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Veterans Tribute

Lynden Tribune | Wednesday, November 4, 2020 | Ferndale Record

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Veterans Tribute

Lynden Tribune | Wednesday, November 4, 2020 | Ferndale Record

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In a World War II campaign at age 18

Ernest Keen, of Bellingham, sits in the Lynden house of his son Oral and Patty Keen, alongside him. Patty's father, Dick McCoy, also served in World War II. (Calvin Bratt/Lynden Tribune)

Ernest Keen, 94, one of few of his era left, was in ‘Rainbow’ Division surge

invaded and bombed Poland on Sept. 1, 1939, and the fight in Europe ended with the defeat of Adolph Hitler’s forces in spring 1945 — more than five and a years of warfare.

By Elisa Claassen for the Lynden Tribune

   WHATCOM — Ernest Keen played a role in this chapter of world history, although for decades he did not care to speak about it. It was the way of many veterans who fought in combat.

The History    World War II started when Germany

   It was only at the 1996 50-year reunion of his unit that Ernie Keen could share those old memories, first with his buddies from the 42nd Infantry “Rainbow” Division and then with his family.    Keen, 94, of Bellingham, came to his son Oral’s house in Lynden last week to also tell parts of what he remembers to the Tribune. The family has an illustrated map of the “Rainbow” campaign and also a looseleaf binder documenting the

division’s combat history in World War II. Youth in Missouri and being drafted    The Keen family had two boys, spaced seven years apart, on a farm in Missouri. Both went to war serving their country. Older son Earl was taken prisoner of war twice in Europe — he was See Keen on C4


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Lynden Tribune | Wednesday, November 4, 2020 | Ferndale Record

Veterans Tribute

Keen

Post-war, the 42nd Infantry "Rainbow" Division provided this illustrated map of the World War II campaign of December 1944 to May 1945. (Courtesy photo) Continued from C3

released in a prisoner exchange the first time. Younger brother Ernie was just old enough, turning 18 on Dec. 21, 1943, to be drafted into the war.    A draft, also known as conscription, happens when a military needs men to

fight in a war, but there aren’t enough volunteers.    When the boys were growing up, many families took their children out of school to work either at home or to start helping to support the family. “No one graduated,” Ernest Keen said matter-offactly.

   He was 14 or 15 when he left school and he was a firefighter for a time. “It paid 50 cents an hour and that was big money.”    Initial time in boot camp brought an introduction to well-known actor/ comedian Richard “Red” Skelton, who was in training himself at Camp Roberts,

California, following a divorce in which he lost his married man’s deferment and could be drafted for service.    The time in basic training was good for Keen in that Army eating was better than what he knew back in Missouri. It Continued on next page


Lynden Tribune | Wednesday, November 4, 2020 | Ferndale Record

Veterans Tribute

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helped him gain weight — (in contrast to his brother going under 100 pounds as a POW). It happened that Audie Murphy — who would go on to become one of the most decorated American combat soldiers of the war — was serving in a unit that went ahead of Keen at Camp Roberts. Murphy received every military combat award for valor available from the U.S. at the time.    The 42nd Infantry Division, which had been in World War I, was reactivated at Camp Gruber, Oklahoma, on July 14, 1943. It was called a “rainbow” because men were selected from throughout the nation. “Major General Harry J. Collins, then Brigadier General, recalled the words of General MacArthur on that activation day: “The rainbow stretches across the land and represents the people of our country. This Division cannot fail because America cannot fail.”    One tough part was the urgency to get new soldiers trained and over to the battle: “Everything had to be shortened, condensed, and speeded up.” Off to war, just 18    Movies can make war look exciting, especially if lots of details aren’t shown See Keen on C6

All four of Ernie Keen's children and their families live in the region and especially a granddaughter looks in on him at his house in Bellingham each day. He turns 95 on Dec. 21. (Calvin Bratt/Lynden Tribune)


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Veterans Tribute

Lynden Tribune | Wednesday, November 4, 2020 | Ferndale Record

Keen Continued from C5

Both Ernest Keen's entry into the U.S. Army and his honorable discharge in 1946 were from Missouri, where he had grown up, before the family's move to Washington state. (Courtesy photo)

