Janesville man's memorial honors veterans year round

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Anna Marie Lux
Sunday, November 10, 2013

JANESVILLE--John Hacklander wove slowly among the white crosses as a cold wind wrestled his coat.

Skillfully, he steadied himself with a walking stick in each hand. By every solemn marker, the World War II veteran paused to read out loud a name, rank, military unit and war.

“This is my brother-in-law,” Hacklander said. “He was in Patton's Army. He never talked about it …”

The rumble of cars and a semitrailer truck drowned out his voice.

In front of his home on Highway 14 east of Janesville, the retired farmer has created a tribute to the deceased veterans in his family and to all veterans in general.

“This one did not return from a bombing mission over Germany,” Hacklander said, stopping again to pay respect.

The memorial with 11 white crosses includes a big sign that says what is in Hacklander's heart: “Our Veterans—Not Forgotten.”

The idea to honor and remember those who have served began several years ago with a simple flag pole. But in recent weeks, the display has grown to include the crosses, information about the veterans attached to a large boulder and a dusk-to-dawn light so the sentiment never dims.

Hacklander will not have a Veterans Day ceremony to dedicate the tribute.

“I just walk out there and tell those guys that they are not forgotten,” he said.

For decades after his service in World War II, Hacklander did not talk much about what he did or saw.

Five years ago, he experienced an emotional turning point.

Hacklander was speaking to young people when they sensed he was a veteran. They thought he had served in Vietnam. When he shook his head, they guessed Korea.

“No, the war before that one,” Hacklander responded.

“Who did we fight there?” a boy asked.

Even now, the disappointment is visible on Hacklander's face.

“That blew the lid off me,” he said, “when a new generation does not know what we did to save their freedom.”

In response, Hacklander set up the lighted flag on a pole in front of his home. He joined other veterans on a tour of their memorials in Washington, D.C. He bought two WWII veterans caps to wear regularly.

Hacklander does all this because the memories never die.

No one prepared the 18-year-old farm boy for what he was about to experience after enlisting in the U.S. Navy. In the early 1940s, he became a hospital corpsman and was assigned to Naval Air Training stations in Florida, where he became a regular witness to pain and death.

“I was the medic who went out with an ambulance when they were learning to fly,” he said. “My duty was mainly on crash detail and in the treatment room.”

The Navy placed newly trained flyers into the single cockpits of F4U Corsair fighter planes. These were no ordinary planes. Each flew with an 18-cyclinder, 2000-horsepower, radial engine. The engine was 6 feet long and had a 4-blade propeller 11 feet in diameter.

“They were monsters,” Hacklander said. “But, skillfully tamed, the planes were fighting beasts.”

He called the student pilots the cream of America's young men, ages 20 to 22.

“This age group, with that teenage go-go spirit, made the best fighter pilots,” Hacklander said. “They had no instructors with them, only an instructor with a radio in a chase plane. We lost from one to three young men, on average, every week.”

Thousands of casualties occurred just in air-training exercises in the United States, more than those lost in air combat, he said.

“Those of us on the crash crew carry the memories of each crash event with us for the rest of our lives,” Hacklander added, pausing. “In my case, I filed the details in a locked closet in my mind's memory bank …”

Then a young man's question prompted him to begin telling his story.

Hacklander explained the horror of his duty:

“Have you ever had to identify a body after it has been in the ocean a few days or burned so badly you can't identify the mouth and teeth?”

Once, a plane crashed into a lake in the Everglades, and he had to retrieve the body. He did not understand why they gave him a gun until he realized the lake was full of alligators and snakes.

“These young men gave God and this country the greatest gifts they had—their lives,” Hacklander said. “Have we honored them? No!”

With his homegrown memorial, he hopes to create awareness.

Neighbor Gary Kraus built the crosses that stand straight and reverent. Two are bigger than the others and carry the names of men who died in combat.

“I look on it as an honor to be able to help John,” Kraus said.

Earlier last week, Kraus put finishing touches on the lighting.

“It's quite impressive when you drive by at night,” he said.

He called Hacklander a man with a lot of determination.

“I probably never met anyone who loves his country any more than John does,” Kraus said. “His memorial will be up for as long as we can keep it going. It's important to honor our veterans, not just one or two days of the year, but every day.”

Anna Marie Lux is a columnist for The Gazette. Her columns run Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call her with ideas or comments at (608) 755-8264, or email amarielux@gazettextra.com.

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