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November 2020: Reader Reply

Pay tribute to one of our veterans
by sharing a story about the sacrifices they made while serving.

 

The paintings below are illustrations of veteran experiences in World War II that were shared with the artist, Scott Nelson, through interviews. The paintings are based on real events of the war and were inspected by the veterans who shared their stories. They are reprinted with permission from Mr. Nelson. For more information, visit www.scottnelsonart.com.

James Vranna, a life well-lived
I met James Vranna years ago when I was attending an art show in Washburn, where I was showing some of my World War II aviation paintings.

While visiting with him, I gathered he had been a WWII pilot and that he had been injured in a crash in England. I could tell by scars on his face that he had gone through a devastating injury, but he didn’t want to talk about the crash and I didn’t press him about it. He did say he spent a long time in hospitals after the crash.

He told me one humorous story about when he was in the hospital after getting back to the United States. It seems the doctors were worried about Jim and another patient, because they had a hard time putting on any weight. The doctors decided to give them several cans of beer a day to help them gain weight. Jim said he and his beer buddy were the envy of the whole ward, as beer was not normally available to the patients.

As the years went by, I continued to interview other veteran aviators and do paintings to honor their service. All the while, I remembered Jim and thought someday I would like to document his story.
In the summer of 2012, I was looking through the obituaries and with sadness saw that James Allen Vranna had passed away. He was 91 years old.

So, I decided to research his service and life story. Jim graduated from high school in Taylor in 1939 and attended Mayville State College for two years. Jim volunteered and joined the U.S. Army Air Force in 1942, trained as a multi-engine pilot and got his wings as a second lieutenant, flying the B-17 Flying Fortress heavy bomber. Jim often commented that he got his pilot license before he got a driver’s license!
Lt. Vranna had the thrill of flying a new B-17 across the Atlantic to England and was assigned to the 544th Squadron of the 384th Bomb Group, 8th Air Force, stationed at Grafton Underwood.

Jim was in the process of going through operational training, preparing for flying missions against the Germans over the continent. A bomber crewman was expected to fly 30 missions. James never got the chance to fly his first bombing mission.

Jim had volunteered to copilot a B-17 in the late afternoon of Aug. 4, 1944. They were to “slow time” a new engine that had been put on the bomber. Slow timing an engine was necessary to make sure the engine was running properly before putting it under a full combat load.

James took off with a minimal crew of five with Lt. Howard Jung as pilot, 2nd Lt. Thomas Bates as navigator, Sgt. William Sellars as radioman and Sgt. Harold Perry as tail gunner. A full crew would have required five more for a bombing mission, a bombardier and four additional gunners.

Lt. Jung took off and the plane gained altitude, while James made performance checks on the new engine.

It has been said that the second enemy for the flyers out of the United Kingdom was the Germans. The first? The English weather. It was at this time that the unpredictable English weather reared its ugly head. Before the crew realized it, the pea soup fog had rolled in and the ground was totally obscured. To make matters worse, it was also getting dark. Fog lowered the ceiling over their airbase at Grafton Underwood to only 300 feet.

The tower advised Lt. Jung to find another field to land, but all the other fields were also fogged in. Grafton Underwood tower flying control tried using flares and mortars to guide the aircraft. Jung made two passes over the field, but could not land. On his third pass, the aircraft’s wing tip struck a tree and the B-17 spun into the ground and burned.

All on board were killed except James, who suffered major multiple injuries and third-degree burns. Jim’s injuries were so bad that the first accident report listed him as a fatality, as he was not expected to live.

Jim was hospitalized in critical condition for over a week and much to everyone’s amazement, his condition improved. As soon as he was well enough to make the trip, he was sent back to the United States. James spent the next three years recovering in hospitals and went through a series of reconstructive surgeries.

One day, when Jim was at Valley Forge General Hospital in Phoenixville, Pa., and in a dark depression combined with survivor guilt, a kind nurse laid a beautiful rose on the table next to his bed. Jim concentrated on the beauty of that rose and it encouraged him to look forward to the future and not dwell on the pain of the past. That rose strengthened his faith and awakened his lifetime interest in gardening.

Upon his discharge from the hospital and the military, he returned home to North Dakota and completed his degree in history at Dickinson State College. It was during this time that he met Viola Boschee, the love of his life, who was teaching in Taylor. They married Dec. 26, 1948. The couple spent the next decade in Taylor, where they both taught. Jim also served as principal, coach and athletic director. Jim, Vi and their first two sons moved to Washburn in 1958, where he continued to teach and serve as principal, and where their third son joined the family. He also served as superintendent of schools, directed many plays and coached student speakers.

After retirement, Jim enjoyed hunting, fishing and golf. He also kept up with his gardening that was started by that rose so many years before.

