Although they never served together, the six war veterans at Avera Brady in Mitchell share a special camaraderie with one another.
All from six different South Dakota communities, the men have now taken residence in the Avera Brady Health and Rehab and Avera Brady Assisted Living facilities. And in each of their rooms, they have mementos from their past, from a uniform coat to pictures more than 70 years old of themselves in service.
Sitting around a table in the Mitchell health care facility, the veterans recently told the tales of their time in war. And with Veterans Day today, they held their heads a little higher, gleaming with pride.
"It means a lot. I think about these gentlemen and what they did," said 90-year-old Dean Minder, pointing to his fellow veterans and now friends, sitting beside him. "And I think about the many who didn't come back. It makes you very, very proud to be a veteran, honestly."
Minder is one of the youngest of the war veterans at the Avera facility. Joining him includes 90-year-old Howard Bechen, 90-year-old Milton Handel, 96-year-old Lyle Pence, 98-year-old Gerhard Storm and 97-year-old Charles (Wally) Jones.
All veterans of World War II, with two also serving in the Korean War, the six served in different times and capacity. But, like Minder, their fondest and also most daunting memories took place more than 70 years ago.
Minder was first drafted in 1945 to the U.S. Army at the end of World War II. He then completed 17 weeks of infantry training when the war was declared over. He re-enlisted for three years, joining the military police.
Minder was discharged in 1948, and by 1949 joined the Navy Reserve while in college. Inspired by his father, who was a World War I veteran and his sister who was a nurse in the Navy, he knew the Navy would be his next step. A few years later he was called to duty on the USS Comstock, serving as a clerk on the LSD-19.
"It was a pain in the neck at times," Minder said, laughing.
Remembering his time with affection, Minder can't help but feel proud of being in the military, as does his fellow veterans sitting beside him.
Jones, better known as Wally, thinks about his time serving in World War II nearly every day. Drafted in 1941, Jones was in the 39th Engineering Combat Regiment of the U.S. Army. Stationed in north Africa, Jones spent many hours training for the invasion of Sicily and later, the invasion of Italy.
But instead of haunting memories, Jones simply smiled when asked what it was like overseas.
"You're just one of the gang," he said.
Jones was discharged in 1945, returning home to South Dakota. And now, with five children, 15 grandchildren and 17 great grandchildren, the Mount Vernon native is often asked by his family to reminisce his days as a message center chief in the engineering regiment. But he remembers his service more clearly each year as Veterans Day comes and goes.
"It brings back a lot of memories," he said. "I wish I could contact some of my old buddies, but they're all gone."
Veterans Day is always extra special for Pence, who celebrates his birthday the following day. And tomorrow, he will be 97.
Also a U.S. Army veteran, Pence served from 1942 to 1945 as a truck driver. Each day he spent hours traveling hundreds of miles hauling cargo — from weapons to food and clothing — along the mountainous roads of Iran to Russia.
Never in combat or discharging his gun, Pence was relatively safe from the action, he said, except on his 60-day journey by ship to Iran across the Atlantic Ocean.
By Nov. 18, 1945, he was discharged.
"I'm glad it's over with. I got a lot of experiences, I tell you," Pence said. "I still got memories of the things that happened there, and they run through my head all the time."
Despite months on a ship and 1,000-mile drives to Russia, Pence is glad he served his country. He still keeps his uniform coat and two caps crisp looking, ready to show off at a moment's notice. The tan-colored jacket, which he wore on his long truck rides, means the world to Pence, as does the Veterans Day holiday.
"It means quite a lot," he said. "I'm glad that I'm here to celebrate it, too."
Pence wasn't alone in bringing an item to the table from his service. Ninety-year-old Bechen, also from Letcher, proudly wore his baseball hat denoting he was a veteran of both WWII and the Korean War.
Bechen served in the Navy on USS Collett DD-730 for four years. While his memory fades and the exact years of his service are unsure, Bechen said he's proud.
"My memory is getting bad, but to me, I'm glad I was in it. It wasn't easy. It was rough," Bechen said. "But I'm glad I got through it."
The destroyer ship he fought on was one of the six to first be bombarded in Tokyo Bay, he said. Following his four years, he was discharged and later joined the Navy Reserve. He was called back to train sailors during the Korean War.
Thankful for their service
Silent, Handel and Storm watched and, on occasion, nodded along as their fellow veterans spoke of their service.
Handel, a native of Menno, was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1943 and served for two years. Storm, originally from the Parkston and Mitchell area, also served in the Army, but worked as a medic on the frontlines with 135th Infantry Regiment Unit of the 34th Red Bull Division.
Although quiet, the two war veterans nodded in agreement as their camaraderies talked about the pride they still have today. And hearing others stories of war is enjoyable, according to
Avera Brady Activities Associate Cherie Schroeder.
Schroeder cares for the six veterans on a weekly basis, and is honored to do so, she said, adding that her father, father-in-law and husband are all war veterans, while her son is active in the military.
"It's just an honor for me to able to take care of these guys and help them with their needs. I love to hear their stories," she said. "They're all very proud to be veterans and I think it's very important for people to remember and thank their veterans."
And Minder agrees with Schroeder, adding that his favorite phrase to hear is "Thank you." Minder owns two hats with emblems from World War II and the Korean War. And each time he wears them, he often gets a comment or two.
"When I wear my hat to different places, especially places like Rapid City and Sioux Falls, and you go up to pay, they say, 'Thank you for your service.' I think that means more than anything else, just to have people say, 'Thank you.' "