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Remembering the time

Veterans of WWII era recall a time when relationships were forged and their characters were shaped in crisis

Veterans of WWII era recall a time when relationships were forged and their characters were shaped in crisis

November 09, 2003|by KATE COLEMAN

katec@herald-mail.com

Fred "Speezie" Rohrer was 20 years old when he and three friends went to Baltimore to enlist in the U.S. Navy.

He became a Seabee, a member of the Navy's engineering battalion, and served in the South Pacific from 1940 to 1942.

The United States had declared war on Japan on Dec. 8, 1941, the day after the attack at Pearl Harbor.

Rohrer came home to Hagerstown after the war. Others did not. There were 206 Washington County World War II combat casualties, including those killed in action, those who died of wounds and those missing in action, according to a Dec. 31, 1996, Joint Veterans Council of Washington County letter in the files of the Western Maryland Room at the Washington County Free Library in Hagers-town.

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"I was very fortunate," Rohrer says.

Last Sunday, nine days before Veterans Day, Rohrer gathered with longtime friends at Morris Frock American Legion Post 42 in Hagers-town.

The occasion was the 50th anniversary dinner meeting of the Last Man's Club WWII, a group Rohrer helped to organize in 1953.

He served as the first president of the club, which originally had 264 members.

Nearly 200 have passed away.

Sunday's event celebrated 50 years of friendship of men united by service to their country. There were prayers, there was food. The Mason-Dixon Barbershop Chorus sang a selection of songs of home and country. At the center of the room was a large table that held candles and small, wine-filled goblets, each inscribed with the name of a member of the Last Man's Club.

With "taps" playing in the background, club officers read a roll call of the 195 deceased members, those men who have passed on to "Post Everlasting."

Voices cracked with emotion. Candles were lighted. Glasses were raised, and a toast was read:

"To our departed comrades,

May we always revere them

May we never forget them,

To the last man.

May they rest in peace."

There are six members for whom the club has no addresses.

Sixty-three members still live.

The club's tradition holds that the last man - its last surviving member - will drink a final toast to his comrades from a bottle of scotch that has been saved through the years.

Washington County homefront

Della Peck and Ralph Wachter grew up in Hancock, friends since fifth grade.

They married June 13, 1948, the bride in the wedding dress she made from a parachute her trooper fiance had brought home from Japan. Ralph Wachter had served there with the U.S. Army's 11th Airborne Division from October 1946 until April 1948.

Wachter had enlisted a short time after his June graduation in the 19-member Class of 1946 of Hancock High School.

"I felt I would like to serve my country," he says.

Della Wachter, 73, and Ralph Wachter, 75, recall life in Hancock during World War II.

People would gather milkweed pods for the war effort, Della Wachter says. They were used in the manufacture of parachutes, she says.

There were air raid drills. There were "blackouts" - lights were kept out or dark shades drawn. Ralph Wachter spent "many, many nights watching for planes."

Meat, shoes, tires and gasoline were among the many items rationed. "Silk stockings were gold," Ralph Wachter says.

Food wasn't really a problem, Della Wachter says. People in a rural community such as Hancock raised pigs and chickens. Everybody had gardens - "Victory" gardens. They just grew more of everything. They'd save sugar ration coupons to make apple butter in big kettles.

Among their memorabilia, the couple still has a few ration tokens and a faded, undated telegram addressed to Miss Della M. Peck. "Love and best wishes for the new year to all at home. Loving birthday greetings."

It's signed "Buddy." That's Ralph Wachter's nickname.

War news came in newspaper stories and newsreels in movie theaters. Ralph Wachter remembers war correspondent Ernie Pyle's accounts. Della Wachter recalls Life magazine reports.

"You didn't have instant communication," Ralph Wachter says.

There weren't many phones in Hancock in those days, yet Ralph Wachter managed to call his girl from Japan on her birthday in January 1948.

"It scared me to death," she laughs.

It cost about $20 for three minutes - a pretty price when you consider an Army private was making $50 a month. Ralph Wachter says he was a sergeant by then.

Wachter says his service to his country helped him. He grew up unsophisticated, unworldly.

"You gain maturity," he says. "I grew up in a hurry."

The GI Bill provided Ralph Wachter with opportunity. It was his only way of getting an education, he says.

Wachter returned from Japan in April 1948 and enrolled at the University of Maryland in the fall. He taught at Hancock High School, bringing the business education program that wasn't available to him to his alma mater. He taught there for 10 years, leaving in 1962 to work in school administration in Cecil and Calvert counties. The couple later returned to Hancock, where Ralph Wachter served two terms as mayor.

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