- Associated Press - Saturday, March 11, 2017

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) - The minutes of the final meeting of the A&D; Last Man’s Club were handwritten in a shaky cursive and end with this sad line: “Jean L. DeCurtins was the last man.”

DeCurtins, a World War II veteran, wrote the minutes for the meeting, which was held Jan. 21 at the Lake Elmo Inn, the Pioneer Press (https://bit.ly/2lUujYO ) reported.

At 98, the lifelong Stillwater resident is the last living member of the club, which was formed after veterans from the Stillwater area returned from World War II. Robert Kunshier, 94, of Forest Lake, died Jan. 21.

“He died the day of our meeting. What are the odds of that?” DeCurtins said. “I’m the last one left. You think about it a lot. You miss them all.”

DeCurtins and Kunshier were among the 180 young men from the Stillwater area who joined the Minnesota National Guard’s 34th Infantry Division before World War II.

DeCurtins, a decorated Army private first class who served in North Africa and Italy, enlisted on Nov. 19, 1940, his 22nd birthday.

“I was one of the youngest guys,” DeCurtins said during an interview earlier this week at the Stillwater Armory. “I didn’t go into the Guards when everybody else did. It was the Depression, so everybody went into the Guards, but I didn’t. I just never cared for the Guards.”

But when DeCurtins learned that the unit was being deployed to the newly constructed Camp Claiborne in Louisiana, he decided to sign up.

“I wanted to get out of town,” he said.

The 34th Infantry Division, nicknamed the “Red Bull” division, was activated on Feb. 10, 1941, with troops from Minnesota, Iowa, South Dakota and North Dakota. DeCurtins said he can still remember shipping out of Stillwater on that bitterly cold February day.

“It was about 15 below,” DeCurtins said. “We all marched down to the Depot. It was so cold that the steam engine of the train froze up, and we had to go back to the Armory. That was in the morning; we couldn’t leave until the afternoon.”

The men spent most of 1941 training at Camp Claiborne, “but then Pearl Harbor came on December 7, and that was the end of that,” DeCurtins said.

“After that, everybody was in for the duration,” he said.

The men were sent to Pensacola, Fla., and Fort Dix, N.J., before sailing to Belfast, Northern Ireland, where they spent several more months training, DeCurtins said.

At one point, Gen. George S. Patton came to visit the troops in Ireland, DeCurtins said.

“They sent word down that General Patton was going to talk to all of the G.I.’s,” he said. “I said ‘Geez, I’m going to see a real-live general,’ and they said, ‘Oh, he don’t talk to privates.’”

The 34th Infantry Division sailed from Liverpool, England, on the RMS Empress of Australia, a luxury ocean liner that had been converted into a troop ship. Destination: Oran, Algeria.

DeCurtins served in Company D, the heavy-weapons company. He has a framed list of the six battles and 14 engagements in which he fought. The names track his travels through North Africa and Italy: Hajeb El Ayoun, Sbiba, Fondouk, Gothic Line, Bolonga, Monteletto, Benevento, Alife, Santa Maria Oliveto, Rome and the Arno River, among others.

He was injured twice - in the hand during the Battle of Kasserine Pass in Tunisia on April 7, 1943, and in the head on April 8, 1944, at the Anzio beachhead in Italy.

“They threw a mortar shell right on top of us (at Anzio), and it hit the machine gun, and the shell exploded,” DeCurtins said. “I was in the hospital for three months. I had so much shrapnel in my head, I couldn’t comb my hair.

“Robert Deragisch was with me; he lost the use of his hand,” DeCurtins said. “He was in the hospital for three years. He wanted them to take his hand off, and they wouldn’t do it. But we considered ourselves lucky because we didn’t get blinded or anything.”

As soon as DeCurtins got the all clear, he was sent back to the front.

“Oh, yeah, they sent you right back,” said DeCurtins, who was awarded a Purple Heart. “You had to be permanently disabled to get sent home. They were always short of help over there. They had one objective: Win the war - and that was it.”

He said his wartime diet left much to be desired. His daily K-ration included hard crackers - “there was no bread or anything like that” - and canned beef.

“Do you know where those rations came from? New Richmond, (Wis.)! Doughboy over there made the rations,” he said. “Was it any good? Well, you ate it.”

The rations also included packs of cigarettes, but DeCurtins never once smoked.

“That’s the only reason I’m still alive,” he said. “If you were sent to the front, why wouldn’t you smoke? But I never did. I could stand there and watch them guys drag on a cigarette, but it never bothered me much. It’s a habit. That nicotine is like dope.”

DeCurtins returned to Stillwater on Dec. 26, 1944. Many of his friends, including Lauren Kelly, Ed Effingham, Herb Loeber and Harold Parnell, didn’t come back.

Those who returned formed the A&D; Last Man’s Club, which was named after the two companies the men belonged to in the war - Companies A and D - and after Stillwater’s original Last Man’s Club, which was made up of 34 Civil War veterans.

A plaque honoring the men who served in Companies A and D was installed Wednesday in the lobby of the new armory in Stillwater. Gold stars mark the names of the men who have died; DeCurtins’ name - in the middle of the second column - will soon be the only one without a star.

According to DeCurtins’ minutes, the A&D; Last Man’s Club met for the first time above the Grand Cafe on Main Street.

“Everyone was there,” he wrote. “Gordie Welshons was in charge.”

The annual reunions used to be wild affairs. The veterans would drink until dawn, play cutthroat games of poker and once had a food fight that involved a lot of biscuits. Wives and girlfriends were not invited.

“Everybody drank,” said DeCurtins, a lifelong bachelor. “After about seven years, they started to get married and everything, and then they all quieted down.”

As the numbers started dwindling, the club combined its annual reunion with that of the H&H; Last Man’s Club, a group of Stillwater-area men who served in Korea.

DeCurtins never missed a meeting.

He told the Pioneer Press in 2012 that he felt lucky to still be part of the club, but said the annual meetings became more bittersweet each year.

“There aren’t that many left for me to reminisce with,” he said.

DeCurtins knew most of the men he served with in Company D - including all the men who died in combat.

“It was easy to know all those people then,” he said. “The Depression was on, and people didn’t move around like they do today. Now, if they go to college, they go to California or someplace and never come back.”

Reading through the roster of club members is a walk down memory lane for DeCurtins.

“Dale Orff is the guy who made the invasion and was wounded five times. He lived across the street from me,” he said. “Wilmer Lentz was a great big guy, and he never smoked, either, so I don’t know what happened.”

DeCurtins says he never had any desire to return to North Africa or Italy. “I don’t want to go there,” he said. “I didn’t want to go there even when I was young. I liked Stillwater. Me and (the late Gen. Jim) O’Brien wouldn’t go no place else.”

After the war, DeCurtins took a job on a line crew for Northern States Power Co., where he worked until 1981.

“I went from digging holes for the Army to digging holes for the power company - there was no change,” he said. “I had 36 years with Northern States, and 36 years retired. I got 72 years of checks from the power company.”

After work, DeCurtins, who never graduated from high school, would visit the Stillwater Public Library.

“I learned more coming to the library than I did in school,” he said in a 2006 interview with the Pioneer Press. “I could pick up the subjects I wanted to read, like history and geography.”

After he retired, he started going to the library twice a day. He reads five newspapers: the Pioneer Press, Wall Street Journal, Stillwater Gazette, Star Tribune and USA Today. Every Monday, he reads the Sunday New York Times. He also peruses Time, Newsweek, Forbes and Fortune magazines.

“You know what city is big now? Atlanta,” he said. “They’ve got good weather. They’ve got a handle on the taxes. And evidently, the flight time from Atlanta to Frankfurt, Germany, is about the same as it is from New York.”

He reads nonfiction, including politics, economics and military history. He’s been on a biography binge lately. His latest subjects? Joan of Arc, Al Capone and Jimmy Stewart.

“I never read fiction,” he said. “This keeps me busy just the way it is. I like it that way.”

He gets up each day at 5:45 a.m. in the same Maple Street house where he grew up and where he lives with his brother, John, 95. He has coffee and muffin-bread toast or dry cereal for breakfast. At 10:50 a.m., he drives to Lakeview Hospital for lunch at the cafeteria; his average meal costs about $2.50.

“That’s what keeps me alive,” said DeCurtins, who had open-heart surgery in 2000. “I’ve got a lot of company there, too. Today, I had meatloaf, potatoes and gravy. That’s all I want to eat. I don’t want to gain weight or anything because I’m not doing anything for exercise. I don’t walk much. I can walk about three or four blocks.”

After lunch, he drives to the library to read for a couple of hours. He heads home in the early afternoon - “to rest my eyes and talk to my brother” - and then drives back to the library for more reading.

“They all know me there,” he said. “I’m the only one around who knew the first librarian.”

He goes to Mass at the Church of St. Michael at 5:30 p.m. every Saturday. He watches the KSTP-TV news each night and turns in early.

DeCurtins doesn’t have a cellphone, computer, answering machine or credit card.

“I don’t have time to look at a computer,” he said. “I’m too busy looking at the paper. I don’t want to be distracted.”

DeCurtins learned of Kunshier’s death when he saw his obituary in the Pioneer Press.

“I’ll tell you what I thought when I read that,” he said. “I thought I was the luckiest guy around.”

Kunshier, a retired postal clerk, died four days before his 95th birthday, said his daughter, Birdy Dahl of Plymouth.

After suffering a stroke at age 89, Kunshier stopped attending the annual meetings, Dahl said.

“He always enjoyed going to them,” Dahl said. “I do remember him telling me every year that there was a smaller and smaller group, and that was hard. But he enjoyed sitting there and talking and catching up with his friends.”

Kunshier and his wife, Hiladore, who married in 1948, had seven children. She died in 2003.

“I look at that generation, and I just feel that you’re never going to find that type of person again,” Dahl said. “They were all so unselfish. It was just a different time back then. We’re very proud of him and what he did for our country and our family.”

Sadly, there is no last bottle of liquor stashed away for DeCurtins to toast Kunshier and the other veterans.

“Nope. No bottle of liquor. Everybody drank ‘em,” he said.

There is, however, a framed copy of a poem titled “The Last Survivor.” It was written by Henry Hayden in 1887 for the Civil War Last Man’s Club.

It ends with this salute:

The campfire smolders, ashes fall.

The clouds are black against the sky.

No taps or drums, no bugle call.

My comrades all, goodbye.

___

Information from: St. Paul Pioneer Press, https://www.twincities.com

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