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WWII veterans bring military know-how home to W.V.F.D. PDF Print E-mail
Written by Wauneta Breeze   
Friday, 10 December 2010 01:29

By Tina Kitt

The Wauneta Breeze


Wauneta’s local fire department, like others all across the country, found itself short on manpower during World War II.

By the war’s end, they would find limited relief numbers-wise, but gained a wealth of expertise and experience from those troops who returned home.

In 1944, dozens of young men from southwest Nebraska were inducted weekly into the Armed Forces. News had also began to make its way back to the United States of the missing and injured young men who called Wauneta home. Several from this region made the supreme sacrifice — in all, there were seven from the Wauneta area who were killed during WWII.

And others, even when the war was over, opted not to return to their sleepy home towns. Instead, they chose to remain in the military or make their way elsewhere, with many of Wauneta’s native lads heading for the West Coast once they returned to the states. As the old post-WWI song goes “How ya gonna keep em down on the farm after they’ve seen Paree?”

But those who did return to Wauneta brought the best crisis training in the world with them as well as a well-honed appreciation for military discipline and order.

Among those young veterans returning to his home town of Wauneta was Leland DeHart.

Leland DeHart, below, as a young serviceman serving in World War II, and above, in a photo taken with his military medals this past Veterans Day, joined the Wauneta Fire Department after returning home from serving in Europe during World War II. He devoted his life to raising a family and serving his community, including a stint as Fire Chief and establishing the Wauneta Emergency Medical Squad. DeHart was among several of Wauneta’s firefighters who put his military training to use in guiding the local fire department to strive for excellence and professionalism as an all-volunteer organization. (Courtesy Photos)


During the war DeHart trained as a flight mechanic, a radio operator and a ball turret gunner. Riding in the glass bubble under-belly of a B-24 Liberator on bombing missions in Europe he saw planes from his squadron blown out of the skies over Romania in the flak “so heavy in the sky it looked like you could’ve walked on it.”

When stationed in Manduria, Italy, where the landing strip was notoriously short, DeHart said it was a regular occurrence to see the heavy Liberators explode in fireballs in a grove of olive trees after overshooting the dirt runway.

Through those horrifying experiences, DeHart and other vets like him learned lessons that would provide them with the skill sets to better protect their families and communities when they returned to civilian life.

DeHart returned to Wauneta in 1945, married his sweetheart, Glendene, in 1947 and together they raised their family here.

One of the first things DeHart did upon returning to Wauneta in 1945 was to join the fire department and remained a member for 35 years.

In 1956 he was tapped to take over as fire chief, succeeding Floyd Wade, another WWII veteran who held that post from 1949 until 1955 after longtime Fire Chief Nelson Burham stepped down to make way for the returning vets and to take on other civic duties.

DeHart and Wade were among several Wauneta fire chiefs to serve in the Armed Forces, bringing their military rigor and strong sense of duty to the department as they helped to build it into one of the most professional volunteer units in the region.

It also provided camaraderie for the men who sometimes struggled to make the transition to life back on the home front from the war’s frontlines.

“We all got along and worked hard at it because we knew we were helping somebody out,” said DeHart, now in his 90s.

DeHart was also instrumental in getting volunteer ambulance services established in Wauneta, with fire department members adding that to their list of volunteer duties.

Initially the department employed the use of an old panel wagon that had been used by local mortician V.B. Johnston who, along with transporting the dead, also offered a private ambulance service.

The need for emergency medical services increased dramatically once automobiles became a common mode of transportation.

Prior to Johnston’s Ambulance Service when someone was badly injured they were loaded into a wagon or automobile and driven to the doctor’s home or office. If the doc wasn’t available they were driven to the hospital in McCook or Imperial.

Serving on the fire department helped DeHart transition back to civilian life, offering him and other vets a place to focus their energy and restlessness after having to be on high alert at all times when they were still in the service.

During those years when he first returned from the war, there were times when sleep eluded DeHart. He would walk outside for a smoke as the rest of Wauneta slept. Staring up at the stars he would reflect back on those days in the war flying with the Army Air Corps.


Municipal improvements

After the war, the town was able to resume making improvements and upgrades on infrastructure.

In 1946 the citizens of Wauneta voted overwhelmingly to approve the construction of a new waterworks system at a cost of $34,000. The low water pressure the town had been living with was cited as a significant hazard in fighting fires.

Wauneta Breeze news articles on the fires that occur ed in the mid and late 1940s often referred to the fire department arriving to fight the blaze with chemicals in place of water.

Last Updated on Friday, 10 December 2010 01:32