Granbury resident and World War II veteran Harry Whisler recently celebrated his 99th birthday with 63 family members — with some traveling from eight different states — for the momentous occasion.
Whisler grew up in Midland, Michigan, and enlisted in the Army at 20 years old on Nov. 23, 1942. That was just five months after marrying his sweetheart, Dorothy Grice.
The time he spent in World War II included some incredible events, including an encounter with Gen. George Patton — and saving a fellow soldier who caught fire.
After extensive training, he landed in Cherbourg, Normandy, France on Sept. 23, 1944, with General George Patton’s 10th Armored “Tiger” Division. He served as a medic and was given a jeep with orders to “follow the lead tank.”
“I got word the captain wanted to see me,” Whisler said. “He wanted to know if I wanted his jeep. I said, ‘Well yeah, I'll take it.’ I started to go away, and he says, ‘I gotta tell you what I want you to do. You're starting something new. I don't know anybody else doing it in the armored division.’ He said, ‘I want you to follow and be the third vehicle in line when you're going from village to village.’ And that was pretty dangerous behind the tank. I did that for 17 months overseas.’”
The 10th Armored Division raced to Metz, then on to liberating the Lorraine area. They were first on the scene in the Battle of the Bulge — half of the division went to Bastogne while Whisler's unit was defending Luxembourg. After the Bulge they cleared the Saar-Moselle triangle, captured Trier, then raced to the Rhine where they joined the 7th Army and drove on to Bavaria.
While Whisler was in Trier, he had a “run-in” with Gen. Patton in 1945.
ENCOUNTER WITH PATTON
“I lost my jeep for some reason, but I got a ride back. A tank came along, and I said, ‘How about a ride?’ and he said, ‘Yeah, jump in, I don't have an assistant driver, just get in his spot.’ Not thinking about my helmet with the red cross on it. That was a no-no,” Whisler said, chuckling. “We got through the villages and got about a block from the Roman bridge. Eisenhower and all his group was standing there and Patton stepped off the curb and held out his hands and stopped our tank.”
The gruff general chewed Whisler out and asked where he was from.
“Finally, he turned to go away, turned back and said, ‘What would you have done with the machine gun if you had to use it?’ I said, ‘I'd use it.’ (Patton said) ‘Good job soldier.’ Everybody talks about Patton being so bad, yeah, I hear ya, but he always told me what a good job I was doing,” Whisler said.
During his time away at war, Whisler wrote 700 letters to his wife, Dorothy, but always made sure to downplay the events as he wanted to keep the war as far away from his wife as possible.
“He kept his stories mostly to himself for the next 65 years until after his first wife’s passing when he then began to talk,” said Whisler’s son-in-law Jim Jones.
Jones transcribed all of Whisler’s letters to Dorothy and put them in a book, so that Whisler’s family can relive the experiences Whisler had in the war.
“Apparently, she (Dorothy) made a comment one time — this is as close as he ever came to giving her a sense of what was going on,” Jones said. “She must have made a comment that she was getting tired of sitting around on the weekends doing nothing. He says, ‘You know, I understand you're tired of sitting around on the weekends but I'm getting tired of dodging these damn German shells.’”
Whisler served in the Army for three years and then joined the Ready Reserves where he served for six years.
He was wounded in action three times, so he received the Purple Heart with two additional Oak Leaf Clusters and three campaign stars. He has been decorated by the U.S. Veterans Friends, Luxembourg with their Medal of Honor and received the French Knights of the Legion of Honor medal. He was awarded the Bronze Star at Trier and received a stateside commendation for rescuing a comrade from a burning tank.
KNOWN AS A HERO
On a Sunday, Whisler went to pick up his mail and encountered an Army technician who was on fire and running away from a tank that was engulfed in flames.
“We were cleaning our vehicles, waiting to move to Fort Gordon,” Whisler recalled of his encounter with T-4 Raymond A. Craig. “It was on Sunday. I got my mail and I got about halfway down and there was a fella named Craig. He was cleaning his tank, but he was cleaning it with gasoline which was a no-no and it caught on fire just as I got there. I run up there, I tripped him, so he'd fall and took my jacket off in a hurry and I got the flame out, but he was pretty well burned.”
He instructed other soldiers on the scene to rush to the mess hall to get butter, which he then administered to the injured soldier.
“People started forming, so I asked a couple to get me some butter. I didn't know what else to put on a burn that would help him, which it did,” Whisler said.
He took his comrade to the aid station, but unfortunately, it was closed, and no one was staffing the station.
Whisler’s captain was later reprimanded and demoted over the incident, which put Whisler out of favor for the remainder of his time with the 420th.
"Over time, Craig got well, and they had a big parade, and he got a silver medal, and I got a commendation, which is wrong because my captain wasn't there to say that I saved his life instead of him saving a tank, which he shouldn't have got. I should've gotten the silver medal, but I didn't. I got the commendation, but I'm glad he got it. That was kind of a bad situation standing there watching him get the silver medal, but it all worked out,” he said.
Whisler said the “worst thing he ever saw” during the war was the concentration camps.
He was one of the first three soldiers to go into a concentration/satellite camp in the town of Landsberg am Lech in Bavaria.
“First thing, I walked over to the furnaces. One of them was being used, the other two was cold,” he said. “I walked down the street probably blocks and peeked at a couple barracks and it was just terrible. We got down to the end and there was two boxcars sitting there. I walked over and opened one door. You never seen such a mess, dead people, live people, same with the second one. That's when I left. I couldn't stand it anymore. Put my handkerchief over my nose, got out of the tent. Found out later there were four more of the concentration camps in that area.”
“You hear people today say there was no such thing. You know, it's unbelievable that they can even say such a thing when others have experienced it,” Pat added.
Whisler almost got shot at Oberammergau when he was standing at the front of a half-track (military vehicle) with two G.I.’s (soldiers of the U.S. Army) standing next to him.
A German sniper shot the two guys on either side of Whisler before he ducked down and was able to avoid getting wounded.
The German sniper was captured and brought to Whisler. The German soldier had a 28-caliber pistol, which was then handed to Whisler, where he was instructed to “do whatever you want.” Whisler simply put the pistol in his pocket and walked away.
“It wouldn’t have been very nice of me to have shot him in front of all of those guys,” Whisler said.
“I’ve known him (Whisler) for 58 years, and in all of that time, I have never heard him say an unkind word about anybody,” Jones added.
After he left the Army, Whisler worked for Dow Chemical Company for 44 years and now resides in Granbury with his wife of 11 years, Patricia (Pat). His two daughters, Margaret (Peg) Jones and Patricia Steinke also live in Granbury. He has nine grandchildren, 29 great-grandchildren and four great-great-grandchildren.
At 99, Whisler still remains active. Before COVID-19, Whisler and Pat would go to WinStar World Casino in Oklahoma once a month. Now, Whisler likes to work on his puzzles. Together, Pat and Whisler go out to dinner and play games with other couples.