By Molly Miron, Special to the Pioneer
BEMIDJI – Harold Fruetel, 94-year-old retired Bemidji postmaster, will celebrate Thanksgiving today with relatives, but he remembers a historic holiday feast in November 1944 when he was in England waiting to ship out for war. That Thanksgiving, he was with the 106th Infantry Division set to join in the largest land battle of World War II, the Battle of the Bulge.
“The next evening, we started loading up on ships to take us across the (English) Channel,” Fruetel recalled.
The Battle of the Bulge began Dec. 16, 1944, and continued until Jan. 25, 1945. The “bulge” was caused when the German advance caught the Allies by surprise and stretched their line to a thinly defended 88 miles.
The men of the 106th landed in France and spent the night in a former, fairly comfortable, castle. The next night on the way to the Belgian battle front in the Ardennes Forest, the men slept in the frigid weather in pup tents.
“That winter was reportedly the most severe winter ever on the European continent,” Fruetel said, adding that the description was later modified to “one of the most severe.”
Fruetel and the other members of the 106th took up positions at St. Vith, Belgium, where his experience in the Bemidji Post Office earned him a job in the division military APO.
“That was the south end of the Battle of the Bulge. We were back from the line a ways,” he said. “Each division, which consisted of about 16,000 people, had its own APO post office.”
Fruetel recalls his shock when he heard of the bombing of Pearl Harbor. He said he and some other guests were riding home the evening of Dec. 7, 1941, from Sunday dinner at his parents’ farm near McIntosh, Minn. There had been plenty of conversation in Fruetel’s 1939 Ford, but there came a lull. He turned on the radio to the news of the “date which will live in infamy.”
At that moment, he said he knew he would volunteer for service. He told his boss at the Bemidji Post Office he would resign, but knew he had to wait until the Christmas mail rush finished. He enlisted in February 1942 at Fort Snelling. After the German surrender May 8, 1945, he was assigned guard duty for German prisoners of war; he was then sent home in August.
One of Fruetel’s adventures during the winter of 1944-1945 was the discovery of an 8-milimeter rifle lying in the snow and mud, apparently jettisoned by a retreating German soldier after the Battle of the Bulge turned in the Allies’ favor. He picked the rifle up, cleaned it and sent it home for a souvenir. The next fall, November 1945, he used the rifle to shoot his first deer, a 12-point buck.
Back in the United States, he obtained a 30-day leave in September 1945, returned to Bemidji and married he sweetheart, Erma Carlson, in First Lutheran Church.
Thanksgiving 1945 was the beginning a new life for the Fruetels. They found a place to live in near Camp Carson, Colo., where he was stationed. They then returned to Bemidji where he resumed his career with the U.S. Postal Service. He and Erma had three children, Sharon, Judy and Jerry. Erma died in 1993.
“She was a super person, so talented,” Fruetel said.
For Thanksgiving 2012, Fruetel said he has memories to be grateful for. He thought of the hardship growing up on a 160-acre farm located between McIntosh and Winger during the driest years of the 1930s.
“I look back and we talk about them as the ‘good old days,’ but they surely weren’t,” he said. “But I’m grateful I went through it.”
He said he also thinks of the thankful sentiment on a Valentine he sent to one of his grandchildren: “I believe the happiest people are the ones who do the most for others.”