"You'll never get ahead if you don't take care of what you have." - Doris Waddell, RIP

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn
The multi-ethnic building was the original home of the music department at UMM. (B.W. photo)

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Our Wayne LeSage survived Battle of the Bulge

Grim scene: Battle of the Bulge
Wayne LeSage was a right-hand man of Willie Martin. Willie was the man for whom "Willie's Super Valu" was named. The "new" store building isn't so new anymore. It's a relative term.
Many of us remember the store when it was across the street, where the Dr. Stock building is now. I realize the medical building has a more formal name, but that name changes so often, you can't even count on the current phone book having the correct one. That's why I had to drive into town once, because I couldn't find the phone number.
We take the new Willie's store for granted now. The old one was much more modest with its atmosphere, but it served our purposes well. Willie and Wayne were on hand to help ensure a smooth operation. They exemplified The Greatest Generation.
I knew Willie well but not Wayne. I remember photographing Wayne at the halftime presentation for the Morris High School Homecoming. I seem to recall he was out there as grandfather rather than father of a female member of the royal court. Ron Lindquist at the newspaper was happy I took that photo.
Willie, Wayne and Ron have departed from us now. Willie's funeral was at the Morris Armory, such was his reach with his personality. I didn't hear about Ron Lindquist's death until after the funeral, otherwise I would have attended.
Wayne survived incredible peril in World War II to come back and re-join Morris. He joined the war effort in the late stages. The year 1944 saw him employed as meat cutter at Dolva's Grocery Store. Uncle Sam came calling. First stop: Fort Snelling for a physical. (The late Walt Sarlette of Morris always joked about how he "fought the battle of Fort Snelling.")
Next stop: Camp Fennin, Texas, for basic training. Wayne was in the ranks of the 23rd Infantry, 2nd Division. He got a ten-day furlough to spend back in Morris, so he could share precious time with family before taking further steps toward war. He had two small children.
The next stop: Camp Shanks near Baltimore MD. Wayne boarded the ship Queen Mary which was transporting 18,000 troops. He was on duty as MP during the trip. The destination was England. Winston Churchill was on board. 
A meat cutter, Wayne probably had little experience with rabbit. He recalled his group preparing "rabbit stew" while headed to the front lines in France. "The fellows would catch or steal rabbits," Wayne was quoted saying in the Stevens County Historical Society book "The '40s, a Time for War and a Time for Peace."
I have previously written that my copy of the book has pages falling out very easily. I should note the situation has gotten worse, to where the "book" has become basically a pile of loose pages. That's too bad but it's all still very precious.
"About 50 fellows came and ate," Wayne recalled of the rabbit stew. "Some Germans also ate with us, then left. Later we would be killing each other." I found that strange.
By December of 1944, Wayne had gotten into the thick of the absolute worst that WWII had to offer. This was the Battle of the Bulge. It was the major German offensive launched through the densely forested Ardennes region of Wallonia in Belgium, France and Luxembourg on the western front toward the end of the war.
If only Germany could have capitulated earlier. Germany was on the skids. Maybe the Allies were guilty of too much wishful thinking. Or overconfidence. Because, we were caught rather flat-footed.
Today we simply remember that we won World War II. At the time, there were turning points and suspense that made the immediate future hard indeed to script. The Battle of the Bulge ended up as the costliest battle in terms of casualties for the U.S.
Fierce as it was, and staggering as it was for the U.S., the battle had the effect of depleting Germany's resources. This so often happens in war. "Winning" a particular battle exacts such a toll, it can diminish your chances in the long run.
A pugnacious stance in war is assumed to challenge the enemy, intimidate the enemy and get the enemy discouraged about continuing the conflict. The Tet Offensive in Viet Nam was not successful, except in the sense that it got America (finally) fed up about that war.
No one was more pugnacious than Robert E. Lee in the U.S. Civil War. His objective in invading the North, even if he couldn't wipe out the Army of the Potomac, was to get the war-weary North to sue for peace. He failed.
The Germans had their own name for the Battle of the Bulge: "Operation Watch on the Rhine."
