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Interview with Lester Habegger [July 2003]

Julie Habegger:

This tape, it is July, 2003. My name is Julie Habegger and I'm interviewing my dad, Lester N. Habegger. His birthday is November 13th, and he was born in 1924. Dad, can you tell me, please, what war were you in, what branch of service, and what was your rank when you served?

Lester Habegger:

WWII, in the army. I was discharged with the rank of T5.

Julie Habegger:

Were you drafted or did you enlist?

Lester Habegger:

I was drafted. I was -- turned 18 in November of 1942 and got my notice to report in March the 18th of 1943.

Julie Habegger:

Where were you living at that time?

Lester Habegger:

I was living in a little town in Indiana called Berne, and my father lived ____... (8 seconds) and graduated from high school, so they had obliged that, and after graduation is then when I was drafted and left in July.

Julie Habegger:

Can you tell me those first few days of service, what was that like for you, and what did it feel like?

Lester Habegger:

Well, of course, WWII was a war that -- that created an awful lot of nationalism, a lot of feeling of defending our country, and so I was -- at that time I was an 18-year-old kid. I was anxious to go because everybody else was being drafted and going, and it was just a natural thing to do. So at camp, it was just a -- yeah, we were a bunch of kids, most of us at that time, and we were feeling of no -- we had no idea at that time what the future held for us, but we were there, and the first few days were just, you know, I got my uniform and was waiting for an assignment.

Julie Habegger:

Do you remember what your instructors were like?

Lester Habegger:

I have no idea. We didn't have any instructor, we were just -- this was at a reception center in Indianapolis, Indiana, and just waiting to be shipped out to an assignment so there really was no instruction at that time at all. We were waiting to move out.

Julie Habegger:

How many men were with you at that time?

Lester Habegger:

I don't have any idea. We just, you know, this is -- this was at Fort Benjamin Harrison outside of Indianapolis, and I suspect hundreds of them, but I don't know, because I just knew them at that time. I only knew the guys from my hometown of Berne that went with me, about five of us, and we knew each other from high school, went together. Other than that, I don't know.

Julie Habegger:

What was the general feeling in the boot camp? Was it excitement? terror? Can you tell me a little about that?

Lester Habegger:

Well, that wasn't boot camp. Fort Benjamin Harrison was a reception center, and from there we were shipped out. Then I was shipped to Camp Adair, Oregon, that's where what you would call "boot camp," we call it, in the army, "basic training."

Julie Habegger:

And what was that like for you? What were some of your -- or are some of your memories?

Lester Habegger:

Well, that's where you -- the army's first attempt there is to make a man out of you, and so it was strenuous: A lot of physical activity, and calisthenics, and you learn -- learn marches and hikes and digging foxholes and just a general overall basic training for us was 13 weeks. And during that period it was hikes and bivouacs, then we'd sleep outside on the ground and learn how to pitch a tent and sleep on the ground and live -- live where we had to live in later on in combat.

Julie Habegger:

And what year was this again that you were in boot camp or basic training?

Lester Habegger:

I would have started basic in the summer of 1943.

Julie Habegger:

So this was in the middle, in the height of World War II. What was the feeling among everyone there? What was -- was it terror? Was it excitement?

Lester Habegger:

Well, we had no idea. None of us had any idea, as I said before, what the future would hold for us. We just were in training, and I was a part of an infantry division. I was in the medics of an infantry division and so we were all just training; had no idea whether we would -- at that time, whether we were going overseas or whether we were just going to be in the States forever, and how long the war would last, and there was no -- it was no anticipation at that time, no apprehension because it was '43, and we were just -- we were taking literally a week of training at a time.

Julie Habegger:

What was your age right then and the majority of those with you?

Lester Habegger:

Well, I was 18. As I said, I turned 18 in November, and then the very next year I was drafted, and then there were a whole host of us in there the same age that I was, but then there were -- there was a diversity of ages. There were some that I remember at that time thinking, "Why are these old guys in the army?" And those guys were 28, 27, and some of them 30. I think we had a couple of guys that were 35. Those guys we called "grandpa" because we thought they were -- they were so much older than the majority of us. I don't know what the average age would have been, but there was a lot of us 18-year-olds at that time.

Julie Habegger:

Can you tell me, Les, where you left for Europe from the United States?

Lester Habegger:

The port -- what they call -- well, it was called the port of embarkation -- was Boston, Massachusetts. We were in a camp for a few days called Camp Myles Standish in Massachusetts outside of Boston, and then they took us on a train from Camp Myles Standish right onto the train, went right onto the dock in Boston Harbor, and from there we disembarked from the train and they loaded us up on a troop ship. This was in Boston. This was in November of 1944, and we were on this troop ship called the Mariposa. It was a converted luxury liner so we had, I guess, something like 10,000 troops on there, and it took us ten days from Boston, and we went south past the Azore Islands and then into the straits past the Rock of Gibraltar, and into the straits of the Mediterranean, and then disembarked at Marseille, France.

Julie Habegger:

What was it like when you were getting on the ship, the atmosphere at that time?

Lester Habegger:

Well, you know, again, we didn't -- again, I repeat myself, I guess, but it's true, we did not know what the future holds for us. If we really knew, we would've all dove into the harbor rather than get on the ship, but we got on the ship because that's what we were supposed to do. And there was a gangplank, and as you got to the gangplank, they'd call out your last name and then you have to give your first name, and onto the ship you went. And the Red Cross was there, band was playing, and they had donuts and coffee for us, and in addition to that, they gave us a pocket New Testament so we just went on the ship without knowing -- at that time we had no idea where we were going or anything of the kind.

