War Stories

Harry HankelThe war took place in lands far from York, Nebraska. But it’s remarkable that this small rural community of around 4,000 people had sons and daughters who took part in almost all of the major campaigns and events of World War II.

It’s a measure of how pervasive the war was when one small community had representatives in so many major events.

chenaultFor instance, Jim Chenault (right) was a B24 bomber co-pilot for the 8th Air Force bombing targets in Germany. His unit was losing 10 percent of their aircraft on each mission on average. And each crew was expected to fly at least 25 missions before being rotated back to the states. “It doesn’t take much of a mathematician to figure out [that at] 25 missions and 10 per cent each mission, your chance is pretty slim. They lost a lot of people.” Jim survived even after flying 32 missions in 2½ months.

James Martin trained at the Fairmont airbase just south of York. Later, he was a ground crew member servicing bombers in Italy and southern Europe. “They separated the [flight] crews from the ground personnel. They didn’t want you to become friends because we lost a lot of them.”

harryHarry Hankel (right) began his Army career before Pearl Harbor as a horse-mounted member of a cavalry unit. But as soon as the war started, the unit got tanks and he was trained as a tank commander. He went into Europe shortly after the D-Day invasion, but within days of landing, his tank was hit and two of his crew were killed. Harry and the gunner were taken prisoner. The Germans rounded up about 200 POWs and simply marched them back towards Germany, trying to keep ahead of the advancing American troops. “We walked most of the time,” Harry says now. “They said we walked about 400 miles in the four months… You can live longer than you think without anything [to eat or
drink].After you’re so hungry, you’re not hungry. I weighed 96 pounds when I got out.”

Holly Miller (left) served behind the lines as a chief radio operator for the Army
. He was part of the support team for three international conferences in Cairo, Tehran and Yalta that involved Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, Russian dictator Josef Stalin, and Chinese President Chang Kie-shek. “The war was moving so fast that we got bombed every night,” Holly says. “We called him ‘Bedcheck Charlie.’”

Charles Wempe (right) was a friend of David Wessels and his brother Ed who was in the infantry. Ed was “plodding along over in Europe behind a tank.” That is, until one day that a tank got stuck in the mud. When Ed criticized the driver, his platoon leader challenged Ed to do better. He did. Charles reports, “His platoon leader said, ‘You’ve walked your last mile. You’re going to be driving tanks.’”

geeryDon Geery (left) was a member of the bomb group that ended the war. He was a gunner and engineer on a B-29 Superfortress bomber attacking Japan from Tinian Island. Don says that everyone in the 504th Bomb Group knew that another unit on the base was practicing for a top-secret mission. No one knew what it was. The lead plane in the unit was named the Enola Gay, and the crew had been picked to drop the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Don remembers learning about the bomb on Tinian. “Oh, I was just elated because the damage that was reported was amazing.” Don thinks the damage helped end the war.

chenaultIn the years after the war, Jim Chenault (right) became a combatant in the Cold War. He came home for a few years, but then re-enlisted in the Air Force. He was called on to fly in the massive Berlin airlift operation that saved that city when the Soviet Union closed the overland routes from West Germany. “Nobody thought we could supply the town the rations, that we didn’t have a chance of making it. We did,” he says. “I tell you, it really improved our image to the German people. And I enjoyed that a lot more than I did bombing them.”

Written by Bill Ganzel, the Ganzel Group. A partial bibliography of sources is here.

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