Retired Cambridge Middle School teacher Bill Kruschel received a pleasant surprise this autumn when an opening allowed him to join his father, William Kruschel, on the Twin Cities Honor Flight for World War II veterans to Washington D.C. The trip was sponsored by the Vietnam Veterans Charity.
“I put in for the trip a year ago, and didn’t hear anything, so I thought they forgot about me,” said William during an interview at Bill and wife Ginni’s town home in White Bear Lake. “Then I got a call from the guy who asked, ‘What are you doing on the 6th of October?’”
“It means everything to me, you know. I thought it was such a nice thing to do for veterans,” added son Bill on the meaning of joining his father on the Honor Flight. “When Dad told me he was going, I thought it was great. I know how Dad is around vets and how much he communicates and does with other people– it would just be fabulous. So for me to get the opportunity to go, I was dumbfounded. And the way they have it so organized, it is a special thing for the veterans.”
Stops on the trip were the Iwo Jima Memorial, Women’s Memorial, Air Force Memorial and a final stop at the World War II Memorial, with a “welcome home” ceremony when the plane returned to Minneapolis that night.
“Looking at Dad, when I was 18, I had no idea what I was going to do,” said Bill. “And there he was, not only going in the Navy during WWII, but he drove out to California in his Model A Coupe to get work when he was 17!”
“It was the sign of the times,” answered his father. “What choice did you have? Everybody was in the same boat, so to speak.”
Kruschel’s WWII experiences covering the 1st Marines
Kruschel was a St. Paul native, “born & raised on 6th & Mendota– born on the 4th of March 1925.”
“Before I went in the Navy in June 1943, I was working for a big construction company in California, and I was a certified welder. So I was waiting for what was called a ship fitters’ draft. But by that point of the war, they killed off the corpsmen, so they made a medic out of me. When I drove home I saw all those dog faces running in the desert, so I thought it would be better aboard a ship than running in the desert. That’s why I chose the Navy. The Navy supplied all the medical for the entire Marine Corps, so that’s how I ended up in the Marines.”
His boot camp was in Farragon, Idaho where they trained in life boats on Lake Ponderay. That was the beginning of radar where they had a special school there for teaching radar on a big barge. His medical training was at the U.S. Naval Hospital in San Diego. “We lived in tents behind it, right alongside the San Diego Zoo. Since none of us didn’t have any money to do anything, we’d go over there on weekends to help feed the animals and clean up.”
At Camp Elliott, Kruschel took in Fleet Marine Corps training with live gunfire. “My first time ever in the ocean there were huge swells while we rode in a Higgins boat. As a corpsman you had two great big bags on either side– you were a walking hospital. And we carried a carbine. Next thing you know you’re on a boat heading to the war– the USS Robin Doncaster. It was a junk ship converted to a troop ship. It was the only ship in the whole South Pacific that got dirty in the middle of the ocean. Every day we had to clean it,” joked Kruschel.
It took him to the island of New Caledonia, at the far east end of the Solomon Islands, in 1944. “They put us on a brand-new hospital ship which went all the way to Milne Bay, New Guinea, and that’s where I joined the 1st Marine Division.
“From there, we went to New Georgia Island and walked the whole thing while the Japs walked off the other end. We never got at them. And everybody got more crud than you could imagine. First of all, you’ve got poor diet. Secondly, half the guys got malaria.”
Next, his division went to Pavuvu of the Russell Island group of the Solomons. That was home for 12 months. It was 75 miles straight west of Guadalcanal. In September of 1944, the 1st Marines attacked the island of Peilulu to clear out the Japanese.
“My duties were a little bit of everything. Two things against you as a medic were dehydration and malaria. The horrible part was there were a lot of guys who got hurt, but their records never showed it. I’ll give you an idea: on Guadalcanal, 8,000 guys had malaria, bad enough where they couldn’t do anything. If a guy was going off his rocker, it was ‘combat fatigue.’ A lot of those guys didn’t extra benefits afterward.
“An example was myself. I got a helluva terrible blood condition called phlebitis while I was over there and was operated on for it. And when I got back, some dingy dentist decided my blood problem was caused by my teeth, and pulled half my teeth out. And never put it in my records! I put $50,000 of my own money in my mouth, and you couldn’t prove that it was caused by the war. But during my discharge, a Navy nurse found out about it, and I got a 10 percent disability out of it. Well, then they tried to take it away from me, but the American Legion went to bat for me to get 50 percent. I can’t say enough what the VA has done for me. But it was only because of that nurse; it never would have crossed my mind to go after benefits. All I wanted was out.”
Kruschel was operated on in a hospital on Banika– a good-sized island part of the Russell Islands. Bob Hope came over there and put on a show. “Some officer from the 1st Marine Division was there, and asked Bob if he would like to put on a show for the 1st Marine Division on Pavuvu. So they flew him over on an L-19 two-passenger airplane used for observation. So here comes Bob Hope, joined by great singer Francis Lanford, Jerry Colonna– the comedian with the big mustache– and others. During an interview 10 years before he died, Bob Hope was asked what USO show impressed him the most. He said Pavuvu, ‘because that’s where the 1st Marines Division was, and two weeks later, 1,200 of those guys I entertained went to Peilulu and never came back.’”
Bloody home stretch to the war included Okinawa
In February and March 1945, Kruschel’s Marines headed for Okinawa. “D-Day on Okinawa was April 1st. Okinawa was, you know, a crazy place to go. When we got the island secured, we were all getting ready to go to Japan. Then they dropped the big one– I never seen such a celebration in all my life.
“In September of 1945, the entire 1st Marine Division was assigned to go to Tientsin, China. We go with an entire flotilla, and our whole objective– if you could imagine such a thing– was to protect the Japanese civilians from the Chinese. You’ve heard of the rape of Nanking and all of that. That was just the tip of what Japan did to China. We had to go get as many of these people as we would on our 6×6’s. On two occasions while I was there driving these filled 6×6’s through a crowd of Chinese, inevitably they’d grab four or six of the Japanese, and you’d never see them again. They had real reasons, you know.”
After that duty, Kruschel was shipped back home to Camp Elliott in San Diego. “Here’s one for you– we landed at exactly the same pier we took off from! And our welcoming committee was five milk trucks. They put us on the Southern Pacific Railroad to Kansas City. Then they put us on the Rock Island Rocket which brought us back to St. Paul.”
“I went to work for 3M in 1950, on the midnight shift in the machine shop. So it’s about 4 in the morning when we’re having our lunch and start talking about our war experiences. And I told about one day we were playing ball on this carrier, and a guy hit the ball up in the air, and this little airplane came by, and the ball never came back down. So the guy sitting across from me at lunch, Bob Holme, says, ‘I was sitting in the back of that airplane.’ He comes back the next day with a great big portfolio where he got the Silver Star for saving that pilot’s life! The ball came right through the windshield and knocked the pilot out. I still remember how that plane just cleared the coconut trees. And here’s Bob sitting in the back seat, and he flies the plane back to Banika. Small world, huh?”
These days, Kruschel loves photography and riding his Honda Gold Wing, meeting his long-time friend Barbara after riding his cycle to a 3M reunion down in Florida a few years ago. Barbara’s deceased husband was a 3M employee which drew her to the reunion. “In walks this ‘kid’ in engineer boots, blue jeans, a belt, suspenders and a polo shirt,” recalled Barbara of the initial meeting in Florida. “I walk up to Bill, and he says, ‘How the hell do I know you?’ And I say, ‘You don’t, but you do now!’”
During winter, Kruschel takes the Gold Wing through the central roads of Florida to escape the traffic along the coasts. “My favorite ride is 92 miles to the south end of Lake Okeechobee,” he said.
A goal trip for next year is riding the cycle to Alaska. “I don’t take my well-being for granted– I’ll tell you that. I mean, I’ve got some aches and pains, but, by god, I’m going to keep going as long as I can. Somebody asked me how long I’m going to keep riding that motorcycle, and I said ‘as long as I can get my leg over it.’”