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Here are the complete versions of Randy Stewart's interviews with Bill Cantrell--clothier, banker, restaurateur, and decorated WWII Marine fighter pilot; and Max DeForest, decorated WWII Army infantryman in the Battle of the Bulge, later owner of Race Brothers Farm and Home Supply--that aired in edited form on September 4, 2007 as part of KSMU's "Sense of Community" series.
84-year-old Max DeForest was born on a farm in Iowa. When the United States entered World War II Max had just graduated from high school. Young men who worked their families' farms were eligible for an automatic deferment from military service. Max did qualify, but as he says, "I didn't approve of that! And I waited 'til my younger brother was graduating, and then I went to the draft board and said, 'I'm ready to go.'" In the meantime he continued to work on the farm.
Max entered active duty in the U.S. Army in the summer of 1944. After going through basic training in Little Rock, Arkansas, he was assigned to the 78th Infantry ("Lightning") Division, and shipped out for Europe on New Year's Day 1945. He--along with "at least" 13,000 other young GIs (!)--were packed like sardines aboard the Queen Mary, which had been pressed into military service. According to Max, the Queen Mary "traveled fast and crooked! It traveled alone, made real good time. And actually, a reward was out for any Germans that could sink her, but they never did make it." When, decades later, Max stayed aboard the Queen Mary as a floating luxury hotel, he says they had a room set up to illustrate the conditions experienced by the soldiers being deployed to Europe in the war. "But they showed the bunks with probably three feet between them! Well, we hardly had room to turn over--we were just packed in that tight."
They landed in Scotland and after traveling to the south of England were taken across the English Channel on landing craft. "It was rough," says Max. They would frequently power down the ship's diesel engines "and we would lay, very quiet, so the U-boats wouldn't get to us, and then take off again. We played hide-and-seek going across there." They eventually docked at La Havre, France, which of course had been taken by the Allies in the D-Day Normandy invasion the previous June. Any illusions about "sunny France" were quickly dashed as the GIs spent the night in tents in bitterly cold, snowy conditions--it was January, after all. A few days later they were transported to the front on "some old, obsolete trains," traveling through Belgium--the division headquarters were across the border from Aachen, Germany, 65 kilometers from Cologne.
When they advanced to the line, Max's company was in a holding pattern in the Huertgen forest near Aachen, Germany, mired in deep snow. Max arrived just in time for the last several weeks of the infamous Battle of the Bulge, considered the bloodiest battle of the entire war. His division had gone into combat on December 13, 1944, several weeks before Max arrived. But as Max notes, "the fighting continued well after the 'Bulge' was declared over," as the Allies and the Germans jockeyed for possession of the town of Schmidt and the Schwammenauel Dam--"they'd been fighting in that area since September (1944), and many divisions had been wiped out. It had been a terrible, bloody fight... you just can't believe the fighting was like that--they'd kick us out, we'd get it (back), they'd kick us out." The Germans had managed to catch the Allies by surprise in the Battle of the Bulge--"by complete (surprise)," says Max; "we lost so many man in that." The official count was 19,000 U.S. dead, and it's claimed that there are 78,000 still missing in action. By contrast, Max says, "it's hard for me to look at this war (in Iraq) that we're now in, and think in four years we've lost 3000 people or so," when 19,000 died in just a couple of months in Germany early in 1945! Of course, the Allies were dealing with a harsh, bitterly cold European winter, so by no means were all the casualties at the hands of the enemy. "Many of our losses were from frozen feet," Max says.
When Max's unit crossed the Rhone River into the Cologne valley, it was like night and day--no signs of war, everyone had plenty of food. "We took several towns--we'd just take them and keep on moving." Max, through most of this time, was an infantry scout. In one town they rounded up the townspeople, and even accompanied them on their daily cow-milking and other chores. One woman Max talked to (albeit with some difficulty given the language barrier) told him she had a son who was a prisoner of war in Texas. Making sure the men of the town didn't see her, she slipped Max a piece of ham and gave him a hug--"and I was the 'enemy'! We saw a lot of things happen like that--they (the German civilians) just weren't afraid of us."
Max De Forest was wounded twice in the fighting--first on February 5, 1945, and later on March 10. After that second injury Max was taken out of action. His company had crossed the Rhine on March 9 through much strafing and bombing, as the Germans attempted to knock out the quarter mile-long bridge the Americans were trying to cross. "Probably the people that had the worst job to do were the combat engineers--they were out there throwing deck plate down" to cover the holes in the bridge so the troops could get across. On March 9th the Americans fought their way into the town of Brockhausen. The next morning Max and another scout were sent out to see if they could locate the enemy. Max scouted up ahead of his partner, and found "a horrible mess," at least 20 men down, either dead or badly wounded. Apparently they had walked into machine-gun fire, and help had not yet arrived. Max went back and reported his findings, and was sent out again.
