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Together in War by Emily Irwin

Willard (left) and Wilbur (right) Diefenthaler.

Willard (left) and Wilbur (right) Diefenthaler.

Born twenty minutes apart in Kiel, Wisconsin, identical twins Willard and Wilbur Diefenthaler share a story of duty and sacrifice during World War II.  They were drafted together on December 7, 1942 and after induction at Fort Sheridan, Wilbur joined the 919th Field Artillery and Willard went to the 101st Airborne Division.

After three months, Willard requested a transfer and joined his brother at Camp Phillips in Kansas.  The brothers later joined the 106th Infantry Division, where Wilbur became an assistant supply sergeant and Willard worked with chemical warfare.  After training in Indiana, the 106th was sent overseas in October 1944 and experienced its first major conflict in December 1944 at the Battle of the Bulge.

On December 19, 1944, German soldiers captured Willard and Wilbur along with 1200 of their comrades.  Knowing his captors would take any valuables, Willard threw his wristwatch to the ground and stomped it into the mud and snow, effectively hiding it until the inspection was over.  This watch is now in the collection of the Wisconsin Veterans Museum, its glass still cracked from Willard’s boot.

Willard Diefenthaler's wristwatch.

Willard Diefenthaler’s wristwatch.

In rain and sleet, Willard and Wilbur were marched towards Germany.  While bedded down in a boxcar, they narrowly avoided bombing by an Allied plane, which destroyed part of the train track, the train’s engine, and coal car directly next to the POWs.  The next morning, after the prisoners were forced to rebuild the train tracks, they were transported to Bad Orb, Germany and marched to Stalag IX-B, considered one of the worst German POW camps.  The prisoners passed the time by singing, writing poetry, praying, and sleeping.  They regularly went without food and, when fed, were forced to share a loaf of bread with six or seven other men.  Many prisoners, including Wilbur, became too sick to move.  On January 25, 1945, Willard was sent to Stalag 9A.  It was the last time he would ever see his twin brother.

Willard was liberated on March 20, 1945.  Wilbur’s fate was unknown until a fellow soldier saw Willard and said “I swear to God I buried you at Mannheim.”  It was then that Willard realized his brother had not survived.  Wilbur died in a POW hospital on February 21, 1945 at the age of 22.  Years later, Wililard learned that his brother had died of pnemonia, despite the efforts of German doctors to save him.

After the war, Willard went to vocational school in Sheboygan and became a machinist.  He married and had four children.  Willard passed away on May 14, 2008 at the age of 85.  He donated artifacts from his service and recorded an oral history with the Wisconsin Veterans Museum, preserving both his and Wilbur’s stories for future generations.

This article appeared in the Winter 2014 issue of The Bugle, the Wisconsin Veterans Museum’s quarterly publication and an exclusive benefit of WVM membership.  Learn more about The Bugle at http://bit.ly/1yQca0c

Read Willard Diefenthaler’s oral history at http://bit.ly/16o8J6M

A Date Which Will Live in Infamy by Emily Irwin

Stanley Gruber.

Stanley Gruber.

Today marks the 73rd anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, where an estimated 200 Wisconsin men and women were stationed on December 7, 1941. One such Wisconsinite was Gunner’s Mate Stanley Gruber. A Butler, Wisconsin native, Gruber entered the Navy in 1939 and was stationed aboard the USS Maryland. In April 1940, the battleship left Long Beach, California, destined for Pearl Harbor.

Photograph taken from Japanese bomber during the attack.  Image courtesy of the U.S. Navy.

Photograph of the attack. Image courtesy of the U.S. Navy.

The Maryland was moored along Ford Island in Pearl Harbor on December 7, near seven other battleships in a line now known as “Battleship Row.” When the attack began, Gruber manned gun three on the Maryland and stayed at his post despite suffering perforated eardrums, an injury which permanently damaged his hearing. During his oral history interview, Gruber discussed the devastation he saw during the attack: “So I’m lookin’ and I see a ship, and I didn’t know which ship it is. It was the Nevada. And when I looked the second time it was just a big ball of fire.”

Around 9:30 AM, 90 minutes after the attack began, the Japanese planes departed. Gruber described the aftermath:

The Maryland beside the capsized Oklahoma.  Image courtesy of the U.S. Navy.

