ST. CLOUD, Minn. — Clarence Pfuhl’s memories mostly return easily, colorfully, happily. His eyes sparkle when he relates stories that span a century.
Walter Pfuhl’s memories sometimes return reluctantly. He tries to avoid certain ones.
There are things about World War II that both Clarence and Wally simply don’t want to remember.
Not even on Veterans Day.
Not even for what might be the oldest surviving brothers who served in World War II — certainly the oldest in St. Cloud.
Wally turned 99 on Sept. 11. Clarence will be 101 on New Year’s Eve. Their sister Esther lived to be 103.
With more than 200 years between them, the Pfuhl brothers clearly should bottle their secret to longevity.
“It’s probably been bottled already,” Clarence said with a wry smile as he leaned forward in his wheelchair at St. Benedict’s Senior Community. Wally lives at the same facility and gets around with the help of a walker.
“Lot of longevity genes in that family,” said Peggy Wilson, Clarence’s stepdaughter.
And a little bit of luck.
Clarence survived the D-Day landings on the beach in Normandy in 1944.
Wally survived heavy fighting with the 94th Infantry Division as it battled across France and into Germany in 1944 and 1945.
Both saw the horrors of war.
“He’s told some stories that are horrendous,” said Marlene Wickland, Wally’s daughter. “I think that’s kinda on his mind, now that he’s older.”
But like many World War II veterans, the Pfuhls refuse to dwell on it.
“These older guys — they’re a delight to talk to,” said Dr. Christopher Churchill, who specializes in hospice and internal medicine at the St. Cloud VA Health Care System. “They’re a little bit more matter-of-fact, talking about it like a normal work day.”
They’re also senior members of a rapidly diminishing national resource.
There were 16,112,566 people who served in the U.S. Armed Forces during World War II.
The Department of Veterans Affairs estimated that 847,419 of them — about 5% — were still alive on Sept. 30.
“Yes, their numbers are dwindling,” said Barry Venable, public affairs officer at the St. Cloud VA. “But the ones that are left are hanging tough.”
In 2014, an estimated 413 American World War II veterans died every day.
“When I go to VFW meetings, they’ll sometimes say, ‘Are there any World War II people in the audience?’ ” said Barry Bahl, medical director and chief operating officer at the St. Cloud VA. “Twenty years ago, there’d be a lot of people stand up. And now, very few — if any.”
The perspective of those World War II veterans is rapidly disappearing. The narrative that remains can truly be a treasure.
“Rarely are they talking about shooting people,” Bahl said. “It’s more about their experiences, and their buddies.”
ST. CLOUD MEMORIES
Clarence (born in 1914) and Wally (1916) retain vivid memories of growing up in St. Cloud, although Wally maintains that didn’t entail a whole lot.
“You can’t remember too much,” he said, “because there wasn’t that much there.”
Talking with the Pfuhls is like stepping back in time, to an era and a place that most of us know only from history books and faded photos.
“Clarence remembers things from the past very vividly,” said Wilson, who lives in Kimball. “He’ll give you the addresses of everything.”
Clarence fondly remembers streetcars rumbling through the downtown St. Cloud of his youth, which bore little resemblance to what’s there today.
“The streets, like St. Germain, they had wooden bricks,” Clarence said. “When it rained, they’d swell up. They’d be piled here and there, and the street department had to come and knock ‘em down.”
The Pfuhls remember their mother getting meat market deliveries by horse-drawn cart, and the excitement of the family’s first car.
“A Saxon (built in Detroit from 1914-1922),” Wally recalled. “1919, wasn’t it? I think that old Saxon cost about $1,300.”
The Saxon stayed in the garage during St. Cloud winters.
“Everybody had just a horse,” Clarence said. “They didn’t even plow the streets. Nobody drove.”
Clarence remembers his father coming home from work at the iron shop at Great Northern Railroad, covered in sweat and burns.
He even remembers a World War I parade down St. Germain in 1919, when he was 4 years old.
“I can remember that real good,” Clarence said. “I guess that was the first parade I had seen.”
The Pfuhl brothers both graduated from high school in 1934 and lived in St. Cloud while working through the Depression in a variety of jobs.
In late 1941, all that changed.
OFF TO THE ARMY
Wally got his military draft notice on Dec. 8, 1941, the day after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor.
