Feature Stories

These Were My Fathers

The German machine gunner watched as his tracer bullets got closer and closer to the American soldiers. A brash young officer was leading his men. He’d earned the Silver Star just eight days earlier. “Disdaining the bullets that swept the area and Nebelwerfer shells dropping all around him, Second Lieutenant Lawson remained in the open, setting an example for his men,” leading them across the Dragon’s Teeth breaching the Siegfried Line, and opening “an important route for our armor.” If the U.S. soldiers broke through the two tank traps, Bensheim and soon the homeland would be lost. The machine gunner kept his finger down sending his bullets true. Edward Lawson was mortally hit. Falling in the dirt, his blood seeped into the German soil.


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Ed Lawson, Peter Snider, and Pat Snider Lawson holding son Gary

Ed grew up in New Jersey and at a young age he lost his father. His mother, Grace, was befriended by a man when she needed help, but he turned out to be abusive and in her words made them “very miserable and humiliated.” As soon as Ed could, he moved out and ventured to the Territory of Alaska. Not long after that, Grace also escaped the situation and settled in Seattle.

While the rest of the country was still steeped in the Great Depression, in the thirties, Alaska was booming, and Ed found a job at Independence Mine in Hatcher Pass. There he heard rumors of the three beautiful daughters of Heinie and Alice Snider, who owned a gold mine higher up in the pass. He ventured up one day and was smitten by the eldest daughter, Elizabeth ‘Pat’. They married in September 1937 (you’ll soon learn that Ed liked to get married), and 11 months later my brother Gary was born followed by me in 1940. Mom became pregnant again with sister Sue, but marital troubles were brewing. Ed left us and traveled to Seattle to enlist in the army.

Without telling him she was pregnant with his third child, my mother asked for a divorce in June 1942. Ed began basic training in California where he met Mary Poppel. He did well and was assigned to officer training school at Fort Belvoir in Virginia. Mary joined him and they were married in January of 1943. Shortly afterward she was pregnant with our new sister Karen. Ed received his overseas orders and Mary returned to California. Before he left for Europe, Ed met Doris Uhler and after a whirlwind romance they were married in June of 1943… Ed neglected to tell her he was still married to Mary. His mother, Grace, didn’t know about either of his new wives, and Mary and Doris did not know of each other or of my mom until much later after his death. On each marriage certificate he indicated that it was his first. Of course besides liking to get married, Ed liked to make babies and soon Pat, our youngest sister, was on the way. (Incidentally, I did not learn about my sisters, Pat and Karen, until just this past year, thanks to my brother-in-law who is very skilled in genealogy.)

We learned more about my father after we received military records my daughter and I had requested. Ed joined the 7th Army, 3rd Infantry Division, 10th Engineers Combat Battalion as they prepared for the invasion of Sicily after the Army’s successful African campaign. Sicily was important to control the Mediterranean and was needed to provide a base for attacking mainland Europe. The terrain was difficult and mountainous, with the engineers spending most of their efforts rebuilding bridges blown up by the enemy, including the famous Bridge Built in the Sky. The fighting was deadly but the 7th pushed the Germans out and prepared to attack the mainland.


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Second Lieutenant Edward Lawson

Mussolini’s Italy was next. The 3rd Infantry Division made an amphibious landing at Salerno pushing a German panzer division to the Volturno River and Anzio, where Nero once soaked his tired bones.

After Italy the Alps required the 7th Army to do another amphibious landing in France as part of D-Day. The 7th Army had a fairly easy landing as the Allies in Normandy faced the brunt of the German forces. The Germans were routed in front of the 7th Army, caught and devastated by air power which created what some called the ‘valley of tears’ where the 3rd Infantry marched mile after mile past ruined vehicles, mangled bodies and the bloated corpses of dead horses. As winter approached, the advance slowed and the Germans nearly broke through the Allied lines in the Battle of the Bulge, but by Christmas we were fighting on German soil.

One of the most dangerous jobs was going in front of the Army to clear a path through landmines and other defenses. This job was usually done by engineers who led the way and came under heavy fire from the enemy. Ed was hit and wounded on November 20, 1944, doing just that job and was out of duty until January 11, 1945. Mary was initially notified that he was “killed in action” rather than wounded.


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March 27, 1945, Troops from the 7th Army crossing the Siegfried Line. 

In March of 1945, the 7th Army approached the Siegfried defense line with its rows of concrete pyramids —3 feet high and an engineer’s nightmare. They also had anti-tank traps 8 feet deep and 12 feet wide. Under heavy fire from the pill boxes, the engineers opened a path through the defenses near Műnschweiler and the army soon found itself on the Rhine River, where the engineers quickly constructed temporary bridges for crossings.