The Maryland beside the capsized Oklahoma. Image courtesy of the U.S. Navy.

But after the attack was over, we started helping people on the Oklahoma, she was rolled over, and those Oklahoma sailors were all coming aboard our ship and they were all in the nude, maybe just shorts, and they had grease and oil all over them and everything. And there were four hundred-fifty of them that we couldn’t get out of the Oklahoma.

2,403 Americans lost their lives in the attack and 1,178 were wounded. While exact numbers are unknown, at least 40 Wisconsinites were killed that day. Described by President Franklin D. Roosevelt as “a date which will live in infamy,” the events of December 7, 1941 united a nation and led to the United States’ entry into World War II.

Learn more about Wisconsin and Pearl Harbor at http://bit.ly/12n0YfB.

To read Stanley Gruber’s full transcription, click here.

Jeff Carnes: Veteran in the Spotlight

Jeff Carnes in Kuwait.

Jeff Carnes in Kuwait.

As a military linguist, Jeff Carnes provided a critical link between American troops, foreign forces, and the local population, establishing trust in treacherous times. Fluent in Arabic, Carnes connected intimately with the local people during his tour in Iraq in 2003. He recalls a conversation with an Iraqi civilian named Muhammad who had undergone horrific torture at the hands of Saddam Hussein’s regime. “That night in late March 2003,” Carnes writes, “Muhammad not only gave me a crash course in Iraqi Arabic. He taught me that the human soul can endure and flourish under even the most trying circumstances.”

Jeff Carnes was born in Jefferson, Wisconsin, in 1977. He enlisted in the Army after two years at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and attended basic training in the fall of 1997 at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. He was first deployed to Kosovo in 2000, attached to the 1st Armored Division. The unit was charged with leading Task Force Falcon, a part of a NATO-led international peacekeeping force. He returned to the United States in 2001 and continued his field training at Fort Campbell, located along the Tennessee-Kentucky border. Two years later, he was deployed to Iraq as a military linguist with the 502nd Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division. There he provided interpretation on missions; assisted officers with matters of purchasing, transportation and security; and facilitated interactions with locals.

Members of the 101st Airborne Division while stationed in Iraq.

Members of the 101st Airborne Division while stationed in Iraq.

As one of the Army’s many specialized vocations, the job of the military linguist is notable for its high stakes and required expertise. Linguists use their foreign language skills to supplement military intelligence in translation, on-the-ground communication, cryptology, and other diverse operations. Whereas strategic linguists typically work remotely, tactical linguists like Carnes accompany troops in the field.

In 2004, after redeployment to Fort Campbell following his tour in Iraq, Carnes traveled to Arizona to serve as an instructor in the Army Reserves at Fort Huachuca. Since leaving military service in 2006, Carnes re-enrolled in the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he went on to receive a bachelor’s degree in linguistics in 2008. He was awarded the Dean’s Prize as one of the top three graduates in the College of Letters and Science at UW-Madison. He has also been active in the veteran community, including volunteering at the Wisconsin Veterans Museum.

Carnes was a diligent documentarian of his time in the Army, toting home compelling relics and scores of photographs, particularly of his tour in Iraq. Many of these items are now in the WVM collection, helping to illustrate diverse day-to-day encounters and preserving his story for future generations.

Are you a Wisconsin veteran and interested in donating your collection? Learn more: http://bit.ly/1FqCksp

Holiday Greetings from the Field by Mary Kate Kwasnik

Card

Christmas card from the Marvin Fruth collection.

A wise man once crooned that this is the most wonderful time of the year. As the winter holidays roll in, cheer seems to surround us. Coffee shops break out their festive red cups , the radio croons out classic holiday songs and the city is suddenly frosted in tiny, little light bulbs. It’s everywhere. But what are the holidays like for our troops, especially those serving overseas? For those at war? There are classic stories about the 1914 Christmas Truce, when German and British troops ventured out from their trenches into no man’s land to share season’s greetings and cigarettes, or the annual Bob Hope Christmas shows during World War II and Vietnam, but what about the stories about the individual soldier? What was it really like?