Julie Habegger:

What was the atmosphere on the ship as you were going towards Europe and then upon arriving?

Lester Habegger:

Well, again, as I said, there was a lot of guessing, a lot of speculation where we're going. Are we going to Norway? Are we going to England? Are we going to ____? Nobody knew and obviously they didn't tell us. And nobody knew, until we docked at Marseille, and of course, okay, so now we're in France, but even then we didn't know. I say, again, none of us knew what the future held, and so at that time there was -- we disembarked without any -- without any fire from the enemy or anything of the kind because by that time they had pushed the Germans out of that area of France, and so we just got off and went to a staging area, slept in tents, and waited to make our next move.

Julie Habegger:

What was your particular job or assignment?

Lester Habegger:

Well, I was in the medical detachment. Each -- each infantry regiment has three battalions, and companies -- rifle companies within those battalions. First Battalion, Second Battalion, and Third Battalion, and with the regiment -- in that regiment was what they call a medical detachment, which was comprised of 150 men who were medics, and we were dispersed then among the rifle companies as aidmen and as litter bearers, so I served both as an aidman for a rifle company and as well as then a litter bearer, taking wounded back to the aid station.

Julie Habegger:

So you did see actual combat?

Lester Habegger:

Yes, I saw actual combat. We -- we were in the staging area outside of Marseille, and we landed in Marseille on December 10th. That battle is known in the history books as the "Battle of the Bulge." It all started on December 16th, so we were there and word came that the Germans had broken through, and so we were hustled from our area in southern France onto trucks and trains and Jeeps, and we were hustled up into the area that was known as the Battle of the Bulge, and that's where we then encountered our first combat in December of 1944.

Julie Habegger:

Were there many casualties in your unit?

Lester Habegger:

Well, yeah. You know, there was a war and battles, you know -- how do I answer that? The answer, I guess I would say yes and leave it at that.

Julie Habegger:

Tell me about a couple of your most memorable experiences.

Lester Habegger:

Well, first of all, as I have said numerous times in this interview that we didn't know what the future held, and so the first occasion I had to really find out what is this future was we got to the area of the Battle of the Bulge, or Alsace-Lorraine is where we were, and -- and at some point they got us into an old factory in the area of Alsace, and there was a town called Niederbronn, and we were in a factory, and my commander -- a doctor, of course -- Captain Frank Ellis, got us together, medics in the First Battalion. We were with the First Battalion which meant we covered Companies A, B, C, and D. And he told us as we started down the roads -- a road into combat, he said, "Good luck to you. Just remember the Germans are also shooting at medics." And so we took off down this road following a rifle company, and the closer we got to a town called Philippsburg is where the Germans were, the closer first we got to Philippsburg, it was very evident that the future for us held combat, war, fighting. Shells started to fall, and I remember thinking, you know, up to that point I was kind of thinking of it as a training exercise like we had in the States, but all of the sudden now these shells were live and somebody was trying to kill us. And so we dove into ditches, and this sort of thing, and we kept marching closer to Philippsburg, and the closer we got, the more we begin to see dead bodies. And so now we are in the actual combat and taking care now of the wounded, and so I guess that's what you call "baptism of fire."

Julie Habegger:

Can you tell me a little bit -- now this was in the middle of the winter. Can you kind of just give us a little bit -- paint a picture for us of what this area looked like at this time?

Lester Habegger:

Well, northern Alsace-Lorraine is -- I don't -- we thought of them as mountains -- it was mountainous area, and the Germans were up in those mountains and we were down in the valley, marching into -- the objective was, is to take the town of Philippsburg. The town was maybe 700, maybe 800 people, the population in that town. And it turns out that the winter of 1944, '45 the historians later said it was the coldest weather they'd had in a century, I guess, and so it was snow up to our armpits, and cold and ice and severe weather, and so we were operating in this kind of weather with trying to keep ourselves warm and the same time trying to take care of the wounded that had been hit.

Julie Habegger:

Can you tell me a little bit about this. Was it an aid station that you created out of a house that you came upon, or can you tell me a little bit about that scenario?

Lester Habegger:

The way that the wounded were treated or taken care of, was that my job was -- we were the guys, I and the medics that I was with, we were there when the riflemen got hit, and it was our job to immediately take care of them, and obviously the first thing was to stop the bleeding and to keep the guy alive, and so -- and administer whatever aid we could to keep them from bleeding to death and give them morphine and bandage them up the best we can and quickly get them back to the aid station. And aid station with the medical detachment of the infantry is right on the front lines. In other words, the aid station was in the shelling territory. The aid station itself got shelled. It was a house. The French houses, of course, and the German civilians, of course, had vacated so we took over a house and we made it our aid station and so brought the wounded on litters into that house. And then the captain, Captain Ellis, who was a medical doctor, he then -- that's where they would apply plasma and give them plasma and do further emergency treatment. If there needed to be immediate surgery, he would do that right there to keep them alive, but the idea was to get them back as quickly as we could to a -- what was then, next in line, the field hospital which was out of shelling range and then they could tend to the wounded. So ours was -- until they left the aid station, the wounded (is), they were in combat. We were in combat whether we were an aidman in a foxhole with a rifleman or whether you were in the aid station because you had to -- the aid station had to be close because of the emergency to keep them alive.

Julie Habegger:

Can you tell me, were you ever a prisoner of war, or did you become or close to a prisoner of war?

