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MY DAD'S LETTERS
I keep a photo of a uniformed young man next to my home computer. Somehow, in the midst of a war, a camera has captured him in the bright sun, helmet tucked under his left arm, a big grin on his face.
The year is 1943. The place is Benevento, Italy. And the young man is a 26-year-old Army lieutenant a long way from his Brooklyn, N.Y., home.
Meet my father, Harold F. Kleindienst.
Dad was born in Brooklyn, NY, on May
29, 1916 (same birthdate as John F Kennedy, only a year later than JFK, I believe).
He was an only child, a second generation American. He went to Brooklyn Technical
High School and won an appointment to West Point but apparently couldn't get in
because of problems with his eyesight and teeth. So, he enrolled in the City College
of New York, where he took night courses while working at Standard Brands, where
his father worked.
He trained at Florida's Camp Blanding, to the Hq Btry, 2nd Bn, 35th Field Artillery and recieved a promotion to sergeant. He went to the Field Artillery School at Fort Sill, OK.on Jan. 16, 1942. He went to the Field Artillery OCS at Fort Sill, becoming a 2nd lt. on April 15, 1942. His military papers show him being assigned to the 189th FA (Fort Devens, MA) on April 20, 1942 as a 'Line Officer'. He was promoted to 1st Lt. on Oct. 7, 1942. A math whiz, a talent that later would help him calculate shell trajectories, he ended up in being sent to AAFAFS Brooks Field (Texas?)for Observer Training in 1943. In June, 1943 He left Newport News, VA with the rest of the 45th Infantry Division, by ship.
spoke much about the war, except to pass along some funny stories about drinking
Italian wine with old friends from Brooklyn or unexpectedly meeting a cousin in
France and together draining a bottle of Benedictine Brandy. Or about when his
driver took a wrong turn in Italy and he unwittingly became a small town's liberator
as the Germans were still exiting the other side. And he laughed about having
to give up his job as an aerial forward observer for the artillery because, since
he was so big, he had to fly without a parachute and hunch over the pilot on takeoff
-- and that made the pilots nervous.
But despite the laughs, at night I sometimes heard the muffled screams and the thump as he hit the deck in his dreams, ending face down on the bedroom floor.
He survived four beach landings -- Sicily, Salerno, Anzio, Southern France -- shrapnel, a dive over a cliff in a jeep, malaria and the artillery he called in on his own position to hit attacking German tanks.
From foxholes, forward outposts, make-shift headquarters and Army hospitals Dad wrote letters to his family, his co-workers and his church that tell some of his story and will let future generations know more about one man who gave some of his best years to help save the world.
keep the letters in a drawer at home, periodically taking them out to read, to
show family and friends or just to hold. I used them as a guide to retrace his
steps when my family went to Italy two years ago. I plan to use them over the
next two weeks in France and Germany.
July 9, 1943, waiting to board landing craft off Sicily:
flash of heavy naval guns goes on all around us screeching their message of destruction.
The drone of planes overhead, circling the ship-congested waters. Boche bombers
unleashing their lethal load. Funny, but I'm too fascinated by all that's going
on to even be frightened. It's my ignorance that keeps me interested and not completely
scared to death."
October 24, 1943, Italy:
Have long since been firmly convinced that our enemies are the dirtiest and most
ruthless of fighters. Wartime scruples as prohibition, have long been forgotten
and like prohibition, one was hardly aware of their existence. Mines, booby traps
and the rest of the foul-smelling stuff evolved by the scheming demented minds
of our Nazi friends can't possibly halt that march of Johnny Doughboy with Tommy
and Joe in arm on that not-to-distant road to the gates of Berlin
December 14, 1943, "Somewhere
in Italy": Jerry might lob over one or two of his evening salutes - a shell
or two - but, upon evacuation of my fox hole, I'll be back with some rambling.
It sometimes proves awfully annoying - overdoing his salutations, but then, who
are we to complain when we return with gestures of our own, 6 or 7 to 1!
Dec. 29, 1943, "Somewhere in Italy":
"Christmas has come and gone. I was up forward on a cold, wet hilltop directing
artillery fire. It was a wet, muddy night -- remember it well 'cause I was soaked
through but I managed for a little warmth thinking about a big Christmas dinner."
24, 1944, Anzio Beachhead: "Am sitting on a box in rather a snug dugout --
knee deep in flea infested hay. Dugouts are all well built -- dug in deep with
sturdy coverings. These are prime requisites for the well-being of the occupants."
Italy, April 17, 1944,: There are few
civilians left hereabouts - thoseremaining tend the scattered flocks of sheep
which roam about quite oblivious to the missles which continually whittle away
at their numbers. Too, a few women remain - acting the part of G.I. laundresses.
As the domestic animals, these people appear totally unconcerned with the dangers
which constantly threaten. The women sing as they scrub - and that they do aplenty,
mountainous stacks of G.I. fatigues and woolens awaiting their attention - even
mastering the currently popular "Pistol Packin' Mama". G.I. tutelage!
Sixty years ago, on Memorial Day 1944, General Mark Clark stood by the freshly dug graves of thousands of American GIs who died during the months-long hell at Anzio and vowed that, "With God's help, we shall carry on the task which they began."
a few days later, on June 4, after months of slogging up the Italian Peninsula,
the U.S. Fifth Army triumphantly marched into Rome, the first Axis capital to
fall to the Allies.But within two
days, praise for their efforts and jubilation at the feat were muted. June 6 was
D-day, and the biggest armada the world had ever seen was landing an invading
force at Normandy. |
No Beachhead) June 15, 1944: Incidentally, Rome itself seems to have been overlooked by the destructive hand of war. It's a mighty good sight too, to find at least one city that remains unscarred. So very many have been ground down to crumbled masonry dust...matter of fact, Rome is the first city or town I've seen which still appears intact. Our bombers and fighters have done a magnificent job but, in my book, the real heroes -- with glory still very much unsung -- are the doughboys...
