It was a regular day on the rehab floor at Stillwater Medical Center until the boisterous conversation of four men attracted attention to the fact that they’re all War World II veterans and two served in the same European Theater!
World War II Veterans Leon Lewis, Clarence Zirbes, David Johnson and Ernest Bradley are doing more than physical therapy, speech therapy and surgery rehabilitation at Stillwater Medical Center. “It’s a regular Veteran’s Day celebration up here,” said Speech and Language Therapist Dana Baker.
“We have veterans here and there and it’s always an honor to serve them, but to have four at the same time; all of whom have clear memories and speech – it was just extra exciting for us to hear from them and learn about their stories first hand,” said Baker, who is among a of team of therapists, nurses and medical professionals caring for the rehabilitating patients. Four of the eleven patients being served were World War II veterans.
Clarence Zirbes, a quick witted man full of personality, says war was “Quite an experience – luckily I got through it.” He remembers jumping out of a truck and going down a steep ditch while being shot at from the air. He thought he’d been shot in the same hip he’s just had replaced now at 90 years of age. “I wasn’t hit, just badly bruised. I didn’t want to report it at the time and risk them sending me the 35 miles to England to patch me up and send me home. Then I could end up back in the infantry division. Nobody wanted that. I just hobbled for a while instead.”
Zirbes served in the third army on the anti aircraft unit and remembers being responsible for “keeping the skies safe. So, we shot down the planes. Our unit, the 455th, was credited with eliminating 139 planes. We used machine guns from the ground and would be interspersed with other units to keep their operations safe from the planes above. So, we were mostly traveling, moving 20-100 miles a day. I remember one holiday – New Year’s Day or Christmas – we shot 15 planes down in the one day.”
While undergoing rehabilitation therapy for backs and hips, they’re all united on the fourth floor of Stillwater Medical Center. Dining together, Clarence discovered David Johnson who actually served in the same European Theater – a designated area in the army. Baker said “Over their meal one day, they said ‘…you served under General Patton in the army too?’. They got so excited - great big eyes.”
Struggling with Parkinson’s Disease at the age of 90, David can still report the dates of his service, having graduated in 1943, gone into the service the summer of 1944 and then leaving the service the first time in August of 1948. He served all over the north and south Pacific in heavy cruisers, battleships and ground forces by tank. As a tanker, he remembers traveling down the Autobahn and discovering that the Germans were using the Autobahn as their runway. “So we destroyed their aircraft from our tank before they could take off,” he said.
Listeners can sense his class, wisdom and humility as he tells of later serving as a platoon leader in the Korean War, which was “very difficult in ten degree below zero weather,” he said. Reporting for duty as his wife was delivering their first child, he remembers how “difficult it was to leave home under the circumstances, especially knowing the casualty rate of platoon leaders was 75%. I didn’t know that exact statistic when I reported, but we knew it was dangerous.”
Ernest James Bradley, “Brad,” remembers battling Malaria in Guadalcanal and also serving in New Zealand. He has been back to visit New Zealand several times and even begun a friendship with a former OSU women’s golfer who lives in New Zealand. Friends say he was called “Father Brad” in the Army, not for his religion but because he’d play cards praying for sevens and elevens. His sense of humor is evident even as he shares Veteran stories with his newfound Stillwater Medical Center friends.
Through a gentle, smiling demeanor, Leon Lewis shares memories of serving in the navy on three different ships and traveling the Panama Canal five times. He remembers shooting down the Japanese Kamikaze piloted plane that torpedoed the ship he was serving on. He said 10-12 men were killed in the lower level of the ship during that incident, the ship was saved and the rest of the crew was rescued. ”I hate war. I don’t think we need to talk about it unless there’s a specific reason and we shouldn’t have to,” said Lewis, “but it was interesting to share stories with these fellow veterans.”
“We feel it is a great honor to have the opportunity to get these wonderful men back on their feet again,” said Stillwater Medical Center’s Laurel Magee-Linch.
And what do these great veterans have to say about Stillwater Medical Center? Zirbes said, “The nurses are cute and efficient. I have a nice, sunny room and the food is good. Dr. Paden is a likeable fella’, a good doctor, conscientious and caring.” Johnson said he feels fortunate to have such a fine facility in Stillwater.
Front row left to right World War II Veterans Leon Lewis, Clarence Zirbes, David Johnson and Ernest Bradley are celebrated by back row left to right Stillwater Medical Center employees Jeanne Garner, Rachel Bryant, Jennifer Silver, Morgan Clayton, Dana Baker, Kimberly Lester and Laurel Magee-Linch.