by Dennis Dalman
Even though he still has vivid memories of men – including four friends – being killed all around him, Rollie Weis of Sartell is very proud and happy to have served his country during World War II.
Soon to be 93, on New Year’s Day, Weis is the oldest resident of Sartell and one of the dwindling number of survivors of World War II.
Weis talked about some of his memories in two question-answer sessions at Sartell Middle School on Veterans Day, Nov. 10. It was during the annual “Honor a Veteran Day” the school hosts, which includes veterans sitting down to lunch with students. Weis was the honored guest speaker.
Later, during an interview with the Sartell-St. Stephen Newsleader, Weis said he has always thought too many people are not aware of World War II, the sacrifices made by soldiers and their families back on the home front and the importance of that war in establishing peace, freedom and stability for the entire world.
Young people especially, Weis said, seem to have only the vaguest notions of World War II and other wars.
“We’ve been lax in recognizing that,” he said. “The World War II monument in Washington, D.C. should have been built many, many years ago to recognize all who made sacrifices in that war. So many died. Others who sacrificed were the families of the men and women who were away from home for so long – fighting in the war.”
And Weis knows first-hand about the sacrifices of the folks back home. His brother, Phillip, was killed in the country of Luxembourg during the Battle of the Bulge in Europe toward the end of World War II. Weis and his parents, Phil and Hazel, had no idea for many months what happened to Phillip, whether he was alive or dead or captured. All they knew for 10 months is that he was listed as missing – somewhere.
“Back then we didn’t have cell phones or other instant ways to communicate, so we just didn’t know about Phillip, and most of the time my folks didn’t know where I was, either,” Weis said. “I was in the Navy, serving on a destroyer in the Pacific Ocean, one end to the other. So I had no idea where Phillip was either.”
The dreaded news finally arrived one day, months after Phillip’s death, and his family, of course, was devastated.
Phillip was Weis’s only biological brother, his older brother, though he had two older step-brothers.
While both sons were away at war, their father, Phil, worked as the Sartell Postmaster, with help from wife Hazel. They’d moved to Sartell from St. Cloud in 1933 when it was just a village of 400 people. Rollie had been born in 1925 in Clear Lake. In the early days of Sartell, long before it had its own high school, young students had to bus to St. Cloud for school – either to Cathedral or Tech. The Weis brothers attended Tech, and Rollie graduated in 1942. That is where he met and fell in love with the young woman he would marry – Janette Almer of St. Cloud.
Two months after graduation, Weis was drafted into the U.S. Navy, one year after brother Phillip enlisted in the U.S. Army.
On a furlough from the Navy in 1944, Rollie married Janette but had to return to duty in the South Pacific soon afterward. Meantime, Janette taught fourth grade at Sartell Elementary School, all the while anxiously awaiting her husband’s return from the war. Finally, after the war, after the defeat of Germany and then Japan, Weis returned home where he and Janette happily began raising their family of two daughters – Sandy and Susan. Weis built a home on Sartell Street but later had another one built along the Watab Creek, at the very place he, his brother and friends used to play when they were boys. To this day, Weis lives in that same house with his daughter, Susan Primus. Sadly, his other daughter, Sandy Weis-Freier, died last year, age 69, just two weeks before her mother died. Janette, who was 93 when she died May 28, 2016, was known for her lively conversation, her kindness, her love of family and her mischievous humor and wit.
The Weises have three grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.
After the war, Weis worked for a time at the Sartell paper mill, then for many years as a printer in the St. Cloud area and, still later, he taught printing for years at what was then known as the St. Cloud Reformatory (now the Minnesota Correctional Facility – St. Cloud). Still later, after retirement, Weis worked for 25 years at the Daniel Funeral Home in Sauk Rapids.
In a long conversation, Weis shared some of his memories in a January 2016 interview with the Newsleader. One of his favorite memories, although it is also sad, concerns brother Phillip.
Phillip Weis, 20, was killed while fighting the Nazis in the Ardennes forest in Luxembourg, a small country nestled between France, Belgium and Germany. His body was buried in Luxembourg.
