In 2016, only 620,000 of the 16 million Americans who served in World War II were still alive. Every year, it is even more imperative to share the history that these veterans can recount. 94-year-old Walter Henry, a resident of The Terraces of Boise, served in the Army infantry during WWII, fought in the Battle of the Bulge and received a Purple Heart after suffering an injury while capturing an enemy fortification. Fellow resident of The Terraces of Boise, Grover Niemeier, served in the Navy during later conflicts, and he believes it is important to reflect on all wars to understand the country’s history, especially as Veterans Day approaches. The Terraces of Boise hosted a Veterans Day ceremony to honor veterans for their service. The veterans encourage one another to share their experiences and help everyone understand the cost of freedom.
“Fighting in combat overseas from September 1943 to May 1945 was hell on Earth,” said Henry. “While I enlisted in the fall of 1942 as a bachelor, I married before I went overseas and fought there for nearly two years. We started in France and made our way through Germany, and when the war ended we were in Austria. The biggest battle I fought in was the Battle of the Bulge. The Germans gave it everything they had in a last ditch effort to win the war and crush the allies. They were desperate to do something, knowing if they didn’t they would lose the war. It was a battle that lasted several weeks. I was in the 44th Infantry Division, and one of our biggest feats was when we captured Mannheim, one of the largest cities in Germany. It took a couple of days for us to capture it, but we finally did. It is really hard to describe what it was like being in constant combat. We developed a fatalistic attitude. We figured we were going to die, we just didn’t know when. When you’re fighting, your survival instincts kick in and you just do whatever you can to win the battle or secure the position and protect one another. I really don’t know how we did it, but we just kept pushing on and focused on the task at hand. It’s not anything you can expect or prepare for, it just happens.”
Henry says that he entered the service as a teenager, only 19 years of age, and in two years matured into an old man. Young boys had to grow up in order to experience and live with the trials and tribulations of war. He sustained a shrapnel wound to his hand and arm during a battle in Samerhof, Austria, while trying to capture a concrete bunker with an extensive network of tunnels. While the wound earned him a Purple Heart, he was only out for a month and then he was back at it. As a squad leader, he also earned the Bronze Star in Austria when he showed remarkable “coolness under fire.” Henry said he was the first person to cross a bridge to take a building occupied by German soldiers. He recalls thinking, “This is probably where I’m going to die.” He was the first guy over the bridge with his squad right behind him. He figured there were snipers, but ploughed across the bridge anyhow.
Henry said that was among the last battles of WWII before the German army surrendered. Despite everything that he went through, he had the love and encouragement of his wife to help him push on. The two exchanged many love letters over the years, letters Henry says they kept for a long time but are not sure if they still have today. Since the war, he has tried to maintain contact with several of the men with whom he served, as their shared experiences fostered a strong sense of camaraderie between the men.
“Many of the men I kept in touch with for several years have since passed and are no longer with us,” said Henry. “There’s not many of us left. I will be 94 years old this November. When Veterans Day comes each year I feel a myriad of emotions. I feel sad for those I watched die and for the friends of mine that were killed. I feel proud to have served my country in a war we won for a good cause. I think back to those years – the people and the battles – and I reflect on the horrific and heroic experiences we shared. I guess the best way to put this is that the whole experience is something I’m really glad I did, but it’s something I would never want to face again.”
Other veterans, such as Grover Niemeier, were fortunate to avoid combat and found their military experience to be both positive and life changing. Niemeier feels that serving under the United States flag makes for a changed person, regardless of military branch.
“When you know your life depends on someone else who is working to keep you safe and is willing to die trying, it is pretty impactful,” said Niemeier. “The discipline of the military was new for someone like me. I enlisted in the Officer Candidate School because the Navy provided a program in the mid to late 1950s that guaranteed you could finish school if you signed up to become a line officer in the Navy and served for eight years.”
Niemeier said the Officer Candidate School was the best educational experience of his entire life. Due to the qualifications of the instructors in any given area, Niemeier learned everything there was to know about areas of specialty such as navigation, functional mathematics, gunnery and fire control and more. Each subject was intense because the educators had to make sure the men could actually run operations or departments on a ship.
“Life at sea was an enviable experience that I will forever treasure,” said Niemeier. “I was first assigned to the USS Salinan and eventually went up through the ship’s rank of organization and became an executive officer (XO). For the most part, I served as the ship’s diving officer and made sure the ship could perform its deep sea diving. I had some incredible adventures in this role, one of which involved wrapping my arms around an active atomic bomb under water. We were working to recover it, and we worried about the safety of the 110 men aboard our ship. If this thing had gone off, everyone would have died. We were responsible for making sure we disarmed the weapon to the best of our ability. Thankfully we didn’t cut the wrong wire, and we safely delivered the atomic bomb to Guantanamo Bay where we were sworn to secrecy. So, basically this never happened.”
Niemeier also attended Frogman School for diving and amphibious warfare training and worked on underwater demolition teams (UDTs). The UDTs reconnoitered beaches and shallow waters, locating reefs, rocks, and shoals that would interfere with landing craft. They also used explosives to demolish underwater obstacles planted by the enemy. As the U.S. Navy's elite combat swimmers, they were employed to breach the cables and nets protecting enemy harbors, plant limpet mines on enemy ships, and locate and mark mines for clearing by minesweepers. He was also a part of the early Cape Canaveral Launches, during which divers patrolled the waters around Florida to gather parts which had fallen back from space missions, including the spacecraft itself, which they couldn’t recover. Niemerier also assisted with assessing underwater recordings of all the ships in the entire fleet. He listened through underwater microphones, developing a sonic fingerprint for each type of ship to determine when foreign ships were nearby.
“I’ll never forget my service. The camaraderie and fellowship between men who depended on each other to do their jobs right – some of which our lives depended on – made for bonds of friendship I have never experienced anywhere else.”
“We were honored to pay tribute to the veterans living at The Terraces of Boise with a formal Veterans Day program which was hosted by Tom Lee, a veteran and resident of our community,” said Jud Severns, executive director of The Terraces of Boise. “We had an inspiring display of memorabilia from our veteran residents as well. It is a privilege to hear the stories of our veterans, and we are honored to hold this celebration and take the time to reflect and pay homage to all those who served.”