WWII Vets Honored - Recall Combat Experiences
Veterans of World War Two were recently honored at a luncheon in Rapid City. The gathering brought more than one hundred members of “The Greatest Generation” together to share stories, laughter, good food, fond and fearsome memories and even shed the occasional tear.
World War Two arguably impacted America more than any other conflict in the nation’s history. With more than 16 million men and women serving in the armed forces, 400,000 dead and nearly 700,000 wounded, it was rare for any family not to be impacted by bloodshed and heartache.
In the end, all the suffering was considered worth the price of freeing the world from the oppression of a German dictator and his allies.
Seventy years later, the men and women who survived the hostilities of places like Normandy and Anzio, Tarawa and Guadalcanal, the battles on the sea and the dogfights in the air are leaving us at a rate of 1000 every day.
Bill Casper, an Air Force veteran himself, decided to let those remaining from what’s been called “The Greatest Generation” know that their sacrifices are still appreciated. Casper’s uncle, Roy Sprister, served with the 101st Airborne Division. He landed at Normandy on June 6. 1944. By year’s end, Sgt. Sprister and his comrades found themselves at a small town in Belgium surrounded by the enemy. Casper says his uncle was about 6 kilometers West of Bastogne early Christmas morning when German forces overran his position.
“It’s a way for me to honor my uncle…who died in the Battle of the Bulge,“ Casper explains. “as well as all the rest of the veterans who served in World War Two. South Dakota has about 3000 veterans left. They’re passing at the rate of about 3 or 4 a day. They’re not going to be around that long and I think that everything that we can do to honor them we need to do.”
As Rapid City Mayor Sam Kooiker addresses the gathering, I find a quiet corner to visit with several of the veterans in attendance, like 95-year old Wayne Brewster.
“Now, you were in the Army?” I ask Wayne.
“Yeah.” he replies. “Combat engineers. We were attached to the 29th Division.
“And you landed on Normandy?” I continue.
“Yeah, on Omaha Beach.”
“What was it like?” What was it like landing on that beach?”
“Noisy,” replies Wayne with a grin.
“Is there something from that day that still stays with you?”
”Oh, I guess maybe the thing I remember most is the battleship Texas fired over us,” Wayne recalls. “Those big 16-inch shells….sounded like a big…freight train going across.”
“I’m John Wilkinson and I was Royal Air Force…41 Squadron…in Europe,” says a man with a British accent. “ I flew Hurricanes and Spitfires”
“Were you a cocky young lad?” I ask.
John grins and chuckles.
“Top Gun mentality?” I continue.
“Oh, yeah,” John replies with a laugh. “Yeah…I really went at it full steam.”
But then he turns serious.
“That’s the only way you can survive when you’re…when it’s a one-on-one fight to the death.”
Sitting quietly at a table with her daughters, I find Lakota elder, former U.S. Army nurse and Normandy invasion veteran Marcella LeBeau.
“We climbed down a rope ladder into a landing barge and landed at Utah Beach…and camped at a cow pasture there for a time,” Marcella remembers. “And then later went up to Paris, France and were temporarily stationed in…108th General Hospital. And then we went from there to Liege, Belgium…where we had a 1000-bed tent hospital. And we took care of soldiers from 3 different campaigns there. One of them was the Ardennes which is also the same as the Battle of the Bulge.”
“Are there any things from your time in World War Two that...when you’re around now something will spark a memory back to those days?” I ask . “Sounds, smells, comments…whatever?”
“Well…one of the things that is embedded in my memory is…uh…we were very busy on our ward…patients coming and going all the time,” Marcella explains. “Some of them being transferred back to the United States. One night we had a…a…a soldier that came in. He was a prisoner of war. And I can remember his look. His skin stretched over his bones and…that vacant stare. And…just, uh…it was such a…an impact on me I can’t, uh…remove that from my memory.”
As World War Two veterans and their guests line up to share in a picnic lunch, the Potter Family breaks into a rousing rendition of “The Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B.” It’s an upbeat classic from the war years that brings a smile to the faces of many and lightens more than one veteran’s step.
The music and its impact reflects Bill Casper’s goals for having this gathering…to honor all those who served and remind them that when it was done, everyone did have something to celebrate.
Interviews with veterans in this story: