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VetsRoll: A Tribute to the Greatest Generation

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They served our country in terrible times, and yet many of the men and women who served in World War II have never seen their memorials in Washington. Meet a family that did something to thank these vets.

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“If the folks at VetsRoll had planned the D-Day invasion, it would have gone a lot smoother!”
–a World War II veteran after his trip to Washington

 

Since 2010, a group of dedicated volunteers have escorted annual caravans of buses filled with hundreds of veterans from World War II and Korea, as well as numerous “Rosie-the-Riveters” (women who worked in defense plants during that era) to Washington, DC, to view the memorials dedicated to their sacrifices. Called VetsRoll, the project is the idea and continuing enterprise of the Finnegan family, owners of Finnegan’s RV Center in South Beloit, Ill.

“My brother John, my wife Darlene, and I wanted to do something as a tribute to our parents and their generation,” says Mark Finnegan. Their father, Cy, who passed away in 2000, was a motor machinist in the Navy during World War II. Their mother, Barbara, who still lives in Beloit, worked in local defense industries during the war.

In fall 2009, the Finnegans were contacted by ABC-TV’s Extreme Makeover: Home Edition to provide RVs during the production of a show in rural Lena, Ill. As an added contribution to the family whose home was being filmed, the Finnegans raised almost $12,000 from various donors in four days.

“It convinced us that, even in tough times, if the cause was right, people would still support it,” says Finnegan.

The following year the Finnegans learned of the Honor Flight Network that raises money to charter commercial aircraft for one-day, all-expense-paid, round-trip flights for World War II veterans to Washington. Estimates suggest that these veterans are dying at the rate of almost 1,000 a day.

The Finnegans felt they could provide an alternative experience by organizing a ground-based program that transported veterans in RVs and buses, spreading the trip over four days.

After three months of organizing, fundraising, and finding veterans and volunteer assistants, the first VetsRoll trip left Beloit on May 17, 2010. During that inaugural trip, 117 World War II veterans, eight Rosies and 60 assistants traveled in 13 vehicles. Along the way, they stopped in Pennsylvania at the Flight 93 National Memorial, honoring the plane that crashed there on 9/11.

“The first trip was a great success,” recalls Finnegan, “but we thought that was it, we’ve done our deed. Before we even got home, however, we were already getting calls from other vets who heard about us and wanted to go on ‘the next one.’”

After deciding to continue the project the next year, the Finnegans made some logistic changes. Instead of using RVs, they decided to charter buses, which can carry more passengers, and they expanded participation to include Korean War-era veterans who served from 1949 through 1958.

The annual event now takes place each May over the four-day weekend prior to Memorial Day. The trip includes 200 veterans and Rosies, more than 100 assistants who pay their own way (about $500), medical staff and drivers, a pilot coach and support van. This year, the 925th veteran/Rosie will make the trip.

Since its inception, VetsRoll has provided this travel at no cost to the veterans or Rosies. Participants and assistants have come from more than 25 states, primarily Illinois and Wisconsin. This year, more than 40 participants come from the greater Chicago area.
Last year, the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in Dayton, Ohio, was substituted for the 9/11 site in Pennsylvania.

“The hilly terrain in Pennsylvania was tough on our passengers,” says Finnegan. “And Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton can handle big groups like us – 365-plus this year. We all dine that first evening in the Officers’ Club, then have ‘Mail Call’ after the meal. That’s an idea we got from the Honor Flights.”

Before each trip, a team of volunteers headed by Ann and John Schroeder from Rockton, Ill., solicit letters and cards from schools, church groups, veterans’ organizations, and others, thanking the veterans for their service to our country, and for their sacrifices. They also secretly contact family members for the same gesture. Last year, they collected more than 8,000 cards and letters for 200 veterans.

“John Schroeder, dressed as Uncle Sam, distributes the packets of letters to the veterans and “Rosies” after dinner that first night,” says Finnegan. “We try to replicate the excitement the vets must have felt when they got letters from home during their service. It’s a very powerful, emotional event.”

The second night, the caravan stays in two hotels in Hagerstown, Md., then tours the monuments the next day. Their first stop is Arlington National Cemetery, which contains the remains of more than 290,000 servicemen and women, and their families. After witnessing the Changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, as they leave the area, veterans are often greeted and applauded by students from local high schools.

