Uncle Art

Posted: Wednesday, November 12, 2008 at 12:00 am
By: Doug Lund
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As most anyone who knows me is well aware, I’m a charter member of the procrastinator’s club. So writing a story about a veteran on the day AFTER Veterans’ Day would be totally in character for me..Lund’s late again. But the truth is, this time I waited on purpose in hopes of giving this particular vet some singular attention I think he deserves. Paying tribute to those who have served this country should not be limited to a single day anyway.
Art was my first wife’s uncle and totally different from any of my Norwegian relatives. He grew up, tough as nails, on a farm near Freeman where the whole family spoke German. He was never able to shake that thick accent which, to me, made Art sort of mysterious because he sounded just like those German soldiers depicted in movies and on television.
Anyway, Art never talked about what he did in World War II. All we knew is that injures he suffered prevented him from working on the farm and led to his long career at the V.A. Hospital lab.
I didn’t see Art much after his niece and I divorced. He and his wife enjoyed the Mogen’s Heroes band and would often show up to listen whenever we played at the Sioux Empire Fair and we’d usually have a chat during breaks.
Then one day, about seven years ago, Art gave me a call at KELO. He said, “Duck (Doug) I’m getting old already. I’m 80 now and have kept some things bottled-up about the war that I’m ready to get off my chest.
The next day a Keloland cameraman and I were in the basement of Art’s  modest Westside Sioux Falls home hearing stories of combat that were so incredible we might not have believed them had it not been for the table full of medals and ribbons and the battle scars he showed us.Uncle Art in 2007. Photo courtesy SDPBWhen Arthur Wollmann left Freeman High School to join the U.S.Army in 1942, he hoped he wouldn’t be sent to Europe because he still had lots of relatives in Germany. He got his wish when he and the other members of the elite Red Arrow division boarded ship for the Pacific theater where he’d spend the next three years battling  the Japanese in New Guinea and the Philippines. The division soon established quite a fighting reputation. “Maybe too good, Art told me, because Macarthur used us quite a bit."  In fact, Wollmann’s Red Arrows spent over 600 days in combat..more than any division in any war.  Wollmann quickly moved up the ranks and became a platoon sergeant. Fighting in the Philippine province of Layte was brutal. A full company of 250 went in..75 were lost in about 15 minutes.“They just cut us to pieces with machine guns.” By the time his company was pulled out of  Layte there were only 15 men left. It was while trying to take out a machine gun nest that Wollmann was wounded the first time. He and five others were advancing up a hill when he heard the popping of grenade pins. Sgt. Wollman hollered “grenades” to the men below and hit the ground. “One grenade rolled underneath my buddy."  Wollmann’s friend was killed. He escaped with shrapnel in the arm and pretty shaken up but returned to the front lines after a couple weeks.
"You know if you’re a platoon leader, he told me, you can’t show your scared..even though you are."  The fighting was relentless. He and his men managed to take and hold an important road..killing many of the enemy. That operation led to a Bronze Star for heroic action.  Wollmann won the Silver Star for gallantry after he single handedly took out 21 Japanese soldiers.  Alone, he stumbled upon 40 to 50 Japanese down a hill. He got behind a rock and opened fire. After his ammo was gone, he only had one weapon left; an incendiary grenade. “ I thought well, here goes and I threw that. When I did, the grass started burning. They must have thought I had a secret weapon and they took off.  When I got back to my outfit, I just shook. I never smoked, but I smoked 3 cigarettes in about a half hour.”
Wollmann’s war came to an end in April of 1945. He was hit 4 times by machine gun fire. A damaged kidney was removed in a field hospital but, by some miracle, he survived and spent months in hospitals recuperating.
A few years ago, when the state of South Dakota passed a law allowing veterans, who left high school for the war, to graduate. Art decided to take advantage and, wearing a cap and gown, sat among the young graduating students at Freeman High.
During the ceremonies, the audience sat in stunned silence as Sgt. Wollman’s war record was read aloud..then jumped to their feet with thunderous applause as he stepped forward to receive his diploma.
It was a moment that meant more to him than all his medals.
 "There were a few tears, Art told me later.  I just stood up there thinking to myself how lucky I am. I knew I must be appreciated as a veteran."  Use the video player below to watch:

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