Local World War II veteran Gerald Wraa celebrates 100th birthday
Gerald Wraa enlisted in the Navy when he was 19. He served four years during World War II, including three in combat in the North Atlantic, North Africa and the South Pacific.
BEMIDJI — World War II veteran Gerald H. Wraa celebrated his 100th birthday this month. He has lost his eyesight and his ability to live in the home he built many years ago in the woods near Leonard. But he certainly has not lost his sense of humor.
With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine sparking talk of a potential third world war, Gerald has a message for folks.
“If it happened I can assure you there would be two people that wouldn’t go,” he said. “Me and the dumb fool that came after me.”
That’s because he’s done his time, starting as a 19-year-old in 1942 when he enlisted in the U.S. Navy and continuing until 1946 after three years of combat in the North Atlantic, North Africa and the South Pacific.
“We were going to get drafted anyway,” Wraa said during an interview in his room at Neilson Place in Bemidji. “So I signed up.”
He reported to Great Lakes Naval Base for training.
“Boot camp, they call it,” he said. “Mostly it was a funny haircut and funnier clothes. Lots of needles and instructions on how to stay alive when you're getting shot at.”
That training came in handy as Wraa and his shipmates on the USS Charles Ausburne took on enemy fire. Gerald received a purple heart for injuries and a presidential citation for "extraordinary heroism in action against enemy Japanese forces during the Solomon Islands Campaign."
Part of that campaign took place on Nov. 25, 1943, at Cape St. George, when a force of five U.S. Navy destroyers intercepted a Japanese force. In the ensuing fight, three Japanese destroyers were sunk and one was damaged, with no losses among the U.S. forces.
“By the time morning came there was nothing left of the Japanese and we were still all OK,” Wraa said. “It was the perfect battle.”
Growing up in the Northland
Gerald was born on March 11, 1922, in Windsor Township, about five miles north of Gonvick, Minn. At age 16, he joined the Civilian Conservation Corps at Pike Bay south of Cass Lake.
After the war, he married Edna Davis and the couple had three sons, Jerry, Joel and Steve. For 70 years Gerald and Edna lived in their home near Leonard. They moved to Clearbrook, where Edna, 91, still resides. They have seven grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren.
For Gerald, living in the Northwoods was therapeutic after his experiences in battle. For a time after the war, he said, “I walked around in a daze," he said. "I don’t think you can put the war out of your mind. It’s an education, you know. Heavy-duty education stays with you.”
He worked as a farmer, logger and ironworker. Eventually, he wanted to learn a trade but didn’t have the time or money to go to school. He longed to become a concrete finisher.
“So he asked the Lord to teach him,” said Gerald’s daughter-in-law, Lana. “He just became a natural.” He got to be so skilled at his trade that he moved up the ranks quickly.
“I’d be on a job and it wasn’t long before I was managing it,” Gerald said.
He had a couple of celebrations for his 100th birthday. One was at Neilson Place and the other was at the Clearbrook American Legion, where he has been a longtime member.
He hopes to return to Leonard this summer when the town celebrates its own 100th year. Organizers of the event have asked Gerald to be the grand marshal of a parade that will be part of the centennial celebration.
“Well, I have a vacation coming up,” Wraa said with a chuckle. That sense of humor is very much still alive.
Below is a video of a 2015 interview David Quam did with Gerald H. Wraa.