When he returned home at the end of the war to pursue a hockey career, Augie Herchenratter turned professional and played for five different teams in two leagues
Sgt. Augie Herchenratter awoke at dawn on July 8, 1944, outside a French village occupied by entrenched German soldiers, many of them battle-tested on the Eastern Front. Before nightfall, the village of Buron, about seven kilometres northwest of Caen in Normandy, would be known by the Canadians as Bloody Buron.
The sergeant was a platoon leader with the Highland Light Infantry of Canada, and his assignment that day was to occupy an orchard on the outskirts of the village. To get there, he faced a minefield and an anti-tank ditch defended by machine guns, as well as artillery and mortar shelling. The village had been fortified by members of the notorious 12th SS Panzer Division, responsible for slaughtering Canadian prisoners the previous month. The Germans had been told the Canadians would not be taking prisoners. They fought with ferocity.
For his gallantry that day, Mr. Herchenratter, who has died at 98, was awarded a Distinguished Conduct Medal in a ceremony at Buckingham Palace.
To reach the German position, the Canadians needed to cross more than a kilometre of flat farmland offering limited cover.
“We were taking a hail of fire from machine guns, mortars, and 88-millimetre, self-propelled guns,” he told Owen Lackenbauer of the Waterloo (Ont.) Chronicle in 2008. “A number of my guys were hit within the first few minutes. When we got to the anti-tank ditch it was wider and deeper than we thought. The Germans were dug in and had to be cleared out using rifles and grenades, or knives and bayonets in hand-to-hand fighting.”
The ditch was littered with the dead from both sides. The sergeant reached the edge of the orchard, where he took a moment to dress the leg wound of a corporal, who was later killed in action. They had overrun German defences and now needed to clear out an orchard in which more enemy were entrenched in dugouts next to a stone wall.
The military historian Mark Zuehlke describes the desperate encounter in his 2011 book Breakout from Juno. “Seeing a German in one dugout,” he wrote about the sergeant, “he was unable to get an angle for a rifle shot. After he threw in two grenades, both of which failed to explode, the German rested a potato-masher stick grenade on the dugout’s ledge. Herchenratter took a bead on the grenade, and when the man popped up to throw it, shot him dead.”
The sergeant started the day with 28 men in his platoon. Only five were standing by the time the village was occupied. A company of 90 men had been reduced to one officer and 38 others, including the sergeant, who would celebrate his 25th birthday the following month, if he lasted that long.
Before the year was over, he saw further action in the Battle of the Falaise Pocket and the Battle of the Scheldt, the latter, a soggy, bloody slog through Belgian and Dutch lowlands. He injured an arm and a hand in an accident aboard a Bren Gun Carrier. He returned home with a metal plate in his arm.
On March 5, 1945, he was presented his medal by King George VI, who also met the soldier’s fiancée, Joanne Vaughn, the daughter of a Canadian official based in England during the war. The couple married in Portsmouth five days later before enjoying a brief honeymoon in the coastal resort of Brighton.
At war’s end, he returned home to pursue a hockey career. As though he had not seen enough death, his first civilian job was as a repairman in a cemetery.
August Paul Herman Herchenratter was born on Aug. 10, 1919, in Kitchener, Ont., to Pauline (née Schmidt) and Conrad Herchenratter, a machine operator. Known as Augie (or Pete, or Red), he was the youngest of five children. (Two others died in infancy before his birth.)
At 20, he joined the Kitchener Greenshirts, a junior hockey team for which older brother Art had played two seasons earlier.
The 5-foot-9, 150-pound right winger was recruited to join the River Vale (N.J.) Skeeters of the Eastern Amateur Hockey League for the 1939-40 season. He scored 22 goals in 61 games for a squad that lost more games than it won.
The fast-skating forward turned professional and played for five different teams in two leagues in the United States, including the Springfield Indians, New Haven Eagles, Minneapolis Millers, Providence Reds, and the Philadelphia Rockets, who held an Augie Herchenratter Night for the player even though he had worn the team’s sweater for only 27 games. He was presented a cheque for $100 in his final home game before returning to Canada for military service. The dogged forward scored two goals in the game, but his team lost 8-5 to the visiting Pittsburgh Hornets.
After three seasons in military service, including a brief, postwar stint with a Canadian Army hockey team, which played the Wembley Lions in an exhibition in London seen by 9,000 spectators, he returned to hockey in his home province by playing four games for the Stratford Indians, a senior team. He returned to the professional ranks for the 1946-47 season, but he was not as dangerous a scorer as before the war.
He wore four different sweaters in his final campaign in 1948-49, lacing up for Washington Lions (24 games), Minneapolis Millers (five games), Cleveland Barons (four games) and San Francisco Shamrocks (16 games). A sportswriter called him “a troubadour of the rinks.”
He retired as a player without having played in the NHL. His brother Art played 10 games for the NHL’s Detroit Red Wings before enlisting. Their uncle, Milt Schmidt, a legend with the Boston Bruins as a member of the famed Kraut Line, played in the NHL before and after his military service. He died a year ago.
Away from the rink, Mr. Herchenratter spent more than 30 years working at the Seagram distillery in Waterloo, Ont., starting in the cooperage and later as a maintenance man.
He died on Dec. 7 at his residence at the Parkwood Mennonite Home. He leaves Joanne, his wife of 72 years; a son, Don Herchenratter; two daughters, Judie Hiscox and Nancy Susko; five grandchildren; and, two great-grandchildren. He was predeceased by his siblings.
His interrupted hockey career had an odd footnote. After 50 games in 1947, Philadelphia traded him to the Hershey Bears for a player to be named later. The forward performed admirably for his new employer, scoring six goals with seven assists in 16 games. When it came time several months later for Philadelphia to pick a player from the Hershey roster, they selected Mr. Herchenratter, making him a rare player to have been traded for himself.