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World War II Memories

In preparation for Memorial Day 2024 and the 80th anniversary of D-Day on June 6, we invited our patrons to share their family stories of WWII. We invite you to come see the stories and artifacts shared by our local community.


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Photo of Staff Sgt. Neal Lanigan

Submitter's Name: Becky Ingram

About: My great uncle, Staff Sgt. Neal Lanigan, US Army, 15th Infantry, 3rd Division. European Front.

Story: Neal was part of the North Africa/Italy battles. He was wounded by shrapnel in the arm in 1943 in Sicily, and received the purple heart and oak leaf cluster awards. He was reported missing in action some months before that before being found in the rosters later. On March 1, 1944 he was killed in action while engaging in battle at Anzio. He showed great valor by providing cover for his platoon to get them over an exposed hill and was awarded the Silver Star posthumously. He was 29 years old. He was from the small town of Arena, Wisconsin. His body was recovered and shipped home for burial in 1947 so they could finally have a funeral. His parents also represented Gold Star families in the area when a new football field was built in honor of those who served and died in the war.

photo of Russell V Ayers

Submitter's Name: Joanna Ayers-Sawitz

About: Russell V Ayers, father of Joanna Ayers Sawitz and WWII B-17 Pilot Stationed in England during WWII

Story: My father, Russell V Ayers of Lockport, Illinois was a pilot during World War II from 1942 through 1945. He was stationed at the Snetterton air force base in Norwich, England with the 8th Air Force and the 96th Bombing Group. He flew thirty-five bombing missions over Germany as a pilot of the B-17 Flying Fortress bomber. His training took him across the country from Texas, Arkansas, California, New Mexico, Nebraska and finally across the pond to England. My mother, Faye, would follow him, whenever she could, along with my older twin sisters who were about five years old at the time, from base to base throughout the country.

My mother wrote about our family’s story chronicling this time from the Great Depression through World War II and life in Lockport, Illinois. My mother saved all his letters from basic training through being stationed at Snetterton AFB, and later when he was stationed in San Antonio, Texas after World War II ended.

My sister Sandra and I put together a book chronicling his training in the states and the missions he flew over Germany, putting together a book entitled “The Suitcase Letters” which is available on Kindle. It also includes the writings of my mother, who told our family’s story and history, as well as my parents’ letters to each other and the family.

My father was tragically killed in an airplane crash on a trip home to Lockport, Illinois from San Antonio, Texas in August of 1946 during a violent rainstorm. His plane crashed in Iberia, Missouri. He flew thirty-five bombing missions over Germany, came back in one piece only to die in a plane crash on his way home to Lockport, Illinois.

Submitter's Name: Irwin Magad

About: The 50th Anniversary of the Landing at Normandy

Story: For the 50th Anniversary of the landing at Normandy, my wife and I took a trip to France. On our trip we were fortunate to meet with many of the veterans who landed on December 6th. This was a very moving experience for us, as many of these men on our trip had sustained life changing physical injuries; for example, one of the men had lost his foot when he stepped on a landmine. 

John was one of the veterans we met on the trip. The night before we went to the beach I was at the hotel bar talking to John and he told me how nervous he was to return to the beach after all the years that had passed. I tried to console him by telling him he was entitled to have his feelings and that he shouldn't feel ashamed. The next morning our tour group arrived at the beach; I had a wide angled camera that I wanted to use to take a picture of the bluff. John was on the beach – he was kneeling on the sand and crying. When he saw me he motioned me over to his side, then pointed to a house on the bluff and told me that this house saved his life. He told me that he was under heavy enemy fire when he ran up the bluff and jumped into the window of the house.

I was very honored to be in the company of these veterans – my heroes. Later that evening we traveled to Bastogne and, much to our surprise, we saw and talked with the renowned WWII correspondent Walter Cronkite. The veterans recognized and greeted him by saying "Hey Walt, how are you doing?"

photo of Todd Olson

Submitter's Name: Mary Ellen Casey

About: Todd Olson, father of Mary Ellen Casey 

Story: During the Battle of the Bulge, my father, Todd Olson, was captured as a prisoner of war. Here are a few excerpts from the diary he kept as a POW. 