up close. It’s another thing to head out in stormy seas on ships toward unknown battlefields.    In Ernest Keen’s case, he was on one of three troop transport ships crossing the Atlantic together, and only two of them made it safely across. Keen knew the threat was real when soldiers were locked into the ship’s sealed holds so that if a torpedo hit one compartment it would not destroy the whole ship.    Keen said that some of his training took place with brooms and not guns, and gun training occurred even in the minutes heading into action — such were the adjustments that had to be made. And the battlefield was constant, from the moment of landing at Marseilles, France, in December 1944 and on for weeks and months on foot up along the Rhone River and into Germany at Strasbourg.    The illustrated map of the 42nd Infantry Division given to its men in 1946 shows: the Siegfried Line, where the “Rainbow proves its colors here; “complete German debacle” at Dahn; the division crossing the Main River four times; getting to Furth and Nurnberg, “the heart of Naziland”; and celebrating war’s end on May 8, 1945, near the German border with Austria.    This was winter and the soldiers were in rain or snow and often in foxholes or trenches. Orders were coming from General George S. Patton Jr., known for commanding the U.S. Third Army in France and Germany (he died a short time later in 1945 from injury in a car accident in Germany).    One night while sleeping in a field, soldiers took turns being awake for guard duty. Ernie didn’t trust the man on first watch and so didn’t sleep until the next guy took his turn. That man, Roy Hankins, saved Ernie's life when he saw a German soldier standing over him. Thankfully, the enemy soldier didn’t pull the pin on the grenade he was holding. (Later, Roy died in a war accident with a cable being strung across a roadway and the Keens didn’t know if Hankins’ family of six kids knew he had saved other soldiers.)    At one point they took “volunteers” to take bazookas and be ready to fire on enemy tanks. Ernie explained he wasn’t a good shot, and he frankly was scared. He and another “kid” went to one side of a hill, ready to run into neighboring Continued on next page


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Lynden Tribune | Wednesday, November 4, 2020 | Ferndale Record

Veterans Tribute woods if they had to. Instead, the 25 German tanks coming toward them changed course and went another direction. The two teens didn’t have to fire. They were so relieved.    Ernie had his 19th birthday on Dec. 21, 1944. He was one of the younger members of his group. Many were even in their 40s. According to the division’s compiled “A Combat History of World War II,” two days before Christmas 1944 the Rainbow infantryman arrived in a section of Strasbourg and were billeted in old French forts and in schoolhouses. That provided the luxury of running water and being able to sleep indoors. On Christmas Eve and into the holiday, they moved into front-line defensive positions along the Rhine River. The famous 60mile Battle of the Bulge, a turning point, was happening north of them. They accidentally moved too far ahead of the battle lines, but thankfully weren’t caught.    At one point they turned off their vehicle lights in a town full of Germans, Ernie said, and safely passed through.    It was cold. There was snow. Antitank mines were laid in streets. Battles occurred in small towns and in forests, sometimes around civilians. The Americans were constantly moving, from place

to place. Ernie said there were far too any cities and towns to count. If bridges were destroyed at some point, they were rebuilt in order to be able to cross.    Sometimes they were in tanks. “We were mostly running,” on foot, he said. One of his legs was injured by a board that hit it when he jumped into a fox hole. He lost 50 pounds during the five months of the campaign stretching from December 1944 to May 1945.    One time his head “froze” and a buddy had a hard time waking him in their small pup tent that gave little protection against the cold. Ernie suffered migraine headaches for most of his life that he attributes to that winter’s traumas.    There was an incident of two Allied

planes being shot down because troops on the ground had not gotten word of their approach. Sometimes when planes were flying over them, soldiers didn’t know if the pilots were friend or foe.    The final battle for Munich began on April 29, 1945 when the U.S. arrived with its 20th Armored Division, 3rd Infantry Division, 42nd Infantry Division and 45th Infantry Division and also liberated Dachau concentration camp nearby.    Ernie had heard of the horrors of Dachau prison, where bodies were piled up on each other and they included some who were alive. He had no desire to see it for himself as the division passed by toward the end of the campaign. The Nazis had run out of fuel to run the crematoriums. Elsewhere, thousands of people faced starvation with supplies running low at the end of the war.    Ernie was part of a group of 37 that stayed on in Germany when the war ended. They were going from home to home and looking for enemy soldiers and weapons to take into custody. At one home, they allowed the German soldiers to kiss their women good-bye before taking them away. Another home of an older couple had a pile of money stored away, filling a case. The owners cried at the ap-

proach of the soldiers, but the Americans didn’t bother to take the cash as it seemed of little value. However, Keen did find a pistol hidden in a wood pile nearby. Coming home and life after    He returned to Missouri, got to see his brother again and gained weight back. He met and married his long-time wife Edith “Lorene,” started their family and then had the chance to move to Whatcom County, Washington.    Son Oral, at age 64, is the youngest of four siblings. He said his father didn’t talk much about his war days until 50 years later after the two went to a reunion of his war buddies from the Rainbow at a SeaTac hotel in 1996. Oral said he spent two solid days with the men and listened to their memories. One guy there would cry and simply hug; he has since passed away.    When the family came to Whatcom County, Ernie at first worked for Lynden’s Pete Geleynse and other local farmers, some of the work in potatoes.    Eventually he bought a house on F Street in Bellingham and had a career of more than 30 years working in the Parberry’s recycling and salvage operation on the waterfront.

