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Through the Dust Bowl and the Battle of the Bulge

By Corene Brisendine

Herman Westmeyer may not be as spry as he once was or hear as well as he once did, but he is as sharp as a tack at 100 years old. Born Nov. 15, 1912, he worked with farmers and ranchers in western Kansas through the Dust Bowl, and was at the Battle of the Bulge during World War II.

Westmeyer said the secret to long life is picking the right parents. He said both his parents lived well into their nineties, and he is the third youngest of eight children. He said even though he grew up on a small farm in Missouri, his mother never let him think they were poor. They always had a roof over their heads and there was always food on the table. On weekends, his mother would invite the poorer people of the community over for dinner, and he was always grateful for all the hard work she did for the family.

After he graduated from the University of Missouri, his professors recommended him for a job with the State of Kansas as a county agent. He said originally he was asked to travel to Kansas for an interview. But when he arrived at the interviewer’s porch, all he was asked was, “Do you still want the job?” Westmeyer said he did, and was hired on the spot. He said the man decided to hire him without an interview because of the glowing letters of recommendation Westmeyer’s professors sent.

After coming to Kansas, Westmeyer worked in various counties, but his most memorable job was when he took over as agent for Ford County. He moved there in 1935, the worst year for the Dust Bowl.

“Those people were working hard to overcome the drought,” he said.

He said he admired the people who stayed and worked through those times, and as a result, he became good friends with the farmers and ranchers. He said unlike today, people socialized more and as a result communities were much closer and helped one another, and during those times there were many who were in need.

He was working as county agent when called to military service during World War II. He was in a tanker unit stationed on the front lines in Europe.

“I was in the front seat, so to speak,” Westmeyer said. “I saw the best and the worst of the war.”

He recalls being a forward observer during the Battle of the Bulge. It was not like today with cell phones and other technology. He said they had to hand roll out a phone cord and attach a phone to it. If anyone stepped on the line, the connection broke. Westmeyer said he would call back to the tank and tell them where to fire at the enemy. He said he remembered watching the Allied forces move in behind him as the Axis troops gather ahead of his position.

He said he was one of the lucky ones to survive that battle because it was the bloodiest for the U.S. during the war. According to the Department of Defense, the Battle of the Bulge resulted in 89,000 American casualties, including 19,000 who were killed.

Prior to his leaving for Europe, the state promised him a job “if he returned.” So, after the war was over, he resumed his job as a county agent.

After working with farmers in Ford County for several years, the livestock specialist position opened up at Kansas State University. He didn’t apply for it, but farmers and ranchers in his area recommended him. So in 1961 he left western Kansas behind for Manhattan.

He said he not only enjoyed his job, but termed it the most wonderful thing about the U.S. He said the extension service made the U.S. great because researchers at the university discovered new technologies and new breeds of crops; he would take that research out to the farmers and ranchers in western Kansas so they could implement the discoveries.

He specialized in beef cattle, and would “keep track, select and find all the research on feeding and breeding” them. He said taking the research directly to those who could most benefit from it helped the U.S. become one of the best agricultural producers in the world.

Westmeyer said the most amazing research for cattle was the invention of artificial insemination, which is where the semen of a bull is collected and implanted into a cow to artificially impregnate it. He said that helped create breeds of cattle that were of higher quality, and allowed one bull to service several cows at one time. He said through selective breeding, ranchers have created the best breeds of cattle on the continent.

Westmeyer said the best invention of all time, however, is refrigerated air-conditioning. He doesn’t know how he ever got along without it. Prior to refrigeration, homes and businesses used water coolers, where water is passed through a larger fan that cools the air going into homes and offices. Cars had no air conditioning and the only way to stay cool in the heat of the summer was to roll down the windows.

After retiring from K-State extension, Westmeyer has stayed busy within the community, an approach that helped with his longevity. Westmeyer has volunteered for various organizations, including local elections. He said he enjoys giving back to the community and plans to continue volunteering as long as he is able.

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