Wednesday, September 26, 2007

"The War" Part 4-- Two Brothers

Walter Ehlers came back from Normandy with the Medal of Honor but without his brother. Tonight's episode of Ken Burns "The War" featured the story of Walter Ehlers who said in one of the talking head moments that he would have rather come home with out an arm or a leg rather than without his brother.

Walter Ehlers was born on a farm in Junction City, Kansas on May 7, 1921, and enlisted in the Army in October of 1940, along with his older brother, Roland. Both men were assigned to the 3rd Infantry Division, 30th Infantry Regiment – Walter was trained as a mortarman, while Roland was a scout. In November of 1942 they shipped out for North Africa where they saw President Roosevelt up close when he reviewed the troops at Casablanca. Soon afterwards, both brothers were both transferred to the First Infantry Division, assigned to K Company, 18th Regiment, and fought at El Guettar, where their company held off a German panzer unit advance at great cost, and then helped push the enemy all the way to the Mediterranean. The Ehlers next fought in Sicily, and were subsequently sent back to England to train for D Day. Before the invasion, their company commander told the brothers that casualties for the invasion could be as high as 50 percent, and that the Army had therefore decided to separate them. Walter was promoted to sergeant, made a squad leader and transferred to L Company

Ehlers’ orders for D Day were to land on Omaha Beach and lead a 12-man reconnaissance team to the town of Trevieres about five miles inland. Ehlers’ landing craft let him and his squad off in water that was nearly over their heads, and they had to wade to the beach under heavy enemy fire. Under Ehlers’ leadership, the entire squad made it off the beach and up into the bluffs, where they captured a German pill box.
In the days following, Ehlers and his squad were engaged in a number of firefights in the Norman hedgerows. On June 9th they were pinned down, under fire from German machine guns as well as mortars. Ehlers began to advance on the enemy positions, but encountered four German scouts. He single-handedly killed all of them, then destroyed the machine gun nest and the eight Germans manning it. He went on to disable another machine gun nest that day. The next day Ehlers and his squad again were surrounded by the enemy, and Ehlers and one of his men covered the rest of the squad’s withdrawal until both were shot by a sniper. Although he was wounded himself, Ehlers killed the sniper and then carried his wounded comrade to safety.

By July, after a month of fighting, Sergeant Ehler's squad was holed up in an abandoned farm house when he received an unusual visitor. It was the company commander from his brother Roland's company. He came bearing sad news. Roland had died at Omaha beach. As his landing craft approached a mortar round had hit the ramp instantly killing the older brother. Walter was devastated. He saluted the officer and said, "Okay", then found a place of privacy to weep unashamed.

Ehlers rejoined his unit after he recovered, and fought through the rest of the Normandy campaign. He was wounded twice in the fall of 1944 – from aerial bombardment near Falaise, and from a mortar in the Hurtgen Forest. In November of 1944 he was on his way to rejoin his unit once again when he read in Stars and Stripes that the Army had decided to award him the Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions in June in Normandy. He was promoted again, to second lieutenant, and given a 30 day leave – which meant that was home in Kansas during the Battle of the Bulge. In the spring of 1945, Ehlers led his platoon across the Rhine at Remagen, and was wounded again in April, when a new GI accidentally discharged his rifle, hitting Ehlers in the leg and hip. When the war in Europe ended, Ehlers was discharged and returned home to Kansas. He decided to move to California, got a job at the Veterans’ Administration, met and married Dorothy Decker. They have three children and 11 grandchildren.

(to read more click on the title for a link..... Walter is to his mothers right in the picture above)