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One of the Greatest Generation

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Ninety two years and counting. Today was Grannie Annie's uncle Merle Teel's birthday.

Merle is one of the millions of young men and women that fought in World War II and who are rapidly disappearing from the scene. He is one of my heroes of that era, those that dropped everything and joined to serve in a myriad ways.

Most then returned home to build this nation into a powerhouse greater than the world had ever seen.

Merle was born in 1920 in a country that was once again prosperous following our participation in World War I, the "war to end all wars."

How did that work out? Merle attended country schools near his home in Frontier County and then boarded at the dorm in Curtis for high school, at that time a "Normal School."

There he earned his teacher's certificate and taught country school, grades 1 through 8 for several years. College was simply unreachable due to the scarce resources of the family farm in the days of the Great Depression.

With the advent of World War II, Merle managed to win a pilot training slot in the Army Air Corps. Somehow between basic training and arriving at his air cadet training base, he hitchhiked a ride in an O-47. Built by Douglas, it was a large clumsy looking single engine airplane that was designed for "Observation."

Merle always blamed it on the pilot but somehow the aircraft crashed enroute to their destination. The crash site was at a German Prisoner of War Camp of all places.

No one was killed, but the dramatic memories of being trapped in a broken fuselage, smelling strong gasoline fumes would haunt him for a long time. I know not how many training flights he completed, but he didn't do well and was washed out.

He later related that every time he flew, memories of that earlier crash came back to torment him.

The Army then sent him to Officer Candidate School, which he completed and then as a 2nd Lieutenant went to barrage balloon training.

Barrage balloons were huge gas-filled sausage-looking bags that were deployed many hundreds of feet above the infantry front lines.

The concept was that the invisible balloon mooring cables would slice through the wings of any enemy fighter that might try to strafe troops on the ground.

You may remember seeing pictures of the barrage balloons floating above the beaches when our troops landed in Normandy during the invasion of Europe, and that was exactly where Lieutenant Merle found himself in June of 1944.

Barrage balloon outfits weren't exactly very mobile, and the Army needed infantry officers, so Lieutenant Merle was assigned to an infantry platoon and given orders to head for Germany. The details of his movements across France with the invading allied Army are sketchy, as it is hard to get him to share the stories. I know that he was assigned a personal jeep, complete with GI driver, and that somewhere along the way he was promoted to Captain.

Only one time did he share with me the details of an operation conducted by his platoon, and that was when they liberated the Nazi death camp at Dachau.

His troops met no resistance as they marched into the camp at Dachau as the German troops had all hastily deserted the area when the Americans approached.

Merle described the large piles of heaped-up naked Jewish bodies and how the crematoriums were still warm when they arrived. It had to have been a horrible experience!

I was familiar with Dachau because when I was a cadet, we visited the place as a vivid part of our education at the Academy.

The forbidding place is preserved as a reminder of what an authoritarian regime can accomplish when the civilized laws of human conduct are overruled.

I had touched the ovens, seen the crude barracks with bare plank beds where the Jews were penned like caged animals as they were starved before being put to death.

I saw the pictures of the heaped up dead bodies. It was real and Uncle Merle was there to liberate the few poor souls that were lucky enough to survive the horror of the place.

Merle did tell me that the next morning after they came into the camp and realized what had taken place there they were filled with disgust for the German people as a whole.

He assigned his troops to go into the neighboring village, round up the German civilians and make them tour the camp.

Many times those German civilians implored to the GIs that they had no idea what had taken place there, literally next door.

Yeah right! Merle's First Sergeant would have none of it when a young German man, probably 16 years old, pleaded in English that the people of the village knew nothing of what was happening in the camp.

The Sergeant grabbed the youth and threw him up on the pile of dead naked Jews. While climbing down from that heap of carnage, I suspect that it became real, and something that young German remembered all his life!

At the end of the war, Merle married a sophisticated lady named Ruth and used the GI Bill to complete a college degree in agriculture at the University of Nebraska.

Later, he earned a masters degree in agronomy and eventually his PhD from Purdue University. Along the way, tragedy struck when his beloved Ruth suffered an massive stroke and died, leaving him with their two daughters to raise.

In civilian life, as in war he never wavered. His two daughters are today well accomplished and happily married with their own families.

Merle made a career in academia primarily in teaching and research at Purdue. For a period, he transferred to Cornel University in upstate New York where he conducted research in grass grown for hay for the large dairy industry there.

The end of his career was spent teaching and doing research in the nutrition requirements of corn production at the University of Delaware.

He was pioneer in the use of computers to massage the huge amount of data required to determine how varying one element of a fertilizer input affected yield. In retirement, he returned to Lafayette, Indiana, to be near Purdue.

With a life-long love of music, he did barbershop, sang in several other quartets accompanied by his harmonica and a number of dulcimers that he hand crafted from large gourds that he had grown.

Merle had a life long interest in the native pasture grasses on the farm of his youth.

Not only did he recognize and name each variety of those grasses he also stated the Latin name as well. He and a group of other retired professors reestablished a native grass prairie near Purdue for research.

The project includes a complete working farmstead circa 1900; visitors welcome. Retired big time today he and his second wife Liz reside in an upscale independent/assisted living facility in Lafayette.

A farm boy, raised poor but didn't know it, he volunteered to serve his country in a great world war.

Then he came home to be educated and to teach several younger generations. He did research to help agriculture attain the fantastic production we know today. Yes, he and the peers of his generation have made this world a better place. What more can we ask? Bless them all.

That is the way I saw it.

Dick Trail

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Great Story Mr. Trail.


-- Posted by Geezer on Tue, Jan 10, 2012, at 3:44 PM

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Dick Trail
The Way I Saw It