The winds of change and upheaval blew constantly for those living during the 1930s, 1940s and early 1950s. Following the struggle of the Great Depression in the 1930s, a war of unparalleled magnitude touched nearly every country in the world.
Mike and Eva Pfannenstiel and their 12 children were a hard-working, German-speaking farm family in Ellis County. There was no such thing as spoiling the kids, and each member of the family worked long days on the unforgiving plains of northwest Kansas, milking cows, planting, gathering chicken eggs, cooking nutritious food and keeping the farm running.
Stalwart Catholics, religion, hard work and family were cornerstones of their daily lives.
“We were either getting ready for church, going to church or coming home from church,” said son Frank.
All of the children went to Catholic grade schools, son Marvin said.
“Our family was close,” Marvin said.
Those relationships were formed during the long hours of farm work, church-going and attending wedding dances together on Saturday nights.
And so when it came time to serve their country, one by one, Mike and Eva watched eight of their young boys and a son-in-law leave for military service during those uncertain years of the mid-20th century.
They all came home — most after serving overseas. Two, Eddie and son-in-law Wendelin Staab, battled the ocean and bullets to help take Omaha Beach during the invasion of Normandy.
Two more served during the Korean War years later, and one served between WWII and Korea.
Clarence served 38 months in the Army; Walter served as a Merchant Marine for two years, then two years in the Army; Eddie served six years in the Army; Julie served three years in the Navy; and Ted served four years in the Army. Staab served in the Army.
Paul spent two years in Korea in the Army; Marvin in Okinawa in the military police; and Frank served two years in the Marines.
All of the young men were drafted, except for the oldest, Victor, who was beyond the age of service.
When they were called, they went.
“We were just that kind of family,” Marvin said.
Their mother never said much about the boys going off to war, at least what Marvin and Frank knew of.
The Ellis County Star wrote of the Pfannenstiels, publishing their story in the 1950s. “Eight out of nine sons in the service,” was a headline.
Eddie spent several months as a German prisoner of war after being captured at the Battle of the Bulge near the end of World War II.
Because the family spoke German at home, Eddie, during his time as a prisoner of war, served as translator at Stammlager IX B, Bad Orb, Germany, after being captured.
Known for his jolly nature and his ability to find fun, there was only one period of his life he didn’t talk much about — those months in the prison camp, his brothers Marvin and Frank say.
In Munjor, where Eddie went to elementary school, the books he used were written in German the first two or three years. That knowledge served him well during his time at Bad Orb.
POW 23472, as Eddie was known, was flown to Washington after the end of the war to turn over the detailed logs he kept of the prisoners.
Marvin vividly remembers that moment more than 70 years ago when the telegram arrived the Eddie was missing in action.
“We were milking,” Marvin said.
He said his mom took it pretty well.
She was a strong woman, Marvin said.
“They were used to hardships.”
While the older boys were in the military, the younger ones helped work the farm for St. Joseph Military Academy. Marvin would pick up German prisoners of war outside of Hays to paint at the farm.
“They were hard to understand. They spoke a different dialect, high German,” Marvin said.
He would sit with them and take them sandwiches Eva made.
There was no trouble with soldiers trying to escape. Food and heat were short in Germany, and here in the U.S., they were well-fed.
“They were so glad to be here, they didn’t run off,” Marvin said.
He said a few POWs moved back to Hays after the war was over.
With military leavings and comings, it wasn’t until 1955 that the family was reunited in its entirety. At the last reunion three years ago, there were 225 descendants.
Life came full circle for the patriotic Pfannanstiel family when brothers Marvin and Frank recently returned from an Honor Flight trip to Washington. Now, there are only three brothers living — Marvin, Frank and Julie, who lives in Montana.
Frank, 87, never had flown on a large commercial airline and now can say he flew on four.
“It was really nice,” he said.
He urged anyone who had served to take the Honor Flight trip.
At every stop, the former soldiers received a lot of appreciation. At the WWII Memorial, they ran into Bob Dole.
“The best part was the people that organized this trip for us,” Frank said. “They do a really, really good job.”