Dec. 16, 1944: Big German offensive. All hell broke loose. Knocked out both my M.G.. Surrounded C.P. Lost seven. Six captured. Three wounded. Fian, Berkely, Cunningham, Schaener, Handle, myself, and Lt. Campbell., carried wounded six miles dodging our own artillery. Marched 20 miles. Bedded in a barn. Bombed and strafed.

Dec. 17: Interrogated, moved to a church, rather ruins of a church. Fain and I laid close together on a bench to keep warm. No chow. Strafed and bombed.

Dec. 18: Received first chow, soup, marched twenty miles, snowing and cold. 

Jan. 17: Moved us into box cars, no blankets or coats, weather was freezing, so were we. Stayed in cars overnight, sweated out an air raid.

Jan. 22: Arrived at Stargaad, Stalag II-D, we were in pretty poor shape, hungry, dirty, weak, lousy, and frozen. 

Apr. 26: Well this may be the day we all have been waiting so patiently for. Just received the order that the German General ordered the Captain of this camp to go to the lines with a white flag and tell the British, who are less than five miles away, that they were going to allow us to march through the lines into British hands. Be prepared to move out by 3:00 p.m. It is now 5:00 p.m. and we are still waiting, but haven’t given up hope of moving. There has been more activity going on around here than I have seen since I left the Sigfried Line. As I sit and look through the window, I see a squad of Jerry soldiers retreating towards Bremen and they look pretty well tired out. It sure is a grand sight. Looks like the Good Lord is answering our prayers.

Apr. 27: Pete, Brummond and I slept out in the dugout, just in case. Well things are pretty quiet on the front. They let us know they are still here with artillery shells or machine gun bursts now and then. I expect things will get pretty hot around here today. Still haven’t received an answer from the Jerry Captain. So this may be the day of Liberation. Look forward to spending the Fourth of July at home. I’m getting a bird’s eye view of the front lines again, standing in my dugout. I see Jerries running like wild across the field in front of me. Now a tank, rather tanks, are retreating. It’s just like the Fourth of July. Rifle bullets are whizzing over my head, S.S. officers are running around like mad. Tank just stopped a couple hundred yards in front of me and is ready to fire. Brummond says we can wear another campaign ribbon. This is something you can’t believe unless you see it. The boys are enjoying this more than a football game.

Apr 28: FREE MEN AGAIN! British took our few Jerry guards prisoner. I should say the Welsh Guards. Yes, they rode into camp this morning, news reporters took our pictures. Hope they see it at home. Oh yes! Old Glory is flying again and she sure looks grand. One of Eiserhower’s men, a Lt. Colonel also arrived. He is in charge of transporting us out of here and is really on the ball. Some are leaving now, sick and wounded. The boys are really excited and all we talk about is home.

Submitter's Name: John R. Balster

About: John H. Balster, Merle Balster, & Robert W. Balster

Story: My father and three uncles all served in WWII. My father's brother, Merle Balster, served in the Pacific on the destroyer Acton which fought in the Battle of the Coral Sea. His other brother, Robert W. Balster, served on the aircraft carrier San Jacinto, from which George Bush Sr. flew missions. My mother's brother, Conrad (Connie) Hansen, and my dad, John H. Balster were both in the 34th Infantry division - the Red Bulls. 

They began the war in Africa reaching Tripoli. From there they became part of the invasion of Italy, landing at Salerno under heavy German fire. They fought their way north and were heavily involved in the Battle of Cassino, 60 miles south of Rome where the Germans had battle lines through the mountains and coast to coast. Heavy rains made movement very difficult with many contested river crossings. 

My Dad and my uncle were in the 194th Artillery regiment. My uncle Conrad flew an unarmed Piper Cub airplane over the German line to spot for artillery. After months of a stalemate which pulverized the town of Cassino and the surrounding areas, the 34th was pulled out to sea and then landed behind German lines between Cassino and Rome. General Truscott, in charge of the landing, built up defensive lines rather than moving inland. This gave the Germans time to surround Anzio which became a 'hell on earth'. Eventually, they fought their way out and made it to Rome. After Rome they continued their way north until reaching the "Gothic Line", a new German defense behind Arno river - more bloody battles. After nearly a year they reached Pisa. As the Germans fled north, the 5th Army moved west into Southern France and then east into Austria. They were in Oberammergau when the war ended, and eventually were shipped home via South America after five years in the service. My father saw me, at age 2 1/2, when he finally made it home.

