July Fourth parade honors WWII, Iraq war veterans

Posted: Friday, June 25, 2004

With the war against terrorism continuing, Juneau Fourth of July parade organizers want to honor veterans this year.

"This year's theme is to 'salute freedom's combat heroes,' " said parade organizer Gerald Dorsher, a Korean War veteran himself. "Heroes are defined as people admired for their courage, nobility or exploits, especially in times of wars."

Based on the definition, Dorsher selected World War II veteran Douglas Wahto and Iraq veteran Jeremy Lemke as grand marshals for the parade.

Despite their age difference, Wahto, 83, and Lemke, 23, have a lot in common.

Both raised in Juneau, they joined the military because they believe in the importance of serving the country. Neither likes wars, but they think wars are sometimes necessary evils.

After returning home, both have suffered from nightmares and stress. Wahto's late wife, Doris, used to wake him up from bad dreams and tell him "you are safe, soldier boy." Lemke gets nervous when watching fireworks.

Although they are hailed as heroes, neither Wahto nor Lemke considers himself one.

"I was just a solider," Lemke said.

Jeremy Lemke

Jeremy Lemke said he knew the United States would invade Iraq months before President George W. Bush announced his Operation Iraq Freedom plan in March 2003.

Lemke, then 21, was stationed in Germany when the Sept. 11, 2001, attack happened.

"Although the Cold War was over, we were trained to fight against the Russians, just for training purposes. But in late 2002, we started having training on desert tactics and urban combats," Lemke said. "We knew we were going there."

He went to Iraq in late May 2003.

"Some people wrote wills. I didn't because I was superstitious," said Lemke, who taped his girlfriend's picture and a prayer his father likes to read inside his helmet.

The first few months in Iraq were difficult. A soldier was allowed only a bottle of water every day in the first month. The temperature averages 130 degrees in Iraq and a soldier carries at least 100 pounds of gear.

Although Lemke had been deployed in foreign countries, Iraq was a totally different experience.

"In Kosovo, we did peace-keeping operations. We blew up smuggling routes. We did presence patrols. Sometimes we helped with traffic accidents," Lemke said. "In Iraq, we were attacked nightly."

Lemke, who returned from Iraq last December, said he was against the war at first but eventually believed it was in the Iraqis' best interest to topple Saddam Hussein's regime.

"We went to a village and people came out to offer us food. Through a translator, the family said they knew we didn't want to be there but they appreciated that we were," Lemke said. "Regardless of the politics, regardless of weapons of mass destruction, we did do the right thing."

Douglas Wahto

Douglas Wahto rarely talks about World War II, but he is perhaps one of the most qualified people to do so.

Between 1942 and 1945, Wahto belonged to the nation's first Special Service Force, a U.S.-Canadian unit that received intensive training in skiing, parachuting and amphibious assaults.

"We were very select," said Wahto, who enlisted in the Army shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

Wahto was strong from the years he lived with his father in Treadwell Ditch. "I could run 16 miles with 12 pounds of groceries on my back," he said.

A strong build and character were essential for the warfare the unit would be engaged in. Wahto and his fellow soldiers stormed German machine gun nests on mountainsides, sometimes climbing by rope to take enemy strongholds. They often didn't bring enough ammunition with them. The strategy was to kill the enemy by using their own weapons.

His unit was so formidable that German soldiers called it the "Devil's Brigade."

The unit's first big battle was on atop Mount La Difensa in 1943. U.S. troops had taken the mountain from the Germans but lost it. Wahto's outfit was dispatched to retake the lost ground. They climbed in the dark and lay against hillside in freezing temperatures waiting to attack at daybreak. At dawn, they topped the mountain and killed most of the enemies.

A month later, the unit fought in Mount Majo, a battle Wahto called the worst fighting of the war. "There was no place to dig a foxhole. It was rocks everywhere," he said. Wahto was hit by shrapnel and developed blood poisoning and jaundice.

About 750 out of the 2,000 soldiers in his unit were dead, wounded or missing in action. The unit took so many casualties that it was disbanded in January of 1945 in Menton, France. Wahto later fought with his brother, Gordon, in an airborne unit and they finished the war together.

Wahto left the Army in August 1945 with a Purple Heart, a Brown Star and other medals. He got married, worked as a commercial fisherman and raised four children.

He will have a heart operation after the Fourth of July parade.

"You have to be tough to grow old," he said.

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