The rest of the day is spent visiting the memorials on the Washington Mall: The Vietnam Veterans Memorial, completed in 1982; the Korean War Veterans Memorial, dedicated in 1995; and the National World War II Memorial, finished in 2004. A group photo is taken in front of the World War II Memorial.

“Since we don’t want to act like babysitters, the volunteers form a perimeter around the area, and then let the vets walk around at their own pace, usually in small groups,” says Finnegan.

With an early start, the caravan heads for home on Wednesday, escorted by state police cars all the way back to Wisconsin. A stop in Elkhart, Ind., provides yet another emotional event, where Robert Miller, himself a World War II veteran, has created a rehab program to shelter and feed homeless veterans, most of whom served in the Vietnam War. The VetsRoll group stops to witness a color guard and a flag retirement ceremony, then returns salutes from about two dozen of Miller’s Vets, all in uniform.

“As the convoy comes around Chicago, the anticipation for the homecoming mounts,” says Finnegan. “Near Rockford, people on the overpasses salute and wave flags, since they have been following the events on the news.”

The evening arrival at the Eclipse Center in Beloit is spectacular, with police and fire department escorts, motorcycle and classic car groups joining in the parade, and a fireworks display.

“This is great!” said Korean War veteran Don Knutson of South Beloit, upon his return. “When I came home from Korea, all I got was a cup of coffee and a donut.”

Fundraising to pay for all of this is a yearlong project for VetsRoll, with an annual budget of $225,000 to $250,000 in operating costs. A major event is the Hangar Dance, held in Beloit in April, which features two 1940s-era dance bands. The biggest contribution comes from passing buckets at the Walworth County Fair, which raises more than $15,000 each year.

“We don’t have major corporate sponsors footing the bills,” says Finnegan. “We take pride in the fact that our contributors are small and numerous. It helps us involve the communities around Beloit.”

Applications for assistants to accompany the veterans far exceed the number needed each year. More than 200 applied for 140 spots this year alone. A fully trained professional medical staff of 30 to 35 EMTs, LPNs, RNs, paramedics, CNAs and physical therapists attend to any and all medical emergencies.

“We are prepared for any contingencies,” says Finnegan. “We make four to five trips to the ER every year. Most of these heroes are in their 80s and 90s, so things are bound to happen. But nobody gets left behind.”

Finnegan’s long-term plans might include extending invites to veterans from 1959 to 1963, eventually including Vietnam War veterans. Hopes for people to form other VetsRoll “chapters” have as yet gone unfulfilled.

“It takes a lot of dedicated people to pull this off each year,” says Finnegan. “But the rewards we get are tremendous. I talk about the VetsRoll program to numerous groups, including school assemblies. I always mention to them that there remains a very small, shrinking window of opportunity for young people to ‘skip’ our generation and talk to those who lived through those wars. They were there – you can hear it in their voices, feel their emotions – instead of just reading about it in a textbook. They really are a ‘Band of Brothers,’ and sisters.”

These are the stories of a few veterans and Rosies who recently traveled with VetsRoll.

Edward Jaros, age 86, served in the Navy during World War II, and in the Army during the Korean War. He attended VetsRoll in 2013, and now lives outside Woodstock. Jaros was in high school during most of World War II, but he had ambitions to become a pilot. He worked at a local airport to earn flying lessons, so he could “get a jump on those guys who might be drafted with me,” he says.

“I enlisted in the Navy in 1945 and wanted to become a naval air cadet,” says Jaros. “But before I could be trained, the war ended. Instead, they sent me to a naval air station in California to become a meteorologist.”

When his enlistment ended in 1950, Jaros was transferred to the Naval Reserve, but the Korean War intervened and he was drafted into the Army in 1951. After basic training, he was sent to Japan, then on to Korea as part of the Second Infantry Division.

“At that time, the division was in reserve [away from the front lines], being brought up to strength after suffering a lot of casualties from the Chinese intervention,” says Jaros. “All the guys with my outfit were sent to rifle companies, but they sent me to the headquarters artillery battery to replace their meteorologist who was waiting to be sent home.”

Jaros’ job was to measure temperature, air density, winds aloft and other data that would affect the trajectory of artillery shells in flight.

“Sometimes we functioned as riflemen, when we were used to plug holes in the front lines,” recalls Jaros. “This was during the time U.N. forces were trying to acquire good ground while the ‘peace talks’ continued in Panmunjom.”

