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Dwindling World War II veterans share their stories

  • 6 min to read

They are among the last survivors of a war that forever changed the world and the United States.

They were in their teens when they answered the call of duty, and they went forth without knowing when their service might end, how the war itself might end and whether they would even survive.

Even the ones who saw battle first-hand express gratitude and hail the sacrifices of their fellow soldiers, sailors and airmen who died. As much as anyone, they put the “great” in the term coined by television journalist Tom Brokaw, “The Greatest Generation."

They are the United States’ veterans of World War II, the largest armed conflict in human history. Every day, more and more age well into their 90s and their numbers continue to shrink.

Of the 16 million Americans who served in World War II, approximately 550,000 remain alive today, according to the National World War II Museum in New Orleans. Approximately 12,000 of those veterans live in Wisconsin.

The ones who remain in this part of the state have become increasingly difficult to identify and locate.

There are still a few, however, and their stories are a testament to the contributions to a society and a world they helped change.

Iowa Jima memories

Eldor Fruehling of Prairie du Sac is one such veteran, with quite a story to tell.

Fruehling, now 92, was 18 years old when he enlisted in the Marines. By the time he’d turned 19, he found himself riding in the passenger seat of a DUKW amphibious vehicle through the ocean surf toward the Japanese island of Iwo Jima and one of World War II’s fiercest battles.

Fruehling’s DUKW ride was a death-defying feat, considering the vehicle’s cargo: Several crates full of Howitzer ammunition. One strike from the attacking Japanese on shore, and the DUKW most likely would have exploded.

“The shells were landing all around us,” Fruehling said. “I was one scared kid.”

Once on the island, Fruehling spent most of his waking hours carrying the 105-millimeter shells to be the big Howitzer guns of his Marine battery. He slept each night in a foxhole nearby, even as the guns blasted away in support of the Americans who fought to take control of every inch of the tiny island.

Fruehling and his fellow Marines cheered on Feb. 23, 1945, four days into the battle, when they saw the American flag flying atop Iwo Jima’s Mt. Sirubachi in the distance. Moments before, the flag had been raised by six Marines, the image captured by an Associated Press photographer and now memorialized at the U.S. Marine Corps Memorial in Arlington, Virginia.

Once the battle ended on March 23 with a hard-fought American victory, Fruehling’s Marine division headed back to Hawaii to prepare for the possible Allied invasion of Japan.

“We were so shot up as a division, we went back to Hawaii to reorganize,” he said. 

The invasion was not necessary following the detonation of atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the subsequent Japanese surrender later that summer, but Fruehling’s participation in history continued as he became part of the first wave of U.S. servicemen to occupy the Japanese island of Kyushu.

His service among those occupying forces eventually took him to the city of Nagasaki, where he witnessed first-hand another of the war’s legacies: The aftermath of the atomic explosion.

On New Year’s Day of 1946, Fruehling attended a football game organized by American forces, on a flat field that had been a hill only a few months before.

“The force of that bomb was such that it moved the hill almost like going to an area with a bunch of bulldozers,” he said.

On the troop train on the way out of Nagasaki, he also witnessed some of the human toll of the bombs, in the badly burned survivors.

“I think the most troubling was to see the results of that blast in the lives of people,” Fruehling said.

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World War II veterans a vestige of a bygone era

Arthur Nachtigal has no shortage of memories from his experiences during World War II.

Memories at sea

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World War II veterans a vestige of a bygone era

Arthur Nachtigal, of Reedsburg, animatedly describes some of his adventures while serving in World War II.

Arthur Nachtigal of Reedsburg did not witness the ravages of the war the way Fruehling did, but he did experience the treachery of a German U-Boat and participated in the vital effort to keep the world-wide American war effort properly supplied.  

Nachtigal, 92, traveled halfway around the world on several occasions during his time with the U.S. Navy Armed Guard, a little-known but extremely vital branch of the Navy assigned the important but dangerous task of guarding the ships carrying supplies to American forces across the globe.

Serving as a gunner on an oil tanker, Nachtigal made several trips from the East Coast through the Panama Canal to Hawaii during the war. The tanker managed to avoid ever encountering an enemy ship in all its travels.

Nachtigal’s eventual transfer to a supply freighter produced the opposite outcome, thanks to that German U-Boat. The freighter was scheduled to circumnavigate the globe on a supply mission to India, but on the morning of Feb. 17, 1945, as the ship sailed as part of an American flotilla through the Straits of Gibraltar, the U-Boat struck from the ocean depths below.

