The American Legion is celebrating its 100th birthday in 2019. Profiles of St. Joseph-area veterans published in each Newsleader during 2019. The Newsleader is joining with Post 328 to recognize veterans and Legion members who served during World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and other theaters of conflict and Cold War tensions.
by Tom Klecker
Leonard “Lenny” Bechtold, 76
U.S. Army – Vietnam Era
Lenny Bechtold was born in St. Cloud, the fifth child of 12. He grew up on a 240-acre farm just outside of Luxemburg.
Memories of farm life include: working hard, milking cows, feeding chickens, putting up wood for winter, picking rocks and driving tractor at age 8. To reach the tractor’s pedals his dad built extension blocks. The family raised sheep for a period of time.
Outdoor “plumbing” was a challenge on bitter cold and snowy winter days. It was a big day for the family when rural electric came to the farm. Prior to that day, illumination essentially consisted of kerosene lamps.
Bechtold’s family never went on vacations. Sundays after church were reserved for baseball, fishing and visiting family and neighbors.
With 14 members in the family, Bechtold was taught the lessons of being self-sufficient and working hard. He recalls his father’s advice: “work hard . . . but work smart.”
Bechtold’s mother baked 14 loaves of bread in a wood stove every other day. The family never had disposable income so they could go to a restaurant.
Raised in a strict Catholic upbringing, Bechtold was an altar boy. The family did not work on holy days of obligation in spite of the fact Aug. 15 (feast of the Assumption) was right in the middle of thrashing season. In the summer Bechtold usually ran bare foot – getting a new pair of shoes for school was special.
Christmas was limiting in so far as gift-giving; one year Bechtold got a rubber ball. “Hand-me-down” clothing was the norm. As he relays his childhood memories, it becomes quite evident everyone had to pitch in and work.
Bechtold particularly appreciated his mother. She cooked, baked, washed clothing, ironed, tended the chickens, gardened and raised 12 children all this without the benefit of modern conveniences. The one convenience his mother most appreciated when it came was running water. She lived to the age of 87.
Bechtold says growing up in those lean times “was like growing up in an Amish community.”
Bechtold attended a rural country school for a year. He walked one-and-a-half miles to school – rain or shine. He then attended grade school in Luxemburg until eighth grade. He attended Cathedral High School for a year and, at age 14, quit his formal education to help support the family by farming. “Although I had quit school, I never stopped learning,” he said. He also worked on neighbor’s farms until he enlisted in the Army at age 19.
Bechtold enlisted on Jan. 2, 1962. He took a bus to Fort Carson, Colorado. He actually enjoyed his eight weeks of basic training because his farm labor contributed to him being in excellent physical condition. Because of his mechanical aptitude and skills learned on the farm, Bechtold was assigned duties as a mechanic to an armor tank division. For 13 months, while still at Fort Carson, he adapted to Army life.
In March 1963, Bechtold got orders to go to Germany. He recalls the trip over on the troop ship (USS Upshur) was “pretty rough; everyone was seasick.” He slept on the highest bunk in a compartment below the deck. Bechtold’s compartment stacked bunks five high. “They packed us in tight.” The north Atlantic can get pretty rough even for a large troop ship capable of transporting thousands of GIs.
Finally the ship pulled into Bremerhaven, Germany. From there, Bechtold took a train (Frankfurt Special) to his duty station, Ray Barracks, Friedberg. It was just 16 miles outside Frankfurt. He was stationed there from March 1963 to December 1964.
The base was designed to accommodate armor, artillery and infantry units. Bechtold’s job was to keep the tanks and other armored vehicles in good operational shape, particularly the M88. The M88 was an armor recovery vehicle that was capable of lifting a tank. Bechtold’s unit, Headquarters Company 1st Battalion, 32nd Armored Division, was the same unit Elvis Presley was assigned to in 1958-1960.
While stationed in Germany, Bechtold was able to travel to Paris, Copenhagen and Amsterdam.
On June 26, 1963, President John Kennedy visited the area. He gave the troops a pep talk from a small podium. To greet the president, a semi-circle of 72 fully armed tanks (barrels pointed at the podium) was arranged. Many soldiers in the area carried weapons with live ammo. Security was so lax Bechtold took a photograph of his commander-in-chief/president from 6 feet away. Kennedy had come to Germany to give his: “Ich bin ein Berliner” (“I am a Berliner”) Speech – June 26, 1963.
Five months later John Kennedy would be assassinated. The country in general and the military in particular were uncertain as to whether the assassination was a prelude to war. Military units were on full alert. Bechtold’s unit was on full alert standby for three weeks.
After a year, Bechtold returned back to the good old USA. But not before the return voyage on the USS Darby reintroduced him and the other troops to rough seas and seasickness. He fondly recalls seeing the Statue of Liberty as the ship pulled into New York harbor.
Discharged from active duty at Fort Hamilton, New York, on Dec. 16, 1964, Bechtold took a bus back home. He made it home for Christmas. Bechtold believes his Army experience allowed him to “grow up.”
Now 22 years old and a civilian, Bechtold “bounced around several short-term jobs.” In 1966, he hired on with the now defunct Donlin Co. as a glazer. Donlin at the time had the local franchise in St Cloud for the Overhead Door Co. In 1969, Donlin sold its dealership to Overhead Door of Minneapolis and Bechtold worked in the seven-county metro area for a period of time.
In 1970, Bechtold left Overhead Door and formed the Bechtold Excavating Co. with his brother Roger.
Later in 1972, he and his brother bought the Overhead Door Franchise in St. Cloud. Initially he was the only employee. Roger’s wife answered phone calls for both businesses. Business took off – more work than both could handle. The Overhead Door Co. grew exponentially. When Bechtold sold out his interest in the business to his brother (1987), they had 20 employees.
Following the sale of the business, Bechtold became involved in building and owning several commercial buildings, volunteering for Habitat for Humanity and Salvation Army as a site supervisor. Bechtold’s wife Marcie says, “Whenever Lenny gets bored, he finds himself a job.”
Now with Marcie, Bechtold is enjoying retirement. They have been married 52 years. He and Marcie have five children and eight grandchildren.
Both he and Marcie are enjoying relatively good health as they devote their leisure time between hobbies, travel, volunteerism and grandchildren.
Bechtold has been a member of the American Legion for 34 years. To say that he is a passionate fisherman would be an understatement.
It is here in the life story of Bechtold that one finds a good example of how hard work, risk-taking and tenacity pays off.