Vet’s nightmare finally turns into dream come true.
For many years Gordon Hildahl awoke in the night screaming when incidents that happened to him as a soldier in the 1940s intruded on his sleep.
There were memories of horrible war scenes, of dead bodies, of having his hip struck by a piece of shrapnel, and one puzzling piece about a little girl he found dying ina snowdrift whose father he assumed he had shot.
Some pieces to that latter puzzle have recently been found.
Hildahl was one of the first draftees from Montevideo, shipped out in the spring of 1941. He went through the fighting in northern Africa in 1942 where he was wounded, and was in ton the allied invasion of France and the Battle of the Bulge 2 yrs. later.
He and some others in his company escaped the Germans under a cover of heavy fog by putting chains on the tires of their truck and heading toward the German-Belgium border.
In Belgium, they took up residence in an abandoned tavern in St. Vith. Hildahl was in charge of replacement troops, rations and ammunition in the village, which was occupied by Nazis.
One winter day he found an 8 yr. old girl lying in a snowbank just outside the tavern. She was so ill she could barely move. She wore only a cotton dress, panties and wooden shoes, and was wrapped in a large shawl. Hildahl carried her to medics who treated her for pneumonia.
The child’s name was Gertrude, he learned. She and her sister, Anna, 10, lived with their invalid mother nearby. The two girls and a friend, Edith, followed Hildahl where ever he went, and he began stealing food from the mess hall for the girls and their mother.
When his commanding officer caught him he explained that the children had never seen an egg, an orange or an apple, and the entire company began pilfering food for them after that.
About that time the Americans in St. Vith began being strafed by machine gun fire every time they received reinforcements or food and supplies.
“We lost mean and trucks,” Hildahl recalled. “We knew thre was a leak. Someone in the village knew when the shipments were coming and was sending a message out.”
The men were told not to bother with a court martial. If anyone was caught, they were to shoot them on sight.
“I had this MP (military police) friend and one night we saw this guy signalling with a flashlight back of the tavern in a snow-covered pasture,” Hildahl said. “We got our Tommy guns and I had my trusty .45 and we cut loose.”
Papers on the man revealed that his address was the same as the little girls’.
“I thought I had killed their dad,” Hildahl said. “I didn’t know the rest of the story for 45 yrs.”
After shooting the spy, Hildahl and the MP went to the girls’ home. There he told a woman of the shooting. After she said something to the girls in French, he recalled, they jumped up and down happily yelling: ” Poppa dead. Poppa dead.”
Although Hildahl was curious, he had other things on his mind. The woman who was in her mid-30’s, said : Sergeant, that door there (pointing at a certain door in the home). We haven’t been through it for several years. Will you see what’s been gong on there?”
The door had a large padlock, which Hildahl shot off. He and the MP then captured the largest receiving and sending set in that area. The man they had shot had been sending news of every American convoy that had come into that area.
Hildahl was shipped out soon after the incident. He had worried about the children, but knew them to be devouted Catholic’s and hoped the church would take care of them. He had trusted other Americans in the area to feed them.
Hildahl returned to the Montevideo area after the war and worked as a carpenter, as a cop in Montevideo and Hanley Falls, as a bouncer at Glady’s Ballroom, and in the mid to late 60’s bought a farmstead south of Granite. He is now retired and lives in Granite Falls.
His nightmares continued, and he worried many times about the fate of the little girls whose life he had saved and her sister and friend.
Early last year he began a search. A friend of his son, Marlin, a Catholic priest, contacted a church officials in Belgium to try and locate the girls who would now be middle-aged women. Hildahl also wrote a letter which he hoped wold be forwarded to them.
Within weeks, Gertrude wrote back. The letter was written in French and translated for him: “What happiness to receive your letter. Never forget you. Never thought I’d receive a letter after 44 yrs. Always thought and spoke of your kindness to us little girls. 1000 kisses from your little friend.”
She included a photo of Hildahl, Anna and Gertrude that was taken in 1945. She has continued to write and remembered Hildahl on his birthday. He has also received a letter from Edith, who lives in a neighboring town from Gertrude.
He also learned the answer to his riddle 45 yrs ago. The man he shot was not Gertrude’s father, but a Nazi who had taken up residence in the home as a cover-up. He had forced the children to call him “Poppa” and kept the woman hostage. Gertrude’s father was in the French underground at the time.
