Throughout the region, walking among us are military heroes who have seen things we can only read about in history books or see re-created by Hollywood actors. They are men of what has become known as the Greatest Generation. Without complaint, they endured those experiences to ensure the nation's freedom and shelter those back home from the unthinkable side of humanity that accompanies war.
Three region men of that era talked to The Times about their wartime experiences. Each served in a different part of the world, but each carried out a common mission of protecting the United States and its citizens.
Rudy Hartge, of Crown Point
Army, 5th Anti-Aircraft Gun Battalion, 7th Combat Engineers
Rudy Hartge, of Crown Point, was just 9 years old when his family arrived in the United States from Germany. The move was prompted by his father’s desire to escape the German Socialist Party and the inviting letters from his aunt who had settled in Lansing, promising that the “money grows on trees” here.
One foggy childhood memory remains with the 93-year-old of a French soldier shooting at his mother for being out after curfew during the French occupation of Germany following World War I in the early 1920s.
Although he became a U.S. citizen, the Nazi Army managed to track him down and send a draft notice upon his 18th birthday.
“I can still see my father standing in the kitchen and how mad he got. He tore it up into little pieces,” Hartge said. “I wish now that I still had it.”
Uncle Sam sent a draft notice as well — or an “invitation” as he called it. He was refused due to flat feet. Then he was refused again when the second notice came. The third time, he was accepted and he was inducted in September 1942. He was soon off to Camp Steward Georgia for training at the Anti-Aircraft Artillery facility. His background in construction came in handy for the days that would come rebuilding bridges in Europe.
Living in the largely German and Dutch community of Lansing, Hartge said he didn’t encounter much negativity in the U.S. over being of German descent.
“It was nothing like what it was like for the Japanese,” he said.
When training was completed, he shipped off for Casablanca, Africa, in March 1943 and then to Oran, Africa, by motor convoy. It was there he learned his brother, Walter, was in the region with a group of replacement personnel from Arkansas. He got permission to hitchhike the 22 miles to see him, a risky endeavor with German snipers hiding along the route. He would later meet up again with his brother, who was twice wounded and earned a Purple Heart, in Munich. A younger brother also served in the war.
However, it was when they moved on to invade Sicily that he faced his scariest moment of the war, landing in the town of Gila and partially submerged in water when his Jeep rolled out of the landing craft and into gunfire.
The devastating moments are too many to mention. Many of them are displayed in black and white in a thick Army scrapbook. In each destroyed town he came upon, he’d check to see if there was a camera shop and he’d get whatever equipment he could find.
“I wasn’t supposed to be taking some of those pictures,” he said.
Getting caught with them would have had extreme consequences.
On the scrapbook pages, alongside photos of smiling soldiers in front of tanks are photos of bodies in the streets. One image shows a man hanging.
“That was in France. He was hung by his own people. That was because they thought he was sympathizing with the Nazis," he said.
Another photo of a railroad track triggers a story. They’d come across an undamaged roundhouse with a locomotive. His commanding officer told him to translate the words on the controls and start it up. That resulted in a five-mile joy ride with townspeople calling out “those crazy Americans!” as they ran down the track.
In Sicily, the unit set up their guns and were visited by Gen. George Patton for an inspection. Patton was infuriated at seeing the men running around in thin helmet liners without the metal helmets, telling the battalion commander that he was going to “bust him down to buck a** private” if they didn’t shape up.
In Palermo, their mission was to protect the air bases and harbor and when two planes approached, not identified as friendly aircraft, they were ordered to shoot them down. “It was two C-47 cargo planes, each towing gliders,” he said. “And we shot them down. Can you imagine how many men were on there?”
He moved through Italy, France and Germany and arrived at the Austrian border, this time without the 90 mm guns. Continuing ahead of Patton, he helped build Bailey Bridges for the troops to advance. As they got into Germany, he got his first glimpse of a German jet.
“The first high dive into water that I ever did,” he said.
They were also approached by two teen boys who reached into their shirts and threw hand grenades called “potato mashers” their way, forcing the military police to shoot them. They cleared the still burning town of Heilbronn, Germany, with bulldozers. The British had bombed it the previous evening, killing thousands.
In Germany, he faced what he called the “saddest time of my life.” His captain used him as an interpreter, taking him ahead to find shelter for when the battalion arrived. The captain didn’t want his men staying in tents, so he’d find a home in suitable condition and Hartge was forced to communicate to the two or three families living there that they had to leave. Recognizing his dialect, they’d plead, “You are a Westphalian, German. How can you do this to us?”
As they’d take German prisoners, he said it was the young POWs you had to watch out for.
“Those young ones who had gone through Hitler Youth Groups were radicals. But some in my control were men who were 35 and 40 and not fanatic. They were glad to be out of service," he said.
In his years in the military, Hartge said pay was about $30 a month, $5 of which he’d “keep for incidentals and the rest I’d send home to my wife.” He’d married just before shipping off and encountered more than a three-year separation from his new bride.
As the war was nearing an end, his last camp was on the outskirts of Mittendwald, Germany. As they began to clear out the previously occupied German camp, they opened up a warehouse to find out they were at a concentration camp. They found the bodies of those who had died of starvation piled high.
On a wall in his home behind glass are items he picked up along the way as he moved through Germany: a German officer’s dress cap, a dagger, patches, even a medal — a War Earned Cross 2nd Class with accompanying paperwork that he said he’d gladly return to that soldier’s family if he could find them.
Ralph Boardman, of Lansing
Army, 27th Division Regimental Cannon Co.
