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  • helmantoler 2:29 am on April 24, 2011 Permalink | Reply

    Tornado Alley Near St. Louis MO 

    Yesterday, I was on the phone doing family history research with a distant cousin in Southern Illinois.  After a half hour of  intense concentration about birth dates and burial locations, we were interrupted by concerned family members on the New Columbia, IL side of the phone call.  The St. Louis Airport terminal had just been hit by a tornado. We decided to end the call so they could go into the storm shelter in the basement.

    This reminded me of my father Willis Lyndell Helmantoler’s memoir of the stormy night he was born on a farm in that same New Columbia, Massac County, Illinois town.  I dedicate it to those who live under the threats of tornado alley.


    It was a dark and stormy night.  Lightning was flashing and thunder was crashing over a small frame house in the tiny hamlet of New Columbia, Illinois.  Outside the house the lightning struck and killed a small brown calf.  Inside the house a young woman screamed.  She was giving birth to her first child:  Me.   She was barely nineteen years old in that year of 1921.

    Beside her bed sat my father and a half-drunk country doctor.  They were both drenched from their ride through the storm in an open wagon.   In spite of the weather and the late hour I arrived in this world squalling and kicking and fighting for life.

    At the moment my father was between jobs.  He had left school after the sixth grade to work on his widowed mother’s farm.  During World War I he had served as a medic in the Army.   On this particular night he was suffering from a severely diminished cash flow: the family lived on a total of $21.00 for the first six months of my life.  I can imagine him worrying that night about another mouth to feed.

    In the other room of the tiny house my ten-year-old half-brother, Wayne, waited for the birthing and the storm to end.  He would ask that I be named after his best friend.   By the dim light of a kerosene lamp the old doctor prepared a birth certificate for a long skinny baby with the name Lyndell Helmantoler.

    A few months later my father began a three-year stint as a tenant farmer.  He worked from “can’t see to can’t see.”  A team of mules pulled his plow and harrow.  My mother raised much of our food in a garden beside the little three-room house in which we lived.

    Of course, there was no electricity or plumbing in farmhouses in that area in those days.  A black woodburning stove in the kitchen kept us warm and cooked our food.  Kerosene lamps lighted the house at night.  A cow named Bossie supplied us with ample milk.

    In the late afternoon I would watch from the kitchen window as my parents went about their chores.  On one such occasion I fell from that window and broke my arm.  This was a major disruption to farm life: I had to be taken by mule-drawn wagon to a doctor several miles away – an all-day trip.

    When we got back home I threw my shirt onto the floor and refused my father’s order to pick it up.  It was the only time in my life that he ever spanked me.  That disciplinary action made a deep and lasting impression on me.  From that day on I was always responsive to my father’s instructions.   I never again challenged his authority.

    During that time on the farm he often went “coon” hunting at night.  On one of those nights a group of men gathered in our yard and built a fire.  My mother and brother and I could see their shadows as they walked to and fro.   They pounded on our door and demanded to be admitted.  My 13-year-old brother stood guard with an iron poker that was longer than he was.  He called out, “The first man through the door will die.” They retreated to their bonfire and milled around for what seemed an eternity. When we heard my father’s wagon cross a wooden bridge, they departed.

    My father was convinced that the men were from the Ku Klux Klan.  They had been pressuring him to join their ranks.  I have always been proud of the courage he demonstrated in refusing their offer of membership.

    The terrors we face make us stronger. He became a very strong but humble man.

  • helmantoler 7:14 pm on April 22, 2011 Permalink | Reply  

    The Greatest Generation 

    Tom Brokaw the NBC Anchorman referred to the veterans of World War II as America’s greatest generation.  This group of hero’s is dwindling due to the consequences of old age. In March the news media reported the last of the World War I veterans had passed on. Shortly after this I reported that one of the WWII Hero’s passed away, Willis Lyndell Helmantoler, recipient of the Silver Star.

    In this post, I will share a story of related to the award of this medal.


    In March of 1945 I witnessed the most breathtaking act of courage I have ever seen in my life.  As a result of the incredible bravery of Technical Sergeant Rose in that battle against the Japanese, 25 American airmen’s lives were saved – including mine.

    We were involved in an air/sea rescue mission off Zamboanga in the southern Philippines.  Lt. Frank Rauschkalb and I were the pilots and Sergeant Rose was the flight engineer on our Catalina flying boat.  We were circling about ten miles offshore when eighteen of our B-25 twin-engine bombers roared down a nearby mountain and struck the airfield and docks of Zamboanga. The Japanese anti-aircraft gunners threw up a curtain of bursting shells and knocked three bombers out of the sky, sending them crashing into the sea.

