ST. PETER — Howard Hermel and Leroy “Jim” Miller opened a 44-year-old bottle of bourbon and toasted to 68 lost comrades.
The decanter of Cabin Still bourbon had sat on a shelf at the St. Peter American Legion Post 37 since the first St. Peter World War II Last Man's Club banquet on April 25, 1973. The club formed with 70 St. Peter area WWII veterans and a simple set of bylaws: they'd reunite every spring and someday the last two living members would open the bottle of whiskey and remember their friends.
The WWII veterans inspired a St. Peter Vietnam Last Man's Club. The younger veterans hosted the last ever World War II Last Man's Club gathering Saturday night at the American Legion.
Hermel and Miller were the guests of honor.
Hermel, who's lived in St. Peter since he was a teenager, brought with him the prayer book he carried during the war. His mother gave it to him “hoping it would stop the bullets,” he said.
He reported for duty in the Army Air Forces on June 1, 1943, according to the timeline of his service he wrote in between the prayers.
He was a gunner on a B-17 in the 381st Bomb Group, he said. He spent nearly a year based in England flying into Germany to bomb targets.
He married Myra, his high school sweetheart who had been writing him letters during his service, soon after he returned in 1945. He earned the nickname “candy man” working for and later taking the helm of his father's food vending and wholesale company now known as AH Hermel.
The site on which the new St. Peter High School is being built was previously the Hermel family farm. Last April Hermel donated $100,000 in memory of his wife for an enhanced science laboratory at the new school.
Miller is a lifelong St. Peter resident. Raised on a farm but not wanting to spend his entire life on the farm he enlisted in the Army. He was sent to the Philippines for nearly two years, he said. His mechanical abilities gained on the farm kept him off the front lines. He served as a vehicle mechanic.
After returning to St. Peter he met Margaret, his wife of 66 years and counting. In addition to helping on the family farm he worked as a carrier at the St. Peter post office for nearly 30 years.
Margaret recalled the early Last Man's Club banquets were more boisterous affairs that carried over into the next morning. In later years the dinner gathering would conclude by 9 p.m. so they could get home in time to watch the news, she said.
The Vietnam veterans club formed six years ago with the WWII club as its model, according to member and Legion Post 37 Cmdr. Ron Haugen. He said the Vietnam club had 311 members, 13 of whom have since died.
The WWII club had seven surviving members six years ago. The shrinking WWII club soon after combined its annual gathering with the Vietnam Club. Last year's combined banquet was the last for Jack Leverson. He served in the US Navy Air Corp and was wounded during the war, according to his January obituary.
This year the Vietnam vets revived the separate WWII banquet for one special final time.
Thirteen area WWII veterans who weren't members of the club were in attendance. Eight of them were residents of the Ecumen Prairie Hill senior living facility. They were invited to try a sip of the bourbon, (which they report had turned quite bitter) after Hermel and Miller had the first taste.
Many of the nearly 100 other attendees were relatives of deceased members of the WWII club. Each of the 70 members' names were read and a bell was rung.
Before the toast, St. Peter Mayor Chuck Zieman gave in person and Congressman Tim Walz shared via a video words of gratitude to Miller, Hermel and all veterans.
“Thank you to all generations that have protected, preserved and transmitted the God-given right of freedom for future generations,” Zieman said. “Your service and devotion have made it possible for us to gather here tonight and enjoy the liberties we have been granted by your sacrifice.”