Vicious as it was and hellish as it was for the Allies, we were not deterred, and in the end could be heartened by how the Nazis had depleted their war-making resources.
The Nazis' goal was to split the British and American Allied line in half, capture Antwerp and then proceed to encircle and destroy four Allied armies, forcing the Allies to negotiate a peace treaty in the Axis' favor.
Robert E. Lee too wanted to "split the enemy line" on Day 3 at Gettysburg. These grandiose plans went awry. Such an awful proposition: war.
Hitler wanted to concentrate on the Eastern Theater. The reality was that the Third Reich was tumbling like a house of cards. Conflict and death on such a scale cannot be comprehended today. We must learn from history, lest we repeat it. We know the potential of the human animal for conflict. We must be vigilant.
Weather favored the Germans at the start of the great late-war offensive. The weather at first grounded our superior air forces. That would change. The terrain ended up favoring the Allies. Hitler needed time. He wanted time for his forces to develop advanced weaponry, like jet aircraft, new U-boats and super-heavy tanks.
"Send more Panzers!" is a refrain we hear from frantic German commanders in WWII movies. We see some of those German jets in the movie "Red Tails" about the storied Tuskegee Airmen. I think the German empire would have eventually crumbled regardless of the outcome of particular battles. Bad guys often end up fighting each other. Then again, maybe I've watched too many Westerns. 
Harsh atmosphere of winter
Wayne LeSage and his compatriots arrived at the front lines and got set up in foxholes. Those foxholes became their "home," as he described it in the Historical Society book. The Battle of the Bulge is remembered for its harsh and wintry conditions. Wayne recalled freezing his feet several times.
Word came for Wayne's unit to advance to a new position, this one requiring drilling holes in rocks to make the foxhole. Now Wayne found himself in St. Vith, Belgium, a forested area in addition to the rocks. "There we used jack hammers to make our foxhole," he said.
His unit left the infamous "Malmady Massacre" area just hours before the Germans moved in and killed everyone. This is at Christmastime of 1944.
Wayne spotted German tanks through the fog one morning. Four tanks came right at his group. One actually ran over the foxhole he was in. A shell was tossed in the hole. This could have been the end for the intrepid Wayne, but he came away with wounds only. And you think you have problems on your average day!
Wayne was transported by train from Liege, Belgium, to Paris. The specter of war was still out and about, as the trip was delayed due to German forces bombing the tracks ahead of them! Wayne spent Christmas at a Paris hospital in 1944. New Year's Eve found him on a flight to a hospital in London.
He proceeded in his recovery, then learned that orders were sent out for cooks. He volunteered with his specialty as meat cutter (but presumably not with rabbit). Wayne cut whole frozen chickens to be used in the officers' mess hall. And "we bought 15 kegs of beer for $16 each."
Finally Wayne got on board a ship again, this time en route home, and he landed in New York City on V-E Day. What festivities! What thankfulness! Wayne was sent to O'Reilly General Hospital in Springfield MO, and later boarded a train equipped for the wounded en route to Percy Jones Hospital in Battle Creek MI. There he was discharged, his incredible adventure over, in September of 1945.
America was ready to try to get back to normal. The Greatest Generation would get to work creating families and prosperity, along with the fabled "middle class" that enjoyed prosperity previously unheard of.
Back in his beloved Morris, Wayne purchased the Dolva Grocery Store with Arthur Thralow. I wonder if Arthur might have been our "milkman" when we first came to Morris. Remember "milkmen?" We had one whose name was pronounced "trollow" and I suspect this was "Thralow." He was an older fellow. I can picture him like it was yesterday. This was in the early 1960s, until finally "milkmen" were phased out of our lives, like the "ice" business which was once overseen by the unforgettable Roy Lucken.
Maybe in 20 years we'll be saying "remember the Morris newspaper?"
The movie "Airplane" pays homage to "milkmen" where Lloyd Bridges says to his wife over the phone: "Tell the milkman, no more cheese!" (There is a quote from "Airplane" to be found for a great many subjects.)
