These three Minnesotans, among the last WWII veterans, are a fading connection to history

They are among the last of their kind.

During World War II, more than 16 million Americans served their country in the military. Just over 1% of them are still alive. In Minnesota, that translates to 5,000 of the 304,500 who served in the war. Every day the state loses four more World War II veterans.

Three Minnesota farm boys became soldiers at the very end of the war. Somehow they were destined to outlast almost all of their peers. They are among the surviving witnesses to some of history’s greatest events as well as sources of the kind of wisdom that only comes with age.

The power of purpose

At 96, Hollis Schwartz wears hearing aids, has had her hips replaced and her prostate has been removed. But his eyes are sharp and his memory is sharper.

The Chaska resident can cite the date he was inducted into the military (January 18, 1945), where he was trained (Camp Joseph T. Robinson in Arkansas), and the name of the troopship (the “Juan Flaco Brown”) who transported him across the Pacific for the invasion of Japan. The Army trained him to be a backup infantryman, ready to go into battle when another soldier was killed or wounded.

Schwartz had grown up on a farm lit by kerosene lamps, milking cows by hand and growing corn with horses in Sharon Township, Le Sueur County. He first saw the ocean when he enlisted.

After four weeks at sea – sailing in conditions of blackouts and radio silence – his ship landed in the Philippines on August 28. It was then that Schwartz learned that the war was over, that the United States had dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6. and August 9 and that Japan had effectively surrendered on August 15.

Schwartz was still sent to Japan as part of the occupation. He remembers the devastation wartime bombing had brought to the country. “The smell of human bodies had been there for months,” he said.

Although he was trained in the use of mortars, machine guns, and flamethrowers, he was put to work typing forms so that the Japanese would be properly reimbursed for work and services rendered to the American occupiers.

“None of us smoked. None of us drank. None of us smoked,” he said of his three fellow soldiers in his immediate unit. “We played tennis. We went swimming. We took a jeep from the car park and explored the island of Japan. And we were well behaved. And we had the best time you’ve ever seen,” said Schwartz.

After his release, Schwartz used the GI Bill to attend the University of Minnesota, where he met and married Patsy Maher, who was training at the U to become a nurse in the Cadet Nurse Corps.

Schwartz had a 38-year career as director of the Minnesota Valley Breeders Association in New Prague, pioneering techniques to help farmers raise better cattle.

He and Patsy canoed the boundary waters, skied the western mountains, raised three children, and built a house in Chaska in 1958 for $14,000 where he still lives today.

Life has been good. “I guess I better tell you I’m one of the luckiest guys on earth,” he said.

After retirement, he drove school bus charters for 22 years. He currently drives for Meals on Wheels. “I needed to help people and be active,” he said. “You need a reason to get up in the morning. You need to have a purpose.”

To date, he takes yoga classes, uses an iPhone and logs into Zoom for Bible study meetings. A follower of “blue zone” books about communities around the world where people tend to live long, he drinks a small glass of Sardinian wine every day.

After 67 years of marriage, he is now a widower. People he knew in the army and at school also left.

“I’m not afraid to die. I’m ready for the journey,” he said. But “I don’t plan on moving for a while, because I feel pretty good.”

An eyewitness to history

Edwin “Bud” Nakasone was an eyewitness to the beginning and end of America’s involvement in World War II.

His parents, Japanese immigrants from Okinawa, moved to Hawaii to work on sugar cane and pineapple plantations, then started their own farm.

On the morning of December 7, 1941, 14-year-old Nakasone ate an early Sunday breakfast of cornflakes while the rest of the family slept at their home on Oahu.

Looking through the screen door, he saw Japanese planes streaking overhead – part of the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. Nakasone saw the Japanese attack Schofield Barracks and Wheeler Army Airfield.

“I saw the planes go up [in flames], I saw the barracks go up. I saw the sheds go up,” Nakasone said.

Unlike other Japanese-Americans on the West Coast, there was no mass incarceration of Japanese-Americans in Hawaii during the war, as they were an essential part of the workforce. territory work.

Shortly after turning 18, Nakasone was drafted and inducted into the army on August 10, 1945, just days before the end of World War II. After basic training, he arrived at Fort Snelling at Christmas 1945 to train at the military intelligence service language school established in Minnesota. It was the first time he had traveled to the American continent.

He was sent to Japan, where he served as an army interpreter in the post-war occupation. He remembers a country so broken by war that children rummaged through army bins looking for food. “Tokyo was completely devastated, completely devastated,” he said.

After his release in 1948, Nakasone recalled how welcoming Minnesotans were to Japanese American soldiers training there. He went to the University of Minnesota, then became a professor of history at Century College in White Bear Lake.

When he was at U, he met a young librarian named Mary Costello. The St. Paul couple have been married for 66 years.

“It will be 67 years in September,” Nakasone said.

“Damn you lucky mate,” said Mary Nakasone.

He still has ties to the military. He was in the army reserve, retiring as a colonel. He often gave public presentations on the attack on Pearl Harbor. He and Mary had two sons, John, a businessman, and Paul, who became a four-star general in the army. A grandson, David, is now at West Point.

In the air

Robert Wieman said he had been happy most of his life. And it’s been a very long life.

For the St. Paul man, who turned 100 earlier this month, serving in the military was a highlight as it allowed him to fulfill a childhood dream of becoming a pilot.

“I enjoyed flying more than I can think of,” Wieman said.

Wieman was born and raised on a farm in Arlington, Minnesota, in a home with no electricity or plumbing. In the winter, he rode to school on a horse-drawn sleigh.

After Pearl Harbor, Wieman interrupted his studies as a chemistry student at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota, and enlisted in the US Army Air Corps pilot training program. He’s flown everything from open-cockpit trainers to medium-range twin-engine bombers to a P-38 fighter.

Eventually, he was assigned to fly a heavily armed A-26 attack aircraft, designed for low-altitude strafing and bombing. He was to participate in an invasion of Japan, but the country surrendered before the attack. Instead, it flew reconnaissance missions over Japan as part of the post-war occupation. He saw the flattened cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki from the air.

After the war, he returned to university. He considered getting a job with an airline, but he made more money working as a chemist. He had a long career at 3M. After his retirement, he worked as a real estate agent. He became a master gardener and wrote and published accounts of his flying experiences. He rode a motorcycle until the age of 93.

He used to keep in touch with nearly three dozen veterans, but over the years everyone he knew during the war died.

“That’s how things are,” Wieman said. “Someone has to be last. Looks like it’s going to be me.”

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