Because he could type Merle Branstetter of Burnt Store Marina south of Punta Gorda, Fla. got a job shortly after graduating from high school in 1939. He went to work for a small newspaper in his Iowa home town running a Linotype machine producing newspaper type. Two years later he received an athletic scholarship from the University of Iowa. He also worked part-time as a Linotype operator at the Daily Iowan, the college newspaper.
“We were off work on Sundays and that day I almost slept the clock around,” the 93-year-old former soldier recalled. “At 1 a.m. on a particular Sunday I got a call from my newspaper foreman to report to the paper right away because we were printing an Extra that day. It was Dec. 7, 1941 and the Japs had just bombed Pearl Harbor.
“Two weeks later I was drafted into the Army and sent to Camp Barkley in Abilene, Texas. We were marched out into the cactus and sagebrush where an officer in charge told us, ‘This is your new home.’ We lived in 6-man tents that winter until January when we finally got barracks,” he recalled more than 75 years later.
“They were killing combat medics so fast over in the desert of North Africa they figured half of us would go directly from basic training into combat,” he said. “They wanted us to be combat ready so in the morning when we got up we carried a full pack all day.”
He had his first run-in with the cadre while still in boot camp.
“We had a bunch of non-commissioned officer who were crooks. You couldn’t get a pass to go into town unless you paid them money. Three of us Iowa boys decided we’d had enough of them, so we sent a letter to the Inspector General. The I.G. caught all of the crooked non-coms and busted them,“ Branstetter said.
After boot camp he was sent to a big Army Hospital in Temple, Texas. He became part of the 94th General Hospital. His unit was sent to Europe.
“Shortly before D-Day, June 6, 1944, the 94th went to England. We were playing a baseball game near Reading. It was the 9th inning and the game was tied when a bunch of C-47 transport planes started flying into an airfield adjacent to the ball park,” he recalled. “These were some of the planes that had towed the gliders filled with paratroopers to France to fight the Germans.
“They were short on gasoline and they were bucking head winds. There was pandemonium at the field. They were landing down wind, cross wind and with side winds. Some planes came in with both engines out and made a dead stick landing. What an air show. It was the greatest display of flying I ever saw. And none of the planes were wrecked.
“Our 94th Hospital group was located in a place called Tortworth. It was located in the west of England,” Branstetter said. “It was on a nobleman’s estate. We set up in a 105-room manor house.
“Shortly after D-Day we brought hundreds of patients back to our hospital. I was in hospital administration but at that point I became a litter bearer. We had facilities for 500 patients, but on that day we brought in more than 1,100. We put them in big hospital tents.
“Sometimes we would treat the same patient two and three times and send him back to the front lines again. After a while we felt like we were sending these patients back to the front to their deaths,“ he explained. “So we kept them with us longer than we should have. Because we did we would get nasty letters from higher up headquarters.”
He and his hospital group were stationed in a little town called Yate near Bristol, England. Every Saturday night they held a big dance for the troops in Yate.
“We’d take our bicycles and cycle over to the dance. On the way there we’d stop by every pub and have a pint of half and half and a shot of liquor. We arrived at the dance really inebriated,” he said. “There was always three times as many women as men. So as drunk as we were the girls would dance with us.
“I was standing on the dance floor and I saw this good looking girl with a great figure dance by. I decided to get a dance with her,” he said. “ We hit it off and on the last dance I asked to take her home. It wasn’t long before it became a romance.
“By then a lot of the guys were getting married to English girls. It wasn’t an easy thing to do because you had to get the approval of your company commander,” Branstetter said. “We decided to get married so I submitted my letter to my company commander. The colonel asked to meet my bride-to-be. She was all dressed up when I brought her to meet him.
“I ushered her into the colonel’s office. He asked my girl if she understood that she would have to move to America. Elizabeth told him she did. Then he asked her if she had any idea how far Iowa was from England and she said she wasn’t sure. The colonel told her 4,500 miles. Elizabeth said she still wanted to marry me. That impressed the colonel and he gave her his blessing.
“We were married in a Methodist Church in Yate on Memorial Day 1944.”
It wasn’t long afterwords the 94th Hospital Group was sent to France.
“I went with the lead platoon to a town near Reimes, France to help set up our hospital group,” he said. “When we arrived we slept in tents once more.”
As luck would have it, they bunked near a bunch of U.S. combat troops returning from the front. The war was nearly over an they were having a good time celebrating because they were on their way home to the USA.
“We went to bed and all at once during the middle of the night this ack-ack fire started going off along with land mines. Machine-gun bullets came through our tent and we hit the deck. This was the most dangerous time I had the whole time I was in Europe.”
Shortly before the end of the war in Europe, Branstetter had a run-in with a German SS officer who was a POW.
“I was a sergeant working in the hospital unit’s headquarters. This SS officer, who was a POW, was mopping the floor. I was walking down the hall and he waited until I walked by and he soaked me with the mop. I grabbed him by the throat, threw him up against the wall and was banging his head against the wall when my colonel walked up and told me to stop,” he recalled.
“I told the colonel, I’m gonna kill the SOB!’ ’No you’re not. Let him go!’ “I did and that was that.”
By the time the war was over Branstetter got word his wife had had a baby. His daughter, Karen, had been born in England. She would be almost a year old before he, his wife and their daughter were reunited in Iowa.
When V-E Day (Victory in Europe) arrived, he took a liberty ship back to the States from “Camp Lucky Strike” in Le Havre, France. It took the ship a couple of weeks before they sailed into Ellis Island passed the Statue of Liberty.
Elizabeth and Karen arrived aboard a “Bride Ship” months later.
After being discharged from the Army in 1946, Branstetter eventually purchased a small propane business near his Iowa home. Later he sold the business and became a manager for the National Propane Co.
He and Elizabeth retired to Burnt Store Marina in 2002. In addition to Karen they have a son, Michael.
Name: Merle M. Branstetter
D.O.B: 19 Dec 1921
Hometown: Union, Iowa
Currently: Punta Gorda, Fla.
Entered Service: 6 Nov 1942
Discharged: 25 May 1946
Rank: Master Sergeant
Unit: 94th General Hospital
Commendations: European-African-Middle Eastern Theater Service Medal, American Theater Service Medal, Good Conduct Medal
Battles/Campaigns: Battle of the Bulge
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Monday, May 2, 2016 and is republished with permission.
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