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Duffy Setterlund, 87, works out in the Spokane Veterans Home. He was a tail gunner in campaigns over Europe.
Veterans at home with their memories

» By Jamie Tobias Neely / Staff writer

Patriotism waves proudly through the halls of the Spokane Veterans Home this summer, hanging from the ceiling in small U.S. flags and red, white and blue stars.

World War II veterans come to this 1980s-era center on Spokane's lower South Hill across from Rockwood Clinic for rehabilitation, or to live out the rest of their days with nursing care. Memories of that war come alive as the men and women who fought it tell their stories still.

In the library on this afternoon, Mary Ake and Edwin "Duffy" Setterlund roll their wheelchairs close together. These World War II veterans have reached their 80s, and life has worn them down to the very essence of themselves. They tell stories both piercing and fond, hum a few bars of "Chattanooga Choo Choo," and confess that a bugler playing taps still has the power to bring tears to their eyes.

Mary wears short white hair, metal-rimmed glasses and a gray sweat shirt that says "Spokane Veterans Home Sweet Home." She's 83. Her red sandals match a red lever on her wheelchair. She breathes oxygen through a small fleshed-colored tube. Emphysema.

In May 1943 her husband, Bob, shipped out to the South Pacific, and Mary realized she would need to move back in with her parents in Berkeley, Calif. Instead, she enlisted as a member of the U.S. Marine Corps Women's Reserve.

"It was the smartest thing I ever did," she says.

As a woman Marine, she joined an elite corps. She wore a stylish uniform and lipstick designed by Elizabeth Arden to match the red chevrons on her sleeve. It was called "Montezuma Red."

She worked as an aviation storekeeper at El Toro, a Marine Corps Air Station south of Santa Ana, Calif., where angry soldiers called the women "BAMs," short for "Broad-Assed Marines," and she went to dances on the weekends.

On Christmas of 1944 her husband's ship was torpedoed in the Pacific. Mary heard nothing. Her letters started coming back to her marked "No such ship."

Finally she received a letter from Bob saying he'd survived. But his location was censored. Only later she discovered it was Australia.

Months passed and finally Bob arrived home for R&R with Mary. He turned up in San Francisco emaciated, 6-foot-3, 145 pounds, in an ill-fitting white uniform that wasn't his. "He just looked terrible," she recalls.

They marched into a tailor shop in the Embarcadero and had Bob custom-fitted for a proper Navy uniform. The tailor sewed a blue jacket and pants with the Navy's traditional 13-button waist.

Then the young couple headed for Treasure Island. They were married 53 years. The song "Embraceable You" still has the power to bring him back to her side.

Mary remembers scenes from those years as if sliced from the reels of an old World War II movie. The day Madame Chiang Kai-shek visited El Toro, a thin woman in an elegant fur. The day Mary watched a plane blow up on the airfield, rolling like a tumbleweed over the ground.

And then there was the sheer euphoria of V-J Day itself.

She and her husband were on leave that day, staying with her parents in Berkeley. Mary and her mother were riding a commuter train home from San Francisco. As the train pulled out of the terminal, the ships began blowing their whistles and the announcement came that the war had ended. Nuns riding the train knelt in the aisle in prayer.

"It was a very emotional thing," Mary recalls.

She and her mother couldn't get home fast enough. But not her husband.

"He came home hours later with a bunch of his shipmates," she says. "They were drunker than skunks."

She remains proud she joined the Marines. Her honorable discharge was her ticket to the care she receives now. "At 83 years old as a widow and unable to take care of myself," she says, "here I am in the best place I could possibly be."

She asks Duffy Setterlund if he's read Tom Brokaw's book, "The Greatest Generation." No, he responds gently. His eyesight is failing. He can't read anymore.

She offers to find out whether the book's available in audio. "I'll check it out on the computer. I can do all sorts of thing," she says proudly.

"I sure enjoyed that while I could see," Setterlund says. The computer brought e-mails from his kids and grandkids.

"I miss it something terrible," he says.

