A new chapter of this story began in mid-May as I opened a trunk in an upstairs closet in my (deceased) mother’s house. The only item in the lower section of the trunk was a black canister, labelled on the end: “105 mm Howitzer.” What was contained inside the canister?
First, a little background: Although my mother passed away in 2007, we still maintain her home located in a small town in central South Dakota. My brother and I also inherited the family farm nearby, now rented out for pasture and hayland. While in South Dakota last month to work on farm projects, I took time to sort through little-used closets in the house, looking for items to donate or throw away. My search led me to this trunk.
I’d peeked into the trunk once before, shortly after Mom died. I knew it contained a few of Pete’s belongings. His billfold had been in the tray at the top of the trunk. I must have looked in the bottom of the trunk then but I don’t remember. My attention at the time was drawn to the billfold, not the canister.
Who was Pete? He was my mother’s first husband. She married Maurice Clifton “Pete” Henrichsen in July 1942. World War II was calling, and later that year Pete enlisted in the Army. He served with Cannon Company, 358th Infantry, 90th Division. Members of the 90th Division were called “Tough ‘Ombres.”
Pete’s last furlough was in early 1944, after which he was shipped overseas. In late 1944 Pete was with the 90th Division fighting their way through Europe in the “Battle of the Bulge.” Pete was killed in Luxembourg on 16 January 1945.
So what was inside the Howitzer canister I found in the trunk? A wad of red cotton fabric. About 40 inches wide and 12 feet long. With a black-and-white swastika in the center. A Nazi banner. A hanging sleeve at one end showed it was designed to hang vertically. Holes at the corners suggested the banner had been pulled down.
When? Where? By whom?
Hand-written on the banner was “CANNON CO, 358th INF, 90th DIV,” followed by names of soldiers. Autographs surrounded the swastika, some with hometowns:
Capt Charles E. Wise
Lt. Charles W. Watson, Dayton, Ohio
Lt. Wilfred Glazer
Lt. Bernard M. Griffin, Wauwatosa, Wis
R. J. Henderson, 1st Lt.
And on and on. Eighty-two names of men who’d apparently served with the Cannon Co.
Pete’s name was not among them.
I’ve spent several weeks trying to answer questions about the banner and how it came to be in the trunk. My mother never spoke of it. I’d wanted to locate one of the men who’d signed the banner, hoping he might remember more details. Unfortunately, my research so far has disclosed no survivors among the banner-signers. One man died as recently as 7 April 2013.
In my search for information about the banner, I found a website for the 90th Division Association. They’ve digitized “After Action Reports” and “Daily Morning Reports” for all 90th Division units in Europe during WWII. Here I found documentation about where the 358th Infantry was fighting on 16 January 1945: in Luxembourg around the towns of Neiderwampach, Oberwampach and Shimpach. Did the Nazi banner hang in one of these villages? I posted an inquiry about the banner on the 90th Division Assn. website but have received no more information.
I have no answers, just a theory.
I believe the banner was likely a “spoil of war” from a village liberated by the 358th Infantry, probably on 16 January 1945 or shortly thereafter. My guess is Pete’s Cannon Co. buddies signed the banner and sent it to his widow as a tribute to their fallen comrade.
While the soldiers would have intended this as an honor, I doubt my mother took much comfort from their gift. Seeing the names of the 82 men who survived would serve only as a reminder of her great loss. I believe she stuffed the banner back into the canister, where it remained unseen for 68 years.
Her life went on. She spent 43 years as a teacher, county superintendent and elementary principal. She married George Henrichsen, Pete’s brother. They had two children: first me and then my brother, Maurice Clifton Henrichsen, named after Pete.
I showed the banner at a Memorial Day service this year in Pete’s home town. It was chilling to think about the possibilities. If Pete and others had not been willing to sacrifice themselves to defeat Hitler, the outcome of the war could have been very different. A banner like this could be hanging in auditoriums across America.