Jaros left Korea in 1952 and was transferred to Washington, to be attached to an anti-aircraft battalion assigned to protect the White House.

“They put us up in tents in a city park,” says Jaros. “We had better accommodations in Korea, where we could construct shelters out of ammo boxes, with a canvas roof and wood floors.”

After his army service, Jaros used his GI Bill benefits to get more flight training, with the intention of becoming an airline pilot. But that market was filled with veterans who had more flying experience than he did. “I ended up going to dentistry school and became a dentist,” says Jaros. “You are never master of your own destiny, I can tell you that.”
A few months before his VetsRoll trip, Jaros went on an Honor Flight from Madison, Wis., but he found it a bit hectic.

“The VetsRoll trip gives you more time to get acquainted with other vets, and to share stories,” he says. “But we talked more about what happened to us after the wars, rather than our military service.”

As to the future … “I live outside Woodstock on eight acres of rural property, with a few sheep in the barn,” says Jaros. “My ambition is to sit on the front porch, watch the sheep grazing in the pasture and let the clock run out.”

Eugene Kleindl, age 91, of Capron, Ill., served as a medic/litter bearer in the 358th Regiment, 90th Infantry Division, from 1942 through 1945. He landed at Utah Beach in Normandy, France, on D+1 (June 7, 1944), and was in combat for more than 300 days. During that period, Kleindl kept a diary in which he recorded his thoughts and experiences.

“I happened to be out of the boat first, so I led the way,” says his entry for June 7, 1944. “Looking to one side, I recall there was a general frantically rushing to reach shore first. It must be important to him, I thought, so I slowed my pace. It made him happy to touch the shore first.”

Kleindl and his older brother, Cliff, two of six siblings, enlisted in the Army together at Rockford’s Camp Grant in 1942. They were both at Normandy during the invasion, but in different companies.

“I always wondered if I would [be the one to] pick him up as a wounded soldier,” Kleindl later recalls. “He was wounded twice in Normandy, and once evacuated to England. Only seven of his original company were still in the outfit by the war’s end. The rest were all replacements.”

Kleindl was soon in the thick of the fighting through the French bocage country, carrying both American and German wounded from the battlefield to nearby aid stations. Once, he retrieved a colonel who had been hit by machine gun fire, and he was later awarded the Bronze Star for his bravery. As part of Patton’s Third Army, Kleindl crossed France into Belgium, where he was part of the Battle of the Bulge that December. He entered Germany through the Siegfried Line, crossed the Rhine River and ended up in Czechoslovakia at war’s end. Due to prior agreements between Allied leaders, the U.S. Army was ordered to withdraw into Germany and relinquish recently conquered territory to the Russians.

In spite of a “no fraternization” order, Kleindl became friends with a woman in Nabburg, Germany, whose husband was a prisoner of the Russians. Kleindl corresponded with the woman and her family after the war, sending them “care packages” occasionally.

“I still get letters from them to this day,” says Kleindl.

Kleindl has also participated in the Honor Flight, but found that last year’s VetsRoll gave him more time to meet and talk with other veterans.

“I also got interviewed several times by the media,” says Kleindl, “since they were looking for those of us with combat experience. I was especially impressed by the homecoming reception in Beloit. There were hundreds of people, kids waving, fireworks were flying. When I came home in 1945, I went back to Camp Grant, where they gave us our pay and sent us home. This was a much better welcome home – and only 69 years late!”

In addition to his diary, Kleindl has an extensive collection of World War II memorabilia, although he has given most things to his grandson. He speaks occasionally to youth groups about his wartime experiences, and was honorary parade marshal for Rockford’s Memorial Day parade in 2008.

Ruby Gregus, age 88, of Beloit, Wis., worked in local defense plants during World War II, so she went on VetsRoll last year as a representative of “Rosie the Riveter,” an icon of wartime propaganda promoting the role of women in the war effort.

“I did my part by taking the place of the men who went into the service,” says Gregus. “It was all women working in the factories, except for some foremen who were men.”

Gregus worked at Fairbanks Morse in Beloit, manufacturing bearings and magnetos for ships; at National Lock in Rockford, making hand grenades; and at an electronics factory assembling field radios.

