“Soldiering in Patton’s army was tough,” remembers 97-year-old Ernie Rabineau. “We called him ‘Old Blood and Guts.’ We needed people like that because Germany was a strong, powerful, and tough enemy.”
Widowed for the past seven years, Ernie lives alone in a comfortable three-bedroom ranch-style home on a country road near Attica, Michigan.
Ernie is one of 27 World War II veterans between the ages of 95 and 101 under the care of the Veterans Esteem Team (VET), a group of about 20 young people who spontaneously got together and dedicated themselves to promoting appreciation for American veterans.
VET is not affiliated with the government or any other veterans’ organization. The team found the 27 World War II veterans by chance encounters and by word-of-mouth.
Days before New Year’s Eve, representatives of the team visited Ernie, and a list of other vets, to drop off several new pairs of socks and some cans of soup donated by students from an area high school.
Grinning broadly, Ernie said of the team, “They adopted me. They are like family to me.”
When asked what the holiday season was like during the war, he answered, “For Christmas, the Army gave us two oranges and a couple pieces of candy. They tasted pretty good. We didn’t know what it was like to sit at a table and enjoy a hot Christmas feast. As for New Year’s, we didn’t even know there was a New Year’s Eve. Under Patton, we had other things to do.”
“By the way, growing up, an orange was what we normally got as a Christmas present. We weren’t rich enough to ever see a banana. We survived on what we grew. We ate an awful lot of homegrown potatoes.”
One of 15 brothers and sisters, Ernie was born and raised on a small family farm in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
“All seven of us boys fought in World War II. Six served in the Army and one in the Navy. One brother was wounded in Italy. By the grace and goodness of God, we all made it home.”
Ernie derives great satisfaction from sharing his experiences with the younger generation. “I’m glad I’m still around and able to tell these stories.”
Ernie said, “It was on my 18th birthday, in 1943, that I got greetings from Uncle Sam. I was working at the time for Western Union. I knew Morse Code very well, so the Army put me in the Signal Corps.
“I did my basic training in Louisiana and shipped out to England and from there to France.”
The biggest fight Ernie fought in was the Battle of the Bulge, where he lost most of his hearing.
“It was December, 1944. It was cold and a blizzard, but I’m used to that. I come from Upper Michigan. We were infantry. I had a radio but had to do a lot of flag-signaling directing Patton’s tanks.
“I lost most of my hearing, but funny thing is, lately my hearing is getting steadily better—now that I’m ready to die! They say the first hundred years are the hardest. I’ve only got three more to go,” joked Ernie.
Army Air Corps tail gunner Don Dick has only two years to go to reach 100.
“Don’t call it Army Air Corps. We always called it the Air Force,” said the feisty five-foot three-inch 98-year-old.
Don lives with his daughter in a rural setting near Imlay City, Michigan. He is another favorite of the Veterans Esteem Team.
Don’s size made him an ideal candidate for the duty of tail gunner aboard a B-25 bomber. He flew many dangerous sorties over North Africa, Italy, France, and the former Yugoslavia.
He said, “I was armed with two 50-caliber machine guns and a 45 automatic pistol. Four of the transparent canopies over my head were shot off. Planes would be shot down all around our plane. Guys getting killed. I had to treat wounded fellow crew members on the floor of our aircraft.
“We never were forced to bail out. I came out of the war without a scratch. The worst thing that happened to me was when I was inspecting our propellers. You do that by pulling on them and jiggling them. The pilot mistakenly left the ignition switch on and when I pulled down on the prop, the engine started, and the prop blade flung me into the air. That hurt.
“I have been so blessed. Somebody greater than me was taking care of me throughout the war,” Don said.
Don described the intensity of some of the air battles. “Our bombers had fighter escorts. Masses of our bombers were in the air in close formation. Then came the enemy fighters to try to shoot us down. There was so much traffic it was like a swarm of angry bees flying every which way.
“There was great danger from friendly fire. Our plane took some rounds from our own guys.
“One time, planes were flying so close to each other that I could see the face of a German fighter pilot. That’s what we call being ‘cramped’—too close to shoot at one another. He looked at me and I looked at him. He was a good-looking boy with a beautiful flight suit, flying a Focke-Wulf-190. I finally did get to shoot. I think I hit the rear of his plane.”
Don also remembers how crew members often took pets on board—including a monkey.
He says he regrets damage done by bombs to some of the beautiful structures and antiquities in Italy.
When asked how the airmen celebrated New Year’s Eve, Don answered, “We got drunk.”
Bruce “Tank” Sherman, 94, of Cass City, Michigan, still lives with his daughter in the farmhouse he was born in.
Bruce just hosted a Christmas party for 22 relatives and friends. Before the pandemic, he usually entertained more than 50 guests.
