The Last Man Standing
Reporter: Eddie “Bud” Barnett
Meet Elwin Diehl – born July 9, 1921 to Stevens and Alice in Hawthorne IA. At that time there was a large General Store and a Church in Hawthorne. The railroad ran through Hawthorne at that time. Later the railroad was relocated outside of Hawthorne in its current location. Of course the store is long since gone, but the church is still in Hawthorne. Stevens, like many of the day, was a hired hand that worked for a farmer that was close to Hawthorne.
At about 4 or 5 years of age, Elwin’s family moved back to Ohio, which was Stevens home state. But they only remained in Ohio for approximately 5 years before moving back to Hawthorne. Elwin attended Garfield no. 8 School before beginning high school in Emerson in the fall of 1935. There were no bus routes, nor even buses in that
period, so Elwin either had to walk to school or most of the time would get a ride. The normal routine was to pay a small fee to the car owner. After his freshman year, the family moved to the Climax area and Elwin then attended Red Oak High School and graduated from there 1939. After this move, Elwin would ride his bicycle to the McPherson Corner and then get a ride to school with Franklin Heuer. It bad weather, as well as often times in the winter, Elwin would stay with the Henry Wookeys. Then in the summers, we would work on the farm to help offset his board and room. He milked cows, fed hogs and generally did chores and farm tasks that were very common to all small farms in those days.
After graduating from high school, Elwin joined the National Guard, Company M. In Feb 1941, Company M was called to service. 123 Company M troops marched from the National Guard Armory at 5th and E Coolbaugh (which many would recognize now as the Fifield Building) to the train depot. From here they were loaded and deployed to Camp Claiborne. Camp Claiborne was a U.S. Army military camp during World War II located in Rapides Parish in central Louisiana. They were here to receive basic training, as well as artillery training that would require approximately a year. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor in Dec of that year, Company M was nearing the end of their training period and of course they knew that they would be heading into World War II in which the United States was now involved.
Early in 1942, Company M was deployed to Ireland and later to Scotland. Elwin remembers the ocean trip to Ireland was the northern route…it was cold and the seas were very rough. It was not a pleasurable trip by any means. When they arrived in Ireland, they trained with the British Commandos. These were the special forces of the day. After a brief training period, Company M was transferred to England. From here the company was scheduled to meet up with another convoy from the United States. This “gathering” of troops took place somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean while on course for their ultimate destination of Algeria in Northern Africa. The new combined troops were part of an invasion force labeled “Operation Torch”. The entire operation was known as the “North African Campaign”. The Allies’ Troops to which Company M was assigned, were terribly outnumbered in this campaign, but still would make a significant impact on the Nazi campain in this region. On November 8th, 1942 the first American casualty of ‘Operation Torch’, was Victor Butz; a member of Company M, 168th Infantry Division…killed in action. The detachment of which Elwin was a part of was also a part of the 34th Division, which history records had the most Combat Days of any division in the entire war.
From the North African invasion, Churchill and Roosevelt had decided to attack the Nazis in their “soft belly”, which they considered to be Southern Italy. Unfortunately for Elwin and several of his comrades, they were captured during the North African invasion. They were transported to Germany – they were taken via JU88 airplanes to Northern Italy and then were loaded into railroad boxcars for the remainder of the trip into Germany. The first stop in Germany was at Stalag 7A. All Prisoners of War were directed to this stalag prior to transfers to other POW camps. Stalag 7A was where all POWs were processed – pictures, taken, name, rank, serial number, etc.
Following registration at Stalag 7A, Elwin was included in the group that was transferred to Stalag 3B at Furstenberg Brandenburg, Prussia. Stalag 3b was located at Foistenberg Germany. Activities included card games, but mostly bridge. The Red Cross had provided balls to allow POWs to play ball. It was referred to as “Kitten” ball, since it was not a hard ball, such as a baseball. Just walking was another activity that consumed idle hours for POWs.
After nearly 2 years and in 1945, the word came that the Russian troops were coming from the east. The Germanys abandoned Stalag 3B and started marching the POWs to the west to Hildesheim in North Central Germany. Hildesheim is a city in Lower Saxony, Germany. It is located in the district of Hildesheim, about 30 km southeast of Hanover on the banks of the Innerste river, which is a small tributary of the Leine river. It was here that Elwin and all of his fellow POWs were liberated by Russia.
