By Paul Wood
CHAMPAIGN — Rudi Laufhutte survived a childhood in Germany where U.S. bombers leveled his town, then went on to serve proudly for his adopted country in the Vietnam era.
He’s still proud and serves as the 19th District commander of the Illinois American Legion.
Laufhutte, 72, was only a baby as World War II came to a close.
His father was sent to fight the Russians on the Eastern Front and was lucky enough to be able to walk back from that debacle.
His mother raised six boys and managed to keep them fed, despite the family’s poverty.
“I didn’t know we were poor,” Laufhutte says.
Local farmers were generous to the Laufhuttes; he recalls loading 2 tons of potatoes into the cellar once.
Sometimes, he and his brothers found potatoes that were left after the harvest, and cooked them with potato straw. “Those were the best-tasting potatoes,” he recalls.
While serving an apprenticeship in the chemistry industry, the young man met some friendly Americans, who went on to sponsor him for a green card to the United States, namely Massachusetts.
Many Americans were in his town “to fight the godless commies,” and Laufhutte told them he was “not fond of being in Germany” after his mother had taught him about World War II history.
Once, he was offered a hot dog, and he recoiled in disgust with the idea he was actually going to consume a canine.
In the Boston area, he studied chemistry at Northeastern University — “the poor boy’s university,” he says, because students alternated semesters of college and work.
Broke, he went back to work in chemistry at the Cabot Corp., which is where he was when the draft issue came up in 1968.
“(President) Lyndon Johnson needed cannon fodder. I knew if I joined the Air Force, I wouldn’t have to dig foxholes. But the Army got me,” he says.
Laufhutte scored high on intelligence tests and took a psychological profile that said he would be suited for the bomb squad. Luckily, he didn’t have to do that serving, instead staying in the United States.
For basic training, he was sent to Fort Knox. He excelled on the shooting range.
From Fort Knox, he was sent to Fort Bliss near El Paso, Texas, with his technical skills continuing to keep him from being sent to Vietnam.
He trained in radar electronics and became an instructor in the radar computer systems.
On leave back in Massachusetts, his German roots came back to bite him.
Hunting licenses were offered for free to military members, and he took advantage of that on a short trip home. He and a friend got a duck stamp and took their shotguns.
A nosey game warden asked him, “What’s your name?” and “Where you born, boy?”
Then he asked Laufhutte if he was a citizen.
The soldier, who had only been in this country a few years, was not yet a citizen.
So as an alien with a firearm and “some rancid ducks,” Laufhutte was in trouble with the law. Despite Laufhutte’s service to the country, a game warden had him come to the police station for being an alien armed with a weapon.
As soon as he returned to Fort Bliss, a sergeant put him on guard duty with an M-14, which he found comical because it forced him to be an armed alien.
“The rest of my time there, I was on guard duty,” the Spec. 5 recalled. “That was bureaucracy.”
On the other hand, Laufhutte believes Americans are the most generous people in the world, taking care of nations after natural disasters.
For pursuing freedom overseas, he said, “It is the best country on the face of the earth.”
After his service, he returned to his career in chemistry, working for Cabot. That brought him to Tuscola in 1980 to set up a chemical plant and also serve as a translator for German engineers. He married Judi and has four adopted children.
After 37 years at Cabot, he took an important job at the University of Illinois in its chemistry department and spent 15 years there.
“I’m lucky to be in the greatest country in the world,” he said.
Do you know a veteran who could share a story about military service? Contact staff writer Paul Wood at email@example.com.