War, as he knew it

Tom Milstead/Torrington Telegram Photo Nancy Zimmerer, George's daughter, poses with a picture of her father in front of the United States flag that draped his coffin and his military awards.

WYNCOTE ACRES – In June 1942, the world got a lot larger for a farm boy from Lingle. 

That was when George Friederick Hill received his draft notice. He was sworn in to the United States Army on June 3, 1942. He went to basic training in Texas, and took part in additional training in Louisiana, Wisconsin and Michigan. There was a war on, and during this time, soldiers didn’t spend extended time on soil. 

He arrived in Ireland in 1943 and was there for six months, before sailing for Wales and the area World War II historians call “the staging zone.”

Three days and two years from the day Hill was sworn into the Army, he was on a landing craft heading for Omaha Beach. He was in the second wave of Operation Overlord, commonly known as D-Day. 

Hill had a strong interest in history. To this day, his family can track their family tree all the way back to its move from Germany to Russia, to the United States, and to the present day through his and his wife, Isabell’s, efforts. His widow and his daughters have boxes of Native American artifacts – arrowheads, hide scrapers, painting vessels – that he collected through the years. When he left his Army uniform behind, he put on another uniform as a park ranger at Fort Laramie National Historic Site. 

But that day, June 6, 1944, Hill became more than a history student. On that day, he became a part of American history. 

“We don’t realize the sacrifices”

Just last week, on a farm outside of Lingle called Wyncote Acres that George Hill himself built out of Goshen County soil with no shortage of work ethic and Wyoming grit, his daughter Nancy Zimmerer gathered a trove of documents, pictures and artifacts. There were pictures of Hill’s ancestors. There were German bank notes that Hill collected during the war. There was a diagram tracing the family’s lineage back hundreds of years. 

And there were lots of pictures of George, throughout his entire life. A black and white picture, faded with time but in remarkably good shape given that it’s at least 77 years old – a benefit of being cherished by a family of historians, most likely – shows George as a young man. He’s posing with his brothers on his father, Christian Hill’s, farm northeast of Lingle. It shows a group of carefree boys in rubber irrigation boots and straw hats, enjoying their lives on the farm. 

Just a few years later, George would exchange the farmboy garb for olive drab. 

“We don’t realize the sacrifices they went through,” Zimmerer said. “He said what bothered him the most was the smell of the animals and the people that were dead. He said that bothered him the most.

“We just have no idea what they went through. I’m so glad my dad came back to the United States.”

It’s tough to find a way to properly salute veterans and honor those sacrifices. World War II was a massive effort. According to the National World War II Museum, 12,209,238 Americans served in the Army, Navy, Marines and Coast Guard from 1939-1945. Of those, 671,278 never came home. 

Throughout American history, around 20.4 million people have served in the branches of the military, according to Pew Research, and that number grows almost daily. We celebrate Veteran’s Day and Memorial Day. There are memorials throughout the country. 

But even though millions served, each of those people have their own individual story, and each of them deserves recognition. 

Zimmerer, her mother and George’s widow, Isabel Hill, and sister Connie Jones have elected to pay tribute to George through “Honoring Our Local Heroes.” The program is a nationwide initiative and will be coordinated locally by the Goshen County Main Street Committee. The program will honor veterans by printing and hanging banners featuring photographs and names of local veterans on the main streets of each municipality in Goshen County. 

Goshen County Chamber of Commerce Director Sandy Hoehne said the Goshen County Visitor’s Center has had people from Kansas and Philadelphia, Penn., come through the door, and speak about how popular the program is in their hometowns. Goshen County will be the first in Wyoming to take part in the program. 

“That is pretty exciting,” Hoehne said. “We thought it would be a good way to honor our local heroes, as well as local people whose parents have passed away,  even if they weren’t a part of this community.”

The banners cost $120, and participants will receive a limited edition “Behind the Banners” publication that will tell the stories of all the honored veterans. Printing the banner and the book will cost $110, and the remaining $10 will go to make improvements on the main street where the banner is displayed. 

“They can use that money to get whatever they want for their main street,” Hoehne said.  “Some of them are going to get flowers, some of them are going to get benches and some of them are going to get more banners, because they’ve never had that before.”

George Hill’s banner will hang in Lingle. Hill’s banner, along with the rest of the banners, will hang in Nov. 2019 and Nov. 2020, and then given to his family. Zimmerer said it will trigger a wave of emotion each time she passes by the banner bearing George’s picture. 

“It is going to be emotional,” she said. “There are going to be tears, but also joy. We are fulfilling a legacy for our dad because he liked history so much. But we’re also tickled pink that they’re going to do that. We are delighted and thrilled.

“It’ll be touching for all of us.”

On Omaha Beach

(The following is taken from “My Hitch with “Uncle Sam,” by George Friederick Hill. The following except details his experiences in the European Theater during World War II, and begins as Hill boarded a boat bound for Omaha Beach during D-Day.)

Then we were loaded on ships, crossed the English Channel and landed during the night on the shores of France at Omaha Beach in June, 1944 in Normandy. From our ships, we saw artillery shells and flares that were going off all over. During the landing, when we were getting off the large ships into the landing craft, we had one soldier slip overboard while he was climbing down a rope ladder. He lost his balance because the waves in the Atlantic Ocean were high and rough. He was our first casualty. 

