By Lou Michel
News Staff Reporter
At age 12, Donald W. Seefeldt learned the definition of backbreaking work as a farmhand in Medina. His chores, before and after school, included milking cows by hand, pitchforking loose hay to feed the cattle and cleaning up endless piles of manure.
Six years later, when he was drafted into the Army, he breezed through boot camp with plenty of muscle to spare. He says he was assigned to one of the toughest boot camps, Fort McClellan, Ala., where he also received advanced infantry training.
“The captain was a Southern guy, and he was rough – a mean dude – and one day, he made the challenge that anyone who could beat him through the obstacle course could have seven days off from getting up at reveille, and I challenged him and beat him,” the 88-year-old Seefeldt says.
The captain, he recalls, was in disbelief and offered his congratulations.
“I was only 18 years old, and no one had ever beat him before,” he says. “Instead of getting up at 5 a.m., I could sleep until 9 a.m. I sure did enjoy that.”
But challenging times that would test not only physical strength but mental endurance lie ahead. In May 1944, Seefeldt and fellow members of the 4th Infantry Division set sail for Europe and arrived at the end of June at Normandy, weeks after the D-Day invasion.
“We went in as overstrength,” he says, “and on June 25, we took the port at Cherbourg. It was a pretty good battle. The reason I remember it so well is, everything happened on the 25th, and my birthday is July 25, and that was the date of the bombing of Saint-Lô, and the first wave of our planes somehow got screwed up and dropped the bombs on us.
“Then, on Aug. 25, we liberated Orly Airfield in Paris. I was one of the very first guys who went in.”
There was hardly any resistance, he says.
“I like to say that President Roosevelt shook a lot of hands,” Seefeldt says, “but he never kissed as many women as we did when we liberated the airfield.”
Did he enjoy the smooching?
On Sept. 25, 1944, he says, his unit “hit the Siegfried Line,” where the Germans had all their pillboxes and dragon’s teeth – pyramids of concrete to block tanks – “but we went through there.”
Right after that, he says, he suffered a personal setback that no amount of farm work from his younger days could make him strong enough to repel – a case of battle fatigue.
“Today they call it post-traumatic stress. In World War I, they called it shell shock. You’re just wiped out,” Seefeldt explains. “They flew me back to England. I was in the hospital about a month and a half. From what I remember, they gave me a shot in the arm, and all I know is it wiped out my memory.
“But believe it or not, I still have dreams about being in battle to this day.”
After his stay in England, he was sent to France and served with an engineering outfit. “We piped gasoline through 4-inch and 6-inch lines,” he says. “Our biggest problem was sabotage. The French would drill holes in them and tap them and sell the gasoline.”
When the war in Europe ended in May 1945, Seefeldt returned home to Orleans County and eventually found work with a farm supply store, where he remained for 35 years before retiring.
Over the years, he married three times and outlived each of his wives. He also helped raise a family of 10 children, with seven of them still alive.
And though it may sound unusual, he says the losses of fellow soldiers on the various battlefields of World War II helped him cope with the losses he experienced in his family life through the years.
“The way things happened in the infantry,” he says, “you had to get used to it. You just make up your mind. Life has to go on.”
And it is that lesson, he adds, that is carrying him through his later years.
“I’ve even done a preplan for my own funeral,” he says. “That takes the sting out of death.”