AVON PARK —When Richard Wolf, 96, was sworn into military service with the U.S. Army Air Force in April 1941, in-processing was handled at a converted factory, the American Lady Corset Co., in Detroit, Mich.
It had been commandeered by the military because of the increased need to process the number of citizens volunteering for military service.
Once Wolf was sworn in, the journey began with a trip to the then-Camp McCoy, Wis., for indoctrination training.
During the course of the war, more than 300,000 soldiers would receive four weeks of indoctrination training covering military discipline and courtesy, security awareness, physical fitness, gas-mask and chemical training.
Once the indoctrination was completed, Wolf was assigned to the 5th Infantry Division at Fort Custer, Mich.
When he heard he was going to be an infantryman, Wolf tried to tell the desk sergeant he was supposed to be in going into the “Army Air Force.”
The sergeant promptly asked him: “What is the key word in that description?” When Wolf started to reply “Army,” he was cut off from finishing it with “Air Force” and the sergeant said “You are in the Army, not the Air Force!”
Wolf was shipped to Illinois and worked at many ports along the Mississippi River. He had first aid training as a Boy Scout and volunteers were sought to transfer from the infantry division to a medical battalion as a corpsmen. Seizing the opportunity, Wolf was transferred to the 5th Infantry Division, 5th Medical Battalion at Ft. Indiantown Gap, Pa.
It was a baptism by fire for him, literally.
During his relocation, his bedding was loaded on an ambulance to be transported. The ambulance caught fire during an accident and everything went up in flames. At the next payday, Wolf’s pay, which was normally $27.70, was docked for all of the government gear that had been burned, leaving him with only $2.25 for the month.
When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, the United States officially declared war and Wolf’s unit prepared for deployment.
They took a train to the New York Naval shipyard in Brooklyn and boarded a ship for transport to the war zone. His ship left for Halifax, Nova Scotia, and arrived safely. That night, while the ship was tied up in the port, a fire on the ship ignited the ammunition.
The damage was so severe the ship was intentionally scuttled and Wolf’s unit was transferred to a converted cruise ship – the SS Borinquen, sailing with the USS Pennsylvania, a battleship, and the British destroyer HMS Mahratta -- making for Iceland to establish a command post and protect the North Atlantic convoy routes. Upon arrival, the men began unloading the ship by hand until winches were available.
Wolf was shocked at the quantity of gasoline, bombs and bullets in the cargo hold, and was relieved that he hadn’t known it was there during the journey or he wouldn’t have slept, he remembered.
The 5th Division moved to Ireland and began staging with other units to support the D-Day invasion.
They arrived on July 8, 1944, a month after the initial landing at Normandy, France. There was still strong resistance and Wolf was saddened to see many of his shipmates injured or killed.
By August, the 5th Division had moved extensively around France, seeing combat in Vidouville, Angers, Fontainebleau, Reims and many other key locations.
While liberating the town of Chartres on Aug. 18, 1944, Wolf remembered seeing Gen. George S. Patton, operating out of his command trailer on the back of a truck.
“He had his dog with him, a bull terrier that went everywhere with him. I still remember Patton directing traffic at Chartres Cathedral. He was showing them how he wanted it done,” he said.
On Sept. 7, 1944, the division was set to launch an assault to free the city of Metz from German occupation.
“We went all the way into Metz and had to come back out because our fuel supply was diverted to support the ill-fated invasion at Arnheim known as ‘Operation Market Garden,’” he said.
“We were stopped, we couldn’t go any further, and the whole division was trapped.” Wolf remembers the heavy casualties in Metz. Within a week, a bridgehead was successfully secured and Wolf said that “Patton had some connections in the area and was able get us some gas. We finally crossed the Moselle River near Arnaville.”
For Wolf, recalling Operation Market Garden is a painful memory. His unit did not participate in it, but as the largest airborne operation ever attempted, military forces in the area were affected by the outcome when it failed to meet any of the intended objectives.
Composed of allied forces from Britain, United States and Poland, casualties (wounded, captured or killed) totaled between 15,130 and 17,200 troops.
In March 1945, the 5th Infantry Division crossed the Rhine River. Approximately 19,000 German soldiers were captured and Wolf’s division continued to Frankfurt-am-Main, Germany.
April found the division driving across the Czechoslovakian border and the war was ending.
Wolf began to think of returning home. Unfortunately, the war was not yet ready to release him from its grip.
“When the war ended, we were in Volary, Czechoslovakia,” he remembered. “About 500 college-age girls were marched from Poland to Czechoslovakia in the winter. The Germans put them in the schoolhouse and killed them. The chaplain and everyone in the area came together and held a memorial service for the girls.”
“We finally returned home and I got out about a year later. It was a good experience in a lot of ways, but a bad experience losing so many friends. It was a good experience coming home alive. We had mortars and machine guns against an enemy with the same, and that didn’t leave much for medics to help with.”
After leaving the service, veterans were paid $21 per month for a year.
The state of Michigan gave each veteran a one-time check for $320 in recognition of his or her service.
When he left the military on Sept. 22, 1945, Wolf was a Technician Third Grade and had been awarded the Bronze Star, Army Good Conduct Medal, European - African - Middle Eastern Campaign Medal, American Defense Medal, American Campaign Medal, WWII Victory Medal, WWII Army Occupation Medal with German bar, Battle of the Bulge Campaign Star, and the Combat Medical Badge.
As a means of honoring veterans, Wolf began making commemorative wall clocks featuring the medals and campaign honors earned by the veteran.
Over the years, Wolf estimates he has made more than 100 clocks and enjoyed every minute of doing so.
Wolf was eventually hired as a mail carrier for the United States Postal Service and remained on the job for 34 years.
He was also taking care of his parents – his father suffered from dementia -- and Wolf needed to earn enough money to assist with their care.
“I was walking the route and I’d take all the hours that I could get – this meant time and a half, also made for a nice nest egg,” he said.
Wolf was born in Detroit, Mich. on March 10, 1918. He grew up there until his deployment and saw many changes through the years.
“I watched Detroit go from heaven to hell,” he said.
Wolf met Agnes, his first wife, when he was about 50 years old, and she soon wanted to marry.
“I wouldn’t marry her until my parents had passed. I was 60 years old by that time, but didn’t want to burden her with assisting in the care of my parents.”
Widowed after about 25 years, Wolf started dating Margaret and they were married on Feb. 3, 2000 and are still together today, living in Avon Park.
Rita Dawson, VFW Post 9853 Ladies Auxiliary member, has known Wolf for 25 years. “He joined the post in 1989, within a few months of initial incorporation and was our commander at VFW 9853 for 1991-1992,” she said.
Wolf was truly interested in helping veterans and their families.
“Richard has really been there for me as a friend when I needed it,” she said.