He Can Tell Me Stories

Bill Kruschel (2019)

Friendships are a gift. I already knew that, yet my emerging friendship with ninety-five year-old Bill Kruschel has helped me to appreciate it even more. This essay tells how I initially met Bill and some of how our path of friendship has progressed since. Bill’s an amazing person who has experienced so much during his long lifetime—and he has an exceptional capacity to recall much of it.

Within my mother’s family, males seldom lived beyond the age of eighty. Only her brother, my Uncle John Rapp, lived to celebrate his ninetieth birthday.  My father only got to age 68, although his brother, my Uncle Max, attained the age of 86.  This is, to my knowledge, the record for male longevity within the Simmons lineage.   

So Bill Kruschel—and his long lifespan—is exceptional among the men I’ve known personally.  And the quality of our friendship that has become most meaningful to me is his extraordinary ability to tell about his life experiences.  My Uncle John Rapp had this talent too, but I’ve not personally encountered anyone else who can match them. 

Bill and I share an interest in bicycle riding, and some of his stories have been told to me during breaks on our rides together.   The narratives included in this essay are just the tip of the iceberg, although they afford a glimpse into Bill’s extensive life and times and will leave you hankering for more. 

Bill and I during a bicycle ride along White Bear Lake in 2020.

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Bill’s friendship is truly a gift. You see, during the early part of 2019, as the 75th anniversary of the World War II D-Day invasion was approaching, I developed a yearning to connect with a World War II veteran again. I had known many such vets during my childhood and younger adult years, but most of them are now gone. All the WW II-era vets in my own family have passed on, and so my aspiration of meet such a person seemed to be easier said than done. Plus the number of WW II veterans in the U.S. is dwindling rapidly; it was estimated that only about 340,000 remained in 2019.

I knew I’d be spending the 75th anniversary of D-Day at my vacation home at White Bear Lake, Minnesota, so I’d about decided to just go to the local Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) lodge in town and try to meet a WW II vet there. However, in May 2019 I offered a workshop to residents at my senior-living apartment about how to share one’s life with others. Soon after the workshop had gotten underway I noticed a man and woman sitting at a table to my right. I judged that they were in their early-80s and I determined to meet them later. When I introduced myself, I learned that the man, Bill, was ninety-four years old! Furthermore, I could immediately tell that he had stories–and a talent to tell them!

Oh, and I also learned that Bill was a World War II veteran. I’d found my vet–or more accurately, he had found me!  We arranged to go to lunch together at the VFW lodge in White Bear Lake and get better acquainted. And we set the date for June 6, 2019—the 75th anniversary of D-Day.

Having supper with Bill and Barb at the VFW in White Bear Lake on June 6, 2019.

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The public relations photo of Bill and other Marines from Minnesota that was taken in the South Pacific during World War II. Bill is seated to the immediate right of the man smoking a pipe in the center. (1944)

The real war will never be known to any other than those who fought it.  It is they who understand; it is they who suffer defeat; it is they who conquer…they have fought a good fight; they have finished their course; they have kept the faith. Victory At Sea

In September 1944, the island of Peleliu in the South Pacific was the scene for a major amphibious landing by U.S. Marines.  The Japanese had built strong fortifications on the island, and what some thought would be a short battle extended over a period of almost two months!  The casualty rate at Peleliu was higher than any other amphibious operation during the war in the Pacific; it is now regarded as “the bitterest battle of the war for the Marines.”  The 1st Marine Division, to which Bill was assigned, suffered over 6,500 casualties at Peleliu—more than a third of the entire unit.

Bill story of Peleliu began with an account of his troop ship’s voyage from California to the South Pacific before the battle:

The next thing we know, we’re on a ship…the SS Robin Doncaster.  Normally it took six to seven days to go from San Diego to New Caledonia; it took us seventeen.  We went all alone—un-escorted—and all we were doing was zig-zagging…

In the Marine Corps, nobody sits still.  They keep you involved physically for as many hours as you’re awake.  And then one day, off we go and I’m with the 1st Marine Division in a place called the Russell Islands…seventy-five miles west of Guadalcanal.  And that was home for a year.  I went from there to Peleliu and then to Okinawa…1944 and ’45.  I was in the first wave of the invasion at Peleliu and stayed there for the whole battle. 

It [Peleliu] was a fiasco.  The military intelligence and those in charge should have learned how deep the caves were on those islands.  They [the Japanese] had this underground system—some as much as seventy-feet deep.  The weapon that was most effective [against them] were flame-throwers…which took the oxygen out of the caves, and still with all of that…the Japanese didn’t want to give up—obviously.

