A toast to the Last Men: Haakenson, Luitjens to open bourbon in Veterans Day ceremony
LUVERNE — Since 2010, members of the Glen’s Coffee Clique Last Man Club have gathered for a special ceremony on Veterans Day to honor their comrades — the veterans who answered the call of duty and served in World War II.
Today, just two of the club’s 24 members remain; and tonight, they’re going to twist the cap off a bottle of bourbon and toast to their fallen friends.
It was Warren Herreid Sr. who suggested forming a Last Man Club to his fellow World War II veterans — coffee-drinking buddies who gathered every afternoon at Glen’s Food Center (now Teal’s Market) in Luverne for conversation and camaraderie. By the time the group conducted its first ceremony, 10 of the 24 members had died. Six were lost in 2010 alone.
Herreid saw the Last Man Club as a way to remind others of the sacrifices so many men and women made to ensure America’s freedom. He didn’t want his fellow World War II heroes to be forgotten.
Herreid died Oct. 26 in the Minnesota Veterans Home in Luverne. He was 96.
With his death, Luverne’s Last Man Club now has a membership of two — Helmer “Haaky” Haakenson, age 98, and LeRoy Luitjens, age 93.
Though the rules of the club were for the Last Man to open the bottle of bourbon, Haakenson said people in town have been coaxing them to do it in recent years. The bottle has been inside a locked display case at the grocery store’s deli where Glen’s Coffee Clique gathered for many years.
Haakenson now has the key and he will make sure the bourbon gets to tonight’s Last Man Club ceremony, conducted as part of the Rock County Veterans Banquet at Grand Prairie Events in Luverne.
“Everybody’s been after us to open it and drink it, so him (LeRoy) and I decided we would open it and do that,” Haakenson said. “I just don’t drink booze anymore, but I’ll have a sip.”
Joining the men will be a pair of special guests, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and his wife, Mary. It was Mary who, in 2005, invited the group of Luverne veterans for coffee at the Governor’s Mansion, and again met with the men at Glen’s several years later.
In all the years the veterans gathered for afternoon coffee, war stories weren’t a part of their conversation.
“When you’re a veteran, you just bind together,” Haakenson said.
“We were closer than brothers, I would say,” added Luitjens of his comrades in the Last Man Club.
The pair attended the funerals of each of their friends in the Last Man Club and served as honorary pallbearers.
“We both used to be on the firing squad — that’s one reason why we were there,” Haakenson shared. He was 88 when he retired from the Honor Guard.From the Guard to the Infantry
Haakenson, who’s quick to admit his memory isn’t what it used to be, was featured in a veteran profile in the Daily Globe in April 2010, just a couple of weeks before he and fellow members of the Last Man Club prepared for the inaugural Honor Flight Southwest Minnesota trip to Washington, D.C. to view the World War II Memorial.
In that story, the Luverne native detailed his service, which began at the age of 17, when he signed up for the Civil Conservation Corp and the Minnesota National Guard. He was mobilized with the Guard on Jan. 6, 1941 — 11 months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor — and served with Battery A of the 215th Coast Artillery Anti-Aircraft unit on Kodiak Island, Alaska. Later, he transferred to the Air Force in hopes of becoming a pilot.
With a glut of pilots, Haakenson was instead sent to radio school, then radar school before ending up at Bellows Field on the Hawaiian island of Oahu. He remained there until the war ended on Sept. 2, 1945.
Luitjens grew up on a farm between Reading and Wilmont and was still in high school when Pearl Harbor was attacked on Dec. 7, 1941.
“I was going to Worthington High School when Roosevelt gave his speech,” Luitjens recalled. “We had a general assembly in Memorial Auditorium. That’s the last time this country has had a declared war. All of the rest of them have been police actions.”
“Like Korea and Vietnam,” Haakenson added.
In 1944, two years after he graduated from high school, Luitjens was drafted into the U.S. Army Infantry at Worthington.
“We didn’t have a choice,” he said of his assignment.
“It was you, you and you — one step forward and that was it,” Haakenson added.
Luitjens was sent to Camp Wood, Texas, for training, and was in Washington, D.C., on the morning President Roosevelt died.
“We were in troop training and we couldn’t figure out why the flags were at half-mast,” he said.
After training, Luitjens boarded a ship bound for Europe to aid in the war effort there. However, on the very day they landed in Glasgow, Scotland, the war was declared over.
“Then I joined the Army Occupation in Austria,” Luitjens said. He was assigned to the 42nd Infantry — the “Rainbow Division” — which in late April 1945 had liberated the Dachau Concentration Camp in Germany.
“Some of those we hooked up with had pictures of all those bodies stacked up on boxcars,” Luitjens shared. “As a teenager, you didn’t take things too serious, but since then, things have changed.”
“Bill Veenhof (a member of the Last Man Club) came upon one of those concentration camps,” Haakenson said. “They wanted him to dig holes and he said, ‘Oh no, you killed them, you dig the holes.’”
Luitjens spent two and a half years in Austria, first guarding prisoners of war and later working as a cook.
While in the European country, Luitjens met the love of his life, Margarete. She returned with him to Minnesota after his tour of duty, and the two were married here. They lived in the Worthington area until 1961, when they moved to Luverne. Margarete died June 27, 2015.
Luitjens spent his career as a carpenter, while Haakenson was an electrician by trade. Looking back on their lives and their experiences in World War II, they are honored to have served.
“I’m proud I was in the service, I know that,” Haakenson shared.
“I think it was real honorable service — it’s what the country stands for,” Luitjens added.
With unwavering respect for the United States, its flag and its national anthem, the two have lived long enough to see the disrespect shown in recent months by professional football players who choose to kneel during the singing of The Star-Spangled Banner.
“I just want to punch them in the nose,” Haakenson said.
“Me too,” added Luitjens. “That’s a real sore spot for veterans.”In remembrance
Members of the Glen’s Coffee Clique Last Man Club and the year of their death are: Harvey Ball, 2002; Theodore “Ted” Anderson, 2007; Lawrence Overgaard, 2007; Raymond Slieter, 2008; Lawrence Akkerman, 2009; Charles Mann, 2009; George Gabrielson, 2010; William “Bill” Veenhof, 2010; Floyd Goembel, 2010; Darwin Rogness, 2010; John “Johnny” Johnson, 2010; Robert “Bob” Juhl, 2010; Robert “Tim” Tangeman, 2011; M.R. “Big” Carrigan, 2011; Conrad Tofteland, 2013; Gerrit Van Engelenhoven, 2013; Russ Swenson, 2013; Jake Boomgaarden, 2014; Robert Anderson, 2016; Raymond Anderson, 2016; Earl Glaser, 2017; and Warren Herreid Sr., 2017.