Maury Mogensen is 80 years old but to fellow members of the World War II and Korean War Veterans Last Man’s Club he’s just a kid.
“He’s a baby,” World War II veteran Al Carter, 86, of Pine River, said in a phone interview this week.
Mogensen’s relative youth among the four surviving members of the club has emboldened the Brainerd man to lay claim to the prized bottle of liquor that goes the last surviving member of the club. From the time when they closed the club’s roster membership, he was the youngest member — by 10 days.
“I’ve been saying for the last 40 years ‘That’s my bottle in there,” said Mogensen, a Korean War vet, recently at the Brainerd Veterans of VFW. “It’s the last man standing that gets the bottle.”
The bottle in question is kept in an enclosed glass case at the Brainerd Veterans of Foreign War (VFW) Post 1647.
This Last Man’s Club was established in 1956 with 76 members, according to Mogensen. Eligibility requirements for the club were that members were veterans of either World War II or the Korean War and that they were members of the Brainerd VFW. The first dinner for the organization was conducted in 1957 and it’s been conducted annually since then.
The Last Man’s Club follows in the tradition of the Brainerd VFW’s World War I Last Man’s Club. A bottle the World War I group had been saving, according to Mogensen, was kept at the Crow Wing County Courthouse for years and recently turned over to the VFW. He said the World War II and Korean War Last Man’s Club and the Vietnam War Last Man’s Club drank the remainder of that unclaimed bottle after toasting the World I veterans.
Mogensen said he’s made “almost all the meetings,” of his Last Man’s Club, enjoying the chance to renew acquaintances and exchange stories with men who served in those two wars. His fellow members included one brother-in-law, the late Roy Schellin, and “lots of good friends.” Their number has dwindled however with the passage of time. Four members survive although one of the three wasn’t able to attend last September’s meeting because of illness.
In addition to Carter and Mogensen, the surviving members are John Turner of St. Paul and James Kounkel of Fort Ripley. Turner was the only surviving member who could not be reached by the Dispatch.
Mogensen looked back on his time in the service as a period during which he grew up in a hurry and learned to be accountable.
“You done something (wrong), it was your fault,” he said.
While he was proud to serve in the military, he soon realized he wasn’t going to make a career of it.
“I was one of those who couldn’t say ‘yes sir/no sir’ in the right tone of voice, so I got out right after the war,” Mogensen said.
Carter was elected president at the September meeting but Mogensen said he ran the meeting as vice president. Mogensen said duties for the surviving members are now decided based largely on the members’ eyesight and what he termed “standability.”
The Last Man’s Club meets on the fourth Saturday of September at the Brainerd VFW. The gatherings used to be a bit more lively than they are today.
“Everybody went home drunk,” Carter said of the meetings in the old days.
Now, Carter said, the members “have a few drinks, a few laughs and go home and talk about it.”
Carter, 86, served in the U.S. Navy Seabees, spending a year on Guam. He and his fellow sailors were three days out to sea from San Francisco when they heard that Japan had surrendered. Returning to Brainerd after the war, Carter worked at Sanitary Meat Market in northeast Brainerd and then later for decades as a lineman with the Rural Electrical Association. His father was a World War I veteran.
Kounkel, who lives in Fort Ripley, said he served at the tail end of World War II. He said Last Man’s Club members don’t talk much about their military days, other than the funny stories.
“They really don’t talk to much about their combat time,” he said. “We don’t take long with the ... election of officers. Each one drinks to the last man. By 9 p.m. everyone’s gone.”
While in the military Kounkel said he perfected his typing skills and learned to keep his head down.
“I was a snot-nosed kid when I went in,” Kounkel said. “I was barely 17. I fudged it a little bit and they didn’t catch me until I was overseas.
“All of your friends were in and you figured you should go, too. I lost some awful good friends. Quite a few of my friends had gotten killed.”
After the war Kounkel spent time in a Veteran’s Administration hospital, played baseball for the Sioux City Sues and hauled bulk oil by truck. He spent 32 years at the Northwest Paper Mill in northeast Brainerd.
He remembered his welcome home to the family farm was cut short because of a threatening storm that required family members to get to work.
His dad told him “Quick, change your clothes, we got to haul hay this afternoon.”
Kounkel didn’t mind the abbreviated welcome home.
“It seemed kind of good to get home ... do some stuff that you used to do,” he said.
The annual gathering of the Last Man’s Club is more than just a social dinner. The members often drink a toast to club members who have died and to other military personnel who gave their lives in service to their country.
“World War II was the ultimate fight for freedom,” Mogensen said. “Korea was important, too.”
While reflecting on the last month’s Last Man’s Club dinner, Kounkel recalled an old toast that he had memorized over the years:
“No one hears their passing, as we go beyond recall.
Soft as petals from a rose, one by one our comrades fall.”