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Grable ’90 honors WWII vets in first novel

Jeff Rankin
11/08/2018
MONMOUTH, Ill. – Born more than two decades after the end of World War II, Monmouth College alumnus Peter Grable ’90 is a member of Generation X, but unlike most of his contemporaries he also has a powerful, personal connection to the Greatest Generation.

The great-nephew of Stanley “Stash” Pokrzywa, a veteran of the remarkable 104th Timberwolves infantry division, Grable grew up enthralled by his uncle’s vivid tales of a grueling odyssey that included fighting in the Battle of the Bulge and liberating the infamous Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp, where prisoners were forced to help build Hitler’s V-2 rocket. The Timberwolves would set the record for fighting by an infantry division at 196 consecutive days.

“My uncle was always proud of what he did. He never wanted people to forget what his unit went through,” said Grable. “Right after my uncle died in 2013, I decided I wanted to keep his story alive and honor him and all the people who served in World War II for what they did.”

Grable has kept that story alive by writing his first novel, Nothing in Hell!, a three-year project based largely on Stash’s wartime experiences in Belgium, Holland and Germany.

From an early age, Grable was enthralled by his uncle’s tales, which he got to hear regularly—whenever he visited his grandparents in a two-flat building in Chicago. They owned the building and lived on the second floor, while Stash and his wife (his grandmother’s sister) lived on the ground floor. After playing poker with his grandfather, Grable and his family would hang out downstairs listening to Stash’s war stories.

The most searing of Stash’s memories was helping to liberate a notorious concentration camp outside Nordhausen, Germany, in April 1945. Grable struggled with how to portray in his novel the horrors that the Timberwolves encountered (graphic photos of burying the dead are included in the book) and decided to tell that part of the story through the eyes of a fictional prisoner, a Polish carpenter named Tomasz Kowalski.

“That character was based in part on another Polish uncle, who actually spent time in a concentration camp,” Grable said. In a chilling passage in the novel, Kowalski watches during morning roll calls as fellow prisoners count off by number. The prisoners who call out “number three” are sadistically shot. “That actually happened to my uncle. He was always number two, but came close to being number three.”

A memorable chapter in the book, titled “The Farmhouse,” is based on a personal account that Stash loved to tell. He and a buddy volunteered to sneak into an abandoned house to observe German formations from a second-floor window. After one shell landed to the left of the house and another to the right, they ran outside, and just as they did, another shell hit directly behind them and sent shrapnel flying, driving 15 pieces into Stash’s back, causing him to nearly bleed to death. He recovered in a French hospital and returned to his unit, but would be bothered for the rest of his life with shrapnel that was too close to his spine to be removed.

The novel also contains real life-inspired humor. Knowing he will soon be shipped overseas, Stash proposes to his future wife, Helen, by telegram from his base in Colorado to her home in Chicago. They only have a week to get married, so she makes wedding preparations while he buys a train ticket, arriving just before the wedding. Two days later, on the morning he is to return to base, they are awakened by two military policemen, who arrest Stanley for being AWOL. Helen insists on accompanying Stash back to Colorado, and through her intervention, the sergeant agrees to put him on kitchen patrol rather than in the stockade.

Stash and his wife never had children, and Grable said a big part of their lives was attending the annual reunion of the 104th Timberwolves. “It was their vacation,” he said, “and they never missed a single reunion.”

In addition to his uncle’s stories, Grable drew on personal experience for part of the novel. Although he was a pre-veterinary student at Monmouth, he initially went into carpentry, running his own contracting business for 15 years. That helped inspire Tomasz’s occupation and the story of a wooden ladder, which figures prominently in the novel.

Firsthand experience with a serious wound also provided insight for Grable in writing about the injuries to Stash and others.

While a member of the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity at Monmouth, Grable and his fraternity brothers would slide in the mud down a steep hill behind the Sig Ep house. In the process, he punctured his hand and had it treated at the local hospital. He didn’t realize it was still infected and would quickly turn to blood poisoning, prompting an emergency trip to a Galesburg hospital. The doctors immediately scheduled him for surgery.

“At first they were going to cut off my thumb and my index finger,” Grable said. “After surgery the doctor said he didn’t have to do that, but he said I had a pretty major infection and I was lucky to be alive. The blood poisoning was about to get to my heart.”

Grable, who earned an MBA in finance and now works in product management for a German tool company, is currently working on three new writing projects, including a novel about a little-known episode before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, in which five battery-powered Japanese midget submarines sought to enter the harbor prior to the air invasion.

Nothing in Hell! is available for purchase or download at Amazon.com.