Excerpts from Cornhuskers Go To War
Walter "Butch" Luther
Here's an excerpt from Cornhuskers Go to War (pp 114-116). We hope you enjoy this part of Butch Luther's story:
"As company clerk, Corporal Tony Sileo probably knew Captain Luther better than anyone. The corporal, who makes his home now in Bristol, Connecticut, told me on the phone that he 'had the pleasure of working with [Captain Luther] daily in my orderly room duties.' Sileo describes Luther as an 'able commander who jelled I-85 into a respectable fighting unit. He was tough, but fair.'
The good soldiers—the three letter men—of the company loved Captain Luther; they took the discipline coming to them because it was fair. They saw the captain, Sileo says, as a very serious officer, whose goal was to make the company better every single day.
This report jibes, of course, with everything we know about from whence Luther came: successful ranching/business family, successful high school student-athlete, successful Rose Bowl star. Quality and perseverance were two things Butch Luther understood, and digression from either would not have been tolerated. That's the kind of leader a guy can respect: one who's been there, done that, and who takes the time to bring you along with him in the right direction.
But Sileo goes beyond that, calling Luther 'the greatest man, a hero; he saved my life. He was one of the best officers I ever met; he came in and straightened the unit out.' When Luther first took command, says Sileo, 'we were on probation; we lacked discipline. He changed us into one of the strongest companies [in 3rd Battalion]. We were hand-picked to lead the regiment's attack on Mt. Belvedere because of his leadership.'
The corporal is full of good Luther stories. One he tells is about how the regimental commander and battalion commander Lt. Colonel Warren Shelor searched high and low, trying to round up a photo of Luther shooting in for a tackle of Pete Kmetovic of Stanford on the goal line during the Rose Bowl.
The play in question went something like this: Kmetovic had received a punt, ducked and shook and sped his way 38 yards down the field, and Luther was the last Cornhusker to have a chance at the speedy star who would go on to win the '41 Rose Bowl MVP award. Luther dove for the legs—and missed. Kmetovic scored, winning the game for Stanford, and a quick-shooting newsie snapped the infamous photo, which would appear in newspaper accounts of the game.
The picture shows Kmetovic scampering into the end zone, while Butch Luther slides—face plants, really—with arms outstretched and whiffing on the tackle. Not an All-American moment, by any means. Not even an honorable mention kind of thing. This is the photo for which Shelor searched, this is the photo that Luther wished had never been taken, and this is the very photo that Shelor's efforts turned up and procured for the pranksters of the regiment. The officers had the photo blown up, put it in a frame, and hung it up behind Luther's desk.
When Luther came in from supervising company training, his first reaction was a scream: 'Who did this?' Now, Corporal Sileo had just sworn to a full bird colonel and a light colonel that he would never tell the captain whodunit. His resolve was tested when Luther began 'rounding up a firing squad for me because I wouldn't tell who left the prank! The colonels came back laughing and saved my life.' That's the way it was: Captain Luther had good support from Headquarters, Sileo says, because everyone liked and respected him.
Mountain and winter warfare training ended at Camp Hale at the end of June, 1944, and the division moved to Camp Swift, Texas. From July 5, 1943, to November 5, 1944, the division had been organized as the 10th Light Division (Alpine). On November 6, 1944, the division was reorganized and became—for the first time—the 10th Mountain Division. All of this moving and reorganizing and training, though, was beginning to wear on officers and men alike. All they wanted was to get going, to get moving, to get over there.
They were about to get their wish."
Here's another fun segment, this one taken from the youthful experiences of Allen Zikmund, halfback. Al grew up on the family farm in Ord, Nebraska, during the Depression, and remembers what it was like to be a Cornhusker back in the day. This excerpt comes from pages 282-284 of Cornhuskers Go To War:
Al rode his bike to school most of the time, though at eleven years old he did get a school permit that would allow him to drive to junior high. “I drove from the farm up into the park and through the park and up to the school,” says Zik. “Dad said, ‘This is where you park the car and that’s where it sits until you come home.’”
