Effingham Daily News
Walter Wendte has crossed the English Channel and won several medals of honor, but he's spent most of his 90 years on an Effingham County farm.
Born May 14, 1922, in southern Effingham County, Wendte said he remembers the way the Great Depression affected people here; the building of the Interstate highways that now drive traffic into Effingham from across the country; the rise of central Illinois villages into towns and cities; the evolution of farming from a primitive to modern industry; and the harsh realities of a war on another continent that helped shape him into the man he is today.
"Conditions were quite a bit different from where they are now," he said. "We farmed with horses and small acreage and nothing mechanical. I grew up on a farm in the south part of Effingham County and, well ... ."
"I was born in Ô22 and then we had the Depression five or six years later."
Even through some of the hardships of the period, Wendte was encouraged by his father to better himself through education and expanding his horizons.
"I went to a one-room grade school for eight grades," he said. "At that time, only about half the kids who graduated grammar school got to go to high school and I was one of them. I went to Dieterich High School and had three years of high school there, and I finished at Effingham High School.
"I was fortunate that my studies came to me pretty good and I graduated as valedictorian."
Wendte headed to business school in St. Louis after graduation and began working for a refrigeration company in 1943. While a promising career could have begun, Wendte knew that as a healthy 21 year-old, he was likely going to be drafted as the U.S. entered the second World War.
In 1943, his hunch proved true.
He was drafted and reported to Camp Barkeley, Texas, for basic training. He then spent some time in Mississippi attending college under an Army plan at that time.
Then, things drastically changed.
After D-Day on June 6, 1944, and the strategic losses in the Allied push into the Netherlands in September, replacements were needed on the European front. Wendte was assigned to the 94th Infantry Division, E. Company.
Wendte was among those who crossed the English Channel into France in Sept. of 1944. He and the 94th were assigned to a holding action in the St. Nazaire-Lorient area of France, attempting to contain around 60,000 German troops that were isolated in the area. There, he saw combat for the first time, facing the harsh realities of the war.
Wendte said he had written down many of his memories of his time in Germany so he wouldn't forget, but a few incidents would always stay with him.
"It's hard to forget some of those things, especially when you have near misses," he said. "(The Germans) had this, what they called the Siegfried line. It was a series of pill boxes and dragons teeth and it was supposed to be impenetrable. But our division penetrated the whole place.
"Eventually, we got through that. We were attached to the Third Army, which was under General (George) Patton. They called him ÔBlood and Guts Patton' but I think it proved out in the end that that was the best way to do what we did with least loss of life, but it was harder."
Wendte's company was among the first to reach the Rhine River, finally reaching the ultimate goal. By September 1945, he had accumulated enough points to return to the U.S. and was discharged on Dec. 31 that year. He was awarded the Purple Heart, the Bronze Star, two marksmanship awards and a number of company ribbons.
"It's pretty difficult to explain what we went through, really, but I don't know," Wendte said, thinking about what had changed for him when he returned home. "I think one thing is that persons my age, you learn to follow orders. It didn't take long at that time. If you didn't follow orders, you paid for it dearly. It's just kinda hard to explain."
Wendte settled back into Effingham County in 1946, returning to the life he had left what seemed like ages ago.
"I could've gotten back the same job in the same factory, but my father was increasing his farm acreage and he had a mechanized tractor and mechanized equipment. So that looked better to me," he said. "So, I got into farming then and I had always said before the tractor that I would never be a farmer, but I sure changed my mind. But after I spent those times in the service, you just changed your attitude about a lot of things."
Wendte married his wife, Doris, in 1951 and the couple eventually had four sons, two of which manage the family's Altamont farm to this day. Wendte said he still does whatever he can to work on the land that means so much to him.
"I'm not able to do everything but I still help out," he said. "I'm able to drive a truck and a tractor and I still drive the combine. I'm going to do it as long as I'm able. I've got relatively good health. I had both hips replaced but I'm really ok. I try to follow, well I won't say I'm dieting, but I try to eat properly. Maintaining good health has a lot to do with what you eat."
Looking back on all he's seen and done in his near century of life, Wendte said he's thankful for all of the opportunities he's had.
"I'm just thankful to the good lord for what he's given me," he said.
Jackson Adams can be reached at 217-347-7151, ext. 131, or firstname.lastname@example.org.