Thursday, April 24, 2014

Helen, Part III: Eldon Miller

610 East Jefferson Street, Goshen, Indiana, in 2013
Previously the Serv-U-Well Grocery in the 1930s and 1940s

As much as I know about Frank Louis Strukel, Helen's second husband, I know equally as little about Eldon DeWayne Miller, her first. Although he played an important role in the life of my grandmother, I asked few questions about him. After all, he was not my grandfather. But to balance out the equation, Helen Marie (Timmons) Miller Strukel was not exactly awash with warm reminisces and funny anecdotes of the man either.

Eldon DeWayne Miller was nine days short of a year older than Helen. Born on 21 February 1916, he appears to have come from the same humble beginnings as she did. He was the youngest son of Chauncey D. Miller by his second wife, Jennie Miller. Chauncey's first wife, Phoebe Louella Musselman, had died at the age of twenty-nine of typhoid fever, leaving him a little girl, Gleta. But by his second wife, he had two girls and two boys, Eldon being the youngest. His father was just short of forty-five years old at his birth; his mother was thirty-eight.

Like William and Addie (Nowels) Timmons, Chauncey and Jennie (Miller) Miller were tenant farmers. At the beginning of March, 1911, they had moved onto the Elisha D. Irwin farm in Benton Township, Elkhart County, Indiana. The farm was situated directly on the Lincoln Highway (current US 33) as it left Benton, Indiana, and headed southeast toward Ligonier. Even today, this stretch of highway is punctuated by a rare farmhouse and long, vast stretches of flat farmland and ubiquitous cornfields. Life on the farm for Eldon probably involved the same day-to-day work and routine that was seen on any Midwestern farm at the beginning of the twentieth century. The only remarkable news reported about Chauncey Miller during his stay here was that a roaming pack of dogs maimed and killed his sheep in March 1915. Just two weeks before Eldon was born, his father sold at public auction his three horses, four head of cattle, sheep, sows, chickens, farming implements, hay, and corn. Much like the Timmons, the Millers made do with the resources they had and rented various farms in Benton Township in the 1920s and the 1930s.

According the the 1940 census, Eldon Miller had completed four years of high school, but no record of him graduating from the schools of Elkhart County exists. He likely attended the high school in Millersburg, which served the students of Benton and Clinton Township. His parents moved into the city of Goshen in the 1930s, so it is possible that he may have finished his schooling at the Goshen High School, but again no record exists of him there either.

How Eldon Miller and Helen Timmons met is a mystery to me. I never thought to ask my grandmother, and she never volunteered the information. Nobody living today has apparently heard the story either. Although they lived in adjoining townships of Elkhart County, they could have just as easily been a world apart. Whereas the town hubs that served the Timmons family in Jackson Township were Milford to the south and New Paris to the north; the towns that the Millers likely visited were Benton and Millersburg. If either families wanted to go to the "big city," they would go to Goshen, the county seat. The Timmons would go north on what is today Indiana 15, while the Millers would go northwest on present-day US33. They would have rarely, if ever, crossed paths.

Perhaps in the year after her high school graduation, Helen had run into Eldon at a social gathering in Goshen. Or perhaps Eldon had gone to the big parade and fair in neighboring New Paris in 1936 when they were celebrating their centennial. Certainly, Helen would have been in attendance. But however they met, Helen caught his eye, and he began to court her.

Certainly, nineteen-year-old Helen was flattered by the attention, and she likely acquiesced to his invitations initially, but Helen still had a school-girl crush left over on a local boy from her high school. And as an eligible, attractive young women, she wanted to keep her options open. Eldon was an interesting young man, but she was certainly not head-over-heels for him.

But whatever sort of charm that Eldon possessed that lacked effect on Helen, it worked wonders on her parents, especially Addie. Eldon certainly possessed no wealth or family prestige to make the Timmons consider him a particularly advantageous match for their daughter. He and his family had only moved to Goshen a few years before, and he was working as a grocery clerk. His father, Chauncey, although living in town, was still worked out as a farm laborer. Perhaps Eldon talked a big talk about owning his own business one day, or perhaps in the midst of the Depression, William and Addie Timmons just sought any sort of financial stability and a quick match for their youngest child, but whatever their reasoning they saw future son-in-law potential in Eldon Miller.

Addie was likely the first to see the waning affections in Helen's attitude toward Eldon, and when questioned, her daughter probably confided in her mother that she had no interest in marrying Eldon Miller. Her mother's response was firm, and it was not to be questioned.

