Monday, June 11, 2018

A Sense of Our Purpose - Clyde Houser Annex Veteran Program

Sponsored by the Lehighton Historical Alliance

Duty and Determination

Members of the 1st Marine Brigade - Korea 1950

Happiness is having a purpose.

Some lack that in life.

We all lack that sometimes.

Our country needs a purpose.

We all need a purpose.  Heck, even dogs need a purpose otherwise they'd be bored and misbehave.

It was a summertime picnic.  It was in Weissport, at Jacob's United Church of Christ.  And despite its long traditions and its 175-year history, one of the oldest in Carbon County, the attendance at their annual picnic was surprisingly low.  Even lower than previous low years.  

The older members reminisced about the 'old days' when it was large families plus their extended families all in attendance.  The bounty of food that seemed to multiply, the homemade root beer and mint tea, the singalongs that went on and on.

Bob Getz, a sergeant with the 517th Heavy Maintenance Co. Field Army during WWII, lamented.  He said our towns, our church, even our country, were lacking purpose.  "As much as I hate to say it," he went on, "what this country needs is something to rally around, like we did in the war."

That was August 2001, one month before 9/11.

Some Commonalities: Many times, men and women who enlist do so for a sense of purpose.  Many veterans I've interviewed, including my father, all say something similar, "What else was I going to do?"  

Obviously on at least an underlying level, there was a sense of duty and of patriotism.  

During this presentation, we will look at other commonalities of service.

Buddies – 
That's what Buddies do - Gene Holland (r) and Murphy washing
Holland's car before leave.  At one point during his time at
Camp Pendleton, Randy and his buddies bought a car together.
It is unclear if this is that car.

Buddies sign up together, they buy a car together to drive home for leave, they cajole each other, they will argue with each other like siblings, but they will always, fight for each other.  (Before the Korean outbreak, my dad and some of his Camp Pendelton buddies, including Gene Holland, bought a car together and they were going to drive it cross country for leave.  

But the car kept nickel and diming them into debt, each man paying his fair share, and eventually the idea and the car ownership vanished.  One anxious letter he wrote home defending the idea to his parents:

  • Samples of Letters Home from Randy Rabenold - Before the war, from Camp Pendleton, CA: "You'd think the way you talk that we're driving thru hell on a go-cart.  DONT WORRY ABOUT ME!" and from Korea: "P.S. Don't worry about me.  I am very safe behind this thirty cal...".

Letters Home

Love letters, last letters, letters saying not to worry.  Letters with white lies, telling them they are safe.  Letters and now phone calls, telling their family they are safe and completely out of harm’s way and letters that warned against gossip.  (See an alternate version of "Loose Lips Sink Ships" at the bottom of the letter from Ezra Kreiss.)
Ezra Kreiss was lost in the English Channel on a training run leading up to D-Day.  For more on his story, click here.

 The letter no one wants to get - Ezzie Kreiss, KIA.

Walter Haydt, of Union Hill, was also KIA/Missing in Action.  You can read his story by clicking here.

Bobby Kipp was the one Bulldog who didn’tmake it home.  Don Blauch remembers he and Bobby were on the transport ship to Korea together.  It was a typical Pacific summer and they both found it too hot to sleep below deck.  So the two friends found a life boat they sleep in each night, out under the stars.  Don Blauch told me how the spoke through the night, talking about girls, their former glory on the football gridiron, to their hopes, dreams and fears.  George and Dorothy received one of those letters as well.  Their only child.  They received one last letter from Bobby dated the same day he died.

Duty and Determination
My grandmother was Rebecca Nothstein, the great, great granddaughter of Lt. Peter Nothstein who fought with General Sullivan and served for more than 5 years of the Revolutionary War.  

Washington was trying to hold onto New York early in the war after Bunker Hill.  Sullivan and his men were pinned down, getting decimated by the Hessians.  Many were surrendering and being taken prisoner.  Peter Nothstein had the gumption to sling his musket across his back, and to swim across the Long Island sound to the safety of Washington’s retreating army from Manhattan.