During the war years of fear, death and loneliness, the little girls were Hildahl’s one spot of brightness, he said. He has thought of them constantly for 44 yrs., regretting that he didn’t have a chance to say goodbye.
He is now happy to know that they are alive and well and that they remember him, too, as a spot of brightness during a trying time in their lives.
Dad while in the military
44 Years later: Reunion by Letter
Stealing food, bodies lying dead in the road, a huge hole in his hip due to being hit by shrapnel, killing or being killed, helping deliver a baby in the midst of fighting, and 2 little girls from Belgium – all these are part of Gordon Hildahl’s memories of WWII.
In the years since WWII, Gordon Hildahl has often talked with obvious fondness about “his girls,” who lived in Belgium. After getting a raised eyebrow or two, Hildahl would explain.
The girls he referred to were 8 and 10 yrs. old at the time. He found Gertrude lying in a snowbank, so ill she could barely move. Gordon brought her to the army medics where she was diagnosed with pneumonia and treated. After that, she followed Sergeant Hildahl where ever she could. And Hildahl was introduced to Gertrude’s sister, Anna, and their friend Edith.
Hildahl had been in the midst of the fighting in north Africa in 1942. There he had been wounded. Using a cane, he made the alllied invasion of France in 1944. Then, late in 1944, surrounded by Germans, Hildahl and some of the men in his company escaped from the Belgium bulge after living through two German invasions. During heavy fog, they put chains on the tires of their army truck and headed off across country.
They came to St. Vith, Belgium, near the German-Belgium border and were ordered to stay there. Hildahl and some of this men took up residence in an abandoned tavern. It was known that many Nazis occupied the town. And it was here that Gertrude was found, lying not far from the tavern. She had on a dress, some wooden shoes, and was wrapped in a huge scarf.
Anna and Gertrude lived with their invalid mother. Hildahl began stealing food from the mess hall for the girls and their mother. A few days after finding Gertrude, Hildahl was leaving the mess hall with food stuffed inside his jacket. “Say, Sergeant, can’t you get enough food; do you have to steal it?” shouted the commanding officer. After Hildahl explained the situation, everyone contributed to the effort of helping the girls.
Anna had never seen an egg, an apple or an orange. Hildahl stole a few for her. Since the girls had no coats, Hildahl used army blankets to make a coat and snowpants for them.
Hildahl believes that the Nazis must have taken over the house where the young girls lived. A huge receiving set was found in the basement after a man who seemed to be living there was shot. Many unanswered questions remained in Hildahl’s mind about that incident.
Seven or eight weeks after finding the little girls, Hildahl was ordered to another location. There ws no way he could ensure the girls safety. He knew them to be devout Catholics, so hoped the church would be a refuge for them. There was no way of returning to find out what might have happened to them, but throughout his life, Hildahl has wondered.
Hildahl now knows they are safe. His son, Marlin, is a friend of a Catholic priest. That Catholic priest asked the Catholic church in Belgium to try to locat the girls, who would obviously now be middle-aged woman. A letter from Hildahl was sent to the priest to forward to the woman, should they be found. Within weeks, Hildahl received a letter from Gertrude. It was April 20, 1989 and Hildahl had last seen her in Feb. of 1945.
Seeing the name on the letter, Hildahl was as anxious to read the letter as a puppy is to greet a master. He wondered whether she would even remember him. The letter was written in French. Translated by Remey Khali, the letter began- “What happiness to receive your letter. Never forget you. Never thought I’d receive a letter after 44 yrs. Always thought and spoke of your kindness to us little girls.
Gertrude remembered Hildahl sharing the chocolate and gum that he received in a pkg. from home. And she told Hildahl a bit about her lif in the years since the war. She even sent along a treasured photo with Hildahl in the picture.
She invited Hildahl and his wife to come and see here and her family in Belgium. The letter ended with “1000 kisses from your little friend.”
Most of Hildahl’s memories of the war years are full of pain, death, fear and loneliness. There were many children that needed help, but he couldn’t help. The memories of Gertrude and Anna were the bright spots. Throughout the years he has wondered what became of them, whether they lived throgh the ordeal. Now some of his questions about what was happening in St. Vith can be answered. And Hildahl is thrilled that “his little friends” remember him with fondness.
Hildahl is not sure he can manage to follow through on his dream of seeing his “little friends” again, but he would love to have that dream come true.
(unfortunately, this was never to be for my Dad because he passed away before this could happen).