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World War II book brings living history home

New book features first-hand war experiences of 29 service personnel with Poweshiek County ties



George Drake, editor of the newly released book "Our World: Stories from Poweshiek County's Greatest Generation" is shown with the mural "Per Angusta Ad Augusta" (Through Trials to Triumph), by artist and recent Grinnell College graduate Thomas Agran. A portion of the mural is depicted on the cover of the new book, which tells first-hand the stories of 29 servicemen and women with Poweshiek County ties. Drake is a professor emeritus of history at Grinnell College.

Stories straight from the battlefields of World War II as told by the men and women of Poweshiek County who lived them, are the focus of a newly released book.

“Our War: Stories from Poweshiek County’s Greatest Generation,” is a 286-page living history book filled with first-hand accounts from 29 servicemen and women with Poweshiek County ties.

The book was the brainchild of George Drake, emeritus professor of history at Grinnell College, who worked with the newly created (September 2007) Community Education Council (CEC) and its World War II Task Force to create and edit the book.

“I wanted to honor the veterans,” said the 75-year-old Drake, a 1956 graduate of Grinnell College and former president of the school. “These were interesting stories and I realized how important it was to tell them.”

The book is divided into six sections covering the Pacific and European Theaters, Women in World War II, those who served in the Army Air Corps, service within the United States, and one final story of a Holocaust survivor.

“Through 29 stories, this book provides one important, insightful window into the soul of America at the time when our nation was truly one,” wrote Sen. Bob Dole in the forward of the book. “Through the lens of Poweshiek County’s citizen soldiers, their journeys and their struggles, we are shown a picture of the larger war being fought. Most importantly, we are offered a glimpse into our future by showing us what a free nation looks like in times of great danger.”

Of the 29 Poweshiek County Veterans featured in the book, 18 were video taped and interviewed in the spring and summer of 2008. In addition to Drake, volunteer interviewers included: Doris Hotchkin, Leila Maring, Nancy Smith, Art Heimann, Nick West, John Bell and Jordan Scheibel. The remaining 11 accounts were taken from pre-existing memoirs, newspaper and magazine articles.

De Dudley of Grinnell College transcribed the interviews. Drake noted that in only one instance does the book re-produce the entire interview or memoir.

“Some interviews and memoirs are much longer than others, but all convey important and intensely personal stories,” wrote Drake in the introduction. “The variety is staggering, as these stories of a war that engaged almost every American reveal. The veterans, whose stories appear here, either were Poweshiek County residents when they served or have moved to the county since World War II.”

Each story is intertwined with Drake’s words and thoughts to piece all the parts together.

The following veterans are featured in the book:

The Pacific Theater

• Cleo L. Strawser, Grinnell – As-signed to a Navy special photographic squadron in the Pacific

• Ken Benda, Hartwick – assigned to protect shipping lanes on the USS Sangamon Navy ship

• Orville Bloethe, Victor – Served in the Army 190th Quartermaster Corps – gas supply, later burying the casualties following a Japanese air raid

• Richard Bowers, Montezuma – Military construction in the Navy Seabees

• Art Heimann, Grinnell – Served with the 1490th Army Engineering Company, helping rebuild in the Philippines and service as a medic

• Madison Tomfeld, Grinnell – Served in the 1st Marine Corps Division infantry

• Robert Hoisington, Jr., Grinnell – Repaired Pearl Harbor battleships for the Navy

Women in World War II

• Cheryl Cocking, Grinnell – WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) – Communication Department at the 8th Naval District Headquarters

• Sally Johnson, Grinnell – Cadet Nurse Corps serving stateside following the war

The European Theater

• Keith Gregory, Grinnell – Served in the Army 9th Division, 60th Regiment, 2nd Battalion, H Company

• Ken Christiansen, Grinnell – Served as a forward observer for a mortar platoon in Sicily, France, Belgium and Germany

• Gerald H. Youngbeck, Grinnell – Served in the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) before joining the Army, later being involved in the Normandy D-Day invasion

• Jim Fudge, San Diego, Calif., formerly of Grinnell – Served on the Navy LST 54 (Landing Ship Tank), finishing the war in occupied Japan

• John Pfitsch, Grinnell – Served in the Patton’s 3rd Army during the Normandy campaign, in the Battle of the Bulge and the invasion of Germany