These four are my heroes.

Photo of Paul Roberts

Submitter's Name: Vickie Saunders

About: Paul Roberts, father of Vickie Saunders

Story: Paul enlisted in the Navy at the age of 17 and volunteered for sea duty. After basic training he was assigned to the S.S. Lara (the first of approx. 19 ships).

The priest made a speech and said you probably heard rumors that the armed guard [his military job with the navy] are shark bait, but I wish you God’s speed and a safe trip.” Something you never forget, as the gun crew, was to protect the ship from any combat. These ships carried soldiers, ammunition, horses and supplies and were constant targets for the Germans when in the Atlantic and Mediterranean Sea. Next, they went through the Arabian Sea to the Indian ocean. That’s when trouble began.

On December 27, 1943 they heard a loud explosion; the ship was hit by a Japanese torpedo on the starboard side. Life rafts and lifeboats were lowered and the soldiers jumped into the ocean. They were told to keep moving in different directions because they thought the Japanese submarine would come up and strafe them in their lifeboats/rafts.

My Dad’s raft had 6 men, water, fishing apron w/fishing lines, hooks, and some packaged rations. They floated in the raft for 4 ½ days when they were picked up by an Indian minesweeper that got a message an American ship was torpedoed (they were the lucky ones!). They were taken to India where the red cross took care of them and returned to the states to board another merchant ship back to the war zones. Paul retired from the navy on September 25, 1945, after being around the world many times.

During the war my dad married my mom while on leave (no wedding) and they were married 65 years until she passed away. My dad never really talked about the war until 2010, when I accompanied him as his chaperone, on Honor flight Chicago. It was an amazing trip and an honor to be with 97 WWII vets. My dad said it was the best day of his life except for getting married and the birth of his children. My dad was a proud American and when he passed 10 years ago the clergy sang “Anchors Away” to not a dry eye in the room.

He was awarded 3 Bronze ribbons from U.S., Philippine Liberation Medal, WWII Victory Medal, Asiatic Pacific Medal, Philippine Presidential Badge, Merchant Marine Honorable Service, Presidential Testimonial from President Harry Truman, and Atlantic & Pacific & Mediterranean War Zone Medals & Bars.

Photo of Art RenkosiakSubmitter's Name: Sharon Renkosiak Smogor

About: Cpl Art Renkosiak USMC

Story: Our dad, Art Renkosiak, is a classic example of a person from the Greatest Generation. He was born during the Depression and was raised in a working class Chicago family in the Wicker Park/ St. Stanislaus Kostka Parish neighborhood. He attended Lane Tech HS where his favorite subjects were math and drafting. He helped out in the family butcher shop. He volunteered for the Marines in 1944 and served in the Pacific until 1946. After the service he returned to work on the vacuum pump assembly line at Central Scientific Company. Over the years he worked himself up to Plant Manager and Vice President of the company. He married Millie, an RN who trained with the Army Nurse Corps but the war was over before she had a chance to serve in the military but she served the community as a nurse all of her life. They raised 3 children in the Portage Park/St. Pascal Parish neighborhood. Both of our parents were active in the parish and our school events. When they retired they moved to Des Plaines. They were blessed with 10 grandchildren. He did not live long enough to meet the great grandchildren.

In March of 1995 our parents had the opportunity to travel to Guam and Iwo Jima for the 50th anniversary of the battles on Iwo Jima. The war and the trip back to Iwo Jima were defining moments in our dad's life.

His story has 2 parts. The first is his experience in the Marine Corps and the second is the story of his special flag that he received in memory of the people who served with him and iconic Flag Raising picture on Iwo Jima.

a map of Iwo JimaPart I: The War

Dad left for the Marines in January of 1944. He did his boot camp and tank school training in California at MCRD, Camp Pendleton and Jacques Farm. He was assigned to the Third Division, Ordnance Company, Third Tank BN He was a tank driver and worked with ordnance. He was sent to Guam and then he was assigned to the LST 477 which left for Iwo Jima in February, 1945. The ship was attacked by a Kamikaze plane and several Marines and sailors were killed. Many including our dad, were wounded. The ship continued the journey and landed on the volcanic "sand" beach of Iwo Jima and the crew witnessed the historic flag raising. The bloody battle raged on and after the island was secured they sailed back to their base on Guam. The troops reconfigured and were deployed to China from January -May of 1946. He was welcomed home by his extended family and friends. Grandma kept all of the Christmas decorations up for this special homecoming. The newspapers published some pictures.