“Sometimes we had defense blackouts in town to prevent bombing attacks,” she recalls. “All the lights went out, all over town. My starting pay at Fairbanks Morse was 25 cents an hour. We wore one-piece coveralls and a hat to cover our hair. A local photographer, Lisa Karr, took my picture as Rosie the Riveter for a poster advertising the VetsRoll program.”

Gregus’ husband, Louie, served in the Navy during the war. His ship was torpedoed by the Japanese near Alaska, but he survived the sinking.

“I remember, we always worried about the people close to us who were in the military, wondering: Were they coming home?” she says.

Gregus’ brother, Ralph Tuttle, served in the Marines during the Korean War, and he accompanied his sister on the VetsRoll trip.

“We took pictures of each other at Audie Murphy’s grave in Arlington Cemetery,” she says. “Murphy was the most decorated soldier in the Second World War. At Mail Call in Dayton, they gave us each a bag of letters from school kids and family, thanking us for the jobs we did. I got letters from my two daughters and my three grandkids. It brought tears to my eyes. Every so often, I go back and read them.”

Eugene Banke, age 91, served in the Army during World War II and Korea, with a brief stint in the Air Force in between. The Elgin resident attended VetsRoll last year. Banke enlisted in the Army in 1940, and trained with two armored divisions before being sent to Europe as a replacement. He ended up as a combat engineer in the 36th Infantry Division.

“In France, we used tank dozers [tanks with bulldozer blades attached up front] to take out enemy mines,” he explains. “One time I got into an argument with another soldier in my outfit. He was riding me about something, so I lit into him. A Japanese-American soldier broke it up, reminding us that there was plenty of fighting left to do at the front. Later, when I learned his unit had taken a lot of casualties, I felt bad about the whole thing.”

Banke enlisted in the Air Force from 1946 to ‘47, then joined the Army National Guard. His unit was activated during the Korean War, but he spent his tour of duty in California.

Banke enjoyed the VetsRoll trip, especially viewing all of the monuments. “I appreciated all the artistry in the World War II Memorial, although it took almost 58 years to get it done,” he says. “Even the Vietnam War veterans got a memorial before we did.”

Banke was particularly impressed with the Miller’s Vets project in South Bend, that helps to rehabilitate homeless veterans. “I think that’s a wonderful idea, and I would like to help start something like that in Elgin.”

Barbara (Bobbe) Stuvengen of Janesville, Wis., enlisted in the WAVES (Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service), the women’s navy reserves, in 1945. Her first assignment was in Washington, with the Chief of Naval Communications. About the third day after her arrival from boot camp, she was sent on an errand by one of the officers. As she waited in the rain for a bus, a large black car pulled up and a petty officer got out, went around and opened the passenger door. A short, stocky man got out and went into the building.

“The P.O. came over to me and asked if I knew who that was,” recalls Stuvengen. “Of course I said I did not, since we were all wearing rain gear, so no rank showed. Imagine my horror when he told me it was Admiral “Bull” Halsey, one of the heroes in the Pacific War. I worried for days that I might be put on report for not having come to attention and saluted the Admiral. Fortunately, he apparently hadn’t even noticed me.”

After the war, Stuvengen trained to become a flight orderly with the Naval Air Transport Service (NATS), and was stationed at Moffett Field in California. Her duties took her on numerous flights between California and Hawaii.

“Since the war was over, some of our flights were carrying freight or civilian workers who were on their way to Guam or other islands to start the rebuilding. Still others were carrying wives and children to join their husbands overseas. These flights were fun, but the return trips were not always pleasant. Many of them were ‘hospital flights,’ when we brought back wounded men who were being transferred to hospitals in the States. They could be emotional experiences.”

Stuvengen enjoyed her experience on VetsRoll in 2010, but thinks the ones who were most impressed by the trip were probably the older guys who never talked before about their wartime exploits.

“A lot of families still don’t know the stories of what they went through,” says Stuvengen. “But when they got on this trip, where 90 percent of them all had experienced similar situations, they acted like a bunch of teenagers chattering away. They had a ball.

“For me, the trip was like going home, since I was stationed in Washington during the war. In fact, I found out the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was built on the same land where the original Navy Department was located – right where I worked.”

To volunteer, contribute funds, or sign up a veteran, view the website at www.VetsRoll.org. This year’s trip was May 18-21.

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