At the annual Elks dinner or at Forest Grove High School, WWII veterans continue to serve

by: NEWS-TIMES PHOTO / CHASE ALLGOOD -  John Fellas, who's at home in the kitchen at the Forest Grove Elks Lodge, will cook up another meal Sunday for the annual Veterans Day dinner, which serves about 200 vets and their family members.John Fellas learned to cook in his mother’s kitchen at his childhood home in Buxton, just north of Forest Grove. During his long life, he’s lent his culinary talents to brawny men working in Alaskan logging camps and to wide-eyed Hillsboro teenagers riding a 4-H wagon train toward Warm Springs.

He toiled in a kitchen seven days a week during the decade he owned Staley’s Restaurant at the Highway 26-Vernonia junction, where he and his staff would bake 25 pies each morning before preparing popular dishes for their regular customers. “We made fruit pies and cream pies,” Fellas recalled. “We attracted people from Seaside and Astoria, mainly.”

But his most meaningful cooking assignment rolls around each Nov. 11, when Fellas creates a hearty Veterans Day meal for military men and women gathered in the dining hall at the Forest Grove Elks Lodge.

On Sunday, he’s expecting more than 200 veterans and their family members to jam the lodge’s cavernous dining hall around 1 p.m. His menu won’t disappoint.

“We’re having pork loin, green beans, stuffing, coleslaw and Jell-O,” said the white-haired, 89-year-old Army National Guard veteran. “I do a lot of things in the kitchen that are unorthodox. I like to cook from scratch — nothing prepared.”by: NEWS-TIMES PHOTO / CHASE ALLGOOD -  Morrie DeWolf, 90, visits his wife, Vera, at Marquis Care in Forest Grove. DeWolf, who served as an Army parachute jumper during World War II, returned unscathed from the Battle of Bastogne in Belgium.

He’ll don an apron and wield a spatula along with Elks member Jack Williams to get the job done. The pair is teaming up with Forest Grove American Legion Post 2, which purchases many of the meal’s ingredients.

“It’s a joint effort,” Fellas noted.

History lessons

The Elks aren’t alone in their quest to keep the history of World War II alive in town. Educational presentations by Army Air Corps vet Maurice “Morrie” DeWolf and others are another example of such altruism.

Last Friday, DeWolf went directly from visiting his wife, Vera, at a Forest Grove care center to attending a memorial service for the spouse of a longtime friend and fellow World War II veteran.

Lela Genung, wife of Linwood “Lindey” Genung, a member of the Army Air Corps during WWII, died Oct. 23. DeWolf drove to Willamette National Cemetery in Portland to support his friend, one of a half-dozen veterans who’ve made it a point to share stories about their wartime experiences with Forest Grove High School students over the years.

Other regulars in Bob Wismer’s social studies classes include Everett Lee (Army, Battle of Okinawa); Eldon Bartlett (Navy, Battle Of Leyte Gulf and Battle of Iwo Jima); Chris Christenson (Navy, survivor of a kamikaze attack on the USS Louisville); George Horner (Navy, landing craft operator during the Battle of Iwo Jima); Bill Prible (Army Air Corps, fighter pilot); Orville Nilsen (Army, wounded in the Battle of the Bulge); and Don Raymond (Navy, survivor of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor).

“You’ll never find a finer bunch of fellows,” noted Wismer, who helps organize the high school’s annual Veterans Day assembly.

Genung, a fighter pilot with the Army Air Corps, and DeWolf, who fought with the 101st Airborne in the Battle of Bastogne in Belgium, both show up to tell today’s students what it was like to be a wartime military member in the 1940s.

They do it because they’re among a declining number who can.

“Seems like people just keep calling it quits,” DeWolf, 90, observed of his former military peers, male and female, and the women and men they NEWS-TIMES FILE PHOTO: JOHN SHRAG - Susan Blanchard of Cornelius, mother of fallen Navy medic Ryley Gallinger-Long, attends a memorial tree planting ceremony at Forest Grove High School on Veterans Day 2011. She will accept a Medal of Valor award in her son´s name Sunday during a dinner program hosted by the Forest Grove Elks.

$25 a month

Born in Minnesota, DeWolf and his family moved to South Dakota before the war. He joined the Army on Thanksgiving Day 1942 at age 20. At first, he earned $25 a month as a parachute jumper with the 13th Armored Division.

In April 1944, DeWolf was shipped overseas to North Africa, and then Italy, for more training. He parachuted into southern France in August 1944 to help push back enemy invaders.

“We went at night, and we were to go 20 miles inland to fight a German tank division,” said DeWolf. While en route to their destination, he recalled, “One guy said to me, ‘I never went to church. Would you pray for me?’ I did, but he didn’t come back.”

Bastogne, which at that time was a hub to seven major roads in the Ardennes mountain range, was critical to Nazi troops. The siege lasted seven days, until American forces were relieved by troops from General George Patton’s 3rd Army.

“We were ordered to go up there to hold open all the roads,” DeWolf said. “We no sooner got there than we were encircled by the Germans.”

