Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Watching the 2018 Winter Olympics from the perspective of a Minnesota soldier’s daughter February 13, 2018

My dad, Elvern Kletscher, at Camp McNair in Korea, photo dated February 14 (1953).

 

WATCHING THE WINTER OLYMPICS the past several days, I’ve felt a closeness to my deceased father. He walked this soil, this mountainous land so different from the flat, open farm land of his southwestern Minnesota home.

 

This photo from my dad’s collection is tagged as “Kim, Rowe, Allen & me, May 1953 Machine Gun Crew.” That’s my father on the right.

 

He landed here in 1952 with a ship full of other U.S. Army soldiers, gun in hand. A young man sent here by his government to fight on foreign land in a region that still is without solid peace. He fought on the front lines. Kill or be killed. Buddies dying. Explosions and hungry Korean orphans begging for food across barbed wire and him eating bark from trees and cold that felt even colder than the coldest of Minnesota winters.

 

This photo, pulled from the shoebox which holds my dad’s military photos, is simply labeled “front line.” That would be “front line” as in Korea, where my soldier father fought.

 

When I see the blowing snow and rugged mountain ranges during Olympics coverage, I think of my foot solider infantryman father, ranging through and over those Korean mountains. Scared. Yet doing what he must to survive. Kill or be killed.

 

My father, Elvern Kletscher, on the left with two of his soldier buddies in Korea.

 

I think of him on Heartbreak Ridge, picking off a sniper who had taken many of his buddies. And I think of the fiery shrapnel piercing his skin and the Purple Heart he would claim decades later, when he was an old man. Because a fire had destroyed his military records. Because he had tucked most of his war memories away. Because no one cared about what happened on a Korean mountaintop in 1953.

 

On the back of this photo, my dad simply wrote “a letter from home.” I appreciate this photo of my dad taken by an unknown buddy in Korea.

 

I regret that I didn’t understand him and the inner turmoil he carried with him from Korea back home to Minnesota. I regret that I didn’t ask more about his war experiences, that I didn’t recognize the trauma he suffered as a result. I regret that healing never fully came, although he found understanding and solace in the company of other veterans with similar shared experiences late in life.

All of this I consider when I view the Olympic athletes in their designer clothing, medals around their necks, applause of crowds, praise of many.

All of this I consider when I see the sister of the North Korean dictator seated behind our Vice President.

All of this I consider when I view those Korean mountains flashing across my TV screen.

 

Dad penciled on the back of this 1953 photo from Korea: “Sgt Smith & me from the States to Korea.”

 

I think of my dad as I retrieve a shoebox full of his black-and-white Korean War era photos. I sit on the sofa filing through those curled images while Olympic athletes ski and skate and propel themselves down an icy tunnel. On the back of one photo, I read my dad’s cursive notation: me in Korea May, 53.

Sixty-five years have passed since he left Korea. I wish I could sit with him now, ask him about his time in Korea, about the stories behind those photos. Perhaps he would talk, perhaps not.

 

U.S. Army Cpl. Elvern Kletscher, my father, in the trenches in Korea.

 

I wonder, would he turn off the television or would he watch the Olympians perform? Could he handle seeing the backdrop of those rugged mountains where too many of his buddies died? Would he flash back to the horrors of war?

 

My dad carried home a July 31, 1953, memorial service bulletin from Sucham-dong, Korea. In the right column is listed the name of his fallen buddy, Raymond W. Scheibe.

 

The reality is that I can’t ask him. He died in 2003. But I can write. I can use my words to tell his story, to apologize for my lack of understanding, to honor him. And this I do as Olympians cross country ski, stop, sprawl stomach down, then fire their rifles in this land, this Korea. This land where my soldier father from Minnesota shot his weapon, too. Kill or be killed.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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The importance of Veterans Day to me as a writer & veteran’s daughter November 10, 2017

U.S. Army Cpl. Elvern Kletscher, my father, in the trenches in Korea.

