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Veterans Day Feature

 

In honor of Veterans Day, we’re sharing the stories of two World War II veterans and native Aurorans, who are also active members of the Roosevelt-Aurora American Legion Post 84. (In fact, we wish there was more room to include all the wonderful stories they shared!) We thank them for their service, and hope you enjoy this tribute to the veteran community of the Fox River Valley. Read below to learn about the lives of these remarkable men before, during, and after the war. 

 

Life Before the War

“We were poor, but we didn’t know it.”

So says Richard “Dick” Miller of Aurora. For him, childhood summers were filled with adventures chasing friends in and out of neighbors’ gardens; backyard trees brimming with cherries, apples, and pears; homegrown tomato sandwiches at the kitchen table; walks to bring home blocks of ice for his family on his toy wagon.

Rattled by the Great Depression, Dick says that families in his neighborhood, many of them German, learned to “make do” by growing and saving.

“We lived off of that [backyard produce] all summer. . .We didn’t eat meat all the time, but Dad fished and hunted. My mother canned – everybody canned in those days.”

On the same side of town, Ken Olson, an only child and third-generation Norwegian, spent his growing years falling in love with music. Born at the tail end of summer in 1926, he attended Nancy L. Hill School, C.M. Bardwell, and East Aurora High School (which Dick also attended.) Ken finished high school in three-and-a-half years after diligently taking summer school classes.

Neither man’s father had served in the military. But when the call came to fight for their country, Ken and Dick were quick to enlist in the Navy, for what would collectively become known as the “deadliest military conflict in history” – World War II.

 

Life During the War

With a goodbye to his sweetheart, Dick was sent to Idaho for boot camp with another young Auroran named Albert McCoy, who would later become the mayor of Aurora and eventually a CFFRV Board member. He was then sent to San Francisco, and though he enjoyed the scenery of the American West, he longed to do more.

“I came here to serve my county – I want to go overseas!” he recalls saying.

This eventually meant boarding a destroyer bound for Pearl Harbor, without the company of anyone he’d met since enlisting. It’s the last battle of the war, however, that remains seared in his mind. Early one morning in Okinawa, Japan, a fighter pilot crashed into his ship, causing the ship to start rolling over immediately. (Dick recalls others telling him later that the ship went down in 49 seconds.) At the time, he had no choice but to slide down the ship’s bulkhead into the water, where a three-inch thick layer of oil awaited him.

“You’d be completely coated [in oil] – your head, your eyes – and waves would slap you in the face,” Dick said. “All around me, I heard sailors shouting, ‘Help me!’ They were drowning.”

Amid the burning oil and cries for help, Dick noticed one sailor struggling to swim near him. Knowing the man might accidentally pull him down if he got too close, Dick was hesitant to help. Suddenly, an ammunition can with a large handle floated toward him. He quickly grabbed it and told the sailor they’d take turns floating on it until they were safe.

In the chaos and confusion, “God was with me that day,” Dick says. Though the intense heat partially burned his legs, he made it to shore alive, but more than 150 of Dick’s fellow sailors perished in the wreckage. He still thinks of them every day.

After health examinations and boot camp, Ken, a dedicated clarinet player, hoped to join the United States Navy Band. However, these hopes were quickly dashed when he was told he’d be shipping out to California, not the nation’s capital, where the music camp was headquartered.

“I knew I might as well send my clarinet back!” Ken remembers thinking. Indeed, he wouldn’t need it where he was going – first to California, then Hawaii, then Okinawa, Japan.

But he would need a sea-bag – something every man carried aboard a ship. At a time when packing light was a necessity, this bag contained a sailor’s bedding and personal possessions. One can imagine, then, Ken’s dismay as he watched the loading of the gear from an Okinawa shore, saw several sea-bags fall into the water, and felt a lurch in his stomach. He knew one of them was his.

“What do you know – I didn’t have any clothes, except what I had on my back, for the next several weeks!”

In Japan, Ken was assigned to a small ship called a YMS, or yard minesweeper. In those days, like Dick, he didn’t even know where he was going until he got there, or for what he was being trained. He wasn’t told until a decade after the war, at a gathering of former YMS sailors, that he was being trained to clear mines to make a path in the water for ships to invade.

During his time in the service, Ken had the opportunity to visit China and the Philippines as well. Interestingly, the suffering Ken most vividly remembers seeing came before he even traveled overseas, while he was recovering from chicken pox stateside at Great Lakes Hospital.

“I’d see men being brought in from the Okinawa invasion, and I had an awful feeling when I’d see all these fellas come in without a leg or an arm,” Ken said. “That’s always stuck with me, that I was very fortunate that I did not have to experience that.”

Both men remember a sense of camaraderie and community, both in the service and at home, during wartime.

Dick recalls that after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, men in Aurora lined up around the block to enlist in the war, without a second thought. He also remembers prominent companies like Ford shifting their focus to manufacturing parts for the war effort.

After his sea-bag incident, Ken met a Marine on shore who let him share his tent until he was assigned a ship. And when his fellow sailors were being processed to ship home in 1946, Ken stepped in to help, even though doing so meant a longer tour of duty away from home.

