Dave Hildebrandt was drafted on his 18th birthday, forcing him to deal with a tough decision.
The year was 1943 and he had been raised a Mennonite. Instead of heading off to fight in World War II, his church expected him to be a conscientious objector, which was permitted by the government.
Hildebrandt chose to fight.
“I'm not better than that guy over there,” he said, referring to those heading off to war. “I felt I had as much responsibility to serve.”
Because of his decision, his church took him off the membership role.
A fighting Timberwolf
He joined the 104th Infantry Division, and following basic training, was shipped out across the Atlantic directly to France.
“It took us 11 days to cross the ocean,” he said. “We zig-zagged.”
Zig-zagging was designed to confuse the enemy by frequently altering direction port to starboard.
Once in France, he became a member of Gen. Terry Allen’s 104th Timberwolf Division.
“We were Battery C, there were 12 guns in a battery. I loaded the Howitzer,” he said.
Gen. Allen would boost the morale of his men with signs - “Nothing in hell can stop the Timberwolves.” Then after they completed a mission, his sign said, "Nothing in hell did stop the Timberwolves.”
From France into Holland, the 104th Timberwolf made its way across the Holland Dikes.
“We had the Canadians on the right and English on the left,” Hildebrandt said. ”But the English stopped to have tea. The Germans came in from behind, and we lost 180 infantry that night.”
Hildebrandt fought hard loading and reloading the Howitzer, and they finally reached Germany. He recalled six weeks trying to break through the Siegfried Line, near Aachen, which was a cement fortification wall.
But the Timberwolves figured it out.
“We would pull up a quarter-mile and shoot through a hole,” he said. “We eventually broke through. And kept on going.“
During his time as a foot soldier, he caught shrapnel in his right eye and was shot in the leg, earning a Purple Heart. Even with his leg in a cast, he continued to serve by driving a supply truck.
They had reached the Roer River, crossed over and headed toward the Rhine.
“Is anyone from Hutchinson?” he heard a man ask. It was common for a soldier to call out his hometown when meeting a new group of men to see if anyone was connected in some way to home so far away.
The man asking was Hildebrandt’s neighbor, John Riffel.
“I was just a kid when I last saw him,” Hildebrandt said.
“‘Are you little Davey Hildebrandt? You grew up,’ John Riffel said to me.”
Riffel lived a quarter-mile from the Hildebrant farm. He had left a wife and two children behind to fight in Europe.
“I wasn’t little Davey anymore,” Hildebrandt said. “I had grown up fast.”
Three days later he heard Riffel had been killed.
“If he had lasted another month, he would have gotten out,” Hildebrandt said.
Post World War II
The 92-year-old Hildebrandt still lives in the South Hutchinson home he and his bride, Jane McBride, built in 1949. Jane died several years ago, and a niece stays with him in the evenings.
On the wall behind him is a latch-hook rug he created with the Timberwolf insignia.
He explained that after V-E Day on May 8, 1945, the war in Europe was over but he wasn’t sent home. Instead, he became a translator thanks to the German he spoke growing up at the Willow Grove School, outside of Buhler. He was given the task of riding around in a jeep telling the Germans being held as prisoners that the war was over and they were free to go home.
“He had quite a busy time over there,” said Dave's son, Bill Hildebrandt.
Dave finally returned to Hutchinson on a Friday and stepped back into the job at the Skelly gas station he had before his draft number came up two years earlier.
“He was just a boy," daughter-in-law Lindy Hildebrandt said of Dave’s time in battle. He saw atrocities, leaving her to wonder if he suffered from post-traumatic stress.
“He is an amazing, amazing man,” Lindy said.
Growing up Bill Hildebrandt learned what it meant to be patriotic. While others were protesting against the Vietnam War in 1970, Bill enlisted in the U.S. Navy after graduating from high school.
“I was raised that it was right and what we were to do ... serve our country,” said Bill, who works in the maintenance department at the Kansas State Fairgrounds.
Bill was a gunner’s mate on the U.S.S. Oklahoma City, from 1970 to 1974.
Daughter Nancy Hildebrandt Baalman, Wichita, said her father didn’t talk about his experiences in WWII with her, but when her son prepared to take Dave on a Kansas Honor Flight to see the memorials in Washington, D.C., they began delving into that period of his life.
“The main thing he spoke about was loading the artillery with shells,” she said.
Post-World War II, he moved forward, always working with automobiles. He eventually retired after 30 years in the parts department of Earl Kirk Chrysler-Plymouth.
Reflecting on his time in the service more than 70 years ago, Hildebrant knows now he really was just a kid.
Even though he had a choice, it was something he felt he had to do. Then he recalled the famous words of President John F. Kennedy.
“I still think about ‘Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.’ "