Survived World War II to Raise Best-Selling Author

Bernie Hillenbrand: Oral History

WHERE:  Home of Bernie Hillenbrand

HOW:  Transcribed from recorder

TRANSCRIBER:  Patricia MacDermot Kasdan

DATE OF INTERVIEW:  October 14, 2015


When and where were you born?

May 11, 1925 in Syracuse, New York, which is in Onondaga County.


Describe your family, did you have siblings?

My mother and father had four children, two boys and two girls. The four of us had 21 children! 


Where were your parents from? 

My mother Anne and father Leonard were both born in the United States. Mother’s O' Connor family were from County Mayo, Ireland which suffered the worst starvation during the Irish Potato Famine. My grandfather August Hillenbrand migrated to the United States from Bavaria when it was a separate country. He maintained that we were Bavarian not Germans.


In the household where you grew up, did you have other family members, other than the immediate family, such as grandparents or aunts or uncles or cousins?

We had one grown up live-in distant relative because it was the height of the Depression and he had nowhere else to go. My brother and I wished he did have some other place to go.


What can you tell me about the house you grew up in; how old was it, when had it been built?

We were Depression urban nomads. We lived in six different houses because we couldn’t pay the rent and had to move.


What can you tell me about growing up? What did you do in the days when there was no TV?  Did you play games?

The street, and in one case the Rosewood Cemetery, were our playgrounds. We played football, baseball and even roller skate hockey. In the winter we played ice hockey and were almost constantly sledding down a nearby hill.


Were both your parents Catholics?

            My mother was more Catholic than the Pope, but my father was not interested.


Did you belong to a particular parish growing up?

            We belonged to St. John the Evangelist Roman Catholic Church. My family had been there forever. I visited there recently and found that most of the parishioners are now Vietnamese. The main street of my youth, Butternut Street, is now called The Ho Chi Minh Trail.


Did you or your parents belong to any organizations?  Which ones?

We had two, the Catholic Church and the Democratic Party. We were and are Democrats!  We were active participants. We were organized.  Our Democratic Party representative was called “The Man on the Block.” I can remember on one occasion when we ran out of fuel, I went to him for help.  He gave me a quarter to buy a paper bag of coal. My parents worked at the polls on Election Day. My father always voted first thing in the morning on the grounds that he might get hit by a truck and lose his vote.


Were there any trolley cars? 

            Yes, they had trolleys in Syracuse and they were very cheap and went everywhere.


Did you have a bicycle?

            I bought a second hand bike and with it I got a job. I was a delivery boy for the Syracuse Photo Engraving Company. I took clothing drawings from the fancy down town clothing stores back to the company to make photo engravings which I then delivered to be published in the Syracuse Post-Standard newspaper. My bicycle, which was the center of my economic and social life, was stolen, and it broke my heart.


How did your father and other working people get to work?

            For eight years my father did not get to work because it was the height of the Depression and there was no work in our factory town.   My mother got some jobs work because it was easier for women to get menial jobs as cleaning ladies and waitresses. My mother was, however, an entrepreneur. She got a concession from the local Five-and-Ten Store. She's sold thread and other sewing material. When the war began my father got a job at the US Hoffman Pressing Machine Company. They manufacture the pressing machines that you see in tailor shops. However, he made artillery shells. Later while at Syracuse University I worked part time in that same factory.


Did your mother drive?  Did you ever own a car?

            My father had a Model T Ford and a job with the Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company. When the Depression came, he lost that job and that car. My mother later bought a Ford which she drove for several years as did I.

My father had vision in only one eye. He was born and raised in Oswego, New York. As a teenager he had a beginner's job at the Kingsford’s Starch Company.  They manufactured wooden matches. A machine tipped over and flying acid permanently burned out vision in one of his eyes. That was at 11 o’clock in the morning. They paid him up until 11 o’clock and then fired him. There was no medical attention nor any other compensation–nothing, he was just fired!  Fighting injustices of this type is why we have always supported the Democratic Party.


How did your mother manage shopping for the family?

            We were on County welfare, something called “Home Relief.” We went to the Police Department garage and received food items based upon the number of people in the family.  Our neighborhood was overwhelmingly German or Italian. The Italians eat spaghetti and the Germans eat potatoes. What they served was rice. The bread was unsliced and in a white wrapper, printed in huge black letters: NOT TO BE SOLD.


What are your memories of the fire department and the police?

            That is a whole story by itself:  I am a fire buff. At one time we lived in a house across the street from a fire station. Much later I helped to set up a modern fire alarm system for the City of Syracuse. In our town, the majority of policemen and firemen were of Irish descent and so my half Irish family has always been very supportive of these two very dangerous professions.