We can imagine that holidays spent in the field are wildly different from those at home. Grandparents and cousins turn into sergeants and captains, while cozy, warm homes are replaced with mess halls and tents. Those special, annual holiday meals and dishes that you look forward to every year become just a story to tell your squad about Christmas back home. Upon searching the oral history collection for holiday stories, however, it seems that most veterans have fond memories of holidays in the service. Many have stories of hosting delicious feasts on base and inviting loved ones and locals to celebrate, while others have memories of returning home from the war just in time for Christmas.

In a 2003 oral history interview, C.J. Antonie, a Madison resident and aerial navigator who served in Africa and Italy in World War II, recalled a Christmas feast while stationed in Rome. Following the bombing of the city and the American invasion in 1944, many Romans were living in a state of hunger and poverty. Antonie remembered seeing families living in the rubble of their destroyed homes and encountering elderly Italian women waiting outside the U.S. mess hall with gallon cans to collect unwanted food from the American GIs. At Christmas, Antonie described inviting the young son of the family who did his laundry to the American holiday feast:

 

At Christmastime they said we could bring a guest. They had a little guy about your size, and I said, “Would you like to come for Christmas dinner?” “Oh,” they said, “sure.” So I went to pick him up and they must have had him in a tub and scrubbed him with a scrub brush because he just shone. So as we went through the line I told them this guy’s got a pretty good size family at home, give him a little extra. So, he had a plate that was heaped up like this (indicating). In the meantime he’s taking bread and putting it in his pockets. And he got a bag to put all this stuff in to take it home. He ate pretty good.

(C.J. Antonie, WVM Oral History Interview, 2003)

Roger Miller, a Silver Creek native, recalled holiday memories from inside the kitchen. As a newlywed and newly appointed Army cook at Fort Bragg during the Korean War, Miller was one of only two men in basic training who was not sent to Korea. Miller was able to bring his wife Sylvia to North Carolina where he began cook school and was soon making meals for over 200 soldiers. Miller described his memories of holidays in the mess hall in a 2003 oral history interview:

 

“Things that stand out in my mind from that time is, the spreads that you would put on for holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas. Just out of this world. Cans of canned nuts, and all the materials to bake cakes, and cranberry sauce, and all that. On Thanksgiving it was then, they invited your wives to come out to share a meal. It was nice.”

(Roger Mill, WVM Oral History Interview, 2003)

Although most would prefer to be with their loved ones at home for the holidays, that often is not the case for our troops in service. Today, there are roughly one million troops in active duty in over 150 countries around the world. Organizations such as the American Red Cross and Trees for Troops have created programs in which civilians can send holiday cards, packages and Christmas trees to troops overseas. We can hope that when today’s soldiers tell us their stories from their time in service, they will also have warm memories of the holidays, those of festive days in an otherwise difficult time.

Learn more about the WVM Oral History program at http://bit.ly/1uzrCIr.

An Interview with Britain’s Foremost Military Historian and Defense Commentator by Michael Telzrow

Author and Historian Allan Mallinson.

Author and Historian Allan Mallinson.

Museum Director Michael Telzrow recently interviewed Allan Mallinson, one of Britain’s foremost military historians and defense commentators whose book, The Making of the British Army (2009) was described by Antony Beevor in The Times as the acutest study of the army in a generation. Serving for thirty-five years in the army worldwide, Allan Mallinson will be back in Madison to share his latest work, 1914: Fight the Good Fight, at the Wisconsin Veterans Museum on Friday, November 21, 2014 at Noon. This program is free and open to the public.

MICHAEL TELZROW: A lot has been written about British military history. Why did you feel you needed to write 1914:FIGHT THE GOOD FIGHT?

ALLAN MALLINSON: The centenary of the First World War – 2014-2018 – is designated a national commemoration in Britain. Unsurprising when six million men were mobilized from a total population (including, then, the whole of Ireland) of 45 million, of whom over 700,000 were killed. Virtually every family in Britain whose forebears lived here in 1914 counts a great-grandfather, grandfather or even father who fought.

And a great many books have been written about the war. Most of them, however, focus on the trenches of the Western Front, and, naturally given the huge expansion of the army, on the volunteers who flocked to the colours in 1914, and, later, the conscripts. Too little has been written about the old regular army which “held the fought” in the first three months’ fighting in 1914, a period not of trenches but a war of movement. My book addresses that deficiency.