I was in the second wave of combat to land on Omaha Beach. In our Second Infantry Division over 2,000 men were killed, mostly from artillery and mortar fire and shrapnel hitting them. 

We then invaded France and crossed France, Belgium, Germany and went into Czechoslovakia where we met the Russians coming the other way. 

‘You kids need to know’

It’s fairly common knowledge, and the families of veterans can attest to this, that many combat veterans do not want to relive their war stories. 

It’s understandable. While popular movies and video games portray war as a game, it’s not reality. There was no central John Wayne character that defeated the enemy single-handedly with witty quips about toughness, and there weren’t strategically placed health packs that magically healed soldiers to full health, as video games would have you believe. 

George Hill spoke of the reality of war. 

“War is very bad,” he told the Lingle Guide in the 1990s. “If the politicians who caused the wars had to go up front and fight, there would be no more wars.”

Hill didn’t speak of the war on a regular basis, but being a lifelong historian, he knew his experiences held merit for future generations. 

“Dad didn’t like to talk about the war, but sometimes he said that ‘you kids need to know,” Zimmerer said. “He said the best thing was coming home.”

Hill was a sergeant machine gun squad leader in the 23rd Infantry. He led his men across Nazi-occupied France, through the Battle of the Bulge in Dec. 1944, and battled into Plzen, Czech. That’s where he was when the war ended. From 1942 to 1945, he was a part of at least 18 battles, including D-Day, the Battle of the Bulge, the Breakthrough to the Rhine and the Pursuit through Germany. 

Hill received numerous awards for his time in Europe, including a Purple Heart with two oak leaf clusters after he was wounded by shrapnel three times, a Good Conduct Medal, a European African Middle Eastern Service Ribbon, Bronze Star, World War II Medal and American Campaign Medal. His family has all of his medals, but perhaps the most telling artifact of the kind of soldier Hill was are letters from the men who served under him. 

“People wrote to him to say they were so glad he was their sergeant because he had the common sense and the knowledge to keep them alive,” Zimmerer said. “His experience, I think, on the farm and his common sense, helped them survive.”

Surviving in Europe

(The following is taken from “My Hitch with “Uncle Sam,” by George Friederick Hill. The following excerpt details his experiences in the European Theater during World War II. This section details Hill’s experiences in the later days of the war.)

In Germany at the Battle of the Bulge in Dec. 1944, there was three feet of snow on the ground and it was extremely cold. To build our bunkers we took picks, and shovels to make holes into the frozen ground. After the holes were made, we chopped wood in the dense forests of Germany to make a roof for our bunkers. Next dirt was put on the roof and then finally snow was shoveled on top of the dirt to conceal our bunkers. Many long weeks were spent in these cold bunkers. Our mission was to stop the advance of the German Army. During this battle we butchered shorthorn heifers and some pigs. We would use the rendered lard to fry our beef steaks. The steaks sure tasted better than the K-rations. We traded K-rations to German civilians for homemade bread, butter, eggs and chickens. 

While in Plzen, Czechoslavakia our 2nd Infantry Division captured a German Military truck loaded with German money. The Germans were going to pay their soldiers with this money. With this German money, we bought many wooden barrels full of Plzen beer. 

As a matter of interest, there was a shortage of food in Plzen. My buddies and myself were tired of G.I. chow of government issued food. So we took grenades and threw them in the Mulde River. Soon many dead fish were floating on top of the water. This is how we did our fishing.

May 8, 1945 was V-E Day. World War II had finally ended at last. I was in Plzen on V-E Day. The Czechoslovakian people held a dance for the American soldiers. My company danced polkas and waltzes until the wee hours of the morning. 

“A way to preserve history”

World War II was an important time in American history, and it was an important part of George Hill’s life – but it didn’t define him. 

According to Zimmerer, Hill took pride in his time in the service, but he also took pride in the things he accomplished when he returned home. 

He married Isabel on Dec. 3, 1949 and bought Wyncote Acres in Feb. 1954. He told the history of Fort Laramie as a park ranger for 13 years and retired from the fort in 1980. George passed away in 1995, but he left behind a legacy. 

“He was a Christian,” Zimmerer said. “He was a strong believer in going to church. He had a strong work ethic.

“He believed family came first. Mom and Dad did without so we could have school jackets. And Moan and Dad did without so we could have school rings.”

The banner bearing a picture of George in uniform, taken in Belfast, Ireland when he was 25 years old, just months before Omaha Beach, will serve as a way to honor his legacy. 

“We just feel that this is a source of pride for veterans and for their families,” Zimmerer said. “We feel this is a way to preserve history for today and tomorrow. This project, we feel, provides away to ensure that our veterans stories are a source of information for generations to come.

“My sister, Connie Jones, and my mom and I felt that we wanted to get involved in this banner project, and we feel like these community activities are extremely important. By doing this tribute to my dad, taking part in the banner project, we are gaining satisfaction in knowing that we are making a difference in recognizing, and acknowledging our dad, who served in World War II.”

The banner will also play a part in preserving a part of history George didn’t just witness, but played a part in. It’s that part, the preservation of history, that Zimmerer said her father would have loved the most. 

“The veteran banners are a magnificent project that we feel the veterans deserve,” Zimmerer said. “We need to feel thankful for our freedom and their dedication to our country. They are important heroes to the United States of America and to our community.

“I just think it is a wonderful tribute to veterans. We do need to preserve that history.”

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