WWII veteran in Richland shares memories

Geoff Folsom, Tri-City HeraldMay 24, 2014 

Phil Kraemer

World War Two veteran Phil Kraemer of Richland holds open The Deadeyes: The Story of the 96th Infantry Division as he sits in his kitchen, at left are numerous medals and awards he was awarded including a silver star. Kraemer served with the United States Army in the 96th Infantry Division from 1944-1945 and fought in battles on the islands of Yap, Leyte and Okinawa.

SARAH GORDON

A Richland man who wasn't even supposed to serve in World War II instead came home with a Silver Star, the nation's third-highest military honor.

Phil Kraemer, 91, got his draft notice in 1943 and reported to Spokane from his home in Pomeroy. Because of a childhood eye problem, he was told he could either be sent home and classified 4-F or given limited duty on stateside jobs considered non-hazardous.

Kraemer wanted to serve any way he could.

After basic training, he was sent to a special training program at Bradley University in Illinois, where he took classes with the hope of getting credit for an engineering degree.

But the Army canceled the program in March 1944. Kraemer's entire group was sent to the 96th Infantry Division in Medford, Ore., where they became riflemen. After amphibious training, the division was sent in October to the South Pacific.

"That probably was the last time I had any evidence that I was in limited service," he said.

He was part of a 13-man patrol which made its way for nine days through jungles and mountains in Japanese-held territory on Leyte Island in the Philippines, accompanied by three Filipino guides. One man was killed and another wounded fighting off a Japanese battalion. All survivors were hospitalized, 11 of them with dengue fever.

"We were all pretty hungry," Kraemer said. "We only brought enough food for four days."

He spent a month in the hospital -- the first of three hospital stays -- but was back in action when the United States invaded Okinawa on April 1, 1945.

Kraemer doesn't like talking about the incident on Okinawa that earned him the Silver Star, but it likely saved the lives of several of his fellow soldiers. After being charged by the Japanese on the fourth day of the battle, he threw a grenade into a bunker, taking several enemy soldiers out of commission. The explosion also caused serious shrapnel injuries to both of Kraemer's legs and both arms.

"The grenade blasted practically under my feet," he said. "At that point I felt that it might be the end. The only thing that bothered me was the effect it would have on my mom and dad."

Kraemer was sent to Guam, where he was hospitalized for six weeks, he said. He then returned to his company in Okinawa, where the battle was still raging and Allied forces were preparing to take the last part of the island.

He was injured yet again when a bullet ricocheted into his knee. He spent a couple of weeks in a tent hospital on the beach. A man a few beds over was killed by ammunition falling from the sky, shot from ships offshore defending themselves against Japanese Kamikaze pilots.

Okinawa was secure by the time Kraemer returned to his unit. They were headed back to the Philippines in August to train for an invasion of the Japanese mainland when atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

"By the time we reached the Philippines, the Japanese had surrendered, and our mission had changed," he said.

Kraemer was discharged at Fort Lewis on Christmas Eve 1945, collecting the Silver Star, a Bronze Star and several Purple Hearts on the way out. He reunited with his family the next day.

He took his year of college credit and entered Washington State University, where he graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering in 1949. That was two years after he married his wife, Florence, who has been with him ever since.

Kraemer moved to the Mid-Columbia when he took a job with the Benton County Engineer in Prosser. He moved to Richland in 1952. He started working for General Electric at Hanford for $300 a month. He later worked for Exxon Nuclear, now Areva, retiring in 1989.

The Kraemers have six children, 13 grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren. They have lived in the same house not far from Kadlec Regional Medical Center for 50 years, remodeling the former duplex into a single-family home.

"I'm very proud," said Marlene Meeks, the Kraemers' youngest daughter. "He was a hard worker."

For more than 40 years, all guests have been required to have their picture taken in front of the distinctive brown and beige flowery wallpaper in the kitchen. They have one photo album full of hundreds of pictures of people in front of the wall, and are working on another.

The ritual originally began because visitors to the home typically congregated in the kitchen, where Florence Kraemer, who picked out the wallpaper, liked to take pictures. Fred Meeks, the Kraemers' son-in-law, said they soon noticed that many of the photos had the wallpaper in the background.

They then decided to make sure all visitors pose in front of the wallpaper.

"It is outdated, but it's kind of a fun and cool story," Fred Meeks said.

They still love to garden. But don't expect to see the Kraemers at any Memorial Day events today . Phil Kraemer usually stays home on the holiday, reflecting on his own.

"That's just my nature, I don't think any less of them for doing it," he said of those who attend parades or other events.

He will talk with his children and grandchildren about his time in the war, but only if they ask.

"They are curious people and they initiate it," he said.

Most of the men Kraemer served with came from the Southeast, so he wasn't able to keep in contact in the years after the war. He did attend one reunion of his division years ago in Spokane, but had trouble relating to the veterans there.

"They weren't the guys I served with," Kraemer said.

Kraemer was just doing his job in the Pacific, he said.

"I didn't hear complaining," he said. "I would absolutely never complain after the war that they stuck me into infantry. I was just proud that I could do it because they wanted to send me home 4-F."

-- Geoff Folsom: 509-582-1543; gfolsom@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @GeoffFolsom

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