Wendell Albert may live in North Dakota now, but he's a true Boston boy.
Albert, 91, is originally from an old town that goes way back — Braintree, Mass., which was incorporated in 1640. He lived just 5 or 6 miles from John Adams' house.
He has a quick sense of humor and a thick Boston accent. “Pa’don me?” he’d kindly ask to get questions repeated.
"So many people say, ‘Where are you from?'” he said, laughing.
Albert also enjoys good beer, which he used to drink often but now it’s just one glass of wine a day.
He recalls the years he spent in the U.S. Army and Air Force during World War II and the Korean War. In 1943, he was drafted into the U.S. Army three weeks after graduating from high school, along with most of the men in his class.
Albert, the youngest of two boys, tried to join the Marine Corps when he was 17, but said he got laughed at because of his smaller 140-pound frame.
He completed basic training in Texas and Louisiana. He joined the 84th Infantry Division as a rifleman, and, in the late summer or early fall of 1944, he was put on a boat to Europe.
His first campaign was in Rhineland, which was “pillboxes and flat, open country because the Germans didn’t want any cover.”
There were no trees or anything, Albert said.
“It must’ve looked like 1916 again, you know what I mean?” he asked.
He fought in the Battle of the Bulge during the middle of December in 1944 and his arm got wounded, for which he later sought a Purple Heart. He has a handwritten letter from a platoon medic, but, because he didn’t go to an aid station, he was told he would not qualify to receive a Purple Heart.
Albert spent seven weeks in Belgium and ended up 80 miles from Berlin.
On May 7, 1945, the war ended.
“We all just breathed a big sigh of relief and said, 'Oh my god," said Albert, who was 20 years old at the time.
He was sent to south Germany for occupation near Mannheim. His division was split into units and he was stationed at a small German village.
“The misery was all around us, for everybody," Albert said. "(For) the Germans, a lot of the guys were dead, of course, a lot of ‘em are still in POW cages, prisons.”
He said he was promised to be released six months after the war had ended.
“And of course it didn’t end until Hiroshima — when they dropped the A-bombs," Albert said.
“In a sense, when they dropped them A-bombs, wow, that made a difference — to us, on the ground," he said. "Now, when people look back they may scratch their heads and say, ‘Why did they have to do something like that?’ Because the whole goddamn world was insane!”
Albert returned home around Christmas of 1945 and was honorably discharged on Jan. 26, 1946.
Back in Braintree
When Albert came back from the war he was 4 months shy of his 21st birthday.
"I couldn't drink beer or vote," he laughs. “I had four months to sweat it out."
Naturally, when he turned 21, he found several Braintree beer joints, his favorite called Cozy Corner Cafe. At the time, all he wanted were several beers, a pack of Lucky Strike cigarettes and conversations with other recently discharged vets.
Several months after returning home he got a job as a special police officer in Braintree, patroling the town's public swimming facility at Sunset Lake.
Albert was armed with only a used nightstick and "twisters" to place around a perpetrator's wrists. He didn't make any arrests all summer.
Albert spent a couple semesters studying at the University of Massachusetts at Fort Devens with the other ex-servicemen.
Sometime during the fall and winter of 1947, he began thinking about re-enlisting. He met with a recruiting sergeant who spoke of the advantages of post-war army, including choice of branch location. Albert selected 1st Calvary in Japan but, at the last minute, had second thoughts and instead joined the U.S. Air Force, serving four years and several months on what was to be a three-year enlistment.
In the early spring of 1951, he was sent to South Korea with the 4th Fighter Wing, stationed at Suwon and then Kimpo air force bases. He did handling, storage and issued various types of ammunition-rockets, bombs, flares and small arms ammo.
“I kind of sweated it out. The Chinese Spring Offensive was going on at that time, and they weren’t too far away," Albert said.
Albert was honorably discharged on Jan. 7, 1952, and resumed his studies at the University of Massachusetts, now located in Amherst.
He earned a bachelor's degree in wildlife management and worked for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services as a wildlife biologist for 25 years.
He moved to Bismarck in 1964. Before that, he worked out in the field doing environmental services in the eastern states, Nebraska, Montana and then North Dakota.
“That would be like if the Soil Conservation Service, the Corps of Engineers, the Bureau of Reclamation were going to rip up something, cut down something, destroy some wildlife habitat, we would take a look at it and try to recommend what could be done to prevent or ease the damages to fish and wildlife," said Albert, who retired with his late wife, a typist who worked at the state Capitol, in 1980 and lived in a modular home on 40 acres of land.
“When I retired in 1980, it was just real nice," said Albert, who has compiled several journals and military photos chronicling his life in the army, right after high school and through college.
He has worked on the journals two or three times over 10 or 15 years, and donated some copies to the State Historical Society of North Dakota and Bismarck State College.
(Reach Blair Emerson at 701-250-8251 or Blair.Emerson@bismarcktribune.com)