The war years seem longer ago for 87-year-old Setterlund, a bald man with sweet eyes in a navy blue sweat suit. He's had a stroke, and he's lost much of his sight. But there are moments that linger in his mind.

There was the day he left his mother in Sandpoint. "I loved my mother very much," he says. "She wasn't married then, and I hated to leave her."

He was stationed in England and flew 28 missions for the Army Air Corps. He was a tail gunner, manning two .50-caliber machine guns, as the plane soared over green countryside and the rubble of European cities.

His mother mailed letters to England, fretting about losing him.

"Don't worry, Mom," he'd joke. "I'll fall off a bar stool and break my neck instead."

There was the day they flew through the flak of German ground fire. Their plane was hit twice, and they were forced to land on a foggy airfield in Belgium.

"I was just hoping it wasn't our own people who were shooting us down," Setterlund says.

And there was V-E Day in England. "We heard about it and we stayed in camp and shot off our pistols is about all," he says. "Some of the guys went to town. Most of us didn't. There wasn't too much celebrating at our camp."

The airmen had mixed feelings. Setterlund was glad Hitler was dead, but the end of the war in Europe grounded him. "It was a terrible letdown from flying," he says.

By V-J Day, he had returned to the States and married while on leave. When the news hit, he was traveling through Los Angeles after the wedding on his way to Santa Ana by train. "I was so darned tired, I didn't do nothing," he says. "I got in the bus, went out to camp and went to bed."

After a few days of R&R in Santa Ana, he was transferred to Fort Wright and soon discharged. He went to work for Boise Cascade and eventually retired as a sawmill supervisor.

Today, he looks back at his war years with fondness.

"I had a great adventure I wouldn't have had otherwise," he says, "and saw a lot of the world I wouldn't have otherwise."

Down the hall, 80-year-old Elaine Spencer spends most of her days in a brown recliner in her room. Her right foot, swollen and red with cellulitis, wears a tan bandage. As she talks, her steel gray hair bristles, and her eyes grow wide.

She once loved to dance in jitterbug competitions, but a bad hip and her ailing foot keep her confined now.

Elaine grew up in St. Louis in a family of two girls. She wanted to serve her country.

"My father said, 'I won't sign for it,' " she says. "My mother said, 'I will.' "

So Elaine joined the U.S. Navy near the end of 1944 and trained at Hunter College in New York.

She remembers V-J Day vividly.

Another WAVE wanted to venture into the city to see her brother before he went overseas. As the two women rode through Manhattan, all hell broke loose.

"To this day, I am so embarrassed for the military personnel how they reacted in New York when we were there," she says. "It was disgusting I cannot comprehend what those men did."

Soldiers tore her hat off, and she says she watched them assault her friend.

"They tried to strip her clothes off, and I grabbed her away," she recalls. "I finally got on the A train and back to Hunter College. It was terrible."

After the war ended, she worked as a storekeeper at the U.S. Naval Air Station in Alameda, Calif. Soon she married Edward, a Navy man, and that ended her career.

Her husband's work was a secret that she later learned involved testing the air, sea and land for radiation. He was stationed in Japan after the war, and Elaine went along.

She remained horrified by the sight of the Japanese people who were hospitalized for radiation sickness from a U.S. atom bomb.

"Oh, my God, I never will forget those people," she says. "That was horrible. I couldn't believe my country would damage those people like that."

She prays still for the Japanese people and the American pilots who dropped those bombs without realizing the extent of the damage they would create.

She points to a framed U.S. flag hanging in a tight military triangle on her wall. It covered her husband's casket after he died.

He still keeps her company on lonesome days.

"I talk to the flag, my husband," she says. "People think I'm crazy. But he knows I'm in here and can't move around."

Sixty years after the war ended, nothing has erased her pride and patriotism.

"I loved my country and the Navy, and I didn't regret it one bit," she says.

"When it was time to get out of the Navy, it was like to break my heart."

Spokane, Wash., Coeur d'Alene, Idaho and the Inland Northwest
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