MICHAEL TELZROW: How did your military service inform your writing, or not?

ALLAN MALLINSON: In the same way that you’d expect a surgeon’s experience to inform his writing about surgical procedure. The soldier’s advantage is that he tends to be able to read between the lines better, and to have an instinct for when there’s something missing.

MICHAEL TELZROW: World War I is largely forgotten here in the United States, maybe not in Britain. Why do you think World War II has eclipsed World War I in our collective memories?

ALLAN MALLINSON: See the answer to the first question: it hasn’t been largely forgotten in Britain – the wearing of poppies each November, culminating in the Remembrance ceremonies on 11 November, the day the First World War ended, is an annual and very poignant reminder. It’s the commemoration of all servicemen killed in action in the past century; but it began with 1914-18.

MICHAEL TELZROW: Why did the British command miscalculate the time it would take to defeat the Germans in WWI, or is this mistake that all Generals make at the beginning of a war?

ALLAN MALLINSON: The question forms a large part of my book. Just about every mistake – political and military – that could be made was made. But in short, we believed it would be a short war because we didn’t have the resources for a long one. And not having provided resources for a long war before it started, we paid a very much higher price in the course of it. The American experience was rather different – about which I shall be addressing at The Wisconsin Veterans Museum in Madison on Friday, November 21, 2014 at Noon. Join me for this free program!

For more information on this event, visit http://bit.ly/1xAtvr7

Private Soldiers with Joseph Streeter

Private Soldiers pic 2It wasn’t a surprise to most of us when the alert finally came. We didn’t know where we would go or what we would do, but we’d been expecting it for some time. Finally, on a warm June day, we were boarding chartered aircraft and heading to Camp Shelby, MS for training. Operation Iraqi Freedom had just become real for more than 600 men of the 2nd Battalion, 127th Infantry.

Private Soldiers attempts to tell the story of the men who served in the 2-127th Infantry through images, interviews, and letters. It is not a book about famous Generals and politicians who led the war or the politics of why we were there. Instead, the intent is to tell the story of Wisconsin’s citizen Soldiers, what they did and how they lived far away from home.

While a book can tell a story there are many things that it cannot capture. The bravery of men, some barely old enough to vote, making split-second decisions that could mean life or death for themselves, their brothers, or innocent Iraqi civilians, the selflessness of two Soldiers who attempted to rescue a vehicle crew from a burning gun truck, or the professionalism of a medic who was able to treat an Iraqi woman seriously injured in a vehicle crash.

The images and descriptions show the war as we saw it. How we trained, the missions that we conducted, the places we called home, the ways we kept busy, and finally coming home. Private Soldiers devotes an entire chapter to remembering those who were killed or wounded in action. Through the interviews the Soldiers and local Iraqis tell their stories in their own words.

Private Soldiers pic

Nearly 10 years later I am truly grateful to have had the opportunity to serve with the Soldiers of this unit and it has been an honor to contribute to Private Soldiers.

Join Joseph Streeter this Veterans Day, Tuesday, November 11, 2014 at the Weber Center for the Performing Arts in La Crosse, WI to hear more of the story. Click here for more information on the event.

Interested in buying a copy of the book? Buy online today!

The Price of a Name by Kevin Hampton

“The last terrible battle has reduced this brigade to a mere skeleton; there being scarcely enough members to form half a regiment, the 2nd Wisconsin, which but a few weeks since, numbered over nine hundred men, can now muster but fifty-nine. This brigade has done some of the hardest and best fighting in the service. It has been justly termed the Iron Brigade of the West.”

-          Cincinnati Daily Commercial, September 22, 1862

Comprised of the 2nd, 6th, and 7th Wisconsin Infantry, as well as the 19th Indiana, General John Gibbon’s ‘Black Hat Brigade’ of Western men, earned the more famous moniker, “The Iron Brigade of the West”, over the course of three weeks during the early fall of 1862. From the brigade’s first true baptism of fire on the evening of August 28th at the Battle of Gainesville (known more familiarly today as Brawner’s Farm), the rearguard action on August 30th at the Second Battle of Bull Run, it’s determined assault on the evening of September 14th at the Battle of South Mountain, and culminating in the dawn battle through the bloody cornfield on the morning of September 17th at the Battle of Antietam, the brigade paid for the distinguished nom de guerre at a heavy price.

