'The Fighting Fool' chronicles war experience
PARK RAPIDS -- At 93, Sylvester "Don" Singlestad, one of the most decorated non-commissioned officers of the Army's Red Bull Infantry during World War II, has penned his recollections of the era.
Until now, the Park Rapids resident's role during the war has simply been reflected via the medals and honors he earned during the conflict.
Now "The Fighting Fool," rapidly gaining interest among military veterans, tells of his day-to-day - often harrowing - experiences during the war.
"I've been mailing out books every day," he said last week while signing his autobiography at the Book Shelf n' Office Supply.
The book takes the reader back in time, to childhood adventures, his family's lake cabin near Albert Lea - with Dr. Charlie Mayo and George Hormel as neighbors - and to his early employment on a farm.
But he bid farewell to tranquil rural life just after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, Dec. 7, 1941, destined to become "a fighting fool."
Second generation soldier
Singlestad, who now resides at Heritage Manor, was living in Waseca when he enlisted in the Minnesota Army National Guard as a private in September 1940 with Company F.
His initial commitment was two years; he was eyeing life as a civilian and going into business with his father. Ironically, it was his dad, S.O. Singlestad, who turned those plans around.
Singlestad, believing he was going to be sent to Fort Benning, Ga. to serve as an instructor, married his longtime sweetheart, Florence Schroder. She was working in Washington, D.C. at the time.
But a general recalled his father's role in World War I as "a hell of a soldier" and told Singlestad he wanted him to remain under his command.
The newlyweds were together for two days before he left for duty. They would not be reunited for three years. She would learn of military honors bestowed upon her husband via a Washington, D.C. newspaper.
Never felt the pain
From the onset of his military career, Singlestad demonstrated a prowess, an innate ability in the field.
He participated in the first U.S. invasion of Africa and was captured by the Germans. He was sent to a French prison camp and wasn't released until the French joined the Allied forces in Europe.
Singlestad took part in the first invasion of Italy at Salerno.
He was among three divisions of about 45,000 troops who pushed their way toward Naples.
His "extraordinary heroism in action" during the invasion would earn him a Distinguished Service Cross - and an invitation from the Pope for lunch and a tour of the Vatican.
"He was great," Singlestad recalls of his day with Pope Pius XII, his driver outside the Vatican wondering what to make of the lengthy visit.
He was awarded the Italian Military Medal of Valor Gold Cross, a citation equivalent to the Congressional Medal of Honor - for his role in operating with partisans behind enemy lines.
He was similarly recognized by the U.S. Army for his "extraordinary service and valor" with a Distinguished Service Cross. During his platoon's fierce fight with the Germans, he and one of the squads were cut off from the company, but he moved forward, through the enemy. He continued to advance after expending all his ammunition, providing his commander with the disposition of the Germans.
"I'd sometimes get asked why I never seemed frightened in battle," he relates of the battle at Kasserine Pass during the Tunisian campaign. "There were times I was scared shitless, but adrenalin pushes you, as in the case when I got shot on hill 609. Until I saw the blood and started feeling weak, I didn't have a clue I'd been hit. Never even felt the pain."
The pain, as he relates candidly later in the book, would manifest itself emotionally after his discharge.
"I wanted to be ready to return to civilian life, but there was a lot of the war still raging in my guts," he wrote. "I'd been a pretty easy-going guy before, and even during the war, but my battlefield experiences had changed me, and, in many ways, not for the better. To put it bluntly, I was Section 8 when I got home."
Several months spent in a remote Montana canyon, conducting a survey of wild animals and "living in the woods like a hermit" proved to be remedial therapy.
"When I returned from Montana, I was at peace; my mind was clear. It was finally time for me to think about what I would do as a civilian to enjoy the liberties that I'd fought so hard for, during all those years..."
It's never behind us
He would return to Europe in 1960, invited as a member of Legion of Valor to dine with Winston Churchill and meet Queen Elizabeth and Prince Charles. French president Charles DeGaulle also expressed his gratitude to him personally at a gala in Paris.
"Though most us WW II vets tried our damnedest to put the war and all its horror behind us, you never quite succeed," Singlestad reflected. "Thousands of us - myself included - spent most of the years following our experience ignoring it, rarely even sharing it with friends and family. Once in a while we'd open up to another vet, but we didn't want to relive what we saw and what we did..."
The book is dedicated to the veterans from F Company, the 135th and 34th Division, and friendships gained in the Legion of Valor.
Singlestad is donating $5 for each book sold to the All Veterans Memorial.
(Singlestad leaves for Italy in mid-September where he will represent the Red Bulls Infantry Division at the 65th anniversary celebration of the liberation of Vernio, Italy and the breaking of the Gothic Line at "Hill 810" by the division.
Singlestad will unveil a stone monument, a memorial on the "Via 34th Divisione di fanteria U.S.A. Red Bull."