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By Staff | Nov 9, 2012

I have known our neighbor Bob Olson my entire life. He’s a gentle soul with an easy laugh and kind eyes. His wife, Ardith, was a 4-H leader and Bob coached my sisters’ 4-H softball team.

I also knew that Bob, like my dad, served in the Second World War. I recently visited with Bob and asked him to share some of his memories of that time.

“I was in high school when Pearl Harbor happened,” he recalled. “The whole nation quickly became united behind the war effort. I wasn’t particularly interested in serving in the military, so I started farming after I graduated from high school.”

But it wasn’t long before Uncle Sam came calling.

“After I received my draft notice, they gave me a three-month deferral so I could harvest my crops,” said Bob.

In September 1944, Bob reported to Fort Hood, Texas, for basic training.

“It was hot when I got there, but I didn’t mind it otherwise,” he said. “I actually liked basic training. It must have agreed with me, because I gained 30 pounds and grew an inch and a half.”

After a short Christmastime furlough, Bob, who had been assigned to the 7th Infantry Division, was sent to Hawaii for training in jungle fighting.

“Our training in Hawaii included raids on nearby pineapple fields, so we enjoyed some pineapple now and then,” said Bob with a grin.

Bob’s outfit was eventually shipped to Saipan, which had been taken by Allied forces the year before. After about a month on Saipan, Bob joined a massive convoy of ships steaming for an island called Okinawa.

Bob was about to become part of Operation Iceberg, the largest and bloodiest sea-air-land battle in history. The battle for Okinawa resulted in 50,000 American casualties. More than 107,000 Japanese soldiers would perish during the battle.

“We weren’t told what we’d be doing, if we would be assigned to combat or if we would be doing construction. We went ashore on April 10, 10 days after the battle had started, and were sent to the frontlines to fill in some gaps that had opened up.”

For Bob and his comrades, the next 2.5 months would become a nightmarish slog of combat and rain, mud and blood.

“We spent a lot of time in foxholes. You were usually pretty safe in there. Once, an artillery round landed so close to me that I was cut in the belly by shards of coral rock. I went to the aid station, hoping they would send me to a hospital, but they just bandaged me up and sent me back to the front.”

Having proven himself a superior marksman, Bob was assigned a Browning automatic rifle.

“I don’t think I ever actually shot anyone,” he said. “I mostly provided suppressing fire. Except for one time when a Japanese soldier approached us, signaling that he wanted to surrender. When he got close he began to pull out a grenade, so we let him have it.”

The war ended for Bob during his 78th day on Okinawa. The battle for the island was grinding to its inexorable conclusion when a sniper’s bullet found him.

“It felt like a giant bell had been rung,” said Bob. “The bullet went through my shoulder and came out in the middle of my back.”

Bob pulled up his shirt to show me the deep gully of a scar that slices diagonally across his shoulder.

“I was taken to a field hospital and then to a hospital ship called the USS Relief. Clean sheets. Plenty of good, hot food. I thought I’d hit the jackpot.”

After recovering from his wounds, Bob served in Korea for a year before finally returning home.

“There’s nothing more beautiful than the sight of the Golden Gate Bridge,” he said. “I was glad to serve, but I wouldn’t want to do it again. I have no complaints about my time in the Army. Without it, I would have never gone to college where I met the woman I fell in love with. I’ve been fortunate in many ways.”

On his wall is a picture frame that displays Bob’s dog tags and his medals, including the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star.

“The Bronze Star simply came in the mail one day about 20 years after the war ended,” said Bob. “I had no idea I was getting it.

“I don’t think I did anything special to deserve it other than being in a pretty hot combat zone. I’m no hero.”

I would have to disagree with Bob on that last part. I think that my quiet, gentle, former hog farmer neighbor would qualify as a hero in anyone’s book.

Nelson is a freelance writer from Volga, S.D. Reach him by e-mail at jjpcnels@itctel.com.

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