Part II: The Flag

Our dad was always willing to talk about some of his experiences in the war and encouraged us to pay attention to history and current events. When the opportunity for a reunion trip to Iwo Jima came up our parents decided it was a once in a lifetime chance so they did some research on the travel plan and off they went.

Dad asked Congressman Henry Hyde to have a flag flown over the US Capitol on February 23, 1995, the 50th anniversary of the flag raising captured on film by photographer Joe Rosenthal. They took that special flag to Iwo Jima where our parents flew the flag on top of Mt. Suribachi by the monument depicting the original flag raising. Dad brought some of the sands of Iwo Jima home along with the memories of part I of his military life story in the service with his fellow Marines. They became very active in marine Corps organizations after reconnecting with so many of his buddies on that trip. Over the years our parents took that flag to many places including the USMC Memorial in Arlington, Virginia where the National Park Service poured some of his sand into the monument. It was flown at the smaller replicas of the monument in Quantico and Coral Gables Florida, as well as the MCRD in San Diego, Chicago's Civic Center, the Capitol Complex in Springfield, and parades.

Our parents left us a legacy of service. They taught us to be thankful for what we have, share with people in need, and be respectful and responsible citizens.

To see some pictures and learn more about this story, please click the link to our dad's website and visit the display case in the vestibule of the Fremont Public Library during the month of May.

Photo of Audrey Epton and BernieSubmitter's Name: Teri Epton Pulver

About: Audrey Epton, mother of Teri Epton Pulver

Story: My Mother was 14 years old when the war started in Europe. She was training for the Olympics as a sprinter but that was cut short. She never got to finish high school either.

One thing I vividly remember was Mom telling me about watching her Sister Eileen and her Mother Ethel crossing the bridge to the Hospital to deliver her nephew, Roger, my cousin. She watched bombs (The Blitz it was called) falling all around them and thinking she would never see them again. She did though. The British government wanted all the children to be sent to the country where they would be safe but my Grandparents refused. They wanted their four children to stay with them in London.

Mom joined the British Army as a plane spotter. When the Americans came to London to help Britain fight the war she met my Father, a navigator, at a dance. Two weeks later they were married. Dad was sent to fight in another theater leaving my Mother in England. Five months later my Dad was able to fly Mom to America. Most British War Brides came by ship. But Dad would have none of it as Mom was 5 months pregnant with me. They had 50 more years of marriage and 3 more children. Channel 11 had a special on British War Brides where they pronounced Audrey the luckiest of them all since "Audrey met Bernie". And it was true. She escaped a war torn country and had a stellar life in America.

Submitter's Name: Patricia Kelly Nufer

About: December 7th, 1941

Story: I was laying on the floor, listening to the radio. A voice was reading the Sunday funnies. Suddenly there was a pause and a different voice broke in and announced, “The Japanese have just bombed Pearl Harbor.” I rushed to tell my family. They were very excited. I didn’t understand what it meant. Later in the day I asked my aunt and she said “We are going to war.” I was five years old.

Submitter's Name: James Glaskin-Clay

About: Mikhail Karabalnikov

Story: My great grandfather served and died for the Red Army during World War II. He served in order to prevent himself from being a subject of Nazi persecution, as he was a Jew living in Ukraine.

Photo of Robert W. WinnerSubmitter's Name: Lauri Carter

About: Robert W. "Bob" Winner, Grandfather

Story: After high school graduation Bob proudly served in the Marines as a paratrooper from 1942-1945. He participated in action on Choiseul Island, in the Bougainville Campaign (New Guinea) and fought in the Battle of Iwo Jima.
After the war Bob served in the US Army Reserves for 13 years and concluded his military service after 20 years working as a Chief Gunner's Mate in the US Navy Reserves.
Bob was awarded the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal, a Purple Heart, and the Victory Medal for WWII.