IN?MEMORY… Remembering area war veterans
Editor’s note: This is the second of two parts. The first part was published March 10 and can be found at www.observertoday.com.
Making and keeping friends was one of Robert Francis Wolfe’s trademarks. Friends that he had as a child became the friends he had as an adult. Some of those friends ended up related to him through marriage. Other friends of Wolfe’s were the children of his parents’ friends. It was a tight-knit community of caring people who stayed close throughout the years.
Wolfe’s early years were spent at his parents’ friends’ houses. The adults would play cards and games, or talk of the day’s current issues. Their children would retreat to the back yards to play. There were rarely official babysitters; the children just entertained themselves and looked after one another. A common game they played was called “Flinch,” which was a card game that many children could play at once, which kept everyone happy.
To list all of Wolfe’s friends, one must include Roy Priese, Chuck Mangus, Bud Smith, Juny Schrantz, Art Purol, Marve Wicks and Seivert Hawks. Priese and Mangus lived on Route 60, and back then Route 60 was considered the woods and was a great place to hunt and fish. A man named Mr. Fiebelkorn owned the best place to hunt, so when the boys were given permission to hunt there they were very excited. Because they obeyed the rules, they were often given permission, and they enjoyed many years of hunting there.
But hunting and fishing weren’t the only outdoor activity Wolfe and his friends spent time doing. When it got cold, they trapped muskrats while they hunted rabbits, setting the traps before going out in search of their quarry. When the boys wanted to have some fun in the summer, they would catch frogs and use the legs to scare the girls. The entire group enjoyed one another’s company and remained great friends into adulthood. While their childhood days blended into their teenage years, at times having too much fun to notice, the winds of war started to blow in from Europe.
World at war
The country woke up on Dec. 7, 1941 to a state of war with a country named Japan, and before the sun set on Dec. 9 that war included the enemies of Germany and its Axis powers.
The problem was, America hadn’t planned on being dragged into war so suddenly. When Pearl Harbor was attacked that day, we only had one combat division ready for action. Hitler had 351 divisions ready for combat, and little Japan, a country that most Americans had previously thought of as primitive and harmless, had four combat-ready fleets. By Monday morning, lines of young men wound out of the doors of recruiters’ offices, ready to do their duty for their country and the free world. There were so many in line that the recruiters had to tell them to go home, but to be ready to be called.
Wolfe was only 17 at the time, and had to wait. His older brother Howard was called first. His orders took him to San Angelo, Texas, where he was trained in bombarder school. Wolfe was so proud of his brother, now serving his country. All of the children wanted to live up to their father’s legacy, who served proudly in World War I with the Fighting 69th. Their father, who saw action in World War I, was honored when Hollywood produced a movie titled “The Fighting 69th.” The Fighting 69th was the first American unit who ever went to war overseas and were the first to fight in the trenches of France. “The Fighting 69th” was also about an American priest, Father Patrick Duffy who was recognized as the most popular priest who served in action during The Great War.
Wolfe’s family home on Park Avenue was full of love and happiness. When his brother Howard earned 30 days’ leave and returned home, everyone was in a festive mood, talking and laughing, some discussing the war. But the room got quiet when Wolfe announced that he, too, had enlisted the day of his eighteenth birthday. He had joined the United States Army.
After words of congratulations were given, Wolfe’s father left the group and made his way up to the attic on the third story of the house. He opened a seabag that contained his World War I Army uniform proudly displaying the colors of the Fighting 69th. In the accompanying photo, you can see the three Wolfe men, with Robert Wolfe wearing his civilian clothes. In a few days’ time, he would report to his Basic Training location.
It wasn’t long before many of Wolfe’s friends – Priese, Mangus, Smith and Schrantz – were all the property of Uncle Sam. But the group realized they wouldn’t all crawl toward the center of Berlin. Schrantz had chosen the Navy, the only one who decided three meals a day and a warm bunk was the way to go.