Drafted in 1945, Bruce was stationed in the Philippines, serving as an Army mechanic just as the war was ending.
Proud of his contribution to the war effort, Bruce said, “I worked on GMC six-wheel drive transport trucks and jeeps. These vehicles gave us an edge. They’re important. You can’t get places without them. Our guys did enough walking.”
Bruce tells of walking guard duty and the perils that presented in the Philippines even after the end of the war.
“Many Japanese soldiers were still in the hills and jungles. They didn’t know the war was over. We were in constant danger from snipers. Three shots narrowly missed me. Some of our guys got their throats cut and were dumped in rice paddies. It got so bad we had to double the guards.”
One of the items in Bruce’s scrap book and photo album is a 2009 hand-written letter from a woman from the Philippines.
“When we would get a Hershey bar, we’d give it to some Filipino family who would split it into five or six pieces and share it among themselves. This woman remembered such small kindnesses to her family in the letter,” he said.
Bruce’s daughter, Carol, said that her dad had a heart attack and stroke in October that has slowed him down a bit.
“He had to quit driving. When I would look in on him at night, he told me to stop checking on him. He said that whatever happens, he has trusted the Lord who has given him such a good and long life,” she said.
Not even a mile from the Sherman homestead is another farm. This one belongs to ninety-five-year-old Army veteran Emerson Kennedy.
A bumper sticker on Emerson’s car reads “Vote Blue No Matter Who.”
He still drives and lives alone in a farmhouse his family built from a kit they ordered by mail.
“I sleep in the room I was born in,” said Emerson.
In February of 1945, at the age of 18, Emerson was drafted into the Army. He is proud of his service and that of his family.
“My mother’s brother was killed in Arch Angel, Russia, fighting the Bolsheviks at the end of World War I. My wife’s brother was killed in Korea by friendly fire. My sister’s husband was wounded in Italy during World War II,” he said.
“My outfit was sent to the Philippines to be used as replacements for our expected invasion of Japan, but the war ended. My division was stationed in northern Luzon. There were still Japanese soldiers in the hills that did not know Japan was surrendering. If they could get civilian clothes, they would blend in with the Filipinos and join us in the chow line.”
Emerson said the worst thing that happened to him was having to endure a major typhoon that hit Okinawa.
“We rode it out aboard ship. I had to spend 27 straight hours below deck, but we rode it out.
“We were being sent to reenforce Korea.”
Emerson can truthfully say he landed at Inchon before General MacArthur. “When we arrived there, snow was on the ground. Quite a change from the Philippines.”
Looking at the Esteem Team members that brought him soup and socks, Emerson said, “I give a lot of credit to these young people. I wish we had more of them. Too bad so many today are going the other way.”
Massachusetts native Bill Meadowcroft, 96, now resides in a senior citizen apartment in Lapeer, Michigan. He has lived alone since his wife died nine years ago.
The sports car driving Navy veteran served in Guam at the end of World War II.
“Pretty far away for a guy who had never been further west than Buffalo,” said Bill.
A rapid-fire talker, Bill delights in regaling visiting Esteem Team members with stories of his days in the Navy.
He tells of the time while he was stationed in San Francisco that he was given a nine-day leave.
“Go figure. It would take me four days by train to go home to Massachusetts, and four days to get back. I hitch-hiked to Santa Monica instead. Got picked up by a luxury car, the kind where the chauffeur sat in the front seat that had no roof over it. I thought as a man in uniform I would be able to ride with the rich folk in the back of the limo, but they put me out in the open air next to the driver.”
Bill survived some close calls in Guam where Japanese soldiers, unaware the war had ended, nearly killed him twice.
“Once their snipers shot out the windshield of my jeep and put me in the ditch. Once I was playing basketball and my buddy, who was three-feet away from me got shot in the head. A bullet grazed his temple and put him in the hospital.
“When this would happen, the Army or Marines would trot out former Japanese army officers who would use bullhorns to try and persuade the men to surrender.”
Bill said his one injury during his service with the Navy came when he broke his jaw playing baseball.
The Veterans Esteem Team organizes birthday parties, parade participation, funeral ceremonies, and other special events to honor veterans of all of America’s wars. The group was instrumental in obtaining bureaucracy-mired and long-forgotten decorations earned by some of the vets, along with commendations from former president Donald Trump.
“This great resource of history and examples of character are soon to be lost. Since July, at least three of the WW II vets have passed on, one just a week before these interviews. Men and women like these are out there in your neck of the woods. Won’t you do something for them? It’s great for the vets and very beneficial to our young people to see examples of love of country, sacrifice, and respect for others,” said Esteem Team organizer Bonnie Koning of Brown City, Michigan.