SPEARFISH — Walt Kolb’s family knew very well what it meant to sacrifice and serve America.
Kolb’s family has a legacy of service during wartime. Kolb’s father died on Christmas Day, just weeks after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. For the next few years young Kolb, who was in the eighth grade when the U.S. entered World War II, watched as six of his brothers, who were either drafted or enlisted in the military, head off to fight in World War II. That left Kolb, his brother Lee, who suffered from a blind eye that rendered him unable to fight, and his sister Edna to tend to the family farm in Bison, S.D.
While his brothers were fighting, Kolb said he continued his schooling and helping with the farm. His German mother, who was unable to write in English, would frequently dictate letters to Edna, who would write them on carbon copies — sending each of the six brothers an identical correspondence.
“We didn’t get to hear from them a lot,” Kolb said. “They were in Africa and two of them started in Africa. Then my oldest brother went to Italy and one of them served with George Patton. Two of them were in the Navy on the west side. We didn’t see them during the whole four years. They never had a furlough.”
Back on the home front, Kolb said he remembers that life was hard, but he worked harder with his brother and sister to operate the farm. The family raised cattle, pigs, chickens, and grew corn, wheat, barley and many other crops. The rationing made it impossible to obtain new equipment, and so the siblings worked the land with horse labor. As a reward for their hard work, the land yielded bumper crops for the entire wartime.
“We did have a big old tractor that we did the heavy work with,” he said. “But putting up hay and mowing and that kind of stuff we did with horses. We had horse drawn cultivators and that kind of stuff.”
When all six brothers returned home alive, Kolb said the family celebrated. By then, Kolb was a senior in high school. Little did he know that he would find himself in the same situation later in life. In 1951, Kolb was drafted into the U.S. Army in support of the Korean War.
“My service was kind of a picnic compared to some of my older brothers,” he said. “I had the best job in the Army — company clerk.”
By the time Kolb was drafted, the military was not taking any replacements to Korea. That left Kolb stateside, where he was sent on a very special assignment. At the time, the U.S. government was considering ending the war with a sweeping victory by dropping the atomic bomb on North Korea. In 1952, Kolb was sent to Camp Desert Rock, Nevada, where he spent the next six months living in a tent in the desert, facilitating atomic bomb testing. From 1951 to 1992, the U.S. government utilized the Nevada site to test about 1,000 bombs. Kolb witnessed eight of the earliest blasts.
“While we were there, every time they had a bomb test they brought in new observers,” he said. “We took care of those people who would come in. I did get into one bomb test and we went within four miles of it. We walked within a mile of where it blew and they had some displays there that were quite impressive. Everything was black up in that area, burnt. It was quite an experience. We were probably 80 miles north of Las Vegas, and it rattled the windows in Las Vegas. We were in trenches about 4 to 5 feet wide. When the blast went off we were hunkered down with our back toward the blast. You could see a little bright light through your eyelids when the bomb blew. That’s how bright it was. Then we got up and we could watch from then on. There were two shock waves, one coming at us and one going the other way. It was quite impressive.”
History tells the story of how the United States decided against using the atomic bomb in Korea, opting instead to withdraw without a victory. For Kolb’s part, after he completed his service he was discharged in 1953, and moved back home to became a bulk agent for Standard Oil.
Overall, he said he is very proud of his family’s legacy to support the American dream.
“I’ll put it this way,” Kolb said of his brothers. “They did a whole lot more service than I did, that’s for sure. Some of them went through some pretty rough stuff and I’m happy that they got to come home.”
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