A salute to veterans Henry Lembke: A long voyage home

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A salute to veterans Henry Lembke: A long voyage home

By Pat McTaggart
Freelance Writer

Like thousands of other Iowa boys, Northeast Iowa native Henry Lembke registered for the draft on June 5, 1917, the date that all males between the ages of 21 and 30 were required to do so. World War I was raging in Europe, with America entering into the conflict on April 6. The Army was undergoing a massive transformation from a peacetime force to a force that would be needed to confront the enemy, and that force needed men. 

Sometime after America’s entry into the war, the Lembke family changed their name to Lemka, feeling that it was more American sounding. However, to avoid confusion with the military, Henry kept the original spelling on his service papers.
Lembke was born on August 17, 1895 in Cox Creek Township, Clayton County. When he registered for the draft, he was a farm laborer in the same township. His farm work came to an abrupt end when he received a notice to report for a physical on August 7, barely two months since his registration. He received another notice after his physical ordering him to report for induction into the Army on August 25.

Lembke spent several months training at camp Dodge in Des Moines. In one letter to his parents, Henry wrote that he was with “a fine bunch of boys” and that all the Clayton County soldiers were in one company. He also asked his mother to “thank the ladies of Elkader for the fine supper and breakfast that they served” before sending the draftees off to war.

After spending time at Camp Dodge, Lembke was sent for further training to Camp Logan, Texas, and then to Camp Upton, New York. Having never been out of northeast Iowa, Lembke’s letters home were full of descriptions of the land and its crops. In one such letter, he stated that “it sure is quite a country out here”.

Lembke’s last letter from Camp Upton was dated May 20, 1918. The next time his parents heard from him, he was in France with the 131st Infantry Regiment/ 33rd Infantry Division.
Henry wrote to family and friends weekly while overseas. Although he was involved in 11 offensive and defensive operations and engagements, some of them lasting for days, he rarely mentioned anything about the combat he saw. His observations clearly reflected his farm background, concern that his family would not worry about him and how things were going on the family farm.

He mentioned the vast fields of poppies that were part of the French landscape. He also wrote that “I can sure see why they can’t grow corn over here.” In another letter he was writing while being shelled by the Germans, he interrupted his description about the barrage by writing “they sure grown fine wheat in this country.”

His few mentions of combat were short. “The Fritzes dropped bombs on us last night and I had a piece of shrapnel dent my tin hat,” he wrote in July. An August letter mentioned that he “was in a big drive and came out OK. We sure made old Jerry run.” One October letter said that he had gotten a “little dose of (poison) gas that made breathing hard for a while.”

His main emphasis was not having his family worry. “Don’t worry about me,” he wrote to his mother. “I have it in my head that I am coming back.” In a September letter to his aunt he wrote, “I have been up to the lines a few times and have come out lucky every time. The way I feel, I am going to come out of this all right.”

By October it was clear that the Germans could not continue the war. “We hear that peace is close at hand,” he wrote to his father. “I have participated in four frontal assaults and have come out without a scratch. Should be headed home soon.”
He was even more optimistic in a letter dated November 7. “We are getting some good news over here,” he wrote. “I think that us boys will be floating in deep water pretty soon.” Three days later, Lembke was dead—killed in a defensive battle in the Troyon Sur-Meuse sector. The war ended the next day.

Lembke’s family received word of his death and was informed that he was buried in an American cemetery in France. They immediately started paperwork to request the return of his body to Iowa. It was a long process.  Meanwhile, the members of Elkader’s new American Legion Post, which was chartered on September 21, 1921, honored Henry and another local man, Fred Stendel, by naming their post the Lemka-Stendel Post.

The Lemka’s finally received their son’s casket in August 1921. Henry was reburied with military honors in Elkader on August 7. His long voyage back to Iowa was over.  Henry was finally home.

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