Cpl. Dale Kriens, of rural Backus, is one of an ever-shrinking number of World War II veterans alive today.
At 95, Kriens doesn't always remember the minutiae of serving overseas, but he luckily doesn't have to do it alone. He's always had friends and family to help him along the way, like his wife of 65 years, Maybelle, a keeper of many stories that few can tell anymore. She helps fill in the blanks with stories Dale has told her over the years, including those that happened before they met.
Dale was an Iowa boy until 1941 or 1942, when his parents moved into the rural neighborhood where he and Maybelle continue to live with one of their sons. Two other sons also have homes in the neighborhood. With war growing throughout Europe, and Dale turning 19, he chose to enlist in the Army in 1943 and went to basic training at Camp Campbell, Kentucky. He didn't stay there long, though, and since his voluntary enlistment gave him the ability to choose his type of training, he moved on.
"It seemed kind of dead to me," Dale said. "You had to be there pretty long. I volunteered then for the 82nd Airborne (in Fort Benning, Georgia) and that was a big difference. That was completely different. They just ran you ragged. You were literally done in all the time. They wanted to wash anyone out that wasn't going to stay."
Dale's training under the 82nd was more lively, and it ultimately led to his deployment in Europe, which lasted until the war's end in 1945.
"I went through the whole darn thing from start to finish," Dale said. "Spent part of it in one outfit and the rest of it in another. I did all about the same stuff."
Dale arrived in London just after the Battle of the Bulge in 1944 and kept moving for much of the remainder of the war, going from London to France by boat and traveling throughout Belgium and Germany before the war's end, completing 16 parachute jumps in that time.
Dale's memory of his first jump is somewhat of a blur, much like his fast-paced time in Europe.
"Show me somebody that wasn't scared (on their first jump)," Dale said. "You knew what was coming up, but pretty soon you were up there jumping out the door and hardly knew what you were doing."
Overseas, Dale remembers moving almost constantly from base to base.
"They kind of shuttled us all off and pretty soon you are somewhere else and you aren't even sure how you got there," Dale said. "It turned out alright though, nothing too drastic any place. It was mostly a guard duty thing. They shuttled you around so much you never knew exactly where you were. One day they would say, 'We need a couple of guys to do this,' and there you'd go."
Dale remembers spending time near the end of the war in Oberhausen, Germany, where what little combat there was was brief.
"It was always, bang, bang, bang and it was over with that quick," Dale said.
Though they were stationed in the midst of a German town full of German residents, Dale said he and his fellow troops, though they were technically the invaders, were rarely bothered. Dale carried an M1 Garand with him at all times.
"As far as being around German people, I always thought they might do this or that, but it never happened," Dale said. "They stayed in the background. They knew, when you had a gun they had better behave. There was nothing to that."
Dale remembers most of the Germans weren't happy about the war, and they didn't seem to really resist the "enemy" soldiers based in Oberhausen.
"They didn't know what to think," Dale said. "They didn't know if us being there was going to do any good or not. It turned out eventually that it wasn't very good to start with. There was never any mistreatment that I could see any place. You just point the gun at them and give directions. They didn't argue."
When he wasn't eating unidentifiable K-rations there, he and his fellow soldiers ate at mess halls that were originally set up for German soldiers. Not only that, the food there was sometimes prepared by German citizens under oversight of American soldiers. The food the Americans ate then appeared to be food confiscated by the German military from the German people. They were ironically eating the same food the German soldiers would have eaten.
"It was pretty decent living in Oberhausen. When you told the Germans to get you some food they would get it. They would find something. You were pretty much getting the same things they were giving their own people and army," Dale said. "It was all pretty well done. We didn't starve by any means."
To Dale, getting fed and supplied ammunition was always one of the great wonders of the war, as was receiving mail. He got regular mail from his mother, who wrote him every day. It kept him aware of the goings on back home, and grounded in a place where he was constantly in a defensive mindset.
"You would wonder what was going on back home," Dale said. "You knew what was going on on base. You were always wound up. There would be one shot and you'd be wondering if more were coming."
Dale doesn't remember where he was on VE (Victory in Europe) Day, but he remembers the train rides back from Oberhausen. On the way out of the country the train was met at every stop by locals celebrating the end of the war (Germans included) and bearing food for the soldiers. Dale also remembers the boat trip back to the United States and the rough water. He had to hug his bunk as he slept to keep from falling out.
Back home, Dale lived with his parents, whom he helped with farming in the summer and logging to keep the house warm. It was roughly that time that he met Maybelle, his neighbor. She and her mother were stuck in the mud in a field nearby. Dale pulled them out of the mud. They started dating in 1951 and were married in 1952. They had six children together. They have 13 grandchildren (three of whom served overseas in Iraq) and 16 great-grandchildren.
In 2015, this reporter's Aunt Cathy Dullea connected Dale to WDAY, which organizes honor flights sending veterans to the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C. Dale went with his son, David. The flight left on a Sunday morning carrying so many wheelchairs to transport the veterans in the cargo hold that the veterans had only overnight bags. All the other needs for the trip were paid for.
Though he did not meet anyone he had known during the war, the event helped Dale reconnect with people who could relate to his own experience overseas and allowed him to see the memorials there that honor him and his fellow World War II veterans who stepped up when the world needed them.