Bill served as a corpsman during the invasion of Peleliu. That meant he needed to attend to the many wounded—and as quickly as possible. He would assess the extent of injuries for a wounded marine and sometimes gave that man a shot of morphine to ease the pain. He then summoned stretcher-bearers to take the wounded back to the beaches where they could be loaded onto landing vessels and transported to an off-shore hospital ship.

We prayed a lot.  Morphine was the only thing we corpsmen had.  We gave it to almost every wounded Marine and then marked his forehead with a big ‘M’ so that the next corpsman who came along knew that he’d already been given a shot. 

The other problem we had, which nobody ever talks about, was how to get water to a guy on the front line.  When you’re dehydrated, it’s over!  Or what about malaria?  If you get the shivers from that disease, you’re worthless [as a soldier]—and everybody had malaria…

In researching background for this essay, I watched an episode of the 1950s television documentary series Victory At Sea.  One of the episodes gives a detailed account of the Peleliu invasion. 

I served on the “front lines” during the Cold War. I was a Minuteman Missile Launch Officer and was responsible for ten nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles poised on hair-trigger alert. Yet I never encountered situations as frightening as those faced by nineteen year-old Bill Kruschel during the battle for Peleliu.

My awareness of World War II combat came mostly through the popular 1950s and ‘60s war movies. My only previous in-person accounts of World War II came to me from my Uncle John (a B-17 pilot in Europe) and my father (an enlisted storekeeper stationed at a Naval base in the Caribbean). So my friendship with Bill has offered me a now-rare opportunity to still hear first-hand accounts of the war almost eighty years after the fact. He seldom elaborates on such experiences, although I do value his impressions of that time.

Not all of Bill’s war stories are about combat experiences.  For example, this one offers some insight into what it was like for him to return from war and be greeted by his family:

My story about malaria is that when I got discharged at the Naval Air Station in Minneapolis on the 23rd of January, 1946, I didn’t have a coat!  My mother and sister were there and met me on the sidewalk.  After we got done crying, my sister pushed me away and said, “What’s the matter with you!”  She continued, “Your skin’s all yellow!” You see, we Navy guys were all taking Atabrine every day for our malaria and it turned us yellow.  Everybody was yellow!

Bill also has a few lighter memories to recall from his time in the South Pacific. For instance, there was a time when he participated in a public relations photo staged by the military while he was stationed at Pavuvu before the Peleliu landing:

A bunch of other Minnesotans and I were pulled together.  It was really crazy—it was all PR.  They said, “You guys need to put on some clean clothes.”  We were mostly wearing shorts at the time.  We asked, “Where are we going?” and they responded, “We’re gonna take a picture of you guys from Minnesota.”  They ended up taking us to the Officers Club [for the photo backdrop]—and ALL of us were enlisted men!”

And then then there was the time when Bill saw a Bob Hope USO show at Pavuvu in August 1944:

Hope was putting on a show on another island ten miles away and someone asked him to come over to Pavuvu and put on a show there too.  He agreed.  We built a stage in the middle of our ball field on the island.  I was sitting in a clearing of land when in came five airplanes and landed.   Out stepped Jerry Collona, Bob Hope, Francis Langford, a female dancer and a terrific guitar player.  And they put on a show I’ll never forget! 

Bob Hope and Frances Langford perform during a World War II USO show. (File photo)

Bob Hope later also recalled this performance as the most meaningful one for him personally during the war:

“For a brief few hours in 1944 I met 15,000 Marines at Pavuvu. They were on their way to the invasion of Peleliu. We were doing a routine series of camp shows on the Pacific Islands. When an officer suggested the unscheduled stop [at Pavuvu] he said, “We’ll have to fly you over, a few at a time in small planes, and land you on a road. There’s no airport. But it’ll be worth it to them. As we circled for our landing such a shout arose from 15,000 throats that we could actually feel it like a cushion of sound under our wings. We were from home! We were the promise of laughter…today. Tomorrow, and they knew it, they would be staging a little show of their own and 40% [of them] wouldn’t come back.”

Some of the audience attending Bob Hope’s USO show on Pavuvu Island in August 1944. (File photo)

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Dance program for the Junior Prom at Indiana University. (1939)

I was a late bloomer when it came to appreciating the popular music of the Big Bands era in the 1930s and 1940s. I didn’t develop my current level of interest in such music until after my father died in 1986. Thankfully, I had further opportunities to discuss these times with my mother, including her own memories of various bands and dances she attended during those years. One of the keepsakes she retained for the remainder of her life was a dance program from the Junior Prom at Indiana University in 1939, which she attended with my father while he was still a student there. The band leader that evening was Louis Armstrong!