"You will marry Eldon Miller, or you will marry no one!"

And so, for reasons that have never been explained to me, Eldon and Helen drove sixty miles south of Goshen to Huntington, Indiana, and took out a license to marry on 30 March 1937. They immediately sought out the services of Rev. W. Henry McLean, the pastor of the First Methodist Church in town, and were married that same day.

And just like that, Helen Marie Timmons became Helen Marie Miller. The twenty-year-old bride set about making her new home on Cottage Avenue in Goshen, Indiana. Her husband continued working as clerk at the Serv-U-Well Grocery at 610 East Jefferson Street, just three blocks to the east. Helen tried to be happy in this new chapter of her life. Being a wife and mother was what she wanted, and she was embarking on that journey. But doubts remained, and the lingering resentment of being railroaded into this situation nagged at her subconscious. Eldon was eager to marry her, and her parents adored him. Perhaps she was just worrying needlessly. How bad could it possibly be?

She was soon to find out.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Helen, Part II: Growing Up

Bethany School, Jackson Township, Elkhart County, Indiana
Above: 1936; Below: 2013

The birth of a baby girl is a big event in any family, but welcoming Helen Marie Timmons into the world in late winter 1917 did not stop fields from being tilled and crops from being planted that spring. Her father, William Timmons, had turned forty years old the month before his daughter's birth, and as a tenant farmer he had to keep working to provide for his family and this new mouth to feed.

But just as the family grew with Helen's birth, it immediately started to shrink as the elder sons started leaving the nest. Eldest son, Ross, married shortly after his baby sister celebrated her first birthday. The twenty-year-old groom and his seventeen-year-old bride, Edith Stout, took up residence in the small community of Milford just southeast of his parental home, where he worked as an automobile mechanic. The next son, Merle, left home and married when Helen was seven years old. He and his young wife moved into the city of Elkhart, Indiana, where he began factory work at the Curtain Supply Company making railway supplies. The boys had enough of farming. They had no desire to follow in the Timmons family tradition.

Helen was only a toddler when her father moved the family barely two miles northwest. He rented part of the Jim Peters farm on the northeast corner of present-day County Road 17 and U.S. Highway 6, still in Jackson Township, Elkhart County, Indiana. Although they began their tenancy here in "the brick house" they would move a quarter-mile east to "the white house" on the Peters farm in 1925.

It is hard to say if mother Addie (Nowels) Timmons fancied her only daughter in bows and ribbons and frilly dresses, or as a practical farm wife, abandoned such notions and let Helen grow up barefoot in the dirt and wrestling with her older brother. But regardless of Addie's expectations, it was plainly obvious from an early age that little Helen was not a demure, quiet, delicate flower. Ever inquisitive, and seldom one to ask questions before jumping into something new and different, she was given the name "Fire Eater" by Dr. John E. Potter of Milford, Indiana, after eating her father's heart pills and drinking a bottle of iodine by the age of five years old. She delighted in showing off the scar on her head caused by attempting to sled under a barbed-wire fence.

It was the white house on the Peters farm that provided Helen with cherished childhood memories. Her father grew sorghum for syrup production and cucumbers for a pickle factory in Milford. She played amongst the team of Clydesdale horses of which her father was so proud, and groomed the Palomino horse whose stud service brought in occasional income. She helped tend to the Jersey cattle that supplied the family with milk. Even though brother Harold was almost seven years her senior, he was her playmate and companion in a way her two other elder brothers could never be. They could skate together on the creek in the pasture when it froze during the winter and cool off in the swimming hole during the summer. Whenever they could persuade their parents that they should have a hearty fish dinner, they could take off for the small pond down the road and spend the day fishing, all the while joking and laughing and enjoying the hot summer sun.

But the most memorable part of the home farm was the trapeze in the barn. Harold and Helen could hone their acrobatic skills while there was plenty of hay around them to protect them from their falls, but as the season progressed, and the hay was utilized, nothing was left behind to keep them from the possibility of plummeting to a bone-cracking show stopper. As Helen stated later, "we used to scare Mom and Dad terribly!"

Despite the fun and games on the farm and the rough-and-tumble tomboy childhood, the one thing that Helen delighted in with rapt attention was school. Although she missed her entire first year of school owing to one of childhood's many medical rites of passage - whooping cough - she was able to start school in 1923 at Bethany School barely three miles east of her house. The brick building was brand new, having been completed in 1920, as a result of the numerous tiny country one-room school houses having been abandoned for a more consolidated school system begun in 1913. This squat, formidable, two-level brick structure would serve Helen's educational needs until her eighth-grade graduation in 1931. The school itself would continue as a grade school serving rural Jackson Township until it closed in 1968. The building, mostly unchanged from its original state, currently serves as an apartment building.

New Paris High School, New Paris, Indiana, 1936

In the fall of 1931, Helen Timmons began her high school classes at the New Paris High School. Unlike her eldest brothers, Ross and Merle, who had quit school to marry, work, and start a family, Harold Timmons had graduated from New Paris High School in 1930, the year before his sister would walk through the halls. They both benefitted from the brand new structure, the school having opened its doors to students at Christmastime, 1927. 

The New Paris, Indiana, educational system had come a long way in a very short time. A three-year high school program was established in 1890 with only a single instructor who also served as the school principal. The first graduating class of three students did not occur until 1900. By 1905, the three-year program had grown to accommodate 109 pupils and four teachers. The four-year curriculum was put into place in 1912, and by the time Helen Timmons left high school, the school bustled with nearly 400 students daily taught by a staff of fifteen teachers. Subjects taught included Latin, Chemistry, Social Science, Physical Education, Mathematics, Commercial, Home Economics, Vocational Agriculture, Biology, Music, Art, and Band. The "hot lunch program" begun in 1929 was a novel one for the state, with the home economics department offering soup, sandwiches, milk, or cocoa for five cents apiece.

The year after Helen started high school, her father moved the family to a new farm just over three miles north on present-day County Road 19 between County Roads 46 and 50, still in Jackson Township. This land was also owned by Jim Peters and continued the renter-tenant relationship established a decade before between the two men, but now on a different tract of land. At fifteen, Helen may have reached an age where reckless barnyard trapeze acts were behind her, but she was still young and inquisitive enough to poke around the old log cabin that stood in the back yard. But even better for her is that this new move put her closer to the town of New Paris and her beloved new school.

Helen had her share of setbacks in her teens. In 1933, while her father was working and her mother was at the neighbors, Helen began experiencing tremendous abdominal pains while home alone. Unlike the homes along the major highways, the farm houses on County Road 19 were set back nearly 800 feet from the road well into their surrounding farm fields. By the time Helen realized she needed to find her mother for help she was brought to her knees by the pains in her belly. She ventured down the long dirt drive in search for her mother or anyone who might help her, much of it crawling on her hands and knees and stopping to catch her breath and regain the strength to go further. She eventually made it up the neighbor's equally long drive before being spotted and taken to Goshen Hospital where she underwent surgery for a ruptured appendix. In an age before antibiotics, this was a certain death sentence, but the perseverance that drove Helen to seek help served her to leave the hospital after over a month's stay. This wouldn't be the last painful hurdle for her to overcome.

She returned to New Paris High School where she was a cheerleader for two years, in the Glee Club for four years, and excelled in four years of home economics courses. She worked in the office of the principal, Professor Ezra M. Hoover, for three years, and she supplied all the drawing and art work for the school newspaper. She delighted in her four years at New Paris High School, and in her words, "I loved every day of [it]." She graduated in 1935 in a class of thirty-one students.

Like many rural farm girls in the middle of the Depression, Helen had no grand plans for college or aspirations for a career other than that of a wife and mother. She loved her school and the opportunities it afforded her to explore the world through knowledge and to dabble in the arts. But she fancied a boy in her graduating class, and she thought they would be perfect together.

But Addie Timmons had different plans for her daughter, and a schoolgirl crush was not going to distract her from her path.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Springtime Interlude


There may be a few days without a post to my blog, but by all means come see me in Cincinnati this weekend if you are nearby! Registrations are still being taken for an all-day seminar this Saturday,   12 April 2014. So instead of laboriously sifting through my notes and scanning photos to bring you the stories of my family, I will be in a car driving southward. Maybe I will see signs of spring along the way! If you would like to visit the Hamilton County (Ohio) Genealogical Society's website for more information about this weekend, you can do so here: Events. The society has a tremendous web presence brimming with Cincinnati information. Feel free to peruse it for a while.

After my presentation, I will be heading further south to visit a friend in Lexington, Kentucky, in an attempt to find more signs of greenery. And then I will be back in Cincinnati to work with the Nippert Collection of German Methodism at the Cincinnati History Library and Archives at the Cincinnati Museum Center (Library | Cincinnati Museum Center). The finding aid for the collection alone is unpublished and almost 1,000 pages long! I am eager to see what kind of gems I can retrieve from this almost unused and unheard of collection of German church records and religious ephemera.

