In vivid detail, Keene veteran Earle Quimby Jr. reflects on life, military service
The force of the blast rocketed an iron chimney grate across the room and flipped an exhausted Earle C. Quimby Jr. under the heavy bed he was lying on in an abandoned German house.
Out on a mission, the Army reconnaissance officer and his driver had run into a German unit, and now the 24-year-old Quimby was holed up in the house, waiting.
It was the midst of World War II, and Quimby had spent the first few months after landing in Europe speeding along snowy roads in an open-top Jeep. Crossing enemy lines, he reported troop positions and access routes back to Army brass.
“When I showed up, they had six drivers and a Jeep waiting for me,” Quimby, now 90, recalled during a recent interview in his Keene home. “So I knew their intention was I would be in German territory more than I’d be in American territory.”
Arriving in December 1944, Quimby was one of tens of thousands of replacement troops sent to bolster American forces that suffered some of the heaviest casualties of the war during the month-long clash known as the Battle of the Bulge.
“Right off the bat, I started getting shot at with the 88 mm field artillery piece, and they put grooves in the projectiles so if they were spinning very fast at high speeds it would make a very high screeching noise,” he said. “Demoralizing. We called them Screaming Mimis.”
It was an 88 mm that had hammered the side of the house where Quimby hunkered down after meeting the German unit in Belgium. The outfit had taken out Quimby’s Jeep, but he and his driver — who took cover in another building — made it through mostly unscathed.
“I got all covered with soot and I went to see my colonel and he just laughed at me because I was all black and I had no way to clean up,” he said. “You can’t use cold water to try to get soot off you. So I lived with it for a long time.”
Quimby is one of 2,000 people from Keene who served during World War II.
A college student at the University of New Hampshire when the war broke out, Quimby would train for war first in an anti-aircraft artillery unit and then as a combat engineer, heading to Europe during the largest and final German offensive of the war. He would earn a Bronze Star for valor in 1945 for crossing enemy lines multiple times to deliver supplies to a platoon that had been cut off.
After he returned, Quimby would have a four-decade career as an executive at Markem Corp. in Keene, start a family and build a home. But he would also spend decades grappling with a different kind of battle suffered by many military veterans — anxiety, guilt over friends lost and troubling nightmares.
Today, Quimby is one of an estimated 2 million World War II veterans still living, of about 16 million who returned from the war, according to statistics from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
About 850 veterans of the war die every day, according to the agency.
At 20, Quimby learned that the United States would be going to war over the radio in his car.
“I was in my car with my girlfriend, bringing her back to Keene on Sunday after a big military ball over in Durham,” he said. “I’d been in uniform there and the next day they told me we were at war.
“And I didn’t know what it was going to mean to me, but the government had control of me because I was in ROTC.”
In the coming months, he’d finish school and be sent to Virginia for basic training, where he learned to fire anti-artillery guns, then to officer training school, where his job was shifted to join a combat engineering unit.
The primary task of the combat engineers in Europe at that time was helping with troop movements over rivers. The engineers would ferry infantry troops across rivers, then build foot bridges for soldiers to run across and, once the soldiers had control of both sides of the river, build vehicle bridges to move trucks and tanks.
After finishing school and training, Quimby spent some time in Louisiana before he received orders to head to Europe in late 1944.
“When we graduated from the officer candidate school they said, ‘You are now an officer and a gentleman,’ ” Quimby recalled. “They said, ‘What we are going to tell you is 85 percent of the classes that went over before you are either wounded or dead. You’ve got to expect the same, there’s no change in those statistics.’
“And then, the next sentence was, ‘We consider you to be expendable.’ Now for a college guy, that’s not a very nice thing to have to take from anybody.”
Quimby was among about 15,000 troops packed on the Queen Mary — formerly an ocean liner that carried wealthy passengers to and from Europe — on a six-day journey to Great Britain. Rooms that were built for two passengers held up to 24 troops, Quimby remembers.
At one point during the crossing, the ship, which made the crossing in half the time that a standard troop-carrying ship could, encountered a German submarine.
“They got us all on deck, 15,000 of us, and said, ‘Put on your life jackets,’ ” Quimby said. “And we looked at each other and said, ‘My God, if you get in that Atlantic Ocean in December, we wouldn’t last 30 minutes.’
“We just sort of laughed it off. But the boat was fast enough and they never hit us with a torpedo. That was scary.”
Quimby, a second lieutenant at the time, crossed Scotland and stayed at a camp just outside London before he was sent to join up with the 309th Engineer Combat Battalion in Belgium.
His job kept him constantly on the move and frequently behind enemy lines. In mid-December, Germany had launched a counter-offensive against the Allied forces, which had been slowly pushing the Nazi lines back until they were nearly at the German border.
The 30 divisions of German troops and tank units, aided by heavy fog and snow that kept Allied airplanes grounded, had managed to push the American and British forces back in parts of Belgium and Luxembourg, creating bulge in the Allied line. It would take more than a month of intense fighting and slow progress for the Allies to regain their ground.
In one particularly gruesome incident, the Germans took two truckloads of American prisoners of war to a field in Malmedy, Belgium, and slaughtered nearly all of them.
Quimby came upon the scene the following day.
“The words helpless and hopeless are two that I’ve remembered ever since, and we still talk about them in our counseling because that’s the way you get in combat,” Quimby said. “You can’t do anything about anybody trying to kill you. It’s crazy.
