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Minnesota National Guard
WWII Red Bulls share their stories

The stories are familiar, repeated year after year, but 91-year-old Ben Krall of Charles City wouldn't miss the annual reunion of the 34th Infantry Division Association

"You're with people that you fought with and have seen life and death with," he explained "These are special people They just seem more important to you every year"


Rodney White/The Register
Veterans Roque "Rocky" Riojas, left, and John L Ray inspect memorial markers at the Iowa Veterans Cemetery on Friday Riojas says of the 34th Division Soldiers: "We were just like brothers"

Time is accomplishing what the Axis powers couldn't during World War II

There was a time when the reunion of the 34th Division - the famous Red Bulls, the first US Army division to enter Europe after the bombing of Pearl Harbor - would draw hundreds of veterans

This weekend, the 63rd annual gathering attracted 80 people to Des Moines, and only a dozen represented World War II veterans The others were spouses, friends, or younger men and women who served in the division in the years after the war

But Roque "Rocky" Riojas was there, from Kansas City, and he still had a story to share

Riojas, now 88, served in communications in the 135th Regiment, and he tells of the time his unit was spending the night in a stone building in Italy A sergeant ordered Riojas to remove his rifle and pack from a corner so he could have the space to sleep

That night, a mortar barrage landed on the building, above where the sergeant slept

"One of the rocks came down and hit him in the temple and killed him," he said

Riojas had the most combat experience of those left in his company, but he was not promoted to replace the sergeant He thinks that's because he was the only Hispanic in the company, and one of the officers didn't like it

"I let it go," he said "Nothing I could say or do"

He has nothing negative to say about his fellow Soldiers
"We were just like brothers," he said "I'm proud of being a 34th Division person Damn proud"

Krall has some stories, too He was a truck driver in the 133rd Regiment's 2nd battalion, which was hand-picked by Dwight Eisenhower, the Allied commander, to serve as his personal security force during the North Africa campaign

When the unit returned to combat in Italy, Krall was in Milan to see the body of Italian leader Benito Mussolini, who had been killed and hung upside down with his mistress and several members of his government

"One woman, she had a gun, and she put five bullet holes into Mussolini hanging there, one for each of her sons who had lost their life," he said

Krall's buddy, John Jackson of Fairfield, who will soon turn 96, joined the Iowa National Guard's band when he was a high school senior because he was promised a free trip to the 1933 World's Fair in Chicago

Little did he know that he would be part of the US division that would spend more days on the front line in World War II than any other

Here's a good story: Jackson played clarinet in the division band, and on the boat to Europe, the officers decided they wanted some musical entertainment to accompany their meal on the top deck

"That last night out, going into Belfast, the North Sea was just rougher than hell, and we were on the top deck, and finally tables started moving and dishes falling off, and they told us to get our instruments and get back down"

After the war, Jackson remained with the band for 40 years

Marvin "Miff" Wessels, 91, of Buffalo Center had a harrowing story to share He remembered when the 133rd Regiment first reached Anzio Beach in Italy

"The first thing we saw was 2,600 graves," he said "That's when you really think, 'Oh, this isn't so good' But you're told to go there, so you go"

Despite all the battles, Wessels said, "I always kind of thought I'd be all right," and he tried to improve the morale of those Soldiers for whom the daily horrors of war became almost too much to bear

Asked what he is proudest of, he said, "I think I was sort of helpful to a lot of young guys"

All the World War II veterans said they worry about the 2,800 men and women in the Iowa Army National Guard's 2nd Brigade Combat Team, which will be leaving soon for Afghanistan They will wear the Red Bull patch on their uniforms

Here's one final story that should help convince the older veterans that they will be remembered:

Bill McKinley, 58, grew up in St Ansgar and now lives in Madison, Wis His father Phil, was a member of the 168th Regiment He died in 1976 at the age of 56

Last month, McKinley retraced his father's steps in Italy, from the third crossing of the Volturno River to the taking of Mount Pantano

At the top of Mount Pantano, McKinley left a plaque, two small American flags, and a copy of a poem his father wrote about the battle

"It was a sense of accomplishment, just to say I made it up there, to a place where so many guys lost their lives," he said

McKinley attended this year's reunion to honor the memory of his father and to hear the stories of those still around to tell them

He plans on attending again next year

By KEN FUSON "¢ Special to the Register "¢ September 12, 2010

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