Oldest living alumnus recollects past, shares insight on future

Courtesy photo
A recent picture of Harold Heins. At age 99, Harold holds the position of being the oldest living alumnus of DCHS.

Maya P., Co-Editor

When I was first asked to do a story over David City High School’s oldest living alumnus, the first question that popped into my head was stereotypical. How was I, a 16-year-old who has never even left the country, supposed to communicate with a 99-year-old World War II veteran who just had lung surgery? The age difference was more than a gap; it was a canyon. I had the same ignorant ideology that a lot of teenagers have about people older than us: What do they have to offer that I don’t already know?

Turns out, the answer is a lot.

My first impression of Harold “Shorty” Heins was that he really lived up to his nickname. He was shorter than me–and I barely reach five foot. The next impression was that for a man who was about to breach a century of existence, he was incredibly avid and enthusiastic.

Minutes after my arrival, my recording device was set up, and Harold began to tell his story.

He was born August 5, 1915 as the middle child of three in a farmhouse just a mile north and half a mile west of Garrison, Neb. At the age of three, his family moved closer to the town where he’s lived for the past 96 years. His father worked on the farm while his mother performed as the organist at their church.

Growing up, Heins didn’t have many of the contraptions we have today. Lanterns were the popular source of light, horses still frequented the country roads, and cattle pastures hosted daily baseball games amongst boys. One of those boys was Harold, playing in 100-degree weather in the afternoon when he got out of the local school in Garrison.

When he wasn’t otherwise occupied, he was helping out on the farm. As he grew older, his interest in music and theater became more prominent. His first time singing a solo was at four years old.

“I would rather sing than eat!” Harold said.

That attitude carried on as he entered high school. In his junior year, Harold transferred to DCHS where he took part in the school play and music classes. In fact, he even stated that his favorite memory of high school was performing.

In contrast, his least favorite memory was not being able to participate as actively in sports because of his small stature.

According to Heins, the school was a lot different back then. Everything north of the commons area didn’t exist and the preschool building was just an empty lot. The school day ran from 8:45 a.m. when they performed The Pledge of Allegiance to 4 p.m. when class was dismissed. There were three periods before an hour-long lunch break at noon and three periods after.

The scheduled routine stayed the same for him until the last two weeks of his senior year, which he missed because he was sick. His favorite teacher, Mr. Landean, was the math instructor that helped him get caught up so he could graduate. The main thing he learned from high school was consistency.

“Stay with it and you will succeed,” Harold said.

Harold graduated high school at age 16 in 1932, an age that most of us would just be entering junior year in. Lost and not sure what he wanted to do, Harold stayed at home to work at the family farm and picked up a job delivering milk to the locals.

“My father was a farmer, so I figured that’s what I’d do,” Harold said.

Apart from herding cows, Harold would spend two or three days a week at the pasteurizing plant behind what is now David City’s U.S. Bank. Harold remembered delivering to the old hospital on 9th Street and the local parish. When he’d come to customers’ houses, it wasn’t an odd occurrence for them to let him inside their homes to replace what they needed.

“People in the city are just as nice today as they were then. Maybe they’re not as trustworthy as they used to be because of the way that conditions are, but people are still just as friendly and nice.”

Around the time that Harold was really beginning his life, another national event was kicking up trouble across the Midwest: The Dust Bowl.

Living on a farm made the dreary times a bit more bearable since they could raise their own livestock for food, but the the Heins family wasn’t exempt from the same wrath that millions of people across the nation were experiencing.

“I’ve seen when chickens go to bed at 3:30 in the afternoon because there’s so much dust in the air and it was so dark. It was just like a big thunderstorm coming in,” Harold said. “If you see when cars go by and there’s dust? That’s the way it was all the time.”

Harold’s mother used towels and flour sacks against the cracks in doors and windows to keep the dust from coming inside with the wind. After they were washed, they’d be hung up again and in 15 minutes they’d be dry from the heat.

“It was just like you’d had them in the dryer,” Harold said. “One-hundred and seven degrees was pretty regular.”

The heat didn’t stop Harold from going about his day, though. He still worked with the livestock and actually played ball once at one-hundred and fourteen degrees.

As The Dust Bowl began to die down, Harold married a wonderful woman named Ruby in 1940. They had a son, Larry, and lived with Harold’s father on the farm. In the following years, his wife was expecting her second child and things were beginning to look up.

“We struggled like everyone else in those times,” Harold said. “Remember, that it was 74 years ago. Many, many things have changed.”

Conditions for the newlyweds continued to change as the shadow of World War II began to loom overhead.

Harold was drafted into the service through Omaha, which meant he was obligated by law to take part in the war.

“[It was] heartbreaking. I was entering an unknown of whether I’d ever see my family again.”

Leaving his one-year-old son and pregnant wife for Camp Haan, Cali. on the Union Pacific, Harold spent around a year training for the upcoming war. During his time at camp, he received word that his newborn daughter, Beverly, had pneumonia and rushed home immediately because the doctor said he didn’t know if she’d make it or not.

