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LP’s Elmer Hoernemann shares his World War II experiences

November 5, 2007

By Gary Jenneke

Elmer Hoernemann is a soft-spoken, somewhat reticent man with a twinkle of humor in his eyes.

He’s married to one of my cousins, so I’ve known him all my life, but only recently have I learned about his participation in World War II.

Somewhat reluctantly, Elmer agreed to an interview so I could write down his story.

Elmer was 22 years old and working at Weise & Kuhlmann’s Hardware in Lester Prairie when he received his draft notice.

Inducted into the US Army April 16, 1942 at Fort Snelling, he was sent to Fort Francis Warren at Cheyenne, Wyo. for basic training.

From there, he went to San Antonio, Texas, where he was taught how to repair electrical systems on army vehicles.

There was one more leg of training in Atlanta, Ga. before he shipped out to Europe from New York.

His troop transport, the SS Brazil, was part of a large convoy that included the Queen Mary. It took two weeks to cross the North Atlantic.

They landed in England late in 1942, and Elmer noted that he spent the next three Christmases in the British Isles.

He was stationed in the southern part of England in a small town called Tewkesbury.

Damaged vehicles, mostly Jeeps, were sent back from North Africa, then Italy, and his unit’s job was to repair and reassemble them.

“They’d look good as new when we were done,” Elmer stated.

Elmer enjoyed England, bicycling around the Tewkesbury area, or he’d go to Gloucester or Birmingham if he had the time.

He chuckled when reminiscing about one trip to London.

“The Army found out I could speak German, so they sent me to London. Not to interrogate prisoners, but . . . ” Elmer shook his head at the thought. “They put me in a room with all these German uniforms and paraphernalia, I don’t know if they wanted me to be a spy or what.”

Elmer suddenly “forgot” how to speak German, so he went back to repairing Jeeps.

His camp was never hit by an air raid, but he would hear the German bombers go over and in the distance, and see the fires.

They had trenches for shelter in case of an air raid, but it rained a lot, and they sometimes filled with water.

Elmer remembers his sergeant’s advice when he first arrived there.

“Men,” he said, “if the ditches are filled with water and there is a raid, the best thing to do is to roll over and go back to sleep.”

Elmer tired of fixing the vehicles, so, after a year, he volunteered for the military police and was accepted.

That was better duty, and he could come and go as he liked.

He was a guard at a gate where the equipment arrived and departed.

Personnel used another gate, but if they returned late at night, too late, they learned that they could get back into the base without trouble at Elmer’s gate.

When Elmer tells stories like “forgetting how to speak German,” or winking at Army regulations, a small smile reveals his quiet sense of humor.

Elmer had guard duty the night before D-day, and he knew something big was up. Planes were going overhead and, as Elmer puts it, “It was like the sky was filled with Christmas trees.”

Each plane had one light on it, and they were in 40-plane groups. Many were also pulling gliders.

For two solid hours, he recalled, the sky was filled with planes. They later learned that the invasion had taken place.

Elmer’s safe tour of duty in England was coming to a close. The Allied advance toward Germany was resulting in many casualties, and replacements were needed to fill the ranks.

Elmer went from being a MP into re-training as an infantry rifleman.

In January 1945, he was sent to the front lines in the Alsace Lorraine region of France.

The old rainbow division from World War I had been re-activated, and Elmer joined them at Win-gen-Sur-Moder.

He remembers sleeping in a horse barn the first night there.

They advanced into Germany through the Black Forest. One of the units facing off against them was the 6th SS Mountain Division.

Shortly after being sent into the line, Elmer was involved in taking a hill with a German entrenchment on the top.

About a quarter of the way up, Elmer was lying on the ground taking cover. He turned to his right and five feet away was a German soldier, lying down facing him. The sun was high, and it reflected off of the German’s eyeglasses, and Elmer couldn’t tell if he was looking at him or, if he had been shot.

“After he didn’t move for awhile, I figured it out that he was dead,” Elmer said.

“We never knew where we were in the forest, but we tried to stay mostly on the ridges.”