It was “a nervous time,” he noted. “I never got hit. It was just miserably cold.”

He remembers “being happy it was over” when word reached his regiment on Victory in Europe Day, May 8, 1945, that Adolf Hitler’s forces had surrendered.

After a final transfer to the 82nd Airborne in Berlin, DeWolf returned home just before Christmas that year after 18 months at war.

DeWolf, who moved to Forest Grove in 1953 and worked as an accountant and financial consultant before retiring in 1972, now suffers from kidney failure. He knows he was fortunate to come home from WWII, and is no fan of war in general.

“It’s hard to understand what’s wrong with people,” he said. “I guess they like fights.”

Still, he took a lesson from his wartime experience.

“You regret you ever had to go,” DeWolf said carefully, “but you never regret serving your country.”

And, he figures he’ll continue making his yearly visits to FGHS as long as he’s able.

“I tell the kids that Bastogne was a very important engagement,” he said. “By holding those roads, it broke the backs of the Germans.”

Greatest Generation declining

As head cook for the Elks’ Veterans Day dinner, John Fellas is circumspect about his remaining years. “I’m hoping to be around a while yet,” he said. He’s due to turn 90 on March 19.

On Thursday, he trekked to Portland International Airport to pick up his son, Jeff, an Elks member in Fairbanks, Alaska.

Jeff Fellas plans to attend Sunday afternoon’s meal and award ceremony, taking in the atmosphere and enjoying his dad’s good food.

The elder Fellas, a Forest Grove resident who served in the Pacific Theater during World War II, is a gruff but grateful member of the Greatest Generation, whose rank-and-file continues to pass on at the rate of 750 or more per day, according to U.S. Veterans Administration figures. He’s also a charter member of Forest Grove Elks Lodge 2440, a fraternal organization that once boasted more than 1,200 affiliates.

The rolls are down to 539 today, said John Wahl of Beaverton, exalted ruler of the local lodge. It’s a decline that mirrors the Elks’ generational mystique: nationwide, the average age of an Elks member, male or female, is 65.

In Forest Grove, 60 percent of Elks members are military veterans, and the drop in numbers is at least partly due to “the deaths of soldiers from World War II and other wars,” said Wahl. He grew up in town and has been an Elk for 45 years.

“For me, the Elks represent camaraderie with people I’ve grown up with and people I know,” noted Wahl, who retired from his job as a manufacturing engineer in 2009. “Charity work is pretty much what we do,” he said, from putting together Christmas food boxes for the needy to sponsoring Camp Meadowood, a speech and hearing camp for kids in Pendleton.

Every November, though, the focus shifts entirely to veterans in the community. Talk of patriotism, an Elks badge of honor, and tales of heroism, a WWII hallmark, are on the lips of practically every Elks member.

“By golly, there’s a time to be a cook, and that’s what I’m doing for these guys,” said Fellas, who joined the Army in 1940 at the age of 17. “I told them I was 18,” he added with a grin.

Expecting the enemy

Fellas took his training at Camp Murray in Fort Lewis, Wash., and was shipped to Grays Harbor on the Olympic Peninsula in the wake of the Pearl Harbor attacks of Dec. 7, 1941. “They were expecting the enemy to invade,” noted Fellas, who at that time was part of the 186th Infantry.

On his 19th birthday in March 1942, Fellas boarded the luxury ocean liner RMS Queen Elizabeth — which had been conscripted as a transport ship for 10,000 American troops during the war — landing in Sydney, Australia. He spent that Christmas in New Guinea.

His detachment fought Japanese troops in Borneo and The Philippines, sometimes slogging through many miles of swampland in a single day. “Malaria was real bad there,” Fellas said.

He served as a machine gunner during the New Britain Campaign, a battle waged by the U.S. and its allies to contain Japanese forces concentrated in Rabaul, New Guinea. Fellas was discharged from the service and went home to the Pacific Northwest in July 1945, a month before the end of the war, as a first sergeant.

He ran tool rooms at the Trojan Nuclear Power Plant south of Rainier, Ore., which has since been shut down. He bought Staley’s Restaurant in 1960, and after the eatery closed in 1969, Fellas headed for The Last Frontier.

Cooking for loggers in Alaska’s Winning Cove and Corner Bay in the 1970s was a challenge, he said — but he loved it.

“On steak night we’d cook up 350 steaks for a couple hundred men,” he recalled. “The young guys would all eat two.”

Never one to shirk a task, he dug enough horseneck clams to feed his charges.

After he retired, Fellas returned to Washington County and started spending his leisure hours at the Elks Lodge. “I had more time,” he said, “so I stepped into the kitchen and helped out.”

The gig stuck, and for the last six years Fellas has been head cook for the Veterans Day dinner. The mere thought of working his dinner prep magic makes the aging vet smile.

DeWolf, who plans to be in attendance Sunday, will be one beneficiary.

“I just know I want to feed ’em good, because they deserve it,” he said. “If the food tastes good, they like it.”

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