A soldier’s life
Wolfe received orders that sent him to Massachusetts. Being assigned to submarine bomb school meant weekends off while the class was in session. On the weekends, Wolfe decided to catch the Friday New York Central train heading west, which brought him into the Dunkirk station very early on Saturday. Taking a cab to his parents’ house, Wolfe could catch up on a few hours’ sleep in his own bed and a couple of his mother’s fresh-cooked meals. And with all the men off to war, Wolfe was escorted out for some Saturday night dancing with his sister Arlene and her friends. There were plenty of girls to talk to and dance with, and when it was time to report to the train station in Dunkirk on Sunday night, Wolfe could always be found with Arlene and a group of her girlfriends sending him off with his clean laundry folded in his bag and packages of homemade sandwiches and cookies to take back to the men at camp. It was always fun to have Hoppy home, but in everyone’s minds lingered the knowledge that stateside duty would end for him, and that he would be thrust into the war in Europe. Being in a two-front war also meant that no soldier could be sure of where he would end up.
Word came that Wolfe’s brother Howard received orders for Saipan. No one had ever heard of or knew where Saipan was; there were no computers and no television. But even without knowing where Saipan was, everyone was well aware of the danger that lurked there. War had come knocking on the Wolfe’s family door, and everyone was worried about Howard.
Still stationed in Massachusetts, Wolfe was learning how to set and activate submarine mines. These mines were used to stop German subs from going into and out of the Boston harbor. In order to make the mines work, the Army had to readjust the lengths of the mines to catch an enemy sub entering the harbor.
While in the states, Wolfe would receive information from his sister Arlene, who wrote letters to the four friends who enlisted together. Writing to Howard was hard; most of his mail was censored and when he wrote, he used few words. The military called chit chat “spam;” no spam was the rule for letter writing. Priese ended up in Germany, Mangus in England, and Schrantz was somewhere out at sea.
With the war moving on and on, Wolfe finally got his wish to at least see some action. With the Allied forces and Russian troops advancing fast, Wolfe’s orders sent him to Germany, where his unit was sent to the concentration camp. He had no idea what he was getting into, until while en route to his new duty station he picked up a newspaper and read about the thousand prisoners that were killed there daily. He read stories of trainloads of bodies burned and piled up like that many boards of lumber.
Arriving at the camp and actually seeing what man can do to his fellow man left Wolfe in tears. Being brought up knowing right from wrong, the horror that lay before him on that German soil didn’t make any sense to Wolfe. He finally realized why men truly went to war. It wasn’t only about defending ideals like freedom and justice, it was about actually freeing people, and bringing to bear that justice the victims of cruelty deserved. Wolfe also realized that these things could happen to his family and loved ones back home, that if we let people like Hitler keep their power, their destruction would spread and infect the whole world.
It was here that Wolfe came in contact with rheumatic fever, and he remained in a military hospital until he received orders to come back home.
A hero’s homecoming
Returning to Dunkirk, Wolfe started working at his old job at the Dunkirk locomotive plant as an inspector. Before the war he worked at the Alco plant on the 155mm guns, making sure they were ready for combat duty. Arriving for work on his first day back, Wolfe heard the days of the plant were numbered. The war, which had converted the plant from making locomotives to making war items, was now over. The war supplies the plant was refitted to make were now in storage. There was no work for the Alco property.
Along with his fellow coworkers, Wolfe was there for the last day of the plant’s operation. The employees filed out of its doors, but stayed to watch the night watchman put locks on all of the entrances. It wouldn’t be long, though, before Wolfe found a new job at the Roblin Steel Plant, where Wolfe worked until his death in 1969.
Wolfe left behind a young wife and five children. He had a heart attack, and it isn’t known exactly how much can be blamed on his time spent at that Nazi concentration camp. But suffering from rheumatic fever for months and living in harsh conditions surely shortened this young veteran’s life. The term “heart attack” was given to many veteran deaths in the ’60s and ’70s, without contributing factors really being explored. We just didn’t have the medical knowledge then that we do now.
So many veterans like Wolfe are gone now, without anyone knowing the full story of what they have done and seen in life. For Hoppy Wolfe, it was things like always taking Sundays off and to take the family on long drives, things like rocking the kids to sleep or watching television with them in his lap. He enjoyed lunch at Gorka’s Restaurant with friends and being a great bowler, spending free time at Lucky Lanes. Hoppy Wolfe died two days after his first granddaughter was born. She and the rest of his grandchildren and great-grandchildren never got a chance to know this great man.
I myself am a son-in-law of Robert Wolfe, and I never got the chance to meet him. Over the years, I have heard so many great things about him, but it wasn’t until my wife wanted his story told that I got to find out about all of the great things this man has done in his too-short lifetime.
Robert “Hoppy” Wolfe is our hero of the week.