The war in Europe had been ongoing for a year before Congress and President Franklin D. Roosevelt passed legislation to federalize the National Guard across America. One of the first units to be called up was the 32nd “Red Arrow” Infantry Division and all of its subordinate units, including F Battery 120th Field Artillery, Merrill, Wis. On Oct. 15, 1940, F Battery was called to duty and faced the challenges of personnel and training readiness before going to war.
Many of the non-commissioned officers in the unit were asked to leave since there were no allowances for the families. In addition, like all mobilizations during wartime, men were shipped all over the country and unit integrity was in constant flux. The men who did deploy with F Battery came from all walks of life, most from a hard core working class including farmers, loggers and mill workers. The Great Depression was just ending at this time but unemployment for the working class was still 15% when America entered the war.
The City of Merrill had a sendoff parade for F Battery that was highlighted by the horse drawn 75mm artillery howitzer, the weapon of choice for this unit. A couple days later when equipment and personnel was organized, F battery’s convoy left Merrill for the long road trip to Camp Beauregard Louisiana. One of the men riding in the back of the canvas covered deuce and a half trucks for the week-long trip was Private Elroy Lemke.
Like many of us, you enlisted into the service with friends and Private Lemke was no exception. I believe part of it is you feel more secure and confident that if you can get into trouble at home with your friends, why not do it when you’re away! “Heine,” a nickname he received at training camp down in Louisiana, was coaxed into joining the unit by two other Merrill natives, Gerald and Earl Bettin.
Many of the soldiers believed they were going to train for a year in Louisiana and return to Merrill. Training can be boring and monotonous but critical, especially before entry into a hostile foreign country. Heine shared a lighter moment of training one weekend when he and some of his buddies were on weekend pass. They found some cold beer, which was a treat in the heat and humidity of Louisiana. Somewhere along the line they decided to visit the officers club and climbed the fence to gain access. All was going well and they felt like real officers until one of them urinated in a palm tree pot and the military police chased them out of the area.
When his unit shipped out of Louisiana, they were equipped to fight Germany in Europe, and Boston, MA was their destination. War plans changed the week they were travelling and a second front in the war had opened with Imperial Japan and the Pacific theatre. The entire 32nd Infantry Division convoyed from Boston, MA to San Francisco, CA. Heine recalls the wool clothing was a little overkill during the trip.
After re-supply and equipping occurred, which included the fielding of their new 105mm howitzer, the unit departed San Francisco on troop transports. The month long journey landed them at Port Adelaide, South Australia on May 14, 1942. The 32d Division moved to Port Moresby, New Guinea in September 1942 and commenced combat operations.
Private Lemke enjoyed climbing when he was growing up and those skills served him well as a forward wireman and communications specialists. The terrain in New Guinea required tree-placed equipment to maximize range. On one operation, Heine and one of his good friends from Merrill, LaVerne Wiedenhoeft came under fire from a Japanese sniper. Private Wiedenhoeft was shot in the spleen and to this day Mr. Lemke doesn’t know how the bullet missed him laying only a few feet from his friend. Heine called in a fire mission on the Japanese position and leveled the entire area with an artillery barrage.
There were no evacuation trucks or helicopters, so Heine and a couple of his battle buddies had to self-evacuate their friend out of the jungle to include a river crossing before transportation was available. Mr Wiedenhoeft survived his battle wounds and returned to Merrill to start a sporting goods store.
Heine returned to the United States after 29 months overseas. He hadn’t talked to his parents in two and a half years because they had no phone and obviously units in the field didn’t have access to telephones. A letter would take 6-8 weeks to arrive in Merrill or to his unit in theatre. Heine helped train the new recruits and units at Fort Sill, Okla. before receiving his discharge and a train ticket to Milwaukee. There he met his parents and they travelled back to Merrill on another train.
Elroy Lemke is the last man standing from F Battery that joined the unit, trained with it and deployed into the South Pacific to fight with the unit (vetted by Lincoln County VSO and two independent historians). When I asked Heine if he would do it again, his response was, “I think I would, I have had a good life and my service in the army really helped…”
Heine credits the military in providing him skills and experience that led to four years of vocational schooling on Merrill’s west side. Wisconsin Public Service also noticed his talent in climbing, circuitry and electronics. They hired him and Mr. Lemke had a successful 40-year career with that company.
Before joining the army, Heine worked on a farm from 4 a.m. to 8 p.m. to help his family survive the worst economic and financial time in the history of the United States. He never blamed his parents for not having the means to get him to high school which was five miles away, he always took responsibility for his life and the choices made. Heine sets a great example of the men who made the “Greatest Generation.” They had so little, gave so much and never complained.
It was an honor to meet and spend time with Mr. Elroy “Heine” Lemke and special thanks to his friends for opening this door. He reminded me that humility, humor and being grateful are some of the keys to a long happy life!
If you are fortunate enough to meet a World War II veteran, shake their hand and thank them for their service. Ask them what their story is and don’t be surprised on how much you can learn from it. This story is dedicated to all the soldiers of F Battery and the sacrifices they made when our country needed them.
Editors note: Paul Russell is a veteran of Afghanistan and served 31 years total in the Army and National Guard. He is interested in documenting more WWII and Korea veteran stories from Merrill area/Lincoln County families. He can be contacted at 715-536-5701. Pictures for this article were taken or re-shot camera originals by Leah Duley (Woller).