I will be back next week to tell you more about Helen... and if I think I have the information necessary to put together a post, you may just get a surprise from me on the road!

Take this time to catch up on the previous posts, or go outside and enjoy the snippets of springtime peeking through. Come see me in Cincinnati. Or go to my house and do a bunch of yard work, and surprise me upon my return!


Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Helen, Part I: Beginnings

Helen Marie Timmons
New Paris, Indiana, 1935

Helen Marie Timmons arrived at about ten o'clock at night during a late winter blizzard on 12 February 1917 in rural Milford, Indiana. The sight of his new pink, wiggly, screaming little sister made seven-year-old Harold Timmons cry. How mad he was at his parents for bringing her out naked in a snowstorm!

Helen's parents were both forty years old at her birth and had just celebrated twenty years of married life together the previous November. William Armond Timmons and Addie May Nowels were products of farm families through and through, both of them having great-grandparents who settled in Jasper County, Indiana, in the 1830s and 1840s. Growing up in rural Rensselaer, Indiana, they were both surrounded by a plethora of aunts, uncles, in-laws, and cousins. 

Addie and William's courtship was unremarkable in the sense that it followed the norms of any young rural couple living in turn-of-the-century Indiana. On 27 August 1895, eighteen-year-old Addie was brazen enough to send William a letter:
"Mr. William Timmons, Sunday evening I told you I was not going to the Fair but I guess I will for all of the folks are going Thursday and I will not stay at home by myself for I would be [unreadable], so I thought I would tell you, as I promised you I would not go, but if you wanted to go Thursday afternoon come along, and I will go with you, that is if you want me to." 
"If you want to write me a note and send it by Charlie to-night, and let me know whether you will come or not, and if you do not come I will go with our folks, for I will not stay at home alone. Now Will, I will close hoping you will not think anything about me writing this to you for I thought it would be all right. I remain your dearest Friend. Addie." 
"P.S. Will, don't let your folks see this, and be sure and answer this to-night, and if we go let us not go till in the afternoon Thursday start about eleven o'clock."
By February of 1896, Addie's letters to Will were a bit more direct and intimate. "Mr. William Timmons" had been replaced by "Dear Willie." Although still signed "your dearest friend," these letters were "sealed with a k---." They would marry in Rensselaer, Indiana, on 15 November 1896. Addie had just turned twenty. William, three-and-a-half months her junior, was still nineteen.

Addie May Nowels
Likely taken in Rensselaer, Indiana, around the time
of her marriage in 1896

Like any newlywed farm couple, they immediately did what came naturally. They had children. Baby Ross Randolph Timmons made his appearance ten months after his parents' marriage while William worked on the Timmons family farm in Jordan Township, Jasper County, Indiana. This same land had been worked by his family for three previous generations. But after generations of farming the same fields and tilling the same dirt, these Timmons were becoming restless.

Little is known of William and Addie's movement after the turn of the century. They left the farm in Jasper County and had their second son, Merle Leon, in Chicago Heights in Cook County, Illinois, in 1901. Addie's older brother, Jesse Nowels, had moved there with his wife Grace a couple years previously and was working as a day laborer. Perhaps the allure of city life beckoned to the young couple, and they joined the young Nowels couple on East End Avenue. Grace had just had a baby boy, and Addie was pregnant. They could help each other while their husbands worked in the city. But the fit just wasn't right. Will and Addie returned to Jasper County long enough to bury an infant son in the cemetery near the Timmons family farm next to his great-grandfather who had died in 1888, and his great-great-grandfather who brought the name to Jasper County, Indiana, and had died in 1871.

But if the outskirts of Chicago didn't feel right to the young couple, neither did staying in rural Rensselaer. William's father, Enos Timmons, sold the long-held family farm in 1902 and moved eighty miles northeast to Plymouth, Indiana. Together with his son-in-law, George Brown, Enos opened Timmons Feed Barn on East LaPorte Street. This thriving community of nearly 3,600 people and the county seat of Marshall County, was perfect for Enos and his wife, Sarah Jane (Keister) Timmons. At fifty-seven and his grown children married and out of the house, Enos could retire from farming while still being healthy and capable enough to run the feed barn. His son, William Timmons and his young family followed.

LaPorte Street, Plymouth, Indiana, looking west from Michigan Street, c1908.
Timmons Feed barn would have been two blocks behind the viewer on the left.

