By the time Helmer “Haaky” Haakenson and LeRoy Luitjens finally cracked open the bottle of bourbon they had kept under lock and key for seven years, it had become a little bitter. The moment, however, was bittersweet.
Haakenson, 98, and Luitjens, 93, are all that remain of a blood-brothers group of World War II veterans who have gathered at the former Glen’s Bakery and Deli in Luverne, Minn., for years. When the group began meeting informally in 2010, there were 24 members. Each year, the group got a little smaller, and each year Haakenson and Luitjens were honorary pallbearers for their fallen friends.
The town was one of four featured in documentary filmmaker Ken Burns’ project, “The War” in 2007 because of the large impact WWII had on residents. Burns even premiered the movie in Luverne.
The “Last Man” group even had official bylaws that detailed how each meeting would be conducted. Those laws called for the last man alive to enjoy a nice dinner and then open the bottle to toast the others who’d passed. When member Warren Herreid Sr. died a few weeks ago, Haakenson and Luitjens — the final survivors — called a special meeting and voted unanimously to open the bottle while both were still healthy enough to savor it.
So last week, more than 200 people from the town of about 4,700 residents in the southwest corner of Minnesota packed into the Grand Prairie Events Center in Luverne to watch the last gathering of a legendary group from the Greatest Generation. A bell tolled as the names of each of the 24 members were read. Haakenson and Luitjens raised their glass one last time and took a small sip.
I asked Haakenson what kind of bourbon it was.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Good stuff.”
Haakenson admitted his memory is failing a bit. “I can remember things from 40 years ago but not two weeks ago,” he said.
Haakenson was 17 when he signed up for the Minnesota National Guard, and he deployed with the 215th Coast Artillery Anti-Aircraft unit to Kodiak Island, Alaska. He later transferred to the Air Force, where he said he became a radar mechanic. He returned home shortly after the war ended.
Luitjens was drafted and sent to Glasgow, Scotland. He was lucky in more ways than one. The war officially ended the day he landed in Scotland, and during his stint guarding prisoners of war during the occupation, he met his future wife, Margarete. They moved back to Luverne and he became an electrician.
Over the years, he reconnected regularly with other Luverne veterans, sharing some old war stories but mostly for the company.
“It was just for the companionship,” said Luitjens. “When you serve with people, there is just this bond that doesn’t go away.”
During the final ceremony last weekend, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and his wife, Mary spoke. Mary Pawlenty had arranged for members of the group to come to the governor’s residence in 2005.
Tim Pawlenty also shared a letter of tribute sent by Burns. It said in part: “The decision to open the final bottle together reminds us that every gathering has been a reunion. … History has a way of staying the same and changing. We grow older, but remember like yesterday the feelings of youth. I thank you for your service and applaud you for what you continue to teach us about patriotism and friendship.”
Luitjens, who survived open-heart surgery, said he keeps healthy by walking on a treadmill and eating with his buddy Haakenson at the senior center, where he boasts he gets three squares for $4 a day.
Of Haakenson, who is five years his senior, Luitjens said, “He’s doing pretty good, isn’t he? He looks younger than me.
“I’m still living and poking around,” Luitjens added.
He admits he will miss the meetings, but he has no concerns whether he will be the actual Last Man.
“Who knows?” Luitjens said. “It’s a good thing we don’t know, isn’t it?”
Follow Jon on Twitter: @jontevlin