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Daily Journal
     August 21, 2020      #43-234 KDJ
 

Manteno veteran remembers grandfather's service on

By Phil Angelo

MANTENO — It was 76 years ago today that William I. Pedersen went ashore at Utah Beach as part of the 4th Infantry Division. June 6, 1944, was a day that would become forevermore known as D-Day.

Now his grandson, David Pedersen, serves as director of volunteers at the Illinois Veterans Home at Manteno, coordinating donations and community support for the 194 men and women who live at the facility.

“His life was as motivating factor in my choice of what I do here,” the younger Pedersen said. “I have so much respect for what these veterans did. They did not give up. They put everything on the line. What we have now, we owe to them.”

The Illinois Veterans Home has 26 living men and women who served in World War II.

William Pedersen’s World War II service story is one of extraordinary circumstances and extraordinary heroism.

He was not an American citizen at first. He was Danish and serving in the Merchant Marine when his ship was torpedoed by a German U-boat. He was one of the survivors, picked up by a Dutch destroyer.

At the same time his ship was going down, the Germans invaded Denmark, April 9, 1940. The Nazis took over the Pedersen family trucking business in Copenhagen.

Weighing his options, when Pedersen disembarked in India, he decided to take ship for America. He enlisted in the U.S. Army as a way of gaining citizenship.

Assigned to Camp Grant in Rockford, he served as an interpreter at a camp for German POWs there. Pedersen was fluent in Danish, German and English. He also met his future wife, Beatrice Coy, while living in Rockford.

Pedersen passed the training to become a medic and went ashore on D-Day. The 4th Division, of which he was a member, was the first Allied unit to hit the beach. The only Americans to arrive sooner were the airborne paratroops. The 4th division’s mission was to relieve the 82nd Airborne which had dropped into St. Mere Eglise.

It’s a scene well covered in the epic movie “The Longest Day.” The division’s deputy commander, Teddy Roosevelt Jr., would earn the Medal of Honor for his role that day. Roosevelt died slightly more than a month later of a heart attack.

Pedersen would go forward as part of the 4th division for the remainder of the war in Europe. He was with the division as it liberated Paris, as it was first into Germany, and as it freed inmates of the Dachau concentration camp.

The unit turned over two and a half times in combat, with casualties reaching 22,600.

Pedersen earned the Distinguished Service Cross during the Battle of the Hurtgen Forest. Despite being forced back three times by enemy fire, he dragged a wounded soldier out of a German mine field to safety.

The citation that accompanies the service cross reads, “The conspicuous heroism of this gallant soldier, and his courage and supreme devotion to duty are in keeping with the finest traditions of the military service. – by command of General Patton.”

After the war on the troopship home, the troops were paid in cash. Pedersen won enough of a pot playing dice to allow his wife to buy the “Rockford Academy of Beauty Culture.” Pedersen’s own post-war profession was that of chef, serving, among other places, at the Pink Pony.

Pedersen passed at age 57. His son, John, would serve as a radio operator in Vietnam from 1969 to 1971. That makes David a third-generation veteran, having served from 2001-2005 as a paratrooper and a member of the Military Police in Korea and Germany.

Now 38, he is originally from Rockford and has a degree in psychology from Governors State University. He started working for the State of Illinois in the Department of Natural Resources. He very excitedly transferred to his current job when it became open. Today David lives in Kankakee with his wife, Kim.

So he’s conscious today about his role of helping veterans. The COVID crisis has put a crimp in activities, but in better times volunteers help the veterans at the home go fishing, head to VFW and American Legion fish fries and play bingo. There are trips to casinos and buffets and this year the vets would have taken in a White Sox game.

The volunteers are often other veterans or family members.

Many of the veterans at the home have lived long lives, including a 103-year-old veteran. Pedersen is glad to talk to them about their service when they want to talk.

“I’m always conscious of what they have done,” Pedersen said of the vets, “and how I can give back to them.”

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