Blake Anderson, Veteran’s Day

GUEST BLOG:  In honor of Veteran’s Day, history buff Blake Anderson pays tribute to some extraordinary people.

It’s unusual in this day and age to find personal accounts from World War II, but from the time I was quite young, I’ve always had an interest in that era. It was common when I was growing up to be able to talk with veterans of World War II or the Korean War and to hear first-hand stories of personal heroism. If a newscaster or teacher made errors in their accounts, all you had to do to find out what it was really like was to find a veteran who had actually been there.

My grandpa was one of these. He was assigned to a destroyer escort in the South Pacific in WWII, and he helped in the Lingayen Gulf Philippines Liberation.

More recently, I have had the privilege to hear first-hand accounts from Claude Kowalski, a Vietnam veteran from Kimball, Minnesota, and a friend I’ve known for 13 years. He is a man of honor and he lives out his Christian values. I’ve been intrigued with his stories, and occasionally I pump him for more details.

Nineteen-year-old Claude volunteered to go to Vietnam as a member of the 1st Marine Division, with some of the earliest American ground force presences in Vietnam. He was assigned to the I Corps sector in a village called Chu Lai in 1967. His job most days was to lift and carry howitzer shells and load the big gun. These shells weighed over 100 pounds each, once the four-pound wick was installed, and he hefted these heavy shells, one after another, for what must have seemed like an eternity, day in and day out. It’s no wonder that Claude suffers from PTSD and a significant hearing loss today.

“I was young and fit in those days,” Claude says, “and I had a job to do.”

Veterans often modestly refer to themselves in this way, I’ve noticed, downplaying the hardships they endured. I’m more inclined to refer to them as patriots or heroes.

But Claude is not the only hero in his family. Over a period of many hours in his presence, I have gradually learned more about his background. Claude’s parents grew up in Poland, and during that time in history this was an unbelievably dangerous place to live. The Nazis invaded Poland in September of 1939, and a few years later, the Soviets came from the other direction.

Claude’s father was captured by the Nazis and forced at gunpoint to work as a mechanic for them. He escaped three times and was recaptured twice, finally escaping for good after the third time.

Claude’s mother has stories of her own. As a teenager, one of her classmates, who was something of a story teller and a braggart, boasted about wanting to become a Nazi someday. He would come back to haunt her and their other classmates, he threatened.

She was no shrinking violet, and she retorted, “If you go down that path, someday I’m going to point at your dead body and say, “You’re dead, but I am free.”

Claude says, “My mom was Polish, and she was spunky and brash.”

(A side note: my wife Laurie is mostly Polish, and I get that.)

When the Nazis came through she hid in a haystack, and they searched for her by repeatedly poking the stack with their pitchforks in an attempt to find her, missing her by inches.

Sometime later, she opened her door one day to find her cocky former classmate standing on her doorstep, dressed in the full regalia of his Nazi officer uniform, with its long black coat and high boots. He was not a boy anymore, but a man.

Instead of cowering, as many in Occupied Poland would surely have done, this gutsy young woman mouthed off to him with the worst insults she could think of. The Nazi raised his gun, pointed it at her, and shot. Fortunately, a friend had seen this unwelcome visitor, and as the soldier was raising his gun, she quickly shoved her friend into a potato cart just in the nick of time. The bullet shaved past her shoulder, missing her by a fraction of an inch. She yelled at the man until he finally left the property.

A short time later, word reached them that the young man who had shot at her had just been killed by the Soviets. Upon hearing this, she took off on foot, running toward town. When she reached the site of the skirmish, she pointed at his dead body and yelled, “I told you that someday you’d be dead and I’d be free!”

A couple of short years later, Claude’s parents escaped to the Western side of Berlin’s divide, and Claude was born in the American sector of West Berlin.

In recent years, KSTP TV covered the story of Claude’s relatives in Minnesota, not realizing that they still had immediate family in Poland who had survived the occupation, and they recently reunited with them in Minnesota.

My thanks to all the men and women who stared tyranny in the face and said: “Not anymore!

You are dead, and we are free!”

 

 

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