Duluth man honors fellow veterans, but his war memories are his alone
Hans Eng had to raise the chandelier in his dining room so he could get an unencumbered view from his favorite chair to the family veterans’ wall he designed.
The wall features a centerpiece of a framed, 48-star American flag print by the artist Jasper Johns. It has framed photographs of family members and plaques, the originals of which hang at the Richard I. Bong Veterans Historical Center in Superior. There’s also a tiled mural honoring servicemen. It all comes together to make for a “Wall of Honor” the World War II veteran can admire any time he likes.
“He’s got a natural talent for design,” said his daughter, Susan Sage. “He can look at things and has a plan.”
Eng, 88, fought in the South Pacific with the 5th Marine Division, which saw its first combat during the ferocious Battle of Iwo Jima and took heavy losses. He doesn’t talk about the war, but he will talk about the life he’s lived around it. It’s been a rich life, full of family and some hard, rewarding choices. He rebuffs talk of his place in the “Greatest Generation,” content to live modestly out from under the umbrella of such a big label.
He agreed to talk to a reporter because he’s proud of his wall and the names that are on it: his brothers Harold and Clifford, son Douglas and son-in-law Patrick Sage, and his late wife’s brothers — James, Robert, Peter and Thomas Petersen, three of whom have passed on.
If Eng wanted his guests to know about his wartime exploits, he would tell them. But “I’m just a veteran” is all he’s willing to say. “I got out in 1946.”
He’s thought about joining a veterans’ organization before but never made the move toward commitment. He can picture himself enjoying the camaraderie, but the sense is he’s not about to open some of the doors the others might.
He will say he made it home on leave for Christmas Eve in 1945, coming on a train that “didn’t have any windows or nothing. It was colder than hell.”
He did take the first Honor Flight offered to Northland residents, experiencing in 2011 a whirlwind 24-hour visit to Washington, D.C., to see its war monuments and memorials.
“That was exciting to go,” he said.
Today, he spends his days at his home in the neighborhood above First United Methodist Church with his dog Maggie — the third trusty German shepherd he’s had — and a rotating cast of family members who visit often. He and the dog enjoy ice cream together nightly, three scoops of vanilla each that Maggie will nudge him for at 9 o’clock.
Eng’s wife, Lois, died eight years ago.
“The 20th of March,” he said.
He met her at a Bridgeman’s in Lakeside. It wasn’t long after that Lois and Eng graduated to the Pickwick restaurant, with Hans ordering a beer. He was voluntarily joining the armed forces the next day. The server refused him for being too young.
“She went and got old Joe Wisocki,” Eng said. “I said, ‘Today’s my 18th birthday and I’m going into the service tomorrow.’ Joe said, ‘It’s on me.’ “
When Eng returned from war, he promptly married Lois, and the couple made a tradition of Pickwick dinners on the way to raising a family and nearly 60 years of marriage, raising four children: Linda, Douglas, Susan and David.
Born into the family of a Norwegian immigrant, Eng had one shot at leaving Duluth. After the war he’d spent 13 years at Interlake Iron. The company sent him to Chicago to interview for a promotion, which he got. He chose not to take it.
“I did not want to live in Chicago,” he said. “I’m still here and I’m not leaving.”
So he stayed and drove a truck for a lumberyard. By city standards, he lives on a sprawling property that used to be the Bayview Dairy. It’s now home to Eng’s expansive fruit, vegetable and flower gardens, for which he keeps a diary of all his planting and has for many years. He’ll be planting soon, jotting seed and row into his diary around the first of June, he expects. He raised and picked strawberries and raspberries for canning into jams by his daughters. He makes them bran muffins, cookies and bread, too.
His life is full of fond memories.
He became an avid golfer.
As a boy he delivered newspapers.
As a foreman for Interlake Iron, on the hottest days, he would rotate through his “19-20 guys on a shift,” giving them each a break from the coke ovens. He stopped after he was reprimanded for it, but he knew it was the right thing to do then and he still believes it was right.
“It was a tough job,” he said. “Young guys today wouldn’t do it.”
He once wore a pink shirt to an Interlake Iron function, and the CEO couldn’t believe it.
“He got one of his own after that,” Eng said.
He did a lot of hunting off Chicken Creek Trail.
He and the family did a lot of playing at their cabin on Pequaywan Lake.
He continues to visit a buddy — “They’re getting awfully scarce,” he said — at Chris Jensen Health & Rehabilitation Center.
He planted trees on his property that are mature today.
He will admit that “age is taking over.”
It doesn’t stop him from tending to his wife’s grave at Park Hill Cemetery. Eng has maintained a flowerbed over his own plot at the cemetery next to Lois’.
“Ma worked at a defense factory, as a bomb girl in the shipyards,” said Linda Eng, Hans’ daughter. “She made bombs during the war.”
She worked hard for him.
He fought hard for her.