One served in the German Army during World War II. The other served with the African-American Buffalo Soldiers of the 92nd Infantry Division.
Within the past week, on different nights at two locations to capacity crowds, the men, now both in their 90s, who fought on opposite sides of the European Theater in World War II told their stories — tales that slowly are being lost to history as more and more who fought in WWII pass away.
Peter Ertel, 96, was a German soldier who fought in Russia before he was assigned to serve in Normandy, where he was captured by U.S. troops. He brought his family to live in the United States in 1953.
Harrison Dillard, 90, served in Italy during the war. He became internationally known a few years later as the first person to win gold medals in the Olympics in both hurdling and sprinting, in the 1948 and 1952 Olympics.
Ertel spoke to more than 110 people at the Old Portage Masonic Temple in Akron; a few days later, Dillard, of Cleveland, spoke before more than 150 at the World War II and Korean War Roundtable in Fairlawn.
Surviving the odds
Ertel, born in Kiel, Germany, was forced into the army. With the Combat Engineering Battalion of the 7th Bavarian Division he fought at the blitzkrieg in France, then took part in the attack on Russia.
As a platoon leader, Ertel said, his average life expectancy was expected to be about two weeks.
He survived and was sent to Normandy, France, several weeks before D-Day — June 6, 1944. U.S. troops captured Ertel in mid-June and eventually shipped him to a prison camp in Alabama.
He said he saw something on the faces of the American troops who captured him.
“Joie de vivre,” he said, quoting the French words for joy of living.
Because of his anti-Nazi beliefs, he was chosen by the Americans for special treatment to study and to be part of a group to help bring democracy back to Germany after the war.
He and his family moved to the United States in 1953, after he worked with U.S. officials and the U.S. State Department in post-war Germany.
Now living in Bath Township, Ertel first started making speeches about his life story at the age of 90 before an audience of about 300 Jewish people in Akron.
He is retired as a vice president of marketing for Monroe Chemical Co. in Cleveland.
Ertel, who plays piano and violin and sings, is a dramatic speaker. He read portions of his book, My Story, during his speech.
During an interview, he was asked if he was ever hassled by any vets in America for serving in the German Army.
“Never, ever, ever, ever,” he said dramatically. Americans, he said, “love to take in other people, and nobody ever holds it against you.”
He said the open arms he and his family have always felt in America is kind of like an unwritten law in the “soul” of the country where he has always felt welcome.
Ertel told his audience that the moment he was captured by Americans in France, “is when my life was given back to me, and I was saved from destruction.”
He told a story of when he was waiting at a train station in New York City on his way with a group of other POWs to go to Aliceville, Ala.
A boy’s ball rolled to his feet in the crowd, he said. Ertel picked the ball up and remembered his family back home in Germany and his children.
The boy approached Ertel and finally told the stranger he could keep the ball.
Ertel called it the greatest act of forgiveness he could imagine.
Emulating his hero
Dillard grew up in Cleveland with Olympian Jesse Owens as an early hero.
He told the crowd in Fairlawn how he saw Owens in a parade after he won his gold medal in the 1936 Olympics in Germany and that Owens, from the vehicle in which he rode, spoke to him and his friends.
“Hey, kids, how are you doing?” Dillard remembered Owens saying.
That day, Dillard ran home and told his mother, “I saw Jesse Owens and I’m going to be just like him.”
After graduating from East Tech High School, Dillard went to Baldwin-Wallace College and joined the Army Reserve.
In 1943 he was called up to active duty and he wound up training at Fort Huachuca in Arizona with the 92nd Infantry Division, the African-American division known as the Buffalo Soldiers.
Dillard fought in Italy from October 1944 until the end of the war the following spring. He told the crowd about fighting next to the 442nd Regiment made up of Japanese-American soldiers and how impressed he was with their skills.
“They had something to prove,” he said, “and they indeed did prove they were American soldiers.”
After the war ended, he recalls a group of elderly Italian women came upon him and other members of the Buffalo Soldiers.
“They had never seen a black person before,” he said.
The women approached the soldiers and asked if they could touch their faces.
“They wanted to touch us to see what our skin felt like,” he said.
That scene, he said, “was one of those little incidents that sticks with you.”
After the war, Dillard took part in both the 1948 and 1952 Olympics. He won a gold medal in the 100-meter run and a gold medal in a 400-meter relay and in 1952 he won a gold medal in the 110-meter hurdles and the 400-meter relay.
When the national anthem was played the first time for his first gold medal in 1948, it was an unbelievable experience, Dillard said.
“This is one heck of a moment,” Dillard, now a resident of Richmond Heights, recalls thinking. “I felt the hair come up on the back of my neck.
After the war he finished college at Baldwin-Wallace, then worked for the Cleveland Indians in public relations for 10 seasons. He retired after 27 years with the Cleveland Board of Education.
“I feel blessed for having been able to meet so many wonderful people and do so many things,” he said.
Jim Carney can be reached at 330-996-3576 or firstname.lastname@example.org.