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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.

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.

Above and Beyond the Call of Duty by Emily Irwin

Endl Class Picture

Gerald Endl’s 8th grade graduation class from Saint Joseph Catholic School. Endl is in the back row, second from the left.

On July 11, 1944, Gerald L. Endl made the ultimate sacrifice while in service to his country. “For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty,” Endl was awarded the Medal of Honor, America’s highest military honor. Today, 70 years later, we recognize Staff Sergeant Endl and his sacrifice.

Born and raised in Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin, Endl moved to Janesville before joining the Army in 1941.  He was first sent to Camp Livingston in Louisiana for basic training before being deployed to the Pacific Theater with the 32nd Infantry Division in 1942.

Gerald Endl

Gerald Endl

Stationed near Anamo, New Guinea, Endl was at the front of his platoon on July 11, 1944 when they encountered enemy troops. With his platoon leader and eleven other men in his unit wounded, Endl assumed command and attempted to advance to an open clearing. Pinned down by enemy gunfire, Endl realized that seven men in his unit would be trapped if the platoon was pushed back. The following quotation is taken from Endl’s official Medal of Honor citation:

“In the face of extremely heavy fire he went forward alone and for a period of approximately 10 minutes engaged the enemy in a heroic close-range fight, holding them off while his men crawled forward under cover to evacuate the wounded and to withdraw. Courageously refusing to abandon 4 more wounded men who were lying along the trail, 1 by 1 he brought them back to safety. As he was carrying the last man in his arms he was struck by a heavy burst of automatic fire and was killed.”

On March 13, 1945, Staff Sergeant Endl was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor. He was 28 at the time of his death and is buried at Saint Joseph Catholic Cemetery in Fort Atkinson. Fellow soldier Captain S.M. Darnelly of the 32nd Division wrote:

“Gerald was an outstanding leader of men. I have never met a finer soldier. His devotion to duty and to his men earned the greatest admiration of all. We, his comrades, could have no better  example of the highest traditions of American soldiering. Many wounded comrades owe their lives to [his] unselfish courage…”

Saint Joseph

4th and 5th grade students from Saint Joseph Catholic School.

70 years later, Gerald Endl’s story has been brought to a new generation. On April 15, 2014, a group of 4th and 5th grade students from Fort Atkinson’s Saint Joseph Catholic School, the same school Endl attended, visited the Wisconsin Veterans Museum and viewed Endl’s Medal of Honor on exhibit.

Endl’s widow, Anna Marie, preserved many of her husband’s photographs and documents relating to his service and his death. These papers, now in the Wisconsin Veterans Museum Archives, tell the story of Staff Sergeant Endl’s courage and sacrifice above and beyond the call of duty.  Learn more about Wisconsin Medal of Honor recipients at http://bit.ly/TYAigr.

D-Day + 70: Honoring Wisconsin’s Heroes by Kevin Hampton

“Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force!  You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you.”

-   General Dwight D. Eisenhower, in a letter to the Allied forces prior to D-Day

General Eisenhower addresses paratroopers prior to boarding their transports for the Normandy invasion. Library of Congress.

General Eisenhower addresses paratroopers prior to boarding their transports for the Normandy invasion. Library of Congress.

Seventy years ago today, the pivotal campaign of WWII took place along the coast of Normandy, France.

Known almost universally as “D-Day,” Operation Overlord was the largest seaborne invasion in history. Using the oral history collection from our archives, we are able to preserve the stories and accounts of Wisconsin’s heroes that took part in that historic event. The story of Milwaukee native Martin Gutekunst, gives insight into the mindset of those young heroes so many years ago.

Gutekunst, who was only 27 at the time, served as a radioman with the 2nd Beach Battalion on Utah Beach. In preparation for the invasion, he remembered receiving the now famous letter from General Eisenhower the night before the invasion. “They had to cancel the first invasion date and, well, there, of course, just before boarding the ship, we were in the staging area and we got the famous message from Eisenhower. And that seemed to calm everybody. Very good morale. So then we boarded the LST for our journey to France…”

Troops approaching the beaches in landing craft. National Archives.

Troops approaching the beaches in landing craft. National Archives.

By the next morning, hundreds of thousands of allied sailors and soldiers were in position, waiting off the coast of Normandy. Despite the massive preparation for the invasion and the extensive training the units received, coordinating the landing of thousands of men in each wave on the beaches was a complicated task and undoubtedly not everything played out the way it was planned. In the landing craft of the 2nd Beach Battalion, Gutekunst remembered the approach to the beach.

Troops approaching the beaches in landing craft. National Archives.“We circled around and then peeled off at the right time. There was a little conference between the men on the boat and the officers…. And we were discussing about going in, because everything seemed wrong according to the pictures we had looked at the day before. And history has proven that was right. We were at the wrong spot.”

Once they made it to the beaches, the Beach Battalions were tasked with clearing the German obstacles. The troops had landed at low tide so that the obstacles were clearly visible, however that meant the troops had farther to go up the beach exposing themselves to additional enemy fire.  “We had a long walk from where we got off the LCVP until we got to the area where we started to having to blow up the obstacles. You know, they were wicked looking things. I remember so well how many there were and how much we cleared away when we got through.”

Helmet worn by Martin Gutekunst on June 6, 1944 on Utah Beach. Martin Gutekunst Collection, Wisconsin Veterans Museum.

