EAGLE LAKE — World War II vet Harvey Anderson rehearsed Thursday morning plans to turn down offers of free alcohol later in the day when he met with friends and family at his favorite watering hole. They commemorated the 76th anniversary of the Battle of Okinawa.
“‘Harvey, you better not take a drink’” was the 95-year-old Eagle Lake man’s advice to himself.
Anderson was a 19-year-old Marine when he was sent to fight against the Imperial Japanese Army in the initial invasion on the island of Okinawa, about 400 miles from the mainland of Japan. The April 1, 1945, attack was the largest of the U.S. Army and Marine forces’ amphibious assaults in the Pacific Theater.
“It started on Easter morning, April Fool’s Day, but I didn’t land until the afternoon,” Anderson said.
Thursday evening’s gathering was at American Legion Post 617. The building reopened in mid-February after a statewide mandatory closure of bars and restaurants to prevent the spread of coronavirus.
Vietnam War veteran Kevin McGuire serves on a board that distributes the post proceeds from charitable gambling. He said veterans who socialize at the club are from a mixture of ages, most are between age 45 and 50.
“I see Harvey almost every day. He comes in for two brandies, then goes home,” McGuire said.
The two men discuss what can be done to ensure the future for American Legion and Veterans of Foreign War posts. Anderson rarely tells his war stories.
“It’s up to the World War II vets. If they want to talk, then they can. If they don’t, they don’t need to,” McGuire said.
Before the pandemic hit, Anderson regularly met for coffee with two other World War II vets, Wally Stelter, 96, of Mankato, and Sid Spangenberg, 100, of North Mankato, at hilltop Hy-Vee. The trio became acquainted after their military service.
‘’Wally and I still get together at my house on Wednesdays,” Anderson said.
Their conversations aren’t focused on battles or their heroics, but war experiences do come up occasionally.
“We hit on them every now and again. We don’t elaborate.”
Anderson said he tends to heavily edit the contents of his stories when describing Marine experiences to people who never served.
“I tell the humorous stories.”
Like the one about the vet who’d been shot several times; his doctors refused to remove the metal from his body.
“He has a heck of a time getting through airport security.”
For decades, Anderson’s family members heard none of his war jokes and very few details of what he’d gone through after he enlisted in the Marines at age 17.
“I tell them more now than I ever would have before. But how do you explain a war where 110 percent of the people in it got shot? One guy from Mankato got shot six different times.”
Anderson said his group did not suffer any casualties until later in the day on April 1, 1945. However, one Marine died before they hit the beach. He’d committed suicide aboard ship.
“He was convinced he was going to be shot.”
After what Anderson described as an easy landing, he moved inland with a convoy of trucks. They’d traveled about 10 miles when a sniper began firing. The vehicles pulled off to the side of the road and those aboard scrambled to hide in nearby woods to wait for the all-clear signal.
As the convoy began to roll again, a serviceman, who’d opted to hide under one of the big military trucks, was crushed under its wheels.
“We didn’t know he was there until after it happened.”
Anderson said he began to open up a bit to his wife, Loraine, when they visited a military memorial in Hawaii, The Punchbowl. He also untightened his lips at a reunion in New York where he talked to men he’d served with during the war.
When Anderson returned home from the trip, he decided to pass his stories down to his sons and daughters.
“It was 35 to 40 years later (after the war) that I told my children anything. I have grandchildren and great-grandchildren now. There would be nothing to tell them if you weren’t there.”
By 2018, Anderson was comfortable answering his grandchildren’s questions about World War II. He even agreed to a pre-Veterans Day interview by a local radio station and a presentation to a class of third graders in Eagle Lake.
“About three years I was asked to give a little speech at the school. I brought along a knapsack to show them.
“All the kids took their shoes off, then sat around me on the floor. The more I talked the closer they would come to me. I put the knapsack on some of them.”
Anderson had asked the children what they wanted to know about the war. He said most of their queries were the silly kinds kids typically ask.
Nothing like the one, many years earlier, from one of Anderson’s grandsons. Eric had come straight to the point.
“Out of the blue, he said ‘Grandpa, did you ever kill any Japs?’”
Anderson, who at the time was one of only two military veterans in the family, said he paused before answering the young child’s question that included a derogatory war nickname for his then-military enemy.
“No, but I had to wound some people,” was his response.
Eric is now an adult and an officer in the Marines.
On Thursday, his grandfather showed off a photo of Eric in uniform at a military academy graduation. Then-Vice President Joe Biden is pictured shaking his hand.
Harvey Anderson doesn’t hold back his pride in his family’s military service. He’s also made clear his feelings about a lack of local news coverage in 2020 on the 75th anniversary of the April 1, 1945, attack he’d witnessed.
Maj. Anderson expressed an opinion similar to his grandfather’s in an email: “Anyone can open a book and read about the facts of Okinawa, but the storytelling opportunity to read/hear the thoughts and opinions by someone who was at the ground experiencing all those things must not be lost.”