100-year-old World War II vet shares experiences and a thought for today’s generation
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IDAHO FALLS – William Hulet doesn’t consider himself a hero.
The Idaho Falls native is 100 years old and is one of the few remaining veterans of World War II.
EastIdahoNews.com met with Hulet at his home this week, along with his daughter, Tammy, and her husband Jon Wood, as he recalled several experiences during his military days overseas.
When asked if there was one experience, in particular, that stood out to him, he was reluctant to share.
“These are just stories,” Hulet said. “I don’t know if you want to get into it.”
Then in a typical fashion, he opened his mouth, recalling specific experiences in great detail. His recall of dates and timelines is not as keen as it used to be, but each story triggered another memory, opening a flood of disjointed recollections.
‘He’s a mormoner’
His involvement in the war began in October 1942. He and his wife, Betty, had only been married a few weeks when he was drafted.
Throughout the war, Staff Sgt. Hulet spent time in France, Germany and Belgium, where he was assigned to army intelligence to interrogate prisoners of war and write reports.
He recalls working with an infantry division in Malmedy, Belgium in 1944 during the Battle of the Bulge. An old building had been turned into a makeshift jail for those who had been captured.
“We’d take the prisoner, set him down and talk with him,” says Hulet. “People get the wrong vision sometimes that we’re all running around in a very formal way pointing guns. That’s not true.”
Hulet says being held as a POW was more pleasant to the Germans than being in combat and most of the captives felt some degree of relief to be there.
He remembers asking one young man where he’d been captured, to which he responded, “Up on the hillside in an orchard.”
The young soldier was part of an artillery unit and he explained they were under heavy American fire. He’d hidden in a hole to protect himself. When the crossfire ceased, the man crawled out and was surrounded at gunpoint by U.S. forces.
“About this time, he said to me, ‘I have an uncle in America,'” Hulet recollects.
“Where does your uncle live?” Hulet asked in response, expecting him to say something like New York or Pennsylvania. “This guy said, ‘Salt Lake City.'”
“What’s his religion?” Hulet asked him.
“He’s a mormoner (meaning Mormon),” the man responded in broken English.
Hulet, a member of the same church, officially named The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, later learned the young man was also a Mormon (Latter-day Saint).
Though the young soldier didn’t have any information that was useful for Hulet and his comrades, Hulet says their religious connection was significant to him and he felt a desire to help him out.
“I (wanted) to see him not get shot doing something foolish and I (told) him he’d be safe if he was careful, didn’t cause any trouble and did what people asked him to do,” Hulet says.
The young man and many other captives were put on a truck the next morning and taken to a prison camp in France. Hulet and the young soldier never saw each other again.
Close to combat
While Hulet was never on the front lines, he says he was close to combat on multiple occasions. In Belgium, a house he was living in “had one corner shot off.” In another part of town, the officer in charge of his company and the man who worked with him were killed in a bomb explosion.
On another occasion in Germany, Hulet remembers the military police setting up a jail inside a school. Everyone who had lived in that community was gone and Hulet and his team were there alone. They began to lay down their sleeping bags in a classroom to bed down for the night.
“There was a house across the street in good condition, except it had a big hole up at the top (where someone had shot at it). It was a lot warmer here than at the school so several of us went and built a fire.”
One night, Hulet heard artillery fire outside the house. The shots seemed to gradually get louder and louder.
“I realized it was getting close so I headed for the basement and a shell landed in the backyard and blew a pine tree — just (boom) and it was gone,” he says. “I went back across the street and a shell landed next to our school. All our sleeping bags were covered with glass. They’d blown all the windows out.”
The Red Ball Express
Several months after D-Day, Hulet and his unit were part of a convoy of trucks across France known as the Red Ball Express. They were hauling gasoline for the tanks at the front of the line.
When Hulet and his company caught up with their division, the line stopped.
“Somebody came back and said the fellow up front was following a bicycle. He saw the bicycle with a little light on the back and thought it was the person to follow,” says Hulet. “But now we were on the wrong road and had to find our way through a different (route).”
The convoy made its way up a series of cliffs to get back on track, he says. Once they started traveling on the main road again, it wasn’t long before the sound of machine-gun fire again brought everything to a halt. Hulet says they waited out a small skirmish between the allies and the Germans.
“I got a coat up around me and went to sleep,” Hulet explains. “It seems the captain had gone to sleep too and the people in front of us had driven away. So now we’re out there and we’re leading the convoy and I’m just real glad it wasn’t me.”
When the war ended, Hulet wasn’t immediately sent home. He and another member of his division were sent to replace mayors of towns throughout Germany who were Nazi supporters. He spent some time in Austria after that to help determine which of a group of German prisoners would be released.
He was discharged and sent home in October 1945.
Life after the war
After attending college, Hulet had a long career helping veterans with employment and related issues. Today, he has 7 children, 32 grandchildren and numerous great and great-great-grandchildren.
Though he never said it, it was clear throughout the conversation that Hulet feels his life is unremarkable. But his family and other members of the community disagree.
After a lifetime of service, we asked Hulet if he had any words of wisdom or advice for the rising generation. It was difficult for him to answer, but he eventually offered two simple thoughts.
“I think it’s appropriate that (people) teach respect for the flag and … respect when they sing the National Anthem,” he says. “They should teach … basic American History … and respect and honor for the Constitution.”