 

WHEN I CONSIDER Veterans Day, I think beyond a general blanket of gratitude for those who have served, and are serving, our country. I see a face. I see my soldier father, an infantryman on the battlefields of Korea and recipient of the Purple Heart.

 

My dad carried home a July 31, 1953, memorial service bulletin from Sucham-dong, Korea. In the right column is listed the name of his fallen buddy, Raymond W. Scheibe.

 

My dad, Elvern Kletscher, died in 2003. But his memory remains strong in my heart as do the few stories he shared of his time fighting for his country. He witnessed unspeakable, violent deaths. And, yes, he killed the enemy, often telling his family, “It was shoot or be shot.” I cannot imagine shooting someone so near you can see the whites of their eyes.

 

My father, Elvern Kletscher, on the left with two of his soldier buddies in Korea.

 

Atop Heartbreak Ridge, Dad picked off a sniper who for days had been killing off American soldiers. He suffered a shrapnel wound there.

But his wounds ran much deeper than the physical. His wounds stretched into a lifetime of battling post traumatic stress disorder, long unrecognized. He told stories of diving to the earth when a neighbor fired at a pheasant, the sound of gunfire triggering all those horrible war memories. The neighbor laughed. Likewise, guns shot at a small town parade sent him ducking for cover.

 

My dad’s military marker in the Vesta City Cemetery. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

I can only imagine the demons my father fought. You cannot walk away from war-time death and violence unchanged. Only much later in life, as the decades passed and awareness of PTSD grew, did my dad find some comfort in talking to other vets with similar experiences.

 

Soldiers receive The Lord’s Supper in Korea, May 1953. Photo by my soldier father, Elvern Kletscher.

 

Dad’s strong faith also pulled him through his emotional turmoil, during and after war.

Now, as I look back, I wish I had been more understanding, more grateful. But I can’t change that. Rather, I can choose to honor my dad by writing, an expression of the freedom he fought to preserve.

 

I wrote a story (“Faith and Hope in a Land of Heartbreak”) about my dad’s war experiences in this book, published in 2005 by Harvest House Publishers.

 

As a writer, I hold dear the value of my freedom to write. No one censors my writing or tells me what to write. I treasure that. I cringe at the current overriding criticism of the press in this country, the constant allegations of “fake news.” I worry about this negative shift in thought, the efforts to suppress and discredit the media. My dad fought to keep us free. And that freedom includes a free press.

 

 

That struck me Thursday evening as I gathered with 13 Faribault area writers at a Local Authors Fair at Buckham Memorial Library. Here we were, inside this building packed with books and magazines and newspapers and more, showcasing our writing. No one stopped us at the door to check if our writing met government standards. No one stopped us from selling our books. No one stopped us from engaging in free conversation with each other and with attendees.

I am grateful to those who assured, and are assuring, that I will always have the ability to write without censorship in a country that still remains free.

 

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

In memory of Cpl. Ray W. Scheibe May 26, 2017

 

 

Ray Scheibe is pictured (to the left) in this May 1953 photo taken by my dad, Elvern Kletscher.

 

WHO WILL YOU REMEMBER on Memorial Day?

I will think of my dad’s Army buddy, Cpl. Ray W. Scheibe, killed by an exploding mortar on June 2, 1953, the day before he was to return home from war to his wife and new baby girl in Nebraska.

 

A story about Cpl. Ray W. Scheibe, published in the July 23, 1953, issue of The Wolbach Messenger.

 

I will think of this man who served his country on the battlefields of Korea.

 

 

 

I will think of this man who died a horrible death in a region where the threat of war still exists.

I will think of Ray’s daughter, Teri, whom I searched for and found seven years ago in southwestern Iowa but have yet to meet.

I will think of the grief and pain of so many whose loved ones never returned home from war. These are heavy, deep thoughts laced with patriotism and gratitude and conflict.

