FOREST LAKE, Minn. - Many people are air-evacuated each year, but only one Minnesotan can say he did it on the wing of an airplane.
That is the story of El Ewert, 88, of Forest Lake.
Ewert was a 19-year-old Army soldier, who landed on a beach in the Philippines in 1945 when his 28-man platoon was ambushed by Japanese soldiers. It was one of those life-in-the-balance moments for the young self-described farm boy.
"When we got ambushed, there were only four of us that were survivors," explained Ewert.
Ewert had been manning a Browning Automatic Rifle, which he described as "the greatest rifle at that time, the most dangerous weapon." He said he fired the 43-pound gun without any bracing struts and it was effective.
"The Japanese did not like me," he said.
Even though Ewert carried spare ammunition for the 20-shot magazine in his pockets, he was accompanied by an ammunition bearer who carried more.
"I lost three ammunition bearers," he recalled. "Two got killed. One of them got his heel shot off and then my army buddy from Riggins, Idaho became my ammunition bearer."
That man was Ace Barton. When Barton died in Idaho three weeks ago, Ewert became the lone survivor of his 28-man platoon. Ewert could not travel to the funeral for medical reasons, so he attended by an internet SKPE connection.
"I spoke for six minutes and sang "Soldier Boy" in honor of him," said Ewert. "And when I was through, I got a standing ovation from over 200 people."
In fact, Ewert uses his still strong voice at many events at the Forest Lake American Legion Post. On Veterans Day this year, he sang the Star Spangled Banner and God Bless America. Ewert said he sang a bit in high school, but gave up the music training for sports.
His 6 feet 4 inch frame moves a little slower around his Forest Lake home these days, but still shows the strength he has displayed in beating cancer and a staph infection in recent years. It all pales by comparison to the bravery he displayed in the aftermath of that terrible ambush during World War II.
He had been shot through his left leg and had shrapnel in his stomach and in his left side. He carries some of that shrapnel in his body to this day. Medical personnel decided to move the wounded 19-year-old quickly to a bigger hospital in Luzon.
"Of course, we didn't have helicopters," smiled Ewert. "So, they took four of us on a Cessna, one on each wing and two on the inside. I was (tied) on one of the wings. They asked whether I wanted to lay on my stomach or my back and I said, 'I want to lay on my stomach. I want to see where we're going.'"
Even in what had to be a painful flight in a strong wind; Ewert remembers the trip with wonder.
"It just so happened that as we flew at a thousand feet, we were flying over what was left of the Okinawa Armada. It was unbelievable to see the destroyers going around, all around the ships. It was amazing. Here I am, a 19-year-old kid, and I had a heck of a good time, believe me. That was great!"
Ewert was awarded the Purple Heart and a Bronze Star for valor. He speaks to high school students from time to time about his own experiences as a teenager in war. He has definite opinions about the youth of today.
"They can tell me all about the 'bad kids' and you give me these kids today, they are great," said Ewert. "Give them a chance, man. They are there. All they need is a little direction."
Ewert could give them a little inspiration. He survived to become a treasured American Legionaire and a great granddad. More remarkably, at 88, he drives his own car and lives in his own lake front home.
"I am still having fun," he grinned. "You bet. I do not give up."
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