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World War II veteran prevents story from being lost to history

Alexandria native and World War II veteran Wayne Saxton, who turns 96 on Tuesday, sits with his medals last week during an interview at Golden Living Center nursing home in Salem. (Marcus Traxler/Republic)

SALEM — Ask Wayne Saxton about his favorite medal, and the answer might be surprising.

No, it's not his Purple Heart.

And it's not the medal that lauds his marksmanship with a rifle, a bayonet and machine gun.

It's the Army's Good Conduct medal.

"That's the one I'm most proud of," he said last week at Salem's Golden Living Nursing Home, where he resides. "Good conduct."

"Does that mean you were a good soldier?" his daughter, Barb Duffy, asked.

"I guess so," the 95-year-old Saxton responded.

During a recent May afternoon, Duffy and her twin sister, Betty Nordhausen, both of Fairmont, Minn., asked their father questions about his time in Europe as a young Army soldier in World War II.

Saxton is one of 4,009 World War II veterans living in the state, according to the South Dakota Department of Military and Veterans Affairs.

South Dakota Department Secretary Larry Zimmerman said there's an importance in being able to preserve the stories of those who served -- and especially from World War II, since those veterans are now in their 80s and 90s.

Saxton's birthday this year falls a day after Memorial Day, a federal holiday to remember those who died in active military service. It's observed on the last Monday in May.

Saxton turns 96 on Tuesday. He still carries the scars he received 70 years ago from the Battle of the Bulge. His hearing was permanently damaged and shrapnel cut his legs.

But he said there were no nerves in the forests of Belgium, and certainly no worry.

"I was no coward," Saxton said. "I wasn't afraid of anything, because if they poured in a bunch of artillery, you aren't going to dodge any of it."

'The end of my war'

Saxton was 25 before he got to battle in World War II, at the end of 1944 in Belgium. He had worked his way to staff sergeant in Gen. George Patton's Third U.S. Army during the war. But it was a long, winding road to that point.

The oldest of seven children, he was born and raised in Alexandria and attended school until the eighth grade. As the oldest, he helped his father, Stephen, on the farm until he enlisted in the military at the age of 23 in March 1942.

He remembers climbing onto the train at Alexandria and riding to Mitchell for dinner. From there, he made his way to Fort Leavenworth, Kan., and was then split up from his Hanson County friends. He crisscrossed the country, training in the Army in Vancouver, Wash., down to California and then to Fort Jackson, S.C.

Saxton then made the trip to England, and made camp there for 60 days before making his way to the battle line in Belgium.

The Battle of the Bulge was one of the German's final advances in Europe in World War II. It was also among the war's most deadly of the battles, where 19,000 U.S. soldiers died.

On Christmas Eve in 1944, Saxton and the 13 men in his unit were positioned on the battle line in the Ardennes mountains.

His tips to the soldiers were simple. He walked up to them, patted them on the shoulder and said, "Do your job."

Saxton doesn't remember every moment from that Christmas Eve, a day that became a life-changing event.

There was an explosion. He was injured. But he doesn't remember exactly what happened.

He started recalling the memory.

"I was the lead and I was out on the road," he said. "I turned around to see how many of my men I had coming behind me. I turned back around, and a big shell went off right by me."

It was a blast, which blew Saxton back 20 feet.

He continued with his story.

"I got up and walked back up to where this other soldier was probably wounded, and this tank came up, and we both climbed up in there and got out of there," he said. "That was the end of my war."

One of his daughters stopped him, and asked when he knew his hearing was bad, leaving him mostly deaf ever since.

"Then," Saxton responded.

He doesn't remember what happened to the other men in his unit or where they went.

Saxton still possesses the three bits of shrapnel that doctors were able to remove from his legs. His scars show where he was hit.

"I wouldn't want to do that again," he said.

Life on the line

Some of Saxton's most vivid memories come from his time waiting for war.

Most notably, he remembers trying to stay warm in the wet Ardennes forests of Belgium. He particularly remembers the trick soldiers used to keep their extra pairs of socks dry. He had three pairs and hung them over the inside of his belt, underneath his overcoat. His body heat helped with drying them.

He said his time working on the farm in the cold South Dakota winter was perfect preparation for overseas.

He particularly remembers seeing starving children in Belgium during the war.

"They had been hit hard in this tiny town of some kind and there was a little kid," he said. "I could have cried for him. They had tin cans and they'd run up to you. 'Food, food, mister, food?'

"You'd give it to them and they'd take off with it and they'd run back home. I went to the chuck wagon and I got me some more. They were dressed, they seemed to have enough clothes, but that wasn't their problem. It was food."

Food wasn't a problem for the Army during that time, either. He said the K-rations, the tightly packed boxes food soldiers sustained on, were so rich, the food couldn't be eaten all at once.

"You had to be a big man and you had to be really hungry to eat it at all, it was so rich," he said.

Those boxes of food were eaten cold because, "you wouldn't dare start a fire" to give the Germans a hint, he said.

The Purple Heart, founded in 1932, is awarded to those who were wounded in battle against an enemy of the United States.

At the time, the Purple Heart had $14 worth of gold in the medal. Saxton saw colleagues who got their medal and sold it because they needed the money.

"I said I would never do that," Saxton said.

Saxton received his Purple Heart following his injuries. After his discharge on Jan. 25, 1945, the Army sent him the medals he earned during the war. When those arrived, so did a second Purple Heart, even though he already received it.

"I don't know whether they realized that they had already given him one or not?" Duffy said. "But he got another one, and he has two."

"I never got a notice that I should send it back," Saxton said.

Stories worth saving

Zimmerman, who serves the state's veterans and makes sure they're receiving their eligible benefits, said his father served in World War II. Since he died 12 years ago, some of those stories will be lost to history.

"I'm still learning things about Dad and where he was in World War II and what they were doing," Zimmerman said. "There's just some of those stories that I'm never going to get back."

Zimmerman said a great example is the code talkers from World War II. Eight South Dakota American Indian tribes had members who served in the war by using their native languages to communicate and keep the enemy from decoding the message.

Those stories were largely never told. The families of Daniel and Rufus Ross of the Yankton Sioux Tribe were honored in January for their service in World War II.

"They were told not to say anything and they didn't," Zimmerman said. "They kept their word."

Zimmerman said he regularly tells veterans and their families to record conversations and keep records. That way, stories and experiences can live on.

That's part of why Duffy wanted her dad to sit down and document what he had to say while she still could.

"These are the things we want to make sure we talk to Dad about," she said.

Saxton farmed near Alexandria and was married to his wife, Doris, for 52 years after they married in 1948. She died in 2001. He has five children and has been a member of the American Legion for 69 years.

As he wrapped up his stories while sitting next his daughters, they reiterated how much it meant to hear their father relive history.

"That emotion is still very much there. You can still hear it in his voice," Duffy said. "To have these stories and experiences documented means the world to us."