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Our War: Six Belleville brothers served in WWII -- and all six came home

A collection of photos of Elmer Zellmer from the 1940s.
A collection of photos of Elmer Zellmer from the 1940s.

The five fighting Sullivan brothers of Iowa didn't come home, but the six Zellmer brothers from Belleville did.

Russell, Wilbert, Eddie, Howard, Emil and Elmer Zellmer all served in World War II and came home to Belleville. Elmer cut it close.

He nearly died at Iwo Jima. A Marine buddy applied pressure to Elmer's jugular vein after he was hit.

"You always had your buddies. He lives in Oklahoma now," said Elmer, 84, as he sat on the couch in his living room.

He's a retired sheet metal worker who lives in Belleville with his wife, Rosemary.

Landing at Iwo Jima was a fight just to stay alive.

"It was chaos. You dug yourself a hole, got in and hoped for the best," said Elmer, known as "Zeke" to his Marine buddies.

"There were a lot of fireworks, and I couldn't wait to get off. I got hit on the fourth day," Elmer said.

Elmer went to a naval hospital ship to recover. He still carries shrapnel in his neck.

"He used to sneeze it out when we were first married," said Rosemary, who married Elmer 58 years ago.

Elmer knows he killed the enemy at Midway, Guadalcanal and Iwo Jima. How many, he doesn't know.

"You try to save your neck. You've got to get them before they get you."

The Sullivans all died on the sinking U.S.S. Juneau during the Battle of Guadalcanal. The Zellmers all survived, and the three brothers still living share memories.

Howard served on a minesweeper in the U.S. Navy. He now lives in Arizona.

Emil, who served in the Coast Guard on the East Coast, lives in Florida.

Russell, Wilbert and Eddie have since died. Russell and Wilbert were sailors. Eddie was a paratrooper who fought in the Battle of the Bulge.

After arriving home, the brothers talked some about their war experiences, but not a great deal.

"It was too painful," Emil said in a telephone interview.

The Zellmers recall they didn't have an easy childhood.

Their father, the late Adolph Zellmer, raised them in a home on Michigan Avenue after their mother, Eleanor, died. Adolph was a carpenter who also cooked, cleaned and cared for his family.

All six brothers and their two sisters, Ruth and Alice, attended Zion Lutheran School in Belleville.

The children pitched in as soon as they were old enough to work.

The boys delivered the News-Democat. Only Ruth graduated from Belleville Township High School.

Howard enlisted first in the service in 1939.

"It was pretty quiet around here, and I was ready to leave home. I went over to St. Louis, but it was six months before I left," he said.

"For me, it was the Navy all the way. I liked the ocean."

Emil joined the Coast Guard in 1941, shortly before the attack on Pearl Harbor. He was stationed near New York Harbor.

Howard was at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, when the Japanese attacked.

"I was a cook on the U.S.S. Maryland. She was tied up right behind the (U.S.S.) Arizona," he recalled.

When the attack sirens sounded, Howard headed for cover.

"I headed for my battle station down below on the third deck. We had to batten down the hatches. You could look up and see the Japanese pilots," Howard said.

"We prayed a lot, I'll tell you that -- not to get killed and have a chance to get back at those bastards."

The attack lasted about two hours, though it felt like an eternity to Howard.

"Torpedoes went into the Oklahoma, which was next to us, and you could feel that."

Howard Zellmer feared the Japanese might seize the ship.

He waited for the all-clear signal. As he opened a hatch, he smelled burning crude oil.

"We had to pull all the dead bodies out with a fish hook."

After the attack, Howard worked on a minesweeper in the Pacific.

Emil learned about the attack after attending a burlesque show in New York City.

Elmer heard President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's "day that will live in infamy" speech on the radio.

As a result, he enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps at the end of December, and brother Russell enlisted shortly thereafter.

Next came Wilbert and Eddie.

"I wanted to even things up a bit by helping out," said Elmer, who was part of "Carlson's Raiders," an elite fighting unit that was the first to attack, often traveling by night. Wounded raiders were treated quickly and returned to battle.

"We were the initial forces that went in. We did what we could, got in and got out."

Before going into battle in the Pacific, he met up with Russell and Howard in Hawaii.

"We had a few beers," Elmer said.

"They kicked Russ out and didn't want to let him back in because he had too many. Howard and I talked the bartender into letting him back in," Elmer said.

It was the last time they would see each other until the end of the war.

But they continued to correspond with each other by mail.

"You could just write so much, just enough to say 'I'm all right' but you couldn't say where you were," Elmer said.

They made it home, and were able to find jobs, marry and raise families.

They were true survivors.

"You've gotta live through it to know about it," Elmer said.

Contact reporter Jaime Ingle at jingle@bnd.com or 239-2640.

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