Private, 1st Class
Ralph Boardman was living in Elmhurst, Ill., when he was drafted at age 21. In October 1942, he reported to Fort Lewis Washington for basic training. Soon, his sweetheart, Nellie, followed along by train and the two were married. Nellie worked as a secretary at the state Capitol.
The next move was to the Mojave Desert, where Boardman was expected to be sent to North Africa. Instead, he said he was shipped to the Hawaiian Islands, where he learned landing maneuvers not far from Pearl Harbor.
Boardman, who became a teacher after the war, inserts a bit of history into every bit of his explanation. He talks about trench warfare in World War I and teams of horses pulling big guns in comparison to the tanks and large machinery he was in during World War II. The vehicle used by his group was open on top, carrying usually an officer, two gunmen and a driver.
Boardman was a radio operator.
“They said you follow behind and keep up with us,” Boardman said. “I said, ‘I’ve got 40 pounds on my back.’”
He knew keeping up would be hard with his equipment and persuaded them to bring him aboard, where he was placed in a small corner opposite the officer.
That open vehicle was satisfactory on the low-lying coral islands, but the mountainous islands were a different story. “In the mountains, they could look right down on you,” he said.
The Marines were highly trained to do landings and were sent in first. In the Gilbert Islands, they were called to help, but were 100 miles away at the time. “They asked for reinforcements. We started to be moved to help them,” he said.
It was too late.
“In a ship convoy, you can only travel as fast as the slowest ship,” he said. “They all got shot to pieces.”
In the invasion of the Mariana Islands and Guam, Boardman often found himself the target of Japanese soldiers shooting from the mountains above. A piece of shrapnel would shorten his time in the Pacific and leave him with a constant reminder of that battle.
“I felt something crease in my neck, but it wasn’t too bad,” he said.
He concluded that a bullet had bounced off the vehicle, going into his left eye. He made his way quickly to the medic and was returned to Hawaii, where he underwent surgery to remove a fingernail-size piece of shrapnel from his eye.
At first he seemed to be recovering fairly well, but “after a little while, it was like someone was lowering a curtain over my eye.” He hesitantly told his sergeant, saying he feared officers “will probably think I’m bucking for the States.”
It turned out he had a detached retina and he ended up completely blind in his left eye due to the injury. Even so, like veterans of his generation, he is incredibly modest.
When pulling out his Purple Heart, he downplays it, saying there’s “no comparison to the shrapnel in my eye compared to what some others went through.”
He was medically discharged in 1944 on a familiar day, Dec. 7, in the Hawaiian Islands exactly three years after the Pearl Harbor bombing that drew the U.S. into the war.
He returned home to a 9-month-old daughter he had never met. His wife had become pregnant while he was still training in California.
During his time in Hawaii, it was a set of dog tags that caused him to look at what he wanted to do after the war. “He was very spiritual and in the Army he was always being asked for prayer. The (dog tags) made him look at how you could die any second and he talked to the chaplain a lot and in corresponding with my mom they decided he would pursue being a pastor,” said daughter Christine Widstrand.
Those plans shifted to becoming a Lutheran school teacher, and he attended Concordia Teachers College following discharge. He went on to a career as one of two teachers in the one-room Trinity Lutheran School, retiring as principal.
Andrew Orich Sr., of Hammond
Army Air Force, 232nd Anti-Aircraft
Like many of his patriotic peers, Andrew Orich was eager to enlist in the military and did so a month after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
“I was always inquisitive about planes, but I had never flown,” he said.
He signed up for the Army Air Force and went off to Biloxi, Miss., to start training as an airplane mechanic.
His face lights up as he talks about the different planes he learned to work on: B17s, B25s, B29 bombers. He would eventually get off the ground and also work as an anti-sub scout. Not all the mechanics were so eager to do so.
“We were told, ‘You worked on it, you get up in it,’” he said.
He worked on in-line and radial engines and was a carburetor specialist. “The heart of the plane is in the carburetor. There were five or six of us mechanics. We had our own tags to identify who worked on what, in case something happened,” he said. “None of our planes ever went down. We worked together. We understood what we had to do.”
He was assigned to the Caribbean area, where air patrols ran 24/7 to watch for submarines. Working up in the plane meant long shifts and taking turns with other airmen sleeping in four hour shifts. “Some of those big planes could stay in the air for 10 or 12 hours,” he said.
He also formed a bond with the men he worked with in such close quarters. He relayed many stories to family over the years of two buddies, Clifford Teeters and Murray Barsky, who were like brothers. They were dubbed the “Three Musketeers” because they were always together.
While he spotted a lot of subs on patrol, he said they were never quick enough to get to them. “They’d see us before we’d see them," he said.
He described how the force of the guns would throw them around the plane if they weren’t securely strapped in.
When he wasn’t in the air, he was in places like Jamaica, New Guinea and Puerto Rico where they’d encounter children so poor and malnourished that the airmen would save all their food scraps in large cans to give to the starving children.
Although he wasn’t engaged in combat, there were other life-threatening dangers. Orich contracted malaria and dengue fever and was unconscious for days.
Toward the end of the war, he married the girl he met while working as an orderly at St. Margaret Hospital. She was a receptionist. He’d been gone three years without a furlough, so when he got the chance to see her again, they tied the knot. And then they went on to have five sons and twin daughters.
He had two brothers who also served in the military during the war, including a brother who enlisted in the Marines at age 17. Looking back on his war experiences, he nods his head and says, “I was lucky.”