Lester Habegger:

Well, no, I would not say that I was a prisoner of war. I was not a prisoner of war, let's put it that way. I had one experience that I -- you know, I could say for a few moments some German got me, or at least to me it was a German, and he let me go. During the Bulge, it was common knowledge that the Germans -- because they overran our positions -- captured a bunch of American equipment, and Jeeps, trucks, et cetera, but also captured a bunch of American uniforms. And we were told that to be alert that there were Germans infiltrating in our ranks behind our lines who were wearing our uniforms, and to be aware of that, and as absurd as it sounds, the one distinguishing factor they said was that they were -- we had -- underneath our helmets, we had a woolen cap that we wore before we put our helmets on, and they said the Germans were wearing this woolen cap, but they did not wear our helmet, they just wore bareheaded with the woolen cap. So I was with a litter squad in this particular situation. This was in Philippsburg where wounded had been -- there were wounded in C Company up in the mountains, and we could not get to them for several days because they had -- the Germans had the company surrounded, we couldn't get through, until at some point the captain said we had to go get 'em, one way or another. So they sent a rifle squad with six of us, six medics, to go up into the mountains and get these wounded and bring them back to the aid station if we could. So we did get through with the rifle squad, got to the area where these wounded were, and there were two litter bearer -- litter cases or one litter case, I forget which -- but then there was also a wounded that we call the walking wounded, he was able to walk because his injury was a shoulder or a head, I forget, one of those things, but he was able to walk. So we brought them back out of the mountains, down into the town of Philippsburg. Got through -- got through the German lines and were back in the town of Philippsburg without any problems, and I chose to help the walking wounded, and so when we got into town, we were not walking very fast. I wasn't, with the walking wounded, because he couldn't walk very fast. Litter bearers could go faster because they were carrying this guy on a litter, and the squad, when we got into Philippsburg, the rifle squad took off because now we were back in the -- back in Philippsburg on the street, and they thought the danger was over so they took off towards the aid station and left me by myself with the walking wounded, slowly walking down the street of Philippsburg. And we were walking along and I was helping -- I had my arm around the guy, trying -- he was hobbling along, and as we were walking down the street, all of the sudden I noticed out of the corner of my right eye, from some buildings that were along the street, a guy jumped out from behind the building, and he came up to me and he stuck a piece into my side, and he said in English, "Where are you from?" And I glanced over at him, and it was as they had told us to be aware of Germans, he had the O.D. woolen cap on his head but did not have a helmet. It had our American uniform. And immediately -- because we had been told of that, immediately I surmised, "Well, this is a Kraut," and so he kept walking along with me on the street and kept asking me questions, where am I from, what town am I from, what state am I from, et cetera, and so in my mind, of course, I -- we were taught to give only a name, rank, and serial number. Well, and so your whole life is passed before you when this guy's there with his pistol and so what do I say? And I laugh at it since because I thought, "Well, I'll give him -- I'll lie to him," and what little did he know. He didn't care what the truth was, he just wanted the names of some states and the names of a town that he could then use later on to engage some other G.I. in a conversation and tell them I'm from this state, and I'm from this town where he might then get more military information. So after he walked with me for a while, and I told him a state which wasn't where I was from, I told him a town, and he let me go. So next thing I know I looked and he's running back to behind some street that had houses and buildings, and he ran back behind the buildings and was gone. Well, I wasn't really captured as a P.O.W. He could have taken me, or he could have shot me, or whatever he wanted to do, but that was the closest I came to being a P.O.W., so --

Julie Habegger:

Well, it's the year 2003. It's almost -- well, it's 50 some -- almost 60 years later, and I can see that that story still holds a lot of emotion for you. There's a question on this questionnaire that says, "Did you feel pressure or stress?" Obviously by that story one could surmise that there was quite a bit, but can you tell me a little bit about what that was like daily to live under conditions like that and how -- how did that impact you immediately after the war and would you say even now?

Lester Habegger:

Well, I guess my first thought is that's an absurd question, "Was there stress?" Of course there was stress. I think every soldier, sailor, marine -- anybody that's ever been in combat -- experienced stress because now you do know what the future holds; it could be death. And so it was a tremendous amount of stress and fear, and anybody who says -- anybody who was in combat comes back and says, "I wasn't afraid," they are either lying or they were never in combat because of course we were afraid. And there was stress and the constant day after day after day of not knowing whether the next moment you're gone or you're going to stay alive or what. It's a tremendous amount of stress, but ____ often ask, "Well, how did you survive?" Well, it was my job. Everybody was there. It was their job, yet you had two choices: Stay or run. So if you ran, you were a deserter and that had other problems with it that went along with that, so you stayed; and the rest of your buddies, they stayed, so everybody just stayed and did their job.

Julie Habegger:

There were a lot of ironies in the war also. It seems like you'd be living under constant unpredictable outcomes. You had relayed to me one story about jumping into a foxhole when the bomb came through. Can you explain a little bit about what happened in that situation? I believe it was in the R-dens (ph).

