By Dawn Arden
FORT LEONARD WOOD, Mo. (March 13, 2018) — Items dating back to the early 1940s were recently discovered during rehabilitation efforts of Building 2101, which is the historic Black Officers Club. A World War II defense bonds poster was found hanging in a wall behind sheet rock with “Harold Gruelle, Union, K.Y.” written to the right of it, along with a matchbook, found elsewhere in the building.
The discovery intrigued Stephanie Nutt, Cultural Resources Program coordinator, Center for Environmental Management of Military Lands, Directorate of Public Works Environmental Division, and led her on a mission to find the mystery Soldier.
“I know that on his enlistment papers he lists his civilian occupation as carpenter, so he was probably helping to build the building or do some of the work inside when he first got here. I’m assuming that’s how his name got on the wall,” Nutt said. “The walls would have been exposed because they didn’t really sheet rock those World War II buildings until the 1950s and 60s.”
Who was Harold Gruelle?
“Harold reported to Fort Thomas, Kentucky, May 9, 1942,” recalls Geneva Gruelle, Harold’s wife. “We visited him on Sunday afternoon before he departed to Fort Leonard Wood for nine weeks training, then he departed overseas.”
In 1942, a gallon of gas cost 15 cents, a new car could be purchased for approximately $900 and the world was at war when 29-year-old Harold Gruelle was drafted, leaving his home to serve in the U.S. Army.
“I do recall him saying that he was drafted at 29 and had a nick name of “the old man” or sometimes ‘Kentuck’ while in training,” said Tim Gruelle, Harold’s nephew.
Tim added that his uncle didn’t speak of his time at war very often, but he remembers conversations between Harold and his two brothers who also served in World War II. After Tim had grown and also spent time in the Army during Vietnam, he said his uncle began to open up about his own experiences.
“Harold was in the invasion of North Africa (Operation Torch) in November 1942. Ironically he was launched from a landing craft, as an assistant machine gunner on a .30 caliber, air-cooled machine gun. So as a trained engineer, he was thrown in as an infantryman, at least for the invasion,” Tim said. “After the invasion and French North Africa was secured, he was correctly slotted with the engineers and was later attached to the British Army doing heavy engineering.”
Tim said the harsh realities of war during that era were what was most difficult for Harold to speak of.
“I asked what he did with the British and he said, ‘build roads, smooth airstrips and bulldoze dead Italians and Germans into mass graves.’ Yes, that last sentence is harsh, but a reality. You have records of these films that I have also seen; one of the dozer operators may well have been Harold,” Tim said.
Harold’s time with the Army didn’t end there.
“After North Africa, he was involved in the invasion of Sicily and then Italy. In Italy, he also was involved in intelligence work,” Tim said. “As I remember and as much as he would say, (he was) assessing roads, dams and structures with engineer’s eyes for targeting, bombing and sabotage — overall destruction. He certainly applied (his engineer) training — adding a dose of good old common sense and his natural ability as a builder and carpenter.”
Unlike the deployments of today, where service members spend approximately nine months away from home, Harold wouldn’t return home until October of 1945.
“Harold never had leave, not even when his father died. (It was) three years until he came home,” Tim said. “My father (who was 17 at the time) remembers when his brother came home and told me his skin was baked to a dark leather by the North African sun, he hardly recognized him.”
After returning home, Harold went on to marry Geneva in April of 1946. He passed away in 1993.