Pa. man's World War II story etched in memories, poetry
MYERSTOWN, Pa. — Nearly 75 years later, Harold Mohn still remembers the sights and sounds of World War II.
But that is not all he remembers from his years in the military.
During the war, Mohn, now 97, began writing poetry honoring his fellow soldiers. His words about the war in Europe made him well-known in military circles.
Mohn was involved in five campaigns during the war, receiving five Bronze Stars for his service at Normandy, Northern France, Central Europe, the Ardennes and the Rhineland.
After serving with the First Army, he was transferred to the Ninth Army, then Gen. George Patton's Third Army. After the war in Europe ended in 1945, he was assigned to the 79th Infantry Division.
Mohn came from a military family. As he explains it, his great-great-grandfather was at Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox Court House in Virginia in 1865 to end the Civil War.
Like many of his generation, Mohn, who was drafted at the age of 24, said he did not do anything extraordinary during his two years in Europe.
"I was just an ordinary soldier," he said.
Twenty days after D-Day on June 6, 1944, Mohn arrived in Europe as part of the Army's Armored Force 485th Ordnance Evacuation Company with the First Army. He was first stationed outside Saint Mauer Glace and Carentan in Normandy, France.
"We had the huge M25 Tank Transporter vehicles that went in and retrieved knocked-out tanks and brought in new ones for the armored division," the Myerstown man, noting that each M25 was capable of hauling two Sherman tanks.
The troops' mission kept them five to six miles behind the front lines, but Mohn still heard and saw the artillery.
"The big guns were firing over us on both sides, one coming in, one going out," he recalled.
Mohn was stationed in Wimborne, England, from February to June 1944, during the time the Germans used V-2 rockets to attack England. He said he heard the rockets coming in every night, and several landed within a half mile from their encampment.
"They always had that 'woom, woom, woom' sound," he said. "You could hear the engine shut off, and you knew the bomb was dropping. You feared it would land in one of your encampments. They always had an unusual sound."
In Saint-Lo, during the Allied invasion of France, he said, he watched as 1,500 American B-17 bombers dropped their payloads on the Germans in July 1944.
"I never saw anything like that," he remembered. "The sky was black from the planes and the anti-aircraft fire."
Lt. Gen. Lesley McNair was sent there to observe Operation Cobra, which was part of the Battle of Normandy. On July 25, an Allied bomb landed in McNair's foxhole by mistake and killed him.
Nobody ever saw that many planes in the sky at one time, Mohn said.
"I'll never forget that," he said.
The same day McNair died, two men in his unit were killed when bombs landed too close to their position.
"It wasn't a pretty sight," Mohn said.
Brothers in arms
Mohn's brother, Frederick, served in the 127th Anti-Aircraft Artillery unit during the same time Mohn was in Europe. His brother had enlisted in the Army.
On Dec. 25, 1944, they met up in Holland and had dinner together. The next day, Mohn said, he and his brother got orders to go to the Battle of the Bulge.
When Mohn came home in 1945, his ship was supposed to land in New York, but a bad storm diverted it to Norfolk, Va. When he disembarked, Mohn got a surprise: "Who do you think the first person I ran into? My brother."
His brother had just landed with another ship, Mohn recalled, but they only got to spend 10 minutes together.
After the war, Mohn went back to Europe to visit the cemeteries where American soldiers were buried and visited the graves of soldiers he knew.
After one of those visits, Mohn wrote this poem:
"I walk across the crosses white / With sadness inside me. / But only by the grace of God / One cross my own could be."
Mohn graduated from high school in 1932 at the age of 15 during the Great Depression. He said he never studied poetry in school.
Mohn began writing poetry in 1940, when he became impressed with the Philippine people, who were trying to stem the Japanese invasion of their country. He received a letter from the president of the Philippines at the time, Manuel Quezon.
While he was on the battlefield, Mohn wrote poetry for Stars and Stripes. He said his poetry comes out of a sense of patriotism.
Through the years, Mohn returned to Europe more than 20 times, visiting cemeteries where American soldiers are buried.
The Normandy American Cemetery recognized Mohn in 2005 by giving him an American flag and a plaque certifying that the flag was flown in his honor at the cemetery at Normandy Beach in April 11, 2005.
Mohn has written poems that were translated into French and read as part of Memorial Day or D-Day ceremonies at the cemetery.
In addition, he has written poetry for ceremonies at Arlington National Cemetery, Fort Indiantown Gap and Luxembourg. Mohn's work has appeared in numerous publications, including the Lebanon Daily News, the Congressional Journal and Portsmouth News in England.
Mohn has published more than 40 poetry anthologies and booklets. He was awarded first prize from the Pennsylvania Poetry Society and received numerous awards from the Freedom Foundation at Valley Forge.
Many years after the war, Mohn met Albert Speer in Heidelberg, Germany. The two became friends and corresponded frequently.
Speer was Adolf Hitler's personal architect, designing the new Germany that was to rise from the ashes of World War II. That never happened, and Speer spent 20 years in prison for his role in World War II.
Mohn wrote to Speer after reading Speer's "Inside the Third Reich." Mohn said he and Speer wrote back and forth for about four years.
The last letter Mohn received from Speer was postmarked Aug. 31, 1981. In it, Speer wrote that he was looking forward to their next meeting.
That would never happen. Speer died the next day, and the letter to Mohn may have been the last thing that Speer wrote, Mohn said.