    Frantic calls of “Mayday! Mayday!” broke the silence on our radios.  The commander of the bomber group directed us to the nearest downed aircrew. We soon sighted two life rafts about a mile off the docks. All eight of us aboard the Catalina held our breaths as we put down near the rafts.  Shrapnel from Japanese shore guns splashed all around us.

    Five wet, frightened crewmen scrambled aboard our seaplane from their life rafts.  I could see the sixth, the co-pilot, still in his seat in the plane, just below the surface of the water.  He had become entangled in his harness and hadn’t gotten out.  He was dead.

    At that moment we took our first hit from a shore-gun.  It made a fist-sized hole at the waterline of our hull.  Seawater rushed into the compartmentalized hull.  The distraught pilot of the B-25, whom we had just picked up, scrambled forward to our cockpit and yelled, “Let’s get the Hell outa here!”

    I told him that two more crews were out there in the water.  His hysterical response was, “Screw ‘em, let’s get outa here!”

    The bomber commander flying overhead told us the next crew was located about a thousand yards in toward the docks.  The seawater in our hull forced us to taxi rather than fly, and the shells from the shore-guns were landing all around us.  Our engines were overheating, and eventually one of them quit.

    It was then that my personal hero, Sergeant Rose, did the most courageous thing I have ever seen a man do.  He climbed up on top of the wing, and with shells whizzing all around him, cranked that engine and started it.  In my mind’s eye I can still see him, lean and brown, wearing nothing but cutoffs and shoes, silhouetted against the bright blue sky, cranking that damned engine. I still cannot understand how he survived that ordeal.

    We made our way slowly and agonizingly around the harbor to pick up the other two crews, under fire all the way.  I thought I recognized a man in the second crew as some one we had rescued before.  I called back to him, “Is that you Zimmerman?”

    He replied affirmatively and let everybody know that this was the third time we had picked him up after he had been shot down.  He also swore he would never get off the ground again if we would just get him home this time.

    The Japanese guns hit our seaplane several times during the two and one-half hours we were on the water.  We now had 25 people and a lot of seawater aboard our plane.

    After a ten-minute takeoff run, we realized that we were too heavy to get off the water.  We asked Sergeant Rose to dump all of the gasoline he could spare and still leave us enough for the four hour flight  back to our base.  With only gross guesses to measure the amount of fuel he was dumping, Rose turned the dark blue ocean water into an oily pale green patch of sea.  We sweated bullets that a spark might turn us into an inferno.

    Another ten-minute takeoff run through rougher water got us airborne.  In my memory’s ear I can still hear the cheers that went up from the B-25 guys when we finally struggled into the air.

    We made the flight back and landed without incident.  Most of the generals and colonels on the island were assembled to welcome and congratulate us.  They had to wait longer than expected because we ran out of gas on the taxi strip.  I remember saying to Sergeant Rose, “You cut it a little close, Sergeant.”He grinned and gave me a big wink.

    He was awarded the Silver Star for “gallantry in action.”

    My father was so humble that in this memoir he did not mention that as the pilot he also received the Silver Star.   Would you like to hear more  of his “war stories”.?

    • elinshouse 1:09 pm on April 23, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      It was the Americans who freed the Dachau prison camp in 1945. My Dad was a prisoner there, because he belonged to an illegal organisation called Kristian Stein in Norway in those years. I am now writing in ‘my blog’ elinshouse.wordpress.com – about his experiences. He survived the war and lived to be 87, which is not bad. I would like to hear more about the Silver Star.

      • helmantoler 2:07 am on April 24, 2011 Permalink | Reply

        The Silver Star is a rare award, bestowed on fewer than 1 in every 250 veterans of military service. It is awarded for “gallantry in action” in support of combat missions of the United States military.

    • elinshouse 11:37 am on April 24, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      It was a bad time for all. I would like to hear more of his war-stories. Here is my blog address if you want to hear about my Dad: http://elinshouse.wordpress.com/

  • helmantoler 6:50 pm on April 22, 2011 Permalink | Reply  

    Willis Helmantoler’s Last Story 

    On the last day I visited with my father he was “fixin to get on down the road “. He insisted that I “get the can of oil on the garage floor and put it in the top of the car engine”.  Jiffy Lube had just done an oil change, so I knew he must be time traveling back to earlier days.  I assured him that the oil was topped off and asked him if I should read his story of his first road trip which follows:
    The Hubbs Farm 1922-1925

    Early in 1922, when I was barely a few months old, my father became a tenant farmer on a small farm a few miles out of New Columbia, Illinois. We lived there for more than three years. Obviously, I don’t remember much about the experience, but a few things stand out as the first things I remember in life.
    My constant playmate was a small brown dog named Jackie-boy. He was a mixed breed: hound and terrier. At night he served admirably as my father’s coon dog, but in the daytime he was at my side as guardian and playmate. One of my earliest and clearest memories is of Jackie-boy killing a snake that was slithering across my path.

