Sixteen-year-old Sam Aschenbrener admits she sometimes dozes off in history class. But she sat wide-eyed in an auditorium one recent morning. Along with a few dozen other Eagan High School sophomores, she listened as 88-year-old Ed Haider wound the clock back 65 years to the first week of May 1945.
After nearly two years in Nazi prison camps, Haider awoke in his bunk to the sound of muffled explosions and flashes of light through his barred window. Iron bars creaked and doors opened. Nazi guards threw Haider his pants and boots, which they'd lock up every night to prevent escapes. At 3 a.m., Haider and 27 other prisoners of war were ordered to march, just as they had for 1,000 miles that winter, in bloody boots, toward the Baltic Sea.
At noon on May 5, 1945, they reached a sand-pit ravine near Rostock in northern Germany. Russian tanks roared in the distance, firing artillery shells.
"The Germans took off running and left us right there in this gully," Haider told the teenagers. "We were free."
Not quite. Waving a white flag, a Polish-speaking prisoner from Milwaukee and a Russian speaker from Yonkers, N.Y., tiptoed up to talk to a Russian tank commander with white hair and a trimmed mustache. Bring your comrades up here, he said, and we will feed them.
"As we walked across the field about four blocks long, out of the clear blue sky came 25 beautiful American fighter planes," Haider said. "They thought we were a bunch of Germans."
He watched as two men he knew only as Big George and Little George from Ohio had their legs blown off. A Russian in the bushes shot a guy named Al through the neck. Haider painted a picture of war's chaos in sharp detail. And the kids didn't flinch.
"It's really a cool thing to learn from someone who went through it, not just from textbooks," said Nick Goodsell, 16. "To have someone really close to you dying right in front of their eyes, I don't think I'd be able to handle it. But these guys kept fighting for us."
'We wanted to forget'
Like most of the 326,000 Minnesotans in the military during World War II, Haider came home. When he knocked on his sister's St. Paul door, she didn't recognize him. He weighed only 113 pounds. He went on to land a job shoveling coal on freight trains, working for Burlington Northern for 37 years. But he never told his war stories.
"When we got back, we wanted to forget everything we saw or heard as soon as we could," he said. "I didn't want to remember anything."
His sons, Jim and Tom, kept pestering him to write about what happened to him, but he never did. Then, about 10 years ago, he decided he needed to do his part.
These days, Haider narrates part of the "Greatest Generation" exhibit from a transport airplane's fuselage at the Minnesota History Center. And he self-published a 122-page memoir titled "Blood in Our Boots," which he sells for $10. Sam Aschenbrener, the alert Eagan sophomore, was a recent buyer.
"We have family friends who have been through wars, and I feel I can relate a little more to them after listening to Ed," she said. "He's amazing."
Haider just shrugs.
"We're the ones who made history, and if it's going to live on, we need to pass it down for generations to come," he said.
So he spins his tales about parachuting into Sicily before his plane crashed into a mountainside, killing 25 of the 28 soldiers on board. He talks about finding a bazooka shell behind German lines and exploding a Nazi warplane on a tarmac. Whether telling about being trapped in boxcars with no food or water for days or pouring "shot glasses of blood" from his boots before the next day's march, his delivery is folksy, clear and conversational.
And the characters in his stories, whether Nazis or Allies, come to life. There was the German guard who put a cigarette in a captured Haider's mouth and lit it for him, the fellow paratrooper who went berserk after bayoneting a German and was gunned down as he ran across an open Italian field. And there was his last Nazi guard, the one kind enough to make sure the POWs got enough water.
Haider, whose mother died when he was 11, learned German by listening to the grandmother who raised him. With no language barrier between them, the guard started talking with Haider about the war in early 1945.
"One night, he came in and called out my name," Haider recalled. "We sat at a table and he pulled out a wallet. 'This is my house,' he said. 'And this is my frau,' my wife. 'Those are my kinder. That was yesterday. Today I have nothing.'''
Allied bombers had destroyed the guard's home in Aachen, Germany, killing his family.
"Tears rolled down his face," Haider recalled. "And we all cried with him around the table. He was a good guard. He treated us like humans."
That's how Haider finished his comments at Eagan High. He grinned as arms shot up and gladly answered each question.
Curt Brown • 612-673-4767
To obtain Haider's memoir, "Blood in Our Boots," call 651-488-9038 or 651-488-9797.