So it was especially gratifying for me to discover that some of Bill’s strongest memories were of his experiences with various ballrooms and bands during the swing dance era.  Here’s one of those: 

When I went to school in St. Paul Park, the school furnished musical instruments and I learned to play just about all of them—but I settled on the trombone.  You can imagine—this is the early 1940s—we put together four guys and had a little band and just had a lot of fun doing nights of music going to city halls and the like.  It was the beginning of ‘Jitterbugging’ and doing the ‘Lindy.’

One of my dates in 1942 was with Geneva O’Reilly from St. Paul Park.  I took her to the Prom Ballroom in St. Paul—a gorgeous place with a huge stage.  As luck would have it, I had a friend named Delmer Bowers who was an incredible drummer playing with Cliff Keys Orchestra—about a fifteen piece orchestra.  They were playing that night.  Can you just imagine a ballroom full of mostly teenagers back then with these great bands that traveled the whole country? 

The Prom Ballroom in St. Paul, Minnesota during the 1940s. (Source: Minnesota Historical Society)

And then another:

When I entered the Navy and got to San Diego to join the fleet Marines, there was a ballroom right downtown on the main highway—Pacific Square Ballroom. You never saw anything that big! The orchestras from Hollywood would come down on Sundays and play an afternoon of dancing. They had one corner—probably thirty feet square—roped off where you had to go to jitterbug. You could not jitterbug on the main dance floor because it disturbed the people who were dancing traditionally. Then they had women–mostly “seniors”–who walked around, and if you got a little too close to your partner they tapped you on the shoulder. They also brought girls up from Mexico who really knew how to dance—and boy, did I learn to do the Lindy there!

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Bill and his brother Fritz with a team of draft horses on their farm in Denmark Township. (c1936)

Both my dad and mother came from agricultural stock–and each was reared by a single mother. My paternal grandfather Lee Simmons, a locomotive fireman, was killed in a train accident in 1924 when my dad was only six years old. And my mother’s parents divorced in 1928 when she was just nine years old. My grandmother remained single the rest of her life. I never asked either of my parents much about their early lives, possibly because I thought it might be hard for them to discuss with me. I regret that now and wish I’d shown more interest in their childhood times while they were living.

Bill has freely shared about his childhood years with me; it’s something I’ve especially appreciated. His upbringing shares some similarities with my parents’ stories–the loss of his father at a young age and being reared by a single mother. So I’ve been able to extrapolate from his perspectives and have gained a better understanding of how my parents possibly felt about their childhoods. Bill’s early memories have been a blessing to me:

My father died in 1933.  My mother was sponsored by her only brother who came through Canada to America.  He was a bachelor and worked as a hired man for farmers in Washington County.  He convinced my mother that they should take the money she got from my dad’s insurance [after he died], plus the sale of our house in St. Paul and the cottage on Big Marine Lake—and buy a farm.  So out we go, and unknown to all of us—and especially Ma—my uncle turned out to be a tyrant.  So after four years we just one day packed up the car and left!  That was in 1937.  Living on the farm was an experience though.  I got a buck a month for starting fires in the one-room schoolhouse.  It was a different world and there was a lot more social life in small communities then—people helping each other on the farms.  Denmark Township is in the far southeast corner of Washington County; a great group of people.

The farm in Denmark Township on which Bill Kruschel lived with his family from 1933 to 1937.

When we left the farm, I drove that 1927 Chevy to St. Paul Park.  Up by the highway department “Old Man” Frickland was cutting his grass—I’ll never forget it.  I’m twelve years old, and I stop and ask, “Do you know any place that might be for rent?”  He said, “Go up three blocks, make a right—first house on the left-hand side.

You talk about a blessing…Mr. and Mrs. Keith [who owned the house] had lost a lot during the Depression but still had enough left to buy this house.  They rented us the whole upstairs for fifteen bucks a month!  They were so good to us.  They’d let people call us at their phone number and they’d call upstairs, “Billy, Dorothy…telephone!” 

One of our farm friends had a truck that we used to haul our furniture in when we left the farm. As we were just about finished unloading I came up to the top of the stairs and my mother was sitting there crying. It’s the only time I ever saw her cry. One of the wives of the men helping us unload came to her and said, “Come on, Martha—you’re going to stay with us today.”

I’ll always remember that the whole community [of St. Paul Park] accepted us—Ma being a widow and all the things that are associated with it. You can’t imagine what a life my Ma had. She found out that one way to make some money then, since most people had coal furnaces, was to wash the coal dust off their walls. She didn’t make a lot of money at it, but I can still see my mother walking down the street with a ladder and a pail going to somebody’s house to wash their walls.