Do you remember the 2nd World War or Korean War? 

            I served for 3 ½ years in the United States Army in World War II. I served in combat as a Rifleman with the First Infantry division, the Big Red One, from the breakout at Omaha Beach, across France to participate in the capture of the City of Aachen, Germany. I was wounded twice in the Battle of the Hurtgen Forest. These wartime experiences are a major part of a project now under way to produce my memoirs. We are accompanied today by Deirdre Curley a longtime friend of mine and my wife Aliceann Wohlbruck.  She is a fellow professional with distinguished service to the National Governors Association (NGA).

Here are some of the details. In the U.S., I served in Company G in the 432 Regiment of the 106th Infantry Division, the Golden Lion, stationed at Camp Atterbury, Indiana.  With two others, I volunteered for combat as Infantry Riflemen Replacements. We sailed for Europe on the Queen Elisabeth in late spring of 1944.  I was separated from my two fellow volunteers, Bill Irwin and Dwight Holmes. I later learned that they were killed in battle.  We left England and approached Omaha Beach at the time of the breakout.  We were aboard the Troopship Leopoldville which was torpedoed by a German submarine on Christmas Eve. More than 500 soldiers drowned. 

We disembarked by rope ladder on to a Landing Craft Infantry (LCI). The soldier above was impatient and kept stepping on my hands. I saw from his shoulder bars that he was a second lieutenant.  Inches below me, suddenly a huge wave smashed the LCI against the side of the ship, crushing him to death. As he fell into the sea I knew a second wave was coming. I took a desperate chance, leaped headlong and sprawled on the deck of the craft just as it started rising for a second smash.

Ashore, I was assigned to Company G of the 18th Regiment of the First Infantry Division, the Big Red One. We chased the retreating Germans across France and attacked the City of Aachen, Germany. The historic City was part of the famous German Siegfried Line. The 18th Regiment of our division attacked from one side, and the division’s 26th Regiment advanced through the far more dangerous center.  My 18th Regiment attacked the other side. My company helped capture and held Crucifix Hill overlooking the main road into the City. We shut off German retreat and reinforcements. When the City finally fell, we attacked the Hurtgen Forest and began the longest continuous, and one of the bloodiest, battles in the history of the American Army.

We were driving to capture the dams on the Ruhr River. On November 23, 1944, at Thanksgiving time, we were defending a road junction with an Anti-Tank Land Mine which the earth was too frozen to cover. At dawn my sergeant moved to the basement of a half burned building.  I was alone in a very shallow fox hole manning the a road block with a rifle mounted antitank gun. We were under intense enemy artillery fire of every caliber. I was suddenly blown unconscious by what was probably a small German mortar round. When I came to, I saw my almost unrecognizable left hand lying in a very large pool of bright red blood, staining the snow. My commanding officer appeared and gave me directions to the nearest aid station when I told him I thought I could make it alone and on foot.

I ducked incoming rounds as I moved in the snow in an old tank track. I saw one unexploded huge German dud lying in the road. Then on the bank I saw a deep depression in the snow and stumbled in. At exactly the same instant, Harry Colosa, our Company Runner, spotted the same depression. He dived in landing on top of me. Almost immediately a huge shell hit the nearby tree, and Harry was killed instantly by the downward blast. Some of the shrapnel hit me in the head, shoulder and rear. I clawed back to the road and half stumbled past a column of Sherman Tanks. The aid station was located in the basement of a bombed out barn. In the infantry we believed that, if you were alive at the aid station, you would probably live. It was jammed with both American and German casualties.

My war was almost over. There followed a series of surgical and medical procedures in Belgium and at a Paris hospital. I was evacuated to a hospital in Wiltshire County England. On December 16, 1944, Hitler lunched his final blitzkrieg in the Ardennes, starting the Battle of the Bulge. The tremendous volume of casualties required that all hospitals be emptied of ambulatory patients. I was assigned to Limited Service in the Army's Eighth Air Force, back in France. I served as a clerk at a U.S. Fighter Airfield just outside Paris.  Later I had convalescent leave in Ireland and on return was fortunate enough to be in London. I stood outside Buckingham Palace on VE night and shed tears as Winston Churchill gave his famous V for victory sign.

I was dispatched to a hospital at Wiesbaden, Germany, and later to a hospital in Cherbourg, France. I returned to the United States on the Hospital Ship Margaret Sanger.  The instant we arrived in Brooklyn, I went to Manhattan, to St. Patrick's Cathedral, for the second time. The first time had been to pray that I would serve honorably before I left for war, and the second was to thank God that I was home alive.  I then went through several hospitals and a long series of surgeries and physical therapy to restore my left hand. This took a very long time but I was patient because I was still alive. I was Honorably Discharged from the Army on the 14th day of June in 1946, after 3.5 years of Army service and hope eventually to rest at Arlington National Cemetery.


