Heinie (Henry) Mueller was Grandma’s nephew. He served in the US Army during WW1 through most of the battles on the western front. 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. Heinie would send them on their way with a few choice words and phrases.
After the war, Heinie married a lady named Irene and moved to Woodriver, IL. 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 more to just like to get outdoors and walk 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 had bought the 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 at SIU at Carbondale, IL. Heine, Dad and I planned our hunt. We got up early Thanksgiving morning and went goose hunting.
Early Thanksgiving morning, about an hour before sunup, we left the house and drove down to the Muddy River bottoms. Dan share-cropped corn on a ten-acre field. When Heinie announced he was coming, Dad built some blinds along the edge of the field. The blinds were along a tree line with an open view across the corn field. The field had been picked late and there was a lot of spillage to attract geese and an occasional deer.
It was cold. Ice had formed on the surface of the field and we crunched across it as we walked towards the blind. The blind had been built out of salvaged two-by-fours and 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 show up 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 and Dad started a fire to make some coffee to sober Heinie up a bit before we went back to the house. The fire also gave us an opportunity to fix a quick lunch. Heinie had been nipping fairly steady since we arrived and was feeling good. While the coffee was brewing, 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. Coincidentally, so had my Uncle Johnny. The two never met during their years in the Army; not until decades later when Dad and Mom were married.
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. He was promoted to Sargent on arriving in France and later took over a rifle platoon.
He fought in a few battles and managed to survive with only some minor wounds. Once, he was lightly gassed with chlorine when his British-made gas mask leaked. After we had finished our coffee and the fried egg and bacon sandwiches, Heinie was silent for awhile. Then he began to talk about 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. His 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 went to school and he retained a slight German accent the rest of his life.
Heinie had known many of the men in the platoon for several years, some from the excursion into Mexico. His 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 to counter attack, Heinie was sent back to the battalion headquarters. It had been decided that all interpreters would be held back. They 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 from Heinie’s platoon.
Later, Dad told me that every year, Heinie would get a bit liquored up and start talking and remembering. Usually Dad wasn’t too tolerant of drunkedness 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 Thanksgiving, I remember him.