Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

A letter to Dad on Veterans Day November 11, 2021

U.S. Army Cpl. Elvern Kletscher, my father, in the trenches in Korea. (From my father’s photo collection)

DEAR DAD,

I’m sorry.

I’m sorry I didn’t take the time to ask. And then to listen.

I’m sorry I didn’t recognize earlier that you were suffering.

I’m sorry I was too busy with my own life and family to realize that I could have, should have, tried to understand.

An in-ground marker honors my father, Elvern Kletscher, a Korean War veteran and recipient of the Purple Heart for wounds he suffered at Heartbreak Ridge in Korea while killing a sniper. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo 2011)

Nearly 19 years have passed now since your burial, since that brutally cold early April day when I wrapped my arm around Mom in the wind-swept hilltop Vesta Cemetery. I felt her body shivering, shaking with grief as she accepted a folded American flag.

Moments like that imprint upon me as I remember you—husband, father, grandfather, son, brother…and veteran.

You were buried with military honors. The firing of guns. The mournful playing of taps. An in-ground military marker notes your final rank as a sergeant in the US Army. Awarded the Purple Heart, albeit 47 years after you were wounded on Heartbreak Ridge in Korea.

My father, Elvern Kletscher, left, with two of his soldier buddies in Korea. (From my father’s photo collection)

Today, on Veterans Day, I think of you. Honor you. And consider how fighting as a boots-on-the-ground combat soldier in the mountains of Korea forever changed you.

I recall the few stories you shared through the decades. You watched as a mortar killed your friend Ray, who was scheduled to leave Korea the next day. He left behind a wife and infant daughter. Dad, your grief led me to search for that “baby” two years after your death. I found Teri living in Iowa and with only minimal knowledge of her birth father. I have yet to meet her, but want to some day.

Some day. Days and weeks and months and years pass and then some day is too late. Now I hold a shoebox brimming with curled black-and-white photos and other items from your time in the Army. Your Selective Service System registration certificate. A well-worn mini black book of prayers, hymns and devotions from the Ladies Aid in Vesta. Faith and prayer carried you through many a hellish day and night in Korea.

On the back of this photo, my dad simply penned “a letter from home.” I appreciate this photo of my dad taken by an unknown buddy in Korea. (From my father’s photo collection)

In a letter to your parents, a copy tucked into a folder labeled “Korea” in my office file cabinet, you termed the war-torn Asian country a “hell hole.” Likewise, an over-sized embroidered decal declares “RETURNED FROM HELL.”

I have no doubt that war was hell for you. “Shoot or be shot,” I remember you saying. You spoke, too, of bitter cold, of hunger, of orphans begging for food across barbed wire fences. Of horrible war-time atrocities that I can’t bear to write here.

My dad carried this memorial service bulletin home from Korea. In the right column is listed the name of his fallen buddy, Raymond W. Scheibe. (From my father’s collection)

And then when you arrived home—bringing with you a folded memorial service bulletin from Sucham-dong, Korea, dated July 31, 1953, and including your buddy Ray’s name—the horror and grief you experienced remained. But few, if any, acknowledged your struggles back then. You were expected to resume life as usual, returning to rural Minnesota to farm the land, to milk cows, to marry and raise a family. Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) was not yet recognized.

I’m sorry, Dad. Sorry about the neighbor who laughed as you dove to the ground when a rifle fired during pheasant hunting.

I’m sorry, Dad, for the fear you felt when guns fired during a small town parade.

I’m sorry I wasn’t there for you like I should have been.

Near the end of your life, you found empathy and care in your veterans’ support group. That comforts me. Those men understood what you’d experienced. For that I am grateful. They provided the emotional support I failed to give you. I’m sorry, Dad. So sorry.

With love,

Audrey

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Honoring Ray Scheibe & others who gave their all May 31, 2021

A story about Cpl. Ray W. Scheibe, published in the July 23, 1953, issue of The Wolbach Messenger.

SIXTY-EIGHT YEARS AGO on June 2, 1953, a 22-year-old soldier died on the battlefields of Korea. Blown apart by a mortar just the day before he was scheduled to leave, to return home to Wollbach, Nebraska. To his wife and six-week-old daughter.

This May 1953 photo, taken by my dad, shows Ray Scheibe on the left.

He was Cpl Ray W. Scheibe, my dad’s Army buddy. Fellow soldier. Comrade.

My dad, Elvern Kletscher, witnessed Ray’s horrible death. Something he never forgot. The visual he carried with him from Korea back home to southwestern Minnesota. The trauma. The pain. The loss never left him. How could it? He and Ray were like brothers, linked by a bond unlike any other in the commonality of survival, of facing death, of shoot or be shot.

Today I honor Ray and all those brave men and women who died in service to our country. They left behind grieving friends and families and communities. Eventually, I would find and connect with Ray’s daughter, Terri. (Read that story by clicking here.) We have yet to meet in person, but continue to exchange annual holiday letters.

My dad carried home a July 31, 1953, memorial service bulletin from Sucham-dong, Korea. In the right column is listed the name of his fallen buddy, Raymond W. Scheibe.

