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Tappe employed 'footwork' to see Washington landmarks

World War II veteran Leroy Tappe visited the sites of Washington D.C. with an Honor Flight out of St. Cloud in September.1 / 4
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Leroy Tappe, right, of Wadena, meets former Senator Bob Dole while touring Washington D.C. in September.3 / 4
Leroy Tappe poses at a spot overlooking the National Mall.4 / 4

Leroy Tappe traveled to the white cliffs of Dover to Omaha Beach all the way to Berlin during World War II. And this September the Wadena resident finally flew to Washington, D.C. to see the memorial built to honor him and others who served in the war.

"I think it was needed, really," Tappe said. "I thought it was a real good idea ... for World War II [veterans] to actually see what was going on in Washington, D.C."

He's wanted to take the trip for the past four years, he said. He couldn't believe it when the letter arrived in August saying he'd been chosen along with 34 other veterans for an all-expense paid Honor Flight from St. Cloud.

Tappe donned a red World War II veteran cap, an Honor Flight T-shirt and an Army name tag as he traveled throughout the nation's capital Sept. 26-27.

He saw all 555 feet of the Washington Monument. He watched the Changing of the Guard at Arlington National Cemetery. He met Bob and Elizabeth Dole. He visited the Lincoln, FDR, Korean, Vietnam, Navy, Air Force and Iwo Jima memorials. He toured the U.S. Capitol Building and the White House. And he stood by the pillars of the World War II Memorial. Tappe got his photo taken at the Minnesota pillar, the Iowa pillar in honor of where his wife, Gail, was born and the Washington pillar in honor of where his nephew, Joe Bisbee lives. Bisbee accompanied his uncle to D.C.

Bisbee was surprised by how energetic and excited the veterans were, he said. They almost seemed more energized at the end of the trip than at the beginning.

At age 91, Tappe was the second oldest veteran on the trip. He was beat out by mere months for the honor of oldest traveler.

It was "a lot of footwork" for a two-day trip, Tappe said.

Tour leaders included a lot of nice points in the well-organized trip, Tappe said.

An emotional highlight was a tribute to mail call.

Gail, who married Tappe in 1967, wrote a note thanking him for his service.

"We were supposed to write a little note up and they would read it to these soldiers when they were on the flight," she said.

Mail call was very important to soldiers during the war, Gail said.

It was hard, though, for packages and letters to keep up with soldiers on the move across Europe. One time a letter from his dad and a package from his mother sent in November didn't reach Tappe until May 1, he said. The cookies were powder and the box was flat. He let the wind take what remained of the home-baked treats.

Tappe's five-year service in the Army began in 1940 when he joined the National Guard in Park Rapids. The 90 days a year would fill the one-year service asked by the government, he said.

"And guess what? Ninety days right to the minute just about ... within a few days World War II broke out," Tappe said.

He was stationed about two miles from downtown Oakland, Calif., when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, he said. He was headed to the Chamber of Commerce to check out points of interest to visit when he heard the news.

"G.I.s came in their jeep with their loudspeaker, 'All soldiers report for duty,'" he recalled. "So I about-faced and went down back to [base]."

Tappe was assigned to guard the Bay Bridge at Treasure Island after the bombing, Bisbee said.

He eventually made his way to Dover, England where he faced the horrors of V-1 and V-2 German buzz bombs.

"You weren't safe anyplace," Tappe said.

Tappe's war days didn't end in England.

A man his nephew describes as "probably the sweetest and mildest" of his 12 brothers and sisters still had to be loaded on a flat-bottomed boat for Omaha Beach. From there he went through Germany all the way to Berlin. He participated in battles in the Black Forest and the Battle of the Bulge, he said. On the way back from Berlin he helped reestablish local governments.

"He saw way more than anybody should see," Bisbee said.

At the end of the war Tappe also helped organize undocumented people such as those from concentration camps, Bisbee said.

"He's lived an extraordinary life and you wouldn't realize it for such a low-key person," he said.

His uncle traveled all over the world when he had a travel business, he said.

Tappe's first business venture after the war, however, kept the Sebeka native a little closer to home. He was the owner of the Palace Cafe and Bus Depot next to where Dairy Queen is now.

He initially thought of going to California when he returned to Wadena, Tappe said. But his sister told him he wasn't going to do that and gave him a check to buy the cafe.

"I went down and bought the cafe and stayed there for 30 years," he said. "I was tired of traveling."

Tappe didn't mention the war throughout those years, he said. The only story he shared was with a good friend about lingering instincts from the war.

The Palace Cafe and Bus Depot was only a block from the intersection of U.S. Highways 71 and 10, he said. The sounds of traffic brought back memories of combat.

"Putt, putt, putt, putt, putt," is what the German buzz bombs sounded like," Tappe said. "Then they'd stop and that's when you hit the foxhole."

Trucks sometimes made a similar sound. Tappe lived in the back of the cafe and would jump in his bed when he heard the sound.

"Then they'd go putt, putt, putt, putt and stop and I was in the foxhole, I was in my bed," he said.

That's about the only story he mentioned during those years, he said.

Tappe started sharing stories with the family about 25 to 30 years ago, Bisbee said.

"[It's] quite amazing the things he went through," Bisbee said.

He feels better after he talks about the war, Tappe said. But it's hard to do.

His Uncle Leroy has always had a positive attitude even with all the things he went through, Bisbee said. He's probably the most honorable man he knows.

Tappe knew someone was watching out for him, he said.

"I just thank the Lord he was with me all the way," Tappe said.