ON LAKE VERMILION, Minn. — These are former soldiers and sailors and Marines who have been through it all and back — from picking bodies out of the water after a Japanese suicide attack on a ship, to a year of firefights in Vietnam, to shuffling secret documents in and out of Libya.
So what did these six U.S. military veterans spend most of a beautiful August day on a boat talking about? Growing up poor on the Iron Range and loving every minute of it.
“We had potatoes every day. Some days that’s all we had. ... We grew them in the big gardens where the (Eveleth) curling club is now, and us kids brought them into town in a wagon,” said Ed Mayasich, 91, an Eveleth native and U.S. Navy Veteran of World War II. “We were always hungry. Mom didn’t have to call us for dinner because we were all sitting there waiting.”
“I remember eating lard. ... Just lard, nothing else,” said Herb Cornwell, 78, of Ely, who served in the U.S. Army from 1957-61.
“My dad shot a deer (out of season) and the game warden found out. ... But he said that was OK, because we needed the meat. As long as we used the whole deer and not just the hind quarters,” said Bill Sersha, 92, an Eveleth native who now lives in Virginia and a U.S. Army Veteran of World War II.
These three were among six veterans on Mayasich’s 27-foot houseboat recently, all part of the 6th annual Take a Veteran Fishing Day sponsored by the Lake Vermilion Guides League. This year, 124 veterans got the chance to spend a day fishing thanks to 46 fishing guides and volunteer boat owners. The event is free for the veterans, underwritten by sponsors and held at Fortune Bay Resort Casino, where all the boats docked and where the veterans also received a great post-fishing meal under a party tent.
“This is just so nice they do this,” Sersha said, noting it will likely be the only fishing trip he gets all year. “What a nice thing to do.”
Roger Johansen, 87, of Virginia, a U.S. Air Force courier when he served from 1951-55 (in 21 different countries) also was on our boat, as was David Tibbets, 71, of Gilbert, a U.S. Army Veteran of Vietnam, and Skip Dickinson of Britt, 69, a U.S. Marine Corps rifleman in Vietnam.
Event organizers invited veterans of all ages and service branches. But there is always a special place for the oldest among them, those who served in World War II. Every day that passes, we lose hundreds more of the 16 million Americans, men and women, who served their nation during World War II. Fewer than 400,000 are still alive. Virtually all of them are in their 90s or older.
“There aren’t many of us old guys left. Our group photo for this fishing day gets smaller every year,” said Mayasich, who served as a deckhand, “a swabby,” on both the battleship USS Texas and then a destroyer in the final months of World War II. (He enlisted on his 17th birthday.) He was stationed briefly in Kobe, Japan, after the Japanese surrendered.
“I would have to pull guard duty on the docks and got to meet some of the people. They were very good to us ... considering there was nothing left of their city. Every building was burned black” from U.S. incendiary bombs, Mayasich said.
The stories flowed for over four hours on the houseboat. The vets nibbled on beef jerky, occasionally tugged at their lines and sipped Miller High Life or water.
Some of the stories were about their time in combat. Most were about old high school teachers or store owners or hockey players long since departed. Other tales focused on coming home after military service, starting civilian work — most in the mines — getting married to local sweethearts and raising families during the boom and bust decades on the Range.
Dickinson spoke only briefly about his time in Vietnam, in 1969, one of the bloodiest years of the conflict and a turning point in U.S. involvement, a point after which the U.S. began to disengage from the war. Dickinson spoke of one day looking out over a “verden valley” in a nation ravaged by war and thinking back to northern Minnesota and how lucky he was to “come from a very fortunate part of the world” with lakes, cabins, cars, good food and houses and good union jobs in the mines.
“The rest of the story of my time in Vietnam would take you way too long to write and be way too bloody to tell in the newspaper,” Dickinson said.
Tibbets spent most of his time in Vietnam as a clerk typist, in Da Nang, but would occasionally have to pull guard duty, which could be a deadly job when the Viet Cong were around.
“But as soon as the guys in my group found out my wife back home was going to have a baby, they looked out for me. They wouldn’t let me do guard duty any more after that. ... They told me I had to go home to my new family,” said Tibbets, who is on oxygen now but winning a rough battle against cancer he said was caused by Agent Orange exposure.
Eventually Tibbets landed a little walleye. So did Cornwell. But mostly it was talking and laughing and smiling over shared experiences of bygone decades.
“It’s just good these guys can get out here,” said Steve Pettinelli, Mayasich’s stepson, our volunteer boat driver who has been helping with this event since it started in 2014. “They deserve whatever we can do for them.”
As clouds gave way to some warm sunshine, Sersha caught himself dozing off in a comfortable chair on the bow deck of the houseboat.
“What time is it?” he asked. “Noon?! That’s when I usually take my two-hour nap. My doctor told me to nap every day. ... But not today.”
Sersha gave his fishing rod a twitch just in case a walleye was there.
No such luck.
“Even if we didn’t get many fish,” Sersha added later. “It was good to be out here.”