 

As the 3rd Infantry Division approached Bensheim they desperately needed armed support, but were again blocked by tank traps. Lieutenant Lawson and his troops stayed in the open, taking heavy fire. Ed was struck down, giving his life for his country. That day he received his third Purple Heart, and his brave actions left five children fatherless.

All of Ed’s kids were very fortunate to have people who cared for and loved them in their growing years. Gary, Sue, and I grew up in Wasilla, Alaska. Karen’s mother remarried after our father Edward was killed, and, in spite of her new dad getting MS (coincidently like my new dad), she lived in a happy and secure home. Pat’s mom also remarried, but that marriage didn’t last and Pat moved in with Doris’s mom, Zenobia, where she lived a joy-filled, adventurous childhood. Doris did remarry one more time to a wonderful man named Henry Ford, whom Pat came to love dearly as her father.


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Perhaps the most tragic figure in all of this was Grandma Grace. She did not even know of her son’s last two marriages until after his death, and would only get to see one of her five grandchildren, Karen, once. She was still afraid of the man who was stalking her and disappeared from our lives before we could get to know her. I think she would have been a loving granny and received a lot of love back from her grandkids.

Half-a-world away from war-torn Europe on the Aleutian Chain, the Japanese were attacking Attu and Dutch Harbor. Mysterious fires started at the supporting military base in Kodiak. As men ran up the ladders to fight the fires, one man tripped and dropped his fire extinguisher directly on the head of Sergeant Al Hjellen, causing a massive wound which required him to be medevaced to Anchorage.


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Sergeant Al Hjellen with his adopted sons, Gary and Gil

Elwin “Al” was born in Ballard, Washington, the second son of Ben and Nikka, immigrants from Norway. Al’s father was a master stone cutter and worked on many state capitals. He also helped lay the marble in the 4th Avenue Theater in Anchorage. An interesting side note is our porch on our Wasilla farm was the only porch in the valley that had marble, which happened to match the marble in the theater. (To know what a joke that was you need to read the three-part series, Under the Cottonwood Tree, that begins in the September 2014 issue of this magazine.) After Al graduated from high school in 1935, he and his brother Paul set out for the adventure of Alaska. Al found work as a taxi driver in Fairbanks. I often wonder if he met my mother during this time while she was going to college at UAF. Al ended up getting a great job in Nome managing an air-freight business, but when the war started he joined the Army Signal Corps in Alaska.

After the Kodiak accident Al was selected for officer’s training, but when he took the physical he had tremors and small lurches when he walked. These were early signs of multiple sclerosis (MS), but it was not diagnosed at the time, and although he did not pass that physical, he stayed in the Army until the end of the war.


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Al Hjellen

When Al was recovering from his head wound in Anchorage, he went to a USO dance. There he met Pat Snider Lawson, who was working as a clerk for Warren Cuddy, a local attorney in Anchorage. We’ve been told that he didn’t make a good first impression on our mom and at first she said, “No,” when he asked her to dance. Al changed her mind and soon learned that she had three kids, but he was smitten. He asked for her hand in marriage in November 1943, and adopted my brother Gary, me, and my baby sister Sue. Soon, in rapid order, Alice, Peter, and Ida were born.

UCM-320x180-CleanAirAfter WWII ended we moved to Wasilla where our dad worked for the railroad, but the early signs of MS were becoming more evident. Some people in the community thought he was a drunk because of his stagger. Before long he was unable to work and that is how we ended up on a farm in the valley, and later running the Wasilla Roadhouse. Dad’s symptoms became worse and he went from only needing a cane to a wheelchair, but his mind was still sharp. He wrote a column for the Frontiersman newspaper called Random Ramblings Out Wasilla Way. Our family loved to listen to his stories and jokes. Through it all I remember how positive and strong my father Al was—never a complaint and always looking positively towards the future. Times were lean but we had a great family life.

With Senator Ted Steven’s help, my parents were able to connect the MS to Dad’s injury in Kodiak during his service time so he could obtain veteran’s benefits. The family’s severe financial stress was over. Eventually my parents built a home on Lake Lucille, and enjoyed many happy years surrounded by their kids and grandkids. Al died peacefully in his sleep in 1986, at the ripe old age of 71.

Each of my fathers had courage that took different forms and, whatever faults they had, I believe they made up for them with the deep sacrifices they made for their country and our freedom. I am so proud of and thankful for them both. My brothers, sisters, and I, through good times and bad, were blessed by their presence in our lives.

By Gil Hjellen


Articles by Gil Hjellen

Underneath the Cottonwood Tree – Part 1

Underneath the Cottonwood Tree – Part 2

Underneath the Cottonwood Tree – Part 3

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