Photo: George Wehmhoff (my dad) with his jeep. (circa 1945) He served in the 14th Armored Division, 84th Medical Battalion. (from the Wehmhoff collection)
By Gretchen Wehmhoff
My Dad was a storyteller. He had plenty of fodder growing up in the orchards and mountains of Washington State. As children, we would learn the stories word for word, and loved watching guests listen to his tales – all true. (We verified several with our grandmother who usually broke into laughter as she recalled the events.)
Growing up in Anchorage, It wasn’t uncommon for our friends to come over and spend more time with our parents than with us. Dad was that interesting.
In addition to growing up on a farm, smoke jumping into forest fires as a teen and getting in trouble in the most entertaining ways, Dad had a repertoire of tales from WWII.
He and some buddies were skiing on Mt. Rainier when Japanese forces bombed Pearl Harbor. Within a few days, as did millions of young Americans, he enlisted in the army.
Dad brought special skills to the Dept. of Defense. He was a practiced smoke jumper and a football player. The football skills found him a spot on the Army team that played the Green Bay Packers and Washington Football Team in war bond games to help finance the war. The two teams were his favorites while watching football in later years.
Dad was in jump school training after that. When his regiment was called to enter the Netherlands via a night jump, only 59 of the 60 men in the group were able to go. These days, when the military jump with their equipment, the heavy cargo is released before they land. In the early years of army paratroopers, everything was attached to the soldier. Weight was a strict number. Dad didn’t deploy with his brothers — he was five pounds overweight.
Unbeknownst to the planes dropping the paratroopers at night, the target field had been flooded after the enemy had blown up a dike. With no way to release their cargo, 59 young men drowned. It would be years before Dad could even consider dropping below that required weight.
He later deployed to the European Theater as a medic in the 14th Armored Division, 84th Medical Battalion where he spent most of four years.
As his children, we knew about the war. He talked about his army friends and kept up with most of them. It wasn’t until we were in our teens that he began to tell the stories with us in the room.
Like the time he and another soldier were on a messenger mission and came upon two soldiers who cautioned them to be careful–there was a liquor warehouse ahead with enemy troops camped inside. I guess Dad and his passenger had selective hearing, because they immediately stashed his jeep in the woods and entered the warehouse.
In the rear of the building they could see the flickering light from a fire and hear the low conversations of the German soldiers. In front of them they saw tall rows of wooden crates. Climbing to the top of the piles, the young men started removing the lids. Inside the boxes was a 19-year-old young man’s dream — whiskey, vodka and more vodka. They quickly pulled their jacket waist bands tight and started stuffing bottles everywhere they could. When they jumped from one row to another, the bottles banged together and the conversation around the fire stopped. Dad and his buddy froze low on the top of the stacks as a soldier came through below them, checking out the noise. Eventually, the soldier returned to the fire and two young Americans, slipped out of the building with a story to tell.
Dad had stories that were most likely serious at the time, but his way of telling them could leave you shaking your head.
In another mission, his patrol assisted in a battle over a German airfield. An enemy plane’s engine was running nearby and Dad was ordered “shut down that plane, private.”
He and another soldier got into the plane. All the labels were in German. He had flown as a passenger in a few crop dusters back home, so it shouldn’t be that hard to find the switch.
His partner decided to push one. Pretty soon the plane was on the move and two bewildered American soldiers in a distinctly German plane were up in the air. While figuring out how to land, they first had to get past the two ends of the airfield. U.S. troops had hold of one end and the German troops were fighting to keep the other end. When the plane flew over the German side, the amateur pilots removed their helmets. When they flew near the U.S. side, they put the helmets back on and waved frantically.
Eventually they landed the plane. A week later a memo came down from the top European command stating that flying enemy planes was prohibited. I’m sure it was a coincidence.
Starting in the 90s, I invited Dad to speak to my Adventure Literature students every Pearl Harbor Day It was here that he shared details of things I hadn’t heard — many horrific.
He talked about keeping a sharp blade upright on the front of his Jeep that he drove for the front line medical officer, The Major. The blade was to cut through wires strung across roads meant to decapitate drivers.
Dad called the medical officer The Major. We learned later that The Major’s family heard regular stories about Whimpy.
As he drove the major close to enemy lines and through battles, he ditched his medic helmet, learning quickly that the red cross on white was a target.
He was shot in the leg, healed, and went back. He was captured twice, escaped twice, the second time bringing prisoners with him.
He assisted with the wounded on the field, driving them to medical care. Not all the soldiers survived. He told us about driving across a field to retrieve more wounded and passing a friendly tank. He asked the occupant if he wanted a ride out of there. The soldier declined saying he felt safer in the tank. On the way back Dad’s heart dropped. The tank had taken a direct hit.
Dad was a universal blood donor. At one point he gave a direct transfusion to a wounded soldier. He caught hell for it, but the major affirmed it was a lifesaving move.
My students were in awe of his stories and his willingness to answer their questions. They removed their hats for him when they came in the room. Teachers dropped by to listen and asked if their classes could join us.
I will always remember the multiple students who, unprompted, walked up to Dad after class and thanked him.
I realized that most of these students were just a year away if not the same age he was when he enlisted. The parallels were striking as they recognized the choices Dad’s generation had in comparison to their own.
By the time Dad was twenty, he had helped deliver two babies in war-torn French villages. He had been in a building-to-building battle trying to get plasma to the wounded in the Battle of Hatten and Rittershoffen. All stories told to a room of teenagers.
My dear 95-year-old friend Sarah who was married to another WWII soldier once said to me, “I can’t get over how all of these young men saw such horrible things in that war, yet came back to be such good people.”
Every veteran of every war comes back some day, in some way. My grandfather, Dad’s father, fought in WWI. In the world wars, surviving soldiers returned home on ships, waiting weeks for their name to be called to board — perhaps allowing for time to debrief or contemplate the past four years.
Now soldiers can be home within 48 hours, switching instantly from one world to another.
After the war ended and his division liberated the Dachau concentration camp, Dad made it back across the Atlantic Ocean and boarded a train for the West Coast. Soldiers were being relocated to the South Pacific. His train was halfway across the country when the war ended and he headed home to Washington.
In earlier columns I’ve talked about Dad being a devoted father who met his love in college while taking advantage of the GI Bill. I’ve shared my pride in him being Santa’s best stand-in and my co-conspirator in adventures.
This month I wanted to share how proud I am of him and all veterans.
I wanted to share how my dad helped save the world.