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WWII Navy veterans gather to share memories, friendship
Photo: Cletus Terveer (left), Loyd Miller (center) and Howard Ritchie tell a story during their WWII Navy reunion on Saturday in Elburn. The reunion was held at the home of Marshall and Debora Hilmes. Debora is Loyd’s daughter. Friends and relatives gathered to celebrate the three veterans and present them with gifts and letters of appreciation. Photo by John DiDonna
by Susan O’Neill
ELBURN—Three men came together with their families on Saturday to mark a day they shared 68 years ago. The three World War II U.S. Navy veterans, stationed in the Phillippine Islands during the war, had stormed the island of Peleliu on Sept. 15, 1944.
Elburn resident Loyd Miller hosted the gathering with Cletus Terveer from Rock Falls, Ill., and Howard Ritchie from Parkersburg, Ill., the remaining men still alive and well enough to travel from the World War II U.S. Naval Unit SLCU 32.
Members of the navy unit began their annual reunions 23 years ago in 1989. Starting out with nearly 40 veterans, the group has gathered in Oklahoma, Washington, Missouri, Louisiana, Minnesota and Florida, as well as Elburn. Last year, there were five; since then, one of the men passed away in early 2012, and another is currently too ill to travel.
There were about 30 people who enjoyed the day together, including the families of the men who made the trip with them. Although there were short silences when one of them brought up a fellow veteran who has since passed away, the occasion was mainly marked by good-natured ribbing, laughter and camaraderie.
Walking up the steps to Miller’s house, the guests encountered Miller’s Navy uniform from the war hanging by the door. On one shoulder of the uniform perched a stuffed toy monkey representing Josie, the pet monkey Miller had adopted during the war. Peleliu Island was so named after the many monkeys that inhabited the island.
Stories of Josie, her antics and their officer’s reaction to her were a source of amusement all afternoon for the men. Terveer recalled the time that Josie bit his finger, and they passed around pictures of her sitting on young Miller’s arm.
The stories about Josie were humorous; the stories about their battle to take Peleliu Island were anything but. The Naval unit arrived with the first Marine Division. Miller and his fellow Navy fighters escorted the Marines from ship to shore in small boats, and kept them supplied during the battle.
What their superiors initially estimated would take three days stretched into more than a month of intense fighting, with the Japanese soldiers dug into 500 coral caverns around the island. The caves gave the Japanese soldiers cover and a place from which to take the Americans by surprise when they attacked.
When U.S. troops finally did take over the island, there were more than 1,500 American casualties and 10,000 Japanese dead.
The memories of that battle must have been haunting, but the men did not dwell on them. They basked in the attention showered on them by their families, and enjoyed the companionship of the men with whom they had shared so much.
Terveer’s son Mark, who first became involved in the reunions last year when Terveer hosted the group, said that everyone already feels like family.
Miller’s daughter Debora Hilmes, who works at Scott Air Force base near St. Louis, came up for the weekend to help her mom Lee cook and organize the gathering. She gave a short presentation and handed out baskets of shirts and hats and other presents to the men.
“If anything is ticking, you’ll have to dismantle it,” said Dwayne Miller, the youngest of Loyd’s 10 children.
“Thank you for everything you have done for all of us,” Hilmes said to each man as she presented them with their basket of souvenirs.
World War II has long been over, but these men continue to share a bond that is like no other.