As the population of World War II veterans dwindles, opportunities to thank service members who fought in that global conflict are fading.

So when Kermit Bjorlie, of Zumbrota, a World War II pilot, turned 100, there was zero chance such an opportunity would be lost.

When a friend found out Bjorlie’s family was hosting an open house for him, he contacted Washington, D.C., about getting a photo of Air Force One signed by its pilots. That’s what got the whole thing started.

Washington officials then contacted St. Paul military authorities, who after checking into his service record decided they wanted to come down and thank him personally.

On April 6, Air Force Brig. Gen. John Safstrom, Assistant Adjutant General of the Minnesota National Guard, presented the signed Air Force One photo, with more than 100 family members, relatives and friends in attendance,

“He thanked him for his service, and let people know where he had been and what he had done,” said Carol O’Neill, Bjorlie’s daughter.

More than 16 million Americans served in the U.S. military during World War II. About 496,777 veterans from the war were estimated to be alive in September 2018, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. We are losing 370 veterans per day.

Bjorlie said he flew more than 11 combat missions as an Army Air Corps pilot. In the Philippines, he flew missions in support of U.S. forces fighting the Japanese in the hills of Cagyen Valley on Luzon. Later, while based in Okinawa, he flew five-to-six-hour missions over southern Japan looking for targets of opportunity.

Later, Bjorlie flew over Nagaski. From 500 feet, he viewed the devastation wrought by the detonation of an atomic bomb, forcing the Japanese surrender.

They were dangerous missions. All of them are when “they are shooting” at you. But the closest he came to perishing in the war was during a stateside training run that involved low-level flying. While following a lead pilot, Bjorlie’s plane lost air speed at the top of a loop and began to plummet earthward. He regained control of the plane halfway down.

Bjorlie’s war service advantaged him in one way. He traveled all over the U.S., including Michigan, Texas, Louisiana and New Mexico, and the Pacific. And that was heady stuff for a young farm boy from rural Pekin, N.D., who attended a one-room country school.

It also introduced him to his wife, Ruth, whom he met in Waco, Texas. They were married for 69 years. She died three years ago.

“She happened to be sitting when I saw her. And I got up to dance and that’s how we got acquainted,” Bjorlie said.

Bjorlie spent his career in the soil conservation service, first living in Forest City, Iowa, where his three children were born, and then Zumbrota. Today, he lives at Zumbrota Health Services and is the father of three children, grandfather to eight and great-grandfather to eight.

O’Neill said her dad was never keen on talking about his war experiences when his children were younger. Then, about 13 years ago, O’Neill’s daughter sat down with her grandfather to get a more detailed story — and to make sure his service was never forgotten.

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Matt, a graduate of Toledo University with a bachelor’s degree in English literature, got his start in journalism in the U.S. Army. For the last 16 years, he has worked at the PB and currently reports on politics and life.