By Susan Shinn
For the Salisbury Post
July 4, 1945: The Second Armored Division occupies Berlin, the first American unit allowed into the fallen city.
And Harry Hart was there.
Hart, 98, is a resident of Trinity Oaks and has attended St. John’s Lutheran Church for the past year. He’s a member of Prospect Presbyterian Church in Mooresville, but takes advantage of the retirement center’s weekly transportation to St. John’s.
“It’s a nice church and a beautiful sanctuary,” Hart says. “I just enjoy going there.”
He was recognized by the senior pastor, the Rev. Rhodes Woolly, on Memorial Day, and most recently on July 1 during the congregation’s annual Celebration of Liberty worship service.
Hart probably doesn’t consider himself a hero. In fact, the word never even comes up in conversation in his cozy Trinity Oaks apartment.
But, of course, he is.
Hart was born in Rowan County on Oct. 31, 1913. His family moved to Mooresville a short time later. His grandfather was Samuel C. Hart, for whom the local American Legion Post is named. His grandfather served as postmaster for tiny Harts, N.C., (“You never heard of it,” Hart says) and gave land to establish a school. His sons went to Davidson and Carolina and his daughters also had college degrees — a rarity at the time.
Hart studied agriculture at N.C. State University but never received a degree. He was part of the ROTC program, a mandatory requirement. He received a commission as a second lieutenant in the Army, and at age 26 was called into active duty in 1939. He became a part of the Second Armored Division, “Hell on Wheels” under Gen. George Patton.
Hart was named captain just before his company was to go to Omaha Beach on “D+3,” June 9, 1944.
“I was a big shot then,” he allows.
The Normandy Invasion, the world’s largest military assault, had taken place just three days before on June 6. He had command of an LST, with some 24 tanks and 85 vehicles. They came ashore at a 10-foot high tide. There were balloons strung overhead to keep the soldiers from being strafed. Hart’s orders were to bring gasoline to the front lines. The division used some 90,000 gallons a day.
Before the invasion, the soldiers had aerial photos of the beach — an ordinary beach, Hart says. But the Germans were masters at camouflage, and hid powerful coast artillery guns.
“The men were just slaughtered,” he remembers.
After the invasion, Hart was part of the group that brought reinforcement, coming in with their massive tanks. After the soldiers secured the port, supplies could be brought through.
Over the next few months, the Second Division fought its way across France, Belgium, the Netherlands and finally to Germany. A huge map on the wall of Hart’s living room chronicles the division’s route. They were finally ordered to stop at Madgeburg at the Elbe River, while they waited for nearly three months until the Russians took Berlin.
The division was allowed to enter the city on July 4, 1945. The division had been selected by General Eisenhower as the occupation force. They ventured into the city early in the morning. Hart was intent on finding his men adequate shelter — something that was more than adequate, actually.
“Our boys had been sleeping in tanks, five men to a tank. It was a rough life. There were city blocks with three-story, modern buildings, with showers and comfortable beds. I had 800 men. I said, ‘I want a city block! My men will sleep in comfort now.’ ”
Hart paid a visit to Hitler’s headquarters. “I said, ‘I want to go straight to his office.’ We’d been bombing the hell out of it. It was two stories underground and two stories on top. We didn’t know about the bunker.”
Hart saw the spot where Hitler and his mistress had committed suicide. He ventured down a corridor, near where the bodies had been burned weeks before. He could still smell the stench. “It smelled so bad, I did not go all the way,” he says.
But he did go into Hitler’s office.
It was a small office, filled with leather-bound chairs and sofas. It was, he remembers, an evil place. “Hitler annihilated any opposition.” He spent about 15 to 20 minutes there, gathering some souvenirs, using the butt of his gun to chip some pieces of wood from Hitler’s desk.
He took a certificate for a golden anniversary, signed by Hitler. “I hope and wish that you will continue to have a long and bright existence in the midst of your family,” the fuhrer wrote.
By any other standards, it would be an innocuous document, if not for the chilling signature.
Harry was released from service in October 1945. He got home in the morning and went to work in the afternoon, still wearing his uniform. He fashioned a successful career as a warehouse owner. His uncle, with whom he’d been in business, had passed away. “I was actually anxious to get out and back home into business. I guess I was a little cocky when I got out.”
He didn’t fully retire until he moved to Trinity Oaks. “I didn’t know what retirement was.”
After the war, Hart met a lovely lady who’d been a codebreaker.
“She swept me off my feet right quick,” he says.
Harry and Mildred Hart were married 46[0xbd] years. They had two sons and two daughters.
“We had a lovely family,” Hart says. “I’m proud of each of them.”
He and his second wife, Betty, have been married 8[0xbd] years. They each have their own apartment. Hart says when he gets tired of his place, he takes his walker and wheels down the hall to hers.
He doesn’t mind talking about the war, but he still realizes how lucky he’s been. They say there are no atheists in foxholes. Harry Hart will tell you it’s true.
“I said a prayer every morning when I got up that God would protect me and bring me home to my family,” Hart says. “I am a firm believer in prayer.”
Next year, on October 31, Harry Hart will turn 100.
“The Lord has been good to me,” he says. “I’ve had a good physical body and very little illness. I think my prayers were answered.”
Susan Shinn is communications assistant for St. John’s Lutheran Church.
By Susan Shinn