Down to the Last Men

Even in 1998, the numbers of the South St. Paul VFW Post 295 Last Man’s Club were dwindling. (submitted photo)
Ken Lawrence
Ken Lawrence
Jim Murr
Jim Murr
Ken Lawrence, left, was one of five brothers who all served during World War II. (submitted photo)
Ken Lawrence, left, was one of five brothers who all served during World War II. (submitted photo)
The last meeting took place in 2012 with only five of the original 148 members: Jim Murr, Ken Lawrence, Bob Hansen, Walt Hohmeister and Glen Anderson. (submitted photo)
The last meeting took place in 2012 with only five of the original 148 members: Jim Murr, Ken Lawrence, Bob Hansen, Walt Hohmeister and Glen Anderson. (submitted photo)
Jim Murr is seated on the right. (submitted photo)
Jim Murr is seated on the right. (submitted photo)

South St. Paul’s WWII Last Man’s Club is down to three

Running his finger down the list, Ken Lawrence reminisces about the names he reads. 

As chaplain of South St. Paul VFW Post 295’s World War II Last Man’s Club, Lawrence has read over the names on that list countless times.

“You look down the roster, and it brings back memories of most everyone. That’s where we live, in our memories now, anyhow,” Lawrence says. 

Of the 148 members who signed up for the group back in 1969, there are only three left. Lawrence, Jim Murr and Walt Hohmeister are the last men of the Last Man’s Club. 

Inspired by others

Lawrence says many of the World War II veterans from South St. Paul who returned home joined Post 295. At the time, it was the third largest VFW post in the state, with more than 1,000 members. 

“It was a very active post,” Lawrence says. “To this day, it’s a very active post.”

Before the creation of the World War II club, Post 295 already had a Last Man’s Club made up of World War I vets. Lawrence says World War II vets heard stories of the existing group and of how impressive it was.

The World War I group disbanded when there were four members left — some older than 100.

“They were too old to split the spoils,” Lawrence says.

The “spoils” for the WWII Last Man’s Club is a bottle of alcohol held in an artillery shell — Lawrence says the bottle is a hodgepodge of hootches from the U.S., France and beyond.

The last man left in the group is the one who gets to crack the bottle open and raise a toast all the other guys, who are no longer around.

Starting their own legacy

The World War II Last Man’s Club was started as a way to keep everyone together.

The South St. Paul club had open membership for about a year. Come September 1969, membership was closed and the club counted 148 veterans as its members.

“From there on, a lot of guys who didn’t join saw how nice it was and they wanted to join. But that was it. It was a closed group,” Lawrence says with a chuckle. “We were exclusive.”

Lawrence says it was surprising how many men wanted to sign up after the cutoff date — only one of them was able to beat the deadline.

Jim Murr was the last man in the Last Man’s Club. 

“The day after the closing date, I ran into the fellow who was collecting the money and told him he better backdate me,” Murr says with a laugh, adding he joined the club because it seemed like the thing to do.

‘It was a fellowship type thing’

In the club’s heyday, annual meetings were held, signaled by a letter sent out by the club secretary.

“We met every fall, just before hunting season because most of the guys were hunters or fishers,” Lawrence says.

The purpose of the meetings was simple: To keep up acquaintances and to check in on each other. 

When RSVPing, members sent in money that covered the cost of the meal at the meeting, with whatever was left going towards covering other club costs.

Lawrence says that while each annual meeting was a gathering of veterans, the war rarely came up.

“It was just a camaraderie where we checked in on each other and what we did over the year,” Lawrence says. “It was a fellowship type of thing.”

Murr says the group was a nice mix of people who all served in the military during World War II. He echoes Lawrence in saying that the club members did not spend a lot of time talking about their combat experiences. 

Lawrence says he was the permanent chaplain for the group, a spot he landed because nobody else seemed to want it.

His job at the annual meetings was to give the invocation and to read the names of members who died since the previous year’s meeting.

A family of service

Lawrence was one of five brothers who served during the war. His brother closest in age to him was one of the first guys to join the military out of South St. Paul before the war started. Two of his brothers joined the U.S. Army while another went with the U.S. Navy. Lawrence says he had a choice in 1942 when he was drafted.

“When my number come up and they drew my number, instead of going Army I decided I wanted three square meals a day and a nice place to sleep, so I joined the Navy.” he says.

During his service, Lawrence spent most of his time in the Pacific Theater. He was on a ship that spent a year and half in the Pacific, and near the end of the war, he was on a ship close enough to Japan to see the shoreline, when one of its engines broke down. As the ship turned around to head back to Guam, the atomic bomb was dropped.

“The war was over, so I had enough points — I was married and had a child — to be discharged,” Lawrence says.

He was discharged in September of 1945 and joined VFW Post 295 in 1947.

Wanting to do his part

Murr says he joined the Air Force in 1944.

“There was a war going on and everybody else was gone and I was left with all these beautiful women and no help so I had to get out of town,” Murr says with a chuckle, adding, more seriously, that he was known for lending a helping hand to widows and orphans.

Murr volunteered twice for the armed forces before they took him — he was originally turned down for supposedly having heart problems. 

By pulling some strings, Murr was retested, which he says wasn’t typically done, only to find out there were no problems.

“The same doctor examined me and he apologized. He said, ‘You’re nine months late kid. Let’s go,’” Murr says.

Normally, to be a member of the VFW, one must have served in a foreign war and served outside the country — Murr jokes that he never left the Americas.

“I served in North America, Central America and South America,” he says.

Murr left the service on March 7, 1946. He served for two years and one day.

After the war, Murr says everybody was looking for new friendships and things to do, and the VFW seemed like a great group, where everyone had a lot in common. He’s been a member for the past 50 years. 

The end of an era

The last meeting of the Last Man’s club was held in 2012. Murr, Lawrence, Walt Hohmeister, Bob Hansen and Glen Anderson were the final five members.

Hansen, who was the past commander of Post 295, died last year. Anderson died in January 2016.

Lawrence is turning 96-years-old in July, and Murr will be 92 this year. Lawrence says the youngest of the group is Hohmeister, at age 89.

“With his age,” Lawrence says, “he’s probably going to be the last man and claim the bottle.” 

Lawrence says everyone in the group wanted to stay in touch, even as the numbers dwindled.

However, Murr says, as members got older it became more difficult for everyone to make it to the meetings.

Both Murr and Lawrence recognize the uniqueness of the group they represent.

“All the vets are comrades, but the last men were special,” Lawrence says. 

Hannah Burlingame can be reached at 651-748-7824 or hburlingame@lillienews.com.

 

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