Over the quiet chatter of the 30 people gathered at the American Legion Post 218 Monday, 13-year-old Will Riegel could be heard proudly rattling off facts about World War II. The battles, the memorabilia, the veterans — he’s well-versed in all, particularly about the specific veteran seated at the table with him.
“Ever since I was little, I remember seeing my great-grandpa’s medals and two Purple Hearts,” Riegel said. “It’s a privilege to be able to talk to him about (his service), and I feel like I need to continue passing that knowledge on.”
Othmar “Ott” Jasper, Riegel’s great-grandfather, was among five area World War II veterans, ranging in age from 92 to 102, who were honored at the Legion Monday. Seated beside Jasper, who served in the Army, was Fred Girvin, of the Navy; Oscar Rode, of the Army; Emil Poertner, of the Army Air Corps; and Don Northington, of the Navy.
The event, which included a fried chicken meal and photo op, was hosted by the Valley of the Meramec chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution. The national nonprofit group is composed of area women who can trace their ancestry to soldiers of the Revolutionary War.
The veterans said they enjoyed catching up with one another after almost two years.
“The main thing is it seems like we’re all getting older faster,” Girvin said. “It’s unique to run into someone you know from the service.”
Organizer Rosalie McGaugh said the group held a similar get-together in 2019, which was attended by four World War II veterans, one of whom — Roy Wieneke — has since passed. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, of the 16 million Americans who served during the war, about 300,000 — or less than 2 percent — were alive in 2020, and around 300 were passing away every day.
For McGaugh, who is also president of Franklin County Honor Flight, offering free trips for veterans to Washington, D.C., to see their war memorials, honoring veterans’ service is a deeply personal mission. Her late father, Bruce Miller, also was a World War II veteran.
“The DAR mission is God, home and country, and part of that is veterans,” McGaugh said.
The veterans in attendance served in many different battlefronts and capacities during World War II and shortly after. Poertner served in Burma and India. Girvin served in Greenland and later Trinidad. Jasper fought in the European theatre, across France, Belgium, Holland, Luxembourg and Germany. Northington said that although he enlisted with the hope of going overseas, the war in the Pacific ended before he was shipped out, and he instead was sent to Lambert Airport in St. Louis.
“At that time I was upset because I joined the Navy to get on that ship and fight,” Northington told The Missourian. Rode, who served in the South Pacific from 1944 through 1946, said the war ending when it did “saved his life.”
Although 2020 marked the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II — with Allied victory declared in Europe on May 8, 1945, and in Japan on Aug. 15, 1945 — most veterans were unable to gather due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The attendees Monday were happy to be back and honoring the veterans.
“I’ve been so lucky to get to know my great-grandpa because he’s what made me who I am today,” Riegel said. “A lot of people never meet their grandfathers, and there’s many people who didn’t make it back or who have lost their loved ones. I feel that knowing him is something very special.”
Jasper smiled warmly at Riegel as he posed for photos, the veterans talking among themselves.
“It makes me happy just to meet these people,” Rode said of his fellow veterans. “These are heroes.”