If you ever visit Wilbur Heberlein at his home in Lancaster, one thing you must ask to see is his scrapbook of his World War II experience. The deep green volume, which happens to be several inches thick, contains numerous items from that war, from photos of his days in uniform, crossing Africa and Europe, to details about how his unit helped win the Battle of Anzio by locating one of the biggest artillery guns ever used in warfare.
It is a revealing document for a man who, up until a few years ago, didn’t talk much about his service at all. “I never heard about any of these things,” said his wife, Elota. It was after a reunion with his buddies that got Heberlein to work on the scrapbook, recognizing his contribution to the war effort.
Heberlein entered the war as most men did – by the draft. Selected for service in October 1942, it didn’t matter to Uncle Sam that Heberlein had a wife and young child as this country put everything towards the war effort. “At that time, they were taking everybody,” Heberlein noted.
After being inducted in Illinois, Wilbur went to Oklahoma for training in artillery, but he wasn’t being trained to fire the guns, he was being trained to find them. “We were something new,” Wilbur stated. Heberlein explained that his unit would deploy six microphones, burying the equipment 10 yards apart close to the action. “We got to the front lines as much as we could,” Heberlein noted.
Heberlein dodged tanks, infantry, and attacks by enemy fire, running wire from the microphones to basecamp, connecting the wires to an oscillograph, which would monitor sound waves. When a artillery gun was fired, the equipment would triangulate where the gun was, giving Allied Forces a place to bomb.
Three months after training, Wilbur’s unit was called to Africa to replace a similar unit in the First Artillery which had been decimated by enemy fire. Along with hundreds of other troops, Wilbur set off for the front in a converted Italian cruise ship. While onroute, a boiler in the ship exploded, crippling the ship and killing one sailor.
Submarine warfare was quite active during the war, and the loss of engines could mean the kiss of death for a vessel. Because of the damage, the rest of the convoy pulled away from the ship, leaving them defenseless. “That was an awful sight, watching the rest of the convoy go over the horizon.”
Several of the ship doubled back and circled the liner for support. Luckily, the ship was up and running the next day.
As all soldiers know, a little bit of luck was always welcome on the battlefield, and for Wilbur, this was no different. In the Spring of 1944, Wilbur and his unit were outside Cassino where a monastery was being held Axis troops. While walking, an American bomber was flying overhead, and dropped its payload early, 100 yards from his group. A building took the brunt of the explosion, and Heberlein recalls going into a crater that could have swallowed a truck, finding bomb fragments with Made in the USA stamped on it.
It was about the same time that Wilbur learned that his son was born.
The most memorable time, however came in Anzio, where his unit tracked down “Anzio Annie,” two large artillery guns named Robert and Leopold. It was Wilbur’s unit that determined that the guns were on rails, being rolled into position to fire, then hidden.
There were three people from Wisconsin in Heberlein’s unit, including Art Bryant from Cuba City. Wilbur recalled that early on during their deployment, Bryant pulled him out of harm’s way, saving him from at least certain injury. Later on, the two were together sleeping in a foxhole they had dug into a dry river bed when a strong storm came in. When they awoke, their foxhole was filled with water and Bryant’s boots began to float away, and Wilbur grabbed the boots. Wilbur noted that when they get together, they joked about about the two incidents. “He saved my life, and I saved his shoes.”
Heberlein saw various parts of Europe during the war, going to Rome, Naples, and various parts of France. His scrapbook has several photos of his time overseas.
Soon after entering Germany, the Nazis surrendered, and Heberlein was converted into an MP in 1945. In October 1945, Wilbur got his orders – he was going home. To make sure he, and other G.I.s looked sharp for their return visit, the Army gave him a brand-new uniform.
Wanting her children to recognize their father when he returned, Etola worked with them everyday, showing them photos of the man they only really knew by photos. When the Heberlein family was back together for the first time, Wilbur said it was such a great feeling to being back with them.
Like most vets, Wilbur put aside his service, looking to return to society. His fresh uniform was placed in a chest, along with the photos of that time. Also, like most vets of that era, he did not speak about those experiences.
That changed in the mid-1990s when his unit had a reunion. Heberlein got to see a number of familiar faces at the event, and these men who never talked, never flaunted their service, began opening up about those times. One individual had kept a diary of their experiences, and gave his comrades copies. Another had gotten copies of their unit’s logs.
Those pieces make up a portion of Wilbur’s scrapbook, but there is so much more. There are MP and Nazi armbands, numerous photos of basic training, of service oversease. The greatest detail, however is Wilbur’s stories of his time during the war, about how they dealt with combat, and how many soldiers had to deal with problems at home as well. There is a story about how he never got into his sleeping bag because it would slow him down if they were under attack, recalling some of his fellow soldiers struggling to get out. Then there is the story where they got to sleep in a bed with sheets for the first time in ages.
While it wouldn’t fit in the scrapbook, part of Wilbur’s collection includes that uniform, in pristine condition.
“One day he said “let’s see if it fits, and I will wear it down to the VFW,” Etola recalled. Despite being very wrinkled, the uniform was in very good condition, although tight in a few places. That uniform, right down to the original Army hankerchief, could be seen in the recent Harvest Festival Parade.
Luckily, the uniform was preserved in the trunk after so many years. With his stories down in his scrapbook, so, too, are Wilbur’s experiences in the war as well.