Local veterans take Honor Flight to WWII memorial

by Julie Ann Madden

The Akron Hometowner of Akron, Iowa

For five local men, yesterday was the end of an era for them.

They saw the World War II Memorial made in their honor for the first, and probably only time, in their lives.

The five men who traveled to Washington D.C. yesterday were: Don Brundeen, Earl Oetken, Gilbert Pracht, Joe Wych all of Akron; and Jack Mclnnis of Westfield.

All five served in the U.S. military during World War II.

Brundeen and Mclnnis were called the "babies" because they were just age 18 when they were drafted into the U.S. Army.

"Don and I were the last ones drafted out of Plymouth County," said Mclnnis, who thought they began their short military careers on Oct. 5, 1946 but Brundeen thought it was Oct. 6.

"My (Army) serial number is just one less than his," said Brundeen.

Although they left Akron together, once they were inducted they didn't see one another until they returned home ~ about seven months later. Brundeen went to Kentucky and Kansas while Mclnnis went to Washington.

They never went overseas. Neither did Oetken. In fact, he didn't even attend basics. Oetken spent his military career stateside as a surgical technician.

However, both Pracht and Wych spent most of their three years of service overseas. Pracht served on both Hawaiian and Japanese islands while Wych served on European front lines.

Pracht was the only one injured. He was wounded on I wo Jima.

"I got hit by mortar," said Pracht, explaining 19 men in his unit had ran across an airfield and taken cover in some foxholes.

When their lieutenant hollered, "Let's go," all 19 crawled out of their holes.

Pracht was standing between two fellow Marines when they were hit by the mortar.

"Eleven of us were hit," said Pracht, adding of the two men he was with — one had his hand blown off and a mortar piece in his back while the other man was killed. "I was standing between them. They took the blast.”

"I just got little injuries," he said adding, I kind of felt ashamed of my wounds, which were mortar pieces in my shoulder and back.

"What I remember the most was the night after I'd been wounded," said Pracht, explaining he'd lost his rifle in the mortar attack. What was left of his group had made it back to the foxholes where their artillery was. "I got in the foxhole to sleep, and about midnight all hell broke loose.”

"I could see there was eight or 10 shadows in different lights when the flares went off," he said. "Of course, I thought the Japanese were overtaking us.”

He didn't have a rifle, only a knife.

"It sure scared the hell out of me for about four hours (before I learned our artillery dump had been hit)," said Pracht. "The only way I would have been killed was if one of the mortar duds had hit my head.”

"I remember leaving Boston Harbor," said Wych, explaining the ships convoyed to Europe. About two days out, a group of ships from Norfolk, Va., joined those in his group. "There were ships as far as you could see. We all sailed together and landed in Scotland.”

Wych also remembers flying across the English Channel just five days after D-Day, the attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. The planes in his group were the first to land on French soil. Wych also remembers flying from France into Germany, keeping up with the troops.

"It was an experience," said Mclnnis who didn't elaborate on his short military career. "I was proud to be there. Eighteen years old ~ young and dumb.”

"We didn't know any better," added Wych.

One of Brundeen's memories is when he was transferred to Fort Riley; he was attached to the "horse cavalry.”

"As a farm boy, I didn't like that too much," said Brundeen. "I told them I had shoveled enough manure and wanted to go to the 'mechanized cavalry.'“

Lucky for Brundeen, he received the transfer.

"It was like the infantry except you didn't walk," said Brundeen. "We rode in jeeps and military carriers.”

"I remember every morning," said Oetken. "When we went to work, they always gave us that thing: Have a smile on your face. If you can't say something good, keep your mouth shut for the rest of the day.”

"They ran a pretty tight ship in the operating room," he added.

"Everybody was supposed to recover," said Brundeen.

"We tried to do the best we could," said Oetken. "Tried to make (the wounded) smile.”

Oetken met President Dwight D. Eisenhower when he was a World War II general hospitalized for six months in Florida.

"I didn't think too much of him," said Oetken.

Wych received a personal letter from Eisenhower the day before D-Day, thanking him for his military service.

The other four received personal letters from President Harry S. Truman.

Some have their letters framed in prominent locations in their homes while one has it protected in a safe.

The five were looking forward to the Honor Flight, especially the fact that they are all going together.

Four of them were sitting having coffee at TJ's Country Store in Akron, which is one of their morning rituals, when fellow Legionnaire Stan Rolfes stopped by to ask if they wanted to go see the World War II Memorial in Washington D.C.

"We happened to be at the right place at the right time," said Pracht.

He along with Oetken and Wych were in Washington D.C. several years ago but none of the five have been to the World War II Memorial.

"It's good to be alive yet so we can go," said Wych, who is the eldest of the five. / The "babies" and Pracht are now 81 years of age.

"We're very lucky to be alive," said Oetken.

"Next year we probably couldn't make it," said Wych.

"You never know," said Pracht.

"I'm glad they got a bunch from Akron to go," said Wych.

"It'll be kind of nice to see a bunch of people in the same category as us," said Brundeen.

"Get to see a bunch of old men," laughed Wych, who is looking forward to seeing the memorial.

"I'm going to be proud to be there," said Oetken. "I'll see something again that will remind me of (my service).”

"I think that will be quite an experience," agreed Pracht.

"I'll be all eyes and proud to be there," said Mclnnis.

For Brundeen and Mclnnis, it'll be a fitting end to the service they began together.

"We'll end our service together at the Memorial," said Brundeen and Mclnnis agreed.

The five say "Thank You" to all who have made donations to the Honor Flight program that made it possible for them to see their memorial.

The five attended an Honor Flight "pre-registration" on Sunday, which included a meal and a chance to get acquainted with the other veterans and the volunteers they will be traveling with.

During the Honor Flight one-day event, they will tour the World War II Memorial and see the Air Force, Navy, Korean and Vietnam Memorials, the Pentagon, Arlington National Cemetery, Lincoln Memorial, and the U.S. Capital and White House.

Veterans' Service History

• Don Brundeen completed U.S. Army basic training at Ft. Knox, Ky., and then was stationed at Camp Stoneman, Calif. There Brundeen did several jobs including kitchen patrol ("KP"), detail, clerk typist and truck driving.

"I never went overseas," said Brundeen. "I was pulled out because I was the sole-surviving son so I was sent back to the camp closest to my home."

Then he was transferred to Ft. Riley, Kan., where he served as part of the "Spit & Polish" group. Brundeen's responsibilities included conducting funerals and guard duty.

He served a total of seven months, 14 days before being discharged.

• Jack Mclnnis completed U.S. Army engineering basic training at Ft. Lewis, Wash., where he remained for his whole military career of about seven months. One of the highlights of his service was completing civilian work on several bridges in Seattle, Wash.

• Earl Oetken, age 20, was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1943. He never was sent to basic training..

Oetken went straight to military medical school at Ft. Sam Houston in Texas. Then he was assigned as a surgical technician at the Bilmar Army Hospital's operating room in Coral Gables, Fla.

Oetken was there until discharged in 1946.

• Gilbert Pracht was drafted into service on Aug. 23, 1943, at the age of 18. After being drafted, he volunteered for the U.S. Marine Corps.

Pracht served with the 13th Marine Division overseas.

First, he completed three months of training at a Marine "boot camp" in Hilo, Hawaii. He also completed telephone-radio school. Then Pracht was sent to Iwo Jima, Japan.

During his deployment here, which was only 35 days, Pracht was wounded. Then his division was sent back to Hilo.

Soon, they were heading for Japan again but the war ended so Pracht's division was sent to the Japanese Island of Kyushu where they served as an occupational force with the Fifth Marine Division.

He eventually returned to San Diego, Calif., and was discharged in April 1946.

• Joe Wych was drafted into the U.S. Army Air Force on Oct. 22, 1942 at the age of 21. He was inducted into service at Camp Dodge, Iowa.

After completing basics with mechanical skills at Fort Sheppard Air Force Base, Wichita Falls, Texas, he began a journey of service which included Chanute Field near Rantoul, 111.; Wichita Falls, Texas; Westphalen, Mass.; and Mitchel Field, Long Island, N.Y.

On Dec. 28, 1943, Wych left Boston, Mass., to serve overseas. He fought on the front lines in England, France, Belgium and Germany before being discharged on Nov. 29,1945.

After their discharges, they all returned home.

Mclnnis and Wych returned to farming.

Brundeen worked at a filling station.

Oetken joined his brothers in their farming and trucking operations.

Pracht went to Kansas. He worked in construction for awhile before becoming a barber, a trade he worked at for about 30 years. Finally, he spent 18 years working for the Kansas Department of Revenue.

All married and raised a family and in retirement, they and their wives enjoy their grandchildren. Some even have great-grandchildren to enjoy.

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