CENTER FOR U.S. WAR
VETERANS' ORAL HISTORIES
World War II
Edmund Hmieleski Jr was born in Perth Amboy, New Jersey in 1920 and graduated from high school there in 1938. He worked as a meat cutter in the local A&P market. Hmieleski joined the military following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. He attempted to enlist in the Marines along with twenty of his friends, but was not accepted due to a broken bone discovered during his physical examination. He then applied to the Army Air Corps, where he wanted to be an aerial gunner. Declared too tall for that duty, he ended up a Quartermaster Corps trailer-truck driver.
Hmieleski entered active duty on February 4, 1942 and received basic training at Fort Dix, NJ, an experience he recalled as featuring many extended marches. He subsequently received instruction as a truck driver at Camp Lee, Virginia. Following that training he was assigned to a post in Jackson, Michigan and then to Camp Kilmer, New Jersey, from where he embarked for invasion of North Africa. He remembers boarding a troopship along with 2500 other soldiers as part of a convoy of more than 150 other ships, including other transports, cargo ships and destroyers.
Enroute to North Africa Hmieleski’s ship vigorously listed right and left, and then its engine broke down for a three day period. The only food available on board was peanut butter sandwiches. As the ship bobbed around in the ocean, the captain asked for volunteers to go into the hold area to make sure vehicles stored there were secured from rolling. When the engine was finally repaired, the ship, along with its complement of very seasick soldiers, returned to New York. The men then boarded another ship, this time the Grace Line cruise ship Santa Helena, where Hmieleski shared a room with three other soldiers. The ship sailed to Casablanca, Morocco, a city captured by American troops one month earlier. There were no docks available, so the Saint Helena anchored in the harbor next to a scuttled French steamship, and the troops were ferried ashore. Once ashore, Hmieleski began hauling food, bombs, aircraft fuel, and other supplies from Casablanca to Marrakesh. He used an informative guidebook on North Africa to discover where he was at any given time.
Hmieleski spent two months in Algiers. While bivouacked near some railroad tracks, he noticed girls passing by on their way to a factory, where, he was told, they were building gliders for the D-Day campaign. He also observed thousands of German prisoners who were being held in Algiers. While playing football one day he fell into a trench and injured his ankle. After receiving a morphine shot from an army doctor, however, he was soon walking with no pain.
Following his stint in North Africa, Hmieleski spent seven months in Corsica, supporting the bombing campaign against Italy as a member of the 864th Bomb Squadron, and later moving on to Italy itself. He noted that the units he supported flew P-38 fighters and B-25 and B-26 bombers. The Germans still had a significant air force and anti-aircraft capability in Italy, and many American planes limped back to base. He recalled a number of crash landings and other accidents. On one occasion, a plane hit an obstruction on the runway while taking off, yet still became airborne. When it reached a thousand feet the whole plane began to vibrate dangerously, and the pilot bailed out. Unfortunately, his parachute was not properly packed, and he was fatally injured in the fall into the water. While in Italy Hmieleski, along with a fellow soldier who was Jewish, attended an audience of Pope Pius XII. The Jewish soldier kissed the Pope’s ring. In a case of serendipity, on another occasion Hmieleski encountered his wife’s sister, who was stationed as a nurse working with German POW amputees at an army hospital near Naples.
As the Allies moved up the Italian peninsula they captured enemy airfields. Engineers were assigned to repair the bombed-out landing strips. Hmieleski’s unit was bombed by Germans in its own turn, and he recalled diving into slit trenches for protection. Throughout his military experience Hmieleski was never wounded.
In 1945 Corporal Hmieleski returned to the states via Boston and then on to an airbase in Columbia, South Carolina. He boarded a plane to Okinawa, where he engaged in loading and unloading aircraft. While he was in Okinawa the island was hit by a typhoon, which sank ships and blew tents away. At the time, Okinawa was full of US troops preparing for the invasion of the Japanese mainland. He subsequently left Okinawa for Eniwetok. While asea, he served on top deck as a lookout for enemy planes.
At the conclusion of the war, while preparing to board a troopship home, Hmieleski learned that a dog he had acquired as a pet would not be allowed aboard. He and a buddy, however, smuggled the dog on in a barracks bag. While on board, he volunteered to work as a butcher in the ship’s mess hall. Both he and his pet puppy made it home together to the United States. Hmelieski was discharged from the army on November 14, 1945. He recalled that of the twenty men he had originally gone to the recruiting office with, only seven returned. His wartime awards included the Asiatic-Pacific Medal, WWII Victory Medal, and Good Conduct Medal. In later years he was the recipient of the NJ Distinguished Service Medal.
In conclusion, Mr. Hmelieski stated that he felt every young man should experience military service. He displayed his 12th Air Force medal, 7th Air Force shoulder patch, and some German air force insignia. He also showed the interviewer photos of himself, a prayer book he used during the war, a sewing kit, and his dog tags. He noted that, in a fit of nostalgia, he purchased a 1943 Army Willys Jeep for $100 at an Army sale, and that it was still running as of the date of the interview.
Following the war Hmieleski joined his parents trucking business. Upon his father’s death, he assumed the presidency and built the business into one of the most successful New Jersey freight shipping businesses. Mr. Hmieleski passed away on January 18, 2007.