“I was a stranger to her,” Harold said. ““[Being in the military] took the better part of my life out, really, because I had a little son, Larry, and we were expecting Beverly. She didn’t recognize me for about two or three months after the war ended.”

Upon his return to the camp after Beverly had a clean bill of health, he and his fellow servicemen traveled to another training area in the Mojave Desert for several weeks. They moved on to Camp Coxcomb, Cali., then were later loaded onto trains in Indio, Cali. to travel to an undisclosed location.

On April 12, 1944 they arrived at the Port of Entry for Camp Shanks in New York and stayed overnight before boarding the Queen Elizabeth on April 19. The Queen Elizabeth was one of the largest ships afloat at the that time, with room for 30,000 troops.

During their voyage across the Atlantic, Harold and the rest of his Anti-Aircraft Unit was given the assignment to man and protect the ship. When they dropped anchor at Greenock, Scotland on April 26, his unit continued its task as part of the 546 Battery C under General George Patton.

Stationed on the England coast for two months, Harold witnessed Germany as the country attempted to prevent the build up of the war by the English military.

“In England, they hauled all of our ammunition, all our guns, all our trucks, everything you needed in a wartime, and the Germans were trying to stop us from building that supply up. We’d have air raids there every night.”

One of the air raids cut pretty close for Harold. Around 5 p.m. one night, officers came into the building Harold was assigned to and called for a march order, which meant everyone was supposed to leave. It was discovered that Germans were going to bomb the building, and the U.S. troops got out just in time, far enough away when the buzz bombs—explosives launched over the English channel—hit.

After England, Harold moved on farther south to Germany. And while the experiences of German air raids were still fresh in his mind, his humanity toward soldiers on the opposite side remained intact.

“I saw all of the people that were killed, all the people that were emaciated, who didn’t have anything to eat. I’ve shot rabbits for German boys that didn’t have anything to eat. The Germans couldn’t shoot rabbits there, so they would come to [some of us] and you can’t believe how four or five boys would be fighting over that rabbit so they had something to eat,” Harold said. “It’s a horrendous thing to get into war.”

When entering France, the most important event Harold experienced was at Omaha Beach. Lasting two or three months, Harold continued to fulfill his role as a gunner in the No. 1 gunner crew, which meant he manned the weaponry used during combat. There were eight crews with 12 to 14 men with at least five at a single gun at all times 24 hours a day.

“My main job was to see to it that my gun fired. We had to be so familiar with that gun that we could take that gun apart in pitch black at night.”

Harold chose not to elaborate on the details of his responsibilities and experiences as a gunner.

I noticed the same hesitation in the interview as we moved onto the topic of the Holocaust. Harold and his troop went around and saw all of the concentration camps that Adolf Hitler had used.

“I’ve seen a trench with tracks at the bottom. They marched people in on that and shot them, had people put sticks on top of them and shot them. And more people put sticks on top of them and shot more people,” Harold said. “They’d done that three times, and then they burned them using tar. They didn’t all get burned, there were legs and some of their shoes and feet were still there. If you want to think of something that stays with you for life, that’ll do it.”

That experience was toward the end of Harold’s nearly three-year tour overseas before he returned to his family in 1948. He described the experience as overall rewarding.

“After all, we won the war, Hitler was defeated. Never take that lightly. Freedom is not free.”

But even then, Harold never really left the military. Over time, events happened in Harold’s life like most tend to do. His mother died of cancer at age 51, and his father lived to be 87. He had two more children, Patricia and Dean, with his wife. Harold and his wife moved to Florida for a while before she died of heart problems 20 years ago. To this day he has a total of 56 grandchildren—great, step or otherwise. He continued to work devotedly on the farm that he still lives on today.

In recent times, Harold has been given several opportunities to express his patriotism and represent his country. A couple of years ago, Harold was invited to represent the Army in the Veterans Day ceremony at the Nebraska Memorial Stadium in Lincoln before a football game.

“That was one of the nicest honors. I got to walk down the tunnel where all the guys go in, and got to high five [the players] as they came out.”

Harold was also part of the local veterans that traveled to Washington D.C. to be recognized four years ago. The day simulated the schedule like it was during World War II, like getting up at 4:30 a.m. for breakfast.

“It’s just unreal. You can’t say anything because you don’t have the words to describe it.”

I asked him how his expectations for life back then differed from how it actually played out. As a response, he said:

“[I] hoped for a good life. Money was hard to come by, and farming was a starvation kind of livelihood.  As years went along, things got better and farming and animal operations got better for me. I felt I improved my farming operation and turned out to be a successful farmer.”

Harold listed his greatest accomplishment to be his family, but there were things that if he could go back and change about his life, he would.

“I would have gone to the University to improve my education.”

Leaving Harold was harder than I imagined it to be. We’d only talked for an hour and I still had a million more questions about this man, his life, and his experiences. While the age difference had seemed like a canyon before, talking with Harold about his life had built a proverbial bridge between our age groups. He walked down the same halls and had the same uncertainty about the future that many students like myself still face today.

Meeting Harold changed my whole outlook on what life after school means. No matter what age you are, whether it be approaching a century or just entering high school, you can never tell what’s next.