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The 'lucky' one; WWII veteran still in the game after brush with death

World War II veteran Melvin Smith was among the former service members who were recognized during Monday's Veterans Day ceremony at Wadena-Deer Creek Middle/High School. Photo by Dain Sullivan

Melvin Smith doesn't dwell much on the fact he nearly died from malaria in a tent hospital bed during World War II. He also doesn't seem to mind the partial deafness he suffers from because of his days spent feeding heavy ammunition into screaming guns used to take down war planes.

These days, the 93-year-old Wadena man is much quicker to chat about golf, card games or the 1,200 mint baseball caps he has collected throughout the years and stored in his daughter's garage.

As Smith sits at his kitchen table in Wadena's Commercial Apartments, it is plain to see he is just happy to be with his family, alive and well in the country he loves.

"We're pretty lucky I guess," he chuckled, as his his daughter, Linda Macklanburg, and wife, Margaret Smith, sat nearby.

Melvin certainly has a lot to be thankful for. After all, he said he lost 35 pounds during his 30-day brush with malaria toward the end of the war.

"It's funny I even lived," he said.

His sickness also took him off the map, and nearly cost him the knowledge that he was going to be a father.

"The Red Cross could not find him," said Margaret, from the comfort of the couple's living room sofa. "We were trying to find him to tell him he had a daughter born, but they couldn't find him. I wouldn't name her either, until they found him."

But the war eventually ended. Melvin found his way back to his sweetheart, and the two agreed upon a name: Linda.

Today, Macklanburg is close with her parents, and enjoys joking about being the "favorite." She has a younger sister, Patricia Larson, and a late brother, Wayne Smith, who died of cancer in 2007.

While it's been years since World War II, Melvin often thinks about how differently society welcomes veterans these days. When he returned to Wadena after the war, there was no parade, special escort or group of community members welcoming him home. All that lay in front of him was an 80-pound duffle bag and an empty street.

But Melvin and other veterans received a proper welcome during Monday's Veterans Day ceremony at Wadena-Deer Creek Middle/High School.

When the event's main speaker, Retired Maj. Gen. Larry Shellito, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs, asked the veterans in attendance at Monday's ceremony to be recognized, Melvin and other former service members proudly stood up as students and community members applauded.

"That was really nice," Melvin said.

During his speech, which he referred to as a "history lesson," Shellito spoke of the importance of honoring veterans like Melvin.

"The goal of Veterans Day is to stop and reflect on the service of all," Shellitto said. "The generations before you have shaped many things."

Also during Monday's program, Melvin and other veterans were able to listen to WDC students talk about what patriotic spirit means to them. Veterans also listened as hundreds of students sang patriotic songs during the event.

Melvin said he was also able to meet Shellito in person after Monday's ceremony, adding that he looks forward to attending the event every year.

Until next year's Veterans Day ceremony, Melvin looks forward to spending time with his family. He feels he is in good health, and clings to a golf ball metaphor to let people know he is just happy to be alive, and excited for the future.

"You don't hit it as far, but you're still playing," he said.