As a kid I heard Wayne had an especially interesting war background. I was pleased to eventually be able to read about it.
I was able to visit France and England in the summer of 1972. How thankful we could all be, the Nazi menace had been crushed and was just a memory.
Cinema and Battle of the Bulge
The best-known movie about the Battle of the Bulge bore the name of the battle.
"Battle of the Bulge" was among those 1960s WWII flicks that were late enough to be in color but too early for CGI. The lack of CGI is a blessing even though it certainly pushed up budgets. The movies were sanitized so as to draw a line with gore, blood etc.
We as moviegoers, I feel, could assume the level of gore instead of having to be shown it. Eventually, Hollywood in its "wisdom" decided the blood and such needed more exposure, thus we got "Saving Private Ryan" and others. These may have served to kill off the WWII action flick. That's a shame because such movies could be very instructive about our history.
The movies often took artistic license with facts. We considered that no big deal, as long as the major forces of history were properly acknowledged. It's probably a bigger deal today in this age of Internet-based "fact-checking."
"Battle of the Bulge" (1965) does take liberty with facts as with the chronology of the battle. The idea of course is to maximize the dramatic story. I have watched "Battle of the Bulge" on TV and could not put it near the top of my favorite WWII movies. It's OK.
What's fascinating is that there's no portrayal of senior Allied leaders, civilian or military. Hey, there's a reason! You see, there were major controversies about this battle. The issues bubbled up during the war and after. They center on the Germans' initial success and how it could have been allowed to happen.
Henry Fonda is the heroic "Lt. Colonel Kiley" who foresees what is coming and strives to warn. His superiors aren't so sure. The movie lacks the cold and snowy atmosphere that pervaded the real battle. We see no snow in the film's last big tank battle.
Fonda is part of a stable of "name" actors whom we associate with the 1960s and in large part with war films. We see Robert Shaw as the menacing "bad guy" German tank commander. There's Telly Savalas, Robert Ryan, Dana Andrews and Charles Bronson. Yes, we're reminded of "The Dirty Dozen," a film with Lee Marvin in a role that could never be duplicated by any other actor!
Yes, "Battle of the Bulge" had to be sensitive to the potential for controversy, but even after those delicate steps, General Eisenhower (or President Eisenhower) came out of retirement and held a press conference! He held this conference to denounce the film! He derided what he saw as "gross historical inaccuracy."
Robert Shaw went on to play the eccentric fisherman in "Jaws," remember? In "Battle of the Bulge" his hair is dyed yellow and his eyes project malice.
One critic says the movie "has the feeling of being patched together from different scripts." Maybe this is the basis for my reservations.
Robert Shaw? One movie aficionado says of the character that it's "a caricature - a cross between a Klingon ('Star Trek') and sociopathic human."
Do we subconsciously see the Nazi when we see Shaw in "Jaws?" Is his fate in "Jaws" thus more easy to accept, or to even delight in?
It's too bad the WWII Battle of the Bulge ever happened. It's too bad WWII happened. Just think how the war changed so many lives. 
Resuming normal life in Morris MN
Wayne LeSage was blessed coming back to Morris and co-owning a humble grocery store, and later becoming Willie Martin's right hand man at the Willie's store.
Willie's in my childhood was a "Red Owl." His family would have decried anyone mentioning "Super Valu." Daughter Edith, my age, put together a little humorous scrapbook in which she had the Super Valu name on one page, and under it this description: "America's number one skinflint." (Edith would flip if she knew I remembered this.)
That scrapbook also poked friendly fun at basketball player Joe LaFave, a year older than us. (Scared s--tless of the ball. . .")
Time passes. Willie's Red Owl gave way to Willie's Super Valu, and finally came along that big new building that looks a little like a casino. Juergensen's Super Valu became a thing of the past, along with Coborn's later on.
"The cheese stands alone" now with the state of the art Willie's, run by Willie's son Paul. If only we still had Willie and Wayne still around. We have them in our memories.
- Brian Williams - morris mn minnesota - bwilly73@yahoo.com

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