Lester Habegger:

Well, of course, the -- anybody who was up there and I'm sure the military history will show that the German's weapon that we feared the most was the 88's, which is an artillery, and they would fire that and -- and if you were ever under an artillery barrage, then that's a constant, constant stress of shells falling and not knowing whether one's going to hit, and sometimes a shell hit close and then knocks your helmet off, but by the grace of God, you survive and didn't get hit, and that happened to me several times. One particular incident, I guess that you're asking about, was we had taken a woods objective of some part of some woods and we -- I was -- at this time I was an aidman with the rifle company, and the rifle company had taken the woods, and we had gained our objective, and then as the normal procedure or normal thing is as soon as you have taken your objective then immediately you start digging in, that is, everybody digs a foxhole because you're -- anticipate a counterattack by the Germans. Well, this particular time for some reason and I can't explain it -- we were -- there were four of us standing around talking after we had gotten to our objective, and only one of the four had started digging a foxhole. He hadn't dug very much but he had at least a foxhole, and the rest of us, as I say, unexplainable. We were talking and hadn't started digging in, and then we -- as we were standing there talking, we heard as you can -- as you know, when an 88's coming, you could hear the 88 in the air; it was coming. And all of the sudden we heard an 88 coming in to our -- where we were all, where we were, and all the rest of us were all four dove for that one foxhole that the guy had started digging. Well, he -- obviously wasn't hardly big enough for him, and I was the farthest from the hole and so I'm the last guy to the hole, so I'm on top of three other guys who are trying to get into that hole, so I'm a considerable distance off of the ground on top of a guy. The shell landed, and all I remember is waiting to be hit, and I got rocks and dirt and everything else that hit my helmet and hit me on my back and over my whole body, waiting for the shrapnel, but it didn't come. I just got hit by all of this other stuff. And the only person out of the four of us that got a piece of shrapnel out of that shell was the first guy in the hole. And I then took care of him and patched him up. But so there are so many, many, many situations in combat that you cannot explain, that is, how did it happen? Nobody knows. It was -- in my case I chose to believe it was an act of God or the grace of God that protected me.

Julie Habegger:

On that last note, you said it was the grace of God. Was there anything that you did for luck or any kind of little ritual that you had or those around you had?

Lester Habegger:

Oh, I think we all were trying to figure out some way to survive, and you used everything you could to protect. As I told you we got on the ship in Boston, but before we got on, they handed us little pocket New Testaments. Maybe in 2003 now everybody would say why did they give us that? But in those days, it was okay to be religious or to carry a Bible because we all got the New Testament, and most of us -- or at least I did -- I put that New Testament in my shirt pocket over my heart because I had heard stories about some guys claimed a bullet hit the New Testament and stopped there. So I had the New Testament in my pocket, and then I went to see a chaplain that was assigned to our battalion. He happened to be a Catholic chaplain. Well, I'm a Protestant, and so I went to see him during this fierce fighting and the R-dens and Alsace. I went to see him and for some help because I was scared. I was a little kid and I told him I was scared, I wanted some help. What I really wanted was an assurance that, you know, everything was okay with me with God, and so he asked me if I prayed, and I said, "I've never stopped praying since we were up here." And he said, "Well, do you have a rosary?" And I said, "No, I don't have a rosary because I'm not a Catholic; I'm a Protestant." And he said, "Well, it makes no difference. You should have a rosary. We know that people's lives have been saved because they had a rosary." I said, "I don't know what to do with a rosary. What do you do with it?" He said, "Well, you just count the beads as you pray, and as you pray, you finger those beads, and that is a kind of a way of protecting you." So he said, "Take this rosary," and that's -- that was his -- his way of answering me when I went to see him and asking him for help. I was scared to pieces, and he gave me this rosary. So I took the rosary, and I thought, "Well, I'm not a Catholic. I can't put this around my neck," so I put it in my pocket. I thought, "Well, who knows? I have a New Testament in my shirt pocket, and now I have a rosary in my pocket. I'll keep it there." So I carried it with me for a long, long time, several weeks, but it bothered me because I -- one time after several weeks I thought, "Well, if I do get killed, they will send my belongings home, and in my belongings will be this rosary." And my mother was a very, very religious person and a Christian woman, and it would kill my mother if she found a rosary in my belonging. At that time Catholics, Protestants, there were some, you know, that sort of thing, and so I said, "I can't do this to my mother," and so I took the rosary and I finally threw it away. And I said, "Well, I guess I'll have to take my chance." So, yeah, it was a good luck charm. Yeah, I had the New Testament, I had the rosary. You do everything you can that you think might help you.

Julie Habegger:

Can you tell me a little bit about how -- how did you guys get supplies when you were in active combat, both medical supplies and food, et cetera, clothing?

Lester Habegger:

Well, it's division -- Infantry Division had a quartermaster. That is their responsibility to bring up supplies and, of course, our own -- there were kitchens that the infantry battalion and infantry companies, they had kitchens back a little distance behind that who every once in awhile would bring up food, but most of the time as far as food was concerned it was rations. The major part of the food that we ate at that time were K-rations, which was a little box that was kind of the size of a Cracker Jack box, and in there were a piece of hard chocolate and maybe a piece of cheese, a little can of cheese and maybe some crackers, bouillon, or something like that, that was supposed to keep you alive. Nothing hot; all cold. And once in a great, great, great while when fighting kind of died down a little bit, they'd bring up hot food, and you could have some hot food but the vast majority of the time it was all these rations: K-rations and C-rations that we lived off of, and some days we didn't eat. There were several days when you didn't eat, and so you -- you got -- they brought supplies up, as far as medical supplies, I'm sure they got it up to the aid station -- I don't know about that because I wasn't a part of that -- but we then went to the aid station to get resupplied with bandages and the -- the materials that we needed, and morphine in those days, which was what we used all the time to give to deaden the pain, and those were brought up as best they could when the shelling stopped. Sometimes we just, as I said, went without for a long -- for long periods of time.

Julie Habegger:

You'd mentioned your mother a few moments ago. Can you tell me how you stayed in touch with your family? Your brothers? sisters? your mom?

Lester Habegger:

Well, we didn't stay in touch. I mean, so-to-speak. We wrote when we could, but it was as infrequently as the food that we got probably because how do you write in a foxhole? We would write, they had what they call -- I forget -- was it V something? V-mail or something, just one piece of paper that you could write on and you folded it up and it became a letter as well as the envelope.

Julie Habegger:

So you certainly didn't have any laptops with you?

Lester Habegger:

There's no place to plug in a laptop at that time, no. And so I don't -- I don't remember, but I know there were weeks at a time when they didn't hear from me. And I've often thought that the parents at home were probably worse off than those of us were up there in the foxholes because we knew what was going on, they didn't. Because I couldn't tell them. I couldn't send them a telegram, or you couldn't call them, so they suffered. Mom and dad suffered, wondering, wondering, you know, until eventually they would hear from me.

Julie Habegger:

How many brothers were in the service with you?

Lester Habegger:

I'm the youngest of a family of ten children, and we were six boys, and of the six boys, five of us were in the service at one time. Some enlisted and some of us were drafted. Ironically I, being the youngest, was drafted last, but also then was the first to go overseas and go into combat. Of the five of us that were in, there were only two of us that actually saw combat: My oldest brother Joel and I. Joel was in the armored artillery, and he -- I went over in November of '44, Joel went over beginning of 1945, so of the five boys that were in, two of us were in actual combat. We were the family in Adams County, Indiana, that had five sons in, and we had the most of anybody else in Adams County. There were times, I guess, when Joel and I were rather close to each other in combat. He tells me that he knew where I was, and I didn't know where he was, but we were next to each other fighting.

Julie Habegger:

Was there ever any entertainment, or were you ever on leave?

Lester Habegger:

Yeah. There was no entertainment, obviously. We had a lot of fireworks, if that's what you call entertainment, but memory tends to -- or age, rather, tends to one's memory. We got back to our rest camp for a short period of time as I recall one time because I remember seeing Bob Hope over there back in the back someplace, but that was only there for two days or three and we went back up to the line, so that's the only entertainment that I remember.

Julie Habegger:

Can you tell me where you traveled when you were in the service? Kind of just the countries in Europe that you were involved in combat and then right immediately after the war when you were occupying, but what countries were you in?

Lester Habegger:

Well, it was just France and Germany as far as -- as far as my travels were concerned, because we went up through France, and I said, our area was Alsace-Lorraine, and from there we went into Saarbrucken, and we crossed into Germany at a town called Saarbrucken, and then went from Saarbrucken up towards Frankfurt. We crossed the Rhine River at Mainz, and -- and then when the war actually ended we were in Wiesbaden, which was across the Rhine, and that's where we were in May of 1945 when the war was declared over. After the war, the way that the army had or the government decided who now could go home and who had to stay, they had a point system, and points that you accumulated. You got points for number of years in the service, and if you were in combat, or if you were seize, and age, and if you were married and had kids, et cetera, all those were points. Well, in my case, I was a young kid, and I didn't have enough points to immediately come home, so I then was with a lot of other guys were transferred from the 70th Division to the Third Division which then became the division that was -- started the occupation of Germany, so then I occupied with the Third Division. We then were in an area that later it became the division between East Germany and West Germany. We, at that time, were one side of the streets literally, and the Russians were on the other side before the fence or the wall went up, so I was there. The war ended in May, and I was there until the next February before I actually got to leave that area and started my way back home.

Julie Habegger:

Do you recall any particularly humorous or unusual event or pranks?

Lester Habegger:

Well, there certainly were no humorous situations during combat. That's something that didn't happen. A lot of ironies, but not humor. I guess the only thing that I would classify as humor was after the war was over and I was, as I said before, waiting to come home. I was in the Third Division and, of course, that was pretty good duty then. The war's over and we really didn't have to do anything, and as medics, we didn't stand guard so they made me -- the regimental medical officer made me a dental assistant, and I became an assistant to a dentist, and my job was to mix the amalgam, the things that you put in the fillings, fillings into the teeth and so forth and so on, and of course there was not any electricity for the drill, so the only way that the drill functioned was if you pumped, and so you pump with your foot. And my job as his assistant was to pump so he could drill into the teeth. And of course the faster you pumped, the better the drilling went; the slower you pumped, obviously there was not much -- it was painful. So I just remember the captain who -- the dentist who was a captain would tell me each day who the patients were going to be, and to prepare myself what to do, and I remember one specific time he told me that today at -- I don't remember -- 10 o'clock, Major So-and-So is going to come in to get his teeth filled, and when I start drilling, I want you to pump the drill very slowly, he said. Obviously somebody he didn't like, and he wanted to make it as painful as he could for this major, and so I remember just barely pumping this -- this drill, and it just -- it was like smoke and everything else because it didn't drill very fast. So that's what he wanted me to do, and the major didn't think it was funny, but I did.

Julie Habegger:

Your situation was a little unique in that you were raised in your family speaking German. How is that used in your station there in Europe?