But William and Addie (Nowels) Timmons still could not find the right place to plant their feet. The feed barn was his father's venture, and although he certainly spent days working there, living within the city was not his calling. He moved his family north of Plymouth to LaPaz, Indiana, and rented a farm there for a while. When Will's father became ill in 1910, they moved closer to his parental home just northwest of Plymouth, renting part of widow Mary Dreibelbis's farm. It was at this time that baby Harold Milton Timmons joined twelve-year-old Ross and nine-year-old Merle as the third boy in the family.

And so as time passed William and Addie realized that they were no longer a restless young couple in their twenties exploring new options, but now parents of three boys and well into their thirties. It became more and more apparent that Will's lot in life was farming like all the Timmons men before him. But unlike his ancestors, he would seldom stay rooted for long. Perhaps he liked tenant farming, and this allowed his restless nature to express itself outside the rigidity of farm life. New houses. New fields. New crops. New neighbors. New adventures. Or perhaps he just wasn't good at budgeting his funds and owning a farm was a goal forever just out of his reach. But not long after receiving a small amount of money from his father's estate in 1914 he rented a farm on the Elkhart County side of the Elkhart-Kosciusko County line in Jackson Township thirty-five miles east of Plymouth. Called "the old Zbinden farm" for the Swiss immigrant, John Christian Zbinden, who had improved the land and built the home on the property, this 160 acres of land was sandwiched between present-day County Roads 19 and 21.

Will and Addie settled into the routine and the daily demands of farm life, made easier by sons Ross and Merle who had quit school to work on the farm. Although Ross had progressed through three years of high school, Merle had enough of it by eighth grade. Their father needed them on the farm, so they worked by his side. Ross, nineteen, had his eye on a local Milford girl he had planned to marry. During the summer of 1916 when the Timmons men were hard at work assuring for a successful year's crop, and just before Addie's fortieth birthday, she received a surprise.

She was pregnant.

There is no way of knowing what emotions were generated by this revelation. Certainly pregnancies at Addie's age were not uncommon. But with nine years separating Merle and Harold, and now another six years since his birth, Addie had come to realize that she just did not get pregnant as easily as her peers. Perhaps it was her health or just bad timing. Perhaps there were unknown miscarriages in the long gaps between children. But with Margaret Sanger advocating for women to have the right to determine when to bear children and popularizing the new phrase "birth control" by 1914, perhaps Addie had made a conscious decision to limit the size of her family. Nonetheless, with two sons reaching manhood and ready to leave the nest and becoming settled that her child-bearing years were coming to a close, welcoming a newborn into the family was likely met with a flurry of emotions.

A Victorian postcard satirizes a woman's desire to abstain from childbirth.

But all these worries and concerns were put to rest as Addie held her very first baby girl on that cold, snowy February night in 1917. But if Addie had thoughts of ribbons and bows and frills and dresses, she would soon realize little baby Helen Marie Timmons was far too feisty for such things.



Monday, April 7, 2014

Frank, Part XIII: Aftermath of War


Upon his return into American hands, Frank Strukel was likely accompanied by a medic and driven eighty-five miles west, away from active fighting, to Erfurt, Germany. There he was processed two days later as a "recovered Allied Prisoner of War." His general physical condition was listed as "poor." Starved, emaciated, and weakened, he still had the presence of mind and the wit to write lightly in blue on his registration form: "B.S." To him, "poor" was grossly overstating his condition, since "near death" was not a category opted for use by the United States military. He was then prepared for air lifting to Calais, France, for hospital attention.

While Frank was being attended to, and his prisoner experience was coming to an end, his parents still had no official word of his whereabouts. Although they had received a postcard from him while in Stalag IV-B in January, no further information had been supplied to them as winter turned to spring. On 20 April 1945, while Frank was flying to Calais to begin his eventual return home, Frank's mother knew nothing of this. Instead she received official word that he was a prisoner of war of the German government. With so many men missing, wounded, and killed, the American government was woefully behind. And so the Strukel family was left with a confusing telegram informing them of something they had already worriedly known for the last three months.


On 4 May 1945, Frank boarded a ship for home. We do not know the name of the ship or where it departed. Interestingly, in 1951 the Department of the Army destroyed all passenger lists, manifests, logs of vessels, and troop movement files of the United States Army Transports for World War II. No explanation for such an action has ever been given. It is quite likely that he was returned home on the S.S. John Ericsson, known to have carried soldiers home that left Le Havre, France, around this time destined for New York.

