George DePuydt, Harold Uhlrich, and unidentified soldier from the 753rd Tank Battalion, visiting Pompeii on leave during World War II.
When I was a young boy, I would often look through Dad’s green duffel bag. He kept his army belongings in a closet on the landing halfway up the stairway to the second floor of our house in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Included in the collection were his Purple Heart, assorted military decorations, a German Sauer pistol, and other mementos of his time as a technical sergeant in the 753rd Tank Battalion during World War II.
The duffel bag also held numerous photographs of him and other soldiers. They always smiled for the camera, and although they were young, their faces looked older than their years. My father, George, and his comrades often posed for the camera with their arms around each other’s shoulders in a gesture of warmth and solidarity that was as genuine every time I looked at them, as it undoubtedly was when the photographs were taken. Their Sherman tanks often served as a backdrop for the men, much like photographs taken around a family car before the war.
WWII Photos Rekindle a Memory
When I visited my parents as an adult, childhood memories often arose. Their household items hadn’t changed much through the years; so many of them were from my youth, including Dad’s war memorabilia. On a visit in the summer of 2004 I got out the duffel bag and asked Dad if I could scan some of his World War II photographs so they would be preserved. After getting his permission, I took them over to a cousin’s house nearby to use her computer and scanner to copy the photographs.
Returning to my parents’ house that afternoon, Dad asked me, “So did you see the picture with Uhlrich?” I replied that indeed I had, and that I had scanned the photograph with all the others. I knew from past conversations with him that his friend Uhlrich had been killed in the war. Beyond that I didn’t know anything about the specific circumstances regarding his death. Dad rarely spoke in detail about his war experiences or the deaths he witnessed.
It came as a surprise when he revealed that after the war he had wanted to travel to Dubuque, Iowa, to tell Uhlrich’s family what happened to him. He said, “I had been away from your mom for so long, so I never made it there.” He mentioned that Uhlrich was the gunner in their tank. “What was Uhlrich’s first name,” I asked. “I don’t remember,” he replied, “everyone was always called by their last name.”
“So what happened to him,” I wanted to know. This memory I could tell was still clear as he began telling me what happened that day in Italy those many years ago. “We could see some German tanks off in the distance,” he said, “so Uhlrich got out of the tank with some binoculars to get a better look. A sniper shot him high up here,” my dad’s hand moved to his inner thigh, “and it hit an artery. I didn’t know what to do because they didn’t teach you first aid. By the time we got a medic he was already in shock. Later we found out he died, and that one really hit us hard.” According to Dad, the men of the tank crew “were like family,” and now a family member was gone. Uhlrich was one of the hundred men from the 753rd Tank Battalion who died during the course of the war.
As we talked, Dad held the photograph of himself and Uhlrich standing with a third soldier. He mentioned it had been taken when they were on leave visiting the ancient Roman city of Pompeii. A vague memory came back to me of Dad having once told me that Uhlrich had a daughter he had never seen, born after he left for the war. I mentioned this to him, but he replied, “I don’t remember that.”
The Daughter Who Never Met Her Dad
I finished my summer visit and returned home with a computer disc containing the scanned images of Dad’s war photographs. A couple of months went by and I began to think about Uhlrich and the possibility he had a daughter who never knew her father. It was my hope to find some of his family to whom I could send a copy of the Pompeii photograph. The Dubuque Public Library provided me Uhlrich’s obituary with the heading, “Coming Home.” Below his picture was the caption “Army Returns Cpl. Uhlrich.” I finally learned his first name, Harold, and at the bottom of the obituary, it read, “Surviving are … a daughter, Sharon.”
So it was true, my vague memory of Dad telling me about Ulhrich’s young daughter. “Where are you?” I wondered; thus began the search to find her. Through the Internet and the kindly assistance of Sharon’s former high school classmate, I was able to locate her living in Arizona.
One Monday morning in September 2004 I wrote an email to Sharon’s work address telling her how Dad still remembered her father after all these years. With the email I attached the picture and sent it off, but soon wondered if sending this message to Sharon might disturb her. Whether she was raised without much mention of her father or if his absence was a permanent source of sadness, I didn’t know. Later that morning I received this email from Sharon’s daughter, who works with her mother: “Hello Peter! WOW! What a letter. Talk about tears. Mom is beside herself. She was on her way out of the office, and I briefly informed her and of course there goes some tears.”
Later that day Sharon emailed me to say, “What a wonderful surprise to hear from you today. It is amazing after all of these years that your father still speaks of and remembers my father. The only way I can know my father is from the stories that have been told to me by my family and his friends.” Sharon, of course, wanted to contact Dad, so I called him to see if he was willing to talk to her. Dad was startled to hear I’d located Uhlrich’s daughter, and in an incredulous voice, uttered one of his common phrases, “No kiddin’.”
Later that night Sharon called to tell me about her phone conversation with Dad. I asked what they talked about, and she said “He explained what had happened to my father. We never knew exactly what had happened; my mother only received a telegram from the Army telling us he had died in action.” I asked, “Did he say anything else?” and Sharon continued, “He told me about his garden….”
Dad’s green duffel bag now rests in a closet at my house, including the photograph taken at Pompeii. Uhlrich was only 22 years old when he died from his wounds on January 6, 1944. His body was returned from Italy in 1949 and laid to rest by his family at Dubuque’s Linwood Cemetery. Dad passed away the night of April 24, 2007, at the age of 89. Surrounded by family and friends, he was buried at the Gardens of Rest Memorial Park in Escanaba, Michigan. Memories of his friendship with Uhlrich stayed with him the rest of his life. About the war he once said to me, “I wasn’t no hero,” because to him the heroes were those who did not make it home. I now understand why he always hung out a flag every Memorial Day.
Copyright 2008 by Peter DePuydt. Email Peter at Depuydtp@etown.edu