When he entered the Centerton Community Center on June 14, Berryville resident Walter Noftsger had no idea what was in store for him.
The 94-year-old World War II veteran was honored two weekends ago by becoming a recipient of a Quilt of Valor. The quilt was made by volunteers involved with Quilts of Valor, a nonprofit foundation whose mission is, according to the website, to "cover service members and veterans touched by the war with comforting and healing quilts." Nearly 10,000 quilts have been awarded to service men and women in the United States since the organization's inception in 2003.
Quilts of Valor
"When I heard about the Quilt of Valor, I immediately thought about my Uncle Bo," said his niece, Kathy Kessel. Noftsger remembers his service in the war vividly, she said, often tearing up when he talks about the two brothers and many close friends who were killed. But, like most of that generation, he speaks modestly about all he encountered.
"When Bo came home from the service, his biggest sorrow was that he had two small children who hardly knew him," Kessel said. "That was his number one priority after his country was taking care of his family. That is still what he does."
Before going to war for his country, Noftsger was a young Missourian with his eye sent on a lofty goal: Love.
"I was walking home from school when he stopped his pickup truck," said his wife Ruth, reminiscing. "He was going to take a group of us home. But he drove right past my house and didn't let me off. He took everyone else home but took me home last."
The young lovebirds were married two years later in 1940 by a justice of the peace. With $21 between them, the couple loaded up their belongings into Noftsger's 1933 Chevy and headed to South Dakota, Ruth said, and soon after to Washington state, where Noftsger would find a job making $39 a week at a shipyard in Tacoma.
In February 1944, the couple welcomed their first child, Sharon. A month later, they were back in Missouri saying goodbye.
"He had received two deferments, being that he worked in the shipyards and because of the birth of a child," she said. "But we knew he would be drafted. I stayed with my parents and two sisters while he was deployed."
After being drafted, Noftsger was sent to Fort Leavenworth in Kansas, then to Camp Plauche in New Orleans for basic training.
"He was shipped to Camp Gordon Johnson in Florida for another round of basic training," said his daughter, Sharon Powers. "He thought it couldn't get worse than New Orleans but found that Camp Gordon was worse."
After a short weeklong furlough, Noftsger was sent to Pennsylvania, then New York were he boarded the USAT J.W. McAndrews. Three days later, he would see the casualties of war for the first time.
"They were hit by another ship, a French Carrier (Bearn)," Powers said. "Over 200 men were killed by the collision, including a friend of Dad's from Omaha, Bowers." After the collision, the surviving soldiers were picked up by tug boats and barges and sent to the Azores in Portugal, she related.
"It was awful," added his wife. "But maybe by being hit and the delay, it saved him from one of the big battles. We could have lost him then."
Soon after, the young soldier, now Pvt. 1st Class Machine Gunner Noftsger, traveled from England to La Havre, France, and into Germany. Once there, his company met the German army head on, battling both ground troops and ducking from rounds coming at them from above. He witnessed more friends' deaths, but he survived to move into Austria and ultimately to Hilter's secret hideout in Berchtesgaden, Powers said.
With the surrender of Germany, and after seeing Gen. George Patton (and his famous pearl-handled revolvers), Noftsger got the news he had waited for for more than a year: He was going home.
After returning to his family and new baby in October 1945, Noftsger moved on from the war. The couple would farm until 1956, and later Noftsger would become involved in the space program, working as a precision mechanic for Martin Marietta Materials, said Ruth, until he retired in 1979. The couple began traveling, visiting all 50 states and being an inspiration to their family.
"Ruth and Walter are a symbol to our family of what love, faith and devotion to each other through the good time and bad can accomplish," said Kessel. "In 74 years of marriage, they have never gone to sleep angry. Like all families, they have had their share of tragedies, but we all know that we have a wonderful support structure in each other and mostly in God."
This love, and Noftsger's dedication to family and country, were honored as part of a family reunion celebration. Seventy family members, including five children and one adopted daughter, joined Ruth to surprise her husband with the quilted honor.
"I knew about it, but he didn't," she said with a laugh. "He was in shock, quiet. I think as a foot soldier, they don't get a lot of recognition. But I think any time someone gets shot at, they're a hero."
"I was totally surprised," said Noftsger humbly. "I had no idea what was coming. I am completely honored and humbled."
The 94-year-old, who will celebrate his 95th birthday on July 8 and his 74th wedding anniversary in August, continues to maintain his positive outlook on his life, appreciating his family, his service and the community. Through his great faith, his family agreed, he reminds those around him that no matter the circumstances, the outcome will be as it should.
"I learned through my time in the war that you got to always look to God first," said the veteran. "And everything will be OK."NAN Our Town on 06/26/2014