That long-grim offensive known as the Battle of the Bulge, followed the Allied invasion from England into France (D-Day). Allied soldiers, led by Americans, pushed toward Germany, forcing Nazi soldiers back into their country, eventually leading to dictator Hitler’s and his country’s utter ruin and collapse in spring 1945.
In an extraordinary coincidence, 35 years after Phillip’s death, a man and woman walking in the forest, looking for war artifacts, found a military dog tag on the ground in the heavily wooded area. The dog tag was Phillip’s, one of a set of two he was wearing when he was killed. The other had been found right after the military had discovered his body in 1945.
The couple who found the dog tag did some research, discovering the cemetery in which Phillip had been buried. The Weises in Sartell were contacted and were astonished by the coincidence, especially when they learned that Philip died within just three miles south of the very home from which Phillip’s great-grandfather had emigrated to America in 1871. Phillip had been aware of his Luxembourg ancestors but had no idea, before an enemy shot him, he would die just three miles from that ancestral home. Weis descendants still live in that small home. Three times, Rollie and Janette visited that area and the cemetery where Philip is buried.
The DeZurik valve plant in Sartell also reminds Rollie of his brother, Phillip. One of Phillips’ last letters to his parents contained a paragraph about how, one day with his G.I. buddies, Phillip pointed to a battle tank and said, “See that part on that tank? I helped make that kind of part when I worked at a place called DeZurik in my home town of Sartell, Minnesota.”
“Small world,” Rollie remarked after sharing that anecdote.
War is hell
From the age of 19 to 20, Weis served on the U.S.S. Hopewell, a destroyer roaming the South Pacific during the war against the Japanese who had entrenched themselves in so many islands there. The names of those islands are still used sometimes as synonyms for “bloodbaths” – Guam, Corregidor, Guadalcanal, Iwo Jima.
Weis was at most of them, off-shore, as the Hopewell pounded the islands with artillery shells, softening up the Japanese defenses to allow American troops to fight on the islands. Weis was one of 300 men on the ship. Ten of them, including four buddies of Weis, died during various attacks by Japanese lobbing shells at the ship.
“War is hell,” Weis said. “Destroyers, like the one I was on, were very vulnerable targets. We saw a lot of war, especially in the Philippines. It was terrible.”
At one time, Weis spent 54 straight hours in a battle station as the destroyer fired five-inch shells ashore, and the Japanese returned shell fire. He was so busy he didn’t have time to be very scared.
“That’s something that hits you later,” he recalled.
In 2015, Weis was honored at a ceremony for his 70 years of membership in the American Legion of Sartell.
He joined it shortly after his marriage in 1945. Since then, he has served as post commander and in just about every conceivable capacity, including helping to raise funds for many good local causes. He has also participated in scores of Memorial Day and Veterans Day ceremonies, as well as parades.
Of the 16 million Americans who served during World War II, only about 600,000 of them are still living, according to the Veterans Administration. Weis is proud to be one of them, part of what newsman Tom Brokaw called “The Greatest Generation.”
In recent years, Weis has slowed down some. Most days, he’ll have a beer or two at Bubba’s in Sauk Rapids or stop for one at Winners’ Bar in Sartell. He still reads two newspapers every day.
“I like to stay informed,” he said, noting staying connected to the world at large helps people live longer.
“I eat well, have my couple of beers and get plenty of sleep,” he said. “My health is good. I get a check-up every three months.
As for any plans for the future, Weis commented:
“Stayin’ alive,” he said with a chuckle. “I feel pretty good.”
Author: Dennis Dalman
Dalman was born and raised in South St. Cloud, graduated from St. Cloud Tech High School, then graduated from St. Cloud State University with a degree in English (emphasis on American and British literature) and mass communications (emphasis on print journalism). He studied in London, England for a year (1980-81) where he concentrated on British literature, political science, the history of Great Britain and wrote a book-length study of the British writer V.S. Naipaul. Dalman has been a reporter and weekly columnist for more than 30 years and worked for 16 of those years for the Alexandria Echo Press.