That was because the Germans had mined the lower areas.

It was rugged terrain, and the supply lines consisted of mules. Sometimes, when climbing a hill, the mules would simply quit. They would have to unload the animals and kick them to get them started again.

“Ammunition always came first,” Elmer said. “They wouldn’t send up any food until they made sure we had ammunition.”

Their food was K-rations and something called D-bar. He held the enriched chocolate bar in reserve for when he ran out of K-rations.

They slept outside in the cold and wet. At one point, Elmer found a sleeping bag that kept him fairly dry one rainy night. But, the Army forced them to leave the sleeping bags behind as they advanced.

“You could only carry so much,” Elmer said.

One time, he was sent out on a scouting mission into the German lines. There were seven in the scouting party, the main body of five, with a scout ahead of them, and a lead scout in front.

The idea was to stay in sight of one another because they had no radios.

Elmer was the second scout, and he lost sight of the first. He stopped, because the lead scout was supposed to come back to him.

As he waited, he knelt down, and just then, a machine gun opened up and tore the bark off the tree just above his head, where he had just been standing only a moment earlier.

They retreated back to their own lines. He has no idea what happened to the first scout, they never saw him again.

As the Germans retreated, the Americans occupied their former quarters.

Elmer remembers being in a large building that had back-to-back rooms with a shared fireplace between them.

They had just been issued new rifles and had no way to clean off the cosmoline.

Some gasoline was found, and the soldiers were using it to clean rifles. In the other room, not on Elmer’s side, there were windows and only one door as an exit.

The fumes ignited, and there were bars on the windows, so there was no escape.

Elmer described the aftermath – not the tragedy itself, but what he saw the next morning.

A six-by-six truck was parked outside, and the American bodies were stacked on it like cordwood.

I asked Elmer what he thought about at times like that, or when he was being shot at.

He replied, “I don’t really know. It’s a funny feeling. I think your mind must go blank.”

They advanced across Germany and came to a pillbox one night. It had a water moat around it and there were wire entanglements in the water to make its approach even more difficult.

Elmer is a modest man, and in his understated manner, simply said, “We somehow managed to over-run it.”

They moved on quickly, up a large hill, and were told to dig in.

Elmer dug his foxhole and, true to Army fashion, he had no sooner finished when they were ordered forward a couple of dozen feet. Instead of digging a second foxhole, he just piled up stones.

The next morning, his canteen was empty, so he decided to go back to the moat to fill it up.

So many guys asked him to fill up theirs also that he had to hang all the canteens on a stick to carry them.

He went back to the ditch and, as he was filling them, he remembers frogs jumping into the water around him.

They had tablets to drop into the canteens that Elmer said, somewhat skeptically, “supposedly purified the water.”

While he was filling the canteens, he heard someone yelling from inside the pillbox.

The Americans hadn’t searched it, and there were still Germans inside who wanted to surrender.

Elmer told them to come out.

About six or seven came out, and he wondered what to do. He hadn’t even brought his rifle along.

Someone from the squad came looking for him because he was gone too long.

The dilemma of what to do with the prisoners was solved when they received orders to just send them to the rear on their own. No men could be spared for guard duty.

In their language, Elmer told them to start walking, and then added that maybe they should try to find some civilian clothes and just go home.

Speaking German came in handy for Elmer. They entered a village one morning and stopped for a break.

Elmer saw an older German couple eating breakfast inside their house.

He went in and spoke to them. They welcomed him and he was invited to have something to eat.

Elmer gave a little laugh when he recalled sitting at a table having toast and coffee and he could look out a window at his fellow GIs outside eating K-rations.

Another time, speaking German drew unwanted attention.

They were advancing through a town and Americans were being shot as they tried to take a German position.

As Elmer closed in, he yelled at them to surrender. The response was one of their “potato masher” grenades tossed in his direction.

He was alongside a fence and it had an iron post for the gate. He took a quick step to the side and he ended up on one side of the post when the grenade went off on the other.

“So, I got out of there OK,” Elmer said.

He acquired a German P38 pistol that he especially valued. It was more effective in the close-quarters house-to-house fighting they had to do.

