Longtime Niskayuna resident and World War II veteran Hans Hillander has seen much in his 100 years; from a war-torn Europe to the booming of the Electric City and the expansion of Sunnyview Rehabilitation Hospital, where he worked for more than three decades.
Born in Dalarna, Sweden, Hillander immigrated to America at a young age, after the factory where his father worked burned down.
“Him and so many [others] all just decided to find a home in America. Everybody was going to America in those days. His brother helped him out so they got here first. My mother followed later and then me and my brother followed much later,” Hillander said.
The family eventually settled in New York City. There he remembers working to learn English in school, joining a soccer league and working as many odd jobs as he could find with his brother, Bert.
“It was great to be brought up in New York City when you’re a male, young and you’ve got money,” Hillander said.
There he also met his future wife and Brooklynite, Ida, at a nightclub where they would go polka dancing.
“Me and Ida used to go and dance polka all the time. We used to do a lot of dancing,” Hillander said.
That was all curtailed by the ramping up of World War II. When he was 20 years old, in January of 1943, he joined the U.S. Army Air Force. He remembers training had to be done quickly and he managed to surprise his commanding officers with his marksmanship skills. After Hillander came away with one of the highest scores in a rifle shooting test, the officers questioned where he’d trained, wondering how a New York City kid could have beat out others with more rural roots.
“We shoot in the backyard in Manhattan,” Hillander said. He and his brother would use BB guns to practice shooting bottles and other targets.
“We got to be very, very good at it,” Hillander noted.
Besides marksmanship, his driving skills were valuable in the service. At the time, not many of the other service members could and Hillander remembers his commanding officers were desperate for drivers.
“If you had sat next to a driver [before], you were assigned to be a driver,” Hillander said.
Much of his time in the military was spent driving trucks with transportation and other equipment. He was sent to Europe, where he served in Normandy, Paris and Belgium among other locations.
When he first arrived, “The war really blossomed out terribly. While we were there war was so bad that everything had to be sped up,” Hillander noted.
In Normandy especially, he remembers the camp he was stationed at was primitive. In the area around the camp, soldiers always had to be careful of where they walked and hide their tracks from German soldiers.
“It has to be completely pristine so that nobody appears to have probably moved there,” Hillander said.
In Paris and when his unit was moving to other locations, Hillander would sometimes sleep in cemeteries, though many of his comrades were too put off by the idea to join him. He also spent many nights transporting equipment.
“You had to drive at night with no headlights because the Germans [would] see that,” Hillander said.
When it came to food and supply rations, Hillander was perhaps luckier than others. Since he didn’t smoke, he bartered and sold the cigarettes that soldiers were provided in each ration packet.
“In the service, I made good money . . . because [others] wanted to smoke and in each package, you get three cigarettes,” Hillander said.
He also sometimes shared coffee and other supplies he was able to barter for. Hillander remembers at a dance in Paris, he met a young woman and ended up staying with her family.
“I brought coffee for them. The mother, I thought she was going to have a stroke [when] I brought a quarter pot of coffee from the cook in the army,” Hillander said.
During his years serving abroad, he wrote many letters to his family and to Ida, some of which he still has.
In one letter, dated June 25, 1945, from Belgium, he writes “Dear Ida! This will be a short letter to let you know that I’m well and thinking of you often. Hoping always that you are well and happy. This time I have a bit of bad news for you. As you’ll notice, our mail is again being censored by our officers. I can’t say the reason why, but I’m sure you will have a good idea of what it means.”
Just a few months later, Hillander was readying to ship out to Japan when the war came to an end. He was among the first few waves of soldiers to return to the United States after the war and to this day the story of his homecoming brings tears to his eyes.
“I had [recently] written my mother a letter from somewhere in Belgium,” Hillander said. “I walk [into their apartment building] with my bag and everything and I knock on the door. My mother said ‘Who is it?’ I said ‘It’s your son.’ [She said] ‘It can’t be my son. He’s in Belgium.’ ”
Finally, after much pleading, he was able to convince her it was him at the door.
“Can you imagine a mother getting her son home without knowing [he wasn’t] in Belgium?” Hillander said.
After he was discharged in November of 1945, he decided to become a physical therapist.
“In those days, there was no college of physical therapy,” Hillander said. Instead, he said hospitals had specialized schools, like the Swedish School for Physical Therapy, which he attended in New York City. After graduating, he worked in a hospital for several years but when he and his wife Ida had their two children, Ellen and Christine, they decided to move upstate.
“I didn’t want them to be brought up in New York City. I was brought up there, that was enough,” Hillander said.
Ida wrote letters to the hospitals in the Capital Region and other places in upstate New York, looking for an opening for Hillander.
“In those days there was opening for everything, nurses, doctors and technicians and everything. So I took a trip upstate to five places. I got to Sunnyview and they were glad to have me because I had experience with children. I had experience with polio,” Hillander said.
When he first started working there, the Schenectady rehabilitation hospital had a modest 19 patients, most of them children.
“Then they started to enlarge Sunnyview and then they started to get [more] adults. It got bigger and bigger,” Hillander said.
He ended up working not only with children suffering from the impacts of polio but also with patients who had suffered brain injuries and others.
Looking back at how much the hospital grew, Hillander said “I think it was wonderful because it expanded the whole area. Everything became bigger, it became famous. . . At first, when I got there, it was [considered] a children’s hospital only. Now it’s enormous.”
He worked as a physical therapist there for 35 years and even when he retired from his full-time position he continued to work part-time assisting patients with muscular dystrophy for the Muscular Dystrophy Association for many years.
He remained in his Niskayuna home until recently, when he moved to Ellis Residential & Rehabilitation Center in Schenectady. (His wife Ida passed away in 2018.)
Earlier this year, he celebrated his 100th birthday and has a short and sweet answer for those wondering what the secret is to his longevity:
“I say ‘Have breakfast. Don’t smoke. Don’t drink and marry a girl from Brooklyn.’ ”