Honored to serve: WWII veteran recounts his wartime experiences

WORTHINGTON -- Several pieces of World War II memorabilia hang on a wall in the basement of Alphonse and Donna Menke's Worthington home: a yellowed, typewritten list that details the dates and places of Alphonse's World War II service, a commenda...

World War II veteran Alphonse Menke is flanked by photos of himself (left) and brother Marvin Menke in their military uniforms, the flag from his brother's coffin and the award presented to him by the government of France.(Beth Rickers/Daily Globe)

WORTHINGTON -- Several pieces of World War II memorabilia hang on a wall in the basement of Alphonse and Donna Menke's Worthington home: a yellowed, typewritten list that details the dates and places of Alphonse's World War II service, a commendation from the French government, photos of Alphonse and his brother, Marvin, in uniform -- and the flag that covered Marvin's coffin.

The display is testament to the impact that the WWII had on Alphonse's life, even though he didn't arrive in the European battlefields until the war was virtually over.

Prepared to serve

One of eight children, Alphonse grew up in St. Kilian, a German-Catholic community in Nobles County.

"I was born on St. Alphonse Day. That was an old German-Catholic custom, to name a child after the saint's day on which he was born," explained Alphonse, also known as Phonse in the St. Kilian area and Al to his Worthington friends. "If I'd been born a day late, I'd have been Sebastian."


Like many young men living on the farm in that era, Alphonse left school after the eighth grade. He and older brother Marvin were particularly close among the Menke siblings, and when war was declared, Marvin headed off to service first.

"I had tried to enlist in the air transport command, but I didn't pass the test, so I waited for the draft. This is where the government invited me," Alphonse said, pointing to his orders to report for a physical examination, "and this is where they said I was fit to go," referring to the document assessing him as fit for duty.

When he learned of Marvin's death in the aftermath of the Battle of the Bulge, Alphonse was just 18 years old and a new draftee -- inducted Nov. 24, 1944 -- in infantry training at Camp Hood, Texas. He could have taken leave to attend Marvin's funeral in St. Kilian, but a letter from the priest saying it would only be a memorial service since his brother had received a battlefield burial (his body was later returned home) convinced him to continue with his training instead.

"I wanted to get over there and do some stuff," recalled Alphonse about his eagerness to avenge his brother's death in the European theater.

Destination Europe

Before long, Alphonse found himself on a transport ship, bound for France.

"On the way over, the news came out that if you weren't 19 or had at least six months of training, they weren't going to send you to the front," he said. "Here I was, on the boat at 18 years old with only 15 weeks of training. What were they going to do -- toss me off the boat and make me swim home?"

By the time the ship reached Le Havre, France, on May 6, 1945, the war in Europe was coming to an end. V-E (Victory in Europe) Day would be celebrated two days later, May 8, 1945.


Since his own division had orders to go stateside, Alphonse was sent across Germany to meet up with the 102nd Division near the Alb River in northern Germany.

"We rode the box cars for about two weeks before we got hooked up with them," he detailed. "Then we would move from town to town and check the houses for prisoners or weapons that had to be turned in. We were kind of a cleanup crew. I could speak some German -- my grandpa lived with us, so that was all we spoke at home -- and that came in handy. We got a few prisoners who were old SS troopers."

For the most part, Alphonse remembers that the German people cooperated as the American troops searched through their homes. In talking with some of the prisoners, he understood that they, too, had been drafted to serve their country.

"We didn't really want to be in this Army, and they didn't either," he said.

Alphonse hadn't accumulated enough service points to be discharged, so he and a bunch of other young soldiers were sent down to Munich to establish a radio depot.

"I was with the 51st signal depot in Munich," Alphonse explained. "That's where I stayed until they shipped me home. ... They needed mechanics, and in my M.O., it said that I could do mechanic work. I had to keep the generators working."

Although still in his teens, Alphonse was promoted to the rank of Technician Fourth Grade and oversaw German prisoners, brought in from the liberated Dachau concentration camp, who did the necessary labor. On days off, he joined buddies on excursions including one during which they climbed the highest point in Germany. Alphonse now regrets not seeing more, considering he was in charge of picking men up for church on Sundays and then had use of a truck for the rest of the day.

"But I enjoyed my tour over there, being I never got in any combat," Alphonse reflected.



Eventually, the Army realized that Alphonse was stationed in the general area where his brother was killed, which was against regulations.

"So they shipped me home a little earlier," Alphonse explained. "I traveled all across France by myself, carrying my own orders.

"I done what they told me to do," continued Alphonse about his military service. "It helped me a lot when I came out, too. I went into farming -- that was all I knew, because I only had an eighth-grade education. I stuck with it -- my brothers didn't -- and I think I did alright."

When some of his buddies returned home from the service, Alphonse joined them at a local beer joint, which is how he met wife Donna.

"These girls were walking outside, and we invited them in for a beer," he remembered. "Then I met her again at a dance one night and asked her if I could take her home. ... We went together from '46 to '49, then we got married."

The Menkes had four children -- two boys, two girls -- and now have eight grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. Alphonse retired from farming at age 58, and they moved from their rural Wilmont farm into Worthington.

Alphonse and Donna recently celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary.


Trip to D.C.

Later today, Alphonse Menke will return home from an Honor Flight visit to Washington. Honor Flight Network is a non-profit organization that honors America's veterans by transporting them to Washington to visit and reflect at their memorials. Top priority is given to the senior veterans -- World War II survivors -- along with other veterans who may be terminally ill.

Alphonse believes he was contacted to be an Honor Flight participant because he has utilized the Veterans Administration health care facilities in Sioux Falls, S.D.

Alphonse has previously attended the ceremonies for the local and Minnesota WWII memorials and an event hosted by the French consulate to recognize Minnesotans who helped liberate that country.

And now, during his time in the nation's capital, Alphonse will have stood at the national World War II Memorial, recalling his own service and paying homage to his brother and other comrades in arms.

Because of his own experiences and his brother's sacrifice, Alphonse feels it's important to remember -- and honor -- all those who served their country in the military. He proudly notes that in his immediate family, his father served in World War I, three family members served in World War II and two others in the Korean War.

"He had guard duty with Eisenhower," Alphonse related about brother Marvin as he contemplated his upcoming visit to the World War II monument. "He didn't have any infantry training, but when the big battle started, they sent everyone they could to the front. He made it through the Battle of the Bulge, then a few days later, he got hit. That's war for you. ...

"I'm doing it for him, too."


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