Until Monday morning, Cloquet's Clifford Zack almost never talked about his experiences in World War II.
But he has never forgotten.
"I wake up at night thinking about it," Zack said in an interview this week. "I've tried to forget it."
Zack spent close to eight months on the Pacific island of Okinawa, the last and biggest of the Pacific island battles of WWII.
The Duluth Denfeld graduate had several very close calls on Okinawa. The most nightmarish was the artillery shell or mortar blast that permanently damaged his hearing. He didn't know it then, but Zack was positioned on top of a tomb.
"There was a big explosion and I lost my radio, rifle, field glasses, everything," Zack said. "I was buried in an old tomb -- the island people would cremate their ancestors and put them all in a tomb together -- and everything just disappeared."
He figured it took 15 or 20 minutes for his fellow soldiers to dig him out.
"I couldn't see a darn thing, but I could breathe," he said.
Working as a field observer for the infantry meant Zack was always on the front lines in Okinawa. He would watch the enemy through binoculars and try to pinpoint the location of any big guns that were firing.
"I would call for firepower whenever we needed it," he said. "I had the infantry there to shoot for me. If there was an artillery piece firing at us, I called for artillery. Say I had a target maybe 1,000 yards away that they're shooting at us, I'd call for the 155s [guns]."
Zack didn't go spend his war years with any high school friends or wartime buddies.
"I was always up with the infantry," he said. "I didn't want to get acquainted because so many were killed."
He lost two officers -- with whom he worked closely -- within days of one another.
The first one was hit with a mortar when he and Zack were next to one another on the battlefield.
"We were laying side by side," Zack said. "I patched him up as best I could and called the medics. They carried him out. I don't know what happened to him."
The officer who replaced him was killed by friendly fire a few days later.
"The Corsairs were strafing and they opened up too quick," Zack said, noting that the yellow and white front line markers were laid out but the pilots started firing on their own side of the markers. "We were drinking coffee and I saw the shells hit the ground. I dove for my prone shelter -- they didn't call them foxholes then -- I guess he didn't move fast enough."
U.S. losses in ground combat during the Okinawa campaign included 7,374 killed, 31,807 wounded, and 239 missing in action. The Navy suffered 4,907 killed or missing aboard 34 ships sunk and 368 damaged; 763 aircraft were lost. At sea and in the air, the Japanese losses were upwards of 10,000.
The "Reader's Companion to Military History" described Okinawa as "a mass bloodletting both on land and at sea."
Zack described it as hell.
Drafted shortly after his high school graduation, Zack didn't start out training to be a field observer. In basic training at Fort Hood, Texas, he trained on M-18 tank destroyers made by the Buick Corporation. Specifically, he was trained to be the radio operator in a tank destroyer.
"In high school, I would design my own radios," he said. "As a kid, I would fly kites in Wheeler field [in Duluth] and put an aerial on the kite. I'd sit there and fly my kite and listen to the radio."
Radio was the common theme of his Zack's several wartime assignments.
When the need for tank destroyers in Europe declined before he ever left the country, Zack was transferred to the 57th Company of the 7th Infantry Division, based in Fort Ord, Calif., where he learned about assault boats. From there he went to Fort Lewis, Wash., for a few days and then shipped out to the Hawaiian Islands.
"I learned to use explosives there," he said. "Primer cord and stuff that was used to blow up bunkers. Everything explosives."
With the 7th Infantry Division, Zack would fight in Saipan, Tinian and Eniwetok, among other places, before going to Okinawa for close to eight months, Zack estimated.
"In Tinian was where we had to really join our convoy," Zack said. "When I woke up in the morning, all you could see was ships."
Following the Japanese surrender in 1945, the division was stationed in Japan and Korea.
Zack was sent to Korea. Again, he was the man with the radio. This time he wasn't on the front lines, instead he rode around in a jeep with a driver and an interpreter, patrolling. After some eight fairly uneventful months in Korea, Zack traveled to Fort Sheridan, Ill., to be discharged.
