Elmer Trefethen lived his life to the high standards of the Greatest Generation.
After graduating from high school he got a job sweeping floors at Pillsbury’s A Mill in Minneapolis before being drafted to serve in World War II, where he drove a tank in some of the bloodiest battles of the war.
His job was waiting for him when he returned, and he worked his way up. He raised a family and then moved to Crosby, Minn., when he retired in 1982.
“He was quiet, humble and unassuming. He was devoted to family and hard work,” said his son John Trefethen.
A park in Crosby held a reminder for Trefethen of the job he held in World War II. “There is an M4 Sherman tank,” his son said. “The exact same [model] tank that he drove during the war.”
Elmer Trefethen, who served in the South Pacific during the war, died March 9 in Brainerd, Minn. He was 96.
Trefethen saw duty in several of the most crucial battles in the South Pacific, including Okinawa and Leyte. Trefethen was on Okinawa when Japan surrendered on Sept. 2, 1945, to end the war.
He was born on Sept. 19, 1923, in Minneapolis to George and Rose Trefethen. He grew up in Minneapolis and attended Marshall High School. After graduating in January 1942, he began working for Pillsbury.
“He started as a sweeper, the lowest job there,” his son said. “His job was to sweep up the dust so that it didn’t combust.”
In March 1943, Trefethen was drafted and went to basic training at Fort Riley, Kan., where he was trained to be a radio operator. “Originally he was in the cavalry,” John Trefethen said. “The Army still had a cavalry then. But he was moved to tanks.”
He was assigned to the 767th Tank Battalion and sent to the South Pacific. Starting in January 1944 he saw action at Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands, Leyte in the Philippines, Okinawa and the Southern Philippines. Okinawa was the largest amphibious assault in the Pacific theater during World War II. The 82-day battle of Okinawa, from April to June of 1945, was one of the bloodiest of the war.
“I’m the youngest of four, and when I was growing up he didn’t talk about [the war] much,” John Trefethen said. But he opened up about his experiences after he retired.
“As a tank driver, he was part of a five-man crew, and it was a tough job,” his son said. “At the end of the day, they had to prepare the tank for the next day, so they had to clean the track. And they had to walk up to a quarter-mile to get gas to refuel the tanks.”
After his discharge in January 1946, he returned to Minneapolis and his job at Pillsbury. “His job was waiting for him,” his son said. “He progressed up the ladder, eventually becoming an operations manager. When he retired, he was one of three managers at Mill A.”
In his first month back in Minneapolis, Trefethen was set up with a blind date.
“He and my mom [Joyce] went out, and four months later they were engaged,” John Trefethen said. And by September, they were married.
After retiring, Elmer and Joyce moved to Crosby, where they built a house on Black Bear Lake. They sold the house in 2019 and moved into senior living in Crosby. Joyce (nee Anderson) died in January at age 92. They were married 73 years.
In addition to son John, Trefethen is survived by sons David and Thomas, daughter Patricia Goke, four grandchildren, four great-grandchildren and three great-great- grandchildren.
Services have been held, with burial at Fort Snelling National Cemetery.