The torpedo strike sent the freighter’s bow upward as Nachtigal stood on deck, but fortunately for him and his fellow crew members the crippled ship did not sink, and they survived the harrowing experience.

The planned trip around the world was canceled as the ship hobbled to port on the Mediterranean Sea, and Nachtigal’s unit was ordered to remain with the ship until it was repaired.

By the time he returned home, the Naval Guard had been disbanded and the war was almost over.

Memories of the air

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World War II veterans a vestige of a bygone era

Jim Reidelbach displays the severe maneuverability of the "Hellbomber" he flew in while training for World War II duties.

World War II Navy veteran Jim Reidelbach of Wisconsin Dells refers to himself as “the luckiest man in the service,” in part because he never left the Western Hemisphere during his wartime service.

Reidelbach, 93, began his Navy career as a radio man, radar operator and gunner, and he served all of those roles in the two-man, dive-bombing warplane known as the “Helldiver,” the Curtiss SB2C-5.

After numerous training jaunts at various bases across the U.S., Reidelbach appeared headed for an assignment on an aircraft carrier and the dive-bombing duties accompanying it.

Fate, however, intervened.

“There were too many pilots on the ship, some of the pilots needed to be transferred, and the radio man went with the pilot,” Reidelbach said.

He transferred to a squadron flying the Martin PBM Mariner, a patrol bomber and “flying boat” that went on lengthy patrol flights protecting various coastal areas and had its own kitchen for the men on board.

Reidelbach ultimately ended up stationed in Panama, and his squadron patrolled Central America’s coastal areas in case of enemy infiltration or invasion. He also served on the long-flying airplane along the southern U.S. coast and in the Caribbean.

Reidelbach still has the log he kept of all the places he was stationed during the war, and scrapbooks with photos of many of those places including the Galapagos Islands.

Other than a “submarine scare” near the Florida coast that turned out to be a false alarm, Reidelbach never engaged with the enemy. But in a global war, that was never a foregone conclusion considering the war’s global reach.

“I was lucky,” he said. “I had it good all the way through.”

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World War II veterans a vestige of a bygone era

Neil Koppang stands before the wall honoring the Mauston Legion's deceased members.

Memories of loss

Nowhere are the wages of war more directly reflected than on the list carried by Neil Koppang of Mauston. The list has the names of Koppang’s immediate family members who served during World War II.

“These are the ones who deserve the credit,” Koppang said, motioning toward the list. “My brothers are the ones who really had it.”

By the time he reported for duty in the U.S. Navy at the age of 18 in 1944, Koppang had lost his oldest brother Victor, whose plane was shot down over Papua, New Guinea. Soon after, Koppang’s brother-in-law, Victor McAvoy, was killed in action in Aachen, Germany.

By the time the young sailor found himself crossing the Atlantic Ocean on the battleship USS John R. Pierce as a fireman first class, heading east toward the Pacific Theatre, his second-oldest brother, Roger, a fighter pilot, was reported missing in Germany and presumed dead.

Sometime later in that voyage across the Atlantic, the younger Koppang was summoned by a superior.

“He asked me, ‘How would you like to go back to the U.S.?,” Koppang, now 91, said.

Apparently while her youngest son was at sea, Koppang’s mother, Agnes, decided having a third son in harm’s way — with a fourth son, Axel, also serving in the U.S. Army — was too much for one family.

She hired an attorney in Chicago, and that attorney prevailed upon the U.S. Department of Defense to retrieve Neil from the John R. Pierce.

“They told me you are not staying,” Koppang said. “I was upset.”

He was upset because of the sacrifices his brothers and other family members already had made, he said, but he had no choice.

“I wasn’t nearly the man these guys were, I’ll tell you that,” he said, tapping the list with his forefinger for emphasis.

Koppang returned to the U.S. to serve out the war and his remaining time in the Navy. After Germany surrendered in May 1945, the Koppang family learned of brother Roger’s status as a prisoner of war who was still alive, and he ultimately “got loose,” in Neil Koppang’s words, and returned home as well.

Because of Victor Koppang’s ultimate sacrifice for his country, Mauston’s American Legion Post 81 is named in part for him, and his Army Air Force portrait hangs atop the Post’s “Wall of Honor” at the Legion Hall.

As he recently regarded the honorary wall with his brother’s portrait at the top, Neil Koppang allowed himself a moment of pride.

“I hung most of those,” he said.

Follow Ed Legge on Twitter @DellsEd. Contact him at 608-432-6591.