First comes war, then comes marriageFAIRMONT — When the fourth and final journey of Honor Flight Southwest Minnesota takes to the skies from the Sioux Falls Airport this morning, Orville and Virginia “Tootie” Austin will be side-by-side in their seats, perhaps holding hands and most likely eager to see the World War II Memorial built in their honor.
By: Julie Buntjer, Worthington Daily Globe
FAIRMONT — When the fourth and final journey of Honor Flight Southwest Minnesota takes to the skies from the Sioux Falls Airport this morning, Orville and Virginia “Tootie” Austin will be side-by-side in their seats, perhaps holding hands and most likely eager to see the World War II Memorial built in their honor.
As the only married World War II veterans aboard this flight, the Fairmont couple is thrilled to be able to travel together. Orv just celebrated his 90th birthday this year, and Virginia is just a few years younger at 87.
The couple will celebrate their 65th wedding anniversary next February. Meanwhile, this year — this trip — they are celebrating the 66th anniversary of the end of World War II.
The war seems like a lifetime ago, and yet Orv and Virginia’s recollections are as crisp as if they happened just a week or two ago.
The foot soldier
Orv was living on the family farm just a few miles north of Fairmont when his draft papers arrived. He was 21 years old and making money off the land when Uncle Sam decided his services were needed at war.
“I went to Fort Snelling on July 14, 1942,” he recalled.
From there, he trained at Camp Grant, Ill., and went to Fort Des Moines, Iowa, to help “take care of the WACs (Womens Army Corps) for a little while.”
“There were 10,000 women there and 250 men,” he said. “That was something.”
Orv helped prepare food and wash dishes for four or five months before he was transferred to the armored division at Camp Campbell, Ky., to be trained in tank operations.
“Then, there were three or four guys that volunteered to join the paratroopers,” he said. “I went through all the training, but I had flat feet, so I didn’t make no jumps.”
Orv ended up at Camp McCall, N.C., during the winter of 1942-43 to practice maneuvers, but didn’t like the work. So, he volunteered to go to Europe. He served with Company M in the Third Division, 15th Regiment of the U.S. Army.
He landed in Africa and spent a month there before shipping out to France. When he docked at the harbor at Naples, he had to stay aboard ship for two weeks — that was just prior to the U.S. invasion at Normandy.
By mid-1944 — after the battle at Anzio, France — Orv made it to the front lines.
“I done all the walking across all of France,” he said. “That was the summer and fall of 1944.”
Orv can’t begin to imagine the number of miles he walked across the French countryside, encountering attacks from German soldiers along the way.
“There was no opposition at all at Marseille — it was all up by Cherbourg, near the battle of Normandy,” he said.
As an infantryman — a foot soldier — Orv walked from Marseille, France, to Frankfurt, Germany, during battle in the European Theater. He carried a carbine rifle and a 30- to 40-pound pack that had all of his necessities, from a water bottle and mess kit to bed roll and K-rations. Most nights were spent sleeping on the ground — he preferred it that way.
Orv shared a story about the one time he had climbed into a foxhole while being shelled by Germans in a forest somewhere in France.
“The foxhole that I had, (another soldier) took it and he got shrapnel all over his head and he died from it,” he said. “And he took my foxhole. That was something else, too, that poor guy.”
The foxholes were meant to protect the American soldiers, but from Orv’s experience, that certainly wasn’t the case. His protection was his weapon.
“I never fired at a German soldier with the (carbine),” he said. “I used a machine gun.”
The machine gun could fire off multiple rounds at the German soldiers, but it offered little sense of security when going up against German tanks.
On Jan. 24, 1945, while stationed on the front lines near Alsace, France, Orv was caught in a battle in the Colmar Pocket against the 19th German Army.
“The Germans made a counter-attack,” he explained.
Initially hidden in a foxhole, Orv and another soldier decided to retreat. They crossed a small stream and darted behind a big, rotten tree trunk just as German tanks began firing in their direction.
“That’s when I got a shrapnel wound from one of the German tanks,” Orv described. “It shot me out in the open maybe about 10 to 15 feet. I just went up in the air and flew — there was that much concussion to it.”
To this day, Orv doesn’t know if the soldier that was with him lived or died.
There were other soldiers in the group, too, but when the Germans began firing on them, several had split off from Orv and the soldier he was with.
“They went along the creek someplace else and they got captured,” Orv said. “When the war got over … they got rescued and got to come home about a month later.”
As for Orv, he suffered a shrapnel wound to the shoulder.
“It just missed the bone,” he said. “It tore a crease through my shoulder. I never felt it.”
When Orv noticed his torn sleeve, however, he knew he’d been hit with something.
“A bunch of us was able to walk back to the aid station, but I don’t know how far that was away,” he said. “We sat there for a while until a truck took us down to another aid station, and then they carted us down to Dijon (France).”
There was a military hospital in Dijon, and Orv would spend the rest of January, and all of February, March and April there recuperating and taking physical therapy to get his shoulder working again.
Orv said the battle he was in at Colmar Pocket was the same battle in which famed movie star Audie Murphy stood atop a tank with his machine gun and just fired at the enemy. Murphy received the Medal of Honor for his valor in the battle.
When Orv was finally released from the hospital in late April 1945, he was “stuck” with a grave registration outfit. He became a truck driver and helped pick up American fliers that were shot down over Europe. Oftentimes the pilots were put in wooden boxes and left in small towns for the grave workers to pick up.
“We must have found a dozen bodies like that,” said Orv. “We took them back to our cemetery — we had one in the little town of Benzin (Germany).”
