Memorial Day visitors gather early Monday morning in the center observation area on Memorial Bridge for the AMVETS Post 9 ceremony that included a wreath being thrown in the water of the Missouri River followed by a 21 gun salute.

Tom Stromme, Tribune

Staff Sgt. Louis Hanson knows the last 75 years of his life to date have been a gift, telling a crowd of several hundred at the North Dakota Veteran’s Cemetery south of Mandan as much Monday as the keynote speaker of this year’s Memorial Day ceremony.

Hanson, 97, briefly spoke about his time as a member of the 164th Infantry Regiment, the first U.S. Army unit to engage in World War II in offensive action assisting U.S. Marines at Guadalcanal. The Jud native served in the Army from 1941-45.

The theme of Monday’s event was the commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the unit’s action in service during a period of intense fighting in the Pacific theater of operations.

“When I landed on Guadalcanal … I really thought the world was coming to an end,” Hanson said.

Monday’s blustery and overcast afternoon at the cemetery was downright pleasant compared to the scene he’d encountered on Oct. 13, 1942.

Hanson said the shelling of the landing zone and carpeting the area with bombs was beyond terrifying.

“None of us thought we were going to see the morning,” Hanson said.

Providing color as to how close he’d been to not speaking before the crowd of veterans, families and speakers, he told everyone that a mosquito net he used to improve an uncomfortable helmet was the reason he was alive today.

He said his helmet was uncomfortable because the lining was too tight. Hanson placed mosquito netting inside the helmet, which made the helmet sit a few inches higher on his head.

Audible gasps drifted through the crowd when he detailed how shortly after he’d made the modification to his helmet, a Japanese soldier in the heat of battle “put a hole through my helmet.”

In war, seemingly minor actions can make all the difference between coming home alive or not, something not lost on Hanson. He knew others that served that weren’t so lucky.

A series of speakers highlighted the importance of honoring the ultimate sacrifice made by North Dakotans in past conflicts, adding that the public can never fully repay the sacrifices made by those that have served and still are serving.

North Dakota National Guard Maj. Gen. Alan Dohrmann praised the efforts of those such as Hanson who “helped turn the tide of World War II,” who participated in more than 600 days of combat action in the Pacific theater.

Dohrmann also thanked everyone in attendance, saying being on hand is proof of their gratitude for the services provided by veterans as well as those buried in the surrounding grounds.

Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., echoed much of Dohrmann’s statements.

“We honor you on Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day and every day,” Hoeven said. “To all (who) have served and who continue to serve, God bless you.”

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., said there are those that grieve their loved ones each day and that days such as Memorial Day are important to highlight such losses.

“Today is the least we can do,” Heitkamp said.

Lt. Gov. Brent Sanford agreed.

“All of us share one common thread: gratitude,” Sanford said.

Following the traditional closing ceremony of a rifle volley, performance of taps, a cannon salute and raising of the flag, area veterans reflected on the day before heading home.

George Gartner, a Vietnam War veteran from Fort Rice, said he thinks the public should make a concerted effort to remember the fallen more frequently than on holidays. Still, he said the event was very well done, despite everyone enduring wind gusts of nearly 30 miles per hour.

“It’s important, no doubt about it,” Gartner said.

Bismarck veteran Fintan Dooley said it was an honor to be around so many North Dakotans that stood up and served.

He said he was also impressed with Hanson’s words, especially how he’d narrowly survived the incident involving his helmet.

“How does the Lord’s mercy allow that?” Dooley said.

(Reach Nick Smith at 701-250-8255 or 701-223-8482 or at nick.smith@bismarcktribune.com.)