 

My dad carried home a July 31, 1953, memorial service bulletin from Sucham-dong, Korea. In the right column is listed the name of his fallen buddy, Raymond W. Scheibe.

 

My dad came back to Minnesota, walking, living, breathing, yet suffering. Teri’s dad returned to Nebraska. Dead. On Monday, I will remember him and the ultimate sacrifice he made for country.

 

FYI: Please click here to read my 2010 story about Ray Scheibe and my efforts to find his daughter. 

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Veterans’ Day: Grief in a shoebox November 11, 2012

IT IS BUT A SINGLE SLIP of paper, creased and yellowing with age. Yet, it is so much more. The words typed thereon, 59 years ago, hold heartache and honor and memories of my soldier father and his buddy.

My father shipped home from Korea into the welcoming arms of family.

Cpl. Ray W. Scheibe shipped home from Korea in a box, to a grieving family.

The third section of the memorial service bulletin my soldier dad carried home from Korea.

It’s all there, on that piece of paper, a memorial service bulletin dated July 31, 1953, Sucham-dong, Korea. My father folded that paper into quarters, carried it across the ocean and across the country and back home to southwestern Minnesota and then tucked his grief inside a shoebox.

A story about Cpl. Ray W. Scheibe, published in the July 23, 1953, issue of  his hometown newspaper, The Wolbach Messenger, Wolbach, Nebraska.

Cpl. Ray William Scheibe lost his life in Korea June 2, 1953, when he was hit by a round of mortar fire, according to information received from a buddy. He was a member of an infantry unit and was on patrol duty at the time of his death.—from The Wolbach Messenger, Thursday, July 23, 1953.

Sgt. Elvern Kletscher, my father, witnessed the horrific death of Ray, who was due to ship out the next day. Back in tiny Wolbach, Nebraska, Ray’s wife, Marilyn, and their 3-month-old daughter, Terri Rae, waited.

The memorial service bulletin lists the names of those soldiers who died, including Ray Scheibe.

Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. John 15:13—scripture quoted in the memorial service folder dated July 31, 1953, Sucham-dong, Korea.

An in-ground marker honors my father, Elvern Kletscher, a Korean War veteran and recipient of the Purple Heart for wounds he suffered at Heartbreak Ridge in Korea. My father did not receive his Purple Heart until 2000.

This Veterans’ Day let us remember, always, those who have served and are serving.

My father, Elvern Kletscher, left, with two of his soldier buddies in Korea.

The cover of the 1953 memorial service folder from Korea.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Remembering Ray November 11, 2011

My dad carried home a July 31, 1953, memorial service bulletin from Sucham-dong, Korea.

THEY DIED IN SERVICE to their country—Frankie L. Davis, Eugene Jones, Charles Musgrove, Raymond W. Scheibe…

Names. Of soldiers. Men who were remembered during a July 31, 1953, memorial service in Sucham-dong, Korea.

Names, typed onto a service folder that my dad, Elvern Kletscher, carefully folded and carried home to southwestern Minnesota from the killing fields of Korea.

One name—Ray Scheibe—that meant so much to him. A soldier-brother. His 22-year-old friend. His buddy who died, blown apart by a mortar the day before he was to leave Korea and return home to his wife and 6-week-old daughter in Wolbach, Nebraska.

My father witnessed Ray’s horrific death. He never forgot Ray.

Neither have I.

A story about Cpl. Ray W. Scheibe, published in the July 23, 1953, issue of The Wollbach Messenger.

My dad’s been gone since 2003; his buddy since that fateful day during the Korean War on June 2, 1953.

Yet their intertwined lives as soldier-brothers remain forever preserved in black-and-white photos and that service bulletin tucked inside a shoebox stored in my office. Memories of war and of lives lost confined to a box measuring 13 x 6.5 x 4 inches.

This photo, taken by my dad, shows Ray on the left. The photo is dated May 1953. On the back my dad had written: "Sgt. Shibe, June 2, 1953."

