It’s been on decorated veteran Joseph Stolmeier’s bucket list for a while – his desire to ride in a parade as a recognized combat veteran of World War II. “Before I kick the bucket,” former Army Master Sergeant Stolmeier says, “I’ve gotta let the people see what a real genuine combat GI looks like. I’m the last one. We used to have reunions. They’re all gone now.”
So, at 97 years old, for the first time, Stolmeier will ride in Del Mar’s 4th of July Parade thanks to his youngest son, Aaron, who contacted the Del Mar Foundation that organizes the parade. They were more than happy to oblige. In fact, they made Joseph a Guest of Honor in the parade.
When the Del Mar Times came to his house in Vista to interview him, the first thing Stolmeier did was pull out a miniaturized version of his honorable discharge papers. He’s been carrying it around in his wallet since 1945 and remarkably, it’s still in one piece. It shows that Stolmeier fought in the European-African-Middle East Theater in Africa, Italy and France. It was in France that he was wounded in action.
“I got blown up,” he recalls matter of factly. “They got me with a tank, there’s a big gun that comes out of the tank. They got me one time, blew me sky high. That’s hard on a person,” he says with a wry smile. “Then I came down on the street. I could see it from up there, I could see the black asphalt and I came down on my head.” Despite a 25-foot drop, Stolmeier was uninjured. “I’m what they call Stolmeier,” he quips. “Nothing breaks. I just become a little more stupid all the time.”
Stolmeier received a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star for his courageous service during the war. He was one of the original members of what was called the Test Battery – the first group of highly-trained paratroopers to parachute into enemy territory, along with a giant howitzer gun to flush out the Germans and set up weaponry before more troops arrived for combat.
“Underneath the plane, we had special boxes, like coffins, that were made to keep the gun in,” he explained. “We’d drop the gun, we’d drop ammunition, we’d drop everything, and the men at the same time. We’d run into terrible conditions. We got no other infantry, we were artillery so we had to kill the enemy before we could ever set up our guns. So that’s what we’d do.”
Although Stolmeier has vivid memories of being in the war, he doesn’t romanticize it in any way. He sees it for what it was. “There is nothing nice about combat. It’s nasty, no one should ever have to do it. But we did it. You’re ordered to do it and you carry out your orders. And you succeed. But when they know you can get the job done, you get assigned more and more combat.”
The 97-year-old veteran admits it’s taken its toll on him through the years. “You’re a changed person after, if you live. Most guys get wounded or die. But if you live, you’re changed. You’re not the same as you were before you jumped out of that airplane at night. You don’t trust anything or anybody after that. You’re no longer innocent. You killed people. If they weren’t dead, you made sure they were dead because you got other things to do and you got nobody to watch them or guard them or whatever.”
Stolmeier was part of the Battle of Bastogne in December 1944 in Belgium, part of the Battle of the Bulge. He proudly shows a photo of the destroyed German tanker taken out by a shell from the howitzer that parachuted down with him. When asked if he considers himself a hero, he says, “No, no, no, not me. It’s my men. They’re the heroes.”
It took 40 years before Stolmeier would attend a veterans’ reunion with his combat buddies. But he kept pretty busy in the meantime running his own flooring business and fathering 14 children. Yes, 14 children. He now lives with his youngest son, Aaron, since his wife, Mary, passed away 20 years ago. When the Times asked Joseph what his secret to longevity is, he claims ignorance at first. “Didn’t know I had it, don’t know about it. Won’t admit it. I don’t know anything about that.”
But son Aaron interjects and sums it up in one word: determination. “He’ll get a cold and I’ll say let’s go to the doctor and he’ll say, I’m gonna whip this thing in two days. I tell him you can’t get pneumonia, you’re too old. And he’d say, don’t worry about that, I’m okay. And sure enough, he would be.”
Stolmeier had a stroke recently and says that it set him on a path of even greater determination. “That’s why I take little steps and my balance is all off because once you have a stroke, then you usually die. And I passed that, I don’t want to do it. I’m not going to go that route. So when I’m 107 and you interview me again, I’ll say, ‘Remember I told you, I didn’t go that route.’ That’s about it. No magic pill. But if there were one, I’d take it.”
If you’d like to see Stolmeier ride in the July 4th parade, it starts at 9:15 a.m. at Powerhouse Park in Del Mar. Visit delmarfoundation.org for more information.