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
• • •
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.”
Though Ehlers left the Army
in 1945, 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.
Ehlers’ son, David,
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 his father, he would
tell them he was just doing his job. The Medal of Honor recipient’s heroes,
David said, were the ones like Ehlers’ brother, Roland, who didn’t make it home
“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
“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