News

Harold Mohn, World War II vet, poet turns 100

Written by Fran Odyniec/For The Lebanon Daily News | Aug 29, 2016 10:20 AM

 

(South Lebanon) -- Before the sun comes up each day, Harold Mohn has already written two or three poems at his residence at Juniper Village in South Lebanon. After all, that's what a poet does, and Mohn has been creating verse for the last 76 years.

He turns 100, on Aug. 28, which hasn't stopped him from getting up at 4 a.m. to take a thought and turn it into poetry.

"Whenever I feel like it," Mohn said, dispelling any need to be in a mood. "I'm inspired by myself. A thought comes to me, I start writing."

He takes cues from different sources.

"I write all types of poems," Mohn continued, as he recently shared his memories, his awards, and his poetry on Thursday. "Romantic, religious, military, whatever the idea is. But I don't read other people's poetry so I won't be accused of plagiarism."

His poems have appeared in scores of publications throughout the United States and Europe including: the Lebanon Daily News; the Harrisburg Patriot; the New York Mirror; the Louisville Courier Times; Grit; Stars and Stripes; Armored Force News; the Congressional Journal; the Portsmouth News in Portsmouth, England; the Hampshire Times in Hampshire, England; De Cercle d'Etudes Sur Bataille Des Ardennes in Luxembourg; Les Paras US Dan Le Canton in France, as well as newspapers in Reading and Trenton. He even has contributed his work to publications of the Salesian Missions in New York.

He has sent poems to Dwight Eisenhower, Maj. General Brasilio J. Valdes of the Philippine Army, Gen. George Patton, Gen. Omar Bradley, Cardinal Richard Cushing of Boston, and Harry Truman, among others.

"The higher names are quicker to answer you," he chuckled.

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Harold Mohn reviews the draft of one of his poems at his residence at Juniper Village in South Lebanon. Mohn turns 100 on Aug. 28. (Photo: Fran Odyniec, Lebanon Daily News)

Although he has been writing poetry for 76 years, he doesn't know where or how he got that ability.

"I don't know the first thing about poetry," Mohn admitted. "It's a God-given talent. It's remarkable."

(READ SOME OF MOHN'S POEMS)

A veteran of World War II, Sgt. Harold Mohn, a machine gunner, served in the First, Third, and Ninth armies. With the 4085th Ordinance Deactivation Company, an armored force, he landed on Omaha Beach in Normandy on June 27, 1944, 23 days after D-Day.

The 4085th was charged with removing knocked out tanks and replacing them with fresh tanks they had brought along with them up from the beach, and "to fight as necessary," said Mohn. "We transported over 600 tanks through northern France, central Europe, Ardennes, and the Rhineland."

"I'll always remember that day," he recalled when his company landed on Omaha Beach. "There was devastation. Ships were wrecked, blimps used for cover against German aircraft were on the ground, and I was the only guy with a Thompson submachine gun."

Expecting an attack that night, he was ordered to take the forward position.

"My commander told me to hold that position no matter what," Mohn said. "I'd be dead on my first day on Normandy, but the attack did not come."

As the 4085th made its way inland and about a half-mile from Sainte-Mere-Eglise, Mohn passed grim signs of welcome.

"There were crude graves with wooden crosses," he said. "Placed on the crosses were helmets with bullet holes of guys who had been shot by snipers."

Nevertheless, he continued with his poetry.

Mohn was with Patton's Third Army at Ardennes, better known as the Battle of the Bulge.

"We were in a building in the snow," he remembered of their position. "We almost froze to death."

During those anxious moments before engaging the enemy in one of the most crucial turning points of World War II, Mohn began to think about his home state.

"I longed for Pennsylvania," he said. "I thought about Myerstown, and never thought I would live beyond 60."

So, he put his feelings into verse and called it "Pennsylvania" in contrast to the blustery cold of the front line in Ardennes "... I long to see the places where I spent my childhood; the towns and teeming cities, and the people's carefree ways..."

After the war, Mohn returned home to Lebanon and Viola, his wife of 73 years who passed in 2013 at age 99.

He and Erbin Cole, his brother-in-law, ran a company called Harrisburg's Cole Brothers that drilled wells and sold drilling equipment. After 30 years, he retired.

By his calculation, Mohn has gone back to Europe 20 times since the end of the war. Those visits have included two speaking engagements at the American Military Cemetery in Luxembourg and at the D-Day commemoration at Normandy in 2004.

There was another visit that he had arranged in 1973 with Albert Speer, Hitler's former Third Reich architect.

Mohn had read Speer's two books, one on his 20 years in Spandau Prison (sentenced for war crimes) and the other on the Third Reich itself, and found them so intriguing that he wanted to meet Speer.

So, Mohn, as a retired businessman, wrote to Speer, then released after his 20-year sentence, requesting an interview -- and got it.

He and Viola traveled to Heidelberg and took a taxi to the home of Speer's father, where the younger Speer lived about 20 miles outside the city.

"It was a peaceful visit," Mohn recalled. "I just wanted to meet him and discuss the future of Germany, not war. It was most congenial."

He struck up a correspondence with Speer that lasted four years until Speer's death in 1977.

"He wrote me a letter dated Aug. 31, and died the next day," said Mohn.

Mohn also has written six programs for D-Day commemorations at Normandy; two programs for Memorial Day at Arlington National Cemetery; dedication programs for Indiantown Gap National Cemetery; the huge Pennsylvania Veterans Memorial at that cemetery; war memorials in Dover, England; Clervaux, Luxembourg; the Freedoms Foundation in Valley Forge, Shumann's Eck in Luxembourg, the Carlisle Barracks and the Zachary Taylor National Cemetery in Louisville, Kentucky.

His work appears in 40 anthologies, and he has published five booklets of his poetry.

For example, his poem on the 72nd Anniversary of D-Day includes this stanza:

"The waves wash in upon the beach, where brave men fought and bled, and seem to say a requiem to all the honored dead."

Another of his D-Day poems has these thoughts:

"I walk among the crosses white with sadness inside me,

and know but for the grace of God, one cross my own could be."

On one of his visits to the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, located on a cliff in Colleville-sur-Mer that overlooks Omaha Beach, he paid his respects to friends who are buried there.

"Then I went down to the beach and cried my eyes out," Mohn said.

This stanza from his poem "To Those Who Did Not Return" that is etched on the side of the Monument to 75th Infantry Division in Louisville, Ky., reads:

"Some sleep in unknown places, known but to God above; countless in rows of markers white who live in lasting love."

Among his other works is a poem of love in honor of Viola, his deceased wife, titled, "That Kiss" which states in part:

"I never wash that kiss away I feel upon my lips each day,

And now in love we forever be, that kiss will live in memory."

When asked if he knows how many poems he has written in 72 years, Mohn pauses a moment, looks around his suite, then replies with a slight smile, "Thousands."

"I'm just an ordinary country kid," he continued. "I can't use big words because I don't know them. God puts words in my mouth. And I always try to close with a punch line."

One of those "punch lines" appears in one of his Memorial Day poems:

"As haunting notes of Taps so softly fade away, I say in fond and sad farewell on this Memorial Day."

He says he was never interested in making any money from his poetry.

"I had everything I wanted," Mohn said. "This is just a hobby to me."

His advice to aspiring writers is simple but encouraging.

"Don't give up," he says if a story or poem is not accepted for publication. "The more you write, it will come to you. Don't get discouraged."

"I'm still looking to write the perfect poem," he said. "I'm one or two words away from it."

Then he added that the best time to write his poetry is in the morning. For him, that's around 4 a.m.

"I had written four this morning," he said in his unassuming manner. "I'm easy-going and try to live that way, but I always try to better myself."

Yet his zest for life is felt around Juniper Village, a retirement and assisted living facility.

"His enthusiasm for others is contagious," said Joan-Marie Norman, the village's executive director. "He also is our oldest male resident."

"I knew her father before she was born," Mohn proudly stated with a broad smile as he paused outside Norman's office. Jim Blauch was one of Mohn's bowling buddies in Lebanon.

How does he wish to celebrate his 100th birthday?

"Don't send me a card, and don't sing 'Happy Birthday'," Mohn said, stating that his nephew from North Carolina, Kermit Mohn, a retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel is coming to spend the day with him, "because I'm not there."

The question is: What time should Kermit arrive?

Perhaps Harold will hear a knock on his door at 4 a.m.

Some of Harold Mohn's awards:

  • Five Bronze Stars, awarded by U.S. Army for combat heroism or meritorious service
  • First prize, Pennsylvania Poetry Society
  • Eight George Washington Medal Awards from the Freedoms Foundation in Valley Forge, Pa.

The early years

After his parents divorced when he was 7 years of age, Harold Mohn and his brothers Kermit and Fred went to live with their aunt and uncle on their 100-acre farm near Meckville.

Looking back on those years, Mohn tells about how, when it snowed, he and his brothers would get to school in Jacksonville about a quarter-of-a-mile away from the farm.

"We rode a horse to school," he said. "My uncle (Clayton Gerhart) would put us up on the horse, we'd get to school, and the horse would turn around and return home. Then, my uncle would send the horse back to school for us."

 

This story is part of a partnership between WITF and the Lebanon Daily News.

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