Carl R. Wheeler, 82, World War II veteran

January 01, 2004|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Carl R. Wheeler, a veteran of the 101st Airborne Division who parachuted into France on D-Day, fought in several key battles and married the widow of a fellow soldier killed in the war, died of Lewy body disease, a dementia-related condition, Sunday at his Havre de Grace home. He was 82.

Mr. Wheeler was born in Marion, Va., and moved to Perry Point when his father took a job at the veterans hospital. After graduating from Perryville High School in 1939, he enlisted in the Maryland National Guard and served as a medic and ambulance driver.

When the war broke out, he was sent to Fort Bragg, N.C., where he learned to jump from airplanes and joined Company D, 502nd Parachute Infantry, 101st Airborne Division - the "Screaming Eagles."

The war became a pivotal time in Mr. Wheeler's life. He was awarded three Purple Hearts, saw action in some of the war's most important battles and met his wife through a close friend who was killed in the conflict.

While training at Fort Bragg, Mr. Wheeler became close friends with Paul Pottoroff, from Union Center, N.Y., who was married in 1943 to a girl from his hometown, Mildred "Millie" Grover.

Mr. Pottoroff spent a week with his wife before he shipped out with Mr. Wheeler to England to prepare for the invasion. He wrote to his new wife each day and asked Mr. Wheeler to add postscripts.

"I started them `Dear Sis' and ended them `Brother Carl,' even though we had never met or talked and didn't know each other. I had a girlfriend in Georgia," Mr. Wheeler said in a 1997 interview with The Sun. The letters began a bond that would last a lifetime.

Mr. Wheeler also was a participant in one of the most famous photographs of World War II, when Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower visited members of the 101st at Greenham Common Airfield on the eve of the invasion.

"He remembered it distinctly and was very proud of being in that photo. He vividly recalled standing and listening to Ike," said his wife of 59 years.

On D-Day, June 6, 1944, both men jumped into Normandy with other members of the 101st and 82nd Airborne Divisions as part of the first wave of the 175,000-member Allied force that invaded Europe.

Dropped miles from his designated drop zone behind Utah Beach, Mr. Wheeler and his parachute became ensnared in a tree. He was able to free himself to begin looking for friendly forces.

Mr. Wheeler participated in the bloody and ill-fated ground and air invasion of Arnhem in the Netherlands that began on Sept. 17, 1944, and was known as Operation Market Garden. Allied forces encountered stiff German resistance, and of the 10,000 men who went into Arnhem, fewer than 2,500 survived.

Mr. Wheeler was wounded at Normandy, Arnhem and Bastogne.

In mid-December 1944, he and Mr. Pottoroff were fighting at Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge. They had sought shelter from the frigid night in a stone farmhouse. As Paul sat teaching Carl how to play pinochle, the Germans unleashed an artillery barrage.

"We ran back to our positions and I never saw him again. We went in with 100 men in the company at Bastogne and came back with 30," Mr. Wheeler said in the Sun interview.

Several days later, Mrs. Pottoroff received a telegram from the War Department telling her that her husband had been killed in action.

"Paul never came right out and asked me to look after Millie, but he implied it," Mr. Wheeler said. "He said, `I'm going to get killed over here and Millie's going to be by herself.'"

Mr. Wheeler met his future wife when the war ended.

"The next day I asked her to marry me. We had formed our opinions through our letters," he said. They married in the autumn of 1945.

After the war, Mr. Wheeler went to work at Perry Point Veterans Hospital, where he eventually became supervisor of maintenance. He retired in 1972.

Only in recent years did Mr. Wheeler open up to his family about his wartime experiences.

"He talked about my first husband and what a good friend he had been. But generally, he didn't spend too much time thinking about the war or his accomplishments," Mrs. Wheeler said.

"If you hadn't been there, he really didn't like to talk about it," said Earl R. "Ralph" Kelly of Aberdeen, another 101st paratrooper.

"He had to have been a good soldier because they wanted to give him a battlefield commission, but because he stuttered, it was denied him. And I think that really bothered him," Mr. Kelly said.

"We did everything together," Mrs. Wheeler said. "He was a good sportsman and he taught me how to crab, fish and go hunting."

Mr. Wheeler also liked golfing and was an avid tenpin bowler.

He attended Havre de Grace United Methodist Church.

Services were held yesterday in Perryville.

In addition to his wife, Mr. Wheeler is survived by a son, Carl R. Wheeler Jr. of Perryville; a daughter, Patricia J. Wardell of Havre de Grace; a brother, Conley Wheeler of Havre de Grace; two sisters, Kathryn David of Philadelphia and Edith Heidick of West Covina, Calif.; seven grandchildren; and nine great-grandchildren.

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