By Kristen Miller
Pearl Harbor, like President Franklin Delano Roosevelt said, is a date which will live in infamy, yet with the World War II generation fading, they can rest assured their stories will live on.
Stories like Army Air Corps mechanic (and later bomber pilot) Joe Leukuma, for example, who was stationed at Hickam Field air base in Honolulu, Hawaii during the attack on Pearl Harbor, Dec. 7, 1941.
The former 1937 Dassel High School graduate and long-time Cokato resident survived to tell his story.
Joe Leukuma grew up fascinated with flying, and hoped to one day become a pilot, according to his daughter, Mary Ann Leukuma.
After graduating from Dassel High School in 1937, Leukuma enlisted in the Army Air Corps and was stationed at Hickam Field in Honolulu, Hawaii as a mechanic.
After surviving the Pearl Harbor attacks Dec. 7, 1941, he attended pilot training and flew 50 missions during World War II, over Italy, Austria, France, and Germany, and was the first pilot on The Liberator, a B24 bomber.
In 1944, he married Adelyne Salmonson and had four children, Allan, Mary Ann, Betty Jane, and Alice. They resided in Cokato, where Leukuma worked for the Pioneer Telephone Company before moving to Excelsior in 1955.
Leukuma died at the age of 78, Feb. 24, 1998. Seven years prior to his death, Leukuma shared his story of the bombing of Pearl Harbor with Chuck Haga of the Star Tribune for the 50th Anniversary in 1991.
Joe’s memories of Dec. 7
Leukuma was 22 years old Dec. 7 when Pearl Harbor was attacked by the Rising Sun.
He was sitting in his barracks reading the Sunday paper, getting ready to tour the island with some friends, when Leukuma heard a loud noise.
At first, he thought it was the Navy, but he looked out the window to see for himself.
“I was on the second floor,” Leukuma told the Star Tribune.
“I walked out onto the balcony and there came two planes with the Rising Sun on the side and torpedoes hanging down. They were right at eye level, almost, I could see the pilots. They were smiling,” he said.
Leukuma told the Star Tribune, “If I had had a .45, I could have made some holes in those planes.”
“My dad was a pistol man,” said his daughter, Mary Ann.
Leukuma and other soldiers in the barracks grabbed weapons out of the supply closet and ran outside to begin moving the planes.
“The planes were lined up wing tip to wing tip,” Mary Ann explained.
Leukuma didn’t want to lose the planes in addition to the ship, Mary Ann said.
After the first attacks, there was a break in fire before the second wave of “Japs,” as Leukuma called them, came.
“They were higher this time, and I could see the bombs falling,” Leukuma told the Star Tribune.
“We started running full throttle and dove at the edge of the parade ground into the tall grass. The bombs hit behind us, and the ground shook,” he said. “I remember wondering, ‘Do people at home know there’s a war on?’”
That day, there were 432 casualties at Hickam Field including 121 men killed, 37 missing, and 274 wounded, according to the State of Hawaii Department of Transportation, Airports Division.
Leukuma received an award for bravery and “performing his duties in an exemplary manner,” Mary Ann said.
Memories from Edith Ailie
Back at home, long-time Dassel resident and friend of Leukuma, Edith Ailie remembers it was a Sunday afternoon when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt came over the radio.
“I was awestruck,” Ailie said, explaining she couldn’t believe Japan had attacked Pearl Harbor.
Ailie’s soon-to-be husband, Clifford (Slim), had enlisted prior to Pearl Harbor with two of his buddies, Donald Hultman and Russell Wittenberg, both from Dassel.
Slim was rejected because he was colorblind, while Hultman and Wittenberg were accepted and became Marines. They both died at Pearl Harbor, Ailie said.
“His color-blindness saved him,” said Ailie’s daughter, Janet Barberg.
After war was declared, the Army wasn’t worried about whether or not Clifford was colorblind, and received a letter from FDR.
Ailie was drafted March 13, 1942, and served in North Africa and Italy as a quartermaster and then as a Blue Devil in the 88th Infantry Division until Aug. 11, 1945.
While in basic training at Great Bend, NY, Clifford and Ailie got married, making Edith a war bride, July 15, 1942.
The life of a war bride
At the time, it wasn’t easy for Edith being a young bride with her husband off to war, but she found support in the several other “war widows” as they called themselves.
“We had a kinship,” she said.
“We were very patriotic,” Ailie added, explaining flags were hung in the windows.
While her husband was at war, Ailie taught country school at Little Swan School, where she, Clifford, Leukuma, and Salmonson had attended, growing up together.
Ailie was also pregnant with their first child, Sharon.
It was two years before Clifford saw his first child, Ailie said.
After the war ended, the Leukumas and the Ailies continued their friendships and the men rarely talked about their war experiences among others.
“As Slim and Joe got older, they talked more about it together. I guess it was the camaraderie they shared,” Edith said.
“It was hard for him to talk about it,” said Clifford’s daughter, Janet. “He saw a lot of his buddies die,” she added.
Janet remembers the family sitting around the dinner table one day. With tears in his eyes, Clifford told his three sons, Mark, John, and Scott, “I hope you never have to go to war.”
Clifford died May 3, 1995.