he now calls “tasteless,” that ran beneath his senior photo in the university yearbook: “To have money and a business in art and advertising.”

That business, for many years, was known as Holland, Dreves and Reilly, second only to Bozell and Jacobs in its advertising/public relations heyday. (Valmont, UniRoyal and Omaha National Bank were prime accounts.)

Dick didn’t entirely abandon art when he delved into vocal music. He tried some life drawing, some painting. “The thing about it,” he notes, “is I’m just so totally into myself when working on canvas,
so absorbed.”

But football and fencing gave way to golf. The tall man shot in the upper 70s in his prime at the Omaha Country Club, and freely advised fellow golfers. And painting gave way to five years of voice lessons, studying with the Germanic Josie Whaley.

“She’d say, ‘Meester Holland, if you keep doing the baaaa, the scales, you’ll have a remarkable voice.” In Dick’s words, “Keep training and your range is raised a hell of a lot.”

In the course of their board work and their contributions to the opera and the symphony, the Hollands and others developed a vision that led to the Performing Arts Center opening in October. Joan Squires, in her third year as president of Omaha Performing Arts, cites that vision and “Dick’s perseverance for eight years or more” as a key to the center’s completion.

She has toured construction with the Hollands and “wished I had a tape recorder and a camera. It’s a thrill every time thru with them.” She joined them again, along with their daughter, Andy, when this writer shared the experience.

In particular, Squires recalls Dick’s first reaction to the downtown center: “It’s so big.”

Yes, that was a surprise, he admits, having viewed it first in model form. He’d visited other arts centers and the committee headed by World-Herald publisher John Gottschalk added sites as far as Vienna and Lucerne to their tours.

The Hollands helped engage architects famed for the renovation of Carnegie Hall and design of the Clinton presidential library, along with the Fisher Dachs Associates as theater consultants who’d done work for the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis and the Radio City Music Hall in New York City. Even more intriguing were the acousticians from Kirkegaard Associates.

“I had to learn how to pronounce AK-u-stishun,” Holland noted. And, of course, to test their talents by singing that passage from “Faust.”

He stood on that 64 by 48 feet stage in the classic shoebox configuration of the main concert hall, 80 feet wide by 180 feet deep, where 2,000 will hear sounds ranging from soloists to full orchestras. Later, the Hollands will sit sans hard hats in what the architects call a surrounding of “warm, fine-grained woodwork.”

Concert-goers won’t see that the hall is “sheathed in zinc,” but before entering they’ll eye the great illuminated glass lantern above and they’ll see that the acoustically isolated hall is clad in limestone. A thousand will sit at orchestra level, with 400 in the mezzanine, and 600 in the upper balcony.

Squires is quick to remind that the $75 to $150 tickets are just for opening night, with early activities including two or three free events, plus tours, and other performances in the $35 and $45 range.

The “black box” recital hall will seat 450, and the terraced courtyard, designated as a third performance venue, will hold 1,000. The Holland Center will house parties and educational activities as well. The Orpheum, fully equipped with stage rigging, will remain home for Broadway musicals and other events.

Squires, who came to Omaha from the Phoenix Symphony, commented on the wide range of upcoming performances. “One of the reasons it’s a joy to work with the Hollands is because they bring such broad understanding and interests,” she says. “They’re eclectic, but don’t impose their taste. It’s a low key, quiet influence, and we respect their desire to stay out of the spotlight.”

“We won’t attend all the early events,” Dick adds, “but there are some we’ll definitely see.” They especially anticipate Renée Fleming’s appearance with the Omaha Symphony on Dec. 9. “I was president of Opera Omaha when she first sang here.” He also takes pride in their presenting of the great Beverly Sills, but notes that the biggest local paycheck of $100,000 went to Placido Domingo.

But now comes that grand opening with Dreyfuss, the other “Mr. Holland,” and a program that includes Oscar winner Alexander Payne, U.S. poet laureate Ted Kooser, bandleader Branford Marsalis and others, including the symphony and the opera chorus. Squires takes pains to point out even this higher-priced event is not black tie, but cocktail attire.

Tickets went on sale in mid-August and began to sell quickly. A pre-event cocktail party sold out almost immediately.

Lest purists fear that Dick Holland’s brief aria was the only pre-testing of the acoustical marvels, it must be noted that an extensive “tuning” process gave professional musicians ample opportunities to experiment with the new concert hall, even before a long rehearsal period.

During the run-up to the grand opening, acousticians “tuned” the hall. Musical ensembles of varying size and style (classical, symphonic, chamber, pop, rock and jazz) performed during the weeks of late September. At each performance, acousticians positioned each of the moveable acoustic reflectors and panels, matching the reverberations to the size and sound of each group. The positions were locked into preset configurations, which could be used for future performances with ensembles of that size and style.

That’s fine by Holland who recalls his first piano lesson: “Auto stop, I’m the cop, drivers take warning.” The memory brings a smile and makes him happy to give the stage to the pros while he sits back with Mary in Row P of the Holland Center and enjoys their talents.

It’s not just a new asset for the performing arts. It enriches the city where both were born and where they stayed to make good use of their “enormously successful” investment.