Pvt. Asahel Gage, Co. D

Pvt. Asahel Gage, Co. D

Having spent most of its service up to that point in camps outside of Washington and Fredericksburg, the brigade had truly only experienced any significant loss in its ranks due to illness and disease – a result of the doldrums of garrison duty. By the time the Cincinnati Daily Commercial Reporter penned the quote above, (considered to be the first publicized reference to the brigade’s historic nickname) the experiences of the men in the ranks had changed dramatically. No longer were the concerns of the men on if they’d ever get a chance to prove their worth in battle instead of simply performing guard duty. Similarly, no longer were the ranks of the brigade as full as they had been only three and a half weeks before.

Private Asahel Gage’s collection held in the archives of the Wisconsin Veterans Museum gives us a wonderful representation of the mindset and experiences of the rank-and-file of the “Iron Brigade” during the significant weeks of the brigade’s history.

Having enlisted days after the firing on Fort Sumter in April 1861, 25 year old farmer Asahel Gage joined with others from the Janesville area to form what would become Company D of the 2nd Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry Regiment. Uniformed in State militia gray frock coats, Gage and his comrades took part in the 1st Battle of Bull Run in July 1861. Writing to his brother on September 18th of that year, Gage mentions some of the monotony of garrison camp life that he and his comrades were starting to get used to, “We have bin making fortification There is nothing of importance a goin on”. As the year 1862 arrives, Gage begins to track his daily experiences in a small pocket diary. Most of his entries describe the weather, their drill routines, how many miles marched, and items of small importance that were happening around camp. To the modern reader, these may seem unimportant entries, however it is

Letter from Pvt. Gage to his brother.

Letter notifying Pvt. Gage’s family of his death.

 

important to realize that these entries can give us a unique window into the lives of an everyday soldier during the Civil War. Every day was not a battle. Every day was not a significant event in history. But to the young men in wool uniforms and with only a canvas tent between them and the elements every single day, the weather was a significant portion of their experience. Similarly, the amount of time that their day was occupied by the officer’s barking orders at them on the drill field was also perhaps the singularly most memorable part of their day-in and day-out experiences.

By the early fall of 1862, Asahel’s diary begins mentioning items such as how many miles marched, the intensity of skirmishes witnessed or heard while on the march, and the idea that they would soon be participants in a coming battle seems to loom on their horizon. Little did Gage know, however, the historical significance of the actions he and his comrades would have in the coming battles. Little did he and his comrades know the cost of what price they would have to pay to earn the name of the “Iron Brigade.”

Unfortunately for Gage, he would never know the famous moniker that he and his comrades sacrificed for. Killed instantly by a shell striking him in the head and breast during the Battle of South Mountain in the evening of September 14, 1862, Asahel became one of the many casualties that lent themselves to the heroic sacrifices in blood and lives that followed the Iron Brigade in every battle they engaged in from those days through the rest of the war. Before the men were ordered into battle that fateful Sunday evening, Asahel wrote one last diary entry that reflects on the innocence of a soldier that only history can tell its significance:

Sunday September 14, 1862:

Cool in the morning

Marched at 6 oclock

Marched through the city of

Frederick – a pleasant city

Heavy cannonading in the afternoon

Treasures in the Basement by Kevin Hampton

When Linda Olson found a box of military items in her parents’ basement in November 2011, little did she know that she had uncovered a piece of lost history. Linda’s father, Louis Olson, a native of Chetek, WI, served in the United States Army in the European Theater during World War II and during the occupation of Germany shortly after the war. While in service, he collected several souvenirs and brought them back to the States. As time passed, so too did the memory of those souvenirs, until Linda came across them last year. Amongst the various items from Nazi Germany was a very unique looking piece, an iron key mounted on a plaque that seemed to be from another era. The plaque, written in German, reads, “Key to Fort Cerfontaine of the Fortress Maubeuge” and is adorned with the wax seal of the Imperial German Empire.

