WAKONDA — At 91 years old, Kenny Peterson was looking forward to this Saturday’s parade marking the 100th birthday for the local American Legion post.
"I was going to be a parade marshal, along with my brother, (Bernell) ‘Ole’ Peterson, and my brother-in-law, Gene Dwyer," he said. "Gene will be 100 on his next birthday, I’ll be 92 next week and Ole would have turned 90."
The excitement changed to sorrow when Ole died July 3. Kenny continued a sad but meaningful tradition Tuesday at the cemetery.
"I’ve been a member of the firing squad for 66 years," Kenny said. "I’ve been part of it when we buried my dad and my three brothers who were all in the military. My brother (Ole) served 1 ½ years in Korea with the Marines."
Kenny still looks forward to sitting next to Dwyer in the parade. Peterson even showed up Wednesday afternoon to help construct the float, which marks the American Legion’s centennial and can be used by South Dakota units.
The seven men working together Wednesday in the Wakonda bus shed reflected various eras and branches of service. However, they shared one common bond: pride in the history and tradition of Gingrich-Dixon Post 13.
The post was organized in Wakonda and a charter was signed on July 7, 1919, by World War I veterans. The Legion and Auxiliary Post was named Gingrich Post No. 13 in honor of Curvin A. Gingrich, the first serviceman from Wakonda to lose his life in World War I.
At the close of World War II, the name Dixon was added to the post name in honor of Luverne F. Dixon, the first serviceman from Wakonda to lose his life on the battlefield of that war.
Saturday’s celebration opens with an 11 a.m. parade that starts at the school and runs downtown. Anyone is welcome to enter the parade and is asked to arrive at the school by 10 a.m. The parade will follow the traditional route used for homecoming.
Saturday’s parade will be followed by a roast beef dinner at the Legion Hall. The meal is free for veterans, and a freewill donation is requested for all others.
The centennial birthday party has been under discussion for about four years, according to 13-year post member John Peterson. He served as post commander for three years until Brent Friar took the reins in May.
A PROUD HISTORY
John Peterson pointed to the large and loyal membership throughout the post’s history.
"We’ve got 102 members out of a community of 300. Most members are from around here, but we have members from coast to coast," he said. "Vermillion has Post 1 because they were the first post established in South Dakota, and we’re Number 13. We’re one of the oldest posts in the state and definitely among the largest posts in rural communities. This is a local, tight-knit group, and we do quite a bit for the community."
The Legion Hall serves as a community center, hosting a number of gatherings throughout the year. In turn, the community and surrounding area showed its support when fire destroyed the Legion Hall in 2006.
"We rebuilt a new one strictly with community funds. We tore down what was left of the burned down building and rebuilt on the same spot," John said. "About a year later, we had the new Legion Hall ready. We were able to hold our annual steak feed on the opening day of pheasant season (in October 2007)."
However, the post isn’t defined by its building, John said. He noted the proud tradition of service during the past century.
"Our oldest member is Gene Dwyer, who is a Pearl Harbor survivor. He is our last World War II survivor. We have checked and we consider him to be the oldest World War II survivor in South Dakota," John said.
"Every Memorial Day for the last three or four years, we’ve been handing out 50-year certificates to long-standing members. Just about every family has gotten someone who has been in a war or who has served (in the military)."
During Saturday’s celebration, Kenny Peterson will know he has seen most of the post’s history
He entered the Army heavy artillery unit Nov. 1, 1950, during the early months of the Korean War.
"I went to school for six weeks to become a heavy artillery mechanic. We loaded the train, thinking we were headed for San Francisco," he said. "Twelve hours before we headed out, we got the order to change the APO to New York because we were headed to Germany. They thought the action would be in Germany. I spent 22 of the next 24 months in Germany."
Kenny thinks the quick change in orders came because military leaders believed Germany would be the hot spot, not Korea, due to the tensions with the Soviet Union over the Berlin blockade and airlift.
Dwyer’s history goes back further. He entered the military service in 1939 and was stationed at Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor Dec. 7, 1941.
"Up until two or three years ago, I really didn’t get a word out of my brother-in-law (about his war service)," Kenny said. "He finally opened up, and now we talk about it."
Kenny pointed to the military history in his family. The tradition dates back to World War I, including his father. The elder Peterson was initially stationed in Cuba but later was serving in Paris when the war ended.
"My father, my brothers and I have all been Legion post commanders. Our family has served in the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines," Kenny said. "My family has had 13 members in the service. I have had four grandsons in the Air Guard, and my granddaughter is married to a man who has been in the service for 19 years."
While Ole won’t be riding in Saturday’s parade, Kenny will hold a special memory of him.
"I went to the Sioux Falls VA for an appointment. Then, I went over and talked to my brother who was in the (Avera McKennan) hospital," Kenny said. "I talked to him a half-hour before he passed away. I was glad to see him one last time."
Those types of bonds have defined the Wakonda post and will continue to do so, John Peterson said.
"We have been one of the most active posts in eastern South Dakota," he said. "We’ve been planning this anniversary for a while, and we’re really looking forward to it."
For more information on the parade or other details, contact John Peterson at (605) 660-5821.
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