TOLONO — Ken Roellig was on a ship from Italy headed toward battle in Japan in August 1945. When he awoke in the morning, the ship with his 1,000 fellow passengers was going in a different direction — headed home after the nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
“There were definitely cheers on the ship,” Roellig said. “(President) Harry Truman was my buddy. He dropped the bombs that saved a lot of American lives.”
Some of Roellig’s World War II memories came back to him in recent months when he took part in an Honor Flight to Washington, D.C. to see the war memorials in October. He was guest speaker at the Champaign County Farm Bureau Prime Timers (over age 55) meeting in December, talking about the trip.
Recently, he retired as Prime Timers’ chairman after 22 years; usually the office of chairman is only held for six years.
“They ignored the rule,” he said of his long service to the club he enjoyed.
When he was a boy, Roellig’s family rented farmland near Windsor in central Illinois, grazing sheep and growing grain until his was 15 years old. He graduated high school and a year later joined Army training in South Carolina. When he was in basic training in January 1945, the Battle of the Bulge was taking place in Europe and he knew he would soon be headed overseas.
The teenager initially arrived in Naples, Italy, and traveled to Rome to study mines and booby traps. While in Italy, he saw evidence of the destruction caused by the war — blown-up bridges and roads, destroyed castles and buildings.
“We saw what happened but were not in it,” Roellig said.
He still has a book containing detailed drawings from his combat engineer training. He remembers the names of bombs and can identify the types of grenades.
“We were preparing for the invasion of Japan,” he said.
But en route, that changed.
The sergeant returned from war to serve at Fort Knox, Kentucky, at his battalion’s headquarters until his service ended in 1946. He graduated from the University of Illinois in Urbana in 1950 and started a career as a teacher in Sparta. He taught junior high math at Sadorus and Tolono in Champaign County and became principal at the eastern Illinois school. He later served as Unity School District Superintendent and finished his career teaching there.
Lin Warfel, an Illinois farmer and Vietnam veteran and a fellow member of the Illinois Farm Bureau Prime Timers club, said Roellig was his algebra teacher 60 years ago.
“After school he and a few other adults played basketball with us, and he was pretty good!” Warfel said. "Mr. Roellig went on to be our superintendent — always sharp at math and very well respected.”
At age 48, he married Margaret, the widow of a farmer, whom he had met at church.
“We celebrated our 44th wedding anniversary in July. It’s uncommon to be first married at 48 and be married so long,” said the 92-year-old.
In December, the couple was looking forward to hosting a family holiday gathering.
2017 was a big year for Roellig. He participated in the Honor Flight trip with 81 other people, including five World War II veterans. His only grandson was his chaperone.
“I had been to D.C. 70 years ago,” he said, and he had seen photos of the Vietnam memorial and of the traveling exhibits.
“I had no idea what the World War II memorial looked like,” he said.
He said he was pleased to see the 56 granite pillars representing all of the U.S. states and territories, showing unity and solidarity.
“He never mentioned his time in uniform until recently,” Warfel said. “Being able to participate in an Honor Flight was a wonderful experience for him. He is a very modest fellow, so it was especially nice for him to be honored.”
It was a very long day for Roellig, starting at 4:15 a.m.
“I thought I’d sleep coming back,” Roellig said, but instead there was a mail call and various other happenings that he didn’t want to miss. He enjoyed letters from grade school children and received 27 letters from family members and others.
As both a teacher and a veteran, he liked the souvenir T-shirt they were given. On one side it read, “If you can read this, thank a teacher.” On the other side, it said, “If you can read this in English, thank a veteran.”
When they returned to Springfield, they were greeted by more than 500 people.
“I never shook so many hands in my life,” Roellig said of greeting the people standing two and three deep along a long hallway at the airport.
When Roellig returned from war in 1945, there weren’t big welcomes like this.
“There were so many people coming home, it was just part of the procedure. The attitude was, ‘the war is over — let’s go on,’” he said.
But on the Honor Flight, he talked to several Vietnam veterans whose homecomings were memorable in a negative sense. Some of those veterans were spit on when they returned home.
Margaret said she distinctly remembers being in Champaign when WWII ended in 1945 because of the stark contrast to when lights and windows had been darkened during the war.
“All the lights were on. It was wild up there,” she said of joy of the war ending all those years ago.