Zack wasn't the only son drafted into the army. His three older brothers also served during World War II.
The oldest brother, Marvin, trained fighter pilots during the war at Randolf Field, Texas.
Twin brothers Lloyd and Donald went their separate ways during the war: Lloyd was a flight engineer on a C-47 stateside, while Donald ended up fighting in Germany, where he was shot in the leg.
Their father, John Zack, was a World War I veteran.
"All the brothers were in different places," Zack said. "Everybody survived, fortunately."
Their mother, Selma (Kallstrom) Zack, was so lonesome during WWII, he said, that she got a job making fragmentation bombs at the Coolerator factory in Duluth (which made refrigerators before the war).
While he doesn't remember getting any letters from his brothers during the war, Zack did write letters home. Of course, those letters didn't arrive as they were written.
"They would take pictures of your letter and send the film home and develop it somewhere there," he said. "It would go to Mom from there."
A couple months after he returned -- to little fanfare -- from the war, Zack was hired at Cloquet's Northwest Paper Mill as an electrician.
He moved to Cloquet and it's been his home ever since. After renting rooms for a few years -- he recalls shoveling coal for the widow he rented from who made fabulous pickled herring -- Zack met his wife-to-be, then Jane Carlson.
Her father owned a tavern and grocery store at the spot that's now taken by The Tap on 33, at the corner of Highway 33 and Selmser Avenue.
"One day I walked in and she was there behind the grocery counter," Zack said, recalling the first day they met.
Their first date came about after her boyfriend stood her up.
"She was talking to her father about it and I said, 'Well, I'll take you out.' I guess that's when it started," he said with a smile.
They married and moved out to the farm that Zack's grandfather and grandmother had willed him, getting it wired for electricity and raising some beef cattle on the land. They also raised five children there. Sadly, their oldest daughter died in an accident but John, Jay, Jeffrey and Debbie still live in Carlton County. All the kids attended Cloquet High School, and the boys each own 20 acres of the original family farm and make their homes there.
At the mill, Zack moved from being an electrician to operating the mill's hydroelectric plant on the St. Louis River; he spent his last 13 years as a supervisor in the pulp mill. In total, Zack worked 40 years at the mill, taking early retirement at age 60.
It was a busy time. In addition to raising a family and working at the mill, Zack was an avid outdoorsman who enjoyed fishing and hunting. He also raised and trained yellow Labrador retrievers with his friend, Joe Deloia, who owned a kennel in Pike Lake.
Zack even made the Pine Knot newspaper in 1953 when his dog, Sandy, took two first-place trophies at the Tri-Club (Duluth, Superior and Carlton County) field trials, which are competitions between hunting dogs.
"We would train them to do everything," Zack said, explaining that he would train the dogs to sit perfectly still until commanded to go. In competitions where a bird was behind a blind on a lake, for example, he would direct the dogs by whistling to turn right or left and how far to swim.
"It was quite a trick," he said, adding that he used to run his dogs in Pinehurst Park because of the pond there.
Sandy even won best dog of the year once, he said proudly.
Then there was the airplane. Zack learned to fly from big brother Marvin, and the two bought a plane together. He taught all his boys to fly and even made a plane with Jay.
"It took two years and a month," Zack said. "He's flown it all over -- Florida, Kansas City, Tennessee -- he loves it."
And so does Zack, who joins his son for the occasional trip. At age 87 -- "and holding," he said with a smile -- he doesn't fly on his own anymore. He does drive, though, making a trip into town from the family farm pretty much every morning. In addition to their four surviving children, he and Jane have nine grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren. Although the grandkids are scattered around the country, all four children still live in Carlton County, close to Mom and Dad.
"It's been an interesting life," he said.
As for his recent decision to talk about his experiences during World War II, he did that to honor his father and his brothers, who have all passed on.
"It was in appreciation for my brothers and my father," he said. "I figured I owed it to them."