“It just makes sense,” Elmer said. “You could get around a corner quicker with a pistol than with a rifle.”

I noticed that Elmer, despite recalling the grim realities of war, always seemed to gravitate toward humor.

He had a good friend, Jim Hill, from Texas, who was a squad leader in a different squad.

Jim knew Elmer could speak German, so he’d call him to the command post to interrogate prisoners.

“I’d ask about their plans and things, but mostly Jim wanted to know where the booze was hidden,” Elmer said.

They were between Nuremberg and Firth when they came to a bridge over a dry reservoir.

There was a grassy incline leading down to the concrete bridge supports.

Someone had to inspect for explosives the Germans might have left behind.

Elmer and one other soldier were “volunteered.”

He was almost to the other end when the Germans began shooting.

“I’d hide behind one support and then run like hell to get back to the next one, and pieces of concrete would fly off around me where the bullets hit. I finally got back to the last one, and now, I had to get up the incline,” Elmer said.

He asked for and received covering fire from a machine gun and made it back to safety.

It was toward evening and they were pulled back from where they had engaged the Germans.

The GIs took a break and were sitting around talking and brewing up some coffee.

Elmer never did know where the grenade came from.

It blew up in their midst, killing two American soldiers and wounding four more, including Elmer.

He was loaded into the back of an ambulance to be taken to a field hospital. The ambulance apparently got lost, and he heard the drivers arguing.

One insisted on going one way, and the other insisted that that would take them right into the German lines.

Fortunately for Elmer, the correct route was chosen, and he arrived safely at a field hospital.

I asked Elmer his thoughts when wounded, and on the errant ambulance ride.

“Oh, I don’t know. I guess, by that time, I wasn’t thinking straight. You just have to hope for the best.”

He did comment on a German woman who had been hanging around earlier, though.

Elmer remembered thinking it unusual, because it was learned that the Americans had killed her boyfriend and wounded her father. He thinks the grenade could have come from someone like that, a civilian.

He was operated on for wounds in his leg and neck, and then airlifted to a hospital just outside Paris.

Shortly after he was wounded, his unit continued its advance, and was among the forces that liberated Dachau.

Elmer was still recovering from his wounds when Germany surrendered.

After the war ended and he was released back to his unit, Elmer had, as he put it, some fun with the Germans.

One day he overheard three women talking about Hitler. They were saying he wasn’t really dead, that he had escaped to South America and would come back to lead Germany again.

“Entschuldigen Zie, bitte,” Elmer interrupted, and proceeded to ask them for directions in German.

He said, “You should have seen their jaws drop,” when they realized he could understand them.

They were stationed near the Eagle’s Nest, Hitler’s retreat.

One day, having nothing to do, Elmer walked out of town with his rifle on his shoulder. He came upon an old farmer and his wife loading hay onto a horse-drawn cart.

The man was pitching the hay up to the woman on the cart.

Elmer told the man to go up on the cart, and his wife to lead the horse. He stuck his rifle into the hay, took the pitchfork, and began loading hay onto the cart.

After they were finished, the man said, “That was something a German soldier never would have done.”

He invited Elmer to his house that evening for something to eat and drink.

Elmer regretted never having made it there.

“I’ve often wondered what if I had gone,” he said.

After his discharge, Elmer returned to Lester Prairie, where he still resides with his wife, Geraldine. They have two children, Steve and Sue Ann, who live in Indianapolis and Cincinnati, respectively.

He first went to work for Kolbe Hardware, and then, later, was a rural route mail carrier until he retired.

He stayed in contact with his friend, Jim Hill, and they visited each other occasionally. Jim has since passed away.

Geraldine, having heard her husband’s stories, remarked “They say a cat has nine lives. I think Elmer had more.”

I asked him if he suffered from nightmares after the war. He said he did for awhile, but not anymore.

In his understated manner, Elmer summed up his time in Europe.

“It was an interesting experience. I suppose I managed to have as good of a time as you could have. You didn’t know if you were coming back alive, anyway, so it was OK.”