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Honoring those who served

Veterans Wayne Ruona and George Oja share a laugh during Monday's Veterans Day celebration at Diamond Willow Assisted Living in Detroit Lakes. Brian Basham/DL NEWSPAPERS

Veterans Day is a time to recognize and honor the sacrifices made by America’s Armed Forces veterans — and on Monday afternoon, the residents of Diamond Willow did just that, as the staff hosted a gathering to honor more than a half-dozen veterans who served in World War II as well as the Korean and Vietnam wars.

There was Navy veteran Frank Schmidt, who served during the Vietnam War, aboard the aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk.

“I played on the big boats,” he said with a smile, adding that he spent his time working on F-4 aircraft.

Schmidt noted a little sadly that both the Kitty Hawk and the F-4s have since been retired, just as he is now.

“None of them exist anymore,” he said.

Schmidt also proudly showed off his service medals, which included, among others, a Purple Heart and Distinguished Service Cross.

Also at Monday’s celebration was Army veteran David Hagen, who served in Alaska from 1954-56.

“We built radar sites, and did a lot of other stuff,” he said.

A handful of other veterans also mingled with the guests and discussed their memorabilia and medals, which were on display throughout the afternoon.

But the centerpiece of Monday’s celebration was the recitation of the story of World War II veteran Wayne Ruona by his daughter, Lynn Anderson.

At turns humorous, harrowing and heartbreaking, the story — written by Ruona himself — began with him being drafted on April 22, 1941, and ended with his discharge in 1945, and subsequent transition back into civilian life.

At one point, Anderson read a humorous anecdote of how her father had gotten into an argument with some military police officers while returning to base after having some fun in town.

Ruona eventually “hauled off and hit one of them,” at which point Anderson broke off from the narrative to admonish her father, “Patience, dad.”

That brought a few chuckles among the audience. But the tale quickly became much more serious, as Anderson recited her father’s story of being called overseas to join the war in Europe.

After spending some time in England and Scotland, Ruona’s unit eventually was sent to Africa, and later to Algeria, Tunisia and Italy. It was there, in Cisternha, Italy, that Ruona was captured, and became a prisoner of war.

“In Rome, they were separating the Jewish people from the rest,” Ruona’s narrative read. “There were two boys there, one was Jewish, and I asked the other one what his religion was. He said Catholic. I asked, do you have a rosary, and he said yes. I said give it to the Jewish boy, and told him to wear it around his neck. He did this, and the Germans just told him to go on through.”

In January 1945, Ruona and four of his fellow prisoners escaped during a forced march, and hid behind German lines, traveling by night, sleeping by day, eating whatever they could scrounge.

“We were on our own, behind the lines, about 10 to 20 days,” Ruona’s narrative read. “I don’t remember exactly how many. We were hiding, and we saw three men in camouflage uniforms walk by. One of the other four guys said that they were speaking English.

“I would not believe him. So I started walking behind them at a far distance. They walked quite a ways without saying one word. When they finally said something and I knew it was English, I called out to them. They turned very quickly, with pistols and revolvers in hand. I was wearing a leather Russian helmet. I talked very hard and fast to convince them I was American.”

The soldiers, as it turned out, were British, and eventually helped them find their way back to the U.S. forces in Brussels, Belgium.  Ruona had been a P.O.W. for almost a year.

“The U.S. shipped us back home. We sailed from LaHavre, France to Newport News in Virginia. When we were half way across the sea, the war was over.”

Ruona eventually found his way back to Minnesota, where he got married to Lorraine Ehlers on Jan. 2, 1946. They remained married until her death on April 7, 2006 at 80 years of age.

Ruona celebrated his 99th birthday on Nov. 7, his daughter said.

Follow Detroit Lakes Newspapers reporter Vicki Gerdes on Twitter at @VickiLGerdes.

Vicki Gerdes

Staff writer at Detroit Lakes Newspapers for the past 16 years, currently editor of the entertainment and community pages as well as covering city council and the Lake Park-Audubon School Board. Living in DL with my cat, Smokey.

(218) 844-1454