By Julie Muhlstein Herald Columnist
My father is a picture of humility. He is a master of understatement.
In his 91 years, those qualities have served him well. For his three children, these admirable traits can be a bit challenging.
On this historic day, the 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasion that helped liberate Europe from the Nazis, I can share some facts about his World War II experience. What I don’t know are details about him dodging bullets, being wounded, fearing for his life — those visceral, emotional sorts of things. I have never asked. He has never told.
My dad, Richard Ahrens, served in the U.S. Army’s 42nd Infantry “Rainbow” Division. He enlisted in the Army in December 1942, leaving the University of Idaho. He landed at Utah Beach in Normandy, France, 17 days after D-Day and stayed in Germany past the war’s end as part of the Army of Occupation.
At the end of World War II, my father was an Army captain and company commander. He was reactivated during the Korean War. Back home in Spokane, he served in the Washington Air National Guard. He was a colonel when he retired from the military in 1973.
I have known major dates and places he served since interviewing him for Veterans Day in 2002. That column ended with my inquiry about him being awarded the Bronze Star — which I learned only after finding it online, in Spokane Daily Chronicle archives. Asked about the medal, he said, “it was for bravery, valor, whatever. I don’t even remember what it was for.”
Recently, my brother’s teenaged son presented his grandfather with more pointed questions. An assignment at my nephew’s Boise, Idaho, high school, the paper was titled, “WWII Interview Questions.”
My dad sent my brother’s son five handwritten pages. I have a copy of his answers. For the assignment, my dad left out the worst of what he shared in 2002.
Then, he told me about moving through “terrible battles” in France, and seeing the awful aftermath of D-Day at Ste. Mere-Eglise, where U.S. paratroopers suffered heavy losses.
For his grandson, he provided articulate but reserved answers — typical of my dad.
Here are some of the assignment’s questions, and my father’s answers. Some have been shortened for space:
Q: “What were your objectives during the war?”
A: “My primary objective during this time was to stay alive and perform assigned duties as best I could.”
Q: “What was your involvement in World War II?”
A: “My activities took me to England, France, Belgium, Holland, Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia. (My all-expenses-paid trip to Europe!) Military responsibilities largely precluded sightseeing and getting to know citizens of the countries we passed through.”
Q: “What were your thoughts on Adolf Hitler?”
A: “I learned about his horrific acts of cruelty from radio and newspapers, but not necessarily from the Army.”
Q: “What did you miss most about home, and what was your greatest hardship?”
A: “Home and Mom’s cooking. Greatest hardship was standard of living. Many days and nights with no roof and bed — other than a truck to crawl under to escape the weather.” (There was no mention of shrapnel wounds I know he suffered.)
Q: “Were you involved in any of the liberation of concentration camps?”
(Dachau, the notorious German concentration camp, was liberated April 29, 1945. Soon after Victory in Europe Day on May 8, 1945, my dad was at Dachau. By then, it housed German POWs.)
A: “We drew 10 or 12 German POWs every day for work details. They kept our barracks (previously German billets) spotless, and our vehicles in new condition. Some concentration camp detainees were still there under U.S. care — food, clothing and clean conditions.”
Q: “What was the one thing that not many people know about World War II?”
A: “Over 450,000 Americans died in WWII. I did not know this until after the war, and then realized how fortunate I was. My time in Europe was almost two and a half years. As it all turned out, it was quite an experience. Also, I don’t believe the American people were aware of the destruction experienced in Europe. The American, British and Russian air forces did a very thorough job.”
Q: “Upon arrival back in the States, what was the first thing you wanted to do and/or eat?”
(After a two-week Liberty ship voyage from Germany to New York, my dad arrived at Fort Dix, New Jersey.)
A: “At Dix, we ordered any meal we wanted. I had a huge top sirloin steak and gobs of ice cream.”
Oh, Dad, your answers are so spare, so true to form.
What’s remarkable is the restraint — all he doesn’t say. They are the war stories of a man who doesn’t tell war stories.
Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; firstname.lastname@example.org.