It is possible that before boarding this ship home that he had phone contact with his family. Nonetheless, the Director of the American Prisoner of War Information Bureau drafted a letter to Mrs. Rose Strukel on 9 May 1945 indicating that "Germany having been defeated, it is assumed [Frank] has been returned to United States military control." Eight days later the Western Union telegram arrived that every mother of a son overseas had yearned for: "The Chief of Staff of the Army directs me to inform you your son Pvt. Strukel Frank L. is being returned to the United States in the near future and will be given an opportunity to communicate with you on arrival." 

Frank was going home.

His ship docked on 20 May 1945, likely in New York. Did he receive a hero's welcome? Were there people at the docks waiting to greet the troops coming home from war? Or did he silently make his way off the ship with hordes of other men who were carrying with them the horrors of combat and imprisonment? The joy of stepping foot on his native soil was certainly tempered with the all-too-recent events of the past. The primary thought in his mind now was to give the Army whatever it needed from him so that he could go home.

On 30 May 1945, Frank slipped into Elkhart, Indiana, with no fanfare from anyone other than his family. When his name finally appeared on the War Department's list of liberated prisoners, a news reporter for the Elkhart Truth contacted the Strukel household on 31 May 1945 to see what news they might have of his arrival home. The reporter was asked, "Do you want to speak to him?"

After the horrors of war, Frank was allowed a 70-day furlough at home, after which he was to report to the Army Redistribution Station No. 2 in Miami Beach, Florida. Between 1942 and 1945 the United States government took over more than 300 hotels and apartment buildings in Miami Beach to serve as housing and training headquarters for American troops, but a bank of ten swanky hotels at the beachfront on Collins Avenue were used exclusively for infantrymen returning from battle. They were debriefed and given rest and relaxation before being released or reassigned. Frank was assigned to a room at the Bancroft Hotel.

The Bancroft Hotel, Miami Beach, Florida, 1945

Although the returned soldiers were put through three weeks of mental and physical evaluations, they were essentially treated as if they were on vacation. Beyond reporting for his orientation lectures, interviews, and examinations, Frank was free to do whatever he wanted.

An airman, Jack Butler, had been sent to Miami Beach after his return from service two months previously and reported back to his parents:
"I've been doing nothing but having a swell time. It's really wonderful down here. The hotel I'm staying at is right on the beach and all I do is put on my trunks up in my room, take the elevator to the basement, walk out the back door and I'm on the beach. So far, I've got no sign of a tan but I'm redder than hell. Maybe I'll get one yet. It would cost a civilian at least $25.00 per day to stay at this hotel. It's really classy. The meals are good too. Yesterday, we had sirloin steak for supper and after we finished, the waitress asked us if we'd like another. Need I say more?"
But would a couple sirloin steaks in Frank's skinny body erase the memories of the last five months? Could a frolic on the beach in the warm sun be all that he needed to forget the frigid cold night hiding from the enemy while his buddy lie dead at his side?

The War Department thought so. After his recuperation in Florida, and a few more pounds put on him to fill out his uniform, he was sent to Fort Knox, Kentucky, where he was honorably discharged on 20 November 1945. 

Private Frank L. Strukel, now a civilian, was free to go back to Elkhart, Indiana. He had just turned twenty-three years old. He would move back into his parental home, and he would resume his job at the Northern Indiana Brass Company (NIBCO). By all outward appearances, he was right back where he was when he left home for basic training three years before. Inwardly, he had gone through far too much to be the same man. He quietly spent the holidays of 1945 at home with his family.

And as the beginning months of 1946 dawned, he would meet Helen (Timmons) Miller. And his life would change dramatically again.




Saturday, April 5, 2014

Frank, Part XII: Liberation

Soldiers of the 87th Infantry move through Plauen

Frank Strukel's final days as a prisoner of war were spent in Plauen, working for whomever signed him out from his German guards for the day and extracted as much physical labor from him as his body would muster. Plauen had entered the twentieth century with a boom in population and economic growth, mostly in the textile industry. A growing urban community with a population of  nearly 120,000, the city embraced the National Socialist German Workers' Party under Adolf Hitler, and boasted the first local chapter outside Bavaria in 1921. Kurt Gruber, a law student from Plauen, reorganized the Hitler Youth program in 1929 and made Plauen its district headquarters until 1931. By 1930, the Hitler Youth organization had enlisted over 25,000 boys fourteen years old and upward. Plauen was definitely a city dedicated to Hitler's success in the war.