Lester Habegger:

Well, I was -- it really was not used. I mean, the army didn't choose to -- I don't even know when I -- at the reception center if I ever put down that I could speak German. I don't recall that I did, but so the only time we used it is -- or I used it is -- when we captured German prisoners when I would talk to them, but it was not in any official capacity. I just used it sometimes in the aid station to tell a captain, you know, this guy said this or said that and -- but we fought against an SS Division in Alsace during the Bulge in Philippsburg, and they were tremendously as proud soldiers and if you ask them, I remember a guy coming in, we brought a guy in the aid station we had his -- practically his arm shot off and I was trying to find out, you know, to get him, you know, to help in treating it, and he wouldn't admit to any kind of pain of any kind. He was just a very, very tough guy, and so actually my German was not used to any military benefit at all.

Julie Habegger:

Did you ever, like during the occupation, use it? There was one time you spoke about a little red wagon and some champagne bottles?

Lester Habegger:

Well, of course when the war was over, there was a -- originally when the war ended, General Eisenhower had an order out which was called non-fraternization. You were not allowed to fraternize with German civilians, and you were subject to court-martial if you were caught fraternizing which meant even talking to people, but we all got around that somehow and would talk to the people on the streets, and I did because I was anxious to use my language, and I would visit German homes at night. I think now a lot of times they could have killed me, because I'd go in and we'd have wine, and I would ask them questions about the war and stuff. And this little -- this incident to which you referred was -- we were not very far from a winery where they made wine, and very good wine, and champagne. And so, of course, all the guys knew I could speak German, and they'd say, "Get up there and get us some wine." And in those days you used things to barter with; not money, but goods. Soap was one thing the Germans didn't have. Coffee they didn't have. Cigarettes they didn't have. And all these things were very, very valuable, and I would take -- I myself didn't smoke, so I -- and we were at that time, after the war was over we were given rations, which meant a carton of cigarettes for each of us. And I would take my cigarettes and I would go up to this place where they were making wine and champagne, and I'd give the guy cigarettes, I gave him bars of soap, and I gave him some coffee, and I could fill up this little red wagon -- a kid's wagon that was -- we were living in German homes at that time, German houses we had taken over, and so we were in German houses and, of course, there was some German civilians down the street, and there was a little boy with a red wagon. I borrowed the wagon, took it up and filled it up with wine bottles and champagne bottles, and gave them my cigarettes and soap, some coffee and stuff, and got us ample supply of wine and champagne.

Julie Habegger:

The day your service ended, can you tell me about that? Where were you?

Lester Habegger:

Well, I left -- finally left Europe almost a year after the war ended. I left Europe in March, latter part of March of 1946, and left from Antwerp, Belgium, on a little -- we call it a cigar box. It was just a little ship and we made it across the wild, wild Atlantic Ocean storms, and 40-foot waves, et cetera. We didn't think we'd ever make it home; thought we'd survived the war, and now we're going to all drown. But we finally got to New York Harbor, and I was sent to Camp Atterbury, Indiana, and everybody was sent to their own recep- -- or discharge station that was closest to home, and mine was Camp Atterbury, south of Indianapolis. And I was there about three days where they just, you know, debriefed and physical, and different assignments and different things, and so the actual discharge date for me was April 1st, 1946, and I wondered at the time whether that was an April fools' deal, if I was going to get stuck longer, but it was April 1st, and I took a bus from Camp Atterbury into Indianapolis, and I had a sister-in-law who was in Indianapolis at that time. My brother was working in Berne, and so she and I drove by car -- drove from -- drove by car from Indianapolis to Berne. And it was a bright, sunny, warm day, April 1st, and I remember getting into Berne in the afternoon just as the high school -- local high school classes let out that afternoon. And I remember seeing people who now were in the class of '46 who were freshman when I was a senior in '43, so three years later now I come home and see these people after having been gone three years.

Julie Habegger:

What was that like for you, to see those people, and what did you do immediately in those days and weeks?

Lester Habegger:

Well, of course, it was a tremendous relief, tremendous thrill to now be home, where at one time I thought I would never see home again. And we drove up in front of the house where my folks were living. My dad was still at work because it was early afternoon, and I went up to the house and mom was in there. Of course it was a tremendous feeling to see them, and I guess the general excitement that I had survived and I had made it home, and so that first night, first day was one of tremendous exhilaration.

Julie Habegger:

And how old are you at this point after the war and you come home? How old are you?

Lester Habegger:

Well, I have to count a little bit here. That would have been '46. I had turned 21 over in Germany, so I was 21 and a half when I got home.

Julie Habegger:

Did you go back to school then or did you work immediately after?

Lester Habegger:

Well, I -- I worked and I also went back to school. I did go to college. But, first of all, there were furniture factories in town of Berne. Several upholstered furniture factories where my father worked for many, many years, and my other brothers worked there, and I worked there between my junior and senior year. So the natural thing when I got home was go back to the factory, which I did, and my job was to tie springs in the upholstered furniture, and it involved spinning tacks, tying down the strings that you use to tie the springs, and I did that for about two months, and I thought, "Time out here. This is not -- this is ridiculous. I don't want to spend the rest of my life spinning tacks. That's not what I want to do." So one day I was in the barber shop, and the local barber asked me if I ever thought of going to barber school. And I said no, I had never thought of that. And I had taken some tests from the Veterans Administration when I was discharged and looking for what might be my line of work because I didn't have the foggiest idea. I was a kid out of high school when I left, and I didn't know what I wanted to do, so I took those tests and, of course, the guy who gave me the test wasn't impressed with the results and told me that by no means should I go to college because, according to the record, or according to the test scores, I would never make it in college, so he said he recommended a trade school. So I said to the barber when he asked me, I thought, "Okay, then I'll do that. I'll go and be a barber," which I did, and I came back and I cut hair for a year and a half because the State of Indiana law was you had to work that long before you could get a regular barber's license, and I wanted to have the regular license to use at some other future time. So I did that. And then I got to thinking again after a year and a half, and when I was inhaling hair and really not doing very much of anything, this is not really the kind of life I want to live, plus I had an older brother Joel who had been Ohio State graduate, and he was always urging me to go to college. I was single and I had no responsibility. He kept telling me, "Use that G.I. bill and go to college," and so his urging finally convinced me that, yeah, that's what I was going to do, and so I ended up going to Butler University. I was now 24, 25 years old. So in February of 1949, I enrolled in Butler University.

