World War II veteran Leonard Zaehler of Prospect Heights smiled when he discovered the cake at the Veterans Day breakfast in Arlington Heights was for a birthday celebration much older than his 93 years. His beloved Marine Corps turned 237 on Saturday.
"It makes me proud," Zaehler said after a two-hour ceremony at the St. Peter Lutheran Church Life Center that honored veterans from the six military branches of Army, Air Force, Navy, Marines, Coast Guard and Merchant mariners, as well as a special tribute to the prisoners of war and those still missing in action.
As the oldest veteran in a crowd of 150, Zaehler got to help Northwest Suburban Marine Corps League Commandant Alfred Kolodziej slice the Marine cake with a ceremonial sword.
At the start of World War II, Zaehler was a machinist working in a factory making firing pins for 20 mm guns. He enlisted in 1942, leaving behind his bride, Betty.
"I was the old man of the boot camp," Zaehler remembers. "I was 24."
A private first class in a Marine aviation service squadron, Zaehler bounced around the islands in the South Pacific supporting the fighter planes and crews fighting the Japanese. When the war ended, Zaehler didn't want to return to his old machinist job.
"I had spent so much time outside that I couldn't stand my old job inside," he says. He opened a gas station and moved to Island Lake. Eventually, he did return to inside work and owned a printing service in Rosemont. The father of twins, Tom and Terri, Zaehler was married for more than 60 years until his wife died in 2003, and he now lives with his daughter.
The ceremony included a special tribute to local veterans and the Memorial Park in Arlington Heights by Greg Padovani, chairman of the village's veteran memorial committee. A longtime supporter of veteran causes, Arlington Heights Mayor Arlene Mulder also was honored for her dedication. Volunteers hailed from many veteran groups as well as the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts of America. For more information on the Memorial Park, visit ahpd.org.