PARIS — As Wendell “Chummy” Broomhall approached his 97th birthday, he reflected on his near century on Earth, including growing up on a farm, being a two-time Olympian and his time in the Army during World War II.
The Maine Veterans’ Home resident in Paris was born down the road a ways in Mexico on Dec. 3, 1919. When Broomhall was about 4 years old, his dad moved the family to a dairy farm in Rumford. He remembered getting up early every morning to milk the cows and how towns dealt with snow removal back in the day.
“They didn’t plow the roads then, they rolled them,” he said.
And it was on that dairy farm in Rumford where Broomhall gained his nickname. And even though he’s a friendly enough guy, that is not why he’s called Chummy.
“They called me Chubby. I was a little chubby guy but when you get up on a farm you don’t stay chubby at all. They put you to work,” he said. “They started calling me Chummy and that stuck with me the rest of my life.”
He graduated high school in 1937 – as his mother made sure all of her 15 children earned their diploma – and later worked as a logger until problems with his legs forced him to stop logging.
As for his skiing skills, Broomhall said everyone skied when he was younger.
“We only did cross-country skiing. I take that back. We jumped, too,” he said.
There were plenty of small jumps around Rumford for him to fly off of. And, of course, there was Black Mountain with plenty of trails to ski and train on.
So what did he like about skiing most?
“The competition, of course,” Broomhall said, his blue eyes twinkling behind his tortoise shell-framed glasses.
“Before the war I was probably the top cross-country skier there,” Broomhall said. “I won a lot of races.”
When he got back from the war, he discovered he still had it in him.
“I wasn’t satisfied until I saw if I could still beat these young guys,” Broomhall said. “I ended up getting in that race. They only picked one cross-country [ski] runner, I was it. Won it by two minutes as I recall.”
That landed him in the 1952 Winter Olympics in Olso, Norway. He later competed in the 1960 Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley, California. While he didn’t win any medals, Broomhall did earn himself other recognition, even if it was by default.
“In 1960, there wasn’t anybody around there that did anything about cross-country so they made me the American representative to Federation of International Ski – the world governing body,” he said.
And while Broomhall, was a fast skier, the Swedes were even faster. He noted they didn’t get into the war, which left them time to train, and had lighter skis than him.
“I was skiing on solid hickory skis and one of my skis weighed as much as three of the Swedes skis,” he said.
Apparently skiing skills and nicknames ran in the family since Broomhall’s older brother, Charles – whom everyone called Slim – also went to the Olympics. There were trials at Black Mountain. The U.S. Ski Team was there and Broomhall was one of the judges.
“My brother was a top jumper,” Broomhall remembered. “He was going to go off and he came and made a beautiful flight, perfect air flight, perfect landing and when he got out of the end of the outrun, he waived his hand at me and I knew he had it made then.”
Both brothers went on to train and coach younger skiers for many years to come.
When World War II broke out, Broomhall was working as a stable boy taking care of horses. He and his buddy – or “dumb kids” as he said – quit their jobs, marched down to sign themselves up for the service. Broomhall had his heart set on joining the Air Corps and was one of 20 guys who were chosen to take a math test. That part was fine, but his eyesight held him back.
“I didn’t pass the physical. One eye wasn’t 20/20 and I got flunked out,” he said. “That was the first time somebody was looking after me – I see it that way.”
The 20 local guys who made the Air Corps were shot down somewhere in Pacific Ocean during the war.
“They got on these rafts and floated around in the hot sun for 30 days,” Broomhall said. “They were treated mercilessly by the Japanese as war prisoners … but they survived. … I don’t know how they lived and survived.”
When Broomhall didn’t make the Air Corps, he joined the Army instead. The 10th Mountain Division was just being formed and he began fighting the war in the Pacific Theater.
“We were only one battalion at that time and I got sent up to the Aleutian Islands through the inland passage. We traveled at night,” he said. “That’s the worse place I was ever in all of my life. It was fog, rain and thunder.”
Broomhall recalled his first encounter with the Seabees who came in and de-mined a strip of beach on one of the islands in preparation for the Allied Forces’ invasion. Half of his squad landed on the front of the island and the other half on the back with a Canadian outfit.
“We had some casualties,” he said. “We said, ‘Dig in.’ It was impossible to dig in so you were pretty much laying flat and you were soaking wet all the time.”
The invasion cornered the Japanese to one part of the island.
“The Japanese all committed suicide. It was a dishonor to surrender we were told at the time,” Broomhall said. “Then we were told later because they lost that amount of men, they evacuated on small submarines.”
It was around this time that Broomhall met Hal Burton, who was a reporter for The New York Times.
“[He was] the first guy I ever saw that could shave, smoke a cigarette and drink beer at the same time,” Broomhall said. “But he did it all the time.”
Burton spent time with the 10th Mountain Division and went on to write a book on it: “The Ski Troops: A History of the 10th Mountain Division.”
The remainder of World War II took Broomhall to Brazil aboard a B-17, West Africa and Sicily, but not until after the major invasion of the Italian island because he was held up in Algiers.
Over the past couple weeks, birthday cards have been pouring in to acknowledge Broomhall’s 97th birthday on Saturday, Dec. 3. The Chisholm Ski Club of Rumford requested people send birthday cards to its oldest living member. There were stacks and piles of cards on his dresser and table in his bedroom.
So what did Broomhall have planned for the big day?
“Not much,” he said, laughing.
But his family came to visit and celebrated with a birthday cake.