Harold Helderman: ‘Take care of yourself, because no one else will’
Linton’s Harold Helderman had his pick of any of the brand-new assisted living suites at Autumn Trace of Linton in the fall of 2016. Helderman toured the still-under-construction site that summer, weighing his options carefully.
“I chose this room here on the corner,” he said.
Helderman’s daughter, Charlotte Hardesty, explained further.
“My dad snapped this room up because of the view,” she said. “His room faces the helicopter pad at the hospital and he likes to watch them land and take off again.”
Helderman, born in November 1928 in the Bicknell/Bruceville area, is a soft-spoken man with a ready smile and memories of a good life well-lived. In his earlier years, Helderman was the neighborhood’s newsboy, delivering newspapers on his bicycle each morning.
One morning, in particular, stands out to Helderman. As the lad made his rounds on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, he was met by a couple of neighbors in their truck who had come looking for him. The neighbors took 13-year-old Helderman home, where the family had gathered around the radio, stunned by the news of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
In 1946, Helderman was 17 and had a strong desire to enlist in the military.
“I don’t know, I hadn’t been anywhere but home and it sounded like something I needed to do,” Helderman said of his motivation to enlist.
By that time, the war had officially ended, with the surrender of German forces having taken place in May 1945, followed by the unconditional surrender of Japanese forces aboard the USS Missouri on Sept. 2, 1945.
Helderman begged his mother to sign the papers allowing his enlistment in the United States Army, and she finally relented. Helderman was soon on his way to Fort Eustis, an Army training camp near Newport News, Virg, for three months of basic training. Helderman’s memories of his time at Ft. Eustis include at least one instance of the brutal behavior Drill Sergeants are best known for.
“It was pretty tough – I remember one night somebody took someone else’s boots from under their bed and no one would admit taking them,” Helderman laughed as he reminisced. “We had to stand out on the parade field all night until someone admitted it.”
Helderman also found himself in trouble with his mother.
“I promised my mom I would write her often, but I didn’t write much,” Helderman admitted. “She showed me, though. She wrote to my Commanding Officer to complain. After that, I wrote pretty regularly.”
For Helderman’s first three-year tour of duty, the scrappy 145-lb soldier was stationed at Augsburg, Germany on Oct 17, 1946, just two months before the Cessation of Hostilities of World War II was signed by President Harry Truman. Helderman was put in charge of a crew which oversaw supplies for the sprawling base, ordering food and keeping supply roomed stocked and clean. Helderman said the streets of Germany were ruined, filled with rubble and destruction.
Helderman was later assigned to the 7708th War Crimes Group. While attached to the group, he was responsible for gathering German prisoners of war, and those accused of war crimes.
“All that work for $63 a month,” Helderman proudly recalled.
As a result of his proximity to the city of Nuremberg, Helderman had a front-row seat at the infamous Nuremberg Trials. Nuremberg was selected as the location for the trials because its Palace of Justice was relatively undamaged by war and included a large prison area where accused war criminals were housed. Additionally, Nuremberg had previously been the site of yearly Nazi propaganda rallies and holding the trials there marked the symbolic end of Hitler’s Third Reich government.
Helderman, with the Nuremberg War Crimes Group, supervised war crimes prisoners, maintained his position in the supply department and managed to fall in love.
“I met a German girl, and we went together for six years,” Helderman said. The girl was a photographer and Helderman retains many of the photos she took during that time, as well as postcards and other correspondence sent over the years of their relationship.
Helderman came home on leave after the trials ended, and was promptly shipped back to Germany until the end of his tour.
In 1952, Helderman reenlisted and was ordered to report to Ft. Myers, near Arlington National Cemetery to serve there. Two tours of duty were enough for the young Army Corporal, and he received an honorable discharge, settling down in Daviess County.
It was there that Helderman met the love of his life, creamery worker Zelma Hart. Hart was the youngest of nine children born to William and Ruth (Smith) Hart of Daviess County. Hart graduated as one of seven in her class in 1955.
