Trapped and captured some 30 miles behind enemy lines in December 1944 during the Battle of the Bulge in World War II, Henry Harmeling and the other men in his division were soon subjected to the grueling lives of prisoners of war.
“Severe food deprivation has physical and mental consequences which overshadow all other factors,” he wrote in a 15-page memoir in 1998, when he was 78. “The mind thinks of little else but hunger.”
Their German captors gave them little food, so the US soldiers paid rapt attention to how the food was divided, and at one point decided they needed a more honest fellow rationing out each day’s hunk of bread and bowl of potato soup.
“So it was decided to elect a new ladle person,” Mr. Harmeling wrote. “I won this election, and ever since have felt this was the greatest honor of my life.”
Mr. Harmeling, who after two decades in the Army became one of the first professors at North Shore Community College, where he taught for 26 years, died Aug. 10 in Herrick House, an assisted living facility in Beverly. He was 92.
He wanted to teach ‘the young struggling kid out of high school who neededto go to a junior college. He wanted to help them along and nurture them.’
“My dad was a complete renaissance man,” said his son Peter of North Reading. “He was a soldier and an educator and a professional potter. He was a gardener, an athlete, a poet. He was just the most interesting and curious guy I’ve ever met.”
A graduate of the West Point military academy, Mr. Harmeling went back to school after retiring as a lieutenant colonel and graduated from Florida State University in Tallahassee with a master’s in mathematics.
“He loved to help everybody and he had a real gift for communications and teaching,” said his son John of Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
He added that his father knew he wanted to teach “the young struggling kid out of high school who needed to go to a junior college. He wanted to help them along and nurture them.”
Teaching, however, was only one of Mr. Harmeling’s pursuits. He reviewed textbooks and managed the college bookstore. He read widely and crafted pottery. He played guitar and was so deft with playing cards that a memorable bridge game during his time as a POW made it into his memoir.
“He had an unbelievable spread of interests and talents in his lifetime,” said Joanne Patton of South Hamilton, a longtime friend of Mr. Harmeling’s and the daughter-in-law of the late General George S. Patton. “Whenever we thought we knew him, something would pop up. I would mention someone in conversation and he’d say, ‘Oh yes, I’m in a poetry class with that one.’ ”
Along with poetry, Mr. Harmeling wrote prose, including a 1985 travel article for the Globe in which he waxed poetic about his second Caribbean cruise.
“The captain himself manned the helm and the mate, with line in hand, perched on the bowsprit calling fathoms as the graceful three-master inched towards the shining sand of the lush island,” he wrote. “A sharp command, the rattle of the anchor chain, and launches were lowered. Minutes later the explorers were ashore for another day of adventure. This could be a quote from Darwin, Dana, or Melville, but in this case it simply describes the morning of a typical day on a Windjammer Barefoot Cruise.”
Born in Junction City, Kan., Mr. Harmeling was the oldest of three children whose father was a lawyer and judge in the Army.
After growing up in Washington, D.C., Washington state, and Hawaii, he went to West Point, graduating in 1942.
Though his time as a prisoner was harrowing, Mr. Harmeling wrote in his memoir that he “never cared to dwell on my war experience.” His family said that before writing the memoir, he tended to speak of his World War II service in the most general terms.
“There seems to be a national tendency to regard ex-POWs as war heroes,” Mr. Harmeling wrote. “I certainly don’t buy into this. I regard POWs simply as unlucky players who received snake eyes on the first roll of the dice.”
He added that he declined the offer of free “Ex-POW” license plates in Massachusetts, and saw no reason “why I should get a valuable perk while brave soldiers, who were not captured, do not.”
Mr. Harmeling married Patricia Hanson in 1942, right after graduating from West Point.
“They met on a tennis court,” said their son John. “My mom had some other date early in the evening. She ditched him early and ran to my dad.”
The Harmelings raised seven children, and their extended family grew to include 17 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.
“He raised us on one thing: If you give up your good name, you’ve lost everything. Your word is everything, your handshake means something,” John said. “His favorite line in the West Point Prayer was, ‘Make us to choose the harder right instead of the easier wrong.’ ”
Mr. Harmeling’s son Peter said his father “recognized the power of example. He was a principled man and he didn’t do a lot of preaching to us. He just led his life in an unselfish way and set a good example.”
And despite Mr. Harmeling’s many pursuits, “he just put his family above everything,” Peter said. “If you were under his umbrella, he was going to do everything he could to look after you, and to teach you, and guide you, and make you a better person.”
Services were private for Mr. Harmeling, who in addition to his wife, two sons, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren leaves three daughters, Hope Harmeling Benne and Laurie Harmeling McDonough, both of Beverly, and Susan of Washington D.C.; two other sons, Henry “Dutch” III of San Diego and Mark of North Reading; and a sister, Jane Harmeling McPherson of Raleigh, N.C.
In a tribute, Sarah Harmeling of Denver wrote that her grandfather “could make eating a perfectly ripe slice of tomato or chunk of watermelon the most joyful experience. He loved watching flowers bloom, birds fly, and pennies get flattened on train tracks.”
Mr. Harmeling, she added, “found immense beauty in a song or even a simple verse of a well-written poem. My grandfather knew that all of these simple things are what makes life important and he knew what a blessing life is.”
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