A steel worker keeps troops fed and clothed
Cleo Haehn was married with a baby on the way when Selective Service came knocking at his door in Grand Valley.
That should have kept him from being drafted.
“Warren County had to have someone. They didn’t have anybody else to send,” Haehn said. “Otherwise I’d have got a deferment.”
Administrative selection by the local Selective Service boards was on its way out, replaced by a more equitable lottery system, but that change was too late for Haehn.
He was 20 years old and would not have been eligible for the draft two years earlier. But, with the war effort building massively, President Franklin D. Roosevelt had reduced the minimum age from 21 to 18 in December of 1942.
When he was drafted into service in 1943, Haehn was given a choice. Army or navy. Neither involved staying home. It wasn’t a tough one. Haehn was not interested in getting closer to the action. “I chose the navy,” he said.
He didn’t know what to expect in the navy, but he did know what to expect in the army. “I expected it’d be different from the army because the army was out on the ground,” he said.
After initial exams, Haehn was slotted for training as a signalman.
His mother died part way through that training and he was given three days leave to return home.
When he got back to Virginia, he was far enough behind that he was reassigned.
“I did a lot of changing around,” he said.
He was briefly trained for duty in Pacific Theater swampland. “We drank out of a pig sty,” he said. “We lived in it there for a week.”
One of his ways of coping with the training was to not “drink much of it,” Haehn said.
That training didn’t pan out, either.
“We were going over there to the west, but we didn’t go,” he said. So, he was transferred again. This time he was put in with a supply unit.
Soon, he was headed to Europe. His foreign service began on July 13, 1944.
“We shipped out from New York on the Queen Mary,” he said. The 80,000-ton liner had been converted into a troop transport capable of moving upwards of 15,000 men at a time.
“That was a mammoth thing,” Haehn said. He didn’t enjoy the 14-day trip. “I got sick and I was sick the rest of the way.”
On his arrival in Scotland, Haehn and the other members of his unit boarded a train. He didn’t know where they were headed, just that they were getting closer to the war. Along the way, the train passed through London and Haehn got a quick look at Big Ben.
From there, they crossed the English Channel into France and continued on to Le Havre in the Normandy region. That was July of 1944, about a month after the D-Day Normandy invasion.
The town and its people seemed to have come through German occupation well. However, during the train ride he saw another town, one he didn’t know the name of, that hadn’t fared so well. “We came through a town on the way to Le Havre,” he said. “There wasn’t a house left. Nothing was there.”
In Le Havre, Haehn was not near the fighting. He didn’t have to seek cover from bombing raids; there were no enticing targets there for German aircraft. The fighting there was in the past.
Storekeeper 3rd Haehn worked in Hangar 13. The many necessities in the huge building were “all on a shelf, just like a grocery store.”
Each day, his superiors would give him a list of items needed for the American and English naval vessels in the harbor.
Haehn’s job was to gather the items and place them in the designated areas where sailors would pick them up and take them back to their ships.
“They wanted mostly food,” he said. “They run out, why, they had to have it.”
Blankets were another item in high demand.
The hangar also housed a Navy Exchange with a variety of more personal items – watches, for example – for sale. Seamen wanted “anything they could get,” Haehn said.
The navy shared the hangar with the army. Some of the items there did not live up to the “necessity” level. “They had a full bay of cigars,” Haehn said. “You can’t believe it.”
Haehn worked long hours, seven days a week, “because we never knew who was coming in.”
Although he knew he was serving the allied war effort, World War II wasn’t about honor and glory and saving the world. “It was more like my job,” he said. “It was something I had to do.”
So he worked.
The war ended in May. Haehn was still a Storekeeper 3rd. After only a year, with no casualties in his unit, there had been room for promotion.
At the end of the war, Haehn was offered a day in Paris or the Riviera. “I went to Paris,” he said. “I went up in the Eiffel Tower. I got into Versailles, too. Boy, that was a beautiful building.”
The navy kept Haehn in Europe. He remained in foreign service for a year and two days, arriving back in the United States on July 15, 1945.
He continued to serve in Virginia until he was transferred to Texas. The ship he had been assigned to wasn’t there, so he returned to Virginia. The navy began discharge procedures, then stopped and found Haehn something else to do. “I was in charge of the cleaning material for the base,” he said.
Finally, in January 1946, Haehn was discharged and free to return to his family in Grand Valley.