SMALL TOWNS: Oconto WWII vet surprised and overwhelmed by honor from country he helped liberate
OCONTO, Wis. (WBAY) - A local World War II veteran recently received a very distinguished honor. To his surprise, it was personally delivered to him from representatives of the country he helped liberate more than 75 years ago.
This week in Small Towns, we traveled to Oconto for this special occasion.
Inside his home, Dick Jenkins is still trying to process the heartfelt thank you he is about to receive in just a few days.
“You feel pretty good because those people understood what we were doing,” says Jenkins.
When the moment arrives at Oconto City Hall, the community turns out to witness a gesture of gratitude more than 75 years in the making.
Two representatives from the Czech Republic military have traveled to Oconto to present Jenkins with an honorary Medal of Merit for his role in liberating Czechoslovakia from German occupation during World War II.
It’s an honor Jenkins accepts with gratitude and humility.
“This isn’t about me, it’s about the country,” says Jenkins, holding back tears.
Jenkins grew up beyond Wisconsin’s north woods.
“Upper Michigan, up in the U.P., I’d be a Yooper,” says Jenkins with a chuckle.
In 1943, he joined the Army, not quite sure what to expect.
“What am I going to do when I want somebody to wash my clothes or whatever, it was all mysterious in those days, just a Yooper kid in the woods and all of a sudden I’m going some place,” recalls Jenkins.
After basic training in California and Louisiana, he arrived in Europe at the height of the Battle of the Bulge, with the 8th Armored Division.
After that battle was won, Jenkins says he traveled around Europe chasing down Germans before arriving in Czechoslovakia.
There he developed a connection with people he would forever treasure.
“They had suffered so long under German rule that they would do anything for us, they’d take us right into their homes or whatever,” explains Jenkins.
While there were occasional moments of fun, the horrors of war surrounded Jenkins, leaving painful memories he still recalls today.
“One morning they put us all in trucks and shipped us, we didn’t know where and geez it smelled kind of funny, and they stopped and here they had taken us to where they were going to exhume all the bodies out of a mass grave where the Germans had killed something like 250 people and just covered them up. You can’t imagine what people will do to other people when you see a grave like that. It is impossible to understand what goes through their heads, when those damn Germans were doing stuff like that,” says Jenkins.
After the war, Jenkins returned to the states and married his wife Mildred.
In 1962, they moved to Oconto.
“Oconto is a great place to live,” says Jenkins with a smile.
In Oconto, Jenkins and his wife raised three children, and he worked as an electrical engineer at Cruiser Yachts.
Over the last 60 years, he’s become one of Oconto’s most beloved residents.
“Everybody that you talk to, he’s just such a modest man, such a kind man,” Adjutant Kathy Smith, Oconto American Legion Post 74.
“How modest he is about what he did and what he saw,” adds longtime friend Mike Strong.
And even though the eyes have aged, the lessons of war remain crystal clear for a man now honored by a grateful country.
“It’s one of those things where if you’re good to people, they’ll be good to you,” says Jenkins.
On March 13th, Dick Jenkins will turn 98 years old, yet another reminder that fewer and fewer of our World War Two veterans remain to humbly share their stories of service and sacrifice.
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