Obituary: Walter J. Brethauer / WWII experience inspired patronage for field service

Nov. 7, 1920 - Nov. 6, 2013

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Walter Brethauer, whose adventures as a World War II ambulance driver inspired him to help young people travel as part of the American Field Service student exchange program, died Wednesday.

He was 92 and lived in Ross.

When World War II began, Mr. Brethauer wanted to serve but didn't want to kill anyone.

So he joined the field service and shipped off to North Africa in 1942, where he helped transport British Eighth Army soldiers wounded in desert battles against Erwin Rommel's Afrika Korps.

He said his service opened his eyes to the world and in later years he hosted exchange students on the Pittsburgh leg of American Field Service bus trips, eventually becoming the president of the North Hills AFS chapter.

Although never wealthy, he became a significant donor to the organization and in the late 1990s supported its attempts to give minorities a chance to travel. Among various donations, he covered the majority of the $5,595 cost for an East Liberty teen's stay in Panama and $10,000 to pay for three other African-American teens' trips abroad.

Last year, AFS honored him with a cover story in its journal, Janus, in which he praised the organization for helping to create a "brighter and more peaceful world."

Born in Troy Hill in 1920, Mr. Brethauer was a senior at Penn State University, studying forestry, when the U.S. entered World War II. He described himself as a conscientious objector on his draft card.

"He did not want to be in the military although he wanted to support the U.S.," said his daughter, Jill Brethauer of Gibsonia. "He was a very peaceful person. He never liked confrontation."

His mother was active in the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and through her he learned that the American Field Service was recruiting ambulance drivers in Pittsburgh.

The field service, started in World War I, was reactivated in 1939 at the start of the Second World War. American volunteers, many of them conscientious objectors, drove ambulances in France, North Africa, Italy, Germany, India and Burma, serving alongside troops from every Allied nation and carrying more than 1 million casualties to field hospitals.

Of the 2,196 drivers who served, 36 were killed, 68 wounded and 13 taken prisoner.

"I knew nothing about it much, except that it was on you," Mr. Brethauer recalled. "You bought your own uniform. There was no pay and there was no insurance possible. I took a piece of paper from AFS with me to the draft board and ... to my complete bafflement, they said, 'Fine.' "

In a diary he kept during the war, his romantic side emerged as he approached the Suez Canal.

"The ancient civilization of Egypt ... the mystery of Arabia, and a picture of this land as the seat of two of the greatest religions of this world were somehow vividly impressed on my mind," he wrote. "I formerly had no vision of the power of this land."

The reality of war set in when he reached the North African combat zone, where the British had been battling Rommel since early 1941. He wrote that war is "rotten from the bottom up, and the biggest sin ever committed by man."

In addition to driving, he spent a lot of time repairing vehicles that tended to break down in the harsh desert climate.

"Worked on car all day," read one diary entry. "Was told I am to be made a mechanic and be sent to the northern outposts to repair ambulances. Had my first bath in three weeks."

His diary did not dwell on the horrors he certainly witnessed, but he did share stories with his family.

"I remember him talking about guys who were badly wounded," said his son, Charles Brethauer of Valencia.

Mr. Brethauer spent three years in Africa, then moved to Italy in January 1945, where he was a supply and transport officer. He was transferred to India in July 1945 and was there when the war ended.

Back in the U.S., he went to work as a timber cruiser for a lumber company in Florida, slogging through the swamps to estimate tree yields.

While there, he married his wife, Martha, whom he had known from his days at Perry High School. They later moved to Alabama, where he managed a lumber mill.

In the early 1950s they returned to Pittsburgh, and Mr. Brethauer started his own lumber company, first in Manchester and later Allison Park.

The business went bust during a recession in the 1960s and Mr. Brethauer embarked on a new career as a self-taught designer of sound and closed-circuit television systems for schools and auditoriums.

He worked in that field until his retirement in 1987, while he and Martha raised their three children in West View. They moved to Ross in 1978.

In his spare time, Mr. Brethauer was a lay leader of Allegheny Unitarian Universalist Church and had many hobbies, including playing the oboe, working on cars and racing them.

But he had a special passion for the American Field Service.

About 10 years after he and Martha had returned to Pittsburgh, Mr. Brethauer became involved in the AFS multi-cultural exchange effort. The program began after World War II among countries that had been enemies during the war. The idea is that if young people from different lands get to know one another, they'll be less likely to want to kill each other in some future war.

Mr. Brethauer, who often traveled abroad with Martha in his later years, recognized the value of the program because of what he had seen and done overseas.

A diary entry from New Year's Day in 1943 sums up an attitude he retained his entire life.

Despite the war raging around him, he wrote that the previous year "was the fullest, most pleasant time I've known. While many people all over the world suffered untold miseries ... I was able to choose the part that I wanted to play in the war. At little cost to myself, I enjoyed a marvelous ocean voyage, was able to make many new friends, had an opportunity to see some of the most interesting and beautiful places on the face of the earth, and [was] exposed to great educational opportunities. For all of this I am grateful."

Besides his son and daughter, Mr. Brethauer is survived by another daughter, Janet Conroy of McCandless.

Mr. Brethauer was cremated and a memorial service has not yet been set.


Torsten Ove: tove@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1510.

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