“But it has this effect on your brain, this damage that really is tough.”
Within a month of returning from the war, Quimby landed a job in the maintenance department at Markem, a printing technology company, where his father had worked.
He took his work seriously and rose through the ranks quickly. He stayed in the military for another seven years as a Reservist and eventually married and had children.
“I do have this military discipline thing and I think that helped me at Markem,” he said. “I was very serious about doing a good job.”
In pictures from the war, Quimby’s fair hair is swept neatly aside; his grin slightly mischievous, his uniform neatly pressed. An athlete and avid sailor from a young age, Quimby recalls being able to do 200 pushups and sit-ups during his military training.
These days, his hair has grayed and he uses a walker or a hand-carved walking stick given to him by local veterans, but he continues to exercise daily and frequently wears a baseball cap emblazoned with “Army” and bearing several military pins.
Things he did after returning from war and bouts of anxiety that he considered normal he now realizes were early signs of the stress of adjusting to life after combat.
“I used to drink straight Old Grandad every Friday night after work or Saturday and get in my brand-new Buick that civilians couldn’t even buy yet because they were just starting to make them, and I wouldn’t quit until I got that needle up to 100,” he said.
“I was damaging everybody’s life, including my own. But I thought, ‘That’s macho.’ ”
It would take him more than four decades to learn about the effects trauma can have.
As the Allies slowly pushed the battered German forces back though Belgium and eventually across their own border, Quimby continued to work as a reconnaissance officer and later was posted to a headquarters company, a battalion-level position.
While Quimby whizzed around in his Jeep and slept wherever he could find a cellar hole in a bombed-out building, the conditions began to take their toll on him and all the men around him.
“Sleeping like that, and especially waking up with snow on your face, you got to wonder, when is this ever going to end?” he said. “It was a long winter.
“I was lucky. I was in a Jeep, but the enlisted men were always marching in snow and could not even dig their foxholes because that ground was so hard.”
Quimby nearly lost his toes to frostbite. For weeks at a time, he and the other troops lived off canned eggs and too-little water. And they watched as friends died all around them.
In Linnich, Germany, he was ordered to measure the width of a river for 14 days in a row to see if the Germans above were opening any dams. It would have been to their advantage to widen the river, because it would make for slower river crossings for Americans and leave them vulnerable, he said.
“I got shot at many times,” Quimby said. “One time right close to me, an equivalent of a 12-inch shell went off and I lost my hearing for a whole week.
“I remember early on saying, ‘Well, this is something we humans can get used to, getting shot at.’ But we didn’t get used to it, it got worse after a while.”
Then, on May 8, 1945, it seemed it was all over. The Nazis, faced with massive casualties, dwindling finances and the suicide of their leader, surrendered.
“All of a sudden, we were not worried about getting shot at,” he said. “We could relax and for a week later we really partied, and drank, and you know what happened?
“They said, ‘Boys, pack up your bags, you’re going to go to Japan.’ ”
Quimby retired as an executive at Markem in 1985, after nearly four decades with the company.
Within months, he’d lost 30 pounds and underwent extensive testing, with his doctor preparing him for the possibility that he had cancer.
“At the end of the week he sat me down and said, ‘We’ve tested you in every possible way that we could and what you have is depression,’ ” Quimby said. “Getting out of being active, I guess, had got me thinking more about combat situations.
“It was the first time I’d even heard about that.”
Since then, Quimby has worked to battle the feelings he couldn’t before explain.
One way was volunteering for 26 years at Keene schools.
He taught World War II history at Franklin and Fuller schools, bringing in things he carried back from the war such as a Nazi flag, German weapons and telephones.
And he still leads students at Franklin in the Pledge of Allegiance at Memorial and Veterans days ceremonies. On Thursday he led the pledge in uniform — the same one he wore during World War II.
“I’m finding out more and more that I (volunteered) because the anxiety was on my mind so much, it’s good to do something else,” he said. “I gotta admit the anxiety and I get therapy twice a month, even now. Four hours every month.”
He’s also involved in a Keene organization of veterans called Ruck-Up, where he meets with other veterans to talk about the lasting effects of war.
“Some guys say, ‘I’ve lived with this for 40 years, and if Earle has lived with it for 65, I guess I can, too,’ ” he said, pausing. “If I can help these guys just being me, I’m happy to.”
While the war in Germany was over, a cloud of tension sat heavily on the American soldiers posted in Europe as they waited to learn whether they’d be sent to the Pacific theater, where the Allies continued to push toward Japan.
The atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, changed all that.
“In a way, that was terrible for our president to do to all those people, but it happened and it saved a lot of us from having to go there,” he said.
Quimby stayed in Europe for more than a year after Germany’s surrender. He’d become a first lieutenant during combat and then a company commander. When he was getting ready to head home in 1946, his colonel came to him with a proposal.
He’d been promoted to captain, but because combat had ended, he was required to remain a first lieutenant for another month before the promotion could be granted. He’d have to extend his tour abroad for another six months, the colonel told Quimby.
“So I thought about it and decided, ‘I’m going home,’ ” Quimby said. “I’d had enough and I wanted to go home, but I stayed in the Reserves another seven years.”
Eventually, with the help of other veterans who contacted the state’s adjutant general, Quimby got his promotion — on his 90th birthday in January.
“I was at the Legion Hall and they pinned these captain bars on me,” he said, smiling broadly.
“How about that?”