Veterans Day: Honoring those who enlisted

John Oncken

This holiday was originally called Armistice Day. and fell on Nov. 11, the anniversary of the signing of the Armistice that ended World War I. However, in 1954, the holiday was changed to "Veterans Day" in order to reflect upon the heroism of those who died in our country's service. 

I was lucky. All of my relatives who served in the armed forces in various wars survived and came home to live rather long lives. I do remember my mother often talking of five or her brothers who served in World War I (one who suffered lung injury from a poison gas attack). I also had several cousins who served in the armed forces during World War II and I spent a year in Korea as that war was winding down and my brother spent time in the Navy.

The Truman Olson memorial at West Koshonong Lutheran church near Utica.

True, I’d never thought much about people dying for their country, until one day, maybe 20 years ago, when I rode my bicycle to the cross roads community of Utica to watch a baseball game. While parking the bike inside a small enclosure, I noticed a ground level stone monument honoring Truman Olson, a local farm boy who had lost his life at Anzio, Italy in World War II and was awarded The Congressional Medal of Honor. 

I did a good bit of research to find out more about farm boy, soldier and hero Truman Olson. By that time his parents were dead and few local people remembered him at all.

The farm boy

Olson was the son of Axel and Marie Olson, in the township of Christiana near Cambridge in Dane County. He attended grade school at Utica and graduated from Deerfield High. Olson then enlisted in the army in June 1942, and was sent to Europe in 1943 and by January 30 of the next year was serving with an Infantry Regiment, in action at Cisterna di Littoria, Italy. 

The Olson Memorial at Utica Park.

On the night of January  30, 1944, after a 16-hour assault on entrenched enemy positions in the course of which over one-third of his Company became casualties, Sergeant Olson and his crew, with the one available machine gun, remained to bear the brunt of the expected German counterattack. 

While his gun crew was cut down by enemy fire, Sergeant Olson alone manned his gun, meeting the full force of an all-out enemy assault by approximately 200 men which the Germans launched at daybreak. After 30 minutes of fighting, Sergeant Olson was mortally wounded, yet refused evacuation and continued to fire his machine gun, killing at least 20 of the enemy, wounding many more, and forcing the assaulting German elements to withdraw.

For these actions, Olson was awarded The Medal of Honor, the highest award for valor in action against an enemy force, which can bestowed upon an individual serving in the Armed Services of the United States. 

In addition  the monument located at the Utica Community Park, there is another monument at the West Koshkonong Church Cemetery where he is buried.   

Les Mabie as a young soldier spent six months in active combat.

Another farmer, hero

Several years ago I wrote about the dairy farm on the western edge of the City of Stoughton that was owned by the Les Mabie family. There were always registered Jersey cattle in the pasture around the pond fronting the farm.. 

When I talked with Les and Jeannette (Jean) Mabie who still lived on the farm, although long retired, I Iearned that after serving in the Army, Les had bought the farm in 1957.  Out of curiosity, I asked him what he did in the Army? I then heard a story that few others, including friends and relatives, had never heard.    

D-Day landing resulted in many casualties of American soldiers.

Off to war

Like most young men of the era, Les wanted to join the war effort and enlisted. After basic training Les shipped off to England in April 1943 and began serious training for a landing in France with his unit, the 294th Joint Assault Signal Company (JASCO). This was a very specialized organization of about 380 men, whose job was to set up radio and phone communications on the beach. 

On June 5, 1944, the GI's loaded on an LCI (landing craft infantry) for the invasion planned for the next day. 

"That night was the longest and worst night I ever spent," Les says. "I was so worried and couldn't sleep – would I be able to shoot at another person when we got into battle?" 

Les Mabie as a retired Stoughton farmer doesn’t know how he survived the World War II.

Before dawn, Mabie and his company loaded into small Higgins boats holding about 30 troops each. As they approached the beach Mabie and others clambered over the side of the small boat – they knew the bullets would fly in when the door opened – and hit the water and plodded towards Omaha Beach at 6:16 a.m. on D-Day. 

On the beach

"It was bad," Les remembers, "I'd have a friend next to me and he'd be gone. Then another and another. It was terrible but our orders were to never stop to help anyone who was wounded."

Note: Omaha Beach was the toughest beach of all with 34,250 soldiers landing and 2,400 who were killed or wounded. (Only 80 of Mabie's unit of 380 men survived intact.) Les spent six months in severe fighting until on December 6, 1944, he was shipped to England.

I consider Les Mabie, the mild mannered and unassuming dairy farmer a real-life hero, and one of those responsible for what America is and has been for the decades since World War II. Both Les and his wife are now gone but I’ll always remember talking with this humble dairyman (and war hero) as a very special privilege. 

The Mabie Dairy was well known for its Jerseys. The farm is now demolished and part of a shopping center.

A neighbor

Another farm boy, one that I knew well, was Jerry Johnson a neighbor who had worked for my dad a couple of summers on our farm. 

Jerry spent most of World War II underwater as a crewman on the submarine USS Bowfin (SS-287) a fleet attack submarine that fought in the Pacific during World War II. Between 194301945, the USS Bowfin conducted nine war patrols. War patrols of WWII were periods of about two months where a submarine would patrol a designated region of ocean. Bowfin served in the Pacific and spent most of her patrols in the South China Sea, Celebes Sea, off the East coast of Japan, and into the Sea of Japan.

Les Mabie was  honored for his D-Day landing.

Johnson returned unharmed, married and raised tobacco on his farm while working in Stoughton. 

I consider these three men as “veterans” who willingly offering their lives for the future of our country. There are so many more. Please remember and honor them

John Oncken can be reached at 608-837-7406, or email him at