At the onset of war, the textile plants of Plauen had been converted to factories and warehouses that manufactured a wide variety of war-related materials, including Panzer tanks; as well as stored large amounts of ammunition, food rations, and weapons. The Allied forces were well aware of this, and as the war neared its end, the Americans targeted Plauen unmercifully with air attacks to destroy these facilities. On 16 January 1945, thirty-six United States Air Force B-17s dropped over 98 tons of explosives on Plauen resulting in 132 fatalities. A month later, 110 planes dropped a devastating 325 tons of explosives on the city killing nearly 400. It is not known if Frank was housed in Plauen or was moved by railroad back and forth to Stalag IV-F in Hartmannsdorf, but it is likely he feared for his life as much from his fellow countrymen in the air as he did from his captors on land.

Bombing of Plauen began in earnest on 3 March 1945. The city was hit eleven times in thirty-eight days by both the United States Air Force and the British Royal Air Force. Over 5,000 tons of explosives dropped on Plauen resulted in the deaths of nearly 2,000 people, and the destruction of almost 75% of the city. Sustained attacks throughout 8-10 April 1945 reduced the city to rubble.

Seeing imminent defeat in March 1945, German soldiers ordered the evacuation of many small labor camps and forced prisoners to hurriedly march to a number of other distant camp destinations, hoping to outrun the advancing Soviet army on land and the British and American army in the air. A good number of these starved and weakened prisoners died during this final forced death march. Some were executed by their captors in a final display of German superiority and control. The war was coming to an end, and the Nazi military hold in and around Plauen was in disarray.

Maurice Rainville of Company B, 275th Infantry, who was a part of "Task Force Herren" with Frank at the time of his arrival in France, remembers this time when he too was imprisoned in Plauen.
"About the first week of April they marched us out into the countryside. The guards were completely panicked. A couple of us slipped away from the guards and hid in a farm barn. Within days we were spotted by elements of the division with an acorn patch, I think the 82nd. After they picked us up they took us to a field aid station, then flew us to Rheims and then to Nancy to the 240th General Hospital where I was about 1½ months before they sent me to LeHavre and then home."
Whether Frank was also able to slip away amidst the confusion surrounding the intense bombing on 10 April 1945, is unknown. But as the 87th Infantry Division's 334th Field Artillery Battalion moved into Plauen on 16 April 1945 with an overland assault, Frank was still in the vicinity. Tom Stafford of Company L, 347th Infantry Regiment participated in the capture of Plauen on that day.
"Most of the buildings we observed as we moved deeper into Plauen had been severely damaged, many with only a few walls remaining; others were totally destroyed. The majority of the city's streets, many with gaping bomb craters, were nearly impassable; although the infantry and accompanying tanks were able to move through them after encountering light resistance from the German troops defending the city."
Whether Frank welcomed his liberators with open arms or whether they found him bedraggled and weakened amongst the ruins of Plauen the following day, we will never know, but on 17 April 1945, Private Frank L. Strukel, Army Serial Number 35539330, POW Number 319198, was at last returned to military control of the United States of America.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Frank, Part XI: Stalag IV-F

Wehrkreis IV POW Camps
From Stalag IV C blog (http://stalag4c.blogspot.com/2008/12/les-stalags-iv.html)
Unfortunately, no key for the map exists, but it seems to indicate the sub-camps
that existed for each individual POW camp.

Although Frank Strukel's initial stay at Stalag IV-B seems to have been short-lived, it is the only Prisoner-of-War internment camp listed in his official military record. This is not surprising. Movement from camp to camp was common amongst prisoners, and the only one of official record was usually the one in which initial registration was conducted. This became a sort of black comedy amongst the prisoners. The "shoe leather express" could take soldiers hundreds of miles in the opposite direction along the same roads they had walked just weeks before. Depending on levels of overcrowding, need of prisoner-based labor, and movement of the Allied forces, prisoners were shifted randomly and unexpectedly. The better part of Frank's experiences as a prisoner-of-war are largely unknown and undocumented. The only clue we have regarding his experiences after his registration at Stalag IV-B was a single line of text featured in an article in his home newspaper upon his release: "After several weeks of walking from one camp to another...he was transferred to Stalag 4-F at Plauen..."

