When interviewing WWII Veteran, my Great Uncle, Harold Ahrendt, I became fascinated with the accounts of his wartime service. Though Harold’s memory is beginning to fail, and there were parts of stories that he could not complete, I could always get a glimpse of what he experienced. While some stories were partial, others he remembered with great clarity. Regardless, it was very clear that the war was horrific. It is difficult to fathom the violence, noises, dirt, grime, and trauma that never let up for the soldiers.
At the young age of 21, Harold was not thinking about war. He was busy trying to survive in a post-depression era where everyone was “short on cash.” His life was not easy. His parents divorced, which was actually quite uncommon at the time, making his world even more difficult. Harold found himself taking on a “father like role” at a young age, and was very protective of his mother who worked several jobs, and of his three younger siblings. When he finished high school, he started working full time to help provide for his family. His first full time job was parking cars in a commercial lot for $1.25 a day, and at the time when he was first drafted, he was the Assistant Manager of a local motor supply company where he earned $50 a month. This job came to an abrupt end when Harold was drafted and sent to Louisiana for training and then to Europe, serving as a Battery Clerk in the Armored Division. Known as the “First Sargent’s Assistant,” Harold explained that a battery clerk usually prepared reports, among other administrative duties, and was well liked by all as he delivered the mail and worked hard to keep morale up.
As many young men left their communities to fight, significant changes began to occur. For example, women began to work much more outside of the home. This included Harold’s sisters, one being my Grandmother, Mary Lou. Women moving into the work place was becoming a common event throughout the country as they worked “female jobs” and jobs that would typically have been done by men. Women moving into these positions were not the only changes in communities during the war. America was bringing in many prisoners of war (POWs). Harold explained how POWs were brought from Europe and lived in camps where many were hired to work on farms or in other jobs. He told me how he met a former POW 40 years after the war that said “some of the best years of his life,” were when he was a POW in America.
Harold spoke of how most everyone lost track of the days and time. He did not tell me stories that I would typically have expected, but instead he mentioned often the loud noises or smells he recalls. He also talked about the difficulty in finding a good place to sleep. He said that he would search for any place out of the weather, and sometimes these turned out to be unique locations.
While in France, he described how he went to sleep in an old barn with part of the roof missing. He woke in the morning to find several inches of snow on top of him, and yet was quite comfortable and grateful for the rest. After folding up his sleeping bag, he found he had slept on an old manure pile. He described another night in which he left his tank running so that he could sleep near the exhaust just to stay warm. In Beckum, Germany, before his division crossed the Rhine River, he told of how they took over a house from a college professor and how it was so wonderful because it had an actual furnace and a full bin of coal! Harold was able to take his first bath in quite some time and he exclaimed more than once, “this was simply wonderful!” He was also very excited speaking of “the best shower he had ever taken” and called it a “privilege” to shower in a tent that his quartermaster had set up near a muddy river. He truly appreciated these special treats during the war and the things that we take for granted.
Harold also recalled how the war caused him to mature quickly and he commented on how he appreciated educational opportunities through the Army, though they were not necessarily traditional. The most significant thing Harold noted about the war was regarding the division in which he was assigned. Originally, he asked to be in the Air Corps, but was assigned instead to the Armored Division. He tells about his initial disappointment with this assignment, but says that looking back; he now sees that this was probably the greatest blessing because the mortality rate in the Air Corps was very high.
Upon returning home, Harold’s world had changed dramatically. During his three-year deployment, his family moved to a new neighborhood, so many of his friends were no longer around. Several of them did not make it back from the war and those that did, were never quite the same. Even though his job at the motor supply was waiting for him, it was still very different because of all the new workers that had been hired. One thing he remembers vividly was how the cars of that era would often “backfire,” making a very loud bang. He said that whenever this happened, you could look around and see young men quickly getting up off the ground because they had not yet forgotten the habits they learned in combat. He also recalls the sound of engines from the railroad yards, and the sound of the ambulance sirens as they rushed to the nearby hospital. While we may think of these sounds as annoyances, he referred to them as “beautiful music.”
I no longer see my Great Uncle Harold as just another older relative. I now know him as a true hero and a great man that served our country with pride. This is a man that has my devotion and my absolute respect, which should be extended to all of our service men and women. We roll out the red carpet for actors and we revere world leaders, but I feel the greatest tributes should be for all of our men and women in uniform. They have given us everything in winning and preserving our freedom. More than ever, I am grateful.