Veterans from WWII to Afghanistan swap war stories, share bonds in Nevada courtroom
Las Vegas Sun
HENDERSON, Nev. — Ninety-year-old Richard Zimpfer considers himself the lucky one.
The World War II veteran — part of a small team charged with maintaining anti-aircraft systems during the war — once drove a Jeep to retrieve an explosive that didn’t detonate. He returned unharmed.
Now he chuckles at the memory, but don’t call him a hero. He says he’s just one of many who served.
“I just feel I am lucky,” said Zimpfer, choking back tears as he spoke during a ceremony Thursday in Henderson’s Veterans Treatment Court. “I had a good time, and I have never regretted having served.”
Zimpfer and two female World War II veterans, Evie Hallas and Billie D’Entremont, received handmade quilts thanking them for their service and, perhaps more important, a round of applause from the people sitting in the courtroom, including a few younger veterans.
Veterans Treatment Court, a specialty court launched in June 2011, aims to help veterans who face issues — whether it be post-traumatic stress disorder or drug and alcohol addiction — after they return home from service. It enrolls veterans charged with certain misdemeanor crimes, such as drunken driving, petty larceny and possessing marijuana, and attempts to rehabilitate them through a team approach.
But the three WWII veterans who now call Southern Nevada home weren’t enrolled in the court program. They were simply there for others to express gratitude — and maybe serve as role models to younger veterans currently enrolled.
Henderson Municipal Court Judge Mark Stevens, who runs the program and is also a veteran, said the ceremony was a way to “give back.”
The ceremony coincided with the graduation of two program participants, who also were given quilts and thanked for their service. Moms Love Quilts, a nonprofit organization, made and donated the quilts.
Stevens, a Marine who served in Somalia, pointed to troop withdrawals as one difference separating veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan versus older generations who served in World War II.
World War II veterans “came back on the same ship together,” he said. “They had time to decompress.”
Dressed in a light pink jacket and shirt, Evie Hallas, 90, stood at the podium and proclaimed that she’s “not much of a braggart.”
Speaking about her war experience was new territory, so to speak, for this former Navy cartographer. The Pittsburgh native decided to join the military in October 1943 after one of her brothers died in the war.
“At the time, I was a mechanical engineer,” she said. “Well, when you got into a service, there was no billet for women engineers — men yes, but not women — so they put me as a cartographer.”
The top-secret position meant she was part of a small team creating maps of enemy territory based on photos taken by Navy pilots. If she ever visited her family, the FBI would trail her, ensuring she wasn’t giving away strategic plans she was privy to as a result of making the maps.
“I never had to read the newspaper because I knew what we were doing,” she said.
Thousands of miles away, Billie D’Entremont, now 93, was serving in Hawaii with the Coast Guard as a medical yeoman. She did secretarial work.
D’Entremont actually started out as a Coast Guard recruiter in the Great Lakes region, where she appeared in parades and at community events as a way to raise money for advertisements.
The chance to go overseas, however, lured her away from that assignment. She was one of the first 40 women deployed outside the continental United States during the war.
After a two-year stint, she was discharged in 1945 after the war ended. She decided to stay in Hawaii because she wanted to learn how to fly, so she found work at a flight school and persuaded an instructor to teach her.
“Lo and behold, I married him,” she said.
D’Entremont went on to raise the couple’s four children by herself in Hawaii. Her husband died during her pregnancy with their youngest child.
D’Entremont said she felt called to serve after hearing about the Pearl Harbor attack. She initially tried getting a job at aircraft factories, but her petite size caused her to be turned away.
The military, though, accepted all 95 pounds of her. She grew up in a Coast Guard town along Lake Michigan, making her choice of military branch an easy one.
“Everybody felt the same” after the Pearl Harbor attack, she said. “What can I do?”
For Zimpfer, it was a captain observing him at a military technical school who answered that question for him.
“How do you feel about physics and science?” Zimpfer said the captain asked him.
Zimpfer, who grew up in Ohio and dreamed of being an engineer, said he thought they were great. That sealed the deal. He would be sent to Frankford Arsenal in Philadelphia, where he would study the M9 gun director, a forerunner of today’s computer, so he could help maintain it.
The M9 gun director allowed U.S. troops to fire accurately by calculating trigonometric functions electrically and projecting the routes of enemy planes.
“The idea was not to hit the airplane,” Zimpfer said. “The idea was for the airplane to hit the shell.”
The trio’s war tales elicited several questions from the audience, including one posed by disabled veteran:
What advice would you give a veteran returning home today?
Hallas pondered the question for a few moments — acknowledging they have endured more than most people realize — before she answered.
“Put a smile on your face,” she said, her face breaking into a grin as she spoke. “And hope that you can face the next day.”