What was life like after the war?

On June 23, 1950, I graduated from the Maxwell School at Syracuse University with a Master’s Degree in Public Administration. Some jobs later, I was hired by the Bureau of Research in City Hall in Syracuse, New York. I helped establish the modern fire alarm system. My one-day-to-be-wife, Aliceann Wohlbruck, later also graduated from the Maxwell school and also held that same job.

I went to work in Albany, New York, in the tax departmental and later moved to Madison, Wisconsin, in the Department of Taxation. Then I came to Washington with what was then called the American Municipal Association (AMA) and renamed the National League of Cities (NLC). From there I helped form, and became the first Executive Director of, the National Association of Counties (NACO), a position I held for 25 years.

Aliceann Wohlbruck came to work with me. She later helped start, and became Executive Director of, the National Association of Development Organizations (NADO) where she served for 25 years. At age 60 I started training for the ministry at the Wesley Theological Seminary at American University. I am an ordained United Methodist minister. 


When did you move to Chevy Chase?

 When we married on August 4, 1989, thirty-seven years ago.


Was this Oliver Street house the only house you have lived in in Chevy Chase, DC?

This house was occupied by my wife and her first husband and two children. We had to decide if we were going to sell this house and move. We chose to undertake a major remodeling and to add a swimming pool and stay. This is a 12 room, hundred year (1917) old stone house that several have suggested is under the design influence of Frank Lloyd Wright.


Before your wife and her first husband lived here, were there other families who lived in this house?

Yes, a prominent attorney lived here, I’ve forgotten his name. I do know that during the Presidential election campaign, candidate Gov. Michael Dukakis was our overnight guest. We call that room the “Almost President Suite.”


So your family, your former family and your wife’s first husband’s family are a blended family?

We are an extended family, celebrate all holidays together, traveled all over Europe and raised two sons.   


Who do you remember among your neighbors who have lived on this street?

Douglas and Joan Dodge, Loretta Kiron, Christian and Jochen Eigen, Bob and Abby Roark. 

For 38 years, Aliceann and I have hosted the Annual Oliver St., Christmas Party in this house.  It is dedicated to Christmas music, mostly for children. Everybody brings his or her favorite food.  For example, Bob Roark is from Louisiana and brings Cajun food. The table downstairs will seat 14 people and it is filled with food,

            For 37 of those 38 years, Diane Winter Pyle, usually accompanied by her two beautiful and musically talented daughters, Amanda and Dia, has played the piano and directed the music.  She and Aliceann are from Altoona, Pennsylvania, where Diane's family is well-known musically. Her brother, Paul Winter, is known for his unique musical innovation and is a Musical Director for a large New York City church. Diane taught music, performed in many concerts and musical events and was a guest here for “Bernie’s Tent Lawn 90th Birthday Celebration.” Sadly she has since died.

Another famous neighbor was Loretta Kiron’s husband Allan Kiron. He survived the Holocaust and came to the United States. He served in the United States Army in Korea. We participated in the burial service when Allan was buried with high military honors at Arlington National Cemetery. The name Kiron was made up by him from the first letters of four members of his family who were killed by the Nazis.

Another well-known Oliver Street person was George Haley, a surviving Tuskegee Airmen. He was very active in the community, and among his many other projects, succeeded in putting in a swimming pool at one of the local schools. His son still lives on the block.

Another important area wide event was a Peace Mission during the Troubles in Ireland. It came about because of the visit of an Irish Roman Catholic priest and a Methodist minister. Back home they teamed together to jointly participate in the funerals of those killed by secular violence. I had the honor of staffing the visit which was led by Msgr. Duffy of the Blessed Sacrament Church. Six area churches each sent one clergy and one layperson. Sister Mary Louise Morton was the only woman. We met with all the leaders and witnessed, first hand, the bombing and violence.

Quite by accident I was coming around Chevy Chase Circle one afternoon. And as I passed the first church there was a small crowd gathered on the lawn. I stopped and saw a very fragile lady sitting by herself on a chair. She was then with great care moved to a microphone. She could hardly stand. Suddenly in a very looming and emotional voice she denounced abortions. It develops it was Mother Teresa who was dedicating a nearby building as a home for some of her followers.      


Do you remember when any of the other houses on this street were built?

They were all here, but they have all been significantly modified and rebuilt. Tragically in the next block of Oliver Street a fire killed a man and his wife and virtually destroyed the house which has since been rebuilt.


Do you know many families who live nearby?

