12/19/2013 10:41:00 AM Hjermstad remembers Christmas in combat
by Sue Sullivan
Arnie Hjermstad has witnessed history like few others and recorded much of it.
Born in 1918, he grew up on a farm near Hader, now non-existant, a community they joked got its name when Norwegian farmers passed through and waved from their buckboards, "Hader!" He sold cars in Cannon Falls, married Virginia, his wife of 72 years, spent Christmas 1941 at home and was drafted into World War II in May, 1942.
Christmas before the war was celebrated on the family farm. They had electricity so the tree was lit, and they enjoyed lutefisk, mashed potatoes, blood sausage and the Norwegian delicacy rømmogrøt: a sour cream based porridge served with lingonberries.
Hjermstad was sent to Texas for a year before being deployed overseas where he was assigned to the 36th Division.Virginia boarded a train to join him for a less than traditional Christmas, 1942.
The new recruit became quartermaster, specializing in distributing supplies and provisions, mail clerk, sorting and delivering mail to the troops, and bugler because he'd been in the high school band, though not on a wind instrument. "The noise we made was something to hear. We just kept it up for a couple of weeks until we leArnied it!" exclaimed Arnie with a laugh.
Criss-crossing the Atlantic Ocean on a Liberty ship in 1943, to avoid German submarines Arnie witnessed the sinking of other ships. They landed at Oran, North Africa, as part of Operation Torch, a military move which dislodged the Axis powers and cleared the Mediterranean Sea. Their trucks were packed in pieces in boxes ("some assembly required") so after putting them together, they leArnied how to drive them. While there, Arnie hitched a ride on a B17 Bomber during a practice flight around the Mediterranean Sea. The gunners checked out their guns shooting upward.
In a convoy at night, Hjermstad recalled "a little line of white" on the truck he was following. As a bomb exploded and the truck ahead of him swerved into the ditch, Arnie remembered, "We had the pedal to the metal to catch up to the lead truck, and only those little slits of light."
Fighting was intense as Arnie landed with the 36th Division at Salerno, Italy. Hjermstad recalled, "We were on the beach and it was three days before I could move. We covered our foxholes with some tall grass which probably saved our lives."
Then came the Christmas of 1943. Northward moved the 36th Division into northern Italy where they were stopped on the south side of the east-west running Rapido River. Remembering "as clear as if it were yesterday," Arnie recalled on Christmas Eve the Germans on the other side of river dropped end gates on their trucks to draw fire, in case anyone was there. "They were no more than 100 yards away," sighed Arnie. The Allies were quiet. The Germans then began singing Christmas songs. Arnie explained, "I didn't understand the words, but I knew the tunes." He heard the greeting "Fröhliche Weihnachten" meaning "Merry Christmas" in German. Then the Americans joined in the singing.
A professional photographer and German prisoner of war, whom Hjermstad was assigned to guard, helped him photograph German children on wooden sleds with skis sliding down the snow-covered hills. He had an 8 mm crank movie camera - he still has the camera as well as a still camera. The film is now on DVD and still shots abound, but that camera is gone.
Soon after he, along with his division, was called in to help bring out hundreds of wounded at the battle of Cassino after the medics were killed, and he watched the destruction of the monastery on Monte Cassino as it was bombed. It was later referred to as the Rapido River fiasco.
Hjermstad witnessed the March, 1944, eruption of Mount Vesuvius shortly after Allied Forces had arrived in Naples, Italy. He saw lava flowing down the sides of the mountain and fire and smoke pouring from the mountain top. "They told us not to start the engines until the vehicles had been cleaned otherwise all that smoke and ash would corrode the carburetors," remembered Arnie.
Then, after the four-month battle in Anzio, Allied troops broke through, marching into the streets of Rome. "I got to see the Pope (Pius XII) and he waved his blessing at us!" exclaimed Arnie, who attends First Congregational Church in Cannon Falls.
Christmas of 1944 found Hjermstad handing out presents from home to soldiers. He doesn't remember any special food served to the men but Arnie did help serve General Dahlquist and other officers.
Moving into southern France, shells pummeled the division, one exploding close to Hjermstad causing hearing loss.
As the war drew down Arnie was still delivering mail. The chain fell from his motorcycle in the midst of a small town and as he lay on the ground trying to fix it, boots pounding on the cobblestones left him thinking the Germans would capture him. Instead, it was the townspeople heralding him as a liberator, and when he returned to camp, the lines were redrawn taking that town from "behind enemy lines."
Hjermstad's wartime service ended in Austria. His division was given orders to return in December, 1945, and Christmas was celebrated on a ship.
Returning stateside, the tradition of going out to the farm for Christmas was continued.
Now at 95, Arnie's family comes home to his house to continue the tradition. Turkey has been added since not all appreciate lutefisk.