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Last Man's Club meets again in Kenmare

It’s been 70 years since the last man came home from World War II. Now, decades later, a group called the Last Man’s Club still exists in Kenmare, and maintains a sacred promise of camaraderie.

3/08/16 (Tue)

Getting together again . . . Three bottles of liquor sit in front of World War II veterans and Last Man’s Club members Walter Christensen, left, and Jim Hillestad as they talk about their experiences of the 1940s Wednesday afternoon in the Kenmare Senior Center. The scotch on the left, champagne in the middle and bourbon on the right, were purchased when the Last Man’s Club was officially organized in 1980 with the intent the last three men of this exclusive group of 90 veterans may drink a toast to their departed comrades. 

By Marvin Baker

It’s been 70 years since the last man came home from World War II. Now, decades later, a group called the Last Man’s Club still exists in Kenmare, and maintains a sacred promise of camaraderie.

That promise to each other is that the last three remaining veterans of this exclusive 90-member club, drink a toast to the other 87 who have departed.

The official purpose of the organization is to foster and perpetuate camaraderie from those who served in World War II.

There is no question these men keep a strong bond with each other that started so long ago and goes much further than words written on a document.

Fewer and fewer remain, but those who do, will never forget each other, the group Tom Brokaw called “The Greatest Generation,” even though they may have fought continents apart.

Modeled after the American Legion’s Last Man’s Clubs from 1919, the group in Kenmare officially formed on Jan. 9, 1980 and held it’s first meeting on Nov. 14, 1980.

Warriors from all branches of service joined that fledgling club, but there was a special time window that allowed members admittance. It was Dec. 7, 1941 to Dec. 31, 1946.

If your service time didn’t fall within those parameters, you couldn’t join, according to Jim Hillestad of Kenmare, one of the remaining members of the club.

Hillestad and fellow veteran Walter Christensen met informally last Wednesday to go over Last Man’s Club records and reminisce about a unique period in American history in which they took part.

Another local World War II veteran, James Caroline, was unable to meet with Hillestad and Christensen because of health reasons.

Caroline, whose 91st birthday was Wednesday, (March 2) said he wasn’t up to leaving his home, but added family members were stopping by later that day to help him celebrate his birthday.

“The club was a good get together for people who were in service,” Caroline said. “I only attended a couple of meetings and the last meeting I remember, maybe had 10 or more people.”

Christensen and Hillestad talked a lot about the start time of the club and both thought it was soon after the war. Hillestad thought it was in the late 1940s and Christensen thought it may have been 1957.

However, when they found a document in the official record book that stated organization of January 1980, both agreed they may have their time lines confused with American Legion membership.

“I attended a few meetings in the beginning,” Christensen said. “It was kind of a social event. We had dances at the Lakeshore Club. Arnold Mickelson was our last president and after he died, nobody really took charge. That kind of ended it in the last few years.”

Part of the rationale for getting together last Wednesday was to try and find out how many members are still living.

The Kenmare News went through the list of names and found nine who are in North Dakota.

Along with Hillestad, Christensen and Caroline, Oscar Kostad, John Odland and Vern Useldinger, all live in Fargo, Jack Munch lives in Minot, Leland Schweyen lives in Northgate and Howard Corey is in Bowbells.

Kostad, at 94, was one of the organizers of the club.

“Me and a couple of other guys got this wild idea to start a club,” Kostad said. “We started it for socializing and to remember our service, talk about it and get together with other veterans.”

Kostad left Kenmare in 1992, but said he tried to keep the club going for about 10 years.

“We met once a year around Nov. 11,” he said. “When we organized, we opened it to anyone who had World War II ties.”

Schweyen, who enlisted when he was 17, didn’t think he was old enough to join, but someone else talked him into it.

Although he didn’t attend any meetings, he said it was a good club to have for veterans.

“I think it was alright, but I thought it excluded me,” Schweyen said. “There’s nothing wrong with the club in general.”

Mabel Corey spoke on behalf of her husband Howard, who she said has lost his hearing.

She said the 94-year-old Corey is otherwise healthy, but has poor balance.

Mabel Corey remembered her husband signing on with the Last Man’s Club but doesn’t recall him attending meetings.

Useldinger, who turns 90 in June, does remember attending meetings. He spent a number of years with American Legion headquarters and frequently visited Kenmare which was his impetus for joining.

“I used to get to Kenmare spring and fall every year and at one (American Legion) meeting, I was asked to join,” Useldinger said. “It’s a long time ago. I haven’t been on the road in 25 years. It wouldn’t be easy for me to get to Kenmare these days.”

Hillestad, who has been an unofficial keeper of records, as well as a bottle of Chivas Regal scotch whiskey, a bottle of Crown Royal blended bourbon whiskey and a bottle of Italian champagne, said he isn’t sure what to do with the record book or the bottles.

He keeps the bottles at his home and the record book is at the Kenmare Senior Center.

The bottles, according to Christensen, were once kept at Beer Bob’s in downtown Kenmare. Pioneer Village, where a plaque is kept in their honor, may be an option, but it doesn’t have heat.

Regardless, they agreed to somehow maintain this unique club to the end. The history, the liquor, the plaque and the veterans themselves are too important to allow any of it to fade away anytime soon.

World War II Kenmare-area Last Man's Club member briefs

Several WWII veterans, and members of the Kenmare Last Man’s Club, shared a bit about their personal experience during their time in service.

Oscar Kostad, 94:

Served in the Army Air Force in England and France during the war. He served 10 years as commander of the Last Man’s Club. He took an honor flight to Washington, D.C., eight years ago to see the World War II memorial.

Leland Schweyen, 88:

Enlisted in the Navy Seabees when he was 17 and was released in December, 1945. He served at Saipan Island and remembers handling a lot of Japanese prisoners of war, as many as 40,000, who were shipped back to mainland Japan after the war.

Howard Corey, 94:

A member of the Army Infantry, he joined in June, 1941 and was released in September, 1945. Most of his time was spent in the Philippines.

Vern Useldinger, 89:

Mr. Useldinger was in World War II and Korea. He was on a naval aircraft carrier in World War II that helped secure Okinawa, played a part in the invasion of Borneo and then protected Americans off the coast of Japan.

He was recalled for Korea on Labor Day, 1950. He went overseas in January 1951, was on a ship a year, then in the Korean war zone and in and out of Japan.

James Caroline, 91:

He joined the Army Infantry on Feb. 9, 1944 and was released on Feb. 9, 1946. His unit landed in the Philippines when Gen. Douglas MacArthur was there and they took part in the invasion of Okinawa.

Walter Christensen, 89:

Walter was an Army paratrooper from 1944 to 1946 and was on a troop ship on the way to join other airborne units when the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. He said nobody on the ship was aware of the bomb.

“I thought it was strange when they made the announcement the bomb had been dropped. You’d think there would have been cheers, but there was dead silence, probably because of the enormity of it. I was spared, but we did go into Japan after the peace treaty was signed.”

Jim Hillestad, 95:

Mr. Hillestad was drafted into an Army artillery unit on Feb. 5, 1942 and became the first sergeant’s driver. After later training for two years at Drew Army Airfield in Tampa, Fla., on the Army’s latest weapon, radar, he was shipped to India, then Burma.

While in Burma, he was put in charge of setting up two radar units to intercept Japanese aircraft in that air space. Mr. Hillestad took the Honor Flight to Washington, D.C., in 2011.

Kenmare World War II Last Man's Club roll call November 14, 1980

J.J. Ackerman, Kenmare

Lawrence Ackerman, Elgin

William Allen, Mohall

Harold Anderson, Kenmare

Laverne Anderson, Williston

Russell Anderson, Kenmare

Foster Ankenbauer, Kenmare

Richard Ankenbauer, Kenmare

Sylvester Ankenbauer, Kenmare

C.W. Arnold, Minot

Nick Bauer, Great Falls, Mont.

Gordon Becker, Mohall

Vernon Berg, Donnybrook

Wallace Berntson, Mohall

Jerry Bird, Stanley

Loren Bomstad, Kenmare

Lawrence Boyington, Kenmare

Palmer Brothen, Columbus

Wesley Burnside, Kenmare

Dom Buzzell, Bowbells

Lewis Buzzell, Minot

James Caroline, Kenmare

Lee Christensen, Kenmare

Walter Christensen, Kenmare

Vern Coffey, Minot

Don Colvin, Minot

Howard Corey, Bowbells

Tom Cron, Bowbells

Adam Dockter, Kenmare

Lawrence Drabus, Kenmare

Warren Evenson, Kenmare

Walter Ferm, Bowbells

Don Gast, Kenmare

Clifford Gleave, Kenmare

Marvin Gravesen, Kenmare

Edwin Grenvik, Kenmare

Victor Hass, Bowbells

Lloyd Haugen, Minot

Robert Hennessey, Minot

James Hillestad, Kenmare

Gordon James, Kenmare

Jerrold Johnson, Kenmare

Lloyd Johnson, Bowbells

Harold Jones, Kenmare

Clifton Jorgenson, Kenmare

Allen Kirkelie, Tolley

Art Kjos, Kenmare

Donald Kolbo, Mohall

Oscar Kostad, Kenmare

Henry Lorentson, Minot

Fred Mau, Mohall

Russell McConnell, Kenmare

Gilmer Melland, Kenmare

Arnold Mickelson, Kenmare

Edgar Miller, Kenmare

Francis Miller, Donnybrook

Harold Moen, Kenmare

Donald Mortenson, Kenmare

John Munch, Kenmare

Gordon Nelson, Kenmare

Walter Nelson, Kenmare

Hanford Ness, Bowbells

Donald Nore, Kenmare

Robert Nore, Donnybrook

Marvin Ness, Kenmare

John Odland, Kenmare

Lewis Olson, Kenmare

Arthur Peterson, Bowbells

John Redmer, Bowbells

Elmer Richwiski, Kenmare

Howard Ross, Bowbells

Irvin Rostad, Carpio

Sanford Rostad, Carpio

Q.R. Schulte, Stanley

George Schumacher, Kenmare

Otis Schwartz, Kenmare

Alvin Schweitzer, Kenmare

Leland Schweyen, Northgate

Ray Siemers, Bowbells

Virgil Stark, Kenmare

Elmer Strand, Mohall

Bertil Swenson, Bowbells

Donald Swenson, Bowbells

Eskil Swenson, Kenmare

Manfred Swenson, Bowbells

Donald Thompson, Kenmare

Walter Thompson, Kenmare

Harris Togstad, Minot

Vern Useldinger, Fargo

Tom Willoughby, Bismarck

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