Kane County remembers the attack on Pearl Harbor: Old soldiers, opposite sides

In this Dec. 7, 1941, photo provided by the U.S. Navy, sailors stand among wrecked airplanes at Ford Island Naval Air Station as they watch the explosion of the USS Shaw, background, during the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. More than 2,300 U.S. service members and civilians were killed in the strike which brought the United States into World War II.

Editor’s note: This story originally ran on May 21, 2009. The Kane County Chronicle is republishing it to commemorate the attack on Pearl Harbor. Geneva native Charles Sehe was aboard the U.S.S. Nevada when it was bombed by Japan on Dec. 7, 1941.

Charles Sehe and Adam Taschner both joined the military when they were 17.

Sehe, who lived at 116 Nebraska St. in Geneva, enlisted in the Navy in 1940. Germany drafted Taschner in 1943.

The two crossed paths twice in their lives.

The first time, Sehe was a gun crewman on the USS Nevada, 8,000 yards offshore of Utah Beach in Normandy, France. His mission was to blast through the 10-foot-thick sea wall protecting the Cotentin Peninsula so the D-Day Invasion of June 6, 1944, could occur.

Taschner was assigned to an 88mm mobile anti-aircraft battery. His unit’s job was to aim that big gun at the Nevada and stop the Allies.

The two old soldiers met in 1993 in a restaurant in Bavaria and learned they were in the same combat zone that day – on opposite sides and shooting at each other.

“It just flabbergasted me that he was on the beach in that gun unit,” Sehe said. “He mentioned that always the young people are the first called up to fight and bear the wounds in war – no matter what war it is. We did not cry. We had another round of beer and shook hands. The last time he wrote me was a year ago. He was ill. I do not think he survived.”

As the battle raged, Taschner’s group was reduced to 10 men from 120. Leaflets dropped from U.S. planes on June 12 promised fair treatment and removal to the U.S., Sehe said, and many began to surrender.

“Only a week had passed since the invasion started, but for Taschner and his men, the war was now over,” Sehe said.

Sehe translated Taschner’s letters, written in German, to the National D-Day Museum in New Orleans. Sehe is well-known in Geneva and usually makes the trek from his home in Mankato, Minnesota, to give the Memorial Day address, but not this year. He will visit with other D-Day vets in June to mark its 65th anniversary.

Sehe, 86, is a trifecta of living military history. Before D-Day, he was on the U.S.S. Nevada when Pearl Harbor was bombed Dec. 7, 1941.

“We were given clean, new galvanized buckets to pick up the numerous isolated body parts strewn around the gun casements,” Sehe said. “I recall finding severed knee joints, as well as shoulder fragments and torn, burned body torsos, all unidentifiable. ... The tremendous force of the numerous explosions seemed to have literally strained some of the bodies through the chain-link fencing.”

After D-Day, the U.S.S. Nevada, along with Sehe, was retooled and sent to Iwo Jima and Okinawa, where again, its firepower supported troop landings. At Okinawa, the Nevada – and Sehe – survived a kamikaze plane carrying a 500-kilogram bomb that crashed into the ship. Eleven were killed. Sehe was among the 65 wounded.

“Time is running out for the World War II veteran,” Sehe said. “And I am no exception.”

But he’s still spry enough to man a hoe.

“I just got back from planting a garden up on a hill,” Sehe said. “I put in tomatoes, bell peppers, zucchini, butternut squash and some salsa peppers. I’m a little tired right now.”