June 6th marks the 75th anniversary of the D-Day invasion, when more than 160 thousand allied troops landed in France. Storming the beaches of Normandy was a quintessential part of defeating Nazi Germany. WWII veterans—including some from the D-Day battle—were recently honored in Rapid City.
There’s a lot of conversation as nearly 70 WWII veterans gather for an annual luncheon honoring their service. They talk with each other, and family and friends.
Most of these veterans are in their 90’s now. For many, this is the only time of year they come together. Several receive certificates, recognizing the Purple Hearts earned during their service.
Ninety-three year old Salvador Chuck Valades was drafted into the Army Infantry shortly after graduating from high school in South Dakota.
“It was one of the first days that we went into combat. I was assigned as a radio man for the lieutenant that led our platoon.”
Valades followed his squad through some trees, and then…
“There was one shot and I found myself on the ground. I caught a bullet in my chest.”
But the injury wasn’t fatal because the rosary he wore deflected the shot.
“It severed the crucifix from the rosary, and I believe that saved my life. I stayed there for a while until a medic showed up to give me first aid.”
The bullet ricocheted off of the rosary into his liver. He went to the hospital and had surgery to remove it. Valades says he and other veterans served the best they could.
“It was our duty. Even though our religion doesn’t permit that or doesn’t feel that we should kill. But we had a duty to do and at that point we did what we had to do.”
Valades is honored that people still think of WWII veterans and remember their service. There were six other South Dakota based Purple Heart recipients at the luncheon.
Bill Casper is a retired teacher and served in the Air Force. He organizes and pays for the luncheon. The event is now in its sixth year.
“I just get emotional. I had two uncles and two cousins that served in WWII. One died on Christmas day in the Battle of the Bulge. He was in the wrong place in the wrong time. So I do it to honor him as well as all the rest of them.”
Casper has a mailing list to stay in contact with WWII veterans across the state. He knows of nearly 2,000 locally in South Dakota.
“They’re dying national at the rate of about 370 a day. Most of the WWII veterans in South Dakota are East River just because of the population. So we’re averaging one every other week and it’s going to get more because they’re getting older.”
This year, the Rapid City luncheon had representatives from most of the military branches. Casper gets choked up sharing their stories.
“Our last Coast Guard man died a year ago. So we don’t have the Coast nor do we have the Merchant Marines.”
Casper says getting WWII veterans together means a lot to them.
“A lot of these guys didn’t want to talk about the action they saw but when they get together with their peers-somebody that they know saw action like they did-they’ll open up.”
He says it’s important to thank these veterans while he still can.
Ninety-nine year old Marcella Ryan LeBeau is an enrolled member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe. She served as a combat nurse during D-Day.
“There was a call for nurses on the radio everyday. And we heard that and so we volunteered, my friend Marie and I.”
LeBeau served for nearly three years. She came back home to South Dakota after her service. She’s often recognized for her service, but she doesn’t speak to many other veterans.
“Well there’s one that is from home, from our reservation. I usually see him here every year and it’s the only time I see him.”
LeBeau says she’s happy for the opportunity to get together.
“It’s a great honor to be recognized in this way because we went to do our duty and we did our duty. But we didn’t expect these honors.”
LeBeau will visit France for the 75th anniversary of D-Day. It’s the second time she will be honored in that country.