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The End of it All: Three World War II veterans recall the war 70 years after it ended

On Memorial Day, Americans raise flags in their yards, visit the graves of veterans dear to them and honor the memory of all those who died serving the U.S. in the armed forces.

Wayne Rowe, 92, recalls his WWII experiences in Europe where he served in the Army Signal Corps. Rowe lives in Grand Forks. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

On Memorial Day, Americans raise flags in their yards, visit the graves of veterans dear to them and honor the memory of all those who died serving the U.S. in the armed forces.

They thank veterans who have served, along with active military currently serving the red, white and blue all across the world.

In 2015, the number of veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan continues to surpass previous highs, while the numbers of veterans from World War II, Korea and Vietnam continue to grow smaller and smaller.

Among these shrinking groups, the World War II veterans are disappearing the fastest.

According to the National World War II Museum, only 855,070 of the approximately 16 million who served are still alive in 2015.


This year marks the 70th anniversary of the end of the war, both in Europe and the Pacific theater, and it's final moments.

Officially, May 8 marked the 70th anniversary of Nazi Germany's unconditional surrender to the Allies of World War II, also known as Victory in Europe Day (V-E Day)-a glorious day for many soldiers in Europe. Japan's surrender came more than three months later on Aug. 15, while Sept. 2 marks the official end of the war.

For this Memorial Day, the Herald spoke with three World War II veterans about their war memories.

Captured in North Africa

Herald Tastad of Portland, N.D., was drafted into the Army in 1941. He was part of the 16th Army Engineering battalion, 1st Army division.

After training, he was sent to North Africa to fight, but that wasn't to last long.

In 1943, Tastad and about 15 other soldiers were surrounded by Germans. Vastly outnumbered, they were forced to surrender and were taken as prisoners of war.

"I was scared," he said. "(I told myself) 'Be a goodie two shoes and we'll see what happens,' because how could I fight 10 men against one?"


Tastad was eventually transferred to a farm where he worked as a POW for the remainder of the war. He was in captivity for a total of 28 months.

For most of his life, Tastad never talked about the war. One day, his daughter, Deb Sletten, discovered a cigar box in the family's attic with newspapers, letters, maps, postcards and photos from the war.

"That's when it came out," Sletten said.

Now, Tastad spins his war stories out of whatever his memory-sharp for 96, but always fading as the evenings grow long-can dig up. Sletten said the war is what he remembers best these days.

Sitting at his kitchen table, Tastad looked through all of his old war documents as he tells the stories he remembers best.

"When I was a POW laying in a foxhole in Tunis, north Africa, awaiting the German's next move, I was very, very scared, and I don't know of a single time in my life that I was so close to God," Tastad said. "He almost seemed to be in the foxhole with me."

Initially, Tastad was terrified of his predicament.

"I tried to keep a diary, but they accused me of being a spy, and I almost got shot," he said.


But once he was moved to a work farm, everything began to smooth out better than he could imagine.

He spoke of living and working on the farm and joked about his Russian "girlfriends," who had also been sent there to work.

With the Red Cross Parcels that were sent to the soldiers there, they would barter for eggs and other fresh food the Germans were willing to trade for American cigarettes.

During his time as a POW, Tastad's family was kept informed by a series of Western Union telegrams sent back home.

One dated Feb. 17, 1943, reported Tastad missing, while one on March 10, 1943, reported him a POW of the German government.

Between that time and two telegrams in 1945 announcing Tastad's freedom and return to U.S. military control, he wrote postcards home when he could, even drawing a picture of Santa Claus on one around Christmas time.

As Tastad neared two and a half years on the farm, signs of the war's end crept onto the farm.

"You could tell the war was coming to an end because the German uniforms were getting shabbier and shabbier," he said. "They always used to look so nice. They wanted to quit the war too. Hitler was no more."


Back in the U.S., Tastad tried farming for a while before working with his brothers at their Dodge dealership. Tastad was also a master carpenter.

Sletten, who still visits Tastad regularly, said he mainly talks about the war with friends and family who come to visit.

"We're pretty proud because he's 96 and can still tell us (his story)," Sletten said. "It makes us proud to be able to see all the stuff and still hear the stories."

'A lot worse coming'

When Wayne Rowe first shipped out from the U.S. on a British ship destined for Liverpool, U.K., space was tight.

Rowe and the other 48 U.S. soldiers with him were the last to board a ship filled with 6,500 British troops, and there was nowhere left to sleep but the floor or a table.

"That was good training," Rowe said. "We had a lot worse coming."

Rowe, now 92 and living in Grand Forks, enlisted in the Army when he was 20 and was a member of the Army Signal Corps, where he learned to coordinate radars and anti-aircraft guns to shoot down B-2 buzz bombers.


Rowe had been in England for 6 weeks when the Battle of the Bulge broke out. The unit he was attached to made its way through to Belgium, where it spent 3 weeks.

"It was the coldest winter in 50 years in Europe, they told us," Rowe said. "We never got warm once the three weeks we were in Belgium."

But the cold winter was still not the worst thing Rowe had to deal with.

Rowe recalled moving to a town that had recently been destroyed.

"The town was levelled. When we went through it, there was not one building standing except a German barracks from the night before," Rowe said, adding that his major was hesitant about staying there.

"'What a silly place to stay,' Maj. Ash said. 'The Germans will have this zeroed in for artillery,'" Rowe said.

When Rowe and the rest of his unit returned to the barracks later in the night after leaving to catch a radio transmission, Ash was proven right.

"The whole area lit up like day, and we saw holes being punched in the barracks we were heading toward," Rowe said. "I was thrown up against a pickup. Pretty soon, when I gained my sense again, I heard someone yelling for help. I ran my hand down his side and pulled shrapnel out of his ribs. My hand went through a hole in his hip."


That night, Rowe's original experience sleeping on the floor of a ship across the Atlantic seemed like nothing.

"With another guy, a big piece of shrapnel tore through the wall and went right down the side of his bunk," he said. "It tore his blankets to shreds. He felt the heat of it."

After surviving the encounter, Rowe eventually made it to the end of the war. After V-E day, Rowe and one of his fellow soldiers made it to a German town.

"Carl and I got to city hall there," Rowe said. "The Nazi flag was still flying. I took it down as fast as I could."

In the years since, Rowe believes World War II was fought exactly how a war should be.

"I have decided that the only way to fight a war is to go in there and give it all you got and win it," he said.

Keeping the faith

Ed Kinzler of Larimore, N.D., always wanted to go into the ministry.

But in 1942, he was one of the youngest kids from his high school graduating class to be drafted into the military.

Looking back on his experience, the 90-year-old had a remarkable sense of humor about his experiences.

He said was glad to be in the Navy, as he would rather sleep on a ship than in a foxhole. When describing mechanical minutiae of the ship he was on, he ended with a facetious, "That's important. I'm sure everyone wants to know that."

Before leaving the U.S., Kinzler went to sonar school before being assigned to a submarine chase as a sonar technician.

Kinzler's duty was to listen to the sonar "ping" go out and try to decipher any return signals to figure out if they were from a school of fish, a submarine or worse-a torpedo.

"I was informed when I was assigned that the two (before me) went off the ship in straightjackets," he said, about to employ his humor yet again. "That was nice to hear. I was happy to hear that."

Kinzler's time working as a sonar technician went better than his alleged predecessors, and his time in World War II went by fairly smoothly.

But Kinzler's time in the military was not over.

After going back to school to be a minister, Kinzler was traveling from Indiana to Cincinnati with a man who wanted to go into the Navy, but couldn't due to problems with his eyesight.

This gave Kinzler an idea.

"I feel like God was putting me there," he said. "I asked what the requirements were."

Soon enough, Kinzler was back in the Navy serving as a chaplain, where he served through the Vietnam War.

His picture was once taken on top of Marble Mountain for Life Magazine.

"The ministry is what I think my life was all about," Kinzler said. "My first calling is to the work of God and the chaplaincy sure gave me an opportunity to fulfill that."

Though his service in World War II delayed his ability to enter the ministry as soon as possible, Kinzler wouldn't change how things worked out.

"I didn't feel like I was out of place. I'm an American from beginning to end."

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