“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers, for he who sheds his blood with me on this day shall be my brother.”
William Shakespeare wrote that as part of his famous St. Crispin’s Day speech in Henry V. This kind of mentality exists throughout military history, even sometimes crossing battle lines. Put yourself back in the 1940s. You are in the middle of a battle in a faraway country where you have never been to before.
Your world has been turned upside down and you have no idea if you will ever get to see your family again. That is the situation that my great-uncle George Huebner found himself in. He was a soldier who fought in World War II, one of two members of my family who did so. As such, he found himself fighting the Axis powers. What kind of things would be going through his mind while he was fighting? Add the fact that my family originally comes from Germany, and you have a situation where someone is fighting their extended family.
There is a lot that we have to consider when we are talking about a person like this. What kind of life did they live? What leads up to their choice to enter the military and serve their country to fight in Europe? The fact of the matter is, there are a lot of things that we have to look into. Lives that are lived and what kind of world Uncle George would have grown up in have to be considered. After all, there is a lot that has happened when you live in this kind of time period. Because of everything that went on during this time, there is a lot we have to explore. Exploring these ideas will help to bring a greater understanding of what happened.
George was raised in St. Louis, Missouri, with his brothers and sisters. He was in his teens during the Great Depression, and he and his family were hit hard, just as many others were. St. Louis endured as much peril as the rest of the country, and this would have damaged George and his family as much as it would anyone else. He would have had to do everything that he could to make sure that his family was provided for. During this period, St. Louis was home to the largest of the Hoovervilles, which were ramshackle towns that were built during the Great Depression. The one in St. Louis was large, notably having its own Mayor and a church made of orange crates. Many people called Hoovervilles home when they had nowhere else to live. St. Louis had one of the highest unemployment rates in the country (Blakemore), which would have made life even harder for George and his family. They would have found themselves living in or around the city during one of the hardest times in its history. Perhaps they would have been among the thousands of residents that called the Hooverville home.
Ultimately, they wanted to try and create some semblance of normalcy in these tough times, trying to keep their lives together while doing what he could to make sure his family had food and shelter. That was life in the Great Depression. You could only do so much to survive while attempting to be sure your family was okay. Survival is the first priority when you are in a tough situation like this. George and his family would have found themselves in some of the hardest times possible. In order to provide for his family, George worked for the Tiemann Hardware and Supply company out of St. Louis working on manufacturing, which is still around to this day. It would not have been easy work, but it was honest work and would have gotten some money for his family during trying times. We can only imagine what they would have gone through as they tried to get the money together to squeeze by each day. Sometimes, the alternative was to go off and do something that you may regret for the rest of your life because of what you have to do to make sure they have money.
George entered the U.S. Military when World War II began and was shipped out to the front lines on the European front. He had to be terrified, as he was leaving his home to find himself in a foreign country, fighting against the Axis Powers. One can only imagine how terrifying that must have been for him. They say War is Hell, but one can only truly understand it if they experience it. George left home following the Great Depression. This was likely a desire to either help his family or serve his country. Quite possibly, it was some of both. Finding yourself in Europe during the war had to be one of the most terrifying experiences one could have. Being faced with the utter inhumanity of war makes it worse, life may never truly be the same after enduring such things. However, as we discussed before, this kind of life can also form bonds between people which can transcend time and space. As the allies pushed east towards Berlin, George was in a situation where he literally relied on everyone around him to survive each day. Seeing so much death and destruction cannot be easy, especially when you know that at any time you could be you or one of your friends could be the next corpse lying on the ground. As I stated previously, when you serve and fight together, you form bonds. One can only hope that you can survive the horrors of war and make it back home.
My family does not talk about George or his brother Robert’s wartime service much. Robert also fought in World War II, in the Pacific theater fighting against the Japanese. However, there is one story that we all do know. We remember it because it needs to be remembered, and those who deny it do not understand that. The liberation of a concentration camp had to be the hardest thing he experienced while he was at war. George was moving through the countryside during the late years of the war, as the push towards Berlin continued. One can only imagine the horror of finding this kind of place, even while at war. One cannot imagine the horror of coming across such an example of inhumanity. Imagine you are in his shoes and likely one of the first people, outside of the Nazis and their victims, to see the true horrors of the Holocaust. The people stripped of anything that made them who they were. The weakened bodies reduced to skin and bones. It would have been like walking into Hell. and Finding this and the rest of the events of the war had to be something that would be hard on the human psyche. Uncle George would have found himself at the center of one of the worst examples of war crimes and atrocities. As the war continued, he would have found it hard to continue easily, and these events likely haunted him for the rest of his life. He was not alone in this, as the war affected many soldiers and civilians. The scars of war never truly go away.
George eventually came home, not an easy task to achieve when fighting in a war such as this. Truthfully, one never really come home from war. One’s life has been torn apart and everything that they have been through takes a toll on the human psyche. George’s brother Robert also fought in World War II, in the Pacific theater fighting against the Japanese. Finding oneself in the utter inhumanity of a situation like World War II cannot be easy on anyone. George left the Army after the war ended, and that could not have been easy. He had managed to serve his country and helped get money for his family back home, but at what cost? How many lives had he seen taken away in front of him? One can only hope that he was able to eventually move on, but it could not have been easy for him. Life is not something that is to be taken lightly. One must be able to make it through this and overcome the obstacles that they are faced with. The challenge of war is something that one has to survive both during and after the war. This could not have been easy for George, or anyone else, his life past the end of World War II could not have been easy to survive.
The idea of a band of brothers is something that reflects the nature of serving in the military. Soldiers who fight alongside one another can form bonds between one another that can transcend time and space and even the grave. My Great-Uncle George found himself in that kind of situation as he fought for the United States Army during World War II. You have a chance to help your family as well as serve your country during wartime. I don’t think it was easy for George, but I do know that he was in a tough position. I’d like to think that he came out of it okay, at least in the end. He did go on to have a son who still lives and my father has some contact with him. The video game series Fallout has the tagline “War, war never changes,” but those who have gone to war can tell you that even if war never changes, war will change you.
Shakespeare, W. (2011). King Henry the fifth. London: Collector’s Library.
Blakemore, Erin. “Largest U.S. Hooverville Had Its Own Mayor and a Church Made of Orange Crates.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 8 June 2018, www.history.com/news/great-depression-life-in-largest-hooverville-st-louis.
Fallout. Original Game, Interplay Productions, 1997.