Memories, Tradition, and Families

May 26, 2016 by
Myron Roker

Myron Roker

World War II ended 70 years ago, but Myron Roker still feels the pain of battle. He served with 324th Infantry Regiment of the 44th Infantry Division on VE Day. The 93-year-old now lives in Glenwood, Iowa, and still carries shrapnel from a wound sustained in France. His hearing is almost gone, stolen by explosions in war.

But the most painful wound he carries is the loss of friends in combat.

“Freedom is not free,” says Roker. “We have to pay for it. Those are the heroes. The wounded and the ones that gave their lives.”

Memorial Day has a deep, personal meaning for Roker.

“I lost a close buddy over in France to one of our own mines. Sometimes I still tear up,” Roker said.

He and his wife, Karen, spend Memorial Day at the graves of family members in their hometown of Clatonia, Nebraska.

A Family Tradition of Service

Thomas Shimerdla

Thomas Shimerdla

Thomas Shimerdla’s family has a proud military tradition. When he was fighting in Vietnam, so was his brother. His father served during World War II in the 14th Army Air Force. His grandfather fought in France during World War I.

When Shimerdla was a youngster,  Memorial Day meant visits to cemeteries with his father and grandfather to honor veterans.

Shimerdla enlisted in the U.S. Navy Seabees when he was 19. He spent two years serving in Vietnam, a war that took more than 58,000 American lives. “I lost classmates in Vietnam. I think about them on Memorial Day,” he says.

He fought in the devastating Tet Offensive in 1968 that turned Americans against the war. Many who fought faced danger in Vietnam and disdain in the United States.

For Shimerdla, Memorial Day is about spending time with his children and grandchildren.

Before suffering injuries in a motorcycle accident in October, he was part of the American Legion Riders, and rode with them to a cemetery on Memorial Day. “I was proud to be there, honoring soldiers who were killed,” he says.

The motorcycle enthusiast also rides with the Patriot Guard Riders, formed to provide shield from harassment at the funerals of “Fallen Heroes.”


Tradition and Family

Susan and Bill Eustice with son Sean

Susan and Bill Eustice with son Sean

Susan Eustice says tradition is a big part of her holiday. She agrees that time with family is what Memorial Day is about. For four generations, her family has spent Memorial Day at Lake Okoboji.

“My mother was six weeks old when she first spent the holiday at the lake,” Eustice says.

Her mother’s paternal grandparents, the Rectors, built a home at the beach. Eustice is also related to the Clarke family, who were among the first families to settle on Okoboji’s Omaha Beach.

This year Susan and her husband, attorney Bill Eustice, plan to enjoy  fireworks, boating, swimming, sailing, biking, and dinners with family members. He and his band, The Firm, will perform at the Barefoot Bar.

They haven’t missed a Memorial Day celebration at Lake Okoboji in three decades. For them, the day is about tradition.

Bombs Bursting in Air

September 15, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The Omaha suburb of Dundee didn’t expect an enemy attack during World War II. Bombs weren’t reaching the U.S. heartland in 1945.

That’s why many thought of fireworks when a loud boom and a flash of light appeared in the sky over 50th and Underwood Streets the night of April 18. A few bleary-eyed residents ran outside in their pajamas. Seeing nothing threatening, they went back to bed.

Word soon got out that the explosion that jolted the neighborhood out of bed was caused by an incendiary device that had floated from Japan by balloon.

Hal Capps was 10 years old when the bomb went off. He remembers his father arriving home from his job at the Buffett grocery store in Dundee and saying: “Something happened in the neighborhood last night, but they’re not talking about it.”

Americans were asked to be mum about the bombings. “They didn’t want the Japanese to know how far inland the balloon had come,” says Capps.

Residents in the suburb that was annexed by Omaha in 1915—against their will— had other things to talk about at that time. Dundee and the rest of America was still mourning the April 12 death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Churchgoers were in the pews at the then-new Saint Margaret Mary Catholic Church or at Dundee Presbyterian, founded in 1901.

They were greeted by name at the grocery store founded in 1869 by Warren Buffett’s great-grandfather Sidney. In 1915, Warren’s grandfather Ernest moved the store to 5015 Underwood where the Dundee Bank now sits.

They saw movies at the Dundee Theater featuring local boys—such as The Ox-Bow Incident starring Henry Fonda, who grew up in Dundee before achieving movie stardom. Or maybe they saw Yolanda and the Thief starring Fred Astaire, who was also born in Omaha.

Signs of World War II were ever present. Dundee women collected tin cans for the war effort. Victory gardens were planted.

But then in August of 1945, the Enola Gay—a B29 bomber built at the Martin bomber plant near Omaha—dropped its atomic payload on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. Three days later, 

Nagasaki was bombed. Japan surrendered, ending World War II.

People in Dundee no longer had to whisper. The balloon bomb story was now public.

The bombing of Dundee was not forgotten. The Dundee-Memorial Park Association put up a plaque in 1992 on a building near the southwest corner of 50th and Underwood Streets that begins: “Dundee Bombed in World War II.”

What it doesn’t say is that the Japanese balloon bombs were indeed (insert chuckle here) “bombs.”  Of the few Japanese balloon bombs that actually reached the United States out of thousands launched, only one caused deaths; a woman and five children were killed in Oregon.

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