This is an untold tale of an American farm boy who helped save the world from Nazis eighty years ago.
The son of German immigrants, Alvin Ackerman was born in 1924 in a small sod house on the 200-acre wheat farm his father leased from the Sioux on the unforgiving Great Plains of eastern Montana. Alvin was still a child when his family decamped for greener pastures on the lush Olympic Peninsula of Washington State.
Meanwhile, back in Europe, freedom began to dim.
After losing World War I, Germany had set up the Weimar Republic, a peaceful new government. For the first time, Germans lived in a democracy and enjoyed the same personal liberties Americans had long taken for granted.
Ten years later, the Great Depression swept the world, hitting Germany especially hard.
In the depths of that depression, a new leader promised to restore German greatness. He appealed to the worst in people: fear, jealousy, revenge, hatred. He blamed Germany’s problems on other countries, and on minorities within Germany: Jews, Gypsies, Jehovah’s Witnesses, leftists, homosexuals. He told Germans they were the master race, that it was their destiny to rule the world. He packed his speeches with lies, and when German journalists documented those falsehoods, he told his followers to ignore the Lugenpresse (lying press) and get all their information from media outlets loyal to him.
Hitler did not win a majority of the vote in 1933, but conventional politicians helped him take power, imagining they could use him to achieve their goals. Instead, he sidelined them, ended German freedom and democracy, led a massive military buildup, and — bent on world conquest — started the largest and worst war in human history.
At the same time, the US had a leader who appealed to the best in us: our compassion, courage, generosity, and love of liberty that transcends race, religion, and nationality. Franklin Roosevelt showed us we needed to fight Fascists overseas to save freedom here.
A farm boy who had attended Chimacum Elementary School, Alvin Ackerman received his draft notice in 1943 and took basic training in Medford, Oregon. The Army assigned him to a salvage and repair unit and shipped him to France shortly after D-Day. One of his unit’s jobs was to salvage clothing from wounded or dead American soldiers, launder it to remove dirt and blood stains, and repair the clothing for reuse. Alvin remembered working in a military cemetery, unloading trailers full of dead American servicemen, each stuffed “inside a mattress cover.” They stacked corpses in the fields “like cordwood” while grave diggers toiled in the mud and rain.
Alvin spent many nights as a sentry in the snows of a harsh Belgian winter. He wrote, “I was on guard duty one night when a Jewish family came to our camp. They had escaped Germany and hid out in the day and traveled at night. There was a man, his wife, and 2 kids about 9 or 10 years old. I could understand them as I can speak German. We let them stay and eat. Then, the Lt. or Captain took them… by truck” to the refugee relief center in Brussels.
In October 1944, Alvin wrote, “A Kraut… plane dropped some bombs and strafed us” with machine gun fire. “I got hit in the hand and the foot with shrapnel.” Five of his comrades also suffered wounds; one lost a leg and had a hole blasted through his other leg. From an Army hospital, Alvin mailed his Purple Heart medal home, along with some bits of shrapnel surgeons extracted from his body. Upon discharge, Alvin traveled with a new unit into Germany during the Battle of the Bulge — a fierce, final Nazi counterattack that became one of the western front’s bloodiest battles. For several weeks, Alvin and his comrades endured nightly bombings by the Luftwaffe. Finally, after much hard fighting, the Allies prevailed, forcing the collapse of the Nazi regime.
After the war, Alvin went home to farm in Quilcene, Washington. He married LaVerle Leavitt and raised four children, who have given him eleven grandchildren and six great grandchildren so far.
Alvin is now 94 years old, and he is still fighting. In early November 2018, he battled pneumonia and beat it. He had a commitment to keep. A local public school had asked Alvin to be the guest of honor at their Veterans Day assembly. After the principal introduced him, the students of Chimacum High School gave Alvin a long standing ovation. The choir performed a rousing medley of armed forces anthems. Finally, the veteran received a beautiful card designed by high school art students and signed by the staff and student body.
Precious few World War II veterans remain with us. Let us honor them while we can. They served our country with distinction and saved the world from evil.
Postscript: Alvin passed away on October 2, 2019, joining his wife LaVerle, who had died in June 2010.