SIOUX FALLS, SD (KELO) — A 95-year-old veteran traveled halfway across the country from California to Sioux Falls to revisit a military landmark.
Leon Gee is one of the few remaining sailors still alive who served aboard the USS South Dakota, the most decorated battleship of World War Two. Gee shared memories of the ship and the dwindling ranks of men he served with.
A solitary sailor strolls the sprawling grassy deck of the USS South Dakota Battleship Memorial.
“I really enjoy coming back here,” Leon Gee said.
Leon Gee served as a radar operator aboard the South Dakota in the Pacific Theater of World War II. His family drove him up from his home in California so he could visit the memorial.
“I think it gives him an uplift in morale and meet people that we met back here and see this again, it’s exciting,” Gee’s daughter Linda Gowens said.
Gee turns 96 this fall.
“I just had my driver license renewed ’til I’m a hundred,” Gee said.
Gee survived several enemy attacks upon the battleship.
“I’m the son of a preacher man and I believe that my father and mother’s prayers had a lot to do with the ship not being damaged after I went aboard,” Gee said.
Gee used to be a regular fixture at reunions of the USS South Dakota held in Sioux Falls every two years. But those reunions no longer taking place because so many of Gee’s fellow crewmen are no longer around.
“It’s disappointing that we aren’t going to be seeing them every two years or over the last few years, every year. And I’ve tried to contact some of those that were here two years ago, and I’ve gotten disconnect phone numbers, so I’m not sure where everybody is, or what’s happening,” USS South Dakota Battleship Foundation member Karen Dunham said.
Gee says he doesn’t like to dwell on all of his shipmates who have gone before him. Instead, he enjoys the chance to see the battleship again and visit with locals during this one-man reunion. And he’s planning on coming back, next year.
“If I’m around! I just take it one day at a time,” Gee said.
Gee’s family plans to visit South Dakota attractions, including Wall Drug, on their drive home back to California.
You can do a deep-dive into the history of the battleship by watching a video produced years ago by KELOLAND-TV that includes rare footage of construction of the memorial.