ALAMO — WWII was raging all around the Phillippines. Gene Birlingmair had made the beachhead on Mandanao Island with the 40th Division, 108th Infantry, A Company. For the last few nights they had headed up Sayre Highway towards the mountains and whatever that held for them. Each night they hunkered down in their 2-man foxholes, not to emerge until morning.
“The other guy in my foxhole had stood guard for an hour and then said to me, ‘I’m leaving,’” Gene said.
“You can’t leave,” he said to the man.
“I’m getting the hell out of here. I just can’t take it anymore,” said the man.
“Don’t you know if you stick your head up out of this foxhole, they’re going to shoot anything that moves?” Gene asked with urgency.
“I don’t care. I’m leaving!” he said, obviously in dire distress. “I’m leaving!”
Holding him down until he finally went to sleep, Gene didn’t wake him all night. The next morning he asked his buddy a simple question.
“What the hell were you doing last night? Where did you think you were going?”
“I don’t know. I flipped. I just couldn’t think of staying here any longer,” said the man.
Gene never did say whether the man said “Thank You” for saving his life. Soon he would be saying Thank You himself.
Gene, born in Osceola, Iowa, was the youngest of five children.
“We lived on a farm in southern Iowa, a very poor part of the country. Back in those days they didn’t do anything than just live off the farm which we did. We went to a one room country school house, walking to school,” he said. “Some of the kids rode their horses to school, then let them loose to go back home to work.”
His memories run deep.
“My dad bought a Ford Model T when I was about six months old and I learned to drive in it when I was 16,” Gene said. “For Christmas, we’d get a wagon and that would be the present for all seven kids. Dad would get a galvanized bucket of hard candy for the whole family and we’d decorate with paper wreaths.”
After graduation from high school, he went to work for a farmer making $30-40 a month with room and board. In the fall he picked corn by hand at eight cents a bushel, picking 100 bushels a day. Working for the farmer got him a deferment which only lasted a few months before he was called into the service in 1944.
Serving his basic training in Ft. Hood, Texas, it was the first time he’d been over 150 miles from home in his life. Ending up in the Phillippines, he arrived at Leyte as a replacement for those who had been injured.
In a mopping up exercise, he went out to make that beachhead on a ship with LCI, landing craft, infantry.
“We were in this steel bodied tank, the door of the ship opened and they’d drive off and drop in the water. You swore like hell you were just going to sink. I couldn’t imagine that thing floating,” he said, seriously.
But land they made (getting stuck in a rice paddy) and up to the mountains they went until they were looking down into Mangima Canyon where the Japanese were hiding. His A company, and B and C Companies, would all take turns going down into the canyon to rout out the opposing forces.
Unexpectedly, on their turn, they spent the night down in the canyon, Gene digging his foxhole beside a big rock, letting his body warm up the muddy hole. The next morning Gene earned his Purple Heart while on a water detail. (See accompanying article — A Soldier’s Last Foxhole)
When his officer called out to check on them, finding out the damage to the men a smokescreen was called for by their radio operator who was a lifesaver.
“The tanks around there put a smokescreen to conceal us so we could get out. I told them I’d get out on my own but I tried to move and couldn’t. I tried to crawl a little bit but I just kept going in a circle. I thought my arm was in front of me but here it is back here,” he said, reliving the moment. “When they told me to move I jumped up and ran to where they were, blacking out just as I got there.”
Hospital by hospital he finally arrived at O’Reilly General Hospital in Springfield, Missouri, because that was closest to his home in Iowa. In Springfield for quite a while to recuperate, Gene finally ventured out on his own. After his release he lived at home with an old car because new cars were simply not available.
Receiving an intriguing card — You may qualify for a new car as a disabled veteran — he went on over to talk to the fellow. With the help of a bank, his dad, brother and him, they raised the $1927 for the brand new shiny black 2 door 6 cylinder 1947 Oldsmobile, Model 66 with automatic — no clutch!
“I was on top of the world! The first month I had it I drove it with my left foot out the window to prove I didn’t have a clutch I had to use,” he said, laughing. “I drove it 92,000 miles.”
One day he headed on over to a skating rink in Des Moines for a visit. There he found Shirley.
“We met on February 29, 1947, a leap year. I had gone to Des Moines to work by then,” said Shirley. “It was really nice to have a nice guy that happened to be close to where you were, understood your background, where you were from - home farms. We enjoyed each other, enjoyed skating, enjoyed doing all the things we did. And, I did love his car!”
Married 63 years ago this New Year’s Eve, they figure it’s lasted quite well.
“People ask what do you do to make a marriage last 63 years,” Gene said, with a deep chuckle. “I thought what makes it work and wrote it down. It consists of 12 words - Don’t marry too young. Don’t consider another one. Don’t die too young.”
Because of his arm, farm work was out. Gene ended up in the heating and air conditioning business and retired in 1989. Shirley retired from Meredith Corporation in 1990 afer 22 years as an expediter of Better Homes and Gardens magazine and they headed off in their RV.
In Branson, Missouri, they found a place where veterans could sign up to look for a buddy in their outfit. Having never kept in touch with his outfit since he’d only been in for 16 months, he finally decided to look them up.
“I found a guy in Oklahoma that would have been in about the time I was. I called him and when he answered I told him who I was,” said Gene.
“You don’t remember me. I saw your name in Branson. I was in the 40th Division. I don’t know whether I was anywhere around you or close to you or how close we could have been. The easiest way to find out is I will tell you where I’ve been and you see if you relate to it because I don’t remember. I started telling him stuff. ‘Yup. Yup. Yup,’ he said. I figured this guy must have been where I was. Come to find out he was the radio man who radioed for the smoke screen!”
“It just broke us up,” said Shirley. “They’d had a reunion and wondered about Gene because they remembered the guys that had been taken out who were shot.”
It seems Gene finally found his hero.
“One thing I never did write down,” he said, slowly. “After I got shot and was laying there waiting to get out I remember thinking how I’d seen pictures of men laying there in pictures in history books. Then I realized - ‘That’s me after I got shot!’ I lay there thinking - ‘it’s in the history books but this can’t be me.’”
It was and his life made sense. Ask their two children, five grandchildren and six great grandchildren.
Gene and Shirley found their way to Winter Ranch in 1993 and settled in, having a ball. Slowing down, his memoirs written, Gene plays pool and poker while Shirley works her crafts and helps their daughter with her new wine magazine.
Over 65 years ago Gene wondered if it would be his last day on earth. Listening to him today, it’s assured there are still adventures out there just waiting for him to experience.
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