While presenting Shiloh business owner Norm Wilke with the National Wild Turkey Federation Shiloh Spurs (Chapter) 2016 Veteran of the Year Award earlier this month, State Rep. Jerry Costello II, told attendees, “Heros come in all forms, and they have all different kinds of jobs in the military.”
An often gruesome job, Wilke saw many things that he would like to forget while serving his country during the Korean War and working in Graves Registration.
But at the same time, Wilke was proud to serve his country, and continued on for 17 months despite overwhelming loneliness, hard work and injuries he sustained while in Japan.
Wilke said he had no idea he was going to be chosen for his latest award.
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“It was truly a shock,” he said. “I’m not used to all this attention, but it’s nice to be honored this way.”
Costello presented the award to Wilke at an annual banquet held by the local chapter on Saturday, Feb. 6 at the Shiloh Eagles Club.
Grover West, NWTF Shiloh Spurs 2014 Veteran of the Year nominated Wilke for the award.
With tears welling up in his eyes, Steve Wilke said he is very proud of his father.
“I think he more than deserved this award, and I’m happy that other people learn the sacrifices that a lot of our servicemen make,” he said.
There’s still things to this day that Wilke never told his family about his military experience.
And there are some things I will never tell anybody — I’ll take it to the grave with me,” he said.
Wilke enlisted in the U.S. Army on Nov. 4, 1952 at the age of 20. He belonged to the 31rst Infantry Division, 114th Graves Registration Quartermaster. He was responsible for collecting dead soldiers, and civilian American citizens, embalming their bodies and preparing them to be shipped home.
Wilke was headed for the front lines, when he ran into a friend Laverne Kuhl, of Beckemeyer, Ill. by happenstance.
“I don’t know if I’d be alive today if my friend’s company commander hadn’t stopped my paperwork going to the front lines,” Wilke said. “They were looking for country farm boys cause it was a hard job that most couldn’t stomach, and most farm boys back then were used to butchering animals.”
Wilke prepared an average of 20 to 30 bodies a day, and many more during certain battles. He said the hardest thing about his job was preparing the body of someone he knew. But he felt proud to carry out this responsibility because he was honoring those who died for our country by respectfully preparing them for their final journey home.
“At that time I did not realize what it was to be in the Graves Registration — seeing all those bodies comin. So actually, seeing Laverne Kuhl really is what changed my mind,” Wilke said.
Shortly after he was deployed, Wilke learned his military and personnel records were lost. It took the government, with the help of his mother, three months to find the lost records.
“I went three months with no contact with my mom and my girlfriend or my family,” he said. “And, back then we didn’t have phones. All I wanted was to talk to my family, but they were 5,000 miles away, and I grew very lonely. Us farm boys only had each other at that time,” Wilke said.
Those so-called farm boys would help Wilke stay focused.
“I guess the only reason I stomached it all the time I did was because Laverne (Kuhl) was there with me,” he said. “I thought if he could do, then I could do it too, that was my theory. So, I guess I was lucky. I was really upset when I couldn’t get home sooner, but I had to live with it.”
Wilke said the U.S. Army tried to convince him to become a mortician.
“And, I said absolutely not,” he said.
“I saw things people shouldn’t see. But all in all I was always lucky I got through the whole thing. They had guys that wouldn’t even last a week, so they’d have six or so Japanese guys helping us because they just couldn’t take seeing all the bodies in that state.”
One memory that will be burned into Wilke’s memory was his time climbing Mount Fuji.
“While we were stationed in Japan, I had to climb Mount Fuji on foot with five other members of the Graves Registration,” he said. “We were tasked with retrieving the bodies of two American soldiers who died in a plane crash. We were supposed to meet a helicopter at the site, but conditions were too foggy for it to land. I’ll never forget it. We had to stay overnight and sleep in the body bags we brought for the soldiers to stay warm and dry.”
Wilke said when he arrived, there was hardly any remnants of the plane or bodies that were easily identifiable, but they had to do their best retrieving what little they could find.
“I remember we had to pick pieces of their flesh from the trees, and it was only enough to fit in a very small sack, and I held it to me the whole way down the mountainside the next day on foot,” Wilke said.
“The weather was so cold up there, and so many guys hung themselves with their shoestrings in the latrines because they just couldn’t take the harsh training conditions any longer,” Norm recalled. “Seven days out training and back for only four hours at a time — they just couldn’t take it anymore.”
Norm said he and others in his unit made formal complaints about the treatment and harsh conditions of the soldiers during training in the mountains.
During his flight home from Japan, one of the airplane’s engines caught on fire, and they had to make an emergency landing at an airfield where the runway was too short for the type of plane they were in.
“I thought I was a gonner, but luckily, the pilot landed safely and eventually I made it back home,” Wilke said with tears in his eyes.
Norm was honorably discharged from the U.S. Army in 1954, and returned home to St. Libory, Ill., where he’d marry his wife, Dorothy.
Wilke founded Wilke Window & Door Co. Inc. in 1961. His son, Steve, is the current CEO.
But Wilke is far from retired. He manages Norm’s Bargain Barn, which is a division of Wilke Window & Door Co. Inc., both located at 3500 Lebanon Ave. in Shiloh.
Meet Norm Wilke:
Q: Do you have words to live by?
A: “Do it right the first time.”
Q:Whom do you most admire?
A: My parents.
Q:If you could spend time with a famous person, past or present, whom would it be?
A: Ronald Reagan
Q: What is the last book that you read?
A: Books about the Amish way of life
Q:What do you do for fun and relaxation?
A: Raise and drive Clydesdales horses
Q: What is the usual state of your desktop?
A: Managed Chaos
Q:What did you want to do career wise when you were growing up?
A: I wasn’t sure, but I knew I wanted to run my own business.
Q: What do you think is your most outstanding characteristic?
A: My Salesmanship (I can outsell anyone!)
Q: What irritates you most?
A: Crooked politics
Q:What type of music do you listen to?
Q: What do you like most about your job?
A: Working long hours (hard work)
Q: If you were independently wealthy, what would you be doing?
A: Volunteering and helping those in need.
Q: What would people be most surprised to know about you?
A: I’m just a “plain jane” business man.
Q: When they make a movie of your life, who would play you?
Q: If you were stranded on a deserted island, what would you have with you?
A: My wife, Dorothy.