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Stories from My Life, #12: My Uncle Gus, Killed in North Africa in 1943

Every year when Veteran’s Day rolls around, I think of my Uncle Gus Kern, who died in World War II. Over the years, the details that I heard were minimal: that he was killed in Tunisia, in North Africa, somehow involving military tanks. Also, that he was awarded a Silver Star medal for bravery.

On a vacation trip that my wife, Becky, and I took to the Mediterranean in December of 2018, one of our ports of call was Algiers, Algeria, a city between the countries of Morocco to the west and Tunisia to the east, all three of which were part of the North African Campaign during World War II. (See Attachment below, A1).

While on our cruise, I met a Colonel Bart Howard (Ret) US Army, who was the resident historian and World War II expert on our ship; he provided me a lot of information about the African campaign. Starting then, I decided to learn everything I could about Uncle Gus’s military career and the circumstances surrounding his death.

Rather than put these revelations together as a story, instead I will present them to you as a list of bullet facts. You can then imagine in your mind’s eye, Uncle Gus’s story from which those facts come. So, here goes!

♦ My Uncle Gus Kern was born on October 3, 1915, between Aunt Susie, who was the oldest of the six children of Grandma and Grandpa Kern, and the next born, my Uncle Julius. My mother, Ottilie Kern, was the next-to-last born. They lived on a farm in southwestern Pennsylvania near the town of Berlin.

♦ Uncle Gus joined the military almost two years before the U.S. officially entered World War II following the Pearl Harbor bombing on December 7, 1941. Interestingly, he enlisted the day after Christmas in 1939. Because World War II started the previous September of 1939, did he enlist because of patriotism, looking ahead and thinking that the U.S might eventually participate, or was it just a coincidence? It was almost two and a half years later when, on May 31, 1942, he left stateside for Foreign Service in Ireland. He was part of the famous 1st Armored Division (“Old Ironsides”). See Attachments A2 above and A3.

♦ In Ireland, where the Americans were training and preparing for their contribution to the war, Uncle Gus impressed his superiors sufficiently so that, only three months later (August 31, 1942), he was discharged as an enlisted man and appointed as a Warrant Officer, Junior Grade, Army of the United States (September 1, 1942). This date was seven months prior to his death on the 31stof March of 1943.

 Soldiers selected to be Warrant Officers were usually chosen because of their technical skills. I have learned that Uncle Gus’s job in the military was to retrieve and repair tanks that had been damaged in the field. You can imagine that someone like Uncle Gus, who had grown up on a farm, might have been good with machinery.

 In letters that he sent back to his parents (my grandparents, Mollie and Fred Kern) while in Ireland, Uncle Gus notes that the accommodations for a Warrant Officer were better than those for an enlisted man. These letters give us further insight into his personality. Note the beautiful cursive handwriting, something we don’t see much of these days. See A4 and A5.

 Just a bit of background. In terms of the European Theater of World War II, most people (including me) remember our participation in D-Day and our conquest of Germany as the Allies trudged across Europe. But, the U.S. contribution to the European Theater (as opposed to our war in the Pacific) did not start there. It began in North Africa in 1942, where the Germans had control and needed access to oilfields.

 The decision by the Allies to invade Africa was made in July of 1942. General Dwight Eisenhower became Commander in Chief of the operation to oversee the fight against the famous German General, Erwin Rommel (the “Desert Fox”). General Eisenhower actually lived in Algiers for more than a year, from November of 1942 until December of 1943. While in Algiers, Becky and I visited the hotel room where he stayed; there is a plaque on the wall. See A6.

 Operation Torch was the name of the Allies’ operation to invade Africa, in particular French North Africa, which included Tunisia, Algeria, and parts of Morocco (see earlier A1). On November 8, 1942, the Allies conducted simultaneous landings in Casablanca (Morocco), Oran (Algeria), and Algiers (Algeria). Attachment A7 (from Howe, 1954; see reference below) shows the complexity of the operation. A part of the 1st Armored Division participated. My first conclusion was that Uncle Gus was a part of these landings.

 However, a critical clue told me that was not so. It was more likely that he didn’t arrive in Africa until December of 1942. Why? Grandpa Kern received a letter, dated May 4, 1943, from Colonel Peter Hains III (Col., 1st Armored Regiment), informing him that his son had been killed on March 31, 1943 (see A8). On page 100 of the book, The Battle History of the 1st Armored Division, it states that Col. Hains was sent to Africa in December. That suggests that Uncle Gus was part of that latter group.

 When I presented this conclusion to Col. Howard, he agreed that was likely the case. As a result, Uncle Gus arrived in time to fight in the final battles that culminated on May 13. Working from these details, I would like to quote the conclusions reached by Colonel Howard:

“Your uncle was certainly a hero and the recognition of a Silver Star was quite an award for heroism. Based on what you sent me, I am fairly confident that what he was involved in was the battle of El Guettar and was killed near Maknassay, Tunisia [see A9] while leading a tank recovery operation…on a mission to recover tanks and equipment that had been damaged or destroyed in an earlier battle.

