The Greatest Generation, those who fought against the Axis in World War II and made the United States much of the nation it is today, is dying.
This change is happening rapidly in most communities, including the veteran community of the Backus American Legion.
“The thing I remember vividly from two years ago, we had seven and we made them the grand marshals of the Cornfest parade,” said Gary Dawson, of the Backus American Legion. “At the annual reception after the parade we have for visiting parade units we honored and introduced them. I think there were around 80-90 veterans and auxiliary here that gave them a long standing ovation. Since then six have died. Harley Kaiser, the seventh one, is left.”
Kaiser was about as young as any American soldier in World War II could be.
“I actually had my 17th birthday on my first shift at sea while I was in the Pacific Area in World War II in probably 1944,” Kaiser said.
Today, he's 92. And since the death of Raymond Barchus, of Backus, on Aug. 20, Kaiser has been the last remaining World War II member in the Backus American Legion. It's true that there are other veterans from that period still living in the area; however, the small town post serves as a stark illustration of an unavoidable reality. Soon those heroes, and their unimaginable stories and experiences, will be lost.
The Cass County Veterans Services offices only have definitive records for the past eight years because of a new system; however, in that time nearly 90% of the surviving World War II veterans from only eight years ago have died. There were 514, and now there are only 41 believed to be alive today. Dawson considers the loss immeasurable.
“I really believe in Tom Brokaw's book, 'The Greatest Generation',” Dawson said. “They were the Greatest Generation. They sacrificed a lot. I think we're losing a valuable part of our history, and all of them were very humble, very quiet. They didn't talk about their experiences much. Like my father, it was so horrible he didn't care to talk about it. They were all community minded. They all pitched in and helped with community projects and fundraisers and the camaraderie of being with fellow veterans. They were remarkable personalities and from another era a lot of younger Americans don't know a lot about.”
It's something the veterans themselves are, of course, aware of. Kaiser has watched for years as his friends, neighbors and fellow veterans have died very close to home.
“There were three of us in just this half mile area,” Kaiser said. “I'm the only one left right now and that's just the way it is. That's life. I was one of the youngest ones.”
When they go, these veterans take with them a lifetime of knowledge and experience, some of which is unique. Kaiser, for one, steered Merchant Marines ships in the ocean during typhoons off the coast of Japan. He was blown out of his bunk when his ship, the SS Clifford E. Ashby, struck a naval mine in 1948 in seas that were supposed to be safe because the war in Europe was over. He witnessed the last kamikaze attack of World War II off the coast of Okinawa and only one day before the surrender of Japan.
In short, Kaiser was a witness to history.
Kaiser also knows facts about the war that many have forgotten. Kaiser was among approximately 250,000 members of the Merchant Marines, a group with the highest casualty rate of all service groups with one in 26 not returning home. And yet Kaiser wasn't counted as a World War II veteran until 1984, when the United States decided to recognize the Merchant Marines as official military personnel. Because his service wasn't immediately recognized, Kaiser was drafted in 1952 into the Korean War with the U.S. Army.
Experiences like Kaiser's have already been lost with the deaths of soldiers like Raymond Barchus. As his son, Ron, knows too well, many of those like his father didn't want to talk about the war. In those cases, their stories were never told. Ray, fortunately, decided he needed to share his story at some point.
“He never talked about service or World War II until I took him to the memorial in St. Paul when Minnesota did their World War II memorial in front of the Capitol,” Ron Barchus said of his father. “We went down there and went on a bus. We left from the Backus Legion and they picked us up. From that point on it was like a switch got flipped on him. He wanted to talk about it. Just before that my mother passed away. It was kind of like it was the end of his life.”
Ron is now the keeper of his father's memories, which is probably surprising given that he didn't even realize until he was approximately 16 that his father had even been in the war. For quite some time Ray avoided the topic of World War II and it affected him in other ways. Ray wasn't much of a hunter, and Ron only remembers him buying a single gun when Ron and his brother first started hunting deer so he could hunt with them.
“One time, we were at one of the VA functions in Brainerd and I asked a psychologist at what point these guys would really talk about the war,” Ron said. “He said at some point they will. He said not to pry because they might not tell, but at some point they have to get that out. Ever since that point it was like a switch got flipped.. That was all he wanted to talk about. He wanted to talk about World War II.”
It was after that when Ron learned about his father's service. Ray was drafted in 1942 and deployed to Europe with the Army on Nov. 11 of that year. He was with the 380 Field Artillery Battalion, Division 102 at the Battle of the Bulge. Amid the horrors of war he witnessed dough boys frozen to death in foxholes as they advanced in enemy territory.
“All they had were the green blankets, shoes, jackets and it was cold in the middle of the winter,” Ron said. “He remembered a lot of them froze stiff right there. Nothing they could do but move on. You could tell that bothered him a lot because he'd talk about that a lot.”
He saw gas chambers. He knew of the bitter cold conditions soldiers faced in the heat of battle. He even received notice on the battlefield of his own brother's death at sea.
“My dad said he always told him when he was on leave not to go into the service, but he went anyway. He didn't talk much about that either, but he found out when he was overseas,” Ron said.
Like Kaiser, Barchus knew things that aren't regularly included in history books. In lieu of tainted water, Ray said his fellow soldiers filled water trucks with wine for their long marches, though at least once a general made them pour it all out.
“About a mile down the road they filled everything back up with wine,” Ron said.
Ray was also part of a little known relocation after World War II.
“One thing he had pride in is after the war ended he stayed there another year and a half and helped these people who didn't have homes,” Ron said. “They went through Italy and Switzerland and they were able to do that because he wasn't married. All the guys who were married went home right away, but he stayed.“
Ron not only learned from his father, but he has since engrossed himself in literature about the 102nd Battalion. While that literature will be available years from now, the other information from first-hand experience will become less and less known as the years go by and those who experienced the war firsthand fade away.
“You have to honor these people for what they went through. A lot of people don't realize what they went through,” Ron said. “I give them a lot of credit. I say that a lot of these guys went through a lot of stuff and don't want to talk about it. I see why.”