By early 1942, both Pfuhls were in the Army. Clarence was 27, Wally was 25.
“They called my dad ‘Pappy,’ because he was the oldest one (in his unit),” said Wickland.
After boot camp in Texas, Wally spent two years in Puerto Rico with a unit assigned to protect oil refineries there. He looks like a movie star in a portrait taken of him during his time on the island.
He was shipped to England in 1944, then on to France with the 94th shortly after the Normandy invasion. His infantry unit would be assigned as artillery support.
Clarence did his basic training in Louisiana, then headed to New Jersey to wait for a ship to take him to England.
It was a nervous convoy, through an Atlantic Ocean fairly swimming with German U-boats.
“It took us 14 days,” Clarence said. “We had a great big convoy. We couldn’t go any faster than the slowest boat.”
His Army Corps of Engineers unit received more training in England, preparing to re-build bridges in France and Germany after the D-Day invasion.
LIFE OR DEATH
A lesson Clarence learned in England may have saved his life on June 6, 1944.
“We got there (to Normandy) in the afternoon,” he said. “There were still men right on the beach there.
“They said, ‘When you see somebody lying there and he’s done, just flop alongside of him.’ Then the guys who were shooting from up on the hill maybe didn’t see you, and you’d be pretty safe.”
Clarence did. And was.
He went on through France and into Germany with the 337th Engineer Combat Battalion, mostly reconstructing bridges that had been bombed.
“We put the bridge in from Metz, Germany, halfway across the Rhine River,” Clarence said. “There was another outfit like ours. They went from the German side, then we met ‘em in the middle.”
It was dangerous work, even with an infantry support unit to provide protection.
“When we would put in a bridge, we didn’t carry a gun,” Clarence said. “We had to keep working. Them infantry fellas were supposed to keep ‘em away.”
Wally initially entered the Army as a truck mechanic, but was switched to the infantry and the 94th.
“We went right in there with the artillery and started blasting away,” said Wally.
Some of Wally’s war stories are funny now.
“(Wally and Clarence) could speak at least a little German,” said Wickland. “Actually, my dad got in trouble for talking to some women in a (German) village, because it was fraternizing with the enemy.
“The guys sent him down there to find somebody who could do their laundry.”
Some of his stories aren’t amusing.
“He was in three major battles (including the Battle of the Bulge), and twice was caught behind enemy lines where they were cut off,” said Wickland, who just recently heard Wally’s most jarring war story for the first time.
“I never thought of shooting somebody face-to-face,” she said, “which is what he was talking about.”
A German soldier lying near Wally shot him in the leg, but the bullet deflected off a rivet in his boot. Miraculously, it didn’t even break the skin.
“He said, ‘I turned and I killed that poor son of a bitch, because he shot me,’ ” Wickland related.
“I just about cried. I said, ‘Oh, Dad.’ ”
HOLDING ON TO LIFE
There was little talk of shooting in the Pfuhls’ post-war households.
“We were told not to ask,” Wickland said. “I don’t think he wanted to talk about it. We never had any guns.”
Like so many other World War II veterans, Wally and Clarence simply returned home and jumped right back into normal lives.
Wally returned from Europe on the RMS Queen Mary, raised his family and worked at auto dealerships in St. Cloud and Minneapolis. He retired at age 62 but stayed active.
“For his 70th birthday, my dad treated himself and got his pilot’s license,” Wickland said. “Just to say he could do it.”
His wife, Maxine, died in 2001, but Wally stayed in his home in Minneapolis until he was 97.
Clarence also returned to Minnesota, working at a variety of jobs until his retirement at age 62.
“He was a machinist by trade after he came back from the war,” Wilson said. “He worked as a bartender at the Ace Bar (in St. Cloud) and Wagon Wheel (in Waite Park).”
Clarence’s wife, Geraine, died in 1997, but he lived alone until age 98 in a big house in rural Clear Lake.
“He shoveled all the snow and plowed, cut the lawn, raked the leaves, up and down steps — just a hearty guy,” Wilson said. “Clarence lived so long because he was so active.”
He continued to do volunteer work at age 99 after moving to St. Benedict Center, but a broken hip finally slowed him down in 2014.
That same year, Wally moved into an apartment across the hallway. The brothers were together again.
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