Commander Jerry Kleis scanned the Veterans' Memorial Wall outside the American Legion post in Hastings, looking for a spot to mount the latest bronze plaque in honor of a local man who had served his country.
There are 147 plaques so far on this wall, honoring both the living and the dead. The new plaque is going up to remember Don Youngren, and the 149th will soon be mounted in honor of Francis Cahill, both of Hastings.
As in U.S. cities big and small, this wall was erected to commemorate the sacrifices that veterans, families and communities have given. It also represents the push that Nelson-Lucking Legion Post 47 has to recruit the newest generation of veterans.
So far, only one Iraq war veteran, Mary Truax of Hastings, is honored, but Kleis and others hope younger veterans will step up to fill the boots of World War II veterans, who nationwide are dying at the rate of about 1,000 a day.
Nearly all named on this wall are from Hastings or surrounding communities, Kleis said.
Among those honored is John Hankes, 89, of Hastings, who with six other local men served in the elite "Devil's Brigade" -- America's first special forces unit. Only three of the local men came back alive, including the late George "Shorty" Hild, whose plaque is on the wall next to the Mississippi River levee.
"It's very nice," Hankes said last week in Hastings. "At least it reminds people that guys were in the service."
The idea came in 2004, when former Commander Steven J. Pederson led a project to build a riverside veranda for legion restaurant patrons. Just beneath the patio is a long brick wall with the plaques.
Kleis bought the first one in memory of his father, Henry Kleis, a rural mail carrier who had six kids when he enlisted during WWII.
He's heard many stories of heroism, Kleis said, as he talks with families of those named on the plaques. Like the story of the Hastings airman stationed in England who flew 25 missions -- the number needed to fulfill his duty and go home -- but volunteered to fly one last mission with his squadron. Shot down, he was taken prisoner in Germany. He survived.
There are seven generals and admirals on this wall. The Truax family, cousins to Mary Truax, had eight sons who served.
The Devil's Brigade
Among the decorated heroes on the wall are two 88-year-old Legionnaires still going strong -- Purple Heart recipients Raulo Malm and Wendell Snider.
Hankes and his good buddy Hild had shipped out in 1941 with 100 other guys from the Hastings area. The two friends and five other local men volunteered for the new special forces. By 1942, they were fighting alongside Sioux Indians as part of the Devil's Brigade, the forerunner of the Green Berets.
They were intensively trained in mountaineering, skiing and amphibious operations, and they needed it for one of their toughest battles, near Casino, Italy. In bitter cold, they scaled a 3,000-foot mountain. One regiment was on the ground with heavy casualties when the Devil's Brigade came up the mountain from behind the Germans, Hankes said.
"We surprised them, and we took the hill in two hours," he said. "We were tired. We had been up there for nine days in the snow and sleet. We were glad it was over and glad to come home."
Of the seven local men, three were killed in action in various battles: James Moore and Frances Brooks of Hastings and Howard Antsdeuer of St. Paul Park. George Shickling of Prescott, Wis., was presumed dead.
Hild and Dale Hamilton of Hastings were wounded and received Purple Hearts.
"We had some good guys," Hankes said. "It's a good Memorial Wall down there."
A Vietnam veteran
Last week, as Kleis was finding a spot for Youngren's plaque, a Vietnam veteran sat nearby in the park.
His name isn't on the Veterans Memorial Wall, but Don Coleman, 52, said he sees it as a show of support for all who served. Coleman retired from the Marines in Beaufort, S.C., as a gunnery sergeant, moved to Hastings and saw the wall for the first time last winter.
"I was surprised and happy at the same time," Coleman said. "I put 20 years in the military, so I definitely appreciate the attaboy and pat on the back that they do that. It makes me feel appreciated because I came in at the end of the Vietnam War, when people spit in your face and called you baby-killers. It wasn't a good homecoming for a lot of us."
He has found Hastings to be more appreciative of veterans than anywhere he's ever lived, and the wall symbolizes that, Coleman said.
"I've not felt more pride than with the people here in Hastings," he said. "I've had my hand shook and have been told 'thank you' many times."
Joy Powell • 952-882-9017