Life During Wartime | Our Town | Chicago Reader

News & Politics » Our Town

Life During Wartime

by

Sign up for our newsletters Subscribe

comment

By Susan DeGrane

On a recent Sunday, Cliff Hullinger tells the 50 people jammed into a room at the Ridge Historical Society about being prepped for surgery to remove an inflamed appendix in a field hospital on the west coast of Italy during World War II. Every time a shell would explode nearby, the army medic who was shaving him with a double-edged razor would jump. Hullinger pauses and says, "I decided this was my closest shave ever at Anzio beachhead." The mostly elderly audience, who are sipping cool drinks beneath a parachute that's draped from the ceiling, roar with laughter.

Hullinger, who's 79, gets quite a few laughs at this forum sponsored by the historical society, which is in a former mansion in Beverly, as a tribute to veterans of the war. But not all his stories have punch lines.

A farm boy from South Dakota, Hullinger joined the national guard, then trained as an army engineer, learning to clear roads and build box culverts and bridges. He was sent to North Africa in January 1943 as a sergeant in the 109th Engineer Battalion, which was paired with the army's 34th Infantry Division in Algiers, and he watched a dozen of his men die while laying mines. That fall his battalion was sent to Italy, where they remained until the end of the war. He remembers the town of Cassino, part of which was held by the Germans, and how his men lay flat on their backs in the dark of night in an effort to avoid being shot, passing stones to one another to fill in part of a gully that bisected the town so that American artillery could cross it. He remembers his half-track being hit by a bomb.

In Italy the engineers were again paired with the 34th Infantry Division, which suffered 200 percent losses. "We had more Purple Hearts than we had men," Hullinger says. "Saddest was seeing the green ones who came in without enough experience or training. They were often dead before we knew their names."

He describes the wet and cold of winter in foxholes in the mountains and remembers wringing out his socks and massaging his feet to avoid trench foot, which resembles frostbite. "When a British and Indian division came to relieve the infantry, there were 50 who could still point their rifles. But they couldn't walk down."

The other featured speaker at the forum is 78-year-old Robert Wirtshafter, a former special agent who served in a dozen different units of the Counterintelligence Corps--a parallel organization of the Office of Strategic Services, both of which later merged with other War Department units to become the CIA. He begins by saying, "We who survived are not the heroes. The heroes are buried underneath the stars and the little crosses."

Wirtshafter was born and raised in Austria, though his family moved a lot. He spoke several languages, including German and English. Before the war his family moved to Britain, then to America, settling in Hyde Park. Wirtshafter finished high school here, then started the premed program at the University of Chicago. When the U.S. entered the war he decided not to accept a student deferment and instead enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps. Eventually he was chosen for intelligence assignments with the CIC in France, Germany, and other locations he says he can't disclose because the information is still classified.

During the Battle of the Bulge, Wirtshafter says, many German spies posed as Americans, wearing American uniforms and riding in jeeps. Many had been trained in the subtleties of American mannerisms, right down to how we eat with a knife and fork. "We had a great deal of trouble with this," he says. "We were asking baseball scores, batting averages, what teams were leading. They knew it all." He says his single greatest contribution to the war effort was making one of the tests whether a soldier could recite the second and third stanzas of our national anthem. "Now how many Americans can do this?" he asks.

"None?" says one woman.

"These men were totally perplexed when they'd rattle this off and we'd pull them out and shoot them," he says. Later he adds, "I never personally shot anybody, because I was aware of how important they were for intelligence purposes. They had maps with plans, so we needed them."

One of the units to which Wirtshafter was assigned "never existed on paper. You can't even find it now." As part of it, he went to Berlin undercover as a cook in 1944, with the mission of finding people who could be trusted to help reorganize the German government after the Allies won.

At the end of the war he was assigned to arrest a man suspected of helping to operate the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. "He was some small fry," he says. "The impression of the camp is more powerful than my memories of my assignment and who I was searching for. Ten miles away from the camp you could smell the stench of burning flesh--the Germans had an amazing capacity for deceiving themselves."

He was there when the British marched residents of a local town through the camp, where bodies were still piled high. "The mayor was first," he says. "Afterwards he went home, shot his dogs, his four children, his wife, and himself."

