Preserving Family History: Chronicling a Father’s World War II Experience

By Dustin Bass
Dustin Bass
Dustin Bass
Dustin Bass is the co-host of The Sons of History podcast and the creator of the Thinking It Through YouTube channel. He is also an author.
August 4, 2021 Updated: August 4, 2021

Harry Albert Elias enlisted in the Army shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor. He fought in the European Theater from June 19, 1944, to May 5, 1945, with the 35th Infantry Division’s 733rd Field Artillery Battalion. He was honorably discharged on Oct. 22, 1945, and came back home. Those are the easily discernible details.

What isn’t easily discernible is what happened during those brutal months in Europe. The black-and-white photos can only describe so much. The soldier who took those photos, however, can paint more than a thousand words. He can paint a world that’s far removed.

The Chronicling of a War Story

Barbara Moneypenny had listened to numerous World War II stories over the years from her father, Harry Albert Elias. His box of war photos sat somewhere in the house collecting dust and holding memories. But that box of photos and a less-than-detailed oral history was all the family had. With her father nearing his 76th birthday and struggling with Parkinson’s, she knew there was little time left to chronicle his story. As Father’s Day approached in 1996, she decided the time was now to capture it.

“We sat for days on end just sorting pictures and talking,” she said. “He had a great big box full of pictures that he took during World War II. He had a little Brownie camera with him. Everywhere he went, he took pictures. He would either type or write on the back of the pictures what happened and what was going on. I learned so much from my dad—what all he went through and how horrible it was.”

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Harry Albert Elias stands in a crater left by a 500-pound bomb. (Courtesy of the Harry Albert Elias family)
Epoch Times Photo
Harry stands on the platform of a 90mm anti-aircraft gun. (Courtesy of the Harry Albert Elias family)

Sharon Crosby, Harry’s eldest daughter, who had reached out initially to me about her father, said that what her sister did was so important because their father simply didn’t talk much about the war.

“When we were younger, we heard almost nothing,” she said. “As we got older, we could pull little bits of stories out. But it was always storytelling. He told us about the barracks, and the food, and the marching, and the mud, and the rain, but a lot of the more serious things we learned through the pictures and the notations on the pictures.”

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Harry stands on the platform of a 90mm anti-aircraft gun. (Courtesy of the Harry Albert Elias family)
Epoch Times Photo
(Courtesy of the Harry Albert Elias family)
Epoch Times Photo
(Courtesy of the Harry Albert Elias family)

After spending a vast amount of time with her father, Barbara put together a book chronicling his time in the war. It’s a detailed piece of work full of photos, maps, personalized annotations, his discharge paper, Christmas cards sent from the field, and a thorough breakdown of his battalion’s movement throughout the conflict.

Not all of it, however, is war-related. Some of the details include what might have been had the war not broken out. Harry had been a baseball player and was in the farm league for the Cleveland Indians before the war started. The notation on the back of the photo of him in his baseball uniform reads, “My good old days! I wonder how far I would have gone if the war hadn’t interfered.”

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Harry Albert Elias was in the Cleveland Indians’ farm league. (Courtesy of the Harry Albert Elias family)

There are photos also of what Harry did despite the war interfering. There is a photo of him and Lorraine with a comical notation: “My favorite wife!!!”

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Harry and Lorraine were married for 62 years. (Courtesy of the Harry Albert Elias family)

Harry got married to Lorraine Stickles on Saint Patrick’s Day 1942, a little more than a month after enlisting in the Army. They decided to marry on that holiday because it gave them a little more time together. Barbara and Sharon said it was an ongoing joke that they honeymooned in Youngstown, Ohio. Harry and Lorraine had their official honeymoon in San Francisco when he returned from the war some 3 1/2 years after they wed.

The Darker Side of the Story

Harry fought in eight different corps under three different Armies: the 1st, the 7th, the 9th, and was attached at times to the 3rd. He saw combat in France, Belgium, and Germany. He fought in the famous Battle of the Bulge—the last-ditch effort by the Germans to push the Allies out of Germany.

There were two moments, however, that haunted him the most.

He was part of the 9th Army that liberated Gardelegen, a city 75 miles west of Berlin. It was a moment he had never gone into detail about until he sat down with his daughter.

“When I was doing the book with dad, he went into a little more detail about what he saw,” Barbara said. “He was talking about the march going to that camp. He was talking to me about finding bodies along the road and about the horror of it. I don’t even want to go into detail because some of it was pretty gross. It was unreal.”

The book shows photos of the area where between 700 and 1,200 French, Jewish, Polish, and Soviet political prisoners were murdered. The cruelty culminated with German soldiers forcing approximately 200 prisoners into a barn and then setting it on fire. Numerous prisoners, so terrified and attempting to escape the flames, tried to dig their way out from under the barn. One photo in the book has a notation that reads, “That’s a man’s head under the door.”

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The bodies of those murdered by German soldiers during the Gardelegen Massacre are prepared for burial. (Courtesy of the Harry Albert Elias family)
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(L) A close-up of the dead from the Gardelegen Massacre. (R) In the background is the barn where approximately 200 prisoners were murdered. The Red Cross flag in the foreground is the only visual proof that the Red Cross was there to assist in the aftermath. (Courtesy of the Harry Albert Elias family)
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(Courtesy of the Harry Albert Elias family)
Epoch Times Photo
These photos show dead prisoners who had tried to escape the burning barn. A prisoner’s head sticks out from under the barn after trying to dig his way out of the burning building. (Courtesy of the Harry Albert Elias family)
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Crosses are placed at the graves of those killed during the Gardelegen Massacre. In the background are the townspeople digging the graves. The Ninth Army command required the townspeople to bury the dead, and to do so without masks or gloves. (Courtesy of the Harry Albert Elias family)

The aftermath of the march and the barn massacre shook Harry to his core, but even more so was the knowledge of who wrought this atrocity.

