After 63 years, Last Man Standing members raise their glasses
It was a pact more than 60 years in the making. A solemn promise made by 113 area World War II veterans that bonded them for a lifetime.
At the core of the pact: an original bottle of 100 proof Old Fitzgerald bourbon to be opened only by the sole surviving member of the Last Man Standing Militant Order of the Ruptured Duck. However, like many World War II veteran organizations, dwindling numbers and an aging membership forced the order to disband after its final meeting Aug. 10.
In keeping with the long-standing pact, local vets Fritz Kruschel, Al Hannestad, Bill Hanner, Donald Sward and Bob Beard, five of the eight last men standing, recently bellied up to a St. Paul Park bar one last time, uncorked the Old Fitzgerald and toasted their fallen brothers.
Bar basement beginnings
The year was 1951. Pete's Place along Broadway Avenue in St. Paul Park had become a central hub for area servicemen readjusting to life outside of the war zone. After the war ended, owner Pete Tibbets, a longtime St. Paul Park resident who would later become a Washington County commissioner, opened the bar's basement to military veterans as a place to congregate and swap war stories. Year after year, as the word spread of the basement brotherhood, more veterans made their way to St. Paul Park.
"We all had television and radio at this point, but what we didn't have was conversation among ourselves," said Kruschel, founding member of the order and a St. Paul resident. "We thought that we should do something to get us together for camaraderie."
Over a pint of Hamm's beer, Kruschel and longtime friend Pat Waldner called for the formation of a group that was solely based on providing an outlet for camaraderie and support.
"This group was for us to stay connected and talk about our experiences in war," Kruschel said.
Waldner, the original commanding officer for the organization, was not present at the recent uncorking, but was said to be a key figurehead in the success of the order.
Searching for an appropriate name for the group, the veterans didn't have to look very far for inspiration. Secured to the lapel of each member's uniform was a gold pin depicting an eagle inside a wreath. When the war ended, the insignia, which was originally made from cloth, was worn on the uniform above the right breast pocket by servicemen and women who had been honorably discharged. It was also a symbol to active military police that they were in transit home and not away without leave. However, it's been said that the homebound soldiers thought the eagle looked more like a "ruptured duck" and coined the popular phrase, "They took off like a ruptured duck."
With a name attached to their order, the clock began ticking for those who wanted to join. To keep an exclusive feel to the organization, members had until midnight on Dec. 31, 1951, to join. With a select group of just over 100 military servicemen, the first meeting of the Militant Order of the Ruptured Duck was called to order and what would become a 63-year pact was immortalized.
"In the beginning we all would pile into the basement," Kruschel said. "Pete was so good to us vets."
Swapping war stories
In more ways than one, the final meeting of the Militant Order of the Ruptured Duck seemed as if it was just like any other meeting. Yet in one obvious way, it was completely different.
Known for having extravagant and, at times, rowdy yearly gatherings, this one was much smaller and noticeably more somber. Returning to where it all started, the five original members filled up the back room at Broadway Bar and Grill, formerly Pete's Place, and recounted stories of heated battles, long deployments, foreign countries and the opportunity to proudly serve one's country.
Donald Sward, 88, was the original secretary for the order and is the youngest of the five. The longtime St. Paul Park resident was drafted into the Army when he was just 18 years old, foregoing his high school graduation to begin bootcamp.
"They draped a flag over my chair at graduation and my mother accepted my diploma for me," he said.
A private first class in the 95th Infantry Division, Signal Corporation, Sward attended an eight-week course at Signal Corps. school at Fort Crowder in Newton County, Mo., before heading into infantry training.
As a member of the 95th Infantry, Sward said he was a "replacement soldier," and filled the combat boots of those in Europe who were ill, wounded or dead. Once overseas, Sward helped manage communications and information systems for the ground and air forces.
"I climbed a lot of towers, spread wires and dealt a lot with telegraphy," Sward said.
Transferred to an elite unit under the direction of General George Patton, Sward witnessed the Battle of the Bulge. While he did not see much action, he said hearing the battle was close enough.
Toward the end of the war, Sward said he fought during the occupation of the Ruhr Pocket in the northwestern Ruhr area of Germany. Marked as a major blow to the Nazi forces, the Ruhr Pocket battle was a decisive allied victory for the United States and Great Britain.
"I was in Germany when I found out the war had ended," Sward remembered. "We stayed for a while after the occupation to help, but I returned home shortly thereafter."
'We were there to help'
Sharing the same end of the table with Sward at the Broadway Bar and Grill was his former school mate Bill Hanner, the eldest of the group at 93 years old, who saw the war by air as a member of the Air Force Third Bomber Command. The now-defunct military unit based out of MacDill Field, Fla., was responsible for patrolling for enemy submarine units and other observational missions.
Drafted in August 1942, Hanner spent several years in training before landing in Southampton, England. He recalled sneaking across the English Channel into Reims, France, to relieve soldiers of the 106th Infantry Division fighting during the Battle of the Bulge.
"We ended up in the resort town of Baden, Germany," he recalled. "The 106th took a real beating and we were there to help."
While waiting to lend a hand, the fighting ceased. In April 1945, Hanner said he received word that United States was victorious and headed home shortly after.
Having a knack for ship motors and the open sea, Bob Beard, 92, enlisted in the Navy in summer of 1942. Touting more than a dozen trips through the Mediterranean Sea, four across the Atlantic Ocean and two across the Pacific Ocean, Beard said he never tired of ship life.
Shortly after being deployed, he was ordered to the mysterious region of the Bermuda Triangle, then to the Strait of Gibraltar to assist injured soldiers whose ship had been torpedoed.
"The whole stern was torpedoed off," Beard said. "I hadn't had a lot of combat experience at this time. And there was just a different feeling being inside the combat zones and seeing the big warships."
As a motor mechanic, Beard worked mostly in the engine room and occasionally provided ammunition to gun crews atop the ship.
On Independence Day in 1943, Beard was involved in an air raid off the coast of Bizerte, Tunisia. Strategically located in the Mediterranean Sea, France fought long and hard for its occupation.
"I handed ammunition to one of the gunners during that raid," Beard said. "If you stuck out a fishing pole a bomb might have clipped it. That's how close those were to us. You could hear them whiz by in the wind."
His unit was then ordered to help with the allied invasion of Sicily before returning to Bizerte aboard the flagship U.S.S. Biscayne. When one mission ended, Beard said it was onto the next. However, just four days off the coast of Guam in 1945 he was told the war was over.
"I returned home a week before Christmas," he said. "I did love the Navy. But the biggest problem was the home sickness."
Beard eventually married the love of his life, Rosemary, whom he knew from high school.
Aboard the 'Big Stick'
A fellow Navy veteran, founding member Fritz Kruschel looked back fondly at his days at sea, a career that would take him outside the confines of Minnesota for the first time in his life.
Enlisting when he was just 18, Kruschel was shipped to the Aleutian Island town of Attu as part of the Naval Mobile Construction Battalion, dubbed CB's or Seabees. Enjoying the exotic weather in the Pacific Ocean, Kruschel was assigned to maintain the active air base until his return in 1948.
Sharing the Naval background was fellow Navy veteran Al Hannestad, whose claim to fame was being stationed aboard one of the largest battleships in the American fleet, the U.S.S. Iowa, a ship nicknamed "The Big Stick."
Entering the Navy right out of high school in 1946, Hannestad was the storekeeper aboard the ship. Despite being on a ship in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, he said it didn't feel claustrophobic.
"There was a crew of 2,500 and the battleship itself was more than 900 feet long," he said. "It was like our own little city."
Never seeing action, Hannestad said his two-year deployment was one of the best life experiences. After the war ended, he returned to St. Paul Park where he became a union pipefitter.
In between detailing their personal journeys across the world during the 1940s, a similarity emerged. The military ranking and branch did not matter as much as the common bond that each of the five recognized: they all faced an uncertain future in battle but lived to tell the tales.
'It's bittersweet to walk away'
After about an hour of reliving their heroics, the final meeting of the Militant Order of the Ruptured Duck was officially called to order. A brief roll call cemented the fact that the brotherhood, once an active group of young vets, had reached its pinnacle. Kruschel shared some words of sentiment, thanked those in attendance and uncorked the dusty bottle of Old Fitzgerald.
"When you know that it's come to an end it's pretty sad," Rosemary Beard said. "You remember all the people that used to be in the group and how much fun we all had. There is just so much history between us that it's bittersweet to walk away."
It was evident by their cringed faces that the already strong bottle of bourbon had fermented even further, giving the final toast quite a kick.
Inside a hand-carved wood box that was carted to and from each annual meeting sat a reserve bottle of Old Fitzgerald, deceased members' membership cards and the original $1 joining fees, which added up to just over $100. With the approval of the group, the items will be donated to the Cottage Grove VFW to be placed in their archives, along with the many untold stories attached to the documents.
"We knew this would eventually have to happen, but we will always have the great memories," Kruschel said. "We were all really great buddies and we all had the military background in common."
Adjourning the annual meeting for the last time was difficult, Kruschel said. But fulfilling for him what was a lifelong promise to those who gave the ultimate sacrifice during World War II made the goodbyes a little easier.