Veterans have always had fascinating stories to tell if they’re willing to tell them but Howard E. Hornberger’s story takes the cake. Hornberger was born in Dearborn County March 5, 1917 and died in Greensburg Oct. 30, 1998 is buried in South Park Cemetery. I recently learned that his wife Wanetta Borden Hornberger (at one time the society editor of the Greensburg Daily News) and their son Richard D. Hornberger are also deceased. It brought back a memory that I’ve never forgotten.
The memory goes back to probably the early 1990s or maybe even longer. Someone at the American Legion told me about an experience Howard Hornberger(Staff SGT US ARMY) had during World War II. It wasn’t a battle experience but a story that would be fun to write and read. I called him to see if he would tell me about it but he said no, and said there were so many important stories of veterans that hadn’t been told. I understood but always regretted that I didn’t push harder. After all these years I’ll share it with you now.
Early one morning in October a very large black form was seen off the beach near where Staff Sergeant Howard Hornberger was stationed. No one thought it could possibly be a whale because whales were known to be always in water far north of their location. But that whale started doing all the things they were known to do such as spewing water into the air every one minute and twenty seconds the men agreed that this was a whale.
Some of the men got into a boat and went out to see what they could find out. The whale edged closer to the shore and finally got trapped in a shallow gully between two sandbars. The men came ashore and then waded into the surf that held the whale prisoner. They used a steel cable thinking they might pull the whale out into the ocean. The whale remained still even though it might easily have lashed out in destructive fury with its powerful tail.
The men even laid hands on the immobile body and soon were swarming all over the glossy black back. The cable was secured to the tail and the men heaved with all their might but to no avail. One of the men remembered some natural history he had read about how some whales had guided boats and ships to safety. He read too that whales were known to seek protected waters when they were about to give birth to a baby. Maybe that could account for this one having allowed herself to become trapped.
He let the others know that he was pretty sure that this whale (they had named her Bertha by then) might be expecting a baby whale. The men then pushed and shoved in vain trying to free the nearly 34 foot, several ton expectant mother. Soon the tide began to come in again and the men tried even harder to get Bertha unstuck. Then with a swish of her tail she allowed herself to be guided into water that would cover her body. But for a moment she continued to lay still, probably not realizing she was free. Then she glided out into the bay as the men watched anxiously.
Then Bertha reared and dove beneath the surface. She reappeared and went straight to the men who had saved her. She turned aside as she got near and swept majestically past them in a salute. It was reported later in the day that Bertha the whale had been seen slowly making her way out of the baay at sunset. There was the belief of the men who had helped her that there was another, smaller wake behind Bertha’s huge one. The men were said to be convinced that the baby whale was a boy.