Brought home from Europe after World War II by Louis Olson and later donated by his daughter Linda Olson, this plaque displays the World War I-era key to Fortress Cerfontaine, of the Fort Maubeuge in France.

Brought home from Europe after World War II by Louis Olson, and later donated by his daughter Linda Olson, this plaque displays the World War I-era key to Fortress Cerfontaine, of the Fort Maubeuge in France.

Just at a glance, it is clear that this key has a very unique story that is not tied to Nazi Germany, but rather comes from the opening days of World War I, along the Western Front.

As war broke out in Europe in August of 1914, the French fortress town of Maubeuge stood directly in the path of the German sweep across Belgium and into France known as the Schlieffen Plan. On August 25, 1914, the forts surrounding the town, including Fort Cerfontaine, were besieged by the German VII Corps, while the rest of the German forces advanced toward Paris. The fortress was bombarded, day and night, by the heaviest artillery that had ever been used in warfare up to that point. By the thirteenth day of the siege, September 7, with the walls of the Fort in heaps of rubble and only the gatehouse still discernable amongst the ruins, the French general commanding the garrison presented the German commander with a token of his surrender- the key to that gatehouse.

The stubbornness of the defense of Fort Cerfontaine (and the other forts around the fortress city of Maubeuge) delayed the German sweep across France long enough to allow the British and French allied armies to exploit a gap in the German lines at the First Battle of the Aisne, forcing the Germans to retreat and abandon their goal of capturing the French capital. Paris was saved by that gap in the German lines, the very same gap that the German VII Corps would have occupied but could not due to its siege of Fort Cerfontaine of the Fortress Maubeuge.

It is not clear how Louis Olson came across this key over thirty years after the fall of the fort, but thanks to Linda’s discovery and donation, the significance of this artifact is a story that will be preserved for years to come.  Learn more about Wisconsin in World War I at http://bit.ly/1uAc2O8.

“Walking Point with London” By Kylee Sekosy

Just as servicemen and women often befriend one another, war dogs and their handlers often share a deep bond from their experiences in combat. James Hooker, a Wisconsin veteran of the United States Marine Corps, spent three full tours of service in Vietnam. A young man “tired of school” and “brainwashed by John Wayne movies,” Hooker enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1966, hoping to join in the war. While at Camp Lejeune completing additional training, Hooker volunteered for training as a scout dog handler at Fort Benning, Georgia. After sixteen weeks of training, ten handlers and their dogs, including Hooker and his scout, London, volunteered to go to Vietnam.

London, a German shepherd, worked with Hooker as the “point-man.” In a tactical formation, the “point man” holds the most vulnerable position. Hooker would walk with London and, using silent signals, the dog alerted his handler to enemy movement, booby traps, mines, base camps, and underground tunnel complexes and supplies.

In an oral history interview Hooker described an instance in which London came through in the face of doubt and serious danger. Click the image below to hear Hooker’s telling of the intense experience:

 

My dog alerting on an enemy bunker complex about a thousand yards away from the bunker complex, gave us plenty of warning, and that was only because the wind was blowing just right, and the dog picked up the scent of all the enemy up on the ridge line and…the officer that was with us kept saying that that dog isn’t good, that dog isn’t good, and when we got up near the ridge and he found out that the whole ridge line was covered with Vietcong, North Vietnamese bunkers, he wanted to hug my dog. I wouldn’t let him do it. The only one that got to hug my dog was me.

(James Hooker, WVM Oral History Interview, 2003)

Instances like this are why scout dogs and their handlers are credited with saving 10,000 lives during the Vietnam War. However, when US troops left Vietnam in 1975, the heroic war dogs stayed behind. Deemed “equipment” the scout, tracking, and guard dogs were left in the possession of the South Vietnamese Army. 4,000 dogs served in Vietnam and only 200 returned home to the United States. Many of those left behind were euthanized.

In order to prevent such an event from happening again, veterans have advocated for the legal adoption of war dogs. Dr. William Putney, a World War II Marine veteran, war dog platoon leader and veterinarian, along with Congressman Roscoe Bartlett of Maryland successfully passed legislature dubbed “Robby’s Law” in 2000, allowing war dogs like London to be adopted after service.