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A 1932 Buick coupe

When I first moved to St. Paul, Minnesota in 1974 one of the things I learned about my new town was that it had been a haven for gangsters during the 1930s.  In fact, there was even a “gangster tour” that my wife and I took. It introduced us to some of the most notorious sites where gangsters had been during that earlier era.  So when I learned that Bill had actually met a gangster during that time, I had to hear the story:

It is March of 1932.  We were going out to the cottage on Big Marine Lake.  There was a bar sitting right on the northeast corner of the intersection of Highway 61 near Hugo; my dad and the owner were both from Germany so they were old friends.  We pulled in there—I was seven years old—and I thought there were a lot of cars in the parking lot.  So we go in and there’s quite a few guys and some are quite well-dressed.  My dad’s jawing and having a good time, and one of these guys gets me aside and says, “Are you interested in cars?” I said, “Yeah!” Then he said, “I’d like to show you our new cars.”

So Dad and I and about six other guys go out to the parking lot, and there sat two 1932 brand-new Buick straight-8 coupes! They were so proud of those things, and I can remember it like yesterday. He said, “Do you want to see the engine?” There was a hood over that car that had two handles on it. He grabbed those handles and raised the hood and there sat a great-big straight-8 engine.

Then he said, “There’s only two highways between here and Chicago—highways 10 and 12—and there’s lots of little towns on those roads. Every one of those towns have cops in ‘em but they can’t catch us ‘cause they only have six cylinder engines and we’ve got eight!”

Then he showed us under the seats and the whole floor of that automobile was a tank for hauling booze!  One other thing I remember: every one of those well-dressed men was wearing a Homburg hat. 

A Homburg hat

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Bill looks out upon the site of his childhood farm home after eighty-three years. (2020)

Bill Kruschel is the most vital “ninety-something” male I’ve ever personally known. All my friendships are gifts, of course, but Bill’s is especially so. He and I haven’t been together very often since we first met because our paths only cross when Mary Ann and I return to our White Bear ‘lake place’ a couple times each year. Yet he and I have made the most of our limited number of times together.

Besides bicycling around town, we’ve made “field trips” to places of significance during Bill’s childhood–such as the farm in Washington County where his family lived from 1933 to 1937. Such day excursions also have served as occasions for more sharing of Bill’s stories, some of which contributed to this essay too.

Bill’s mother, Martha, lived to almost 102 years of age. Thus I have every reason to believe that Bill and I may have any number of opportunities to share future bike rides and other day-trip excursions together. Yet, as noted in the 90th Psalm, it’s always wise to number our days and to celebrate the good times already in our memory banks. Writing this essay has been one way for me to do just that.

A singing session with Bill and his ukulele. (2020)

Perhaps the strongest strand in Bill’s and my cord of friendship is our sharing of music—and singing together. We discovered early on that we have a mutual affinity for the songs of “The Great American Songbook”—i.e. the popular music of Bill’s teen and early-adult years in the 1930s through 1950s. One song that Bill and I have shared often is “Ol’ Buttermilk Sky” by the Indiana composer Hoagy Carmichael. It’s particularly significant to me because this song ranked #1 on the Hit Parade the day I was born in November 1946. At that time Bill was coming up to his twenty-second birthday so he knows every word–and ukulele chord–by heart!

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What I wish… is not that we remain children forever but that we remain forever awake to the astonishing is-ness of things. —Scott Russell Sanders

I’ll soon be seventy-four years of age. There was a time in my earlier life when I could barely see seventy-four years let alone comprehend what it would be like to be that age. Yet it pales in comparison to the almost ninety-eight years my mother lived—or the ninety-five years Bill has attained so far. I learned a lot of helpful lessons from my mother about abundant living—and now Bill has picked up right where she left off for me.

One quality that my mother—and now Bill—have modeled for me is an insatiable curiosity. Bill yearns to know about things—and about people—and what makes them tick. Some may call it a “sense of wonder,” which is a term I like because it implies more than just an accumulation of knowledge. Writer Scott Russell Sanders describes it as a sense of “awe,” which is something deeper still. No matter how one describes this quality, it is worthy of my admiration and aspiration as I head into the time I have remaining on this earth.

And, thankfully, I have my friend Bill Kruschel leading the way!

Bill leads the way. (2020)

Those who dwell among the beauties and mysteries of the earth are never alone or weary of life. —Rachel Carson from A Sense of Wonder

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This essay was written by Steve Robert Simmons in 2020. All rights reserved.