It doesn’t seem right, that I should keep these photos and scraps of war in a non-descript box, pushed into the back of a dresser drawer. But that is how my dad kept his war memories, stashed in that shoebox, shoved out of sight, away from family, away from emotions that could easily overwhelm him.

Two years after my dad’s death, I became interested in the contents of that shoebox and began wondering about that baby girl back in Nebraska—Ray’s daughter. I decided to look for her.

After a short search, I found Terri living in Harlan in southwestern Iowa, about five hours from my Faribault home. (Click here to read a previous blog post about finding Terri.) We’ve talked, although not recently, by phone, exchanged e-mails, letters and Christmas cards.

Yet, we’ve never met.

Every Veterans Day, every Memorial Day, every June 2, I think of Terri and her dad and how her dad never came home. And mine did.

Sonny Nealon, Ray's best friend in high school, sent me this photo he took of Ray's gravestone.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

BibleSticks and battle prayers May 28, 2011

A tattered prayer book carried by my father to Korea, where he fought on the front lines during the Korean Conflict. Touching these pages, I feel the faith of my soldier father.

LAST SUNDAY AFTER SERVICES at my church, Trinity Lutheran in Faribault, we watched a brief video about BibleSticks.

Never heard of them? I hadn’t either, until viewing that clip.

“The Military BibleStick is a digital audio player that is pre-loaded with a dramatized recording of the entire New Testament,” according to the Faith Comes by Hearing website. The organization, dedicated to getting the Word of God into the world, “offers 557 Audio Scripture recordings in 553 languages reaching more than 5 billion people in more than 185 countries.”

Part of that outreach includes the U.S. military. Demand is great for the 3 ½-inch long, less than one inch thick, camouflaged, battery-operated BibleSticks, I learned via the video. For whatever reason, the BibleSticks must be processed through military chaplains.

With a $25 donation, we could give a slip-in-the-pocket, portable New Testament to military men and women.

Although I personally don’t know of anyone who has used a BibleStick, I do understand the importance of access to Scripture, especially for our soldiers.

Flashback to February 1952, when my father, Elvern Kletscher of Vesta, was drafted. Less than a year later, he found himself in the mountains of Korea, a U.S. military infantryman fighting on the frontline during the Korean Conflict.

My father, Elvern Kletscher, preparing to leave his Vesta farm home in April 1952, six weeks after he was drafted.

On February 26, 1953, he was struck in the neck by shrapnel at Heartbreak Ridge. Later, he would be awarded the Korean Service Medal with 3 Bronze Service Stars, the National Defense Service Medal, the United Nations Service Medal, the Combat Infantry Badge and the Purple Heart.

During those combat days, when my dad feared for his life, when he was forced to shoot the enemy or die, he relied on his deep faith in God.

My Dad's worn copy of God Our Refuge.

And he carried with him a 3-inch by 4 ½-inch black book, God Our Refuge. A gift from the St. John’s Lutheran Ladies’ Aid of Vesta, the book includes gospel readings, devotions, meditations, prayers, hymns and more.

Within the pages of that volume, my dad found solace, hope and comfort in the face of constant death.

Now eight years after his death, I cradle the tiny book in my palm, brush my fingers against the brittle, black leather covers, open the curled pages that are loosening from the binding. I think of my father, how he carried this book in his pocket, how he flipped and read the 144 pages, how he prayed while trapped inside the cold earth of a foxhole, while engaging in battle, while lying inside his tent at night.

The inscription reads: To Elvern Kletscher with best wishes from the Lutheran Ladies' Aid at Vesta, Minn.

As I turn to page 117 of my dad’s tattered copy of God Our Refuge, I feel forever connected to him, my fingers touching the paper he touched, reading the words he read 58 years ago as a young soldier in battle:

“In Thine arms I rest me;

Foes who would molest me

Cannot reach me here.