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Veterans Tribute

Lynden Tribune | Wednesday, November 4, 2020 | Ferndale Record

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After Meridian, a 33-year Army career Robert Bertand was in basic training the summer of 1987 before becoming ASB president By Calvin Bratt editor@lyndentribune.com

Bertrand was part of a unit of the General Command of Kurdistan Peshmerga Forces in the Kurdish region of Iraq. Bertrand had three deployments in all to Iraq, first in 2004 and then again in 2005-06 and 2007-08. (Courtesy photo)

   WHATCOM ­— Back in the summer of 1987, Robert Bertrand, just 17, was getting a head start on what he hoped would be a military career. He went through U.S. Army Basic Combat Training at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, and became an Army reservist.    He then returned for his senior year at Meridian High School where he had been elected student body president. And although he had been in some football and wrestling before, that fall he was new in the role of being a male cheerleader — from a summer of “a lot of yelling and screaming” at boot camp to the same as a high school cheerleader, he can say now with a laugh.    A career of more than 33 years in a U.S. Army uniform has now played out for Bertrand.    Effective Oct. 1 he retired as a colonel with about 28 years in active duty as a commissioned officer. However, while staying in Suffolk, Virginia, with his family, Bertrand has stepped right into the civilian role of being a strategic planning advisor supporting the Army Modeling and Simulations Office.    The goal is a 10-year plan of “where we’re going” in terms of modernization, readiness and even relations with the Russians and Chinese, he said in a phone call.    Bertrand has seen tours of duty as Continued on next page

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Lynden Tribune | Wednesday, November 4, 2020 | Ferndale Record

Veterans Tribute farflung as Alaska, Bosnia, Iraq (three deployments), Afghanistan, Europe and Libya. Stateside, he has been at Fort Benning, Georgia, and Fort Hood, Texas, and was most recently assigned to the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.    He would like to be returning to the Pacific Northwest, but it’s not in the cards quite yet.    “I wanted to return back to the beautiful coniferous trees, crabs and warm Dutch pioneer culture of Lynden, but during COVID in the hunt for a job I chose a ‘bird in the hand over two in a bush’ and I was hired here in the East for a job which fits my expertise,” Bertrand wrote in an email.    Bertrand was raised on King Tut Road off the Guide Meridian and his mom and a sister’s family now call Birch Bay home.    His career path, after Meridian, was to be back with the Army for additional training and then on to Central Washington University in its ROTC program. He earned a military commission as an infantry officer in 1992, and then 11 years later added his master’s degree in education and leadership from Troy University in Alabama.    One notable assignment was to be a platoon leader in the Army’s only paratrooper unit that trains for arctic combat, in Alaska.    He then commanded a rifle company in the 10th Mountain Division during a deployment to Bosnia in 1999 in support of the United Nations peacekeeping mission of the time.    In 2004 he was on his first Special Forces assignment to Iraq “to enable the kill/capture of high value terrorist,” according to his resume’. Bertrand was back in that trouble spot again in 2005-06 and 2007-08, with roles as a military transition team chief, infantry battalion executive officer and brigade civil-military operations officery.    At the end, he was trying to “help them rebuild their economy,” he said. See Bertrand on C10

Robert Bertrand's tours of duty have taken him to many places: Alaska as an arctic paratrooper, then to Bosnia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Europe and Libya as well as to assignments stateside. (Courtesy photo)

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Veterans Tribute

Lynden Tribune | Wednesday, November 4, 2020 | Ferndale Record

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Bertrand Continued from C9

Robert Bertrand and his wife, Hollie, have two children, Emily, now 10, and Ryan, 6. As a sign of how the kids are growing up, dad Robert went with Emily last week into Washington, D.C., to do research on a president. (Courtesy photo )

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   In 2009-10 Bertrand was in Afghanistan. There, similarly, he was in roles of aiming to help the war-torn country to “focus on the rule of law” or to rebuild its judicial and prison systems, he said.    Lastly in 2017 he was deployed to Libya in support of the United Nations mission there for the U.S. military.    He was promoted to colonel in July 2014.    He has been awarded: three Legion of Merit awards, two Bronze Stars, Defense Meritorious Service Medals, Joint Service Commendation Medals, Global War on Terrorism Expeditionary and Service medals, Iraq and Afghanistan Campaign medals, a United Nations Medal, NATO medals, Combat Infantryman’s Badge, Combat Action Badge, Expert Infantryman’s Badge, Master Parachutist, German parachutist badge and the coveted Army Ranger Tab.      In overseas deployments that generally were a year long, Bertrand usually got to return home to see his family every two to three months, he said.    Early on in his career, Robert met his wife-to-be, Mollie, originally from Virginia. Using her training she continues to be a practicing attorney while also mom to their two children, Emily, 10, and Ryan, 6.    Bertrand said he gets back to Whatcom County about every two years or so and is eager to reconnect with high school friends who are still around as well as to indulge in traditions such as Birch Bay wading and the Northwest Washington Fair in Lynden where the apple pie served at the Lynden PTA booth is “the highlight of the fair,” he said.    “It’s home,” he said of Whatcom County.

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