By Amanda Kim StairrettMarch 4, 2014
Editor's note: This is part three of a three-part series on 1st Infantry Division veteran and Medal of Honor recipient, Walter Ehlers. Ehlers passed away Feb. 20 in Long Beach, Calif. He was 92.
The 1st Division's commanding general drew the reporters' attention to one of his Soldiers at the press camp. Reporter Iris Carpenter described the scene, saying he "dropped an arm around the shoulder of a boy we had all supposed, until then, to be waiting to hand notes or the briefing stick."
Maj. Gen. Clarence Huebner introduced the platoon leader.
"He did things that it is unbelievable that any man could do and live," he said. "It is not merely the doing of such deeds. Magnificent as they are, that makes this great division, but that other men live up to the doing."
With that, Staff Sgt. Walter Ehlers was introduced to the press.
Huebner explained the actions that happened a mere six months earlier to earn Ehlers the Medal of Honor. Carpenter, on the pages of "Danger Forward: The Story of the First Division in World War II," said the account "sounded like a one-man war."
"While this portrait of a hero was being etched," Carpenter wrote, "the hero himself rumpled one hand through his shock of lank black hair and wiped the other back and forth over the corner stove, which, hot as it was, burned less seemingly, than his embarrassment."
The reporters were finally given an opportunity to question the Soldier, and, according to Carpenter's account, the kid from Kansas "was far less nervous facing Germans than correspondents." The reporters urged him to talk about the action in his own words. He gulped a few times and awkwardly stuttered, "Best idea you can get about it is reading about it in the citation, I reckon."
The ordeal wasn't done.
A reporter asked several times, "Do you hate Germans, so you like killing them?"
Ehlers finally looked up and at the correspondent.
"Sir," he said. "I don't hate anybody. And, I don't like to kill anybody. But if somebody gets in my way when I have a job to do, I have to kill him so I can get on with it, why then I kill him, and that's all there is to it."
"No man," Carpenter wrote, "ever said so simply how little and how much it takes to be a Soldier."
Huebner, himself a Kansas farm boy, liked what Ehlers had to say, he recounted in a 1998 interview with C.E. Kirkpatrick, V Corps historian, for the Bridgehead Sentinel.
"I'm making you a second lieutenant,'" Huebner said after again putting his arm around Ehlers.
"'Well, sir, I don't think I qualify,'" Ehlers responded. "He said, 'You do,' and I replied, 'OK, sir.' I wasn't going to argue with him. That was General Huebner."
Ehlers' path from a noncommissioned officer storming Omaha Beach with his Soldiers to an officer was not an easy one. Before his battlefield commission Dec. 6, 1944, Ehlers lost his brother during D-Day fighting and was wounded three times in different actions. He was sent to Paris for his Medal of Honor presentation and then home to Kansas for 30 days.
"It was … you know, I felt good about coming home, but I didn't, too," he said in 1998. "I felt like I had deserted my buddies. All the guys I had served with for three years were still there."
Commanding generals of the "Big Red One" since Huebner have continued to revere Ehlers.
"One of our finest warriors, indeed," wrote retired Lt. Gen. Robert E. Durbin, former 1st Inf. Div. commander from July 2007 to July 2008, in a recent message. "We remain in awe of the very few men of his character and courage. He is an inspiration to all BRO Soldiers -- past, present and future."
Ehlers was a giant of a man, "the very best of our veterans," wrote retired Lt. Gen. Thomas Rhame. Rhame led the 1st Inf. Div. from July 1989 to August 1991.
Retired Maj. Gen. Neal Creighton, 1st Inf. Div. commanding general from December 1982 to June 1984, knew Ehlers for more than 30 years. He remembered him as a "quiet hero who represented the best of the 'Greatest Generation' that fought and won WWII."
Ehlers left the Army in 1945, although he served above and beyond the call of duty his entire life, said Paul H. Herbert, executive director, First Division Museum at Cantigny, Wheaton, Ill., in a recent statement.
Ehlers worked for the Veterans Administration, retiring after 34 years. He then worked as a veterans' benefits counselor for Disabled American Veterans for eight years, before retiring again. He supported fellow veterans and participated in events across the U.S. and in Europe. He was knighted by the Belgian government in 1996.
David, Ehlers' son, Manhattan, Kan., said his father was very proud of the military and those who served. He worked to uphold the ideals and standards of what the Medal of Honor signified, David added.
David, who recently retired from the Kansas Army National Guard, said if one talked to Ehlers, he would say he was just doing his job. The Medal of Honor recipient's heroes, his son said, were the ones, like his brother, Roland, who didn't make it home from war.
"His brother was his hero," David said about his father's admiration for Roland, who died on Omaha Beach. "He said that many times."
Ehlers strived to live a life of service his brother could not, Herbert said.
"As a family man, a friend, a mentor, a veterans' advocate, a counselor -- in countless ways, Walt Ehlers set an example for all of us of a life well lived," Herbert said. "Roland, I think, would be very pleased."
Ehlers stated his contributions simply in a 2007 interview with Robert F. Dorr in an Army Times article.
"I'm just an ordinary American," he said. "We have fine Americans in the service today, and I'm proud to be part of their history."