Vet boards Honor Flight, visits nation’s capital

The Seabees’ can-do attitude says it all: “The difficult we do at once. The impossible takes a bit longer.”

August “Duke” Grosslein served in the 33rd Special Seabee battalion, 1943-1946 and recently toured the nation’s capital as a member of the Oct. 5 Honor Flight for veterans of World War II. Photo by Sue Austreng

August “Duke” Grosslein served in the 33rd Special Seabee battalion, 1943-1946 and recently toured the nation’s capital as a member of the Oct. 5 Honor Flight for veterans of World War II. Photo by Sue Austreng

For August “Duke” Grosslein, Anoka, and his fellow World War II Seabees that meant sometimes operating under fire, defending themselves and their construction as they built major airstrips, roads and bridges, gasoline storage tanks and huts for warehouses, hospitals and housing.

“We made the city,” Grosslein said, describing the difficult – and some would say impossible – task set before the Seabees during World War II.

In honor of their service and sacrifice during World War II, Grosslein and dozens of other veterans toured the nation’s capital with the Oct. 5 Twin Cities Honor Flight.

Grosslein was a gunnery man in the U.S. Navy 33rd Special Seabee battalion.

“I was just a kid, a junior in high school, when my number came up. I was quite disappointed,” Grosslein said, remembering the day he was drafted into the U.S. Navy. “I still had another year of school to go and I wanted to do it: prom, football, basketball. But your number comes up, you’re drafted, you’ve got to go.”

And so he did, serving in the Philippines, 1943-1946.

“I was over there when they dropped the A bomb,” Grosslein said.

Grosslein didn’t see any battles but “our ship, the Torrence, was hit by a Jap plane and we took that Jap plane down,” he said.

Fellow Anoka American Legion member Doug Hookom served as guardian for Grosslein on the Honor Flight. Together with 90 other vets and 72 guardians, Grosslein and Hookom boarded the plane at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport early the morning of Oct. 5, then spent a full day in Washington, D.C., and returned to the Twin Cities that same evening.

One of the most touching moments of the Honor Flight experience, Grosslein said, was “mail call” aboard the plane.

“That was a tear-jerker,” he said.

“When they called my name and I had a stack of mail this thick,” Grosslein said, holding his thumb and forefinger three inches apart.

Inside that V-mail (as it was called during the war) were letters from family and friends, each one saying “Thank you,” “We love you,” and “Carry on. Carry on,” Grosslein said.

“That was really something. No one knew they were going to do that. No one knew we had V-mail, so that really was touching,” he said.

Family surround August “Duke” Grosslein (left, with cap and cane) welcoming the World War II veteran home from the Oct. 5 Honor Flight. Photo courtesy of Doug Hookom

Family surround August “Duke” Grosslein (left, with cap and cane) welcoming the World War II veteran home from the Oct. 5 Honor Flight. Photo courtesy of Doug Hookom

While in the nation’s capitol, Honor Flight veterans toured as many monuments as they could – some were closed due to the government shutdown.

Grosslein especially appreciated the Seabees memorial and the World War II memorial.

“The World War II memorial … that was unbelievable,” he said.

During the day-long tour, vets also witnessed the changing of the guard at the tomb of the unknown soldier, received greetings from U.S. congressmen and experienced an especially meaningful salute.

“They gave us a water cannon salute. As the plane comes in to the gate, water cannons spray the plane. I couldn’t believe it when I saw the cannons. That was pretty special,” Grosslein said.

On their return home, vets aboard the Honor Flight were greeted by family and friends waving American flags and greeting them with hugs and kisses.

“There were so many people – and there was even a bagpiper – it was really something,” Grosslein said.

Back in 1946, Grosslein’s homecoming was more subdued.

“There were a couple people there and I was just glad to be home,” he said. “I thought, I got out of the service, got home and wanted to get things going.”

And so he finished his senior year at West High School in Minneapolis and earned enough credits to be listed as a graduate of the Anoka High School class of 1944.

Then he returned to the family business (Grosslein Beverages, est. 1929), proposed to LaVerne Beckman and married her within the year.

Duke and LaVerne had three children and he and his family ran Grosslein Beverages for 65 years before selling the company in April 2013.

“It’s been a fun journey,” said the 88-year old, of his life raising a family and running a business in Anoka.

As for his time in the service, Grosslein said it was a learning and growing experience like no other and the Honor Flight experience was an honor like no other.

“Words can’t tell you how this made me feel,” he said, blinking back tears, a quiet grin spreading across his face. “They treated us great.”

To learn more about the Honor Flight network, visit www.honorflighttwincities.org or call 651-481-8835.

Sue Austreng is at sue.austreng@ecm-inc.com

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