I found the records of that crash at the 384th Bomb Group website. The records of the crash listed no survivors. Jim was listed killed in an aircraft accident on Aug. 4, 1944. I contacted the website manager to inform him that James Vranna, listed as killed that fateful day, actually went on to live a long and productive life until he passed away on July 22, 2012. The manager thanked me and corrected the records immediately!

Sources: Jim’s son, Greg Vranna, 384th Bomb Group records and accident report

Scott Nelson
Mor-Gran Sou Electric Cooperative

 

Staying silent
Veterans are often silent – silent in their recognition, silent within themselves, and silent as they refrain from telling their stories. So it was with my dad, a U.S. Marine, who served during World War II. His overseas duty was in China, where he operated heavy road construction equipment.

Our family cedar chest held some of the mementos Dad brought back with him: dresser scarves, a Chinese embroidered pillow cover, military decorations. However, he never spoke about the metal-sheathed sword that hung on our attic wall.

As a child, I remember my dad buying a red poppy lapel flower for each of his three children. Later, I learned that the three VFW poppies were in commemoration of his three friends who had lost their lives while serving our country.

Throughout my dad’s life, he carried the remnants of shrapnel in his leg. He also carried the nightmares of having a bulldozer blown out from underneath him due to hitting a land mine. As his dreams relived this trauma, we’d be awakened by his yell in the middle of the night and his resultant landing on the floor next to his bed.

Almost 55 years after WWII, when being interviewed by his grandchildren about his military experience, he expressed gratitude for the opportunity this presented to see other parts of the world. However, when the questions become more pointed, he hung his head, lowered his tear-filled eyes and said, “We better move on to some other questions.” His grandchildren were silenced by his crying.

For 10 years now, a bronze plaque and military star have decorated the foot of my dad’s grave. He accepted his duty to fight for the freedom of his country, but he also strongly desired that future generations could be spared this type of sacrifice.

Joyce Wagner
McLean Electric Cooperative

 

Saving the horses
I’m honoring my paternal grandfather, Andrew Weisz. He served in World War I and was sent to Europe. Grandpa never talked about his service in the war, even when asked. He would comment that we “really didn’t want to know.”

Grandpa’s responsibility during the war was to take care of the horses. (We’ve come a long way.) One of his tasks was to rescue the horses when the soldiers had been killed and fell off their horse. This meant leaving his “buddies” on the field while taking their horses back to safety.

Looking back at my grandpa’s response to us kids, I realize how emotionally difficult those times had to have been for him.

My grandpa and many other grandpas served so that we could have the freedoms that we do; something we should be forever thankful for.

Rita Weisz
Capital Electric Cooperative

 

Flying bombing missions
The veteran I wish to pay tribute to is my brother, Marion (now deceased). He served in the U.S. Army Air Force in World War II. The Air Force was part of the Army back then. He was a tail gunner on a plane that flew many bombing missions over German-held territory. On his last mission, his plane was shot down and the crew bailed out, which was my brother’s first and only parachute jump.

He landed in a wooded area and hid there until found by the Belgium underground, who he stayed with and assisted until D-Day and the end of the war in Europe. Our family had been informed he was “missing in action.” How happy we were to hear he was alive!

He came home, married the girl he left behind, and was honorably discharged.

I have always been so proud of what my veteran brother did for our country.

Alice J. Pfau
North Central Electric Cooperative

 

Making sacrifices
A friend of my family lost quite a bit when he was drafted during Vietnam. I can imagine being away from his family during that time was difficult. He missed a lot during his time away from them; things we might even take for granted. His dreams of going to college to further his education were taken from him, and during the first year of his deployment, he missed the birth of his first child, a son.

Our friend also lost his hearing due to a mortar round that went off near him. He’ll never again be able to hear music, laughter or any of the other beautiful sounds in life.

One of the biggest sacrifices he was forced to make, however, was the chance at living a reasonably normal life after he returned. The Vietnam vets weren’t welcomed home, and many still feel the backlash from serving.

This Veterans Day, thank a veteran. Make them feel welcomed back home. Who knows? It could be the first time anyone has done so for them.

Michaela K. Gessele
Northern Plains Electric Cooperative

 

Tribute to my uncle
When I was a young girl, an uncle lived down the road from us who we would visit. He had served in the military as a medic and my dad said he was not the same since he got home. I never knew him before he left, so I did not understand what Dad meant until much later in my life. My uncle always seemed to have this sad look about him.

He, like so many veterans I have met over the years, came home with a drinking problem and ghosts that haunted him. He had seen so many people hurt who he was not able to save and it was something he carried with him for the rest of his life.

So many of our veterans have lost a great deal. Some go off to war and leave behind their families, not knowing if they will ever see them again, missing their children reaching many milestones in life. Some leave as boys only to come home years later as men with emotional and physical scars that never leave them, and some simply never come home.

Those of us who have never served will never know their true sacrifice, but we can make sure we let them know we appreciate them for the sacrifices they have endured. Next time you see a veteran, say “thank you” for their selfless act of ensuring our freedom.