    My other playmate during those early years was a girl named Anna Ruth Clymore who lived up the hill on an adjacent farm. She and I used to play automobile on an old trunk. She would sit on the trunk and I would pretend to crank the engine. Then we would both splutter in an effort to sound like Model T Fords, which our fathers drove in those days. We got to play together only on rare occasions when our families had time to visit each other.

    My father worked from “can’t see to can’t see.” He plowed behind a team of mules named Jack and Gin. My mother raised much of our food in a garden near the little three-room farmhouse in which we lived. Of course, there was no electricity or plumbing in farmhouses in that area in those days. We burned wood in an iron stove in the kitchen. Water was pumped by hand from a well. Kerosene lamps lighted the house at night. A cow whose name I have forgotten supplied us with ample milk. I can remember drinking warm milk that had just been squeezed from that cow’s teat. I used to watch from the kitchen window when my parents did the milking in the late afternoon. Often I stood on the windowsill to get the best view. On one such occasion I fell off of the windowsill onto the floor and broke my arm. This caused a major disruption of life on the Hubbs farm. The next day I had to be taken to a doctor several miles away to have the arm set. When we returned home that evening I took off my blouse and threw it on the floor. My father asked me to pick it up. I declined. He directed that I pick it up. I refused. He spanked me – the only time he did that in my life. Even though I don’t remember the spanking, I have concluded that it made a strong impression on me. From that day on I was always responsive to my father’s instructions. When he called, I came running. I never challenged his authority.

    I can remember riding in a wagon drawn by our mules. The family was heading to a small white church on a Sunday morning. As we rode up Chapman Hill some teenage girls hitched a ride on our wagon, and my teenage brother was scolded for being too forward with them. Even though I was only four years old, it seemed to me they enjoyed his forward behavior.

    The following incident occurred when I was three years old, so I doubt that much of it comes from my own memory, rather it probably comes from my parents telling me about it. But the feeling of fear is so stark and two of the pictures stand out so strongly in my head, that I think there is a possibility that I actually remember some parts of the incident.

    It happened on a night when my father had gone coon hunting. I had whooping cough at the time and was incapable of remaining quiet no matter how much I wanted to. Several men built a large fire in our yard and stood around it talking. My mother, my brother Wayne and I watched them through the window. I coughed almost continuously in spite of my mother’s shushing. The men pounded on the door and demanded admittance. My brother, who was thirteen at the time, held an iron poker in his hands and told them that he would kill the first man through the door. I think I can remember the overwhelming feeling of fear.

    My father always sang as he drove his wagon home from his nighttime coon hunts. Evidently, the men heard the wagon returning, doused their fire and departed before he got to the house. He told us he thought they were members of the Ku Klux Klan who had tried to recruit him. He thought they were trying to scare him into joining. I am proud that he continued to decline their offer of membership.

    Another event on the Hubbs farm that has remained in my memory-bank over the years involves my cousin Jack Helmantoler who was working on the farm for my father. One day Jack took me with him on the wagon. For some reason the mules made a sharp turn, and the tongue of the wagon was snapped in two. I clearly remember looking down at that broken wagon tongue, but I don’t remember saying, “Now, we’ve played Hell,” as was reported by my cousin.

    Shortly before the family left the Hubbs farm in the fall of 1925, my father bought a Model T Ford (probably costing less than $300). Being an inexperienced driver he ran the car into a ditch on one of our first drives. The picture of that car tilted at a crazy angle in that ditch still sticks in my mind. It was one of the few times I ever heard my father use foul language.

    I’m sure I had no idea of what it meant to pick up stakes and leave the Hubbs farm, leave my dog behind and move to a city 175 miles away. It was also decided to leave my brother Wayne in nearby Metropolis where he was in his first year of high school. He would join us when school was finished.

    The Helmantoler family was unencumbered by a large number of possessions. All of our worldly goods were loaded into the back seat of that car with me sitting on top of our featherbed. My first impression as we approached our destination was the odor of the oil refineries; the next most distinctive memory was that of thousands of electric lights on the refinery towers and tanks. Wood River, Illinois was the fastest growing town in the country in that year of 1925, and we were a typical part of that growth.

    In future blogs I will share other stories he wrote about events in his life.

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