“On my YMS, they had fellas who had enough points to get sent back home, but the yeoman, who did the office work on my ship, couldn’t go home – no one was available who could do his kind of work,” Ken remembers.  “I volunteered, because I could type.”

 

Life After the War

Dick attended Aurora College (now Aurora University) upon returning from the service – the first major step in his postwar plans. His sweetheart had graduated from military cadet nurse training at Copley Hospital, and he was ready for them to start their life together.

“I was sitting in class one day, and I thought to myself, ‘I want to get married! I want to get a job, build a house, and have kids!’” Dick recalls. “And that’s exactly what I did. I had a boy and a girl.”

Dick’s hard work in school led him to the post office in downtown Aurora, where he later became the personnel officer. His boss, Jim Maloney, was such a nice man that Dick stayed at the post office a year past his projected retirement, just to work with him as long as possible. At one point, he picked up real estate as a side business, buying property to flip homes and eventually building a home of his own.

When Ken finally did return home, it was not to the house of his boyhood he’d left behind. The home on Elliott Avenue that his parents had rented for years was unexpectedly gifted to the landlord’s son – an unwelcome surprise for Ken.

After graduating from the University of Illinois in 1950, he took a job with Western United Gas & Electric Company, which he only qualified for if he could learn shorthand, which he quickly did – typing, of course, was already his strong suit. Eventually, the company merged with Commonwealth Edison Company (ComEd), sending Ken to work on the electric side as a secretary to ComEd’s then-president, Willis Gale. After serving as a secretary for two years, he became a staff assistant, then served in other management roles before becoming a district superintendent. A little over forty-two years after joining the company, he retired.

As a veteran, Ken was inspired to join the Roosevelt-Aurora American Legion Post 84, eventually achieving the role of a commander, at a time when the Legion enjoyed about 1200 members. It was through this involvement with the Legion that friends set him up on a blind date with a pretty Norwegian girl who eventually became his wife.

 

Life Today

Dick became involved with the Legion after his own wife’s passing at the age of 85.

“After she died, I didn’t know what to do. I still miss her so much,” Dick said, his voice filling with tears. “She was such a pretty gal in her nurse’s uniform.” Every night before bed, he kisses her picture, which sits next to a picture of the two of them on their 60th wedding anniversary.

He is grateful for his involvement with the Legion, and for a widowed friend of his who has been his Sunday lunch companion for years. By inviting him to her family gatherings, she has eased his loneliness a bit. His daughter lives close by in Yorkville, while his son lives in Charlotte, North Carolina, after having worked at American Airlines for 41 years.

Dick still mows his acre-and-a-half of land by himself, with a John Deere riding mower. On a warm day, he can be seen weaving the mower around the house he built, all those years ago.

“I enjoy every day –  I live life to the full!” he said.

Ken, who has been married for 56 years, enjoys a network of family members spread throughout the United States – including a son in Massachusetts, a daughter in Oklahoma, and a son in Texas.

“We’re so far apart,” Ken says. “That movie, Home Alone, that’s us. We have no relatives in Aurora.”

His church, St. Olaf Lutheran Church in Montgomery, had been closed for months earlier this year, though he and his wife now watch the recorded service each weekend on a small television.

At 94, his habits from the military remain with him. Tidiness, for one thing – a must for any service member. His love for playing the clarinet has also endured – he was a member of the Aurora American Legion Band for more than 60 years. That musical passion is evident in the lives of his children as well – Curtis played clarinet for the Legion Band as well as the University of Illinois Concert and Marching Bands, Julie played flute in the University of Iowa Marching Band, and Kevin played trumpet for the University of Iowa Marching Band.

Both men faithfully wear their Navy veteran hats, a reminder of the men who never came home, never started families. With careers behind them and children grown, with traveling and congregating now a rarity, they’ve had ample time to reflect on the war that changed their world forever.

“Time is all I have these days,” Ken says with a laugh.

We chose the Community Foundation because of its reputation. It’s well known, established and we can trust them to do the job for us.

Dick Schindel

Richard and Susan Schindel Scholarship Funds

Being a part of the Community Foundation scholarship committee is the highlight of my year. For many, a scholarship from the Community Foundation is the reason they are able to continue reaching for their dreams and changing the future of our world. I hope each recipient knows just how inspirational they are to those of us who are lucky enough to read their stories.

Jessica Breugelmans

Board Member & Scholarship Committee Member

A community foundation is a donor-driven organization that helps donors custom-design funds that reflect their charitable interests. Through the years, grants from these funds have made a significant impact on our local communities.

Sharon Stredde

President Emeritus

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Cris Anderson

Cristina & Thomas S. Anderson Endowment Fund | Tom & Cris Anderson Colonial Advisory Fund

As a first-generation college student from a low-income family, I was worried about how I was going to pay for books and supplies. This scholarship will allow me to focus more on my studies instead of worrying about how to afford college. I am working to not only create opportunities for myself but to motivate future generations. Thank you so much for helping me along this journey!

Moises J.

Claude & Alice Allen Memorial Scholarship Recipient

Thank you very much for supporting my college education for these four years. I will never be able to repay you for the opportunity that this scholarship has given to me.

Julia H.

[Renewing Scholarship Recipient] Graduate of Hinkley-Big Rock High School

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