John Vasa was sitting at his assigned table observing the gathering of 99th Division veterans and their families at the final Saturday night banquet in Overland Park KS. This would be John’s 25th and last reunion. In 1986, after retiring from his farm near Holyoke CO, John and his wife Lil were finally free to attend reunions, something they had longed to do for many years. The 2011 celebratory gathering honored the four Belgian Diggers, Checkerboard editor Donna Bernhardt, and all the veterans. But the happy mood was tempered by the unspoken realization that the annual gathering of these WWII GIs had dwindled down to a few survivors. Old comrades who had fought for their country in a time of great peril had passed on, and the opportunity to recall old training and combat episodes, both humorous and tragic, had come to an end.
Ninety years earlier John had been born in his immigrant grandfather’s farmhouse in a depopulated area of western Nebraska called the Sandhills, named for the infertile sandy soil that limited crop production to grass and raising small herds of cattle. In 1913, John’s Czech grandfather had been lucky enough to secure a section of land (640 acres) by lottery under the Kinkaid Act, an amendment to the original Homestead Act. Subsequently John’s father established his own farm when he took over his father’s homestead. The family had no electricity, only gas lanterns, no indoor plumbing, and no running water. The long, bitterly cold winters imposed an isolated, bleak existence, which would be repeated during the winter 1944-45 in eastern Belgium. At least in Nebraska John could find refuge under a roof with his parents and brothers.
John attended a country school, all eight grades (12 kids) in one room, and he accelerated by paying attention to lessons taught to the older students. John became so proficient that he skipped three grades and finished elementary school when he was only 11 years old. Since the family lived 25 miles from the nearest church, they only attended Mass every other Sunday. The church in Keystone NE, served both Catholics and Protestants. The priest, who drove in from Ogallala, would hold Mass at one end of the church. Afterwards the pews were turned around, so the Protestants could have their service facing the opposite direction; a big potbelly stove that stood in the middle warmed both groups. This unusual arrangement, however, did not provoke enmity or attempts at stealing converts from the other side.
Rural families were connected by a telephone party line in which each household had its own code, created by cranking a handle that generated long and short signals. Of course, there was nothing to prevent nosy neighbors from quietly listening to others’ phone calls. On occasion John’s family would drive their Model T to an uncle’s farm where they could listen to a few programs on a battery-powered Atwater-Kent radio with a horn speaker. Such was entertainment on the plains.
John was sent to a Catholic high school in eastern Nebraska where an uncle taught. In 1936 he earned a scholarship to Procopuis College in Lisle IL, but could not take advantage of the opportunity to obtain a B.A. because he was needed back on the farm. For the next five years life revolved around endless, dirty chores on the farm. In normal times, John, like his father and grandfather, would have continued the family tradition of farming, a quiet existence far from dangerous developments enveloping Europe and Asia.
On Dec. 7, 1941, John heard news of the attack on Pearl Harbor in his car radio as he was returning home after feeding the cattle. His draft notice arrived in the mail shortly thereafter, but he did not become overly concerned, as “I didn’t know what I was getting into.” Basic training happened at Camp Roberts in California, followed by an assignment to drive trucks at Kerns Air Force Base outside Salt Lake City UT. But John’s high score on the Army’s intelligence test qualified him for college classes at the University of Arkansas. Once again however the opportunity to complete a college degree was thwarted when the Army cancelled the ASTP program, and he was ordered to Camp Maxey TX. From there it was off to the war in Europe.
John survived the war, came home to Arthur County NE, and farmed near Ogallala. In 1951 he married Lillian Johnson Rasmussen, a young widow with a daughter, and together they reared six kids. Eventually they settled outside Holyoke CO, where their farm grew to 1,280 acres. The Army and the war had provided a three-year interlude of incredible hardships, gut-wrenching fear, massive destruction, and loss. Like all other GIs, John underwent unique experiences that never again can be duplicated. While those who were not there will never really know what it meant to be an infantryman in World War II, hopefully Americans will not forget, but always honor what John Vasa and all the 99ers accomplished when called to serve their country.