Dad and the 45th slogged on -- going into Southern France and then into the underbelly of Germany. Yet not even two years of steady combat prepared the men of the 45th for what they encountered just weeks before the collapse of Hitler's Germany.
|August 20, 1944, Southern France: The country and the people make the change from the Italian front quite the refreshing one. Conditions here are so much better than they were on the boot. The people are much cleaner, better dressed, live well -- even though in most cases modestly, the homes and lands are neater and better cared for...|
|September 13, 1944, France: Even in their hasty retreat, the enemy finds time to inflict cruel blows - murder, rape, arson, mayhem, theft - parting stings never to be forgotten by these hardy allies of ours. Well, the day of reckoning isn't far off though I refuse to share the over optimistic attitude now prevalent in the States.|
|September 30, 1944, France: Just a few lines of greeting from France. Not much in the way of news this time as I've been in the hospital for 2 weeks with Malaria. Finally caught up with me here in cold France after spending 2 summers in the Continent's worst malaria country. How do you like that?|
|Army Convalescent Hospital: But forget the war? Hell no!. Just listen to that Joe over there boasting about the number of Krauts his platoon knocked off the night of the big German attack at Anzio...|
|November 7, 1944, France: There's not much in the way of news - we're still giving the Krauts as much hell as we can ram into the tubes of our fast spitting guns and we continue the relentless drive which started for this division way back in Sicily. The thunderous roar of our artillery is a welcome sound to all but the Krauts - our doughboys love the whistle of outgoing steel.|
|January 7, 1945, France: Things are going well with us but to convince these hard headed Krauts of the futility of their suicidal efforts is going to require a most complete drubbing of every single one of their organizations. They're fanatically stubborn, damn them.|
|March 20, 1945, Germany: From the border on in, in all that remains of most towns is a residue of crumbled masonry and dust - what a mess! But it's so different, destroying property which is genuinely Kraut. There's no feeling involved anymore concerning civilians - they're all enemy, soldier and civilian alike. We had a few who didn't quite see it that way until a few of the "civvies" acted up - our boys were sold!|
|April 4, 1945, Germany: Amazing to them too, is the fact that we ignore them and that, according to the very best German propaganda is not how the Americans, the "bloodthirsty Americans", do things. We're supposed to kill women and little children, burn and destroy their homes, rape and loot. One hears tales of whole villiages fleeing into the woods to escape the bloodthirsty Americans, but I've yet to enter the town where dully-staring crowds are not in evidence.|
22, 1945, Dachau: "I saw veterans of combat retch and cry roll on the ground,
sick with nausea at the sights in Dachau. "We found rooms full of bodies,
stacked like cordwood, awaiting destruction in the two blazing furnaces in the
crematory. They were still burning furiously when we arrived. "The stench
from the human fuel was unbearable a stench that will reek through the ages. There
was no flesh on either the living or the dead all were skin and bones, the skin
so taut it shone." Dad wrote of those still living, scrambling for American
cigarettes, smothering their liberators with kisses and mobbing the German guards
who remained. He later toured the camp with an English-speaking Austrian as his
guide. He took pictures "as future reference for people who might, as I,
hesitate believing all the atrocity stories told." |
horror cannot be allowed to repeat itself," he wrote those many years ago.
His words and photos insure his own family will always remember.
4, 1945, Innsbruck, Austria: Sure hated to leave our beloved "Thunderbird",
but - home is most important right now.|
After the war, Dad returned to Brooklyn and took a job with Standard Brands, eventually becoming a regional sales and advertising manager. He married my mom in 1946 and then I was born in 1948. We moved to the suburbs of Long Island, like thousands of other GI families, in 1952 - getting a house in the Cold Spring Hills area of Huntington, where most of our neighbors were also WWII vets.
Dad turned to public relations full-time in the mid-60s and then the folks "semi-retired" to Deltona, Florida, in 1971. He passed away in 1981, at the age of 65. I know he kept in touch with some of the guys he served with, particularly a man named Tommy Mutz, who I believe was a sergeant and was his driver.
remained active in the reserves until the early 60s, even commanding a rocket
howitzer battalion at Fort Totten, in NY. Dad served as S-3 and Executive Officer
of the 809th Field Artillery Battalion (part of the 414th FA Group) and subsequently
as Battalion Commander of the 7th Rocket Howitzer Battalion, 4th Artillery, 77th
Infantry Division , based in New York. (The latter battalion, as Dad phrased it,
was "a new addition to the organic artillery of an infantry division"
and he started it from scratch.)If you want the particulars of that, I can get
you the unit. He retired as a lt. colonel.
As aging veterans gather this weekend to commemorate the National World War II Memorial, celebrate their victory and remember friends who fell, I wish my father could be there. Though he died in 1981, I know he will be in spirit. And on his face there will be a smile, just like the one I see every day.
Linda Kleindienst has worked for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel since 1971 and has been Tallahassee Bureau Chief since 1985. A baby boomer, she was born in 1948, the only child of Harold and Frida Kleindienst. She got her first mess kit before she was in kindergarten.
If you know anything about her father, she can be reached at [email protected] or 850-224-6214.