Wirtshafter also served in a special unit that provided security for President Harry Truman at the Potsdam Conference, where in July and August 1945 Truman, Churchill, and Stalin set up protocols for peace treaties and planned the military occupation of Germany. "We had to clear the place of any explosives or booby traps, so we went over it inch by inch to make sure nothing could compromise the safety of these leaders," he says. "Our job was different than the Secret Service. Their job was to throw themselves in front of the president in the event that something occurred. Our job was to prevent that from happening."

He was also assigned to help reestablish two Berlin newspapers with staff who supported democratic ideas. To find candidates, he interviewed a bishop, a pastor, a cardinal, and others, asking for recommendations. "My job," he says, "was to find people not tainted by a Nazi background." And he interviewed people who were needed to restore the Berlin subway system, which toward the end of the war had been flooded with 15,000 people trapped inside. "The SS had shut off the entrances and exits and flooded it," he says, explaining that the subway had served as a civilian bomb shelter and that the SS had been furious that people had organized protests there against the Nazis. "The bodies had to be cleared out, and repairs had to be made as well." He says individuals who worked for the subway had been automatically made members of the Nazi party, but that didn't mean they'd persecuted or killed others. And the repair crews needed their expertise. Many of the engineers "had everything in their heads--nothing was written down."

Wirtshafter went back to the University of Chicago, got his medical degree, and is still on staff at the university hospitals as well as Christ Hospital in Oak Lawn. When Hullinger returned from the war he went to South Dakota State University and became a food chemist. Wirtshafter now lives in Beverly, Hullinger in nearby Mount Greenwood. Both men are members of the Ridge Historical Society, which invited them to speak in conjunction with an exhibit displaying World War II memorabilia loaned by local veterans. And both men contributed items. Hullinger gathered together several books on battle maneuvers in Italy and North Africa, news clippings, letters, his war records, and short essays he'd written reflecting on his experiences. Wirtshafter supplied photographs, books, maps, charts, a cloth swastika, a Nazi flag, and models of an aircraft carrier, a battleship, and a jeep. He also provided some of the cartoons he'd sent home in place of letters. "You really couldn't say much of anything," he says. "Information about weather, location, and military movements would be censored."

Other people also contributed items to the exhibit, which will be up through the end of the year. Joan Schechner, who served 18 months as a nurse in field hospitals in Saipan and Okinawa, loaned her nurse's uniform, white cap, and first-aid kit, as well as photographs and medals and the parachute that's draped from the ceiling. Her mother made her a blouse from part of the parachute that she wore the day she married Jim Schechner, also a veteran; the blouse is on display too.

Leslie Harkness contributed a Japanese sword and a piece of fabric printed with the American flag and instructions in five languages to give food, shelter, and medical attention to the soldier who carried it. Harkness was a first lieutenant in the navy air corps, and one of his missions was to fly bombing runs over the Aleutian Islands. "There were Japanese there," he says. "Most people don't know this." Later he flew important military personnel around China and the South Pacific, and he flew bombing missions over China.

The family of Robert Thayer, a production engineer for a defense contractor who died in 1967, contributed a cone-shaped device that Jim Smenos, a historical society volunteer, calls "the second most secret device of World War II." Thayer headed the team that developed the apparatus, which was attached to the head of a missile and would emit a radio signal that bounced off targets, triggering the missile. "These were exploded over foxholes at the Battle of the Bulge and used to knock down German rockets," says Smenos. "It wouldn't always distinguish between the enemy and others. It was not a smart bomb, but sort of the inklings to begin one."

Paul Petraitis, director of the historical society, says World War II veterans are now dying at a rate of 1,500 a day. "Their stories are especially valuable now," he says. The society is trying to preserve as many of those stories as it can, and volunteers will be interviewing veterans and recording their memories. The society is also committed to educating the public about what the veterans did and plans to invite more veterans to speak at a forum on October 1. "They changed our world," says Petraitis. "We can never pay them back."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Lloyd DeGrane.

Support Independent Chicago Journalism: Join the Reader Revolution

We speak Chicago to Chicagoans, but we couldn’t do it without your help. Every dollar you give helps us continue to explore and report on the diverse happenings of our city. Our reporters scour Chicago in search of what’s new, what’s now, and what’s next. Stay connected to our city’s pulse by joining the Reader Revolution.

Are you in?

  Reader Revolutionary $35/month →  
  Rabble Rouser $25/month →  
  Reader Radical $15/month →  
  Reader Rebel  $5/month  → 

Not ready to commit? Send us what you can!

 One-time donation  → 

Add a comment