Clarence Smoyer is here with us today.  He was and still is a very humble man, but in the thick of the fight, he was a determined marksman in his new Pershing Tank.  His three quick, successive shots changed the course of a battle that changed the course of the war.  He was a true ace in destroying 5 armored vehicles.  

His stopping the German Panzer in the the Battle of Cologne is one of the most famous films of WWII.  When Cologne fell, it was Germany’s fourth largest city, and the first taken by our American forces.  (Mr. Smoyer, born in Parryville and grew up in Forest Inn,  was present at the service today.  A national book is soon to be released, "Spearhead" by Adam Makos, click here to order.  You can read about Smoyer's Cologne battle here.  You can watch the film footage  featuring interviews with Smoyer here.  Clarence Smoyer interviewed on History Channel.)

Lehighton's Major Randy Fritz, Spike Long, and Clarence
Smoyer on Memorial Day at the American Legion with the
author Ron Rabenold.

Of course these were young men.  Letters from Sweethearts were important.  Don Blauch had many penpals.  Here are a few

Here is Gustav Schaffer and Clarence Smoyer reunited in Germany.  Gustav was a member of the Panzer tank crew
destroyed by Smoyer in his Pershing.  Upon meeting Gustav, Clarence said, "Well I guess we can now be friends."Click here to watch a video featuring both Smoyer and Schaffer.

These are just some of the letters Don Blauch collected during his service years.  He told me he never met any of them.
The ladies on the car above were from Texas, the lady in the dark suit was from Alabama.  The lady in top right and bottom center was Cecelia Ament from New Jersey.  Don told me he would take an extra pen-pal from the home town of his service buddies.  He had an extensive collection of these pen-pal letters in a trunk in his basement.

The Birds and the Bees – Truth and Fiction

One truth, one myth –

“It is better to fight the enemy you know than you don’t know.” - After less than a month of duty, in September 1862, at the Battle of Antietam, the war’s bloodiest 2-day battle, the green recruits of the 132nd PA were given the necessary courage to charge into the Confederate line because they were being chased by a swarm of bees.

“A bird in the hand…” - During the first day at the Battle of Gettysburg, up on Oak Ridge, PA’s 90th Regiment was being outnumbered in close fighting.  While the concussions of ordinance reverberated the air, a simple nest of young robins was dislodged from the safety of the tree.   With momma bird squawking to bring her peeps back together, a soldier from the 90th PA Regiment braved a storm of bullets to gather up the peeps into the nest and place it back onto the limb it fell from.

In researching the dedication of the 90th Regiment monument, there is no mention of the birds' nest story.  In fact, the nest is referred to as a dove's nest, a dove representing peace and the backpack hung on the tree to show that the soldier's day was over, symbolic of the peace that followed the war.  It appears that the bird story has been passed down from tour guide to tour guide at Gettysburg.  I myself heard this story from a guide on a tour of the battlefield back in the 1990s.

The Dogs of War - “Sexy” & “Sallie Ann”

Sallie Ann - Started as a pup with the 11th Reg as they trained on the fairgrounds near West Chester.  She was said to have made several reviews with the men in front of Abe Lincoln.  

They said she had no fear in battle and often stayed with the wounded and dying men at Gettysburg.  During the first day, she was separated from the retreating men from Oak Ridge.  However, when the dust cleared after the third day it was discovered that she had stayed back on Oak Ridge, comforting the men from the 11th who were wounded.  

She made it to February 1865, just two months shy of the end of the war, she was killed by bullets under heavy fire.  The men buried her on the spot.
"Sexy" - The most traveled dog in the Marine Corps.

     "Sexy" was Born in China, taken to Guam in 1949, marched with the Division Band in Guam, taken to Camp Pendleton 1949-1950, "recruited" and taken to Korea by Marine Bob Neubert.  She made the Inchon Landing, protected the Kimpo Airstrip, and barked at Bob Hope during a USO show at Woson.  He was lost at the Chosin in December 1950.

Sacrifice and Deprivation - Near Total Annihilation 

Speaking of Chosin – My father missed it, but most of his outfit did not.  Dad was sent home because his father died.  After spending part of October and much November at home, they called him back and was crossing the Sea of Japan just as our men were cut off and surrounded by the Chinese at the Chosin Reservoir.  He and some loose company of others were about ready to be sent in to help break through to break the men out.  Lucky for dad, our men were able to get out themselves.  