I hold close the memory my dad shared about Ray’s death. Dad seldom talked about Korea. I wish I’d asked more about his time there. It’s too late; he died in 2003. But I have a shoe box full of photos and memorabilia, including the memorial service bulletin Dad carried home from Korea. The one that lists Ray’s name among those soldiers who died in service to their country. The ones who gave the ultimate sacrifice—their lives.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Memorial Day 2020 observances, abbreviated May 22, 2020

A veteran salutes during the Memorial Day Program at Faribault’s Central Park. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

NEARLY EVERY MEMORIAL DAY, Randy and I honor our war dead in the same fashion. We head downtown Faribault to the parade and then go to Central Park to watch the Memorial Day program. Little changes from year to year with American flags waving, men and women in uniform marching, Scouts handing out flags, patriotic music playing, speeches given, wreaths hung by members of the American Legion Auxiliary…

 

The Rice County, Minnesota, Veterans’ Memorial in Faribault, located on the courthouse lawn.

 

There’s comfort in the familiarity of tradition.

 

Memorial pavers surround the monument, like this one honoring a fallen soldier.

 

KIA, Sgt Donald E. Ponto.

 

Another loss…

 

But this year, because of COVID-19, there will be no parade, no ceremony at the Rice County Veterans’ Memorial and no crowd gathered at Central Park. This saddens me. I always look forward to these public ways in which we show respect and gratitude for those who lost their lives in service to country. But I understand. These are unprecedented times and we need to keep each other safe. The Central Park program will go on, but without audience members gathered on lawn chairs. Rather, the ceremony will be broadcast at 10 am over local radio station KDHL, 920 AM.

 

An overview of the Rice County Veterans’ Memorial.

 

Eagle and dove details.

 

Stone slabs honor branches of the military.

 

My attendance at Memorial Day events traces back to my childhood in rural southwestern Minnesota. My dad, a veteran of the Korean War and a recipient of the Purple Heart, was active in the local American Legion. Every Memorial Day our family attended—and often participated in—the program at the Vesta Community Hall. Several times I read the poem, “In Flanders Fields.” I also sold poppies. Afterward, we piled into the Chevy for the short drive north of town to the cemetery and the gun salute and mournful playing of taps. From early on, the importance of Memorial Day imprinted upon me.

 

A Civil War monument is part of the Veterans’ Memorial.

 

I carried that tradition in raising my three children. Each Memorial Day we attended the parade along Central Avenue in Faribault. And sometimes the program in the park. Some day I hope to take my grandchildren downtown to watch flag-carrying veterans, high school bands and Cub Scouts honoring those who died in service to our country. But not this year. Not during a global pandemic.

 

A story about Cpl. Ray W. Scheibe, published in the July 23, 1953, issue of The Wolbach Messenger.

 

THIS POST IS DEDICATED to the memory of Cpl. Ray W. Scheibe. Ray, 22, was killed by an exploding mortar on June 2, 1953, in Korea, the day before he was to return home to Nebraska, to his wife and baby daughter. He was my dad’s Army buddy.

 

Honoring fallen soldiers with a special monument at the Rice County Veterans’ Memorial.

 

Blessed be Ray’s memory. And blessed be the memories of all those who have given their lives for this country.

 

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

The personal connection of war, decades after my dad left Korea May 26, 2018

The cover of a July 31, 1953, memorial service folder from Sucham-dong, Korea.

 

WAR IS MORE THAN THE FLASH of a news story, a list of statistics, a row of flags marking graves.

 

Photo by Sonny Nealon, Ray’s best friend in high school, Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

War is personal. War is a flag-draped coffin, a name upon a tombstone, grief for a loved one.

 

My father, Elvern Kletscher, left, with two of his soldier buddies in Korea.

 

I expect nearly every one of you could share a story of a family member who served in the Armed Forces, perhaps even gave his/her life for country.

This Memorial Day—between the travel and fun of the weekend—please reflect on the true meaning of this holiday. Remember those who died on battlefields or along roads or in trenches during too many wars.

 

Page two of the 1953 memorial service bulletin from Korea.

 

I need look no farther than a brown shoebox. It holds the memorabilia of war, of my father’s time as an infantryman on the front lines during the Korean War. Among the photos and other items is a memorial service bulletin dated July 31, 1953, Sucham-dong, Korea. It lists the names of 28 men from the 2nd Battalion, 65th Infantry Regiment who died in service to country.

 

A story about Cpl. Ray W. Scheibe, published in the July 23, 1953, issue of The Wolbach Messenger.

 

Among those names, my dad’s Army buddy, Raymond W. Scheibe. Ray died the day before he was to return home to his wife and infant daughter. My heart breaks when I think of that, of my dad witnessing his friend’s death and then Ray’s family getting the awful news back in Nebraska. A young wife left a widow. A daughter never knowing her father. Grieving parents.

 

The third page of the memorial service bulletin my soldier dad carried home from Korea.

 

War is personal. To think that my dad saved this memorial service bulletin shows me the depths of his grief. He could have tossed the piece of paper after the service—after the singing of patriotic songs and reading of Scripture and prayer and roll call and a moment of silence. But he didn’t. He folded the now yellowed paper into quarters and carried it with him, across the ocean, across the country, back home to Minnesota.

 

An in-ground marker honors my father, Elvern Kletscher, a Korean War veteran and recipient of the Purple Heart for wounds he suffered at Heartbreak Ridge in Korea. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Through that action, my father, dead 15 years now, honored his soldier-friend. He assured that the next generation, me, would remember. War is personal. War is a worn slip of paper saved for 65 years.

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FYI: Many opportunities exist in the Faribault area to honor our veterans on Memorial Day. Here’s a partial list:

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling