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Santa Fe man remembered as WWII hero: ‘He wanted an Army career’

Brig. Gen. Eric Judkins, right, pins 4 medals, including the Bronze Star, to the chest of retired Staff Sgt. Dennis Ferk, 97, during a ceremony in Santa Fe, N.M., on Friday July 20, 2018.

EDDIE MOORE/ALBUQUERQUE JOURNAL

By ROBERT NOTT | The Santa Fe New Mexican | Published: July 17, 2019

SANTA FE, N.M. (Tribune News Service) — It was not quite a year ago when former U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Dennis Ferk, 97, struggled to stand at attention in his uniform, an array of medals adorning his chest, as a bugler played taps during a Purple Heart ceremony held in Santa Fe.

Looking immaculate in that uniform — and unwilling to let people take photos of him wearing it unless he was standing — Ferk recalled his long-gone military comrades who died fighting alongside him in the Guadalcanal campaign in the Pacific theater of World War II.

“I’m just thankful they didn’t kill me,” he said at the time.

It would take more than repeated assaults from Japanese soldiers and bombs falling from Japanese planes to kill Ferk — who also endured two Santa Fe grifters who bilked him of some $340,000.

He died sometime Friday morning at Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center at age 98, just days after suffering a heart attack. His death came a month after he took part in an Honor Flight that carried World War II veterans to Washington to see the World War II Memorial.

“He wanted an Army career,” said Gilbert Martinez, a friend who became Ferk’s guardian in recent years.

“Back when he was growing up, all the men knew that they had to go into the Army once they graduated high school, even though we weren’t at war yet,” Martinez said. “They all felt that was the direction to go to defend their country.”

Though many media reports over the years have said Ferk was born Jan. 3, 1921, in North Dakota, his daughter, Denise Ferk of Santa Fe, said he was born in South Dakota. That’s where he joined the National Guard in 1939. In 1941, his company was called to active duty in advance of U.S. involvement in World War II.

Following the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941, which initiated the U.S.’s entry into the war, Ferk’s regiment — known as the Americal Division — was tasked with reinforcing Marine Corps operations in the Pacific. The regiment trained in New Caledonia before heading to the island of Guadalcanal to provide backup for Marines trying to wrest control of the island from the Japanese.

The Battle of Guadalcanal, considered the first major Allied offensive against the Japanese, lasted into February 1943 and resulted in heavy casualties on both sides.

From there, Ferk transferred with his division to the islands of Fiji before ending up on the island of Bougainville. There, as with Guadalcanal, Ferk and his Army colleagues moved in to support and replace the Marines who first secured a beachhead.

Ferk received his Purple Heart — the nation’s oldest military honor — as a consequence of a Japanese bombing raid on that island. He told The New Mexican in 2018 that he was guarding a supply depot there when a Japanese bomber began dropping its load nearby. As Ferk dove into a nearby bunker, he said, he looked at the bomb as it detonated and saw a flash that blinded his left eye.

Ferk did not enjoy talking about what he did or saw during the war, Martinez said, nor did he want to be discharged before his term of enlistment was up.

He spent months in a military hospital in Colorado before serving out his time selling war bonds by re-enacting how combat troops would take an enemy stronghold.

After his military service, he married Dorothy Ressler and began working for the federal transportation department in North Dakota, where he lived for a long time. He transferred to Santa Fe sometime in the mid-1970s, Martinez said, and had lived here for more than 40 years. His wife died in 2011.

In April 2018, a couple accused of fleecing him of some $340,000 while acting as his caretakers pleaded guilty as part of a deal that would allow them to avoid prison time if they adhered to terms of their probation and made efforts to pay Ferk back some $120,000 in restitution.

Martinez on Tuesday said the couple — Dian Zeemin and Joseph Rosko — paid back less than $1,000 between July and December of last year and nothing since. He said he has contacted the state District Attorney’s Office to see what can be done.

“It’s not about the money, it’s about the principle of it,” Martinez said.

James Hallinan, spokesman for District Attorney Marco Serna’s office, said in an email Tuesday, “Mr. Ferk’s death does not change the requirements of the defendants’ sentence and they will continue to pay restitution to The Ferk Family Trust as stated in the court approved restitution plan.”

Also last year, Ferk was awarded a long-overdue Bronze Star, the American Campaign Medal, the American Defense Service Medal, and the World War II Victory Medal during a special ceremony in Santa Fe.

Along with daughter Denise, Ferk is survived by his brother, Roger Ferk, who lives in Virginia, and a number of nephews and nieces.

Martinez said a funeral Mass for Ferk was planned for 11 a.m. Tuesday at Santa María de la Paz Catholic Community. Burial was to follow at 12:45 p.m. Tuesday at the Santa Fe National Cemetery.

©2019 The Santa Fe New Mexican (Santa Fe, N.M.)
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