Julie Habegger:

Okay. So you're 25 years old, and the VA guy has said that you would never be able to complete college. Did you, in fact, complete college?

Lester Habegger:

Yeah, because I always knew that the guy didn't know what he was talking about, and I knew he was wrong.

Julie Habegger:

Did you go on to further education?

Lester Habegger:

I was at Butler for year and a half and then transferred to Wheaton College in Illinois and got my Bachelor of Arts degree there. And then from there I went to the University of Minnesota, got my Master's in guidance and counseling.

Julie Habegger:

Did you make any close friendships while you were in the service, and do you continue any of those relationships today? And also I'm wondering did you join any veterans organizations?

Lester Habegger:

Well, you know, when you live with guys and there was -- there were several of us that were together for three, four years. And when you live together and fight together and suffer together, there is a -- there was a feeling of closeness with guys, and so there were several guys I would consider that were very, very close buddy, and there is a bond between men who have been in combat that you just cannot duplicate any other place because it's -- it's a bond of survival and, yeah, I made some close friends and, of course, later on, many years later, the 70th Infantry Division formed a 70th Division Association which would be tantamount to a college alumni association. So now every two years for many years we've been getting together, and so, you know, renewing friendships and renewing acquaintances and talking about our experiences. And the one thing that's -- that's important is that we are able to talk with each other because the other guy was there. I never told my family a thing about my experiences because they wouldn't understand. And so these guys understand the fears and the things that you went through, and so they are very, very -- it's a very meaningful relationship.

Julie Habegger:

Did your military experience influence your thinking about war or the military in general?

Lester Habegger:

Well, I don't know if it influenced me. I guess the thing that I would have to say is WWII -- maybe unlike the wars after that, I can't speak for them -- but WWII was a war of -- with tremendous nationalistic feeling. We had been attacked, and when they called and said come and defend your country, it was a natural thing to do. And so we never thought about not going because it was a defense. The subsequent wars now, I don't know about that. I mean I -- I don't -- I don't choose to question should we have been in the Korean War, should we have been in the Vietnam war, should we be in this war and now in Iraq. I don't know. I just know in my case, the feeling was war is whatever it is, war is hell, and I would never ever want anybody to have to go through it, and I would never ever want to go through it again. But at that time we went because it was defending our country, pure and simple.

Julie Habegger:

Can you tell me how the service and your military experience has affected your life since WWII?

Lester Habegger:

Well, I could get too emotional, more emotional than I want to get to really answer that question adequately. And what -- I guess what I mean by that is I realized after I got home and with my family, I realized that I was a different person than I was when I left, and I realized that I was different from the rest of my family. I just knew how -- I don't know. I was more fearful, I was anxious, I was restless, I just was a different -- I was now a man. I left a little boy and I came back a man. When they drafted us at age 18, we were kids, and they asked us to overnight become men. And it took a tremendous toll. I never had a chance to go through adolescence because we now had to be men to fight. So when I got home, I knew that I was a different person from my brothers, and my other -- my family, and my father could never understand, I don't believe, why I left to go to college. All I could say to him, "Dad, I have to go." It was that feeling, and it has had a profound effect upon me, and I think to this day the woman that I married and the children that I bore and brought into the world, I think suffered some because today, no man has been in combat will ever eradicate what the combat did to him. You just can't. It's there. I think of it almost daily, so it has affected me tremendously. And as I said before, we don't talk about it, only to the people that -- who were there with us because the rest of the people don't understand. And one of the things about WWII that may be different now is we were too proud or nobody thought of going to a psychiatrist or a counselor to talk about these things and to cry and to weep about the things you went through. You just didn't do it. So all of that was kept inside of us, and we dealt with it ourselves internally. Did it have an effect on me? You bet it did. And it's there.

Julie Habegger:

You've gone on through your life to lead a very, very successful career. How did -- did that -- those experiences drive you in your career, or how were you able to kind of compartmentalize them so they didn't bring you down?

Lester Habegger:

Well, I hesitate because I -- how do you answer that? As I said before, combat affects every person who was in combat in one way or another, so did it affect me and my business or in my profession? Yeah. First of all, I learned that I could survive, what I endured in the army. I was tremendously grateful afterwards. I am thankful for a bed when many weeks and weeks and weeks I didn't have a bed. I guess the drive to succeed came from feeling that I can. I grew up kind of with a feeling as in the community in which I grew up, ____+ you know, you can't succeed, but I knew from the army experience that I could succeed. And I remember telling the athletes with whom I worked as -- when I was their coach, saying to them, "You can do more than you think you can, and you can be better than you are and better than you think you are." And that came from inside of me because I had experienced it.

Julie Habegger:

Well, is there anything you would like to add that we have not covered in this interview?

Lester Habegger:

No. You know, it's a painful experience to sit here and talk about things, even though it's been 1943, '44, '45, '46, has been a long time ago, and it's still -- as I say, it's in me so it's been very painful to recall some of those experiences, and I don't think there is anything more that I can add other than that was a period of my life that -- that is with me and I can't get away from it, but I guess the best thing is that's my story. That's all I can say.

