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Column: From Germany to the U.S., the unique story of Herman Greve

Editor’s note: Former longtime Daily Globe Editor Ray Crippen died Dec. 27, 2015. We will continue to publish previously run “Isn’t That Something” columns on Saturdays, until further notice, as a tribute to Crippen and his knowledge of local and regional history. The following column first appeared Oct. 14, 2006.

WORTHINGTON — Veterans from nine wars.

One week ago this column reviewed veterans I have known from nine American wars, from Reuben Hurd, soldier of the Civil War, and Frank Potthast, soldier of the war with Spain, on to Tim O’Brien, the war in Vietnam, and on further still to the present wars.

“Is there a veteran you believe is different — is there a veteran you knew who has a special story?” That question was posed to me at coffee.

There was one veteran — I never knew another soldier with his story.

Hestoft is a village in Schleswig. Once Schleswig was a duchy, ruled by a duke. In times we know, Schleswig is a province of Germany, far to the north, touching on Denmark.

One hundred seven years ago this month — Oct. 20, 1899 — a baby boy, Herman Greve, was born in that chill, borderland village of Hestoft.

Herman Greve was only 15 when World War I erupted. He was still a teen-ager when he was drafted into service with the German army under Kaiser Wilhelm II. After a short basic training — “This is a rifle, this is your gas mask” — the boy soldier from Schleswig went into action on the Western front.

Almost before he was a combat veteran, Herman was captured in a muddy trench by the French. He was sent to a prison camp. As he came to know the strange new world around him, he regretted he was not a prisoner of the Americans. He appreciated Americans were giving their POWs better care.

With the war ended in November 1918, and the prisoner exchanges completed by 1919, Herman Greve, now 20, was free. He returned to his home to resume a life of a farmer, the life his ancestors had known through generations. By 1925, Germany was being overwhelmed by the Great Depression. Germany’s problem was inflation; a loaf of bread might cost half-a-million marks. Herman’s efforts with farming were not prospering. He made a decision to come to America, a land he had come to admire.

Henry and Cora Schackel both were working at E.O. Olson’s Worthington Creamery at that time. Henry had a deep German root. With the Schackels’ help, Herman Greve became a resident of Nobles County, Minnesota, and another worker at the Ninth Street creamery.

Herman never regretted his decision. He enjoyed his work. He opened a bank account and he prospered. He went to St. Matthew’s Lutheran church in an era when there still were some worship services conducted in the German language. Herman studied and became an American citizen.

Years slipped by. 1931. 1936. 1941. Herman Greve was 42 years old the year Japan bombed Pearl Harbor and America was plunged into World War II. Henry Schackel bought a farm north of Worthington. Herman, who had nearly a hunger for a farmer’s life, was often with Henry, helping with chores of every kind.

The war began to stretch into years. 1942. 1943. The United States was casting about for soldiers, more soldiers. Herman Greve, bachelor, was drafted into service with the American army. In World War I, in Germany, he had been a boy soldier, too young, really, for combat. Now, in World War II, he was an old man by usual standards of soldiering. He had seen his 44th birthday.

The American army did not press Herman into combat duty. He was trained as a medical corpsman. It was, in part, an opportunity for learning something never dreamed of.

At this juncture, serious questions were posed. Should a former German be sent into combat against Germans? Germany and Japan were allies. Should a former German be involved in the war with Japan?

It made sense to the Army to assign Pvt. Herman Greve of Schleswig and Nobles County to a post in India. He was one of a scant handful of residents of the local area to serve with the small American and British force that protected the borders of India from invasion.

With his second war ended, Herman returned to Worthington and bought a farm. He was proud to be an American landowner.

Cancer took Herman’s life in 1978. He is buried in Worthington Cemetery. He had a soldier’s story different from others I ever knew.