WWII Last Man’s Club members continue tradition

Friday, November 18, 2022
(Sentinel Photo by Beverly Van Buskirk) The four members of the World War II Last Man’s Club gathered at the American Legion Club in Le Mars on Nov. 14. They are, from left, Bill McDougall, Ralph Niehus, Wayne Faber and Ken Gerdes, who holds the bourbon bottle to be opened by the last three members of the club.

LE MARS — The four remaining members of the World War II Last Man’s Club gathered for their annual banquet on Monday, Nov. 14, at the American Legion Club in Le Mars.

Ralph Niehus, 96, Bill McDougall, 95, Wayne Faber, 94, and Ken Gerdes, who will be 95 in December, gathered with family members and host Legion members to be recognized for their military service and for fighting for freedom.

Tom Tanhoff, chaplain for the Wasmer Post #241, and a Vietnam veteran, opened the evening with prayer.

“Dear Lord, we honor our veterans, worthy men and women, who gave their best when they were called upon to serve and protect our country. We pray that you will bless these World War II veterans, Lord, for their unselfish service. We thank them for preserving our freedoms, our safety and our country’s heritage. Bless them abundantly for the hardships they faced, the sacrifices they made and for their many different contributions to our nation. In Jesus name we pray, Amen.”

Legion member Jim Rolfes conducted the “Missing Man Table and Honors Ceremony,” and explained what each item represents to a veteran.

The table is round — to show our everlasting concern for our missing men.

The tablecloth is white — symbolizing the purity of their motives when answering the call to duty.

The single red rose, displayed in a vase, reminds us of the life of each of the missing, and the loved ones and friends of these Americans who keep the faith, awaiting answers.

The vase is tied with a red ribbon, a symbol of our continued determination to account for our missing.

A slice of lemon on the bread plate is to remind us of the bitter fate of those captured and missing in a foreign land.

A pinch of salt symbolizes the tears endured by those missing and their families who seek answers.

The Bible represents the strength gained through faith to sustain those lost from our country, founded as one nation under God.

The glass is inverted — to symbolize their inability to share this evening’s toast.

The chair is empty — they are missing.

Following the ceremony, a toast of honor was made to all POW/MIAs.

Wasmer Post’s Sons of the American Legion (SALS) prepared and served the meal to the 16 people attending the event.

“They know you are a national treasure. They know that without you guys, what you did during World War II, the outcome. It could have been disastrous,” Tanhoff said.

“You guys we love you for it. We respect you so much and you’re gonna see and be here next year because an old master sergeant just ordered you to,” Tanhoff continued.

Wasmer Post Commander Nick Hanson also attended and added his words of thanks to the WWII veterans.

“It’s nice to spend an evening with American heroes. And I am thankful this event was able to take place,” Hanson said. “I am truly honored to participate in this event, where not only America’s best heroes are here, but arguably, the best generation. Thank you for setting an example for future generations of soldiers, air men and marines, and lastly thank you for your service. Go Army.”

Music entertainment was presented by Dorothy Arens, who soon had everyone singing along on several songs, including “You Are My Sunshine,” “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” “Amazing Grace,” “My Country Tis of Thee,” and closing with “God Bless America.”

The club lost three of its members since the 2021 banquet. Tanhoff asked those attending to raise a glass to the memory of John Hart, Vernon Loutsch and Dale Murray, “who cannot be with us.”

Tanhoff noted that McDougall, Faber and Niehus had shared their service experience at the 2021 banquet. He asked Gerdes to share about his military service.

“I was stationed in Hawaii (Headquarters Company for Mid-Pac on Sand Island) and as a result of that, we were the control center for the mid-Pacific, so I was actually a desk jockey because we would take the various people that we needed and placed them in places throughout the mid-Pacific,” Gerdes explained.

Gerdes’ daughter Kandace added, “His job was to make sure all army bases in mid-Pacific were fully staffed with necessary personnel for each specific base.”

Gerdes was in Hawaii from 1945-46.

Kandace also said that her father was in high school when he enlisted.

“He received a ‘C’ in his civics class because he missed a civics exam to enlist in the Army,” she said.

Following his discharge, Gerdes returned to Lake View and became city clerk until going to Drake University to obtain a degree in pharmacy, as a Doctor of Pharmacy. Following graduation, he stayed in Des Moines and worked for several pharmacists until he bought the pharmacy in Le Mars (1962) where he remained until he retired in 1990.

Members of the WWII Last Man’s Club must belong to the American Legion and had to serve in the armed forces of the United States between Dec. 7, 1941, and Dec. 31, 1946.

The club is open to both men and women who served in the Armed Forces, including the Red Cross.

The group organized in November 1997 and at that time entrusted four-fifths of a quart of 86-proof Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey to the post commander. The bottle is a commemorative issue from the state’s centennial.

Under club bylaws, the ritual bottle will be opened when the ranks of the Last Man’s Club have dropped to three living members. The bottle becomes the property of the last surviving member.

In 2012, the club did not elect officers, and didn’t know about having another banquet.

Wasmer Post members and the Plymouth County Vietnam Era Last Man’s Club have taken up the task to make sure the WWII veterans have their recognition each year. Serving as hosts were Tom and Beth Tanhoff and Jim and Lu Rolfes.

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