• Beryl Wellborn, Grinnell – Served in the Army replacement depot, which handled soldiers coming and going after they’d been wounded at St. Lo

• Stanley Kovar, Victor – Served in the Army and involved in D-Day, wounded near Aachen, Germany

• Arnold Septer, Grinnell – Served in the Army Field artillery unit and was involved in Normandy

• Ralph Luebben, Grinnell – Lieutenant in the Army 290th Field Artillery Observation Battalion, served in the Battle of the Bulge

• Russ Rasmussen, Grinnell – Served in the Army 17th Battalion of the 12th Armored-Infantry Division, fought and wounded in the Battle of the Bulge

• Don Pederson, lifelong Grinnell resident – Radio operator in the 7th Armored Division, seeing action in France, Belgium, Holland and Germany

• Homer Perry, Grinnell – Served as a Protestant chaplain both in Europe and, following VJ Day, in Japan and Korea

The Army Air Corps

• Everett Willemsen, Lynnville – Participated in D-Day

• Bob Peters, Grinnell – Flew a B-24, flying his first combat mission on D-Day

• James M. “Joe” Pierce, Grinnell – Assigned to the 8th Air Force, flying bombing missions over France and Germany

• John Rabenold, Montezuma – Flew on a B-24 named ‘Lil Peach’ that was shot down

• Grover Loftin, Grinnell – Shot down and imprisoned by the Germans

• Donald Donohoe, Grinnell – Flew P-47 and grounded a German ME-262, plane hunting for gasoline and ammunition dumps. He was award a medal for his heroic efforts

Military Service within the U.S.

• Al Pinder, Grinnell – Served as an accountant supervising military procurement contracts with the Army

One Final Story

• Harold Kasimow, Grinnell – Holocaust survivor who spent nearly two years with his family hiding from the Nazis in a hole dug in the floor of a cattle barn

“One of the riveting aspects of these stories is how they reflect the variety and depth of war experience from but one small country in one medium sized state in our vast county,” noted Drake in the book’s introduction.

Included with the book is a DVD entitled, “Face-to-Face with the Greatest Generation,” which consists of excerpts from the video taped interviews filmed by Shane Estes, and shaped and narrated by Bill Menner.

The cover of the book features a re-production of the World War II mural “Per Angusta Ad Augusta” (Through Trials to Triumph), by artist and recent Grinnell College graduate Thomas Agran. The mural hangs in the lobby of the Grinnell State Bank, which sponsored its creation.

Jim Powers, with Grinnell College, designed the book. The project was funded in part through gifts from Brownells, Grinnell Mutual Reinsurance Company (GMRC), Grinnell College, Manatts and Hy-Vee.

The CEC committee consists of Drake, Joanne Bunge, president; Jim Ahrens, Art Heinmann, Don Pederson and Nancy Smith. The Poweshiek Community Foundation also was a generous partner in the project.

The book and DVD are available for $22.95, and can be purchased at the Pioneer Bookstore, 823 Fourth Ave., Grinnell, and the campus bookstore at the college.

In related news, Drake will share highlights of the book at the Grinnell Regional Medical Center Senior Education (SE*ED) Program on Monday, Nov. 2, from 10-11 a.m. at the Grinnell Elks Lodge, Second Avenue and Main Street in Grinnell. Copies of the book will also be available for sale following the program.

“Our World War II veterans are leaving us and it is imperative that we collect as many of their first-hand experiences as we can,” said Drake. “Sadly, we have already lost some of the veterans who have shared their stories in the past year who did not live to see the publishing of the book.”

Ken Christiansen, professor emeritus of biology at Grinnell College, will lead the second “Bucket Course” beginning Nov. 4, to be held at the new Drake Community Library, Park Street and Fifth Avenue, from 10-11:30 a.m. The class, titled “Our War: Stories Behind the Stories,” will continue for two additional sessions on Nov. 11, and 18.

According to info on the series, assisting Christiansen will be other veterans who will share experiences that have not been printed in the recently published book, “Our War: Stories from Poweshiek County’s Greatest Generation,” a resource for the class. Christiansen plans to thread through the discussions the historical background leading up to and through World War II.

“The veterans will tell how they felt about the war before and after Pearl Harbor,” noted Christansen. “There will be an opportunity to ask veterans questions.”

To register, call Iowa Valley Community College (IVCC) at 641-236-0512.

UPDATED October 30, 2009 10:32 AM

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