SIOUX FALLS, SD (KELO) — Saturday marks an important milestone in South Dakota history. People will gather at the Battleship Memorial in Sioux Falls to honor the 80th anniversary of the USS South Dakota, one of the most decorated battleships of World War II. One of the crew members arrived in Sioux Falls Friday, whose dedication to his ship, and his country, remains strong as ever.
It took 96-year-old Leon Gee a day longer than expected to fly from his home in California to South Dakota for Saturday’s ceremony at the Battleship Memorial.
“We were waiting to get in the elevator from the tarmac and we missed our flight for about a minute late,” Gee said.
But Gee wasn’t going to let any flight delays keep him from attending the tribute to the battleship he served aboard as a radar operator toward the end of World War II.
“I feel like it was really a privilege to, get to serve aboard the South Dakota, really,” Gee said.
Flying into Sioux Falls has become kind of second nature to Gee. He’s attended many reunions of the South Dakota in years past. But with each passing year, there are fewer of his former crew members to share their war stories and catch up on old times.
“I have a lot of friends, but they’ve all passed away, that I know of, except one,” Gee said.
Author and historian Paul Stillwell has written two books about the South Dakota. He says sailors like Gee embody what it means to serve their country during the most trying of times.
“There’s a special term the navy has called ‘shipmate.’ And a destroyer sailor once said it goes beyond friendship. It can come and go. But shipmates are forever, and this is Leon’s way of honoring those he served with,” USS South Dakota historian Paul Stillwell said.
Children in the terminal thanked Gee for his service. Gee, who turns 97 in October says he’ll keep coming to Sioux Falls as long as his health holds out, because nothing is going to ground this South Dakota shipmate.
“I didn’t drink, I don’t smoke, I just lived a good life,” Gee said.
The ceremony at the Battleship Memorial will take place at 10 a.m. Saturday. The public is invited.