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Wednesday, November 12, 2003
Among the last Marines
104-year-old Kansan one of few surviving World War I vets
SMITH CENTER (AP) - Albert Fred "Jud" Wagner was still a teenager when he enlisted in the U.S. Marines on Aug. 6, 1918.
By early October of that year, the farm boy from the Smith County town of Harlan was on his way to Europe, battling seasickness as the troop transport ship avoided German submarines while crossing the Atlantic Ocean.
He was heading for the Great War, where he sometimes marched 15 miles a day into battle, carrying an 85-pound pack.
Fast forward 85 years to Tuesday's Veterans Day. Precious few World War I veterans are alive.
Jud Wagner, 104, is among the last Marines.
He's also a charter member of the American Legion.
Wagner's nine months in Europe and World War I are firmly embedded in his family's history. They played a role in shaping his two sons and daughter and captivated grandchildren years later.
"He told of his experience of going to boot camp, going overseas, marching to the Rhine (River)," said his son, Junior Simeon "JS" Wagner, 81, of Kensington, a retired Marine officer who served in World War II and the Korean War.
JS Wagner's brother, Robert, 66, of Surprise, Ariz., was a Marine in the late 1950s. JS Wagner's oldest son, Jim, of Topeka, served in the Army during the Vietnam War and always has admired his grandfather.
"I don't know about the war stories so much," said Jim Wagner, 55. "I was more impressed with the fact that he was a tough old bird."
Marines Jud Wagner and Eugene Lee, of upstate New York, who is four months older than Wagner, are the oldest living Marines from World War I.
Their photos and stories were in a recent issue of the Marine Corps Times, published in Springfield, Va.
On Oct. 16, three Marines gathered at Smith County Hospital's long-term care facility, where Jud Wagner resides, to pay homage.
The Marines wanted to honor the old veteran, said 1st Sgt. Earl McIntosh, who is a member of the reserves in Topeka.
"We owe our freedom to their family," he said. "In World War I, World War II, whole families, whole generations fought for our country. We honestly forget the family sacrifice."
The years have crept up on Jud Wagner, who was born September 5, 1899, on a farm in southern Mitchell County. Wagner has "good days and bad days," McIntosh said.
But the aged Marine's contribution to his country is timeless.
As Jud Wagner told a Kansas City reporter for a March 2002 story in 50 & Better Magazine, he first fought in the Meuse-Argonne Forest in France.
"Those were the days of trench warfare," he told the reporter. "We advanced yards at a time, not miles." And he said it was "scary. There were Germans firing at us from the top of the ridges. Lots of times, we fired toward the enemy, but we didn't look. We didn't know if we hit anyone or not. Still, we put them on the run."
The war ended on Nov. 11, 1918. Then came the occupation of Germany, before Wagner got his orders to go home in the summer of 1919.
He cherished the memories of the ship dropping anchor in New York Harbor and the festive homecomings in New York City and in Smith Center.
"War is hell, but I've always been proud of being a Marine," Jud Wagner told the magazine.
He returned home to Smith Center, serving as a custodian at the Smith County Court House for five years and marrying Lillie Routh in 1921.
They reared four children.
Jud Wagner spent 26 years as superintendent of the Smith County Farm, an institution that served the poor and homeless.
JS Wagner was 19, a student majoring in education at then-Fort Hays State College. It was 1942, the year after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7 that he decided to become a Marine.
"My father didn't object. We just didn't talk about it," JS Wagner recalled. "I just went to Kansas City and enlisted."
After a year of officer training school in Bowling Green, Ohio, he went through boot camp at Paris Island, S.C., in 1943, the same camp where his father trained in 1918.
JS graduated from Officer Candidate School in Quantico, Va., where his father received discharge papers.
JS Wagner was commissioned a second lieutenant in March 1945, and five months later was sent to Guam, arriving the day after the U.S. dropped the second atomic bomb on Japan, spelling the end of the war.
"We unloaded, and it was the biggest party that I had ever seen. Everybody was happy," he said. "The officer's club was open all night."
He stayed on Guam until December 1945. After a stint in Tientsen, China, in a military police battalion, he returned to the United States.
By then a first lieutenant, he reported to Camp Pendleton, Calif., and shipped out to Korea, arriving in March 1952. JS Wagner was given command of the headquarters battery with the 11th Marine regiment of the 1st Marine Division, staying there until November 1952, earning two battle stars.
"I had a lot of men on the front lines, and I made monthly trips there, sometimes by helicopter, to conduct inspections and deliver pay (in cash)."
JS also had the duty of writing the families of Marines in his command who were killed in action.
"I lost two young second lieutenants in one day," he recalled. "It was difficult."
What bothered JS most was the deplorable living conditions of South Koreans, "how the kids rummaged through garbage pails for something to eat."
He returned home to his young family with three children to teach another year and a half in Lebanon before completing a master's degree in school administration at the University of Colorado in 1955.
JS Wagner moved to Kensington, where he served as superintendent of schools until retiring in 1987.
But war was never far away from the Wagners. As the Vietnam conflict developed through the 1960s, the possibility loomed of JS' sons Jim and Joel someday donning a uniform.
"As the boys grew up, we kind of knew it was going to happen," JS Wagner said. "Both Dad and I told Jim he'd better be drafted and go in for two years. We didn't encourage him to enlist in the Marines."
Jim spent most of his hitch - 1969 to 1971 - at Fort Benning, Ga., as a company clerk for the Army, handling paperwork on deserters from the military.
The draft was over when Joel came of age.
Family tradition played no role in Jim Wagner's military decisions.
"I really never thought that much about it," Jim said. "I just went with the flow. I guess I got lucky."
He lost a good friend, Lanny Bauman, of Smith Center, in Vietnam, and was "glad my brother didn't get drafted." Jim Wagner is proud of his grandpa, as much for his being a Marine as for what he stands for as a person.
"I've been really close to him. He's really a lovable guy," Jim said. "He's a really nice guy, too."
©Copyright 2003 The Morning Sun
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By R.W. "Dick" Gaines
GySgt USMC (Ret.)