Two medics among area’s surviving World War II vets


Americans are running out of time to honor in person the men and women who served during World War II and to hear first-hand accounts of experiences in the European and Pacific theaters between 1941-1945.

“I cherish those who can tell us their stories,” said Blue Earth County Veterans Services Officer Mike McLaughlin.

Most of the military veterans from that era have died. Among those who remain is a handful of area residents and McLaughlin’s not sure of exactly how many.

Blue Earth County’s surviving World War II vets are counted along with the older residents who served in Korea and Vietnam.

“There’s a total 875 of them age 75 or older,” McLaughlin said.

Documenting the experiences of World War II veterans is vital to the nation, he said, but there have been challenges in gathering the histories of those who served during that era.

The majority of these vets are in their 80s or 90s and many are experiencing a decline in their cognitive abilities.

Face-to-face conversations with older vets who’d stop in his office went away when the coronavirus struck, McLaughlin said.

He’s looking forward to an uptick in visitors now that vaccinations for the coronavirus are readily available.

Among those McLaughlin hopes to soon have face-to-face conversations with are two vets who were medics during horrific battles near Japan at the end of the war.

Ken Anderson, 95, of Mankato, served in the Navy. Harvey Anderson, 96, of Eagle Lake, served in the Marines. The two men, who are not related, attended high school together in Mankato. Both share a willingness to talk about their war experiences.

Ken paged through old photo albums recently at his Mankato home while sharing memory after memory prompted by the black-and-white images of ships and fellow crewmembers.

“They called me ‘doc’ or ‘Andy’… I was a medic, a hospital corpsman.

“I joined when I was 17 years old — my parents signed for me. We left the states in 1944. I remember saying as the ship I was on sailed under the Golden Gate Bridge, ‘I will be coming back to see this again.’”

His ship also carried military musicians. Ken heard Big Band music throughout the voyage to Hawaii.

“I would stand there in the moonlight, listening, and think, ‘Is this a war?’ If I had a girl, we could be dancing.”

He said there was a practical reason for being romantically unattached at the time — military death benefits.

“If I died, I wanted the $10,000 to go to my parents.”

His father, Irv, was recovering from tuberculosis. His mom, Mary, was a housewife who occasionally worked outside the home to help make ends meet.

Ken was aboard the USS Kenneth Whiting AV-14. The brand new seaplane tender was part of a convoy heading to the Marshall Islands and for the first leg of the journey, she was accompanied by “ships galore.”

Then, an unforeseen problem caused her engines to quit, and the Whiting was left alone at sea.

“In the Navy they say it’s better to lose one ship (to the enemy) than to lose them all.

“Our captain — we called him ‘The Old Man’ — tried hard to get it going again, but we were dead in the water.”

Eventually, the crew’s engineers succeeded in fixing the problem and the ship rejoined the convoy. The Whiting and its crew were sent to the Mariana Islands.

Ken said he witnessed the Battle of Saipan in 1944. His ship was unharmed.

“Now here’s the real scary part,” he said during a pause in telling his story.

He resumed with his recollections of April 1, 1945.

“I was at Okinawa — The Big Battle…Our ship got hit by a suicide plane.”

“Its bomb didn’t go off. If it had, I wouldn’t be here today.”

The airplane blew up on impact but the bomb it carried did not explode. One sailor died and four were injured in the attack. Japanese planes did succeed in bombing other nearby American ships.

The medical officer aboard the Whiting ordered Ken and a fellow medical corpsman to accompany him to one disabled ship, the U.S.S. Terror, to aid its many injured crewmen, including its medics.

“Dr. Bradshaw said ‘Let’s go’ to me and Sammy. I was never so scared in my life,” Ken said.

The harbor was filled with smoke, a defense method the Navy used to help hide its ships from the enemy. As the medical trio attempted to board the disabled ship, one of the Terror’s crewmen pointed a machine gun at them. Once they were allowed aboard, they immediately went to work “patching up” the wounded.

“My mind was numb…you end up working the way you were taught.

“There was this guy on another ship who was taking pictures that day (of the plane attack) and selling them. I bought two for five dollars.”

Ken received a medal for serving in the Pacific Theater. He made no requests for other military honors.

“Maybe I helped some guys live. I don’t know.”

“Everybody remembers Iwo Jima because of the photograph with the flag. Okinawa was worse. Seven thousand Marines were killed on Iwo, and 12,000 were killed on Okinawa,” Harvey Anderson told The Free Press in 2015.

He described how the 6th Division stopped on a “postage-stamp island” on the way to Okinawa, where the Marines stocked up on supplies and were handed beers.

“We didn’t know where we were going. When the officers told us we were going to Okinawa, I couldn’t even pronounce the word.

“I worked with the medics at Sugar Loaf. The boys were getting the heck kicked out of them.

“I am not a war hero. I was just one of the boys,” Harvey said.

Earlier this summer, he demonstrated how he’d like those who died fighting in World War to be remembered, especially a cousin who died in battle on Saipan.

Harvey Anderson at tribute

Marine Corps Col. Eric Anderson stands near his grandfather, World War II veteran Harvey Anderson, during the July Veteran of the Month ceremony honoring Pfc. Donald F. Zernechel, who died during a battle on the island of Saipan in 1944. Also pictured are Zernechel’s sister, “Pinky” Haes and her husband, “Bud.”

Harvey coordinated plans with American Legion Post 518 to fly a flag in July in honor of Pfc. Donald F. Zernechel, a young rifleman with the U.S. Marine Corps who was killed in action June 20, 1944.

“I have this bucket list, and that (ceremony) was among the things I wanted to do.”

“I think they (the Post members) did a marvelous job. They were honoring a cousin who meant a heck of a lot to me.”

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