After the war, many of those graves were dug up and the bodies returned to American soil.
Orv stayed in Europe until early December 1945. Though the war had ended, he said soldiers still had to be careful.
“There were some young kids who would take a pot shot at you, or string a wire up across the road and you could drive through there and get decapitated,” he said. “I never had any of that trouble.”
Orv returned to the United States after a 15-day journey across the Atlantic Ocean. After reaching North Carolina, he traveled by train to Camp McCoy, Wis., for his honorable discharge on Dec. 21, 1945. In service to his country, he was awarded the Purple Heart, the Bronze Star, the Combat Infantry Badge, a French Wreath, the American Theater Ribbon, the European-African-Middle Eastern Theater Service Ribbon and the Good Conduct Medal.
Virginia Simon grew up on a farm south of Fairmont and went through the 10th grade before dropping out to help her mom on the farm. She was the second oldest of eight children — the two youngest born while her older brother, Willard, was serving his country in the Army in World War II.
In addition to helping on the farm, Virginia had a job in town at Railway Motors, a factory that began making parts for guns to aid in the war effort. While there, she met a couple of women who had enlisted, and they coaxed her into doing the same.
“I wanted to in a way, and my mother didn’t want me to,” recalled Virginia. “She was going to lose her helper.
“My dad said go,” she added.
After passing her physical in the Twin Cities, Virginia returned home to wait for her orders.
She left home in late June 1944, at the age of 21, with the two women who had convinced her to enlist. They rode the train to New York, to complete their basic training at Hunter College.
“When we got to our camp, there were 1,000 women around me,” said Virginia. She became separated from her traveling partners then and never saw them again.
Virginia spent six weeks in boot camp and, although she was told she could go wherever she wanted to work after training, her dream of going to California was not to be.
“I got stationed in Washington, D.C.,” she said. “I was there just about two years.”
As a member of the Navy WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service), Virginia was assigned to laundry duty at the barracks at the base of the Washington Monument.
“They built (the barracks) right on the polo grounds,” she said, adding that there were bunk beds with two women to each small room.
“We did laundry for the service people — for the Navy and Marines,” Virginia shared. “The girls, we all worked in like a block square — it was huge. The Marines would come off the ship … and they’d drop off their laundry.”
At first, Virginia said she was “real lonesome” for the three young brothers and young sister she left behind in Minnesota, but as she got to know the other girls she worked alongside, they had a lot of fun.
One of the “girls” still corresponds with Virginia today — 65 years after their discharge from the WAVES.
Virginia was discharged from the U.S. Navy on March 1, 1946, in Washington, D.C., at the rank of Seaman First Class, and returned home to Fairmont.
Perhaps one of the reasons Virginia’s father let her enlist in the military during World War II was that he, too, served his country. He fought in France during World War I.
“He was adventurous, I think,” said Virginia.
In late 1940, Virginia’s older brother felt the urge to serve his country. Not yet 18 at the time, Willard had to ask his father for permission to join the National Guard, and in January 1941, he was sent to Kodiak, Alaska.
The plan was to spend a year there before returning, but then the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, and Willard was in for the long haul.
“They were brought home and retrained, and then he went into the Army and served in Germany,” said Orv. Willard, who now lives in Fairmont, is also going to be on Honor Flight Southwest Minnesota’s fourth and final journey.
Virginia had other siblings who served their country as well — Richard was in the Navy during World War II, serving in the Panama Canal, while Roger and Larry are also veterans, having served during peace time and in Korea, respectively.
As for Orv, he was the oldest of three children — he had one brother and one sister. His brother, Merle, served in the South Pacific during World War II in the Navy Seabees.
After the war
In early December 1945, Orv was told he was going home. His journey back to America took 15 days by ship, and several more days by train to reach Camp McCoy, Wis. He received his honorable discharge on Dec. 23, 1945, and made it home to the family farm north of Fairmont by Christmas Day.
While the memories of war were never far from his mind, he delved into farming with his parents and, as he said, life went on.
Then, more than a year later, he spotted a girl working as a cashier at the AMP in Fairmont.
“That’s when I met you,” Orv said, glancing over at his wife of 64 years.
“He asked me for a date,” she replied with a giggle.
It wasn’t the first time the two had met — they had, in fact, known each other for many years.
“I tore my pants on the Tilt-a-Whirl and then she sewed it for me — she was about 13 then,” Orv recalled. He was just 15 at the time.
“We never dated then,” he said.
“Well, no. We were just kids then,” quipped Virginia.
The Austins were married on Feb. 23, 1947, at the Congregational Church in Fairmont. They drove their 1938 Plymouth out to California for their honeymoon, returning to southern Minnesota six weeks later to begin their career in farming.
During that first year of marriage, Virginia said her husband suffered from nightmares of his time in the war.
“He was just kind of wild in the night, dreaming about it,” she said.
Back then, at the end of World War II, there was no counseling available to the soldiers.
“I just came back home and started farming all over again,” Orv said.
After brief stints renting land near Fairmont, Jackson and Welcome, the couple purchased a farm along the Minnesota River near Sleepy Eye, where they raised their family — four sons and a daughter.
The two youngest boys, Tom and Joey, followed in their parents’ footsteps and served their country in the Navy during the Vietnam War. They were stationed aboard the same supply ship during their tour of duty.
The Austins retired from farming in 1980, and moved back to Fairmont nearly a decade ago. Their family has now grown to include seven grandchildren and five great-grandkids.