A while back I came across the story of Hector Oikle of Derry and knew that his life was worth remembering this Veterans Day.
Hector was born on Sept. 9, 1925, in Sackville, Nova Scotia. His dad was a veteran of the Canadian army in the First World War. In 1926, the family immigrated to Pittsfield, N.H., and after a few years moved to Derry where they moved into a house at 15 Pleasant Avenue where Mr. Oikle was employed at the Chelmsford Shoe Factory.
Around 1941, Hector quit school and joined his dad at the shoe factory; the large Oikle family could use the extra income. In a world at peace, Hector would have likely remained a factory worker, married, raised a bunch of children and lived relatively happily ever after. This safe and predictable life-pattern was not to be.
After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor everything changed. We became Fortress America. On Nov. 3, 1943, Hector was driven by bus to Manchester where the 18-year-old Canadian citizen was sworn into the U.S. Army. Soon, he was sent to England to wait for the Normandy invasion. As a member of a tank crew, he was a part of Gen. George Patton’s Third Army. He landed on Omaha Beach four days after D-Day. In July, Hector was part of the battle for St. Lo and in August he was part of the bloody assault on the German army at St. Malo.
On Dec. 4, Hector volunteered for service with the 26th Infantry -- the Yankee Division. He was wounded by shrapnel soon after his transfer but was able to remain with his new outfit. For a while, all was quiet in Europe; many believed that the Germans were in retreat. Most thought that soon we’d be in Berlin and the war would be over. This was to be a peaceful Christmas on the Western Front.
On Dec. 16, all hell broke loose! The Battle of the Bulge had begun! The Germans were mounting a counterattack. This would turn out to be the most costly battle of the entire war with 19,000 Americans killed and more than twice that number wounded. In the confused fighting around the city of Bastogne, a half-million American troops were “frozen in hell.” The temperature hovered around zero as they fought, bled and died in knee high snow. Corpsmen had to keep their bags of plasma inside their coats and under their arms to prevent the blood from freezing.
Private Hector Oikle was hit by fire from a German 88 mm anti-tank gun on Dec. 29, 1944. Immediately everything went black. When he woke up, he was in an army hospital in Luxembourg. While lying in his hospital bed, he soon discovered that both his legs had been amputated above the knees. On Jan. 14 he dictated this letter to his mother in Derry:
It’s been a long time since I wrote you last but it couldn’t be helped. The last letter I remember writing you, I was in the infantry. I suppose you want to know what is wrong with me. I hate to tell you but it could be worse. I lost both my legs but they are coming along fine. I suppose this sounds terrible to you but there are a lot of fellows worse off than myself. ... The pain was pretty bad at first but it’s getting less every day.
In closing the letter he wrote “Love to all’ and signed it with a new nickname he had given himself: “Shorty.”
On Feb. 3, Hector was flown to convalesce in a New Jersey hospital and in July he returned to Derry. For weeks, crowds of well wishers would gather around him to give him encouragement as he wheeled his chair down Broadway. His standard reply was to say there were a lot of others worse off then him; then he’d flash his boyish grin and wheel away. He wanted no pity. He’d rather a hand-shake rather than a handout. Hector would seek out others with similar disabilities to give them encouragement; to try and convince them that life was still worth living.
The workers of the Chelmsford Shoe Factory gave him a purse of $300 to help his return to civilian life. In 1946, the 20-year-old Hector Oikle received the first hand-controlled car in New Hampshire. The conversion kit was provided free of charge from the Ford Motor Co. and the new sedan was donated by a grateful government. A month later Hector was involved in an accident in Goffstown which wrecked his new Ford and bent one of his artificial legs.
In time, Hector Oikle truly did returned to the normal world of peacetime Derry. He and his wife, Evelyn Tattersall, lived in a large house at 8 North Shore Road which was soon filled with sound of their two children, Wayne and Shirley. He got a job as machine repairman in a shoe factory in Haverhill and became a popular member of both the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars. Everyone in town knew Hector and he had a wave and smile for everyone. Fellow war hero Walter Borowski remembered him as being Derry’s friendliest man. Whenever Hector drove his wheelchair on Broadway all the local drivers would cheerfully yield the right of way to him in honor of his sacrifice and good spirits.
On Feb. 6, 1959, Hector was visiting his parents at 17 Highland Avenue when he was suddenly taken sick. Dr. Wilder was called but it was too late. His body had worn out and within only a couple hours he would die of bronchopneumonia. Hector was only 33 years old. He is buried at Forest Hill Cemetery.
Rick Holmes is the official town historian of Derry. His office hours at the Municipal Center are Mondays from 8 a.m. to noon and Wednesdays from 4 to 7 p.m. Several of his books on local history are available at Mack’s Apples and Derry’s libraries.