WWII vets speak to Niagara students

World War II veteran Fred Rhodes, left, shakes hands with fellow veteran Grant Allred in the Hall of Heroes at Niagara High School. The school placed glass cases of photos to honor local veterans of all wars.

NIAGARA, Wis. — Fred Rhodes was training to be a medic when he took part in the pivotal World War II D-Day invasion of France. His landing ship tank was among the first to pull onto the beaches of Normandy on June 6, 1944.

“We were in South Hampton, England, and they gave us liberty. Some of the guys came back to the ship half tanked up,” Rhodes told students in Ben Laarman’s U.S. History class at Niagara High School earlier this week. “Pretty soon the ship was starting to move and I had a hunch what was going on then. It was just breaking day when we landed at Gold Beach. We had English, Canadian troops, then the USS NewYork battleship was right in back of us and they were shooting with the big guns and the shells like that,” he said.

Rhodes spent the entire day making 17 trips from England to France, unloading supplies and troops, all under enemy fire.

“The sky was black with British Halifax bombers going over,” he said.

Rhodes and fellow WWII Navy veteran Grant Allred joined former high school principal Kerry Grippen in a discussion about the war and being part of the “Greatest Generation.” As Grippen described the history of the war, Rhodes and Allred commented on what they remembered from their experiences during those battles.

former Niagara High School principal Kerry Grippen discuss the history of WWII during Ben Laarman's U.S. History class at Niagara High School. former Niagara High School principal Kerry Grippen discuss the history of WWII during Ben Laarman's U.S. History class at Niagara High School. (Theresa Proudfit/Daily News Photos)

Rhodes described how the Navy Seals went in first to detonate bombs and how a 16-year-old who lied about his age to get into the military died in an explosion that day. He said he had to “gather up all his stuff and send it home to his mom and dad.”

“There were 156,000 troops on those beaches that day — 73,000 of them were Americans — and when we made the final point of the invasion, 43,000 soliders and sailors had died,” he said.

“We took 900 prisoners of war back from Normandy to South Hampton, England. Some of those prisoners came back to Pembine, Wisconsin, and they worked in the woods there” he said.

Both of Rhodes’ brothers served in the military. Their mother died while he was at war.

Laarman’s class heard many stories about Normandy, the Battle of the Bulge, about Hitler and German Gen. Erwin Rommel, nicknamed “Desert Fox” for his successful campaigns in North Africa.

They talked about movies based on real events such as “Hacksaw Ridge,” “Saving Private Ryan” and “The Longest Day.”

But junior Cole Brown loved hearing from the veterans themselves. “The stories they would tell. It was absolutely nuts,” he said.

Brown asked Rhodes, “In your opinion what ended WWII?”

“The atomic bomb,” Rhodes answered.

Allred sat quietly during much of the morning’s discussion. Five of six brothers in his family fought in World War II. He was just 18 when he was drafted into the war in August 1944.

Allred watched through binoculars from his transport ship when the Japanese surrendered on USS Missouri battleship Sept. 2, 1945.

“War is not glorious,” he said. “We need to teach love, not hate.”

Niagara schools has published the entire discussion with the veterans on You Tube.

Theresa Proudfit can be reached at 906-774-2772, ext. 45, or tproudfit@ironmountaindailynews.com.