ROCK RAPIDS, Iowa -- It was nearly two years ago that Roscoe and Nadene Pettengill filled out the required paperwork and applied to go on Honor Flight, a program that sends America's World War II veterans to Washington, D.C., free of charge to view the memorial built in their honor.
The two nonagenarians from Rock Rapids had applied to accompany a South Dakota Honor Flight in 2009, but their applications kept moving to the back of the stack as that state worked to get its own residents to Washington. Nadene said they weren't worried -- they knew they would eventually get to go.
"(Southwest Minnesota Honor Flight) has made us feel so welcome -- they really have," she said.
This morning, the Pettengills were among 108 World War II veterans to embark on the third Southwest Minnesota Honor Flight. Today and Saturday will be spent in the nation's capital city viewing not only the World War II Memorial, but the Korean, Vietnam, Marine Corps, Navy and Air Force memorials, as well as the Lincoln and FDR memorials and Arlington National Cemetery. The flight will return to Sioux Falls, S.D., at approximately 9 p.m. Saturday.
The Pettengills are the only married pair, both of whom served during the war, participating on this third flight. Roscoe, nicknamed Jigger, served as an ambulance driver in the Army Medics, 34th Infantry Division, from 1941 through 1945. His service included stints in Northern Ireland, Africa and Italy. Nadene was a member of the Navy WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service), working on the East Coast as a supply clerk, infantry officer and, eventually, an inventory officer at the Norfolk Navy Yard in Virginia.
"We relieved a man to go to sea duty," she said. "I had the job of opening packages, identifying what was in them and sending the list to Washington."
Most of the packages were filled with specific parts used for equipment and machines in the war effort, and the identification was needed as part of the U.S.'s partnership with the English lend-lease program.
A native of Mankato, Nadene earned her graduate degree in business administration in 1942 from the University of Minnesota. The added education made her overqualified for her job as a file clerk at Honeywell and, because the government had put a freeze on changing jobs during the war, she had to request special approval from her employer to look elsewhere for work.
After enlisting in the Navy, she was sent to Northampton, Mass., for officer school, and then on to Naval Supply School before ending up at the Norfolk Navy Yard. Her Navy career spanned from 1943 through the fall of 1945.
Meanwhile, Jigger graduated from Rock Rapids High School and attended 10 months of concrete engineering classes at Dunwoody Institute in Minneapolis. After his education, he returned to northwest Iowa and then enlisted in the Army.
Jigger completed basic training at Camp Claiborne, La., before being sent to Fort Dix, N.J., when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. From Fort Dix, he was shipped to Northern Ireland, and then on to Africa by early 1943.
Just as he and his fellow soldiers neared the African coastline, Jigger said the luxury liner they were aboard -- a ship used by the Germans in World War I -- was struck by a smaller boat and created a hole "big enough to drive a truck into."
The crash knocked out power on board the ship, and Jigger said they were issued thin blankets to try to stay warm until morning.
By the time they landed in northern Africa, Jigger said there was little action.
"The Americans had no experience at all," he said, adding that they kind of eased into battle.
"When we invaded northern Africa, there was no fight," he said. "We engaged with Germans near Algiers, and quite a few Americans were captured."
A stroke of luck -- or perhaps fate -- spared Jigger from captivity. As an ambulance driver, he was responsible for taking soldiers wounded in battle from the field hospital to the general hospital, which treated those more severely injured.
"At about 9:30 or 10 o'clock at night, we were told the Germans broke through and we had to get out of there," he recalled. "We came out of the pup tent, loaded up our patient and we drove all night long (heading) west -- away from the Germans."
After they had safely arrived at the general hospital in Algiers, Jigger received word that many of his fellow soldiers had been captured -- about 1,000 men in all, including 400 officers.
"It happened that there were a lot of people from this area that were captured," added Nadene.
Jigger spent most of 1943 in Africa, traveling with the infantry with his ambulance and a relief driver. As they stopped to rest, it was Jigger's job to find a place to hide the rig. Typically they covered the heavy-duty, four-wheel drive vehicle with branches as a disguise.
It was while outside the rig early one morning, looking for branches, that Jigger was struck in the left leg by shrapnel from a German land mine.
"An Army Jeep with a narrow wheel base tripped off the land mine," he said. "I got hit real lightly -- a scratch, I call it -- and I got the Purple Heart."
The land mine shot ball bearings out horizontally, he said, resulting in minor injuries to one other soldier and a flat tire on the ambulance rig he'd been working to disguise.
"I went to (the general hospital) in Algiers before anyone even looked at me," said Jigger.
It wasn't long before he was back in the field, tending to the troops once again.
"All our patients were treated by the medics," he said. "We carried no medicine, no supplies.
"We had crude training -- we could put a tourniquet on," he added. Every soldier had a first aid kit, which was used by the medics in the field to treat them when they suffered injury.
Four soldiers on cots could be transported in the ambulance at a time. Many of the soldiers Jigger hauled to the general hospital were unconscious, suffering from afflictions ranging from gunshot wounds to missing limbs.
The general hospital was typically located within 40 to 50 miles of the battlefield, said Jigger. Relay points were set up about every 10 miles, with six to 10 ambulances in the relay. The system was set up to ensure there was always an ambulance available at the front lines, he added.
When the 34th Infantry Division left Africa, they headed toward Italy, landing at Anzio just days after the battle ended there in 1944.
"Anzio was where they lost a lot of men," said Nadene. The Allied forces suffered approximately 7,000 casualties in the battle, with another 36,000 recorded as injured or missing in action.
Jigger stayed with his division in Italy until the war was over in late 1945. Despite the dangers he had encountered in more than four years of service to his country, he feels rather lucky to have had the job he was assigned.
"I liked the job," said Jigger. "We had everything we owned under our seat, and we slept in the ambulance. The infantry hated us -- we had too good a life.
"I often wonder myself how I ended up in the medics," he added.
At the end of the war, Jigger returned to northwest Iowa and went to work in his father's businesses, which included a lumberyard, block manufacturing operation and a paint store, all located in Rock Rapids.
"I thought I'd take a week off (after returning home from war), but I couldn't," he said with a smile.
Jigger worked alongside his dad, Vet, and brother, Leon, for a short time, and then the boys bought out their father's share in the businesses. By then, Jigger and Nadene had married. The two had met in Lyon County, Iowa, in their mid-teens while Nadene stayed with her grandmother at Lester during her summer vacations. She worked as a clerk in her grandma's store, and the two had actually met at a dance one evening at the fairgrounds in Rock Rapids.
They were married in 1946 and eventually took over the Pettengill family's block business, adding both gravel and ready-mix to the operation. Nadene worked as the bookkeeper, while Jigger performed a lot of the mechanical work and led plant upgrades. He designed and built a washing plant for gravel that is still in use.
Today, Pettengill Concrete and Gravel is owned by the third generation -- Jigger and Nadene's son, Pete, and his wife, LaVonne.
Jigger and Nadene have lived in Rock Rapids since their marriage in 1946, and raised two adopted children there, Pete and Leslie. They have two granddaughters and four great-grandsons.
Both Jigger and Nadene earned their private pilot's licenses after World War II through the G.I. training program, taking lessons right in Rock Rapids.
"I had to do it because he made me," said Nadene with a laugh. "It was a passion for him -- he loved to fly, and I could always navigate."
"When I retired from the business, I ran the air taxi," said Jigger, adding that he'd transport local engineers to Minneapolis, Omaha and Des Moines.
Up until 12 years ago, the two spent six months of the year in Rock Rapids, and the other six months at their home in Hawaii -- a tradition they carried on for 19 years.