As a young officer candidate in the Austrian army in 1938, Francis Heller put himself at risk by refusing to swear an oath of allegiance to Adolf Hitler. Had he stayed in Vienna, he would have been arrested by the Gestapo as a supporter of Austrian independence and an enemy of the Nazis. But he managed to escape into Czechoslovakia under cover of darkness. He subsequently made his way to America, where he finally pursued the academic career that military service had interrupted.
Steel Helmet and Mortarboard is the story of this Austrian refugee who earned an American law degree in 1941 and set his sights on studying political science but a year later was drafted into the U.S. Army. In his second military career, Heller opted for service as an enlisted man in a combat unit. After basic training, he was assigned as a private in a regular army division. Then in a field artillery unit, he so distinguished himself in combat in the Pacific theater that he received a battlefield commission and went on to serve in the early months of the occupation of Japan—and on one assignment, escorting German nationals home from the Far East, found himself back in Europe and witnessing evidence of the horrors at Dachau that he himself had barely managed to escape.
Heller’s account of those years recalls how an upper-middle-class émigré adjusted to military life while serving in such combat zones as New Guinea and the Philippines, then how he later resumed his academic career, earned his Ph.D., and went on to teach at the University of Kansas. But Heller’s return to academic life was anything but final: recalled to active duty for the Korean War, he also served in later years with the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth.
After a lifetime of changing hats—mortarboard for helmet and back again—Heller, now in his nineties, has recorded his unique perceptions as an educated observer of the world. Steel Helmet and Mortarboard is an absorbing narrative of one individual’s experiences across a spectrum of personal and professional challenges, written with wry humor and insight that reflect a keen ability to master whatever circumstances life brings.