Hank Joesten is one of the ‘Greatest Generation.’ On Monday, he and I sat at the same table for the annual Mayors’ Memorial Day Breakfast in DeKalb.
Hank turned out to be the only World War II veteran in the room. Then we found out it was also his 97th birthday, so a song followed. Hank is a quiet, reserved man but stood tall and waved as he was being applauded.
His generation’s numbers are dwindling, as World War II ended just short of 75 years ago, and if a young soldier went in at 18, like Hank did, he would be in his mid-to-late nineties now.
Over the years, I have interviewed a number of veterans about their upbringing, their war experiences and their life after discharge. Like many other boys, Hank was raised on a farm, this one outside Mount Morris, Illinois. He and his brother were only a year apart and helped their dad farm, mostly with six big draft horses.
Both brothers were drafted. Hank was assigned to the G-2 Intelligence section of the 69th Infantry Division of the Army. He made the rank of sergeant and boarded an oceanliner with thousands of other young recruits that took them across the Atlantic Ocean to Europe. He saw action in France and Belgium, plus some other, smaller countries he didn’t name. Then he was thrust into the Battle of the Bulge where a quarter million Germans attacked the greatly-outnumbered Allies, the majority of whom were Americans. The Americans had some 47,500 wounded and another 19,000 killed.
Hank’s younger brother, Charles Robert, was also in that battle at a different location. He was killed, a day before his 20th birthday. It took weeks before Hank learned about it from a letter his sister sent from Mount Morris. Charles Robert was buried along with thousands of other U.S. servicemen and women in Belgium. But later, at the request of his mother, his remains were sent home and reburied in Ebenezer Cemetery near Oregon, Illinois.
After being discharged, Hank went back home, then to Brown’s Business College in Rockford where he earned a degree in accounting. He married a gal who lived across the street, Beverly, and they spent 72 years together until her death a year ago last March. Hank spent his entire career as an accountant for Kable Printing in Mount Morris. He also played trombone in the company concert band. After 40 years working there, he retired so he and Beverly could travel. They sold their home and went on the road for six years, pulling a 33-foot trailer behind their Chevrolet Suburban.
Then they decided to settle down in the rural Stephenson County community of Lena, population 2,900. Some seven years ago, their daughter Julie and her husband, Tom Weber, wanted them closer to family – so they moved into Heritage Woods at the edge of DeKalb.
Hank won’t ever forget his brother for even one day. Hanging on his apartment wall is a large framed shadowbox with Robert Charles’ photos, medals and other memorabilia. Among the medals are a Bronze Star and Purple Heart.
At the end of my visit, Hank said something I have heard over and over and should never forget: “War is Hell.”