Area men Donald Saunders, Ed Wentzlaff, Milton Johnson and Joseph Huonder have a few things in common. All four come from different parts of Minnesota, all four now live in the Milaca Senior High Rise Apartments and all four served in the U.S. military during WWII. It was during that service that their stories begin to diverge from each other.
On this Veterans Day, Americans honor their service and record their memories. As the men enter their 80s and 90s, it is an era of United States history that is nearing its end. But as the four seasoned veterans chat about their service over coffee and pastries in Johnson’s apartment early one morning last week, the memories come alive, erasing the 70 years between now and their service in one of the world’s most massive wars.
Growing up in Minneapolis during the Great Depression, Saunders remembers just why his is called the “Greatest Generation.”
“You were poor, everybody else was poor — so no one knew they were poor,” he said.
The military offered a chance to make a living, fight the good fight and see the world. Saunders joined the U.S. Navy in April of 1943.
“I couldn’t wait to turn 17 and enlist and go fight,” Saunders said.
He would soon get his wish. Shortly after, seaman Saunders was assigned a ship and sent overseas.
“When we saw America disappear behind the fin of the ship, I wondered if I’d ever see that land again,” he said.
Saunders spent a total of 23 months in the South Pacific and Solomon Island running supply shipments from Guadalcanal to Okinawa supporting the 1st Marine Division.
“They were the poor guys who went in while we stayed on the ship,” Saunders said.
He remembers seeing the phrase “Killroy was here,” in nearly every “head” in the South Pacific. As the phrase is mentioned, the other three veterans chime in with their run-ins with the graffiti etched in bathroom stalls or drawn on fences, trees and buildings. No one remembers where the it came from. But for some reason, seeing that Killroy reminded the men of home, that they were all in this together.
“Back then, you didn’t worry about coming home,” Saunders said. “They had a point system — you needed 30 points to go home. I had 50-some points, but I wasn’t going home. There was a war going on.”
For the full story, see the Thursday, Nov. 8 print edition of the Times.