But nice weather meant a bicycle ride. Henry built a little box behind the seat of the bike, and Mom would say, “Al, when school’s out, go down to Pecenka and Perlinski’s, the butcher shop, and get a quarter’s worth of steak.” At school out, Al would take his quarter and go in to place his mom’s order.
“‘OK,’ they’d say, ‘and we’ll throw in a little bit of liver, too,’” Zik remembers. “They’d add the liver, wrap up the package, and I’d put it in my bike box and we’d have steak for supper.”
In later years, when athletics became more of driving force in Al’s life, the bicycle went by the wayside. During the long, hot summer months, Al kept himself in pocket change and put away small amounts toward his schooling by irrigating for other Ord area farmers, including neighbor Wilbur Rogers. He also kept himself in fighting shape that way: he would run to work, spend the day in back-breaking farm labor, then sprint home in time to change for his run to play an evening baseball doubleheader or play his slip horn in the evening’s town band concert.
I don’t know about you, but my kids–and the kids of everyone I know–had to have a ride or a driver’s license in hand before they’d set out to tackle that kind of schedule. But here’s how Zik saw it: “The training routine built endurance for football and developed wind for the trombone.”
The man who would become Coach Zikmund—leader, educator, role model—saw his character and philosophy shaped by the drought and the Depression of the Thirties. He would be the first to look you in the eye and tell you that those years were character builders.
“They were awful, terrible, unbelievably tough times,” he says. “I remember when the grasshoppers came in biblical proportions; they came in hordes. We would look into the sun and see those flights of grasshoppers coming in . . . I know one time my dad and I were down in one of our canyons building a dam with a team of horses and a scraper.”
Al ran the scraper, and Henry the shovel, and as they worked Al took off his cap and put it on the fence post up the canyon a piece. “We went to go in for the day,” Al says, “and the front of my visor was already completely chewed off by those grasshoppers. They were terrible.”
He also remembers a summer between his freshman and sophomore years at the university, a summer that found him at home looking for a job. The grasshoppers were still at infestation levels, and Zik got a summer job out at what he describes as “the poison plant”—“It was in the early forties. We made poison for grasshoppers with bran and molasses and banana oil, and we’d take it out in gunny sacks,” says Al. “I can remember going through the fields along the fence rows and down the first three rows of a corn field, spreading that stuff. Within a couple of days, you’d walk down there and hear ‘crunch, crunch’ from dead grasshoppers, a great, big, old hill of dead grasshoppers.”
Nobody had any money in these years. The Zikmunds lived on the proceeds from their eggs and cream. They’d butcher a beef or a hog; all the Czech farmers kept chickens and big gardens. This fact, says Al now, is what made the decade bearable for his family: “We weren’t like a lot of town- and city-folk: we always had something to eat, at least. We were never really hungry, but there sure were a lot of people who were during that time.”
One of Al’s sixth grade classmates lived across from the plant in Ord, and he invited Zik to into the house one day. Al describes what he saw: “They had five children and the dad was who knows where. They had a pot of beans in the middle of the table and each kid had a slice of homemade bread and that was their meal. I remember how bad that made me feel and how much it made me realize how fortunate I was.”
Keeping the car running and fixing the machinery was done on the farm. A broken rake or sickle bar didn’t get taken to town right away. Oh, no. You fixed it on your own if you could.
“Dad went with the broken pieces into the garage, where he didn’t even have an anvil,” Al recalls. “He had a three-foot chunk of railroad rail. He’d drill the holes and fix the sickle bar himself and go back out while the sun was shining. Then, on Saturday night, you might go in and have it welded. We’d do all our own repairs.”
Henry, Al says, didn’t own or buy big machinery. His equipment was all stuff his brothers had given him because he was the youngest of the lot: “Those other guys were older and more established in their farming.”
The whole construct depended on what Al attributes to his kinfolk’s religious convictions: “We were never hungry, and we got along very well. I think it was because my folks were Christians, they were really good Christian people, always willing to help and be helped.” It’s an ethos of charitable benevolence and mutual support born of both Scriptural principles and of necessity: you never knew when you might be the one in need.