Hart’s older brother, Donald, was a military man as well, although his military career ended tragically. Hart was a tank driver for the Army who, on the last day of fighting, April 16, 1945, was killed in action during the Battle of the Ruhr in Kempen, Germany. Hart was awarded medals for Good Conduct, Tank Driver, Thompson Sub-machine gun, Marksman and the Purple Heart. He was 22 years old and left a widow and a young son.
“My mom told us she was about six or seven years old,” said Helderman’s daughter, Charlotte Hardesty. “She remembered a man in uniform coming to their farmhouse, telling her mom and dad Donald had been killed. She said she went to the closet and hid. Her parents were both crying and she was scared.”
At age 18, Zelma Hart was working in Daviess County and met Helderman.
“I was 26 years old and she was 18,” Helderman remembered. “She worked at a creamery and I used to tease her, sprayed her with a water hose through the window. I don’t know why she ever gave me the time of day.”
But Hart gave him more than the time of day, and the two were wed on New Year’s Eve of 1955.
By all accounts, Zelma and Harold Helderman enjoyed a fairy-tale romance followed by decades of deep connection and love.
“My dad and mom had a classic love story,” said Hardesty. “They did everything together. They laughed a lot and they loved each other dearly.” Zelma Helderman worked in factories to help support their family.
“Mom was always laughing,” Hardesty recalled. “She loved her siblings and she never met a stranger. She had such a beautiful voice and she loved to sing. My dad was devoted to her.”
The couple would remain together for 57 years, until Zelma’s death at age 74 in January 2012.
“She was the nicest, kindest woman, and we sure had a good life together,” Helderman said.
Zelma Helderman’s obituary describes her as a ‘contagious personality, full of life, laughter and fun,’ and says her abundant smile lit every room into which she walked.
The couple moved to Indianapolis after the wedding, where Helderman found employment with Bryant Heating and Cooling, a job he would hold for 35 years. Helderman also worked building roads for Crane and worked for a number of years for the B & O Railroad.
The couple welcomed a daughter, Beverly, in 1956, followed by a second daughter, Charlotte, in 1958.
A third daughter, Pamela Sue, died in childbirth in 1960. Through their daughters, the couple was given the gift of four grandsons. Seth and Zachary are the sons of daughter Beverly and daughter Charlotte bore Christopher and Nathan. These four, in turn, gave their grandparents six great-grandchildren, three boys and three girls.
One major pastime of the Helderman’s and their daughters was camping. The family traveled to whatever camping spot tickled their fancy, often camping with extended family at McCormick’s Creek State Park.
“Some of my favorite memories of growing up revolve around camping,” Hardesty recalled. “I just remember being in the camper with cousins all around, just enjoying being together. We had some really fun times.”
The Helderman’s enjoyed camping so much, in fact, they formed a local camping club called the Wabash Cannonballs. The group camped together for many years, combining their families and supplies.
Another family activity of the Helderman’s was after-hours office cleaning. Hardesty remembers piling into the family truck after their dad came home from a long day’s work, heading off to his second job which, to the Helderman kids, was a lot of fun.
“We cleaned the offices of Indiana Bell,” she recalled. “And then it was homework time.”
The Helderman work ethic is one that Helderman and his daughters have retained.
As he approaches 90, Helderman has no intention of slowing down his physical fitness regimen, one he has practiced nearly his entire life. Although Helderman suffers from arthritis and scoliosis has left him with a spine he describes as a ‘question mark’ for which he sees his doctor every year, he never misses a day of exercise.
Helderman logs a daily mile on a stationary bike he keeps in his bedroom. Whenever the bike bores him, he walks laps around the halls of Autumn Trace, circling until he has walked a mile. In addition, Helderman does daily calisthenics, doing 70 repetitions of five different exercises, and then lifting weights.
“You have to take care of yourself,” he said with a grin. “Because if you don’t, no one else will.”