CRIDERSVILLE — Driving a half-track during World War II, Robert Wheeler spent his nearly three years on the move. It’s likely why he didn’t have time to think about the dangers always ahead.
“We were moving all the time, really,” he said. “You did not stop for nothing. I think they did that to keep you from getting irritable or scared.”
Wheeler, who grew up in Tennessee, came to Lima, where aunts and uncles lived, in 1941. He was working as a contractor putting a roof on the Ohio Steel building when he got called to serve. He was 21 with a wife and two children when he left in 1942 for Camp Gruber in Oklahoma.
“Look at this picture, a 21-year-old boy,” Wheeler points to a young man in uniform.
A corporal technician, Wheeler’s job was often to block off roads so German troops couldn’t get through. His vehicle, a tank destroyer, was outfitted with regular wheels at the front for steering and Caterpillar tracks at the back to propel it and carry the load.
“When the generals would call us, we would block off some roads and make sure the Germans didn’t cut them off,” he said. “The minute they stopped to fire, I had to go on top and shoot. If anyone got out of a German tank, I got them.”
Not too much bothered or worried Wheeler. The exception was the Battle of the Bulge. He recalls a line of 10 German tanks coming across a bridge to get to a railroad yard in Malmedy, Belgium. It was Dec. 17, 1944, and Wheeler’s job was to stop them.
“The Battle of the Bulge is the only place that did get to me,” he said. “The Germans were coming in like that. Those tanks, they could run over a tree like that. They were moving, but they still had to go across that bridge to get over to where they were going. That is where we stopped them, but they were moving. And we were firing. We were battling with them.”
Fred Wheeler remembers seeing the story of the bridge on the History Channel. His father’s lieutenant was interviewed. Fred was born after Wheeler returned home.
At 91, Wheeler doesn’t remember every detail of his service, but a few stories jump out as he rustles through papers and seven scrapbooks put together by wife Martha.
There’s the German who stole an American jeep, captured with little effort. Another is of a German tank unable to bring its gun down in time to shoot Wheeler and others. Another is of shooting a roof off a house that Germans had climbed up on. And even a “busted ankle” from a motorcycle accident, the only injury Wheeler sustained.
“The captain made me drive after that,” Wheeler laughed, admitting he wasn’t supposed to have been on the German motorcycle.
Wheeler holds dear the time he met up with brother Joe in France and with brother Jack in England. The two, also in the Army, were able to find their brother by contacting their mother back home. In all, five brothers served their country during the war.
Wheeler came home and went to work at Lennox International for over 60 years. He started as a machinist and moved up to a tool and die worker, becoming an inspector when he got older. Coming home wasn’t easy for those who served.
“You have to start all over when you get back,” he said. “You have to get a job and all of that stuff. You just have to start over.”
Today, Wheeler makes his way to Southside Christian Church every Sunday and is known around town as the sweet man who always has Nips candy in his pocket and always ready to share.
Wheeler says he doesn’t think all that much about the war anymore, but he still suffers the consequences of the frozen feet and hands endured while serving. Fred Wheeler said his dad would never talk about it, even when prodded by his children. That changed after the 50th anniversary of Normandy, when he started opening up.
“Since then, we can’t get him to stop,” he said. “He told me all that time was like a dream.”