Two years ago, on Nov. 10, 2018, Henry and Rachel Wheeler were the grand marshals of the Grand Junction Veteran’s Day Parade.
This was the first time that veterans of foreign militaries were so honored — Henry fought for the Australian Army in WW II, and Rachel for the Israel (then-Palestine) Army.
Today, Henry Wheeler, a Jewish resident of Grand Junction, Colorado, is 100 years old. His memory and communication skills are so sharp that he can easily recall many significant incidents and episodes from his unusual and storied life.
It has taken him from England to Australia to mandatory Palestine and eventually to Colorado’s Western Slope.
Over the course of a century, he has been a cowboy, a military officer, a construction entrepreneur and a fruit grower — but most important to him, a husband, father, grandfather and great-grandfather.
Wheeler’s story began om Sept. 19, 1920 when he was born in England to an unwed mother, who gave him up when he was two-and-a-half months old to Dr. Barnado’s Homes, a British-based network of orphanages.
Through an agreement between Britain and Australia, he was sent to live at a Dr. Barnardo’s Homes training farm school in Australia.
Wheeler took an exam which earned him the equivalent of a high school diploma, and at age 14, went to work on a farm, caring for horses every day from 5 a.m. to 11 p.m. He was paid the equivalent of half-dollar a week for 18-hour days.
“That was during the Depression, and that farm was so rude to him that they didn’t let him stay in the house; he had to sleep in the barn,” interjects Wheeler’s daughter, Eli Castillo.
Wheeler adds that his food was set outside for him as he was not allowed to eat in the house.
Because he was the ward of Dr. Barnardo’s Homes until he was 21, he shifted around to different jobs, living and working on farms in New South Wales and near the coast.
Wheeler became proficient in caring for and working with horses and cattle.
He was a cowboy.
Along the way, he was fortunate to work with a family with whom he bonded. To this day, 80 years later, Wheeler remains in touch with the descendants of that Australian family. He visited them in 2007.
Henry Wheeler was 19 when he voluntarily enlisted in the Australian Army on Oct. 8, 1939. When WW II broke out, Wheeler shipped out for training in what was then mandatory Palestine, and he quickly rose to the rank of platoon sergeant in the 2/4th Australian Infantry Battalion. His knowledge and experience, way beyond his years, was appreciated in the military.
The 2/4th Australian Infantry Battalion was a famous combat unit; Wheeler, a natural born leader, distinguished himself in combat.
He proudly proclaims that his division was the only one during WW II that fought “all four of the King’s enemies — the Italians in North Africa, the Germans in Greece and Crete, the Vichy French in Lebanon and Syria, and Japan when they came into the war in 1942.
Although he is proud of the time he spent in the war, it was not easy.
“They dropped two 500-pound bombs on the rear end of the ship, and the ship sank. I was in the water for 10 hours hanging on to debris.”
While training in mandatory Palestine in the early part of the war, in May, 1940, Wheeler and a fellow soldier were walking along Ben Yehuda Street in Tel Aviv when he was captivated by the sight of a pretty young woman, Rachel Hillel, as she stood on a doorstep with a friend. The girls asked if they could write the soldiers letters so they could improve their English.
“So, I picked Rachel. I liked her from the start,” he says.
The two hit it off immediately and began what would turn into a long-distance relationship while Henry was sent around the world to lead his battalion and Rachel served in the British army in Palestine, attaining the rank of corporal.
Henry and Rachel were married in Parramatta, a suburb of Sydney, Australia, on Dec. 23, 1944, and Henry was discharged from the Australian Army on Oct. 8. 1945, coincidentally the same date as he enlisted six years earlier.
Wheeler went into the construction business, first working for others, and ultimately succeeding as a general contractor.
Rachel wanted to return to Palestine, but when she and Henry went to the Palestinian Jewish authorities, they were strongly discouraged to return to a land that was on the brink of its own war. Instead, they and their four daughters, all born in Australia, emigrated to the US, where Rachel had an aunt and uncle who would become their sponsors.
In 1976, Henry and Rachel — their four daughters already grown — moved to Palisade, Colorado, where he purchased a peach orchard and grew peaches for 26 years before retiring at the age of 82.
The Wheelers became entrenched in the Grand Junction Jewish community, active at its synagogue, Ohr Shalom. Grand Junction dermatologist Dr. Richard Stiefler calls Henry Wheeler “an icon in our community.”
The Wheelers traveled all of the world to 72 countries, including those he had fought in during WW II, Israel (32 times) and back to Australia, where they revisited the Dr. Barnardo’s home where Henry grew up.
Dr. Barnardo’s had opened its records and Wheeler was able to track down siblings whom he never knew he had, and was welcomed into a large “instant” family.
Henry and Rachel’s own family had also become rather large. They had four daughters, Melanie, Ruth, Eli and Daphne, who gave them eight grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.
After 75 years of marriage, Rachel passed away a year ago at age 99. Henry recalls his beloved as “a loving wife who was devoted to our children.”
Over the years, Henry Wheeler has been awarded 10 honorary medals for his military service. The latest honor came last month at his 100th birthday celebration when a representative of the Australian government presented him with a medal.
Wheeler is proud that the military tradition is continuing in his family. One of his granddaughters became an officer in the Israeli army, and now a great-granddaughter is serving in the IDF.