Ray Westerfeld, 90, and Ira B. Gohlke, 91, have a lot in common. They’re cousins and live in McGregor. Both served in the U.S. Army during World War II and spent time together at Fort Riley, Kansas. And they married sisters — in a double ceremony.
Westerfeld and Gohlke met their wives — Helene, 88, and Margaret (nee Schulte) of McGregor, 89, — at dances in Crawford while in high school. Westerfeld dated Helene, while Gohlke courted Margaret. When the men joined the military, the women wrote frequently.
“If we didn’t get a letter in three weeks, then there was something wrong, said Gohlke, who was born in western McLennan County and raised in Coryell City. He finished high school in Gatesville.
“I’ll tell you one thing, that gal (Helene) can write,” said Westerfeld. He grew up in the Crawford area and had seen the sisters around.
Gohlke received his draft notice in August 1944; Westerfeld got his in December. Both were in the Horse Calvary, Gohlke in saddle school and Ray in horseshoeing. Neither used those skills for the Army.
Gohlke was assigned to Fort Riley, followed by Westerfeld a few months later. Westerfeld knew his cousin was there, but Gohlke didn’t know he was coming. “I walked in on him,” said Westerfeld. “He probably said, ‘What the heck are you doing here?’ ” Gohlke disagrees. “I was glad to see someone I knew,” he said.
Their commonality didn’t end there, either, as each was hospitalized with pneumonia — though not at the same time — while in the service.
Separated by Uncle Sam
From Fort Riley, their paths parted, as Gohlke went overseas, while Westerfeld remained stateside. Gohlke was at Fort Riley for a year, expecting to be sent to China, but “that never came around,” he said. Instead, he boarded a ship bound for Japan.
From California, Gohlke sailed to Pearl Harbor before arriving in Japan, where he joined the 25th Division. By then the war was winding down. News of the Hiroshima bombing led to ships using lights — crews assumed the war was over. But by the second night, blackout orders resumed when Japanese submarines were detected. The ship arrived in Osaka on Sept. 2, 1945.
Gohlke recalled the ship entering a narrow channel guarded by mines. They sent for a Japanese admiral to help them navigate through the dangerous waters. Once on shore, Gohlke was among a group crammed into a standing-room-only truck and could see the destruction as they rode through the city.
“It was torn to pieces. You couldn’t see anything standing,” he said. “I was surprised it was so calm.”
Japan’s second-largest city at the time, Osaka had taken a tremendous beating from bombing raids that
resulted in over 10,000 civilian casualties.
Despite the damage, Gohlke said he “never had a minute’s trouble” with the Japanese people.
With the war over, American soldiers didn’t have much to do. Gohlke stayed a year before returning to the States, discharging as a corporal on Sept. 7, 1946.
Westerfeld, on the other hand, left Fort Riley to train in Camp Adair in Oregon. He then moved to California, awaiting overseas orders. Instead, he was sent to Camp Hood, where he supervised a restoration section of five men who facilitated the needs of soldiers released from the stockade. Like Gohlke, he wasn’t given much to do, because there was little to be done.
“I’d hitchhike from Camp Brownwood home to see her (Helene),” said Westerfeld. “I had all those pretty girls out there, but I’d still come home to her.”
He was discharged with the rank of sergeant on July 25, 1946, after serving two years.
Because both couples were engaged, the four decided a double wedding was in order, and on Nov. 14, 1946, they made things official. They recently celebrated their 70th anniversaries. The Westerfelds have four sons, eight grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren. The Gohlkes raised two sons and have six grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.
Today, both men are retired from farming and live around the corner from each other.
As for their military service, there’s no doubt it left an impression on the cousins.
“It was good, but I’d hate to do it again,” Gohlke said. “It was a changed life. Some of my friends were killed in the service.” In a 4-square-mile area near Coryell City, six men didn’t return from the war.
As for Westerfeld, he wasn’t disappointed that he didn’t go overseas. His dad had served in brutal trench warfare in France during World War I.
“I decided to do the best that I could,” he said.
And that’s the most anyone can do.
“Voices of Valor,” featuring stories about Central Texas veterans, publishes every Sunday in the Waco Trib. To suggest a story about a Central Texas veteran, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Voices of Valor is proudly sponsored by Johnson Roofing.