“This was a dangerous but critical mission to get tanks repaired and back into the war. It was tough because they often worked 24 hours to repair tanks and then get new crews and then back to battle. There are stories of the horror of having to wash tanks out from the gore of previous casualties.”

 Quoting from Howe, 1954 (see reference), on pages 215 and 216: “The enemy, trying to step up its opposition, subjected the area near both Maknassy and El Guettar to extraordinarily heavy and frequent air attacks.” This statement supports what was said by a Colonel Rose in a letter (see A10, sent to Grandma and Grandpa) documenting the reason for the award of the Silver Star:

“He [Uncle Gus] was instructed to retrieve some disabled tanks belonging to his organization. As he was assembling his personnel and vehicles, the area was subjected to heavy bombing and strafing attack by enemy aircraft. Realizing the importance of this mission and the necessity for prompt action, he completely disregarded his own welfare by refusing to take cover, until he was killed in the performance of his duties. The unusual courage, perseverance, and outstanding devotion to duty with complete disregard for his own welfare displayed by Warrant Officer Kern reflect the finest traditions of the Armed Forces and are deserving of the highest praise.”

After the war, Grandpa Kern received a letter (see Attachment A11), dated September 20, 1946, that gave the location of Uncle Gus’s burial in Gafsa, Tunisia (see A12 for a map showing, on a bigger scale, not only Gafsa, but Maknassy too). The letter tells Grandpa that he could request the return of the body to the United States. Grandma and Grandpa did ask for the return of his body, and Uncle Gus is now buried in the graveyard of the Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church in Glen Savage, Pennsylvania. See A13.

 Grandma and Grandpa Kern received one other letter from the government, in June of 1950 (see A14).

Uncle Gus’s award of the Silver Star was a big deal (see A15 for an article in the Meyersdale Republican). Also, see A16, A17, A18, where you can see his name engraved on a monument at the Somerset Court House.

So, that’s what happened to Uncle Gus, the best I can figure out. While there were several setbacks for the German offensive during early 1943 (the German surrender at the Battle of Stalingrad comes to mind), there is no questioning the importance of the North African campaign to the entire war. Here again, I quote from Howe, 1954 (page 250):

“On 13 May, hostilities in Tunisia ceased, and with that fact, Axis hopes of victory in World War II had gone. The loss of Africa cost the enemy the means of controlling the Mediterranean despite an expenditure of over 300,000—dead, wounded, or captured.”

My hope is that our family will not lose the memory of Gus Kern, who was only 27 when he died. His death in North Africa robbed Grandma and Grandpa of a son, his siblings of a brother, and the rest of us an uncle. But we can be proud of his significant contribution to a war effort that led to the demise of Adolph Hitler and Nazi Germany.

Contributions: Foremost, I thank Colonel Bart Howard (Ret) US Army for significant information about the North African campaign: in particular, his analysis regarding the battle in which Uncle Gus fought and died; and for pointing me in the right direction regarding my own research. I thank my Aunt Hilda and my cousins Gus Kern and Karen Myers for various letters and photographs. I thank Becky for the Courthouse pictures and comments on this blog. I thank my friend Robin Brody and Becky’s brother-in-law Michael Guy for guidance and key edits. And, finally, I thank friend Ron Sprinkle who provided important enlightenment regarding Army parlance and history.

Reference: Howe, George F. The Battle History of the 1stArmored Division. Combat Forces Press, 1954.

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6 Comments

  • Mike Guy says:

    Wow, Paul! This blog entry is truly outstanding. It tells a compelling story of your uncle’s devotion to his country — up to the point of sacrificing his life — in the war to stop Hitler’s push to dominate the world. The Silver Star is one of the highest awards possible in the Army. Your Uncle Gus’s heroism was a shining example of the conduct that led Tom Brokaw to title his book “The Greatest Generation.” It truly was that. Your inspirational story movingly humanizes a young man of whom you and your family must be very proud.

  • Ron Sprinkle says:

    Nicely done Paul! While I learned some of this while you were investigating, it is something else to see it laid out so clearly and intelligently. I appreciate what this means to those in your family. We salute those, like your Uncle Gus, who held nothing back in their attention to duty and dedication to our country!

  • Peggy Dold says:

    Fantastic! Thank you for sharing!

  • Barry Snowden says:

    This is gteat! My Dad got on a boat in NYC the day after marrying my Mom! He too was no youngster born in 1915. 84th Chem. Mtr. Btn.He went to N.Africa, then on to Italy. He ended up in the Mtn’s of Italy attached to the 10th Mtn. Div. They fought on skis in the snow. Thankfully he made it home! Thanks for sharing this. Sorry he didn’t make it back but glad you’re telling his story.

