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East-metro beat: Aging veterans offer the greatest of lessons

  • Article by: Jim Anderson
  • September 19, 2013 - 6:20 PM

 

Edward Wentz­laff lived in Milaca. Orval Amdahl lives in Lanesboro.

Though from opposite ends of Minnesota, the men in recent months have shared some of their most difficult memories of World War II, each at historic bookends of a sort. Wentzlaff was one of about a dozen still living survivors from the USS Arizona that was destroyed, along with the lives of 1,177 of the 1,512 crew members, in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Amdahl arrived in Nagasaki just days after the city was obliterated by the “Fat Boy” atomic bomb dropped from an American bomber four years later.

Wentzlaff died Sept. 10 at age 95. When I spoke with him in December, lively and independent, he was fighting the bladder cancer that took his life. Like a lot of veterans from that time, he had been reluctant to share memories from such a horrific moment in his life. The Arizona had been his home, the crew his family, with whom he will be laid to rest on Dec. 7.

But he came to realize a sense of duty to those former shipmates in bearing witness to history, and he vividly and painfully described the terror, the gruesome sights and smells, the burning, peeling flesh of victims whom he worked to rescue.

Amdahl, 94, for an upcoming story, also shared his memories from the South Pacific, of unrelenting nights of being bombed, of classmates lost and relief at not having to invade Japan. He also spoke of the shock of first seeing Nagasaki, still smoldering, as the huge door of his LST swung open, marking his arrival as reluctant conqueror.

About every two minutes, we are losing these firsthand accounts of World War II, about 600 a day, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

The agony of total war, conflict in which nearly every human being on Earth was affected or actively engaged, is difficult to fathom.

As the International Day of Peace is marked on Saturday, in an age when peace is agonizingly elusive, we do well to heed their lessons.

Jim Anderson: 651-925-5039 Twitter: @StribJAnderson

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