We know most of these neighbors very well. I am nearly 91 years old and Aliceann requires round-the-clock care. Our neighbors under these circumstances have been marvelously supportive and caring. We know all of them well.


Do you remember other houses being built in this neighborhood?

Across the alley there was a house that was purchased for $1,250,000 and bulldozed to build an exceptionally large and beautiful home. At mid-block, a very old woman, since deceased, had been forced to see her house deteriorate. A couple have, with enormous personal effort, rebuilt the original structure into a beautiful new house. On the opposite corner, in the next block of Oliver Street, there has been constructed a very beautiful new house, and one of the houses on this block has been doubled in size.


Has the neighborhood changed very much since you have lived here?

There are a lot more kids. Aliceann recently counted 26 kids and very young adults. We have had as a guest for three years, a Seminarian from Wesley Theological Seminary.


When you first moved in, was it mostly the fathers on the block who were working or was it both parents? 

Aliceann and I both worked, as is the case with most of our neighbors. We had a woman named Pearl Brigman to help with our handicapped son. When he didn’t need constant attention, she stayed and other people brought their children to be cared for by Pearl. We therefore helped raised several children in this house. 


Have there been changes in the professions of the people on this block since you first came here? 

We are very cosmopolitan.  We have Israelis, Persians, Germans, Italians, Spanish, India Indians and African-Americans.


What do you remember about the stores in the neighborhood?

There has been a revolution in that little store that is across the street from the school, the Broad Branch Market. That has become far more important and classy. Most everyone shops at Safeway on Connecticut Avenue.


What buildings or services do you remember from when you first moved into the neighborhood that are no longer here?

It is all here as it was all here before.


What are some of your happiest memories of Chevy Chase DC?

            Blocking off the street in the summer, bringing picnic tables out there and playing games. On one occasion we had a very fluke and violent windstorm that knocked down piles of trees and blocked Oliver Street for more than a week.


When did you become a minister?

            At age 60 I started at the seminary.


What made you do that?

            I wanted to be a Priest since I was a little boy. I was retiring from my government career, and here was my chance to serve the church. 


Then after you graduated from the seminary, what did you do and where did you serve?

            Bishop Joe Yeakel was so impressed with my preaching he sent me to the Church of the Deaf!


Which denomination was this?

            United Methodist.


After that church, did you have other churches?

            I merged two churches in Prince Georges County. They had been separated racially and we got them back together again and created a church called Cedar Lane.


How many years were you in the ministry?

            I did not serve very long because of compulsory retirement at age 70. We have two ordinations the first as a Deacon and then after two or three years as an Elder.

I’m active in a group of African/ American ministers called Wednesday Clergy Fellowship. I integrated it 20 years ago. I address the group as “My fellow Africans” – we all came from the Rift Valley in East Africa and therefore we are all related as brothers and sisters.


What does the group do?

We have been fighting a battle against the decline of the African-American family, AIDS, child abuse, and many other evils.


How often do you meet?

  Every Wednesday, we meet in a different church each time.


How many people in the group?

            About 50.


Are you the only Caucasian in the group?

            No, there’s Patty Johnson, a retired Canon at the National Cathedral, and Rev. Clark Lobenstein. The major concern of this group is the disintegration of the black family – 80% of black births in the District of Columbia are to a single mother.


Is there anything we haven’t asked that we should have asked, a question that lingers? 

            It is the dilemma right now about memoirs. Who is going to be interested? I have on my side four outstanding children:  Lisa Hillenbrand, former Director of Global Marketing for Procter & Gamble in Cincinnati; Laura Hillenbrand, the author of Seabiscuit and Unbroken; Susan Hillenbrand Avalon, a script reviewer for Columbia Pictures in Hollywood; and John Hillenbrand, serving on matters of bankruptcy at the Washington National Judicial Center. I am in the process of circulating drafts to determine the amount of family interest.

I call attention to the Northwest Neighbors Village Association. They have an office on Connecticut Avenue in what used to be called the Methodist Home. I can’t say enough for that group. They serve people like Aliceann and me who have decided to Age in Place. One of the main services is providing transportation to see doctors and to meet other medical appointments. Their host of Volunteers provide dozens of services and provide up-to-date and valuable medical and financial information and bind us together as a community of brothers and sisters. We are wonderfully served by our Executive Director Marianna Blagburn.


Did you write a blog?

            Yes, I currently have a blog called “The Hillenbrand Report.”  I once had a nationally syndicated newspaper column called by the same name. I started, and was the first editor of, the newspaper County News, which after 50 years is still published by the National Association of Counties.  My last position was County Adviser to HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros and then later to Secretary Andrew Cuomo, now Governor of New York.


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