When asked what he did for good luck while in Vietnam, Hooker replied, “Actually, the only thing I did was take my dog by his jowls and just scratch under his ears. That was my good luck thing.”

Written by Kylee Sekosky, Oral History Intern Summer 2014.  Learn more about the WVM Oral History program at http://bit.ly/1rxiCb7

World War WHERE? by Russ Horton

Letter on Fort Clayton Letterhead.  Louis Wayne Tyler Collection, WVM Mss 934

Letter home from Fort Clayton. Louis Wayne Tyler Collection, WVM Mss 934

When Janesville native Louis Wayne Tyler was drafted into the U.S. Army during World War II, he probably imagined eventually being deployed to the European or Pacific Theaters. He might have considered the possibility of going to North Africa or the China-Burma-India Theater. He may have even heard stories of other Wisconsin men and women serving in places like the Aleutian Islands and the Persian Gulf. But in all likelihood, he never would have guessed his two major duty stations: Panama and Brazil.

Newspaper clipping describing life in Panama.  Louis Wayne Tyler Collection, WVM Mss 934

Newspaper clipping describing life in Panama. Louis Wayne Tyler Collection, WVM Mss 934

Tyler, who went by his middle name Wayne, had a master’s degree in English from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and was teaching at the University of Maryland when he entered the Army. His collection at the Wisconsin Veterans Museum includes dozens of highly articulate letters written to his mother that contain the impressions of a young Wisconsin man on the food, scenery, and local culture in these two unusual World War II outposts. The United States placed great importance on protecting the Panama Canal during World War II, sending thousands of troops to the Central American country to defend it. Tyler, who trained at Camp Wolters, Texas, arrived in country in late January 1942 and served there for over three years, first at Fort Clayton near the city of Balboa with Headquarters Company, 150th Infantry Regiment and later at Fort Kobbe near the canal with the 83rd Coastal Artillery.

His letters from Panama described the exotic local flora—“The poinsettias are in bloom and are very beautiful. There are gladioli in bloom and fine red lilies. There is a kind of wild gardenia, very small and white, but without any scent.”—and fauna—“Iguanas are the most repulsive looking animals imaginable, all scales, with a long powerful tail. Imagine a medieval dragon reduced to from two to three feet in length and you have an iguana.” Tyler also quickly connected with J.C. Ward, a former colleague at Maryland who was teaching at the local university in Balboa, and Ward helped explain local culture and customs that Tyler related in the letters to his mother. Tyler left Panama to attend courses at the Adjutant General’s School at Camp Lee, Virginia in the summer of 1945. Soon after, he received an assignment to the Joint Brazil United States Military Commission in Rio de Janeiro in August and he remained there through December. The Commission sought to strengthen the bonds between the two nations and improve the defense capabilities of Brazil. Living in a small apartment two blocks from Copacabana beach, Tyler wrote to his mother describing the fantastic food (steaks, avocados, and strawberries & cream), the rich culture, and the incredible architecture and style of the city.

Christmas card from Panama.  Louis Wayne Tyler Collection, WVM Mss 934

Christmas card from Panama. Louis Wayne Tyler Collection, WVM Mss 934

He also observed a national election and commented on methods of campaigning: “Sometime during the night the parties paint signs everywhere and change each other’s signs. If someone writes VOTE DUTRA on a wall, someone else adds NAO in front of it.” Days later, he wrote his mother that he received orders to remain in his apartment for several days. He learned that it was due to a military coup that removed President Getulio Vargas from power and paved the way for the election of Eurico Gaspar Dutra. Tyler returned to the United States at the end of 1945 and was honorably discharged on March 7, 1946. He used the GI Bill to receive his doctorate in English from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and after a brief stint at the University of Akron he joined the faculty at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. He taught English there for twenty years and upon his retirement was granted emeritus status. He passed away on September 9, 1995. The story of his service in a war that was truly global lives on at the Wisconsin Veterans Museum.

Interested in more of these stories?  “World War WHERE?” is featured in the Fall 2014 edition of The Bugle, the quarterly newsletter from the Wisconsin Veterans Museum and an exclusive benefit of WVM membership. Learn more at http://bit.ly/1sS8d9U.

The Wisconsin Veterans Museum is an educational activity of the Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs.

Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs