Rempel happy to have servedSecond Southwest Minnesota Honor Flight is Friday and Saturday
MOUNTAIN LAKE — Harry Rempel drives a Toyota. He does other things too, of course. The 86-year-old Mountain Lake man helps transport students from Butterfield and Odin to the Cottonwood County DAC, and keeps busy whittling away at a series of woodcarvings ranging from birds to biblical-themed wall hangings.
MOUNTAIN LAKE — Harry Rempel drives a Toyota.
He does other things too, of course.
The 86-year-old Mountain Lake man helps transport students from Butterfield and Odin to the Cottonwood County DAC, and keeps busy whittling away at a series of woodcarvings ranging from birds to biblical-themed wall hangings.
But in the midst of it all, Rempel, whose convoy was once attacked by Japanese submarines, is a Toyota man.
He saw firsthand the Japanese spirit of renewal in the months — and years — following Emperor Hirohito’s surrender.
“They just started to shovel and make little huts out of tin; anything to get started again,” he recalled with a smile. “I’m really amazed by them. That’s one of the reasons I drive a Toyota.”
Rempel’s journey to Japan began when he was drafted in 1944. A native of Jansen, Neb., he had moved to Mountain Lake with his family a few years earlier.
“I got a letter from Uncle Sam,” he said. “I was kind of shook up; I was just 19 then. I showed it to my dad and he says, ‘Why don’t you do whatever you want to do, go whatever way you want to go?’ So, I went in the Army. I’m not a Navy person. I’m not a water person.”
He would have to become a water person soon enough.
Following his induction at Fort Snelling that December, he had several months of basic training and training to become a medic. He then headed for the port.
“We had to learn how to take care of a broken limb and give blood or take blood or anything like that,” he said.
Following a short furlough, he hopped a train for the West Coast.
“Part of the family met (at the train station), and they didn’t know where we was going, and we didn’t know either, of course. And the train took us to Omaha. In fact, my dad insisted on going along with me. … He just wanted to be with me a little longer.”
In Omaha, Rempel continued to California alone, though plenty of familiar faces would greet him at Camp Beale.
“They always said Camp Beale is a good deal — they had to have a saying, you know,” he said.
His convoy sailed for the Philippines in late June 1945.
“I happened to get KP three days in a row, which I thought was kind of terrible, but when I thought about it, it was better I didn’t have so many thoughts about leaving every body behind,” Rempel recounted.
One Sunday morning, Japanese subs attacked his convoy, shooting at — and missing — the ship beside his.
“There were two destroyers up front guarding our convoy and they were dropping the — ash cans they called them — on the subs below us, and we could just feel the concussion. … They said right away that that was the way the Japanese usually did things.” (The Pearl Harbor attack was also on a Sunday.) In fact, Rempel would discover much later that a Windom resident in his veterans coffee group was aboard that destroyer.
The experience wasn’t the men’s only trial.
“The water was very rough; it took us 32 days to get to Manila Bay area. It was a lot of destruction in the bay … we docked at least a mile out of the bay, and then we climbed into a little landing craft, and we headed toward (the bay), zigzagging through the debris,” he said.
From the bay the troops moved to Quezon City, in the Philippines.
“We were waiting to invade Japan, so we had our vehicles and everything ready to go,” Rempel said. “My buddy and I one night were out overlooking Manila. … All of a sudden we saw the lights flashing back and forth and the sirens blowing, and he said, ‘Let’s go to the mess hall tent and see what the score is.’ The tent had a shortwave radio, and it said that Truman had ordered the dropping of the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They were celebrating.”
The troops took a landing ship tank to Wakayama, Japan, and then drove to Osaka, where they were tasked with keeping the peace during the Allied occupation of the country.
“All the way across the ocean we couldn’t have lights on anyplace. It would have been a dead giveaway,” he explained. “It’s kind of an eerie feeling.
The troops ran into few problems with the citizens there.
“We were all kind of concerned, but I think Japan as a whole was happy they were finally taken care of.”
Rempel never needed to use his medic skills, and he called his overall wartime experience a good one.
“I was very happy that I could do my little bit,” he said, recalling memories of time spent singing with his fellow soldiers aboard the troop transport vessels.
“We went down below the deck. It was not much space, and the bunks were stacked five-high. I found a guy who could play guitar and asked them what they might be able to play, and it was all old-time hymns, all of them. We’d sing, and some of them were crying.”
He was discharged in November 1945 and returned to the area, working as a meat carver at Fareway Food Stores for many years.
He married wife Edna in 1948; the couple has two daughters and seven grandchildren with a fourth great-grandchild on the way.
On one trip to visit his daughter’s family in Singapore, his experience came full circle. He took Edna to tour the parts of Japan where he had served.
“You wouldn’t believe how cleaned up and modern everything is,” he said. “It’s beautiful.”
Rempel is one of many veterans from southwest Minnesota and northwest Iowa who will participate in the Southwest Minnesota Honor Flight to Washington, D.C. on Friday and Saturday. Look for coverage of the event in Saturday’s and Monday’s paper and check out a special section devoted to the flight on Oct. 9.