World War II veterans Howard Hermel and LeRoy “Jim” Miller say they weren’t heroes. A crowd of over 100 Saturday at the St. Peter American Legion begged to differ.

So Post 37 Commander Ron Haugen broke the seal on a 1973 bottle of bourbon, placed under glass since the inception of St. Peter’s World War II Last Man’s Club, and toasted the two remaining members of a charter group which initially numbered 70.

And after Hermel winced at the bitterness of the 44-year-old liquor, while Miller confidently chugged down his shot, the bourbon was then shared with another 13 World War II veterans in attendance.

Mayor Chuck Zieman was among the dignitaries who toasted all the World War II veterans as heroes.

“I am honored to be here tonight, surrounded by a room of heroes,” Zieman said.

Haugen said the local World War II club inspired the formation of St. Peter’s Vietnam War Last Man’s Club, now totaling 318 members. But Saturday, after years of gathering, would be the last for the World War II club.

Still, a humble Hermel, who spent over two years from June 1, 1943 through Dec. 17, 1945, in what would later be called the U.S. Air Force, quietly sat at the guests of honor table. But the smiles grew, and a few tears flowed.

“I’m just a normal guy,” Hermel said, prior to the ceremony. “I was a gunner in a B-17 bomber.”

But as Christmas ’45 neared, “I just wanted to get home.”

“I was a lucky guy,” Hermel said. “I wanted to be a truck driver. But they made a gunner out of me.”

Miller, confined to a wheelchair throughout the evening, spent the ceremony next to his wife of 66 years, Margaret. She often told her husband to smile, that this honor was a pretty big deal. But like Hermel, Miller thought of the others who sacrificed much more.

“He always said, ‘I’m not a hero. I just lived longer,’” Margaret said. “He did his part, like all the rest of them.”

Miller said he entered the U.S. Army in March 1945, only months before the Japanese surrender on Aug. 15 later that year. He spent much of his time through December 1946 in the Philippines. But he was there for some historic moments, as when Gen. Douglas MacArthur officially signed the Japanese Instrument of Surrender on Sept. 2, 1945.

And he evened joked that he entered the Army “cuz I didn’t want to farm.” And for the most part, upon his return to his hometown of St. Peter, he got his wish, marrying Margaret in 1950 and spending 28 years as a U.S. Postal Service mail carrier.

Hermel made his mark in the St. Peter area, as well, playing a critical role in the family’s wholesale food company, A.H. Hermel. He also helped brother Cliff’s tenure when the family owned the former Gibbon Ballroom during its heydays. And Hermel played a pretty good trumpet, he added, enjoying work with old-time bands and drum and bugle corps.

In 2015, Hermel donated $120,000 to St. Peter Public Schools in honor of his late wife, Myra, to create space at the new high school for agricultural education. It will be called the Myra J. Hermel Agri-Science Center.

For Hermel, he was pleased the ceremony was part of the St. Peter American Legion’s ongoing efforts to honor veterans of all ages.

“The Legion club is always the first place you’d sign up for when you got back,” he noted. His longtime membership at Post 37 reminded him of his B-17 bomber crew.

“You’re very close to your crew,” Hermel said. “Your crew is like family. You’re looking out for each other.”

On Saturday evening, young and old not only looked out for Hermel and Miller, they toasted the other 13 World War II veterans. And Deann Scholesser of the Post 37 Ladies Auxiliary, read the 68 names of the deceased St. Peter World War II Last Man Club charter members, while Nicollet County Veterans Service Officer Nathan Tish rang a ceremonial bell in their memory.

Reach Dana Melius at 507-931-8568.

Former Regional Managing Editor, Adams Publishing Group--Southern Minnesota/Western Division: St. Peter Herald, Waseca County News, Le Center Leader, Le Sueur News-Herald. Now serving as a freelance reporter.

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