NEW CUMBERLAND, Pa., July 22, 2019 —
New Cumberland, Pa., June 24, 2019 — George Hemler was just 19 years old when he arrived at Laredo Air Force Base, Texas in 1956. Drafted after the Korean War, the newly-trained aircraft mechanic from Edge Grove, Pennsylvania found himself far from home and facing an uncertain future. Little did he know the long-lasting effects his four-year enlistment would have, not only on his life, but on future generations.
Despite the fact that he’d recently injured his leg and was on crutches, George attended a party at the NCO club in the summer of 1957. After several minutes of hobbling around the room to chat with his fellow airmen and their dates, he sat in a in a chair to rest and watch others dance. Soon his attention was drawn to an attractive young woman crossing the room, heading straight for him.
“Her friend was dating an air policeman and brought her along to the club,” Hemler recalls. “She walked up to me and started talking, which I couldn't believe because she was unbelievably GORGEOUS!"
Manuela, a first generation Mexican-American born in Laredo, says she’d have never noticed the George if he hadn’t been seated.
“He’s six-foot-four, which is quite a bit taller than me,” says five-feet, four-inches tall Manuela. “He was sitting down so I was able to see his beautiful blue eyes. If it wasn’t for that I would have just passed him by because he’s so tall.”
As a result of their chance encounter, last year George and Manuela Hemler and their eight children celebrated the couple’s 60th wedding anniversary.
Although their children were told how their parents met, it was just one of many anecdotes that relied on their imaginations to illustrate. It wasn’t until recently they were more accurately able to visualize the story thanks to the rediscovery of photographs taken during that period.
“About two years ago my parents decided to downsize and they had to clear out the house,” says George and Manuela’s son, Stan, a sign painter with the Defense Logistics Agency Susquehanna Distribution Center's Installation Management Office. “[My dad] gave me all the photos that he had and asked me to hold on to them. A lot of them were these old Air Force pictures that I never saw before. On one them it says that he was discharged June 20, 1959 and I thought, it’ll be his 60th anniversary soon. I thought it would be nice to put something together and maybe give it to him on Father’s Day.”
Although he says he has always taken tremendous pride in his service, George, like many older veterans, rarely spoke of his time in the military. But that began to change when Stan invited his father to an Air Force-themed event at DLA. There George was introduced to Perry Knight, a retired Army colonel and current DLA Distribution Chief of Staff. The two men hit it off, recalling the names and attributes of long-gone aircraft and fondly reminiscing about their adventures.
“My dad met Mr. Knight and they hit it off real well,” Stan says, “so I thought, I’m just going to take a shot and send him an email and see if he wouldn’t mind taking some time out to present [the photo album] to my father.”
Knight immediately agreed, prompting Stan to devise a plan to surprise his father, which meant enlisting help from his mother.
“Stan is like our family historian,” says Manuela. “He said, ‘Mom, I was going through some old papers and found out that this is going to be sixty years since dad was discharged from the military.’ Then he proceeded to tell me of his plan, but said I had to keep all of this a secret and couldn’t tell anyone! And I was dying! My husband is a very inquisitive man.”
Luring George to the New Cumberland, Pa. installation under the guise of another Air Force-centric event, the Hemlers were ushered into the commander’s conference room. Waiting for them was a personalized cake, historic photos of Hemler family members in military uniform and handful of audience members.
“[When George and I met] we were able to sit down and talk about aircraft and the whole nine yards,” said Knight as he presented the former airman with the photo album and a commemorative DLA coin. “From the 1950s to about 1968 or 69, it’s just amazing how all of those things happened during that timeframe. I really enjoyed meeting you and it gives me great pleasure to do this today.”
“I can’t believe we’re having a day like this,” said George. “I never expected anything like this in my life. As an old veteran I figured they were done with us. But now, everywhere I go, people always thank me for being a veteran. You can’t imagine what that means to us.”
Although Stan never served in uniform, he says the eight years he has worked for DLA has given him a unique perspective on the military.
“I don’t think me, my mother or my dad expected all this,” Stan says. “They really went over the top. I’m so grateful and so thankful, not only that this was done, but I’m grateful for having a position here at DLA. You feel like you’re really part of something.”