Twenty Moody County World War II veterans received a Greatest Generation coin last week from the South Dakota Department of Veterans Affairs, a recognition many were surprised to receive roughly 75 years after their service.
“It’s a good honor,” said Dean Ekern, a 94-year-old from Flandreau who served in the Navy in active duty for two years, seven months and four days.
Most of the veterans, like Ekern, are in their early 90s, with some in their late 80s. The medal, designed for the remaining living World War II veterans in South Dakota, also went to the families of four veterans who have died since the application process started.
Those receiving the coin that says, “South Dakota thanks the Greatest Generation,” included Ekern, Duane Carr, John Johnson, Kenneth W. Rahn, Virgil Stenbaugh, Della Bechen, Robert V. Lee, Verla Duncan Wagner, John Hess, Elmer Hinricher, Harry Jepsen, Bill Millman, Sylvan Vigness, Palmer Nebben and Jesse Godsk. Kenny Doyle, Henry Haman, Helen Dailey, Dale M. Olson and Meredith Barron all have died so their family members received the coins in their honor.
Secretary Larry Zimmerman had the coin designed for living South Dakota World War II veterans, and Jim DeLay, Moody County Veterans Service Officer, handed them out at public events at Riverview Manor and Edgewood Vista Assistant Living facilities on May 29.
“World War II is an event that unified the people of our nation like no other time in our history,” Zimmerman said in a statement read by DeLay.
Moody County had about 450 World War II veterans, many in the Navy, DeLay said.
Stenbaugh, 87, said he was proud to serve his country in the Army during the war. He also was pleased to be recognized with the coin. “I think it’s really an honor.”
Jepsen, 91, served two years in the Navy from 1946 to 1948 in the war to end all wars. “It was kind of a necessary war. Some of these wars really aren’t necessary,” he said. “Even the enemy, when they think about it, they’re glad they lost.”
When he left for China and Japan, he had never been more than a hundred miles away from home. Serving overseas taught him a lot. “That was probably two of the best years of my life,” he said.
Bechen, who served from 1941 to 1952, was an Army nurse whose first patients at Fort Sam Houston were those who survived the brutal Bataan Death March in the Philippines. After the war, she served in Okinawa.
At 96, the Texas transplant to South Dakota said the World War II coin was a surprise to receive. “It means a lot,” she said as she recounted with pride the years she served her country and its veterans.
Hinricher, who found himself on a Navy destroyer in the Pacific for four years starting in 1942, said his crew pounded the beaches for 24 hours at a time before troops went in, and the ship’s men also protected the aircraft carriers. Their efforts made a big difference in the war’s outcome.
“We started clear down in the south end of the Pacific, and we took all of the islands back from the Japanese, all the way to Japan,” he said.
Military service was something the 94-year-old, who went on to farm near Colman and Flandreau, volunteered to do.
“I looked at it this way, if you want to live here, you should fight for your country,” he said. “I figured it’s everybody’s duty to help their country out.”