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Vet has kept WWII items, memories

Thousands of people flock to Little Falls each September to enjoy the Arts and Crafts Fair the weekend after Labor Day. Clem Deering, of Little Falls, had a hand in beginning the popular art fair, now in its 41st year. Deering and his late wife, Sylvia, were also vendors at the event, selling their handmade crafts, including wooden spoons and spatulas, stuffed animals, wallets, footstools and neck or leg pillows.

Deering no longer sells his wares at the art fair, but he stays active in other ways, like tending to his good-sized garden, flipping pancakes at the senior center and reminiscing about days gone by.

Deering, a World War II veteran, has a 300-piece collection of items from his war experience, which he displays in a glass case and shows to interested others. He was drafted into the 533rd Anti-Aircraft Battalion in 1942 and served for over three years in Africa, France and Germany.

When he was growing up on the family farm in Morrison County, Deering and his five brothers helped their dad milk 45 cows by hand. “We didn’t have electricity,” he said. “It was a lot of work.”  But there were good times. At age 16, Deering played the fiddle and drums in a band with his brother and sister. “We played at barn dances and house parties. They didn’t have ballrooms like they do now.”

The Deerings listened to their car radio, which ran on a battery, and that’s how they heard the news about America entering WWII. Deering is able to recall President Roosevelt’s exact words. “I didn’t enlist,” he said, “but soon I got a notice to go get a physical at Fort Snelling.” Later, another letter arrived informing Deering to make preparations to be gone for a year. Two of his brothers also served in the war, but they went to the Pacific.

Deering left for training at Fort Bliss, Texas, in July 1942. Months later, 4,200 soldiers plus 800-900 crew members shipped out of New York City on the English ship the Andes. “Our equipment, guns and ammunition and jeeps had been shipped ahead of us four to five days,” he said. “ When we got on the Andes we didn’t know where we were going. We were in such a hurry. We found out that the ship had just one lifeboat, about 30 feet long. We wondered– if we are hit by a torpedo, who would be saved?”

Following a 10-day voyage, the 533rd landed in Casablanca, Morocco, in North Africa. It was March 1943. The unit marched 10 to 12 miles to the place where they stayed. They set up their pup tents. “It was a camel pasture,” Deering said. “It was then that the colonel got word that the ship loaded with our equipment had been sunk by a German submarine 400 miles out of New York. It was a week before we got M-1 guns and ammunition.” It was later still before they got the 40 millimeter antiaircraft guns they had trained on.

At the time it was thought that the Germans would invade Casablanca, so the mission of the 533rd was to defend against enemy air attack. They were in Africa for nine and a half months before leaving to invade Sardinia and Maddalena islands and then moving on to France and then Germany.

Deering shared memories of marching through the desert when the temperature was 126 degrees, sleeping in foxholes and crossing the Mediterranean in a storm with 40-foot waves. Many of the soldiers suffered from seasickness. “We got letters from home,” he said, “ but there was always a worry if the family was okay.” Deering said that in 39 months, he never had a furlough day.

Deering gets emotional when he talks about the most difficult times.

“Fighting the Germans was tough,” he said. “Some of those soldiers were 12 years old, trained from the time they were small. And it was hard to see the devastation in Germany from all the bombing.”  Recalling those memories of losing friends and fellow soldiers and the horror of concentration camps leaves him at a loss for words. Many WWII veterans are reluctant to talk about their experiences during the war.

Even though “shell shock” and “combat fatigue” were terms used to diagnose some veterans who had experienced trauma, there were few services available in the 1940s. When the war ended and Deering returned home, he said soldiers were told to “just forget about it.”

According to the 533rd AAA Bugle, first published in Tunisia in 1943, the 533rd shot down 10 enemy planes and captured 503 German soldiers and 22 officers during their months of combat.

Deering’s WWII collection includes seashells from the coast of Africa, a Christmas card sent to family members and his prayer book which got him through some dark times. There is money in coins and bills—lire, Deutschmarks and francs, the currency of Italy, Germany and France before the introduction of the euro. The collection also includes items taken from prisoners – a flashlight, cigarette lighter, eating utensils, pens, medals, ribbons, a compass, watches, a pistol and a knife.

Deering has some film taken from a theater in Stuttgart, Germany. Many pictures are of bridges or of buildings that have been destroyed. Years ago, the photos were shown to the public at the Falls Theater in Little Falls. There was so much interest they filled the theater several times.

When he returned home from the war, Deering worked as a cook at Camp Ripley for two years. “I got a dollar an hour to cook for highway patrolmen and brick layers,” he said. He eventually saved enough money, about $3,000, to purchase a truck for his business hauling black dirt and gravel. He worked in the hauling business a number of years before beginning work at Larson Boats in Little Falls.

Deering returned to playing in a band following the war, and it was at a dance at the Little Falls VFW where he met his future wife, Sylvia. She was a widow with eight children. They married in 1959 and celebrated 32 years together before her death.

Deering and some of his family members visited France and Germany in 1997. One of his sons wanted to visit the concentration camp at Dachau. The very thought of that place, so many years later, still makes him emotional. “It takes a lot of guts to see that,” he said. “I couldn’t take it.”  He has been approached but has not yet made the trip to Washington, D.C., to see the World War II Memorial.

Some of Deering’s grandkids have enlisted in the service, and he supports those decisions and recognizes the opportunities they have for free schooling.

The 533rd AAA Battalion had some reunions for its members over the years, providing a time to reminisce and tell stories. Deering attended the “Last Ever 533rd Reunion” held in  October 2000 in Fort Bliss, Texas. “There were 28 of us left that year,” Deering  said, before adding, “Now, there is just one.”

Deering willingly shares some memories and shows others his WWII collection, but he doesn’t spend a lot of time looking back. He may not play the fiddle anymore or have a display at the art fair but the garden does need watering, and there are a few cucumbers ready to pick. The pancake breakfast is coming up, too.

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