116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
BLAIRSTOWN — For a baby presumed to die shortly after birth, Harold Alcott has lived a long time.
“I was laid out for dead,” Alcott said. “They thought I was dead.”
Born a breech baby in a tar paper shack in Nevis, Minnesota, his determination to live was displayed early on, starting with the moment he first cried to alert his parents and the doctor that he was still alive.
With virtually every bone in his body broken, Alcott was kept in a shoe box, fed with an eye dropper and nursed back to health near a warm stove. A full century later, he’s still alive and kicking at his Blairstown home. Alcott turned 100 on March 5.
Alcott joins at least 55 other centenarians in the state, recognized by the Iowa Department on Aging last year. He’s one of 509 living World War II veterans left in the Eastern Iowa area, according to Veterans Affairs Iowa City Healthcare System. In 2018, there were over 1,600.
Nationwide, there are 240,000 World War II veterans still alive — a group that makes up only 1 percent of the 16,000,000 Americans who served.
Earning a Bronze Star
Alcott’s length of service in the U.S. Army from 1942 to 1945 is easy to remember — “three years and a day,” he can recall without counting. He was part of the largest draft in Benton County during World War II.
A member of the 245th Engineer Combat Batallion, Alcott served in Gen. George S. Patton’s third army.
But the most impactful moment in his service, and a defining story of his life, is the one that earned him a Bronze Star Medal for heroic action.
“Eat your dinner, Harold, they need a mechanic up front,” his Lieutenant said to him on April 13, 1945.
The army needed to cross the River White Elster in Zeitz, Germany, which was heavily guarded by a German presence. With the bridge blown up, engineers attempted to rebuild for two days to get soldiers across, to no avail.
For 18 hours, Alcott worked on the riverbank under a smoke screen to ferry American soldiers across the river. His job was simple, but critical: keep the outboard motors on boats running. As he listened to a continuous hail of bullets whiz by him, he kept each boat fueled and functional.
“It was just like a hailstorm,” he said, describing the bullets.
Alcott said more Germans were later killed in Zeitz than in any other battlefield he was in. Hitler, already living underground by that time, committed suicide just over two weeks later.
Alcott’s time in Zeitz was not the only close brush with death for the 100-year-old.
On Christmas Eve 1944, Alcott shipped out across the English Channel to serve in the Battle of the Bulge. He spent five days on a ship sleeping on life preservers in the cargo hold.
After going up the River Seine to Rouen, France, his convoy set up tents. Alcott went into town to secure weapons and equipment, stopping at the USO for a cup of coffee first.
As he reached for the handle of the USO’s door, he heard a bang and turned around. The Dodge weapons carrier he came in had been demolished by a drunk American soldier, who wiped out several other vehicles with the one he was driving.
At another point in the war, a raised hand seen in his rear view mirror kept him from death yet again.
As engineers replaced 30-inch culverts and repaired roadways, Alcott was driving the wrecker vehicle — filling in for the wrecker driver who was sick that day. He stopped at a fellow engineer’s signal.
Had he backed up a few feet farther, he would have been killed by a German plate mine buried in the ground.
Finding the good
Alcott, who retired a sergeant, has seen the darkest times in the last 100 years — five wars, countless conflicts, the rise and fall of the Soviet Union and, now, the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
But even after close calls with some of those dark times, he chooses to see the light.
“There’s more good people than bad in the world,” he said. “There’s bad things happening, but I don’t think the world is going to hell.”
All you have to do is take a look around at your neighbors to see the good in some of the people closest to you. For one of Iowa’s oldest residents, his neighbors give him faith in a world that will survive passing periods of division.
“The Greatest Generation had a job to do,” said Ivan Alcott, Harold’s son. “They did it and they didn’t complain. They were just mentally tough.”
Those looking for nuggets of wisdom on how to prolong life may be disappointed with the Blairstown centenarian.
“If I even thought I was going to live this long, I’d have taken better care of myself,” Harold said as he chuckled.
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