  • Karen S. Spettel says:

    While reading about your Uncle Gus, I learned a lot about WWII in N. Africa. The last sentence in paragraph 3 above A9 deeply moved me; it made me think of a scene in the Brad Pitt WWI tank movie, “Fury”. Your tribute to your Uncle Gus is amazing and the greatest gift one can gave. Thank you for sharing his story and I thank Uncle Gus for his service. God bless Uncle Gus.

  • Camie Piccolo-Nicholson says:

    You are so blessed to have so many letters and pictures as memories of your uncle. I for one am thankful that he fought for our freedom, though I wish it hadn’t cost you an uncle. It sounds as if he was someone you can be proud of. Thanks for sharing. God bless.

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Rebecca’s High School Reunion: Reflections from a Spouse

My wife—AKA Becky—went to her high school reunion: rah-rah!
to which she invited me, avoiding hints of complicity. (ha ha)
To Kansas City on Southwest Airlines, via Las Vegas on the way,
we eventually arrived in Emporia, Kansas, all on the same day.

I learned that Becky’s school was not of the ordinary,
but a laboratory school and, as such, rather extraordinary.
Roosevelt High—that was the name—began so in 1920,
lasting for fifty years, a good stretch, until ending in 1970.

A laboratory school, so special, innovative teaching techniques,
exploring ways to reach students, recognizing each as unique.
Accessing special instructors, even a swimming pool, so cool,
the ratio of students to teachers small, thus easier to rule.

Friday’s daytime party, hosted by Claudia and John, their gift,
was agreed to be the Class of ’68 weekend highlight, a notable lift.
Saturday featured a banquet for all graduates of Roosevelt High,
food from Olpe’s Chicken House, memorable eatery to all—sigh!

A highpoint for Becky was giving a keepsake to Coach Slaymaker—
the banquet’s featured speaker, who delivered a veritable haymaker.
Becky bequeathed her basketball, to be enshrined for local display,
a memory from when she was her school’s Courts Queen. Hurray!

From Becky’s class of thirty, I met twenty and tried to blend,
with Bev at alphabet’s beginning to Tom bringing up the end.
Twins Donna and Ronna did bridge a whopping gap in between,
perchance arguing they’d homesteaded fifteen letters of nineteen.

So what did I make of that weekend’s bustle, such activity to relish,
as I observed friendships rekindled, heard stories ripe to embellish?
Many pictures were taken, documenting that weekend so memorable,
reflections of those intervening years long past, too often ephemeral.

Much had transpired in those in-between years—defined as the past,
when times were simpler, no iPhones existed, and life wasn’t so fast.
As I watched Becky revel, renewing old bonds with nary a misgiving,
‘twas like a time machine had returned all to their teenage beginning.

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2 Comments

  • Linda Beach says:

    Paul,
    I have read that there is no better way to feel young than to be with those that knew us when we actually were young. At this age we all need a time machine!

  • Camie Piccolo-Nicholson says:

    You did your wife’s reunion justice. Glad she had fun. 🙂

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Class of ’63 High School Reunion

Reunion Cover_26Aug18

I attended my high school reunion, it happened last week:
we’d graduated fifty-five years earlier, an amazing streak.
It was good to see friends from a lifetime long past,
when times were much simpler, and life wasn’t so fast.

I saw friends, I saw girls whom I’d loved from afar,
I saw those who’d been athletes, those who’d had a car.
I saw others who’d always been much smarter than I
and those who’d been outspoken and those who were shy.

We told stories, most of which were funny indeed,
from a time when our naïve minds rarely took heed,
when common sense too often flew way out the door,
until adulthood made us eventually appreciate the score.

But most of all we reveled in our friendship, our history,
from a period when ethics and morals were no mystery.
We were born from that synchrony, from that ancestral leg,
as if we had all hatched from the same primordial egg.

BUT (and this is true):

As one who came from afar, I credit our reunion team,
who arranged for our venue, to which we would stream.
At the local country club, our reservation we’d redeem,
on the eighteenth of August, two thousand eighteen.

But then the worst happened, we could not have foreseen,
when a younger reunion class did conspire, plot and scheme,
to invalidate our site that months before was our theme,
in their favor, so wrong and unfair we wanted to scream.

So what are we to make of this sleight of hand so extreme,
that a sister high school class could so lower our esteem?
Had values so diminished—ten years later lost their sway—
from when honesty and fairness were proudly our ‘63 way?

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4 Comments

  • Ed says:

    Paul,love this. The canter is awesome, I read it to Nancy and it was like reading Dr. Suess.

  • Camie Piccolo-Nicholson says:

    Did you really get ousted from your original venue? Wow that’s messed. We had our reunion in August and had to change venues a week before. I was part of our committee team and that was hard to do, kudos to your committee team. Enjoyed your poem.

  • Linda Beach says:

    Will there be another reunion rhyme from Roosevelt High? It will be from a different perspective, and not in the mirror that time has altered. See you on the yellow brick road in Kansas.

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