Before November 11th was known as Veteran’s Day, it was known as Armistice Day, the day World War ended on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918. We remember our veterans this day, those few from World War II, those from Korea, Viet Nam, Grenada, Panama, Gulf Wars I and II, Afghanistan and all the little ones that many have never heard of that took lives of our military.
We remember those who are gone, those who were injured, baring wounds, scars and lost limbs…and those wounded who exhibit no scars. Here is a story about one just veteran of World War I, my distant cousin, Heinie Mueller. (I’ve posted the story of Heinie Mueller in past years, usually for Thanksgiving. This year, posting his story on Armistice Day seems more fitting.)
Heinie (Henry) Mueller was Grandmother’s nephew. He served in the US Army during WW1 though most of the battles on the front lines. He was gassed twice, received two Purple Hearts, a Bronze Star plus some French medals.
Heinie was a character. He walked with a slight limp and cussed every third word. He didn’t care who he was with nor who heard him. If somebody didn’t like his language, it was just too bad. Usually, Heinie would send them on their way with a few choice words and phrases.
After the war, he married a lady named Irene and moved to Woodriver, IL. When I was small, they would drive down to visit us every few months—more often after we moved to the farm. Heinie liked to hunt squirrels, rabbits, and geese and he would frequently appear during hunting season. He, Dad and I would go hunting while the women-folk visited.
I don’t remember Heinie ever shooting much. He seemed to just like getting outdoors and walking in the woods. When we flushed some game, he would more than likely let Dad or me have the shot.
One year, Heinie and Irene came down for Thanksgiving. They arrived on Wednesday and Irene brought makings for oyster dressing. She and Grandma would fix Thanksgiving dinner the next day while Mom went to pick up my sister who was attending college. Heine, Dad and I planned to get up early Thanksgiving morning and go goose hunting.
We left the house early Thanksgiving morning, about an hour before sunup, and drove down to the Muddy River bottoms where Dad share-cropped corn on a ten-acre field. Dad built some hunting blinds along the edge of the field when Heinie called to tell us he and Irene were coming.
The hunting blinds were set up along a tree line with an open view across the corn field. The field had been picked late in the season and there was a lot of corn spillage to attract geese and an occasional deer.
It was cold. Ice had formed on the surface of the field and crunched as we walked across it towards the blind. It had been built out of salvaged two-by-fours and rusted scrap sheet-metal for the roof with a covering of corn stalks for camouflage. Across the front was a tarp that would be dropped to allow us to step forward to shoot.
For whatever reason, the wind, or low hanging gray clouds or just general cussedness, the geese didn’t appear that day. Heinie had brought a hip-flask and would take a nip every so often. Dad was a Baptist and didn’t drink, but Heinie didn’t care.
By 11 o’clock, we decided that we’d give up hunting for the day. Dad started a fire to make some coffee and to fix a quick lunch hoping to sober Heinie up a bit before we went back to the house.
Heinie had been nipping steadily since we arrived and was feeling good. While the coffee was perking in an old coffepot, Heinie started talking about when he was in the Army. He had joined the US Cavalry in 1912 at the age of 17 and had gone down into Mexico with Black Jack Pershing after Pancho Villa.
After a bit, he talked about going to France to fight the Germans. Heinie was a Corporal by that time and had transferred from the Cavalry to the Infantry. After Mexico, he said, he didn’t want to ride or see another horse for the rest of his life.
Heinie was promoted to Sargent on arriving in France and took over a rifle platoon. He fought in a few battles and managed to survive with only some minor wounds. He was lightly gassed with chlorine a couple of times when his British-made gas mask leaked.
After we had finished our coffee and the fried egg and bacon sandwiches Dad had warmed over the fire, Heinie was silent for awhile. Then he began to talk about the ‘big fight’, the Second Battle of the Marne and tears started flowing.
Heinie had been in charge of a rifle squad when they had left the US, first as a Corporal and then as a Sargent. Not long after arriving in France, he was made a Platoon Sargent and Company interpreter. Heinie had known many of the men in the platoon for several years, some from the excursion into Mexico.
Heinie’s grandparents had immigrated from Hesse, German in the early 1880s. They spoke both German and French. Heinie, born in Illinois, didn’t speak English until he entered school and retained a slight German accent the rest of his life.
Heinie’s company was in the front line trenches and preparing for battle. The Battle of the Marne had been going on for some time and the allies were preparing counter-attacks. An hour before the company was scheduled to attack, Heinie was sent back to the battalion headquarters. It had been decided that all interpreters would be held back and would not attack with their troops because they would be needed to help translate for all the prisoners that would be captured—so they assumed.
Heinie paused several times to blow his nose and wipe his eyes before continuing. The whistles blew and the troops attacked. After several hours, survivors began filtering back through the battalion headquarters area. It was later determined that out of Heinie’s company, he and seven others were the only survivors. None were from Heinie’s platoon.
Later, Dad told me that every year Heinie would get a bit liquored up and start talking and remembering. One of my uncles, Dad’s older brother, joined the Army just before WW1 but had spent the war in the Cavalry patrolling the Mexican border out of El Paso. Usually Dad wasn’t too tolerant of drunkenness but Heinie was different. Dad said it was a small thing to give Heinie an audience. It quieted his ghosts.
Heinie is long gone now. But every Armistice Day and Thanksgiving, I remember him.