The tiny German woman spoke not a word of English, but the injured American soldiers understood the language of clean water and the woman’s own white sheets, brought out of her farmhouse and torn into bandages to bind their wounds.
Klara Hagemann died before Galen Cole could come back to Albersloh to say thank you for her kindness during World War II, but six trips to Germany over the years and countless letters and calls have made the Bangor man fast friends with the woman’s family, especially granddaughter Irmgard.
And on the Fourth of July, Irmgard and Volker Dirker, and their sons Jonas and Lucas, will have the honor of riding with Cole in the World War II Jeep he drives in Bangor parades.
“I’m more excited about this than I think anything I’ve done,” said Cole, who has spent his retirement developing projects to honor U.S. veterans, building the Cole Land Transportation Museum and combining those two efforts to involve more than 30,000 schoolchildren in interviewing veterans through the museum’s Ambassadors of Freedom program.
Cole remembers clearly the ride through the small town of Albersloh on April 2, 1945.
“We were supposed to be on reserve that day,” he said. And as the half-track moved through the trees, “here in the woods there was a beautiful Christian cross” — perhaps a sign that they would be all right.
It was not to be.
As the line of half-tracks interspersed with tanks moved north out of Albersloh toward Munster, “we got the go-ahead,” Cole said. “Then all of a sudden, squad leader Hank Stevens saw tanks leave the road. There was heavy shelling.”
The half-track was full, six soldiers on a side. In fact, Cole had earlier given up his seat on one side to a soldier who said that it was his lucky seat.
An armor-piercing shell killed instantly five of the soldiers where Cole would have been sitting — Bill Golladay, Claude Newton, George Blackard, Simon Brewer and Alfred Southard. Cole and the others in the vehicle, all injured, were taken by Jeep to the Hagemann farm, which had been taken over for an aid station.
Mrs. Hagemann was “busier than the aid people,” Cole said, “bringing out the sheets and clean water.”
Cole came home safely from the war, but it was 19 years before he could go back to Germany to say thanks to Klara Hagemann. To his disappointment, she had died six years before, but his friendship with her family has lasted more than four decades.
Cole has returned to see the Hagemann family six times — sometimes with his own family members, other times with military buddies from the Fifth Armored Division. And he remembers one meal where Klara’s young granddaughter Irmgard stood to pay her own tribute to her grandmother — information she had learned mostly from her mother.
Irmgard often sends letters to Cole, once confiding how nervous she was about taking her first plane ride — across the ocean, at that. She drew courage, she wrote, by thinking of Cole as a teenager, finding the courage to cross the Atlantic not knowing what the war would bring.
The Dirkers are now in Maine, though not yet in Bangor. Cole and his family and museum volunteers have come up with a variety of activities to show the German visitors what Maine has to offer, from lakes to ocean and points in between.
Part of July 7 will be devoted to a luncheon for Cole Museum volunteers to meet the Dirkers. And on July 9, Cole and Brewer officials will taken them to the new Brewer Public Safety building and Super Wal-Mart so that Volker Dirker can observe some of the maintenance technology the facilities use.
The Fourth of July, of course, will introduce the Dirkers to those who love a parade, with cheers for the veterans and maybe the Dirkers, too — descendants of the German woman who shared her humanity with American soldiers in 1945.
“To have a German woman — how could she care for us?” Cole said. “But she did.”
The Brewer-Bangor Fourth of July Parade will begin at 11 a.m. Saturday at the corner of Wilson Street and Acme Road in Brewer. Formation is at 10 a.m. First Bus will have buses for veterans who need to ride the route, which goes down Wilson Street, across the Joshua Chamberlain Bridge, right down Main Street, right onto State Street and right onto Exchange Street.
Veterans are welcome to march in units with others from their era.
Maine veterans who qualify for a World War II, Korean War, Vietnam War or Global War on Terrorism walking sticks but don’t yet have one should take ID and proof of military service 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily before or after the Fourth of July to the Cole Museum at 405 Perry Road, Bangor. Walking sticks will not be available on the holiday.
Those who do not qualify for a free walking stick may order one through Peavey Manufacturing in Eddington, 843-7861.