Hearing the call: 'Little farm boy' Oberheu went to war, then ministry

Aug 27, 2017 By Randy Tucker, Staff Writer

Not much changes in Canistota, South Dakota.The tiny town 40 miles from Mitchell has gained nine people since the 1940 census and remains a small community of about 640 on the eastern boundary of the Great Plains.

When World War II's beckon reached Canistota, 17-year old high school junior Robert Oberheu heard the call of adventure and set off for the wilds of Alaska and a job helping in the kitchen while building a 30-mile stretch of the famous Alaska-Canada or "Al-Can" highway in the summer of 1943.

"The tundra was something else," the 91-year-old Oberheu recalled. "We called them walking trees.The cats (Caterpillar tractors) would try to push the trees over for the road, and they'd just slide along on top of the tundra."

Oberheu heard about the job from his older brother Albert, who was working as a truck driver for Gustav Ostermann Construction of Ocheyedan, Iowa. Ostermann successfully bid on the Al-Can Highway, a matter of national security in the early years of World War II, and Oberheu had his first time away from home.

Hard work for a teen

No e-mail, cell phones or communication of any kind existed to keep the 17-year old in touch with his family as he worked the summer months, living in a mobile barracks with the other crew -- a thought that would wither mothers and sons alike today.

"Our first job was digging out cats that had been purposefully dumped in the Tanawa River by a previous group of workers from the south," Oberheu said.

He returned to Canistota and a graduation gift from Uncle Sam in the form of a draft notice to the U.S. Army greeted him in June of 1944.

"I was sent to Fort Hood, Texas, in an anti-tank division," Oberheu said. "The little farm boy from Canistota had to teach the boys from New York City how to drive.They had no idea what to do and were a real menace. Most of the guys had never been in a car, and now we were driving half-tracks."

Driving plus shooting

The M3 75mm anti-tank gun was a self-propelled weapon for use primarily against German tanks in World War II. Operating it required driving as well as marksmanship skills.Some of the recruits had neither.

"One day we were at target practice. There was a lieutenant on a training tower just like football coaches use. A guy swung the gun all the way around and crossed over the tower. The lieutenant thought he was going to shoot, and he jumped off the platform," Oberheu said. "Holy cow, did that guy get chewed out. He stood guard for months."

Post-war realities

Training concluded in the fall of 1944, and Oberheu's division was shipped across the Atlantic from Fort Dix to Le Havre, France.

Germany surrendered just after his arrival in 1945, and he moved with his unit from Le Havre to Frankfurt, Germany.

"We pulled into Frankfurt, and there was nothing left. The bombers had completely destroyed the train station. I can still see those kids rifling through stuff. That was the hardest part, watching those kids eat garbage," he said.

"We just gave our food to the kids, because if you threw it out they'd just dig it out of the garbage. We gave them all our candy and rations. But there's always some wiseacre giving us a bad name. Zag bars were really hard. One guy threw one at a kid and knocked him down."

Danger remained

Though the war was over, there were still dangers in occupying a hostile country.

"They had the werewolves," Oberheu said, referring to "young German men who tried to catch GIs alone with a fraulein, kill them, and take their jeep and anything else they could get."

One night Oberheu gave a friend a ride in a 6x6 truck up a mountain road. The friend had picked up a German girl and wanted to take her up the mountain.

"In the middle of the road was a German helmet and a P38 pistol (Luger) lying against it," Oberheu said. "That's the time I was really scared. I knew it was a trap. I held a flashlight out the window and backed the truck down the road."

Oberheu was soon assigned as a driver in the motor pool transferring officers and German officials around Frankfort.

"German POW's drove the jeeps," Oberheu said. "One guy, Franz Kaiser, gave me a potato pancake every day. He was nice guy. Most of the Germans didn't want to be in that war. They were caught up in the moment just like us."

Interacting with the German citizens became easier over time.

"One day a gal came up. Her husband was a POW in Russia. She told me that during the war there was no hint of Americanism allowed -- no music, no movies no magazines," Oberheu said. "I was pretty lucky. Some of the guys were reassigned and headed off to the Pacific. It is unbelievable how people hated the war but got so involved in it.

"I talked to a German professor who lived near one of the concentration camps. They saw the trucks going in full and coming out empty. He claimed he didn't know what was going on, but how could you?"

In the fall of 1946 he got that magic ticket home.

"The Cardinals were in the World Series. We listened to the games on shortwave on the ship," he said.

He was processed out at Fort Dix and returned home.

"I thought about re-upping, but I'm glad I didn't, I would have been back in Korea in a couple of years," he said. "I don't think people realize how bad war really is. I remember December 7th (1941), when we were bombed. Everybody was going on about whipping them in a couple of weeks. They were a lot tougher than we thought."

G.I. Bill

He returned to Canistota, then enrolled at the University of South Dakota in Brookings on the GI Bill.

After a short time in school the urge to roam hit him.

"A buddy of mine, Ray Switzer, and I started a short-order café in Mason City, Iowa," Oberheu said.

"If I'd stayed with Ray and Bob's Ice Cream I'd probably be a millionaire today. Business was great."

Being young and full of life after the war, Oberheu again looked for a new challenge and found himself in Rawlins, Wyoming.

"I got as far as Rawlins, met my wife Doris, and that was it," he said. "I worked in the oil field as far north as Sand Draw and became a plumber."

After Oberheu's father, August, died, the son entered the Lutheran Seminary in Springfield, Illinois, in 1952. He was a member of the last class at Springfield before the seminary moved to Fort Wayne, Indiana, because of racial issues with the residents living near the seminary.

He graduated as a Missouri Synod pastor in 1958 and took his first call with five small churches in North Dakota. McClusky, Hazen, Underwood, Kongsberg and Arena made up his Sunday route of five services over a distance of 300 miles.

"I couldn't wait to get home to Arena," Oberheu recalls with a laugh. "At McClusky there weren't many members. I worked with a grandmother who came back to the church. She had a big family, and gradually all the kids and their grandkids became members.

"I got calls everywhere to start churches after that. We built a really nice church there before we left."

He took a second call in Gering, Nebraska, in 1962. before taking his final call in Riverton in 1968.

Oberheu served as Trinity Lutheran's pastor for 25 years before retiring in 1983. He remains in Riverton with his wife, Doris.

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World War II veteran Robert Oberheu of Riverton worked as a teen-ager building the strategic Alaska-Canada highway.

World War II veteran Robert Oberheu of Riverton worked as a teen-ager building the strategic Alaska-Canada highway.

World War II veteran Robert Oberheu of Riverton worked as a teen-ager building the strategic Alaska-Canada highway.

World War II veteran Robert Oberheu of Riverton worked as a teen-ager building the strategic Alaska-Canada highway.

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