WWII veterans say friendships, not combat, most-lasting memories

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When the National Veterans Memorial and Museum opened this past October, those close to the project praised the Columbus museum’s ability to tell the stories of veterans to the general public.

Those stories were told firsthand on Thursday, as three veterans from the Columbus area — now all in their 90s — shared their journeys in the military to a standing-room only crowd in the museum’s Great Hall to mark the 75th Anniversary of D-Day.

Staff Sgt. Don Jakeway, a Johnstown resident, originally joined the Army on a dare, and, after going through boot camp and working his way through different bases and regiments, found himself as a member of the 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division. He and his fellow paratroopers dropped behind German lines in the darkness of the early morning hours of D-Day, June 6, 1944.

“There has never been a feeling like jumping out of a plane into combat in the middle of the night,” said Jakeway, 96, the only one of the three local veterans to see action at Normandy. “I was a little farm kid, it was like a miracle to me.”

Carl Strout, 93, a Navy corpsman, first got involved with the Civilian Conservation Corps before being shipped out to Fort Bennett Field in Brooklyn. Strout, then 16, lied and said he was 17 and was able to enlist. He spent his enlisted time traveling around to help in sick bays in bases around the country.

Jack Welsh, a storekeeper who joined the Coast Guard, initially wanted to join the Navy. But because he was only 17, the Navy recruiter said he’d need his parents’ signatures to enlist, something he knew he’d never get from his father.

Welsh instead walked down the hall into the office of a Coast Guard recruiter, where he learned that their enlistment papers only required the signature of one parent. A little over three weeks later, he was on his way to the Coast Guard training station at Manhattan Beach, New York. After heading to New Orleans, Welsh boarded a ship bound for Italy.

“The first day I woke up and looked around and all I could see was water,” Welsh said. “Someone looked at me and said, ‘Listen buddy, you’re going to be sick of this view in five or six days.'”

Welsh’s initial voyage was to Naples, Italy, where the ship had to drop anchor five miles away from the shore because the pier was rendered useless by German bombs. After returning to the United States, Welsh completed another trip to Italy before also visiting France and the Suez Canal on separate trips.

D-Day stands as one of the largest amphibious invasions in history, with more than 13,000 aircraft and 5,000 ships used in the campaign. While the exact totals aren’t know, it’s estimated that 10,000 Allied soldiers were killed, wounded or reported missing in action during the invasion.

Though war could be terrifying, both Welsh and Jakeway said their most-lasting memories are of the friendships they made in the military.

“I’ve met some great people in the military and also across these great United States of America,” Welsh said.

One of Jakeway’s dearest friends is Bert Jakobs, the son of a Jewish family of five that he liberated in 1944. Jakeway said he had talked to Jakobs Thursday morning before he spoke at the museum.

“I have befriended so many people around the world,” he said. “I’m in awe of all the people here. I’m proud to be one of the people up here.”

For Strout, his journey has been a fulfilling one.

“God has been good to me,” he said.

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