Julie Habegger:

One more thing before we close, Dad, we have some photographs, and I'd like for you to just explain what those photographs are. This first one of the ocean liner. Exhibit A, the ocean liner. What is that ship?

Lester Habegger:

Well, that's the troop ship on which I went overseas November of 1944. It's called the -- it's an ocean liner. I guess converted the ocean liner into a troop ship. It was called the USS Mariposa, and we had about 10,000 troops on board.

Julie Habegger:

Okay. And then in exhibit B there's four soldiers standing together. Where was this taken?

Lester Habegger:

Well, that's my brother Dave and I, and two of his buddies, taken in southern France after the war was over. I got a three-day pass, and we were in Germany, and I got a three-day pass to go to Paris and then down where he was stationed. I had found out through some people -- some ambulance drivers where he was stationed, and I went down and surprised him and saw him down there for a couple of days. Dave was in a hospital and as he worked in the general hospital during the war, he did not see combat but he was in the hospital back in southern France where the wounded soldiers were brought. So I went -- that's why I say the ambulance drivers told me about him. They knew where his hospital was, and I went back and surprised him.

Julie Habegger:

And this picture, exhibit C, that's you and another soldier and then the building behind. Can you explain what that building is?

Lester Habegger:

Well, that's my brother Dave. That's the hospital where he was stationed in this town in southern France, and he and I were, during my visit there, this was taken in front of his hospital.

Julie Habegger:

Okay. And how about the fourth picture, D, the two soldiers standing against the car. Where is that?

Lester Habegger:

That's during my basic training in Oregon. There was a family from Berne, Indiana, from where I was from that moved out to Salem, Oregon, during the period that I was at camp. Of course I knew that family from Berne and so I went to visit there and got some free meals when I was stationed down at Camp Adair, and this is a picture of the guy. He was in the navy. Naval -- I forget what you call it, V12 or something at one of the universities there in Salem. And he and I were standing in front of the family car there when we were visiting this family.

Julie Habegger:

And the final picture is quite impressive. There's five soldiers and it looks like it's a newspaper clipping. Can you explain this photograph to us?

Lester Habegger:

Yeah. I mentioned in one of the questions that you asked about how many of us were in the service from my family, and this picture here is a picture of the five of us that were in. In Adams County we were -- we had the most in the service -- mom and dad had the most sons of anybody, and so the paper put a picture in and it has a headline, "Five Habegger brothers called to serve their country," and so it's -- from the oldest -- Joel, and then Dave, and then Jess, and Cliff, and then I.

Julie Habegger:

Well, thanks so much, Dad, for sharing that information and regarding those pictures. I would like to add that I remember as a little girl sometimes waking you up, and you would startle awake and look around you real quick as if I think there was some combat memories in play there when you'd be suddenly woken. And also there was a lot of World War II memorabilia that we had as far as like books and watching, oh, 12 O'clock High on Sundays, and different movies that they had on that were kind of Hollywood remakes of World War II. And I just remember kind of there was -- there was a lot of attention to that. We would watch those movies on TV or like Hogan's Heroes, you know, those kinds of things. Well, that was sort of my perception then growing up of World War II, and other than knowing that my dad had fought in World War II, but when we actually went over to Europe, I think I was 23 or 22 years old, and dad, mom, and I went over to Europe for a while, and we actually went and revisited some of the areas that he had -- or that you had fought in, Dad, and you -- we came across that one place in Philippsburg that had been an aid station, and you had seen it for the first time since when you were there in World War II, and I remember the emotion that came over you and how -- how very, very emotional it was for you. You could hardly tell us the story about the events that had taken place there. It was very traumatic for you actually to be reliving that. And that changed my view forever on war, period; that it wasn't just this Hollywood stuff, John Wayne movies and things, that it was actually very traumatic, very horrible, and very life-changing for the people that experienced it. And so I do -- I remember that, and then when we went through, we went to the Adidas factory in the Alsace-Lorraine area of France. We were having dinner and that plane flew over and kind of made sort of a whistling, droning sound, and you couldn't finish dinner, and you went upstairs, and I understand that later you spoke with mom and that mom told me that that again had caused you -- since you were in that area and you were kind of seeing all this stuff for the first time since -- well, in 40 some years, that that kind of took you back and caused some flashbacks. So I got a good picture of the impact of the war, how that had lasting effects for you, because when we were over there, that was, you know, like I said, almost 50 years after the end of the war and still you had those reactions. And also when we were at Philippsburg, I remember the French couple that came out of their house. They saw us standing there and they saw, I'm sure, your emotion, and they invited us over, and it turned out they brought out a shoe box full of letters that other G.I.'s had written to these people that had come back to that very spot, and also had kind of a cathartic experience, and then wrote this French couple, thanking them for their hospitality. So I guess they must have always come out and all kind of embraced the Americans that were coming back and reliving some -- some hard memories. So that was quite interesting, then, to find out that it wasn't just us or just dad having to come back and face some demons, that a lot of other soldiers had done so as well. So that was quite an experience for me. And, Dad, I really thank you for making this tape, taking the time to do this with me, and it's very, very, very meaningful to me, and I really appreciate your telling your story and allowing me to get this down on tape. So thank you very much, and I love you. And this concludes the interview for the Library of Congress of Les Habegger, World War II veteran.

 
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  October 26, 2011
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