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Ketterling fought Japanese in Philippines

Brian Korthals/Daily Globe Gilbert Ketterling, Luverne, shows off the Purple Heart he was awarded during military service in World War II.1 / 4
Brian Korthals/Daily Globe Gilbert Ketterling (center) poses with fellow servicemen in a vintage photo.2 / 4
Brian Korthals/Daily Globe Bill Ketterling (left) poses with his uncle, Gilbert Ketterling, who holds his discharge papers from his service during World War II3 / 4
Gilbert Ketterling is shown in his younger days after joining the military.4 / 4

LUVERNE -- Gilbert Ketterling still has the scars on his legs and a few marks on his back to show where shrapnel scattered and pierced his body 66 years ago.

"I didn't get hurt that bad," said the now-90-year-old World War II veteran from Luverne. "It was just small pieces of shrapnel."

Still, the injuries landed Ketterling in a hospital and were enough to earn him one of the military's most esteemed medals, the Purple Heart.

That Ketterling talks in slang about the Japanese enemies he fought during four years, four months and 10 days of service to the U.S. Army is understood.

His injuries on that fateful day back in 1944 were delivered when a Japanese hand grenade exploded in his vicinity on a hill somewhere in the Philippines.

"The Japanese grenades were much smaller than ours," said Ketterling, who now resides at the Minnesota Veterans Home in Luverne. "If they had been as big and powerful as ours, I wouldn't be sitting here."

Several American GIs were injured or killed that day. Among the dead was Ketterling's cousin, also a member of the 160th Infantry. Ketterling was in Company E; his cousin was in Company F.

"He was killed on the same hill that I was wounded on in the Philippines," Ketterling said. Both had enlisted as farm boys from South Dakota.

Born in North Dakota, Ketterling and his family were living on a farm outside of Scotland, S.D., when he received his draft papers and was ordered to report to Fort Snelling on March 22, 1941. Then 21, he received his basic training at Camp Roberts, Calif., and spent time at Fort Lewis, Wash., before returning to California.

"I was in California when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor," he said. "It was on a Sunday morning. I remember that very well.

"They loaded us on big civilian busses and shipped us down to Los Angeles Harbor to do guard duty," he added. "There was a lot of Japanese in California there and they didn't quite trust them at that time."

Within weeks, Ketterling and his unit were sent to Hawaii and Oahu to assist with operations there.

"They had outposts all around the islands every so many miles, just in case the Japanese should come back again, but they didn't," he said. "We was there just in case they gave us more trouble."

Ketterling spent nearly a year on the Hawaiian Islands before his unit received orders to go to the Philippines, where the Japanese had been working to overtake the islands.

"The Japanese had most of the islands in the Pacific Ocean at one time and us Americans had to get them the hell out of there," he said.

Ketterling said when they landed on the Philippine island of Luzon, they immediately engaged in battle with the Japanese.

"We fought the little slant-eyed rascals as soon as we hit the beach," he said. "They were there waiting for the American soldiers."

As an infantryman, Ketterling carried an array of battle gear, from his rifle and ammunition to hand grenades.

"I carried a rifle all the time I was in the service," said Ketterling. "I started out with that old bolt-action World War I rifle, and then about six months later I finally got an automatic and I carried that until the end of the war.

"I was a scout in the rifle company," he added. "When we made an invasion ... you were the first ones to get shot at."

After the battle at Luzon, Ketterling said they made the nearly 40-mile journey southeast toward Manila.

"It's a miracle that I can still walk for the many days (of walking) ... 20 miles," he said. "They walked the heck out of us infantry guys. We hardly ever got to ride in a truck."

It was during his time in the Philippines that Ketterling collected a souvenir of battle -- a Japanese Nambu automatic pistol now on display at the Herreid Military Museum at the Rock County Veterans Memorial Building, Luverne. He collected the weapon prior to his own injuries, and said that he had to be careful to keep it hidden. When he was taken to the hospital for treatment of his wounds following the grenade attack, Ketterling said he kept the pistol under his pillow.

"It took a long time for me to get it home," he added.

From the Philippines, Ketterling had brief stints on the islands of Guadalcanal and New Guinea, before he was given permission to return home. By then, victory over Europe had been declared and it seemed to the United States that victory over Japan was imminent.

Ketterling rode the Sea Corporal back into Los Angeles Harbor and made his way back to Fort Snelling for his honorable discharge on July 24, 1945.

"I was home for several days when they dropped that bomb on Japan and that ended the war," he said.

Ketterling was one of the lucky ones who was able to return home and start farming once again. Of the 120 men in Company E, he said about a fourth of them were lost in battle.

In addition to his Purple Heart, Ketterling earned the Asiatic-Pacific Theatre service medal, the American Offense Service Medal, five overseas service bars and the Philippine Liberation Ribbon with the Bronze Star.

While all of his war-time experiences were in the South Pacific, Ketterling's older brother, Emil, fought the war effort from the Aleutian Islands.

It is Emil's son, Bill, who is anxiously waiting to see the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., with his uncle. Bill Ketterling has applied to be a guardian on the Southwest Minnesota Honor Flight journey to the memorial.

As a Luverne businessman, he's also stepped forward to offer Honor Flight caps to all of the veterans who take the journey sometime this spring.

Ketterling Services-Sanitation and Recycling, along with Print Express in Luverne, are sponsoring the project.

The younger Ketterling, who served in the U.S. Navy from 1968 to 1972, said he wanted to do something for the World War II veterans who fought for this country.

"Let's face it, this is probably the last opportunity that we have to thank World War II veterans for the sacrifices that they've made," he said.

Julie Buntjer

Julie Buntjer joined the Globe newsroom in December 2003, after working more than nine years for weekly newspapers. A native of Worthington, she has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism. Find more of her stories of farm life, family and various other tidbits at

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