'Where Good Soldiers Come From': 1st Sgt. Graber Led North Dakota Soldiers Through WWII
January 5, 2011
The happy memories flow easily, while the less pleasant ones take some thought for former N.D. Guardsman and World War II veteran John Graber.
The staunch 94-year-old with thick wisps of white hair is candid, lacing his stories with laughter while keeping a few secrets to himself.
His military career began more than seven years before the attacks on Pearl Harbor when Graber - who was five months shy of his 18th birthday - raised his right hand and promised to defend the nation against enemies foreign and domestic. He served with the 164th Infantry Division, making a buck for each weekly drill as a private and later $1.15 as a corporal.
After drill, Graber and his fellow Soldiers would head to Gus' restaurant for a hamburger or hotdog for a nickel, being sure to tip another nickel. Graber was enjoying it and had every intention of re-enlisting when he made a decision that would quickly move him to more responsibilities as the possibility of war drew nearer.
"I was going to re-up and ... an officer in the artillery told me not to," Graber says. "He said, 'I want you in the artillery.' So, I got into a brand-new artillery outfit, so my promotions were quick. I was a three-striper in three weeks. I was a technical sergeant, which they now call (sergeant first class)."
That artillery outfit was the N.D. National Guard's 188th Field Artillery Regiment.
Ready for War
As the war in Europe continued and relations with Japan deteriorated, President Franklin Roosevelt activated the National Guard in February 1941. The 164th headed to Louisiana for training, and the 188th later headed to Fort Warren, near Cheyenne, Wyo.
The 188th had better accommodations than the infantry, which found a bare-bones camp for their training. In Wyoming, however, "the locals were quite frosty toward the Soldiers, and the Guardsmen never forgot that dogs and Soldiers were not welcome in some parts of Cheyenne," wrote Lt. Col. Peter Conlin in "The Citizen-Soldiers: An Abbreviated History of the N.D. National Guard."
Things weren't so cold for Graber, though, who married his girlfriend from North Dakota, Maxine King, while stationed there.
Thanks to a combination of skill and luck, Graber took a lateral transfer to a first sergeant position, taking on more responsibility for the men who would serve with him. Despite the challenging duty, "it turned out to be a good move," Graber says, "because later in the year they gave the first sergeants another rocker to make them equal to master sergeants, and that was a good raise in pay, too - and I was married, so I could use it."
The first sergeant and his men continued training until the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
"Pearl Harbor happened on a Sunday, and on Thursday we were on our way to Fort Lewis, Wash., by convoy truck," Graber said.
Maxine followed and their first child, Judy, was born Dec. 23 of the following year. Graber would remain in the United States until just before Judy's first birthday.
During that time, the field artillery trained and underwent changes. In February 1943, the 188th restructured and second battalion, Graber's unit, became the 957th Field Artillery Battalion. That spring, they headed to California, where they spent the summer training in the Mojave Desert. Then, it was on to Oklahoma, for additional training at Camp Gruber. By the end of the year, they were headed to New York City to catch a ship departing Dec. 5, 1943, for Great Britain.
Waking Up at Normandy
After about two-and-a-half years of training, Graber's unit would move into combat less than a week after D-Day, June 6, 1943.
It was "D6," D-Day plus six, but Graber laughs at his trip from Great Britain into war despite the uncertainty of the situation at the time.
"We boarded the ship at South Hampton, and they took us out of the harbor and we sat for a while. And I was the first sergeant, so I was carrying the orderly room, and I was so pooped out," Graber says.
"There was a command car on the deck of the LST (landing ship, tank) that we crossed the channel on, and I climbed in the back of that command car and fell asleep. And when I woke up, I said, 'Didn't we leave'' and they said, 'Hey buddy, that's France.' I slept across the English Channel. Some people have swum across it, but I slept across it," he says with a bright grin and chuckle.
What he woke up to was Utah Beach at Normandy.
Graber, at this time in his late 20s, was in charge of a service battery.
"Our duties were to furnish all of the supplies for the battalion. During the time we were over there, we fired over 90,000 rounds of projectiles that weighed 96 pounds apiece - and service battery hauled every single ounce of that," he says with pride.
They also hauled food and handled ration detail.
"I gotta say, for wartime, we ate pretty good," he says. "The cooks that we had were farm boys from North Dakota and they went to a cooking school in Fort Riley, Kan., and, by golly, they turned out to be pretty good cooks."
Good Times, Bad Times
The artillery regiment participated in the Cherbourg Offensive and Battle of the Bulge before heading to Germany. In his 23 months in combat, Graber took part in five major battles, including Normandy, the European Campaign and Ardennes.
"In the war, we had good times and bad times," he says.
The good times roll quickly from his lips - the close friends he met in war and since as a result of his service and the chance to stay in some pretty fancy quarters in Germany.
Asked about the worst part of the war, he pauses for a while to reflect before responding.
"A couple of times we got strafed by our own Air Force, and that was a little harassment, but we didn't lose any men over it, so that came out alright."
Good or bad, he's keeping some secrets all to himself.
"Tell me about the liberation of the Belgian women," an interviewer says.
Graber's eyes sparkle as he leans back and breaks into a grin. "That's unmentionable!" he exclaims with a laugh.
Throughout the war, Graber's unit served under the VII Corps. Graber is especially proud of North Dakota's connections with "Lightning" Joe Collins, VII Corps commander, and Collins' nephew, Lt. Col. James L. Collins Jr., who commanded Graber's unit. Both Collins were West Point graduates, and the elder would go on to be the Army Chief of Staff during the Korean War. The younger Collins served as battalion commander for the 957th Field Artillery and developed close ties to the North Dakota Guardsmen.
"West Pointers weren't real fond of National Guard Soldiers, and that's what we were," Graber recalled. "(James Collins) was a Pointer, but he sure liked his North Dakota boys. We showed him where the good Soldiers come from."
James Collins, who retired from the Army as a brigadier general, attended every reunion with those North Dakota boys until he died, Graber says.
Graber, now a widower, has lost a lot of family and good friends over the years. The reunions stopped about a decade ago, when barely a dozen remained who could travel. Of the two companies of infantry and two batteries of artillery that mobilized out of Fargo, Graber is only aware of one other man still in the area.
Graber takes it as life experience, saying, "So that's what you get when you get to be 94; you see a lot of people go that are important in your life."
He insists that "life's been good to me," and he's glad he had the opportunity to serve with so many fine North Dakotans.
"I was always proud of my military service. Can't say you were glad that there was a war, but it made men out of boys in a hurry."
This story is part of a quarterly N.D. National Guard history series that profiles the brave veterans who have served before us. For more information on the history of the N.D. National Guard, go to http://bit.ly/NDNGhistory.
Watch John Graber interview on his experiences on YouTube: http://bit.ly/JohnGraber
View and download photos of Graber on Flickr: http://bit.ly/JohnGraberPhotos