The men and women who served on the ships and battlefields of World War II, or kept the factories going at home, have become known as “The Greatest Generation” as coined by Tom Brokaw in his 1998 book of the same name. As the years roll on, more and more of these individuals are lost to the ravages of time. 

On Nov. 9, the city of Rhinelander presented an opportunity for four men and one woman who served in World War II, one from Woodruff and the rest from Rhinelander, to reminisce about the war. The youngest of the five was 91 years old and the oldest 95.

Mayor Chris Frederickson served as the master of ceremonies for the Roots Celebration, which was hosted by the Rhinelander Historic Preservation Commission.

“We wanted to take an opportunity to reach out and dialogue with our World War II vets,” Frederickson said. “I have found it to be an exciting opportunity.”

“This is an open session where you people get to dialogue with our World War II vets. Part of our history that has meant a lot to our city. History helps build communities. Wisconsin cities have long been known and admired throughout the United States, regularly named to national ‘best of’ lists as great places to live, work, raise a family, learn and play. Our historic collections allow us to share terrific stories, including the incredible stories of the Rhinelander and greater Northwoods veterans.”

Ray Varner

Ray Varner, a seaman first class on the battleship USS Massachusetts from 1944 to 1946, recalled a day when Japanese kamikaze planes were seen in the distance.

“I remember when I went aboard the USS Massachusetts, out on the Marshall Islands in the middle of the Pacific, and I was only on board several days and we went out to sea and at that time some of the kamikaze Japanese (started attacking the ship),” Varner said. “Pretty soon the sky was full of flack and smoke and you couldn’t see anything as you tried to shoot that airplane way up there.”

After some coordinated shooting by various anti-aircraft guns on the battlewagon, the plane was finally shot down.

“And the guys all around stood up and started to jump up and down like Aaron Rodgers had thrown a touchdown, they were so happy,” Varner remembered. “And I thought, what the hell kind of people am I with, a bunch of heathens cheering because they killed somebody? And, of course, after a while you’re just part of the team and we’re all doing the same thing.” 

While on board the Massachusetts, Varner, who was a gunner’s mate, said he took part in the Naval bombardment of several Pacific islands, including Iwo Jima and the Japanese mainland.

“We were also in the fleet to protect the aircraft carriers, which were prime targets,” he said. 

Varner spent all but the first five weeks of his tour onboard the Massachusetts.

“We came back from the war to Seattle and the ship was in dry dock for a couple — three months and then we went around to Norfolk, Va., and that is where I was discharged,” Varner said. “I was only in the Navy a little over two years and about 14 or 15 months of that was during wartime.” 

Frederickson asked Varner what he did when he got home from the war.

“Like a lot of guys tried to do, but I succeeded in getting drunk,” he replied. 

Joseph Pozarski

Joseph Pozarski was an electrician’s mate/fireman first class aboard the destroyer escort Ruben James.

He said he tried to enlist in the Navy after graduating from high school.

“I was a 95-pound weakling, I was the smallest kid in school and I looked like I was 14,” Pozarski said. “So when I went to take my physical, they said no way.”

Determined to be a sailor, Pozarski signed up for a berth on a Great Lakes ore carrier. He grew about three inches and gained about 20 pounds.

“In November when the shipping was over, I went back to try and enlist in the Navy and this time they took me,” Pozarski said. 

While in boot camp at Naval Station Great Lakes, he contracted rheumatic fever.

“I spent the next three months in the hospital flat on my back,” Pozarski said. “Then one day, they gave me a notice that I was to pick up my sea bag at 9 o’clock and be at the bus depot at 10 o’clock that morning, after not being on my feet for three months. The next two weeks were the worst of my life, I spent two weeks trying to do a seaman’s job in the condition I was in.”

Finally, he was assigned to the Ruben James as it patrolled from Rhode Island to South America as Naval pilots looking to transition into fleet officers were trained. 

“The closest I came to war was when the military planes from one or another of these countries would fly over our ship,” he said.  

In his last three months, he and some shipmates tried to get reassigned to a ship in the 7th Fleet which was about to embark on one more tour to England.

“Some of the guys got on it, I got to go down to New Orleans and get on a destroyer and take out the Naval reservists for a week at a time,” Pozarski said. “Which was not very good duty. But I survived, nobody shot at me and I didn’t shoot at anybody, and I’m happy about that.”

Robert Bastian

Robert Bastian was a Marine Corpsman who saw action on some of the worst of the island-hopping campaign.

With what they believed to be dismal job prospects in their hometown, Bastian said he and other new high school graduates were urged to join the military.

“They said if you can’t get an education past high school, join the Navy, so a lot of us joined the Navy. It’s a great place to be,” Bastian said. “Much better than being a Marine, and I joined the Marines.”

Iwo Jima stood out among the memories of his two years in the Pacific.

“I remember a couple times hollering, ‘how the hell did I get on this damn little five-square-mile island?’” Bastian said, adding that the ship he was based on picked up POWs who had been held for five years. 

“(They were) skin and bones, and we had a cook who knew how to make what was in those days fancy foods, and they (the former POWs) would gobble everything down,” Bastian said. 

As the Allied forces were preparing to invade Japan, they got word of the surrender.

“Talk about one bunch of screaming hooligan kids,” Bastian said. 

Lucille Albrecht 

Lucille Albrecht of Woodruff served in the Bureau of Ships in Washington D.C. for three years, first as a Navy yeoman and then as a Lieutenant Junior Grade through the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES).

“The WAVES was formulated so we could replace the men in the country, military people who were needed overseas,” Albrecht said. “So we replaced all of these military people and took over their jobs in offices.”

After serving for a year as a yeoman, Albrecht’s commanding officer urged her to apply for officer training, although she lacked the required college degree. She said he talked to someone in another Pentagon office and she passed a test and was admitted into officer training at Smith College in Northampton, Mass.

“That was the hometown of the widow of President Calvin Coolidge and she was a staunch supporter of the WAVES program,”Albrecht said. “And I was there over the Christmas holiday and a group of us decided we’ll go over and sing Christmas carols to her.”

She said Mrs. Coolidge came to the door with a big smile and invited them all in.

“And every year, as the new officers were graduated from the program, she invited them to come to the house for ‘Captains Tea.’ That was a very nice experience,” Albrecht remembered.

She said she was amazed at how the country pulled together during World War II.

“How our whole country banded together; we had Rosie the Riveter and all kinds of people who just came out of the woodwork to serve in one way or another,” Albrecht said. 

She also told the audience she had a front-row seat for the celebration in the nation’s capital in May of 1945 when the war in Europe ended. 

“My roommate’s (commanding officer) had a hotel room downtown where we could go downtown and see all the festivities,” she said. “All of these people had gathered, thousands and thousands of people, and we would watch all the celebrations. We stayed up all night; we didn’t go home until the sun was coming up in the morning.”

She said she had two brothers who served in the Army in Europe. One was killed in France under circumstances that resulted in him being awarded the Silver Star. She said this was the only sad part about her service in the Pentagon.

“The rest of my experience in the Navy was very positive, and I was proud that I served,” Albrecht said. “I wish I could have done more.”

Glenn Johnson

Originally there were to be six veterans taking part in the Roots event, but Glenn Johnson, a corporal in the 501st Parachute Infantry who spent almost a year as a POW after being captured on the first day of the Normandy invasion, was unable to attend. 

Oneida County Veterans Service Officer Tammy Javenkoski gave a brief summary of Johnson’s planned remarks.

“Some of the stories I can’t repeat because we still have students in the audience,” she said. “I do know that he was knocked unconscious when he landed when he parachuted into Germany, and when he woke up, he was in a German hospital. I do want to tell a funny story, but I will have to clean it up because it contains an F-word.”

“It’s a great story, and he’s so cute,”  Javenkoski said. “He’s like 5-foot 4-inches and he laughs so hard he cries when he tells these stories.”

Javenkoski explained that one of Johnson’s duties included making sure all of the men in his unit had condoms. 

“So when he woke up in a German hospital, and he didn’t have his backpack full of condoms with him, he said the German doctor looked at him and said ‘Johnson, tell me something, are you here to (blank) or fight,’” Javenkoski said.

Johnson made two unsuccessful escape attempts before finding freedom on his third attempt.

“He ended up escaping with two Americans and they ended up picking up two British pilots along the way,” Javenkoski said. 

By the time they made it to the American lines, Johnson had lost half his body weight, was sporting a long beard and had bugs in his hair. It took three days of interrogation to convince the American authorities he was American soldier who had escaped captivity.

Despite losing his wife in 2005 and his only child in 2016, Javenkoski said Johnson remains upbeat.

“His attitude is amazing. He says ‘I’m still here for a reason, God’s not done with me yet. He’s got a plan,’” she said. “He thinks serving your country and being a POW for 340 days wasn’t doing enough for his country.”

Although she’s happily married, Javenkoski said she has a date with Johnson in five years for his 100th birthday.

“He plans on being around for a while,” she said. “He’s just a fascinating and wonderful human being.”

Carl Weidling

The last of the veterans to speak was Carl Weidling, who served as a machinist’s mate third class on the attack transport USS Sarasota in the Pacific Theater. The job of the Sarasota was to pick up 1,500 Marines or soldiers and ferry them into position to invade an island during the last year of the war. 

After taking the newly built Sarasota on a shakedown cruise, they reported to the Admiralty Islands for duty. He said his first day there was memorable.

“The next morning, I was put on mail duty, so I went to shore and went to the post office. And as I went into the post office, I noticed a ship on fire and there were a couple sailors running along the edge and the ship blew up,” Weidling said. “And the debris from the ship went several hundred feet in the air and all around. We sent aid out to the ship to help with the wounded.”

From there, the ship went out to the war effort, first helping retake the Philippines by making repeated trips with fresh troops and supplies.

Then came the Battle for Okinawa, which started on Easter Sunday, April 1, 1945, and didn’t end until June 22, the memories of which still haunt Weidling 73 years later.

“All those young boys, 17, 18 years old,” he said. “And they all came back men. They were no longer boys.”

After sending fresh troops ashore, they would take on wounded who were then transferred to the rear for further treatment. 

“We stayed in the area for 22 days and then it was back to the States for an overhaul and maintenance for two weeks,” Weidling said.

He was able to get a week’s leave and came home for a few days, then it was back to the ship and the last days of the war. 

He said he agreed with President Harry Truman’s decision to drop the two atomic bombs on Japan.

“People didn’t like him for that, but it saved millions of lives,” Weidling said. “The ocean would have been red with blood if the invasion had happened.”

He apologized for breaking down during his recollection of the events of Okinawa.

“Those memories, they last forever,” he said. 

Jamie Taylor may be reached via email at jamie@rivernews