Max had made it unharmed the first time, and he says "this was not unusual. I'd been amongst the enemy, but they wanted the company, I was small potatoes." But his luck ran out on the second expedition. He didn't get as far as he had the first time when a tank loomed up "and let go at me." He got up and ran for cover--"you always kept your eyes open for a place you could get to! Then he (the German gunner) knocked me down again, and then I decided I'd better play dead or he'd get me for sure." The Germans then opened up machine-gun fire on Max's company just up the road. As it happened, Max had a grenade launcher with him. "I was never any good at launching a grenade," he admits, but he managed to send one at just the right trajectory to get a "perfect airburst over the machine-gun nest and knock that out."
The medic eventually arrived, and Max impatiently said, "Hurry up! I have to rejoin the outfit!" The medic replied, "You're not going anywhere, except back to the battalion aid station!" But after getting patched up, Max grabbed his rifle and went back to join his company for "a real bitter fight, in heavy woods." They dug in for the night to try to hold the Germans off, but ended up losing a lot of men--killed, wounded or taken prisoner by the enemy. Eventually the company pulled back to Brockhausen to try to reorganize. Once there, the company commander sent for Max and declared, "De Forest, you're going to the aid station and THAT'S AN ORDER!" "And that ended my days of combat," Max says with a chuckle. He simply ignored his injury until they MADE him go to the hospital!
When he returned from five weeks in the hospital to rejoin his company, now at the city of Wuppertal, Max was surprised by the hero's welcome he received. "I didn't think I'd ever done anything, I just tried to stay alive was all." But they told him he'd been put in for decoration... and he received both the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star.
Max tells a funny story about the vagaries of mail delivery in wartime. "To look at today's war, the guys have cell phones and email and all that going on... but I might have received ONE letter from my wife, even though she'd written me daily!" A big batch of mail did catch up with him while he spent the five weeks in the hospital, however: "One day I got 123 letters, mostly from my wife!"
Max came home to the States in time for Christmas in 1945, a few months after the war in both Europe and the Pacific had been won by the Allies. No particular fuss was made in his small Iowa farm town, and Max says he didn't expect any either. Of course there had been some publicity relating to his being wounded and decorated. But for the most part, he says, "nobody paid any attention--you know, it's like I'd just been gone somewhere a little while. And I didn't expect any. I just came home and went to work." Overall, of his wartime tour of duty, Max says "it was an awful experience, but I'm glad I was there."
Not long after the war, Max went to work in Omaha for Tractor Supply Company, "a one-owner company, great guy named Charlie Schmidt," who had just opened his tenth store. After working in Omaha Max went on to manage various stores for the company throughout Illinois, eventually working his way up to the position of company vice-president. Max calls Charlie Schmidt "a great 'people person'... and I learned a lot from him." Max admits, though, to being rather hesitant at first to press for advancement, as he was virtually the only one in the company without a college education. But Charlie Schmidt urged him to "reach for the top--it's not crowded up here, and we're not as smart as you think we are!"
Max spent 24 years with Tractor Supply Company, but eventually it was bought out by a large conglomerate and Max decided he "had to resign while I had some pride left." After working for a year or so in Phoenix, Arizona, Max bought Race Brothers Farm and Home Supply here in Springfield in 1971. A few years earlier Max had been working at Tractor Supply's Chicago office along with Charlie Schmidt. One of his duties was to field inquiries from potential franchisees. One day Lloyd and Orville Race came up from Springfield, and Max and Charlie were so impressed with them they walked out with a deal that day. One of the contract stipulations was that they give Tractor Supply right of first refusal to buy their company if they went out of business. While Max was in Phoenix the Race brothers called him, saying the new owners of Tractor Supply had turned down their offer to buy them out, so they invited Max to come to Springfield to talk about it. He ended up purchasing Race Brothers Farm and Home Supply, and he and his sons have run that company out of Springfield and Monett since 1971. "It was a business that was ready for someone to do something with, I guess you could say."
Max is still Chief Executive Officer and minority shareholder of Race Brothers, but today his sons run the company. Roger, the Vice-President, is the one we see in their TV commercials. Craig is President of the company, but as his dad says with a chuckle, "he wouldn't be good on television for much of anything!" He goes on, "the boys treat me well, and they're doing a good job." Max and his wife also have a daughter who lives in Mesa, Arizona.
Over the years Max has been involved in the Springfield community as a member of the Rotary Club, the Boys and Girls Shelter, and he was on the Fair board for more than 15 years.
Recently Max traveled to Lansing, Michigan for a reunion with the surviving members of his old "F" company. The 78th Infantry Division meets on even-numbered years, and Max's F Company group holds reunions on odd-numbered years. There is a lot of second-generation involvement in the group as well. And, until a few years ago the F Company reunion committee would always invite Germans and Belgians to attend the reunions. Max still corresponds with a gentleman in Wuppertal, Germany (the last German city taken by Max's company) named Gerd Hoerner, "just a super guy, speaks real good English."
Max sums up his war experience this way: "The Germans, they were all right--they got misled. But that's war. It is that way."
You can read Rep. Charlie Denison's U.S. House Resolution saluting Max De Forest for his service to his country and his community at http://www.house.mo.gov/bills051/hlrbillspdf/4521C.01.pdf.