“Part of the group that was marching these men to this barn were young people,” Barbara said. “He just couldn’t imagine a young person doing that. All the men were elsewhere fighting for Germany, and here, these were teenagers. They herded them into a barn and set it on fire. There were people literally coming out from underneath the barn and they would just shoot them.”

She added that her father took these pictures because he wanted people to know and see the horror from his firsthand account.

Some of those firsthand accounts can actually be seen in the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. A few years ago, Sharon had read an article in The Wall Street Journal about Gardelegen. She contacted the author of the article, who in turn referred her to the Holocaust Museum. Six of Harry’s photos are on display at the museum, including one which solved a slight mystery.

“One of the photos was a Red Cross ambulance, and the lady I was dealing with, when she saw the pictures, just stopped and said, ‘We had heard stories that the Red Cross was there, but this is the only picture of proof we’ve ever seen.’” Sharon said. “It was like, ‘Dad, this was supposed to be. This is why you took that picture.’ I know Dad would’ve been very, very happy to know that his pictures were in a place where they would actually go toward preserving this important and horrendous piece of history.”

The second moment came outside of Berlin, where U.S. troops were ordered to stop at the Elbe River. Popular opinion has been that President Franklin D. Roosevelt had made “political” arrangements with the Soviet government to allow them to enter Berlin first. Some suggest that Supreme Allied Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower made the arrangement. But more than two weeks before Berlin was taken, Roosevelt died, resulting in Harry S. Truman becoming president. It seems as though no particular agreement was made to allow the Soviets to take Berlin first, though the Soviets indeed did.

Upon asking Gen. Omar Bradley’s opinion on the situation, Bradley wrote to Eisenhower that an American attempt to reach Berlin first could cost 100,000 casualties, which he considered “a pretty stiff price to pay for a prestige objective. Especially when we’ve got to fall back and let the other fellow [Soviets] take over.”

Regardless of why—either for military or political reasons—Harry, as well as many other soldiers, and civilians—American and otherwise—were angry about the halt.

“He sat for two weeks and they knew they could have gone in and captured Hitler,” Barbara said. “He said what the Russians did to the Germans in Berlin made him sick. The horrors that went on there. I don’t know how far out from Berlin they were. I don’t know if he could hear it, he could see it, or anything. They were really close. To the day he died, he was mad about that. You go all through Europe and the person you want is right there.”

“And Dad valued life,” Sharon added. “Had they entered Berlin, many less men would have had to die.”

Civility in the Midst of Chaos

Harry had pictures taken during a medal ceremony. In the photo, his unit is standing at attention, but the notation points to something he considered much more significant. “Right behind these buildings is a large hospital with a large cross on its roof. It wasn’t touched during the bombing.”

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Harry and his unit being presented medals during an award ceremony in Dinslaken, Germany. This is where he received his Bronze Star. (Courtesy of the Harry Albert Elias family)

He thought it important to point out to his daughters that both sides went out of their way to spare buildings that were being used as hospitals. They were able to be identified by the cross placed on top.

Later in the conversation, Barbara and Sharon recalled that their father was a “chocoholic.” Their mother, who was always hiding the chocolate, seemed to purposely leave it hidden where Harry could find it. It was this love of chocolate that led him to some of his fond memories of the war.

“The one thing he would talk about a lot was giving the chocolate to the children,” Barbara said. “That brought joy to him more than anything else. That was one of the simple pleasures and happiness that he found while he was over there. I don’t think it was so much the people thanking him and stuff like that, it was just giving whatever they could to help the people out.”

Along with his love of chocolate was his love of dogs. He and his fellow soldiers had found a stray that soon became the company dog and helped provide a sense of normalcy during their time in Europe. They named this dog Herman, but called it Hermie.

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Soldiers in Harry’s outfit found and adopted a dog and named him Herman the German, aka “Hermie.” (Courtesy of the Harry Albert Elias family)

“He went with the guys everywhere,” Barbara said. “They fed and took care of him. The sad part was when they came home, they weren’t allowed to bring him. Before they came home, they actually went and tried to find a family for the dog. That was their buddy.”

Sharon added that what helped their father during the war, and after, dealing with the memories, was his faith.

“He was a true and deep believer in Christ and it never wavered, not throughout his entire life,” she said. “The people who interacted with Dad saw that. I think he was probably a comforter as much as anything. That’s the way Dad always was. He would get up at 4 a.m. every morning to have his quiet time before us kids piled down, and do his Bible study. He was always quiet and he was always grounded and I think that was what kept him sane.”

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Harry Albert Elias and his daughter Sharon Crosby. (Courtesy of the Harry Albert Elias family)

The Story Lives On

Harry Albert Elias died in 2005, nine years after Barbara chronicled his story. Of the 16 million Americans who served in World War II, approximately 325,000 remain. Soon there will be none left of that Greatest Generation. All the more reason why capturing the remaining stories is so important.

“It’s of the utmost importance,” Sharon emphasized. “Not just for the family. We’re losing the history as these men pass away, and sadly, we’re seeing it being lied about. More and more we’re hearing, ‘The Holocaust never happened. You’re crazy.’ If we don’t pass it on to the next generation and make sure they understand that this really happened and that it is not a single solitary event; unless we safeguard all the wonderful things we have in this nation, it will happen again. It’s just urgently important.”

Dustin Bass is co-host of the podcast The Sons of History and the creator of the channel Thinking It Through on YouTube. He is also an author.

Dustin Bass
Dustin Bass
Dustin Bass is the co-host of The Sons of History podcast and the creator of the Thinking It Through YouTube channel. He is also an author.