Minnesota soldier who saw the dawn of WWII dies at 93

  • Article by: PAUL WALSH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 14, 2011 - 10:26 AM

Despite the recognition he received for his service, Joseph Piché talked little about the war, instead writing poetry about his experience.

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Retired Maj. Gen. Rodney Hannula, president of the Minnesota National Guard memorialization board, left, congratulated Cpl. Joseph R. Piche, blue jacket, during a ceremony held at Camp Ripley, Minn., in 2009.

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Joseph R. Piché, the last survivor among a foursome of soldiers from Minnesota credited with firing the first U.S. shots in the European campaign during World War II, died Sunday.

Piché, who lived in Richfield for 61 years, died about two weeks after a wound from the war became infected, said niece Nancy Kneefe. He was 93.

On Nov. 19, 1942, one week after his 24th birthday, Corporal Piché and fellow soldiers Sgt. Lloyd M. Nelson, and privates Gordon K. Bennett and Victor V. Knoph were among the members of the 175th Artillery in Tunisia supporting British troops.

"We were positioned high on [a] hill overlooking the town and the howitzer was behind and below us," Bennett said in October 2009, during a recognition ceremony at Camp Ripley. "After getting confirmation from the commissioned officer with us, I got on the phone and called in that first round."

Nov. 19, 2009, was declared "175th Field Artillery Recognition Day" in Minnesota, with the proclamation noting that Piché, Nelson, Bennett and Knoph "are credited with firing the first round by U.S. Forces in the European Theater of Operation."

Piché gave a shell from that first engagement to Camp Ripley, Kneefe said.

While Piché "didn't talk about the war very much," Kneefe said, he did write poetry during his time in battle that offered a glimpse of his sentiments.

"Remembrance," from North Africa in February 1943, read:

And when and if,

Their time has come,

They'll stand right there,

Instead of run.

"The Real Heroes," from Italy in March 1945, began:

Those who died in action,

Are those who died in pain,

To bring this world another peace,

And will never fight again.

Piché was the last among the four Minnesotans to die. Bennett died on Oct. 31, 2009, Knoph 16 days later and Nelson on Aug. 24, 2010.

Kneefe said that her uncle was awarded the Purple Heart after sustaining a wound to his foot while fighting in Italy in 1944.

"They just wrapped it and put him back out on the front lines," she said. "It just got an infection two weeks ago."

Piché, living most recently in Edina, was hospitalized and then died from heart trouble, Kneefe said.

The 175th was deployed with the 34th Red Bull Division, bringing the first U.S. fighters to Europe in January 1942. In all, the Red Bulls engaged in six Army campaigns in North Africa and Italy, amassing 517 days of front-line combat and firing more than 1 million shells at the Germans.

Piché grew up in northeast Minneapolis. After the war, he made his living with the U.S. Postal Service as a mail sorter in downtown Minneapolis.

Piché's wife of 61 years, Dorothy Piché, died in 2008. He was also preceded in death by siblings Frank Piché and Lois Lyke, and survived by a brother, Bill Isaacson, of California.

Services are scheduled for 11 a.m. Wednesday at St. Alphonsus Catholic Church, 7025 Halifax Av., Brooklyn Center, with visitation one hour prior. Interment is scheduled for 2 p.m. Wednesday at Fort Snelling National Cemetery.

pwalsh@startribune.com • 612-673-4482

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