Lydia R. Gessele
Northern Plains Electric Cooperative

 

Rest of the story
Edward Albert Heimberger was born in 1906. He was a graduate of Central High School in Minneapolis and the University of Minnesota. Edward entered World War II as an intelligence agent, working undercover in Mexico for the U.S. government, observing Nazi movements. He then enlisted in the Coast Guard and gave up that commission to join the U.S. Naval Reserve.

The battle of Tarawa was a bloody island battle for our Marines in November 1943. Edward was skippering a large landing craft visible to the enemy. He was part of the first wave of attack. Edward rescued up to 70 Marines from the water, making several trips, each time under enemy fire. For his heroism, he was awarded the Bronze Star with a combat V.

As a civilian, Edward did not flaunt his bravery. It was not until a documentary was made in 1990 that he came forward with information about the war and his involvement. Edward resumed his career as an accomplished musician, writer and actor. He was acclaimed for his roles in “Roman Holiday,” “Heartbreak Kid” and many others. Edward altered his stage name, because no one could pronounce it. Who can forget Eddie Albert as Oliver Wendell Douglas in the sitcom “Green Acres?” And now you know the rest of the story.

Lowell Lutz
Northern Plains Electric Cooperative

 

Father and son story
I have two stories. One is of Seaman 1st Class Lawrence Kelsch. The other is his son, Spc. 5 Larry L. Kelsch. They were both wounded serving our great America, almost 25 years to the date, the father on Jan. 6, 1945, the son April 13, 1970. The son served in the U.S. Army and the father in the U.S. Navy. Lawrence volunteered at the age of 20, as did Larry.

Seaman 1st Class Lawrence Kelsch, 4SNR, was wounded Jan. 6, 1945, serving aboard the USS Battleship New Mexico in the Navy. The ship was attacked by a Japanese kamikaze plane, which landed on the deck of the ship and exploded.

Lawrence was strapped in the gunner’s chair, approximately 20 feet below the bridge. He was in charge of the 16-mm guns. The blast caused the other two men, who were feeding the guns, to be blown overboard, and were never found. The captain and many men were killed.

Lawrence was burned on his hands, arms and legs; twisted shrapnel exited from his body for the next 20 years.

The badly burned left leg was the cause of his death at 62 years old. He was discharged from the Navy on June 3, 1946, and died June 3, 1988.

Army Spc. 5 Larry L. Kelsch, who volunteered to serve our country, was 20 years old. He was sent to Fort Lewis, Wash., and Fort Sill, Okla., for training. He served two tours in Vietnam.

His job was to take care of compound handling mines and perimeter duties. He also handled Army personnel, driving 150 miles per day seven days a week.

He was driving a three-quarter-ton truck the day a group was attacked by the enemy. A rocket hit the convoy. The Army personnel left him for dead.

His truck went over a steep mountain, down about a mile. A tree and a thorn bush stopped the truck from falling further, saving his life.

Wounded, he managed to crawl up the steep incline to the mountain road, approximately 3 miles. He had no weapons and was surrounded by the enemy, although he was hid by the tall grass. He was picked up by an Army personnel carrier and transported into an Army helicopter.

While trying to get into the air, the helicopter was “sprayed” with gunfire. The gunman on the left was hanging in his harness, dead.

At the hospital, Larry’s left arm was amputated above the elbow. He spent a year in an Army hospital in Colorado, in rehab and had several more surgeries on his injured arm.

During the next 15 to 20 years, pieces of twisted metal surfaced all over his body. Once, he almost lost an eye, and the rest surfaced on his arms, legs and between his fingers.

Larry is 72 years old and will be married 50 years on June 28, 2021. He has a lovely family and “feels life is good.” The good Lord was with him in Vietnam, and will take care of him for what time he has left to live.

Eva Kelsch, Larry’s mom
Mor-Gran-Sou Electric Cooperative

 

Family serves
My granddaughter’s husband serving in the U.S. Army is now going overseas for the fourth time with the special unit division. She has also been overseas twice. Both have been in the service for over 15 years. My only son was in the Persian Gulf War back in 1991 for several years. Blessings to all of them.

Carol Schumacher
Capital Electric Cooperative

 

UPCOMING READER REPLY QUESTION:
DECEMBER: What makes this “the most wonderful time of the year” for you?
Deadline for submission: Nov. 13
JANUARY: If you had one wish for North Dakota in 2021, what would it be and why?
Deadline for submission: Dec. 11
We want to hear FROM you: Submissions should be no more than 250 words, typewritten or in legible handwriting. Include your name, complete address, daytime phone number and the name of the rural electric cooperative to which you belong. Note: Magazine staff reserves the right to make editing changes and cuts. We pay $25 for each letter we print. Email to ndliving@ndarec.com or mail to READER REPLY, North Dakota Living, P.O. Box 727, Mandan, ND 58554-0727.