But it came at high cost.  The 1st Marines had to break through the overwhelming numbers of Chinese just to join up with other pockets of men similarly surrounded.  Not enough people realize how desperate this battle was.  The Marine Corps places this battle inside their top 3 most desperate battles ever fought (Imagine what you know of Okinawa, Iwo Jima, Guadalcanal, the Hue, and the second Fallujah.).  It was the closest they ever came to total annihilation.  

Dad remembers the bitter cold and the 1,000 yard stares of the men.  Some of his 1st Division buddies didn’t make it out.  Francis Eugene "Gene" Holland was one of them.

He always says, the timing of his dad’s death saved his life.

Moses Mertz of Mahoning Valley listed  “weak heart” on his WWI Draft card.  According to Chester Mertz, a WWII veteran and nephew of Moses, Moses had such a strong sense of homesickness, that his heart gave out, just one month before the end of the war.

Deprivation and underwear - The First Marines during September and October of 1950 in Korea had been engaged with the enemy non-stop.  So much so, not only had few even had chance to bathe in two months, most didn’t even have the chance to change their underwear.  Once the men began to establish some stability at an area in Korea known as the “Bean Patch.”  The crusty uniforms literally needed to be scrapped off their bodies.  There was never any consideration of keeping and washing these clothes.  Underwear and all were burned in a large bonfire onsite, as new uniforms had arrived.

Speaking of unmentionables: Underwear and a Purpose in Life – Our servicemen fought side-by-side with some British troops in Korea.  Many atrocities were committed against these prisoners.  

Many got homesick and gave up.  The British soldiers noticed something unique about the American GI’s compared to their more austere behavior:  The Americans were far more emotional.  They had ups and downs, like when a new POW arrived whom the men knew, they hugged and cheered and laughed and cried at their reunion.  Some wistfully spoke of the fine dinner they would have once they were liberated and back home, but they’d skip their meal of cattle slop sorghum and millet.  These men were the most prone to what the Brits called Give-Up-It is”….

Randy Rabenold's band mates who survived
Chosin with British Commandos.  Francis
Eugene "Gene" Holland died there
7 December 1950.

A delegation of men would spot this and get tough with these men, saying, “If you don’t eat, you don’t shit, if you don’t shit, you die.”  One of those British officers was Lt Bill Cooper of Northumberland Fusiliers – He credits his survival under the harsh Korean camps with his frame of mind.  Each day, he woke up, and demanded this of himself, by saying to himself: “What worthwhile thing are you going to do today?”  His answer?  To wash the soiled, ghastly rags the men who were crippled with dysentery wore as underwear.  Each day, Lt Cooper washed and cared for the men who most needed it.  It was his sense of purpose in life, no matter how ghastly, that kept him going.
My Dad, Randy Rabenold is labeled #5 here.  #6 is Sandy Scaffidi pictured here and above.  Scaffidi endured Chosin while Randy was just re-crossing the Sea of Japan from bereavement leave at home.


IRA Smith from New Tripoli,Kistler Valley – I learned of Ira’s story after finding this picture in a book published in May 1945.  He was shot in the hand at the Battle of the Bulge and taken prisoner. The German surgeon taunted the bullet in his face and happily showed Ira he was hit by an American bullet.  

Then he and other POWs were taken to a warehouse for storage until they could be moved to a camp.  While on the third floor of that warehouse, American bombers came and hit the building.  The bomb hit the outside wall.  

Moments earlier, the Americans were sitting along the floor against the walls while their German captors sat at a table in the middle of the room.  Superiors came to the room, noticed the Germans were "surrounded," and were told that they should sit along the outside of the wall.  They were killed, along with some Americans.  

Ira fell through the three stories and broke his back.  But when his captors told him to march, with the help of his friends, he had to march.  Had he been unable to move, they would have killed him.