But Stalag IV-F was not in Plauen. Stalag IV-F was in Hartmannsdorf bei Chemnitz in Saxony, about sixty miles southeast of Frank's initial imprisonment in Stalag IV-B. Plauen was yet another fifty miles further southeast. But the nature of Stalag IV-F was very different than the previous camp in which Frank had been living. Stalag IV-F was much smaller and less crowded, but it served as a hub for many work camps surrounding it. Some prisoners from Stalag IV-B were given the option of leaving for a work camp if they were deemed strong enough to serve a purpose for Nazi Germany, so perhaps Frank volunteered to leave the dismal surroundings near Mühlberg. Once at Stalag IV-F prisoners were given work detail in the cities surrounding Hartmannsdorf or at local factories or reservoirs. Some were shipped out daily to work on railroads or dig trenches for pipe, and were returned nightly to the same cold, unheated wooden huts that Frank had become accustomed to already. The winter was still dragging on, bitterly cold, and the condensation from the body heat in each hut would freeze on the ceiling at night, only to rain down on the prisoners as the sun warmed the roof in the morning. After walking hundreds of miles with frostbitten, diseased feet, many soldiers' boots had long since fallen apart. Either the lack of foot ware or because they were too painful to wear, often boots had been substituted with a cloth wrap for a sock and a wooden plank tied to the foot with a leather strap. Although less confining to pain-wracked feet, it did nothing to shield them from the continuous cold or protect them for extended walking.

Rations were no better at this camp than in any other. Breakfast was black coffee. Lunch was a piece of black bread. Dinner was a slightly clouded water that substituted as soup. Red Cross packages that made it to the soldiers filled them with delight and misery. Those who attempted to eat the rich chocolate or reconstituted powdered milk or the tinned meat were often greeted with severe stomach cramps, vomiting, and explosive diarrhea from foods their emaciated bodies were no longer able to accommodate. But even those who experienced some discomfort from the occasional splurge knew that if they kept it down, their bodies would welcome the additional calories. Those whose bodies could not, used what they could to barter for bread and potatoes. These were not frequent deliveries. One prisoner remembers only four deliveries in which he had to share with four of five of his buddies during his entire four-and-a-half months as a prisoner.

A British POW sent to Stalag IV-F recalls being used as labor at a nearby electronics factory in Mittweida. His fellow bunk mates were shipped off daily, one to dig trenches for water pipes, the other to work in a joiners' shop to help machine operators, stack timber and deliver finished furniture and coffins to customers. The treatment of British, French, and American prisoners was dictated by the rules of the Geneva Convention, and as a consequence a soldier could invoke certain rights inherent under these guidelines. Russians and Poles could not. Additionally, the German civilians seemed to harbor a particular hatred to the Russians that they did not inflict upon their Allied counterparts. As a consequence, prisoners of the Soviet army were often treated with far more cruelty by both the military and civilian population. A 2004 statistical tabulation showed that nearly 60% of Russian POWs held by Germans died in camps, compared to only 4% of British POWs. According to one American POW interviewed by historian Stephen Ambrose, "The German plan was to keep us alive, yet weakened enough that we wouldn't attempt escape."

What Frank was doing in Plauen is not known. A British POW from Stalag IV-F was marched every morning to the train station and sent with other prisoners to Reichenbach or Plauen to work on the railroad. They would clear sections of track of snow and ice, dig out old ballast and then ram new stones and support under the track to level it and fill it back in. He and his fellow prisoners benefitted from the food stores and sacks of sugar they occasionally stumbled upon in train cars as well as coal blocks they could stash into the camp at night to build a fire for warmth.

But the vast majority of prisoners, including Maurice Rainville of Company B, 275th Regiment who had arrived in France with Frank Strukel just a few short months before, were sent to Stalag IV-F from IV-B and "assigned to slave labor at Plauen, a city near the Czech border. We worked for civilians who came in every day and signed up for as many of us as they needed that day. Sometimes these guys were very rough." And so it was likely that Frank was used in whatever capacity was deemed fit for him by whomever owned him for that day.

As January faded into February, and the snows began melting into March, the tidbits of news that filtered into the camps and were whispered amongst the prisoners made it apparent that the Germans were failing. The American army finally succeeded in crossing the Rhine River on 7 March 1945, and Patton's troops captured Mainz on 20 March 1945. The Soviet army successfully ended the German offensive in Hungary on 16 March 1945, and they captured Danzig on 30 March 1945. It was apparent by now that Germany was under attack on all fronts. How much Frank and his fellow prisoners knew is unknown, but it was impossible not to hear the murmurings and gossip amongst the German civilians while being worked to exhaustion in Plauen. Perhaps it was this flicker of hope that kept Frank going in his final days of captivity. Entering his third month as a prisoner, there was little left of him to physically endure much more. His 5'6" frame was carrying only 85 pounds, and what was left of his army-issued clothing was all but tatters and fragments. But there was still hope.

And at home, his family heard nothing.