Catholic Herald staff
Writer’s note: The Superior Catholic Herald is grateful to Jim Richie and his son Gary Richie for submitting an account of Walt Zimmer’s World War II service. The article focused on Zimmer’s friendship with Fr. Anselm Keefe and was an invaluable research tool.
In Walt Zimmer’s 95 years, he has served his country, community, family and parish. A longtime parishioner at St. Joseph, Rice Lake, the World War II veteran agreed to share his story – despite that, in his mind, it’s not all that interesting.
“I’ve never done anything great in my life,” he said.
Some would disagree.
Born in 1919, Zimmer was the oldest of 11 children. His father was a baker, and the family lived on farms around Rice Lake while he and his siblings were growing up. It was the Great Depression, but Zimmer said the family’s root cellar was always stocked, unlike city kids whose parents couldn’t raise their own food.
“We never felt anything,” he said. “We had meat and potatoes.”
In his youth, Zimmer helped out on farms, where he earned room and board and learned about cattle, horses, crops and more. One farmer was Catholic, and Zimmer, who was raised Baptist, went to church with him.
“I kind of liked it, so I joined,” he said.
Service to country
When he was about 16, Zimmer worked in a blacksmith shop, shoeing horses and fixing wagons, before he left to help with the harvest in the Dakotas. There, he saved up a few hundred dollars to pay for welding school in the Twin Cities; when he ran out of money, his grandmother gave him enough to finish classes.
Zimmer passed a test to get a job with Northern Pump, a Minneapolis company that was making industrial parts for the military, but the company never called. Zimmer and a friend decided to sign up for the Army.
As it happened, the friend didn’t get in – his teeth were too bad – but Zimmer did. So, in the spring of 1941, he went to Camp Shelby in Mississippi, where they sent him to nursing school.
Zimmer hadn’t finished seventh grade – he was needed on the farm and didn’t have time for his studies – and he still remembers his first reaction.
“I was so darn mad,” he said. “If you could’ve quit, I would’ve quit and gone home.”
Zimmer made it through the program, but their training was cut short when the war began Dec. 7. That month, he and his fellow soldiers boarded a ship in the Boston Harbor, destination unknown.
Keeping soldiers healthy
The 135th Medical Group arrived 37 days later in Brisbane, Australia, where they unloaded the ships before traveling on to Darwin, in the Northern Territories.
The Japanese were expected to attack there, and Zimmer and the other medics set up a hospital in preparation.
But, there was no major invasion – the Japanese ships were thwarted en route by the U.S. Air Force and Navy.
“A few boats drifted in,” he said, but they didn’t cause any problems.
So, the company boarded a hospital ship and set off for New Guinea, which was thick with jungle, Japanese soldiers and tropical diseases.
Zimmer’s company arrived in Hollandia and set up a temporary hospital, a process they would repeat three more times as they moved closer to combat. They also built a hospital, kitchen and recreation area – a place for soldiers to relax.
Malaria and jungle rot, a toe fungus, were persistent problems, and Zimmer estimates 60 percent of his company was afflicted with the mosquito-borne disease.
“We served quite a few people … that had malaria in our hospital,” Zimmer said.
A Catholic priest and biologist, Fr. Anselm Keefe, was the company’s chaplain. Fr. Keefe had doctorates in biology and philosophy, and he was a professor at St. Norbert College, De Pere.
Zimmer, who’d been a member of Fr. Keefe’s confirmation class in Mississippi, greatly admired the priest, whom he called “a very unusual person.”
Fr. Keefe collected insects, snakes and other specimens to send back to the college, and he encouraged soldiers to wear long sleeves and leggings to ward off mosquito bites and snakebites. He also suggested they sleep with chameleons under their mosquito netting for additional protection.
One morning, a snake wrapped itself around the motor of a Jeep, and the soldiers didn’t know what to do. They called Fr. Keefe.
“Don’t kill him – that’s a good snake,” Fr. Keefe said.
Zimmer still chuckles at the memory of him chloroforming the snake, which the soldiers hauled into the jungle. Straightened out, the reptile was 11 feet long.
“He was crazy, I tell you,” Zimmer laughingly said of the priest.
Taking care of the wounded
Zimmer’s unit packed up again, this time headed to an invasion in the Philippines. He was serving under General Douglas MacArthur.
“That’s where we did quite a bit of medical work we were trained to do,” he said.
A member of the field hospital surgery team, Zimmer’s job was to collect the wounded and take them back to aid stations near the battle site. The worst cases were flown to hospitals in Australia; soldiers with very serious injuries were loaded onto hospital ships and also taken to Australia. Those with more manageable injuries were treated locally.
Zimmer still remembers how the airplanes only landed long enough to receive patients before taking off again; this was a war zone, and pilots feared attracting attention from bombers.
On Dec. 26, 1944, Zimmer boarded a ship, a peacetime passenger liner, bound for home. There, he worked with patients in the one-room mental ward. They were unpredictable, he recalls. One man escaped the secure room and jumped overboard, only to cry for help once in the water. He was rescued by motorboat.
“Some were happy,” he said. “Some were vicious. They’d do everything they could to overtake you.”
The trip home took 21 days; the soldiers disembarked on Angel Island, near San Francisco, for delousing. They stayed there a few days to be cleaned up – let’s just say they spent some time under the showerhead and then it was haircuts, new clothes – and Zimmer traveled on to Fort Lewis in Washington.
There, he took on a few new occupations – moving patients to hospitals nearer their families, hauling Army prisoners closer to their homes and returning to welding school to train as an instructor.
Girl next door becomes bride
Zimmer returned to Rice Lake on a 10-day leave in May 1945, long enough for him to marry the girl next door, Genevieve, and take her back to Washington. In Vancouver, Washington, she worked in a shipyard cafeteria.
“She wasn’t Rosie the Riveter,” he said with a grin.
Several months later, they were on their way back to Rice Lake. Housing was scarce post-World War II, with all the soldiers coming home, and the couple initially moved in with Zimmer’s parents. They later put down roots on Slocumb Street, building a $2,000 house on a $300 lot.
As the family expanded to include three sons – Doug, Dan and David – the couple added onto their house, and Zimmer worked a variety of welding and management jobs locally and in the Twin Cities. He retired in 1981 and took a maintenance job with St. Joseph Parish and school, where he worked for another 30 years.
Visitors to his home will notice children’s art hanging on his walls and doors. All were gifts from St. Joseph students.
“I just love them little people,” he said.
The Zimmers were married 67 years before Genevieve passed away in 2013 at the age of 93.
“This is my bride,” Zimmer said, gesturing to the memorial picture on the kitchen table. No one could fail to see the love and pride in his eyes.