‘A zest for life’: WWII veteran who fought at the Battle of Monte Cassino recently marked 100th birthday
Pioneer Press March 4, 2023
(Tribune News Service) — Most places Don Halverson goes, he is greeted with the familiarity and fondness. Heads turn to look at him, hands are shoved out for a firm shake and “thanks” for his service are exclaimed. Often strangers offer to pay for his meals.
The black hat on his head that reads “34th Infantry Division WWII” and the several gold pins on it gives Halverson’s status away.
That wasn’t always the case.
After two years fighting in Europe, Halverson returned to the U.S. in 1945 when the war ended. There was no celebration waiting for him back home in Minneapolis. His parents were there, but no lines of people waiting to shake his hand, pat his back or thanking him for his service each time he went out.
Halverson — who recently celebrated his 100th birthday — said he wasn’t too hung up about that, rather he carried on with “about as normal a life you can get,” after fighting in a war.
He grew up in the Minneapolis area near Minnehaha Park and was drafted at the age of 20. Halverson was a part of the 168th Infantry Regiment, 34th Infantry Division (Red Bulls) and fought in Italy. He was a weapons platoon sergeant in charge of various machine and motor sections while in combat.
“Uncle Sam said he wanted me so I left the neighborhood,” Halverson said. “I went down to the Armory Building, took the pledge, then went from Fort Snelling to Camp Landing in Florida, took my basic training there then went to Camp Robinson in Little Rock, then to Virginia and a ship overseas.”
After those stops at training camps in the U.S. he boarded a ship that left Virginia on Sept. 13, 1943 and landed in Naples on Oct. 13. He’d spend the next two years fighting in Italy.
“I figure that 13 is my lucky number because they kept missing me (in the war),” Halverson said, with a chuckle.
From climbing several mountains including Mount Pantano to crossing the Volturno River and serving in the trenches of Anzio for four months, Halverson — a sergeant in the 4th Platoon, G Company, of the 1st Battalion — saw it all across Italy.
The Battle of Monte Cassino was a series of assaults the Allies made against German troops at an historic hilltop abbey in an effort to advance to Rome. It’s been regarded as one of the deadliest battles of the war with more than 55,000 Allied casualties during those few months.
By the time Halverson and his fellow soldiers reached the abbey and castle of Monte Cassino they had lost all but five of the 40 men in his platoon.
When the war ended, Halverson and his platoon had to cross the Swiss border but before reaching it, the Minnesota 34th Division came face to face with the German 34th Division.
“It seemed kind of funny because there was this big open area where (the Germans) were coming from. We all stopped and spread out, waiting for them to come in,” Halverson said. “The Germans got into the middle of the open and turned and saw us all standing there looking at them, so a white flag went up and that’s when they surrendered to us.”
The war ends
May 2 of 1945 marked the end of the war in Europe. But Halverson couldn’t go home just yet.
“We had a four-by-four truck that was gassed up so we drove down through Monte Carlo, stopped and had a few beers, down to Nice, France,” Halverson said. “You could tell that the war was over because everybody was at the beach (in Nice) so we joined them there and spent the day and then went back again and that’s all we had to do for about four months until they could fix the railroad tracks.”
Halverson left Italy on Oct. 22 and returned to the U.S. on Nov. 3. Nearly 80 years later, Halverson has been back to Italy twice to visit the same places where he once fought.
“It’s real nice now that nobody is shooting at me,” Halverson said with a chuckle.
The life he settled into back in Minnesota consisted of working at the Downtown Chevrolet and Mid-Continent Engineering, until retiring in 1988. He’s kept busy since then by taking various trips around the world.
His son Tom Halverson jokingly refers to himself as “(his) dad’s booking agent,” as he helps Halverson travel and get some of the recognition that Tom believes he deserves. They’ve taken an honor flight to Washington D.C., attended the 75th Anniversary of WWII with seven other veterans and met former President Donald Trump, spoke to Prince Harry, the Duke of Sussex and more.
‘A zest for life’
Friday, Feb. 24 was Halverson’s 100th birthday. A not-so-modest party was thrown at the 494 Crystal VFW where over 130 family, friends, friends of friends and more came to celebrate. Memorabilia was displayed, speeches were dedicated to his service and there were a lot of hugs.
Most people at the party had the same things to say about Halverson: “he has a zest for life,” “his spunky personality,” “a sunny disposition” and more.
“There are lots of benefits to hanging with Don,” said former Cmdr. Donald Fernstrom, of the 494 Crystal VFW. “When I’m with Don, I don’t think I’ve ever had to pay for a drink because everybody either knows him or wants to buy him a drink.”
Halverson himself can’t disagree with that statement. His regular spots like Malone’s Bar & Grill in Maple Grove know the drill: the minute he walks in the door, there will be a stool open for him at the bar, a beer in the waiter’s hand just for him and a big hamburger that gets delivered after the second beer is drunk.
Halverson, who lives in Brooklyn Center, also has filled his time with family, polka dancing with his late wife, Bernice, bowling every Tuesday and Thursday and more. When asked what the secret is to living a long life, he chalks it down to never having more than two drinks, being surrounded by friends and not smoking.
“I met my wife in 1946, married her in ‘47 and quit smoking,” Halverson said. “She hated smoking so I gave away my pack of cigarettes to my buddies and haven’t smoked since.”
Halverson said he doesn’t like to dwell too much on the two years he spent at war, rather he is grateful to have lived this long.
“I was watching a man on television who was talking about a war and his men that died. He got tears in his eyes, but that’s not me,” Halverson said. “(The war) was just a phase of my life… I’ve just goofed off and enjoyed [life] since.”
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