VETERANS DAY: Joe says goodbye. World War II veteran Joe Lausche dies at 101

BEMIDJI -- He never forgot how to shake hands, just how to let go. Joe Lausche would hold a hand for five seconds and then a minute, as if believing the coolness of his wrinkled blue grip could conjure ice, freezing people in their shoes. Alice H...

Joe Lausche talks about his service during World War II at Neilson Place in Bemidji on Oct. 15, less than a week before he died at 101. One of Joe's closest friends, Alice Hickey, said he was excited to see his name in print, and to have his photo taken. (Jillian Gandsey | Bemidji Pioneer)

BEMIDJI -- He never forgot how to shake hands, just how to let go.

Joe Lausche would hold a hand for five seconds and then a minute, as if believing the coolness of his wrinkled blue grip could conjure ice, freezing people in their shoes.

Alice Hickey, Joe’s friend, would say so-and-so needs to go now, and Joe would release the hand and let Alice wheel him back to his room, or to the TV by the kitchen, where a man who couldn’t believe his luck climbed all over a new car on “The Price Is Right.”

At Neilson Place, a Bemidji retirement home, there’s an empty seat at the dinner table, and the church choir is missing a voice.

“It’s quiet,” Alice said, without Joe.


“You know everyone is going to pass,” she said, “but it never felt like Joe was going to leave us.”

Perhaps Joe didn’t like saying goodbye, because he had said it so much.

That’s what happens when you live to 101, you outlive.

Two wives. Six brothers and sisters. A grandson.

The majority of a generation credited with saving the world. A body.

Joe complained about how hard it was to make a bowel movement. He could walk, but it had been a while, because someone would need to lift him out of his wheelchair. He could only hear you if you leaned within an inch or two of his ear, shouting.

Joe thought a lot, sometimes about his tan safari hat. How much, he wondered, was it worth? Probably, if he found the right buyer, a million dollars. He said he didn’t think much about the war.

At dinner, Alice said, he would still try starting a conversation with the guys across from him, though Joe knew their hearing was worse than his. “Who’s that?” Joe would ask whenever he saw a woman in a dress or a skirt. And at the weekly Mass at Neilson Place, he would sing out the words to “Softly and Tenderly” or “Here I Am, Lord,” usually getting them wrong.


A war Most men were 20 or so when they were drafted into the Army in the months after Pearl Harbor. Lausche was 27.

After basic training in Fort Bliss, Texas, a motor sergeant asked the men who could drive. Lausche, who owned a 1941 Chevy back home in Pennington, Minn., raised his hand.

The war raged on across the ocean while Lausche stayed in Texas, driving around high-ranking officers and fixing carburetors on jeeps with his oily hands.

On furloughs, he went back home.

At a tavern called the Bee Hive, on a Saturday night with the jukebox playing, Lausche met a pretty girl named Elizabeth. About six months later, on Lausche’s next furlough, they married.

The wedding bells still chimed in their ears when Joe Lausche looked up at the New York City skyscrapers in the fall of 1944, depressed.

His boat for Le Havre, France, took off in a few days, and after that, trucks were waiting to take Lausche and others to the front, a 100-mile drive toward death.

Lausche earned a Bronze Star -- denoting heroic service in a combat zone -- without squeezing the trigger of his rifle. He camped out in villages about 30 miles from the front, hauling supplies and ammunition to the infantrymen, ducking enemy fire as he spun the steering wheel.


That winter, during a German offensive called the Battle of the Bulge, Lausche carried another soldier and a load of ammunition toward the echoing gunfire.

About halfway to the front, a German soldier climbed out from the top of a tank, locking his machine gun on the little jeep. Tracers whizzed over the hood, the bullets going by, Lausche said, “by the hundreds.”

He would have died there, he said, had allies not lobbed a shell at the tank, scaring the machine-gunner back inside. “That’s what saved me,” he said.

Lausche died on Oct. 21.

A week before, he sat in the Neilson Place activity room, reciting stories nearly 70 years old, things that happened when he had dark hair and clear eyes, things that happened, it might have seemed to him, to a stranger.

I had asked him at his Sept. 29 birthday party if he would talk to me about his time in the service.

Yes, he said, holding my hand and seeing no reason to let go, ignoring the cake on his plate like a pile of brussels sprouts.

A portrait Joe’s sagging chin, his ghost-white hair and his bright eyes were features fit for a portrait of the World War II soldier, a group dissolving more and more every day into the past.


Of the 16 million Americans who fought in the war, fewer than 900,000 are living -- 19,000 of those in Minnesota, many living just like Joe did, in retirement communities, having two eggs and oatmeal every morning, having a hard time in the bathroom.

Joe Lausche was among the oldest World War II veterans in the country when he was admitted to Sanford Bemidji Medical Center in mid-October, bleeding and with a blood pressure of 60/48.

His daughter Beverly was there, with a scar under her chin from when she fell off her tricycle.

His friend Alice was there, making the sign of the cross as she always did with Joe, who tried to lift his hand out from under the blanket, too groggy to complete the sign.

Joe felt himself slipping in his last year.

“I feel like I’m 101,” he said. “The days go by pretty slow.”

Joe wrote everything down.

He finished a homemade book about his life in 1998, not knowing he would live another 17 years.


The chapters follow Joe’s childhood, playing baseball with his friends by the Mississippi River, fishing foul balls out of the water. They tell of the night Joe met Elizabeth, and the day she died of cancer in the summer of 1958, leaving Joe with their three young kids.

Eventually, he went dancing again.

In 1985, when Joe was 70, he married Katherine -- “a beauty,” he said, who died in 2007.

Joe moved to Neilson Place in 2008, the same year as Alice’s husband Mike, just down the hall.

Alice comes by every day to help her husband with lunch. She waited on Joe, too, baking him brownies and cookies, planning his birthdays and lending ears to hear his stories.

He worked 31 years for the Chippewa National Forest, planting trees. When Neilson Place tried to chop down a skinny pine that stood out on the lawn, Joe threatened to chain himself to it.

The tree still stands.

In his last year, Alice said Joe became impatient, frustrated by his failing ears and eyes.


At night, he struggled to sleep, asking aides for Southern Comfort -- “a shot and a half,” he said -- to turn thoughts into dreams. They poured him a glass, with something extra.

Joe didn’t drink like before. Maybe he couldn’t.

Not like the day he liked to talk about, when his company found a distillery in a small Belgian town, Joe gulping down champagne until he no longer felt at war.

His bedtime glasses of Southern Comfort had bubbles, too.

From the 7 Up.

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