Once they arrived at Stalag 12A, the real interrogating began by the SS.  There were guys coming out of the interrogation barracks smoking cigarettes, rewards for providing good information.  Ira said, “I told them if my back wasn’t broke I’d kick all their asses for talking.”


 Nothing sums up the service, the sacrifice, determination, deprivation, and sense of duty than our POWs like Ira.  Moses Rehrig – Andersonville.  How he survived 2 months at our Civil War’s most notoriously deadly prison camp in Andersonville Georgia is anyone’s guess.  There were 1,849 men from PA alone who died there.  He came home and was a civic minded contributor to our town Lehighton.  But one day Sgt Rehrig took his own life, hanging himself from the rafters of his shed they say because he feared he was going blind.

Richard Levan, another graduate of the the old LHS, the current Clyde Houser Annex building, Class of 1960.  He once described how rats were eating chunks of his face in a VietCong POW camp.

It is little wonder that local men, came home still fighting the war in their minds.  Like Mike Wargo; missed the support of his buddies; Marcus Maier wandered from old soldier home to home, mostly among confederate soldiers, trying to find a sense of purpose or to rediscover the comradery he missed from war, or perhaps absolution.   And to the countless others who have come home with the war still on their minds, we should salute and honor them for giving so much.

A Sense of Purpose – Of Tradition and of Duty

Generations of Longs – Henry Lange, to Henry Long, to Spike Long – Spike’s Dad is Henry, served in the Military, his dad was also Henry, - Spike’s grandfather’s grandfather was the original Henry Long, who served in the 132nd Pa Regiment who was induced by the bees.

From Joe Semanoff, to Gene Semanoff, to Captain Pete Semanoff.  Gene Semanoff’s Uncle Willard Reabold, KIA but received a Silver Star for his actions in Luxemburg, his first day…

Your Mission in Life -

But that’s not my mission, that’s not what I was sent there to do…

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Larry was part of the Pennsylvania National Guard.  He got the call many were getting across the nation during Operation Iraqi Freedom: You will report for duty, after Christmas.

First Lieutenant Larry Ahner and his 33-man combat support military police platoon was trained for route and area security work. 

The timing of their arrival in Baghdad was a twist of fate.  It was a mission for Bravo Company. But Larry and his Charlie Company landed first.   His orders: Provide security for detainees.  In other words, prison guards. 

Larry had to follow orders, even though this wasn’t the mission he was trained to do.
He soon realized these were what’s known as “High Value Detainees.”  And not just terrorist leaders and other undesirables. 

For the next 11 months, Larry and his platoon would be guarding the Butcher of Baghdad, the Ace of Spades: Saddam Hussein himself.

Larry was in charge of Saddam from March 2004 until Feb of 2005.  He watched him garden, he made sure he got a haircut, he took him in the Rhino Bus to his arraignment, he monitored his meals, his visits from his defense lawyer, everything.  They built a cell within the belly of one of Saddam’s main palaces, built in the middle of a man-made lake on the fringe of Baghdad.

Upon meeting Saddam, with a firm handshake while looking the brutal dictator square in the eye and he said, “I am in charge here.  I will keep you safe and well.”

Saddam was a treacherous socio-path that could not be treated lightly.  He was highly engaging and charismatic.  And Larry knew it would be easy for him and his men to fall under his spell.  So occasionally, he required his platoon to watch the brutal videos and descriptions of Saddam’s barbarism to remind everyone just who they were dealing with.
On Larry’s last day, when saying good bye, Saddam said, “I knew from when I first met you, you were an honorable man.” 

Instead of just a western handshake, Saddam offered the traditional Iraqi farewell: a hug, a kiss at each cheek, and ending in a gesture of sincerity with his hand over the heart.

That was February 2005 just months before his trial for his crimes of genocide ecocide.  On 30 December 2006, Saddam was hanged by his neck until dead.

1st Lt Larry Ahner received the Bronze Star, for his “impeccable, outstanding leadership qualities, with limitless potential for further positions of responsibility.”

Not bad for a from Dutchman from Long Run.

Military service has helped many to see their purpose.  

    It becomes a defining part of their lives, a tool to shape and guide that perspective...

    And for some, clarity and fortitude.