Though the earth be shaking,

Every heart be quaking,

Jesus calms my fear.

Lightnings flash and thunders crash;

Yet, though sin and hell assail me,

Jesus will not fail me.”

HAVE YOU OR SOMEONE you know used a BibleStick? If so, I’d like to hear about your experience with this audio version of Scripture and what it meant to you.

My grandparents, Ida and Henry Kletscher, posing with some of their children, flank my father, Elvern Kletscher, who is about to leave for military service in 1952. My uncle Merlin is the youngest, standing in the front row wearing the bib overalls.

BEHIND EVERY PICTURE, there is a story, including stories about the images of my father and his family, above.

My uncle, Merlin Kletscher, found these two photos in the winter of 2010 while researching for a family reunion. They were tucked inside a worn copy of The Lutheran Hymnal, copyright 1941, published by Concordia Publishing House. That hymnbook belonged to my grandfather, whose name, Henry Kletscher, was inked in gold on the cover. He had taped the edges and binding of the much-used songbook.

The two photos were sandwiched between song 409, “Let Us Ever Walk with Jesus,” and song 410, “Jesus Lead Thou On.”

The latter was one of my Grandpa Henry’s favorite hymns, Uncle Merlin recalls.

“I have not found any other photos or negatives which leads me to think that these pictures were very dear to him,” my uncle says.

Now those photos are also very dear to me. When Merlin handed copies to me last summer, I teared up. Little did my father know then what horrors awaited him on the battlefields of Korea, how his life and death experiences would forever change him.

And my heart ached for my Grandma Ida, standing there beside her soldier son. I wish I had asked her how she felt, how they all felt. Now I have only these photos to show me the close love of a family sending their boy off to war.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

 

Honoring the memory of my dad April 4, 2011

Elvern Kletscher's 1950s military photo

HIS OBITUARY READS IN PART: From 1952-1953, he served in the U.S. Army during the Korean Conflict. He served on the front lines, receiving the Purple Heart after being wounded…He enjoyed his weekly visits with his veterans support group. He enjoyed bird watching, making horseradish and tomato juice with his family.

Elvern Kletscher passed away Thursday, April 3, 2003, at the Sunwood Good Samaritan Center in Redwood Falls, Minnesota at the age of 72 years and 29 days.

Yesterday, on the eight-year anniversary of my father’s death, I failed to remember. How could I? How could I forget the day he died, the day I lost my dad? How could I?

It breaks my heart that I would forget. This failure to remember the date of his death seems like a dishonor to the father I loved. He was a man who worked hard tending the earth, who loved his family and God. He was a soldier who served his country and, because of his time on the killing fields of Korea, suffered from a lifetime of demons that at times robbed me of my father.

But in the end, in his last days, I came to terms with the issues that sometimes made life with him difficult and challenging. I saw only the goodness as I stood at his bedside in the Veterans Administration Hospital where he lay dying of cancer and congestive heart failure.

As I held his hand, stroked his thick white hair, held a straw to his lips, I tried to be brave, to cheer him, to comfort him.

But when I couldn’t keep my emotions in check any more, I fled his room, stood outside his hospital room and wept.

Once I pulled myself back together, I returned to his bedside, listened to him tell me he was going to a better place, that he wanted all of us to take care of Mom. And then I cried, right there, holding nothing back because I couldn’t no matter how hard I tried.

Two days later, after being transported back to his home county, into a nursing home, my dad died.

And on April 7 we buried him, deep in the soil, in the hillside cemetery that overlooks his beloved prairie, the place where, except for his time in the military, he lived his entire life.

On that gloomy April day of biting cold wind, I held my mom close, my arm wrapped around her shoulders as she shivered uncontrollably. Together with my siblings we huddled inside a tent, next to the coffin.

As the guns fired in a military salute, as taps sounded their mournful wail, as my mom accepted a carefully folded American flag, I wept.

Today I weep, too, as I remember the father I loved.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling