For F.M. Richard Simons, volunteering to fight during World War II was a way of giving back to the country that had welcomed his grandparents.
The Korea War was in full force when a friend from nursing training convinced Marianna Bjurstrom to join the Air Force. To Bjurstrom, who was 24, it sounded like a way to make her dreams of traveling and seeing the world come true.
While the paths that led Simons and Bjurstrom to military service were far different, both said they were proud to serve and treasure the friendships they made along the way.
Simons and Bjurstrom spoke during a special Veterans Day luncheon at Homeland Center. Before the lunch, the 30 residents who are veterans received red carnations to commemorate their service.
“They say it’s a great experience but one I’d never want to do again,’’ said Simons, who at 19 served with the famed 10th Mountain Division and saw combat in Italy from 1944 until the end of the war. “You build a real comradery; friendships that help keep you alive and stay with you.’’
Though the 10th Mountain initially trained in Colorado’s mountains to fight as ski troops, when the Allies entered Italy it was the division’s mountain climbing abilities and sheer guts that were called upon. Simon’s first taste of combat came in the taking of Mt. Belvedere in Italy’s Alpine Mountains, a fight that would cost almost a thousand of the division’s troops.
“The Germans were expecting us. It’s not like in the movies – it’s much worse; you’re walking into one of the most horrendous experiences,’’ said Simons, who clearly remembers the first of his friends to die, Francis Lowery.
“We all came together from training in Texas, about five of us, and Lowery was the first to go, stepped on a landmine,’’ Simons said, adding seeing friends die is something you never get used to. “To me he’s always going to be 19 years old.’’
Simons, who is Jewish, only learned of the atrocities committed by the Nazis after the war. But during one battle, a lieutenant went down the line asking if any of the soldiers were Jewish and told them to hide their dog tags, which were stamped with an “H’’ for Hebrew.’’
“He said don’t wear your dog tags because if the Germans captured you they would set you on fire,’’ Simons said. “I look back and think how lucky I am to be alive; it was so easy to die.’’
Near the war’s end in Europe, Simons broke his ankle, which prevented him being shipped to the Pacific, where the war against Japan was raging. Then a staff sergeant, Simons spent his final months overseas as a disc jockey for the Armed Forces Radio.
When he returned home, Simons used the GI Bill to finish college and later founded Simons Insurance Agency, now run by his daughter, Ruth, under the name Simons & Company. He also became involved in politics, serving on Harrisburg’s City Council in the mid-1980s.
Marianna Bjurstrom got her wish to see a good part of the world as a flight nurse caring for soldiers wounded in Korea, who were initially evacuated to Japan. Bjurstrom, another nurse and a Navy corpsman would fly from Japan to Hawaii (with stops and Midway and Guam) and then stateside to San Francisco. During the long Pacific flights they usually cared for about 20 patients.
“We saw fractures from gunshot wounds and other injuries. Sometimes they were paralyzed in some way and would be on a frame that we would turn every two hours so they could have some change in their circulation,’’ she said.
“One time I was doing private duty for a patient who wasn’t expected to make it make it and I kept talking to him and just before we landed he woke up,’’ said Bjurstrom, who never had a patient die on one of her flights. “I’m most proud of treating that man until he woke; that really made me feel that I was doing something.’’
When she left the Air Force in 1952 as a first lieutenant, Bjurstrom moved home before coming to the Harrisburg area with her husband. This mother of four girls was an emergency room nurse prior to working for Pennsylvania Blue Shield as a claims review specialist until she retired in 1986.
Bjurstrom said she approves of the expanding role women have in the military and may even have thought of making a career of the service had those opportunities existed in the 1950s.
“I think it’s great because it’s time for women to have their place in this world,’’ said Bjurstrom, who added that she feels it is important to observe Veteran’s Day – for those who served and for those still serving.
“We gave up some of our own interests to serve our country,’’ Bjurstrom said. “I think we should be recognized for that.’’