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Memories of WW II linger for this group

The ranks of he “greatest generation” are thinning, but war vets still gather

Veterans of World War II — most now in their 80s — are accorded special recognition at Bethlehem Lutheran (ELCA) in south Minneapolis.
For more than six years men in the congregation of the ELCA congregation at 41st and Lyndale, Minneapolis, who served in the Second World War, have been meeting. At their monthly gatherings, over coffee and donuts, they swap stories about their experiences in the war and their youthful years.
Like many others who have been exposed to wartime combat, the men have been reluctant to talk about those experiences in the years that followed. But when they get together with others who share that background, the barriers come down and there is enthusiastic participation, said Glenn Belseth, the founder of the group.
“It’s something that’s just binding, the 87-year-old declared, adding that the group has been “therapeutic” for members.
The seeds of the group were planted in a conversation Belseth had with his wife, Geraldine, at the kitchen table in their southwest Minneapolis home in February 2001. Belseth wondered aloud how many WWII vets there were in the Bethlehem congregation, and his wife encouraged him to find out.
Before that month was over, the first meeting of the group took place. Seventeen men showed up. With an average age of 84, the group had a total of 46 years of service in WWII.
Anastasia Pydych, the Bethlehem support staff member who meets with the group, says Belseth is a superb organizer who leaves no stone unturned once he hears of a person in the congregation who might qualify as a member.
“Glenn’s really a minister to these guys,” she said.
Membership in the group reached a peak of 28, but with the deaths of 4 men, there are now 24.
Pydych is impressed by the variety of types of military service the men in the Bethlehem group represent. It ranges from those who served as mail clerks to front-line infantrymen.
Two members — Belseth and Arthur Fredrickson —received the Bronze Star for exemplary conduct in combat operations. Belseth served as an infantryman in the invasion of North Africa at Algiers in the fall of 1942. Fredrickson was a naval officer on an underwater demolition team during the invasion of Japanese-held Borneo as part of the conflict in the Southeast Pacific Ocean.
Curtis Hansen, also a naval officer, led a wave of small landing boats during the D-day operation in France. His craft was hit by German fire, which killed two crew members and sank the boat. Hansen, along with other crew members, swam safely to shore. Months later he took part in the invasion of the Japanese-held Pacific island stronghold of Okinawa.
Meetings of the Beth-lehem vets group follow a set pattern. The group meets 9:30-11 a.m. Sessions include the Pledge of Allegiance to the U.S. flag, devotions, the Lord’s Prayer and a set topic that serves as a starting point for discussion.
Topics have included how members were received when they came home at the end of the war and how their church and their faith supported them during their time of service.
The vets have taken a trip to the Minnesota National Guard camp at Fort Ripley, Minnesota. A member of the congregation who served in Iraq has brought samples of the equipment and supplies used there so the WW II vets can compare them with the gear they used in battle.
As a change of pace, wives of the men have been invited to a couple of sessions, once as the group shared memories of the Depression years and another time when they recalled how they met their spouses. Most unique during the latter session was the veteran who met his future wife while hunting in a goose blind in the Fargo, North Dakota, area, Belseth said.
Perhaps the most ambitious undertaking of the group was publication of an illustrated booklet titled Bethlehem WWII Veterans. It appeared in 2004. Pydych guided the project, for which she drew up a list of a dozen questions relating to their wartime service for each veteran to answer.
The booklet contains each vet’s response to the questionnaire in Q-&-A format, along with photos, comments and other items the men contributed.
Distribution of the booklet has led to interviews and feature articles on two of the men in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, invitations to speak before school history classes, and an interview for Belseth with the curator of the military museum at Fort Ripley.
Pydych, who finds the men’s stories fascinating, says, “It was really a spiritual experience for me to put the book together.” And, she adds, “The project is not done.”
As long as Belseth keeps finding more World War II veterans in the congregation, she says, there will be updated versions with additional interviews.