Voss captured history as WWII soldier
SPIRIT LAKE, Iowa -- Vernon Voss is a real sharp shooter.
And he ain't bad with a rifle, either.
As a corporal in the 33rd Infantry Division during the final months of World War II, Voss wasn't just a part of history -- he recorded it with indelible images that show both a broken Japan and the unbroken spirits of young American soldiers.
He keeps the tiny black-and-white photographs in a scrapbook near his other wartime possessions: A metal-plated Heart-Shield Bible, Samurai swords from Japan and the 1930s-era Konishiroku Pearlette camera he bought in the Philippines.
Voss, now 85, may never have expected to acquire such items just months after his graduation from Sioux Valley High School in 1944. He did expect he would be sent to war; he was drafted, along with just about every young man in his class.
"I was happy to go," he said. "All the boys my age knew that we were going to be a part of it."
Voss was sworn in that fall, following 17 weeks of training at Camp Robinson in Arkansas.
"It was very good training, I found out later. It was tough, real tough. We had 17 weeks of no fooling around," he said. "They knew we had to get over there and help. I know now why they insist upon certain things."
By early spring of 1946, he was headed from San Francisco to the Philippines via a not-so-direct course.
"It took 31 days to get overseas. ... You don't go straight because the Japs and Germans both had submarines, and you'd try to outmaneuver them by going criss-cross," he explained.
Voss' division used that tough training to fight the Japanese at Luzon and Manila after they reached the Philippines.
"We were lightly armored; we didn't have tanks and stuff -- that was impossible to get over there at that time," he explained. "Germany was a lot different. That was a different war. It was a difference in the way we fought: In Germany, (the U.S.) had more heavy artillery. Where we were, they didn't even have roads, just paths."
He was fortunate to escape major injuries, but did lose a close friend in combat.
"You're young, and you're learning things as you go, and you learn in a hurry," he said of his wartime experience. "You did what you had to do."
Following the Japanese surrender in August, his unit headed north to Japan's shoreline, where they entered by barge to occupy the island.
"They'd take you in as far as they could, and then they'd drop the gangplank, and down into the water we'd run," he recalled. "I had a little Japanese camera that I bought in the Philippines, and I happened to turn it on as we were wading into the shore, and I took a picture of the guys coming in. And here was my commander, he says 'Voss!' I say 'Yes?' -- I thought I was really gonna get it -- and he said, 'I want a picture of that,'" he recalled with a chuckle.
His unit joined other U.S. troops in confiscating Japan's armaments -- and disposing of them in the middle of the ocean "so they couldn't get them again," Voss said.
Voss was sent to be a company clerk in the Shikoku territory before being discharged in October 1946.
He attended the University of Minnesota, earning his two-year degree in economics, and married wife Ellen, a Lake Park, Iowa, native, in 1948.
The couple moved onto his parents' farm in Sioux Valley Township, eventually taking over the livestock and crop work while raising a family there.
"We had chicken cages and we had 8,400 of them, and the reason we did that was because we had three daughters -- no sons --so they could earn their money, too," he said.
Vernon and Ellen did eventually have a son, who now teaches at Jackson County Central, as well as 15 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren -- and counting.
Their daughters are also close to home: eldest Susan is a nurse at Avera clinic in Spirit Lake; Julie co-owns Five Star Catering in Harris, Iowa, and also farms; and Debra works at Village Green Florists and Greenhouse in Lakefield.
The couple retired to their current home on West Lake Okoboji in 1986.
"I always say Vernon took me back to Iowa where he found me," joked Ellen.
Voss took classes in cabinetmaking and set up a woodshop he used to make furniture for the couple's home.
Then, nearly a decade into his retirement, Voss checked the mail and found an unexpected reminder of his time in the armed service --a Bronze Star for valor.
He thought it was a mistake.
"When I got it, I had no idea," he said. "But I checked my discharge papers, and sure enough, it was marked there."
He later learned the St. Louis building that housed military records at the time had burned to the ground. It took a half-century to find the missing information.
"I got the Bronze Star 50 years after I earned it," he said with a smile.