Alaska WWII Veteran Recalls Life on the Front Lines

Murkowski Spotlights 89-Year-Old Army Veteran from Soldotna

Senator Lisa Murkowski today is releasing her 24th Veteran Spotlight interview, focusing on the military service of WWII veteran and Bronze Star recipient Al Hershberger of Soldotna.  Hershberger, just 18 years old when he volunteered to join the U.S. Army, recalls in his interview being eager to pitch in and join the efforts to end the war.

On May 8 of this year, V.E. Day, the landmark 70th anniversary of the end of the war, Hershberger made sure to call each of the three living members of his battalion – asking them if they remembered where they were 70 years ago to the day. It was a date forever etched in his memory.

Al Hershberger, U.S. Army veteran
(Click on image for excerpt of Al recalling serving on the front lines
CLICK HERE for the extended interview) 

During his interview, Hershberger recounts being assigned to his line outfit, the 670th Field Artillery Battalion, one of the battalions formed after the D-Day invasion.  After basic training in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, he remembers heading out on a convoy of over 40 ships at the end of January in 1945—journeying across the North Atlanta for Europe. For fourteen days he was on a ship, the days filled with constant drills for submarine attacks and a couple close calls.

“It was nervousness, anxiety. To say I was scared is a masterpiece of understatement, “said Al Hershberger. “I wasn’t exactly anxious for getting to battle but we were a little bit scared of what lay ahead of us. None of us really had any idea what we were getting into.”

Hershberger was sent to the front lines where he would be in combat for 37 days serving as an ammunition handler. He weighed just over 120 pounds; the shells weighed 95 pounds.  His unit fought on the banks of the Rhine River, near Duisburg, Germany. He recalls late night ammunition runs and the constant noise of tracers being fired across the river from both sides. 

In addition, Al spoke Pennsylvania Dutch, a Germanic dialect, learned from his Amish family. His commander unofficially appointed him as an interpreter and at times would not allow him to deliver ammunition during dangerous missions, because of his value as an interpreter.

When asked about the memories that stand out to him, Hershberger responded:

“As far as the smells of war, the one thing that comes back to me when the Ruhr Pocket surrendered, there were around 100,000 prisoners of war taken, and we put them all in one place. I was helping to haul them in there as they were captured and putting them into this camp and it was a warm day. These German soldiers had been in combat for who knows how long. The body odor of 100,000 men on a warm day in a valley with no wind—I can still smell it.”

On May 8, 1945, his unit got word to head to a theater by 2pm in the small German town where they were located. When they arrived, through the crackling sound of the speakers on stage was the voice of Winston Churchill informing them that the war in Europe was over.

“My immediate thoughts were disbelief. I presume that the rest of them had similar thoughts because there were quite a number of us from different outfits other than my own and nobody said a word. Everybody was dead silent,” Al Hershberger recalled.  “At the rear echelon it was great jubilation and the front line troops it was met with silence. It was a strange feeling. Sort of like a sacred moment on the one hand and disbelief on the other.”

“Al Hershberger’s story is one of an American hero, of patriotism and modesty,” said Senator Murkowski.  “He stepped up and served our country during one of the most trying times in our nation’s history – when nothing was certain but the enemy and the stakes.  His memories and his legacy must not be forgotten.  It is great to see that Al is as sharp as he can be, and I thank him for his service.  I believe it is a public service to veterans like Al to honor them through sharing their stories, and we owe it to the rest of us to learn from the high levels of patriotism, commitment and service they demonstrate for us.”

The Veteran Spotlight project is Senator Murkowski’s monthly focus on an Alaska veteran of American conflicts worldwide to honor and draw well-deserved attention to Alaska’s men and women who served.  Today’s installment is the twenty-fourth in the series that began on Memorial Day weekend of 2012.  Every month, Sen. Murkowski posts a biography and an interview with an Alaskan who served our country abroad in conjunction with the Library of Congress’ Veterans History Project, which recognized Murkowski’s series in 2013 as a model of best practices. You can watch them all by clicking here.

Senator Murkowski invites all Alaskans to nominate a veteran from the 49th state to be featured in the Veteran Spotlight project.  If you have a family member or friend in the community you think has a story to share, email Spotlight@Murkowski.Senate.Gov.