By Linda Scherer
WINSTED, MN Leonard (Popeye) Rozeske of Winsted was only 15 years old when the United States entered World War II, declaring war shortly after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor Dec. 7, 1941.
Three years later, as World War II continued, Rozeske was drafted and served as a medic in the Army’s 20th Air Force.
This week, Veterans Day, Friday, Nov. 11, has been set aside as a legal public holiday to honor Rozeske and more than 22 million other American veterans who have served their country during times of peace and war, and to show appreciation for the sacrifices they have made for the cause of freedom around the world.
For Rozeske, 18 months of his two-year Army service was on the island of Guam, and it was where he was stationed when the war ended.
The island, which is 32 miles long, three to 10 miles wide, and about 200 square miles in area, is located 1,550 miles south of Japan. Because of Guam’s location, it was strategic in US plans to bring World War II to an end.
The Army’s 20th Air Force, which was activated April 4, 1944, was comprised of B-29 bombers that flew from the island of Guam to attack critical targets in the western Pacific and on Japan’s mainland, according to the 9thbombgrouphistory.org website.
The 20th Air Force operated from India, Marianas, and Guam. It was the 20th Air Force that dropped the two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, in August 1945, according to the Army Air Corps website.
Before heading to Guam, Rozeske had spent a month of his basic training in radio school, but it wasn’t something that was working out for him.
One day he was called into the office by an Army officer, who told him he was being shipped overseas as a duty solder.
“There were five of us that didn’t make it in radio school,” Rozeske said. “They let us go home for a two week furlough and then we were sent to California. They put us all on one ship and sent us to Guam.”
Many of the men on board the ship got seasick, but Rozeske had been told by an older Army buddy to eat a lot of soda crackers and it would help.
“Some of those guys got so sick. I am not kidding. They were just laying on the deck of the ship, not able to move,” Rozeske said.
“The ship was constantly going up and down, and even sideways, but the crackers helped me,” Rozeske said.
On the way to Guam, the ship stopped in Hawaii for a two-week stay and a reprieve for the men. It was a time Rozeske said he enjoyed.
The first men off the ship in Guam were Rozeske and his four Army buddies from radio school.
“And where do you think they put us?” Rozeske asked, still surprised after all of these years. “In the medics,” he answered shaking his head.
Rozeske had a chauffeur’s license, and was told he would be an ambulance driver.
“They had a big airport where B29 bomber planes would come in,” Rozeske recalled of his time in Guam. “They would load up and take off to bomb the enemy.”
“We had to go out to the airport when the airplanes came in. If anyone was hurt or sick, we would take them to the dispensary, or a hospital that was about five miles away from the dispensary,” Rozeske said.
Because Rozeske loved to dance, one of the first things he noticed when he arrived on Guam was that there wasn’t a clubhouse, and that meant there wasn’t any place to dance.
With help from several other Army friends, Rozeske was able to build a clubhouse that offered “beer, music by a guy that played a concertina, and we could dance,” Rozeske said.
“We did a lot of dancing in our day. We had to keep Sherman Station alive,” Rozeske said.
“My dad would tell me, ‘there are only seven days in a week, but I figure you go dancing eight.’”
No fighting took place on Guam while Rozeske was stationed there. It was considered a safe place for US military.
The island had been captured by the Japanese in 1941, then retaken by the US three years later, according to the historyofnations.net website.
“There must have been some terrible fighting, because all along the beach there were skeletons lying there,” Rozeske said.
The battle of Guam started July 21, 1944, with American troops landing on the island, and Guam was liberated from Japanese military rule Aug. 10, 1944.
However, Rozeske said everyone was warned to stay out of the caves on the island.
“We were told Japanese might still be hiding there, but they never bothered anybody while we were there,” Rozeske said.
At the end of his service, Rozeske returned home a corporal. He said he was ready to come home, but doesn’t regret his time serving his country.
“I enjoyed it,” Rozeske said of his Army duty. “It was a very good experience and I would say that every kid that graduates should do a couple of years in the service. You learn to snap to it or pay for it by doing KP (kitchen duty).”
As far as KP goes, Rozeske said he did little in the kitchen because they always went alphabetically and they just never got to the Rs.
Rozeske joins Winsted Last Man’s Club
March 1, 1987, Rozeske was one of 32 World War II veterans who joined the Winsted’s Last Man’s Club. All were members of the Martin Krueger American Legion Post 407 in Winsted. Not all of the Legion’s World War II veterans joined the club at the time.
Of those 32, today there are only three members who are still alive:
• Harold Guggemos, 85, who was a radio operator in Europe and also spent time in Japan for occupational duty. Guggemos was in the 97th Division 387th Regiment of HQ and HQ Company. He was in the service for just under three years.
He attended the University of Minnesota for one year before going to work doing floor covering, decorating, and tiling work. He, along with his brother Art, owned Guggemos Brothers, a decorating business for many years.
Guggemos also was a mail carrier for the US postal service for 24 years.
He retired in 1991, and lives in Winsted.
• Leonard Matousek, 93, who served in the Army’s European theater of operation during WWII, spent about two years overseas, and four years total in the service.
Matousek came back to the family farm in Rich Valley Township and farmed until 1972. He also worked at Millerbernd Manufacturing for seven years, until he retired.
Matousek lives in Winsted.
• Rozeske was one of five children of Tony and Peggy Rozeske. He was the youngest of four boys, and has one sister younger than he is.
The family dairy farm where he grew up is located between Winsted and Silver Lake township.
He had attended public school in District 80 and later attended a Polish Catholic School called St. Alberts in Silver Lake for fourth through eighth grade. Although he could speak English, he said they prayed in Polish.
Soon after the war ended, and Rozeske returned home, he started dating Irene Quast of Winsted.
They married June 28, 1949.
They have four sons:
• Gary, who died in 1969;
• John, married to Karla, lives in Mankato;
• Robert, who died of a heart attack in 2001. He was married to Pat Roege, originally of Lester Prairie. She currently lives in Eau Claire, WI; and
• Jim is married to Lori Antil of Waverly, and they live in Waverly.
The Rozeskes have six grandchildren.
Rozeske has a long list of jobs that he did before retiring including driving truck for Green Giant, hauling milk for Pure Milk and also working in its cheese plant, driving school bus, working as an electrician, selling Moorman feed for 15 years, and DeKalb seeds, and driving semi truck for Lesters for 16 years.
He and Irene farmed for most of their married life. When Irene’s parents decided to retire, Leonard and Irene bought the farm, now the Winstock Country Music Festival campgrounds, and lived there until they moved to Winsted in 1997.