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Soderquist fought polio, trained men in WWII

Brian Korthals/Daily Globe Donald Soderquist, Sibley, holds a copy of one of the thousands of pamphlets dropped on major Japanese cities warning citizens to leave prior to U.S. bombing attacks.1 / 2
Brian Korthals/Daily Globe Donald Soderquist is pictured in his uniform as a young man in the Air Force.2 / 2

SIBLEY, Iowa -- On the manual typewriter he keeps upstairs, Donald Soderquist carefully composed a three-page recollection of his time in the Air Force during World War II.

The memoir scarcely scratches the surface of his experience, but what stands out most is the postscript on the accompanying letter:

"P.S. We were not heroes. The real heroes never came back."

It is a view shared by many veterans. While modest, Soderquist does have one wish as he nears his 91st birthday: a trip to see the World War II memorial in Washington, D.C. He's been applying to various Honor Flights for two years; this October, he'll have his chance.

"I'm anxious to go," he said. "I'll be really happy to be with the others. We were all in World War II together; we'll all be friends."

Though he is a Cannon Falls native, Soderquist's journey began when he graduated from Hastings High School in 1939 and began work at packing house in the St. Paul suburb of Newport.

In January 1942, he and four friends drove to the Fort Snelling recruiting office to enlist.

"We were told, 'There are no camps open yet -- come back next week,'" he recalled.

So he did, returning every week until the camp opened on March 3. Soderquist had wanted to be an anti-aircraft gunner, but his high school business classes landed him an assignment in administration.

"I went into the recruiter, and I said, 'How come?' He said 'Soderquist, you've had bookkeeping and typing and accounting and working with people. Everybody can't do that. I said 'OK.' I had decided wherever they put me, I would do my best."

After four months of basic and administrative training in Camp Barkley, Texas, his unit was shipped to Ogden, Utah, where he started work as the company clerk under the first sergeant.

"I had a staff sergeant who liked to go into town about three, four nights a week, because the girls would go into town," he recalled with a laugh. "He'd say 'Soderquist, I want this done, I want that done.' I learned his job in a hurry."

In November 1942, he learned his commanding officer wanted to send him to Washington state, where he was to become the acting first sergeant at the Spokane Army Air Depot.

"I said 'Has there been a mistake? I'm only a corporal.' He said, 'We've been watching you. You've been doing his work for him. You're the only man we can send up there.'"

There, Soderquist trained new recruits and newly commissioned officers in addition to his administrative tasks.

Early the next year, he and his high school sweetheart, Sheila, took a train to the Twin Cities, where Soderquist -- a member of the orchestra that played the wedding dance for the clerk of courts -- was able to use his connections to bypass the three-day waiting period for a marriage license, even getting the fee waived.

"I believe it was three bucks at the time, and he said 'Oh, it's on me.' So that marriage started real good," he said.

His unit was sent to Robinsfield in Warner Robins, Ga., several months later. While continuing combat training there, he received a visit from Sheila, then several months pregnant with their first child. It was then, while he was training his squadron in a nearby wooded area, that he woke up with pain unlike any he had ever experienced.

"I woke up that morning , and I had an excruciating, painful, head-splitting headache. Painful like you wouldn't believe. ... My buddy partner in my pup tent was my medical sergeant from Spokane. I said 'Go get me two APCs (aspirin-phenacetin-codeine, the predecessor to Tylenol).' I took them, and it didn't' touch it at all.

"By 7:30, all that pain was there plus in my shoulders, then it was in my left leg. Nothing helped, I had taken eight of those APCs. The captain came and took my temperature: 105. He said 'Sergeant, you've got acute paralytic polio. I've seen it many times.'"

Soderquist would spend 27 days in the hospital and undergo five spinal taps before the disease had cleared his system, leaving muscle damage that lasts to this day. At one point it was thought he would never walk again.

Sheila, carrying their unborn child, was able to communicate with him from the hallway outside his hospital room.

"I prayed and prayed and prayed and prayed that God would spare them from the terrible disease, because it was epidemic," he remembered. "I thought for sure they'd get it. But God answered my prayers."

He refused a medical disability discharge, and by April 12, 1945, his 75th Air Service Group was in Seattle, prepared to board an old Dutch cargo ship -- a trip that was delayed two days by President Roosevelt's death.

The men boarded the converted vessel and attempted to get their "sea legs," but it would be several days before they learned their destination -- the tiny southeast Asian island of Guam.

When the men arrived, they were stationed at Northwest Field, an airstrip that would accommodate a fleet of B-29 Superfortress Bombers, each with a wingspan of 141 feet tip-to-tip and ability to fly 10,000 pounds of bombs to Japan and return to Guam on a single tank of fuel.

"We slept in the jungle for about four or five nights, and the thing about Guam is the jungle rats were twice as big as squirrels," he said. "We lay on those army cots, and we'd feel it just under our backs. We'd take our flashlights and try to get them out of there. We never knew if they were Japanese or rats."

Soderquist was a member of the 315 Bomb Wing, credited with ending the war. He and his men served as the ground support squadron, supplying medics, finance and supply, administration, communication, chaplain and military police to the Air Force military. He described the 315th's little-known "last mission," that followed the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki:

"On Aug. 14, 1945, 143 B-29s took off from Northwest Field, Guam. The target was the Nippon Oil Refinery in Akita, Japan," he wrote. "The Japanese military thought that Tokyo was the target and declared a complete blackout of Tokyo. ... But Emperor Hirohito contacted President Truman and the USA War Department, agreed to sign the unconditional surrender terms. Our B-29 fliers heard about the new surrender terms on the flight back to Guam on Aug. 15, 1945."

"When the bombers got back, some of them were puffing smoke," he recalled. "They were almost out of fuel, but 143 bombers came back. Our 315 bombing was credited with ending World War II, and I was proud to be a part of it."

His pride lives on at the Pima Air Museum in Tucson Ariz., where a photo of him and a few army buddies hangs on the wall.

Soderquist, now 90, lives with his wife of 67 years in a picturesque, ex-fixer-upper house in Sibley. They have three daughters living in Sibley; one son, an ex-Navy chaplain, living in Arizona; 10 grandchildren; 16 great-grandchildren -- and more on the way.

Don and Sheila have proved themselves consummate entrepreneurs. After Don's stint in the Milwaukee Railroad's St. Paul freight office, the couple ran a hardware store for 27 years, then converted an old school bus to a truck and started their own insulating business.

Next, they began buying and restoring houses for resale. It was that endeavor that lead them to their current home, where Sheila's paintings line the walls and a wooden box showcasing Don's bronze stars is the only immediate sign of his three-plus years on active duty. Perhaps his strongest memory of that long-ago time is the day he returned from war.

Three months after the "last mission," Soderquist was headed home. After a layover in Hawaii, he arrived at Camp McCoy in Sparta, Wis., and was discharged on Dec. 24, 1945 -- Christmas Eve day.

"I walked in the house, and I see through a big window in the door a lady wiping up the floor, big curlers in her hair. And I thought, 'Yup, that's my wife.'"

"I walked in, we embraced, and out comes a little girl. I saw her when she was three weeks old, and when I saw her again she was walking. It was the best Christmas I ever had."