by Dennis Dalman
A World War II veteran who was honored with nine battle stars for fighting in the Pacific will be the keynote speaker at the Sartell Memorial Day ceremony at 9 a.m. Monday, May 27 in Veterans Park.
Rollie Weis of Sartell is the only surviving World War II veteran in the Sartell American Legion, a group Weis joined 68 years ago shortly after he was married. Like other veterans, Weis knows first-hand, deep in his heart, the meaning of Memorial Day. In the war, he lost not only many buddies but his own brother, Phillip, who was killed in the Battle of the Bulge. Those who paid the ultimate sacrifice should forever be honored and remembered, Weis said.
At the Sartell ceremony, Weis will share the remarkable story of his brother.
Phillip Weis was in the U.S. Army, serving in France, when the Battle of the Bulge began. That long, relentless battle in northern Europe began after the Allied powers invaded northern France from England, an event known as D-Day. The Battle of the Bulge succeeded in pushing back the Nazis into Germany from the West and led directly to Adolf Hitler’s utter defeat.
While Phillip Weis was part of that historic battle, his brother, Rollie, was half a world away in the Pacific Ocean, helping fight the Japanese island to island. Rollie, who had been drafted into the U.S. Navy, was serving as a gunner on a destroyer named the USS Hopewell.
In the meantime, Phillip was reported as missing in action, but Rollie did not know it at the time because mail sent from home to the Pacific forces was sporadic and slow. It wasn’t until many months later when Rollie, after the war, heard what had happened to his lost brother. He had been shot and killed sometime in January 1945 in a forest in Luxembourg, a land-locked country between France, Germany and Belgium.
Nobody knew what had happened to Phillip until 10 months after his death. His body had lain in that forest that long until a Luxembourg couple, walking in the woods, found a skeleton and a few tattered personal effects, including an identification medal. All soldiers typically carried, usually on a chain necklace, two metal identifications, dubbed “dog tags.” The couple found out Rollie’s parents’ hometown address from the dog tags and sent a letter to Phil and Hazel Weis of Sartell, who happened to serve as Sartell postmasters at that time. The Weises, of course, were devastated by the news but also relieved their deceased son had been accounted for, at least. He was buried in a Luxembourg cemetery by strangers, and the Weises were unable to be at the ceremony. Later, his remains were moved to an American military cemetery, also in Luxembourg, the same cemetery in which famed general George S. Patton is buried.
It is an eerie coincidence that Phillip was killed just three miles from where his grandfather had lived before emigrating to the United States in 1871.
Flash forward to 32 years later when another extraordinary coincidence happened. One day Rollie and his wife, Janette, received a letter from Luxembourg. It was from a man named Fernand Weis (no relation to Rollie – another amazing coincidence) who had found, by using a metal detector, a dog-tag in a forest in Luxembourg. The man, who is a hobbyist collector of World War II artifacts, traced the name and serial number on the dog tag through official channels at the cemetery where Phillip was buried. It took Fernand a lot of hassles to get an address, but finally he was given the address of Phillip’s parents in a faraway place called Sartell, Minn. Fortunately, Janette was working as a postal clerk at the time and noticed “Phil and Hazel Holt,” along with their old address on Sartell Street. By that time, Phil and Hazel had passed on. She and Rollie were stunned when they opened that letter and read the news.
Astounded by the second find of a dog tag, Rollie and his wife, Janette, took a trip to Luxembourg to meet Fernand and to visit Phillip’s grave. Fernand has also visited the Weis family in Sartell.
Rollie said he can remember the World War II years as vividly as anything that happened just yesterday. Drafted in 1943, he served for 2.5 years as a gunner on the USS Hopewell. One of the major encounters was assistance in helping liberate the Philippines from the Japanese occupiers. One day, as the ship was cruising off of the island of Corregidor in Manila Bay and trying to spot and rescue men who had been clearing the harbor of mines, enemy forces from shore lobbed shells at the ship, killing 10 of Weis’s fellow sailors and wounding 18. Chaos followed; P.T. boats swept in to rescue the mine-sweeping men from the bay.
Weis also vividly remembers shooting down two kamikaze planes screaming in with deadly intent out of the sky toward the ship. Kamikaze, which is Japanese for “divine wind,” is a name given to pilots willing to commit suicide by crashing their planes into American ships in the Pacific, causing terrible destruction and loss of life.
Weis was fortunate not to be injured after so many dangerous encounters. His nine battle stars are testament to the dangers he and other Navy personnel faced throughout the war in the Pacific. After the destroyer was damaged, it had to be brought back to San Francisco for repairs. Then it set out again for the far Pacific, all the way to the harbor at Guam. While tied to a battleship in the harbor, Weis and everyone else heard the ecstatic news: Japan had surrendered. The war in Europe had ended in April 1945, and at long last, in mid-August 1945, the war in the Pacific was also over. It was a very happy day to remember.
After the good news, the USS Hopewell, with Weis aboard, was one of the destroyers that escorted the air-craft carrier USS Missouri to Tokyo Bay. It was on the deck of the USS Missouri that the Japanese signed surrender documents that finally ended the Pacific war.
Weis spent two months in the harbor and had a chance to visit bomb-damaged Tokyo a few times. He was amazed how friendly all the Japanese were who he chanced to meet, many of whom spoke excellent English.
“They were very friendly,” he said. “They welcomed us everywhere in Tokyo.”
After the war, Weis moved back to Sartell and worked for many years as a printer, first at Sentinel Printing in St. Cloud, then as a printing instructor at the St. Cloud Correction Facility. Later, he worked part-time for Dingmann’s Funeral Home in Sauk Rapids before retiring. He and Janette have lived in the same house they built 50 years ago. They have been married 68 years and have two daughters, Sandy and Sue; three grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.