Herald JournalHerald Journal, Dec. 6, 2004

A family goes to war

By Jane Otto

Dec. 7, 1941.

Many Americans know what that date holds.

It holds the deaths of 2,403 Americans, five sunken battleships and another nine damaged, 343 destroyed or damaged planes, and an ocean-floor grave for 1,000 sailors.

President Franklin Roosevelt’s six-minute speech the next day sparked hundreds of thousands of Americans to enlist in the Armed Forces.

For Marie and Christ Odegaard, a newly declared war meant all five sons — Leon, Harold, Leonard, Raymond, and Alfred — would heed that call to serve.

Three of those brothers, Leonard, Raymond, and Alfred, are now dead.

Two weeks ago, Leon Odegaard, who turns 90 Dec. 27, sat at the kitchen table of his Glencoe home. Before him, a delivered meal in plastic boxes lay waiting to be eaten.

Odegaard, meanwhile, remembered a time more than 60 years ago — before he joined the McLeod County Sheriff’s Office in 1947, and before he was elected sheriff in 1955, a position he held for 24 years.

Occasionally pointing out family members in the many pictures that filled his kitchen, he told his story.

Silence, tears, and a choked voice, at times, accompanied those memories.

And though he served with the Army’s 37th Infantry Division and saw almost 600 days of combat in the Pacific Theatre, he recalled in modest, simple snippets.

A young man

Shortly after Pearl Harbor, Odegaard turned 27. Married at the time, he had a draft number so high, he didn’t have time to enlist.

Congress had declared war and every man between ages 18 and 65 was required to register for the draft.

The Army called on Odegaard in February 1942. He didn’t get much training stateside. “They hurried us up,” he recalled.

Prior to leaving for Angel’s Island in San Francisco and more training, Odegaard recalled, “They lined us all up before leaving. The captain tapped me on the shoulder. There were five of us. He said, ‘Come up to my office.’”

He offered the men positions stateside as guards. “I told him I wanted to go with the rest of the boys overseas,” Odegaard said, adding with a slight grin, “Maybe I should have stayed.”

Instead, Odegaard became one of the 37th division’s flamethrowers. By spring, he made buck sergeant and was sailing under the Golden Gate Bridge toward Angel Island.

By June 1942, the division set sail for the Fiji Islands. Odegaard wouldn’t see home until December 1945.

The 37th division saw 592 days of combat from Guadalcanal and Bougainville in the Solomon Islands to Okinawa and Lingayen Gulf and Manila in the Philippines. Beach assaults were common in the Pacific.

“I saw a lot of stuff,” Odegaard recalled. “I always figured my day was next. They would fall along side of you and you just figured you’ll be next.”

Though they faced death almost daily, there was also hunger and little sleep. “You didn’t live to get fat,” Odegaard said. “We ate a lot of bananas and we slept on the banana peelings.”

Odegaard recalled going to one island aboard the transport, USS President Hayes. “There were 4,800 of us on one ship. We were stacked like bumble bees,” he said.

Once at their destination, the troops marched through the water to reach land. “I was scared and didn’t feel very good,” he said.

As a flamethrower, Odegaard brought up the front line. He remembered the assault on Okinawa and how long it took to travel the 100-mile-or-so long island. “The Japanese were all over, night and day,” he said. “I was shot twice in Okinawa. It’s a scary memory.”

Hit in the legs, he wasn’t out of action for long. “They tried to get you in the legs, so you couldn’t walk,” Odegaard said.

Okinawa was World War II’s last major battle. It began April 1, 1945 and ended June 21, 1945. More American forces assembled there than on D-Day at Normandy Beach, France. Okinawa saw more than 12,000 Americans and 100,000 Japanese die.

After 41 months hopping the Pacific Islands, Odegaard headed home in late November 1945, with five battle stars, a good conduct medal, a sharp shooter’s pin, and a purple heart.

Remembering that near-Christmas homecoming, he simply said, “There were a lot of tears.”

A mother’s sons

World War II saw Marie Odegaard’s sons leave one after the other. “I was the first to go and the last to get home,” Leon Odegaard recalled.

A sailor, Harold served aboard an aircraft carrier. Raymond also was in the Navy. Like Leon, Alfred was in the infantry, but saw action in Europe. Leonard enlisted in the Marines.

“They all saw action,” Odegaard said.

With five sons gone, Christ Odegaard found it too difficult farming 320 acres. He sold the Stewart-area farm and moved to Hutchinson.

Though all her sons returned, their absence took its toll on Marie. “That was hard on her,” Odegaard said through tears.

Writing on whatever he could find, he wrote his mother often. Due to military regulations, Odegaard couldn’t tell her his exact location. He laughed recalling the clues he left her. When in Guadalcanal, he wrote, “Mom, if the well goes dry, take the cow out to the canal.”

In Odegaard’s heart, It wasn’t the five brothers who served, but his mother who was the true hero.

“My mother wrote us a letter every night.” Odegaard still has her letters safely kept in a box, as does his brother, Harold.

Though he and his brothers survived, he shook his head remembering those who fell around him, while always thinking “you’re next.”

“We lost a lot of young boys, some of them just children,” he said. “I hope and pray it was all worth it in the end.”

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