Russia retained the United States POWs here in this encampment. One of the first actions of the Russians was to register all POWs. Among the reasons, no doubt, was the fact that this was to be used to collect compensation from the United States for each POW. The POW troops were lined up to register, but as Elwin’s position moved closer to the registration table, Elwin would peel off and move to the back of the line again. He simply had no idea of the purpose of the registration, and as a result, Elwin never did get registered.
Since they POWs had just been marched into this encampment prior to being liberated, there were simply no provisions available to the masses. As a result, the United States started trucking in food to the encampment. It was unclear as to what Russia’s intentions were to retain the POWs in this encampment, so as a result, plans were laid amongst the POW troops to hitch a ride on the departing empty food trucks. At night, as the trucks would be leaving the encampment, a select number of POWs would sneak out of encampment and meet up with the truck on the outskirts of the encampment. By May 1945, virtually all of Elwin’s comrades were able to find their way back to the American Base in Camp Lucky Strike, Janville France. Here they were processed.
(sidebar: Camp Lucky Strike was one of numerous camps that were named after popular cigarettes of the time. These included Camp Chesterfield, Camp Old Gold, Camp Phillip Morris, Camp Twenty Grand, Camp Herbert Tareyton, Camp Pall Mall, Camp Wings, Camp Home Run…remember any of those cigarettes?)for more information on these camps, click here
Now it was simply a matter of catching a Liberty Ship back to the United States. Now there was plenty of food and time to relax, so Elwin was not concerned about war, so it was July 1945 before Elwin was scheduled to make the ocean trip to the United States. Unlike the ocean trip to Ireland in 1942 with cold and rough seas, this trip was very pleasurable… it was very warm, the seas were calm and maybe the best thing was that he was going home. The trip took about a week. Upon arriving in New York, he was shipped to Ft Leonard Wood Missouri via train to be mustered out.
Elwin had been in the Army for 5 years and in October 1945, 68 Survivors of the original 1941 Company M 168th Infantry had a Survivor’s Reunion at the Old
Armory Building. They had heard stories of World War I survivors that bought a bottle of wine that was to be opened by the last man standing. As Elwin recalls, Andy Johnson suggested whiskey, rather than wine as the prize for the last man standing. (Note: the bottle of whiskey is still unopened and is on display in the Court of Honor office building.)
After returning to the area in 1945, Elwin rented a 193 acre farm south of Emerson. The government was making arrangements for tractors for returning vets and Elwin recalls that Lee Honeyman and Hudley(?) Parker got M Farmalls, but that he was only approved for a John Deere B. Elwin elected to turn down the offer for the much smaller John Deere B and he then bought a used Farmall F-20. The F-20 was older than the Farmall M, but it was much more powerful than the John Deere B. He raised corn, wheat, oats, and hay. His livestock of choice was hogs. In 1948 Elwin married Carolyn Erickson and they had one child…a daughter Connie that is a 1976 graduate from Red Oak…Connie now lives in Kentucky. Carolyn passed away in 1986.
Elwin would farm for about 10 years before deciding that maybe there was a better way to make a living. At the age of 36 in 1957, Elwin went to telegrapher school in order to get a better job with the railroad. He would work for the railroad in numerous positions. He retired from the railroad at about 30 years and at the age of 65. He has lived his entire post military career in Red Oak.
Reporter’s note: I found Elwin to be very bright and even perky. Within the past few years, he has had a heart attack and a couple of “light” strokes, but with the expectation of a slight loss of use of one hand, he is in really good physical condition. His memory is sharp and his responses were quick and without hesitation. He may be like many of us and not remember what he had for breakfast but he remembered with clarity the early days of his life that included his military career. It was a delightful opportunity to visit with one our country’s greatest treasurers – one of our military veterans. Our debt to our veterans and those who gave it all can never be measured accurately.
For additional information on Hawthorne, McPherson, Carrs Point, Climax, and much more, I would encourage you to visit the Montgomery County History Center – they have an enormous amount of detail on these communities, as well as communities all over the county.