One of the things that Gutekunst remembered the most was the noise of battle. “On D-Day, there was tremendous noise…. It was so noisy that the radio wouldn’t work. Couldn’t use the radio. So the officer told me to help string wire from one obstacle to another for the explosions.”

When asked what he was feeling or thinking while being under fire for the first time, he said, “To be honest with you, I never knew what to expect, so I just took everything as just part of my job. And I never gave it much thought as to what was going on. Besides, I was sort of numb by the whole thing.”

After the beachheads were secure, Gutekunst’s battalion remained on the beaches, clearing obstacles for a month before being sent back to England and the United States for more training. In 1945, Martin shipped off to the Pacific to take part in the landings at Okinawa and to prepare for the proposed invasion of Japan.

As we reflect on the sacrifices of those heroes 70 years ago today, and all WWII veterans, it is important to remember the duty we have to preserve these stories and share them for generations to come. To learn more about Wisconsin’s veterans and their stories, search our collections online at http://bit.ly/1lbdgNq, or visit our Research Center located on the 3rd floor of 30 W. Mifflin Street in Madison.

Military Appreciation Month by Ellen Brooks

“It takes about eight or ten people behind the lines to support one person in the front lines.”

(Thomas Diener, Oral History Interview, 2005)

Thomas Diener never saw combat while serving during World War II with the Army Air Corps, but he was one of the essential troops supporting those at the front.

And behind all those troops are the supporting friends, families and spouses on the home front. Our service men and women rely on the encouragement and loyalty of their loved ones at home. For Thomas Diener, those loved ones were his family in Milwaukee, and most importantly, his sweetheart and later wife, Betty Jean Dealy.

Betty Jean and Tom both grew up in Milwaukee and started “going together” as young teens. Tom enlisted in the Army Air Corps in 1943, and from July 5, 1943 until his discharge in 1946, he and Betty Jean were apart; their worlds turned upside down by the war. Despite the hardships faced, at home and abroad, they kept up a steady correspondence and the Wisconsin Veterans Museum is proud to have dozens of letters exchanged between the couple during wartime. It is obvious from reading these letters that their love and support for one another played a pivotal role in how they survived the war.

In this clip from his oral history interview, Tom mentions the letters between himself and Betty Jean and talks about the feelings of sacrifice and separation. In a letter (partially pictured and transcribed below), Betty Jean relays her reactions to V-J Day to Tom and her wish to share the celebration with him.  Click the image below to hear Tom Diener’s oral history clip.


Diener ProposalPeople ran out ~ kids yelled & blew horns & banged kettles & pots, etc. And I sat there ~ I couldn’t run out or do anything – you’ll probably think I’m crazy, but honey I couldn’t help crying ~ I tried not to ~ but I didn’t succeed. I ran in my bedroom ~ fell on the bed and just sobbed & sobbed ~ I was so happy ~ I just cried like I couldn’t stop ~ and I couldn’t ~ it seemed I cried for everything I had held deep inside for 4 years ~ I cried because the war was over ~ everything I’d lived and prayed and hoped for, for 4 years finally came true ~ and I couldn’t control myself ~ …  

Now the next thing I want to celebrate is your homecoming ~ oh Darling, now maybe our dreams will begin to come true ~ Tommy there is no sense in me telling you how terribly much I wanted to be with you yesterday ~ or how much I thought about you ~ just every second Tommy darling!  

(Betty Jean to Tom, dated August 15, 1945)

Betty Jean and Tom were married in 1948.

Not only did Betty Jean’s letters and love carry Tom through the war, her work in the post-war years when he was unemployed, helped put him through college. Of the war years and the years after, Tom said, “Through all of this, my wife was part of my life, of course. The most important part.”

Full Matching Leather Jackets

wwii leather jacketThe standard issue uniform for American World War II soldiers consisted of a basic wool uniform, a field jacket or wool coat, leggings, and various other pieces. Most of the clothing was a light to medium shade of olive drab. Some soldiers even wore items from home—either because they needed to, or because they desired to be more stylish.

2nd Lt. William J. Schereck and his division fell into the latter category. Schereck served from 1943 to 1944 with the 143rd Infantry Regiment, 36th Infantry Division. The officers in his unit privately ordered horsehide Hercules leather jackets, selected from the Sears catalog and shipped directly to the field at Monte Cassino, Italy. The officers kept their jackets blackened and shined, proudly wearing them as part of their field uniform.

When 2nd Lt. Schereck donated this leather jacket to the museum, our curator was astounded by the jacket’s background, and even questioned the origin. It was highly unusual for privately purchased pieces to be shipped directly to the field during a campaign.

It seems that 2nd Lt. Schereck was a soldier with cultured taste, as he also donated a book of self-authored poetry along with his jacket.

Here’s our favorite excerpt:


Let us talk of pretty girls

And not of dying men.

Let us talk of the many things

We want to do again.

Let us talk of the life ahead

Not of what has gone by.

Let us talk of gay bright lights

Where brave men do not die.

Let us not talk of the war

There are things more cheerful yet.

Let us not be reminded of the

Things we want to forget.

See more World War II artifacts for yourself at the Wisconsin Veterans Museum. You can also see our “Through the World Wars” online exhibit by clicking here.

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

Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs