Determination & bravery

Republic native and WWII veteran receives international award

Those of us born in the Upper Peninsula are well educated on what SISU means, and how that quality in one individual can benefit society at large.


The strength of will associated with the Finnish term seems to be especially hardy in 97-year-old Republic native Howard Keskitalo.

Keskitalo, who served in the 388th Bomb Group and the 563rd Bomb Squadron from May 6, 1944 to Nov. 5, 1944, was named a Knight in the French Legion of Honor during a ceremony in September.

As a First Lieutenant in the Army Air Force, Keskitalo served as a navigator on a B-17, participating in four major campaigns — Air Offensive Europe, Normandy, Northern France and the Rhineland as well as 35 tactical missions during the war.

The Allies’ Operation Overlord during the Normandy invasion was dependent on the use of air power in all forms. And Keskitalo’s 388th led the entire 8th Air Force June 6, 1944, or D-Day.

Keskitalo and aviators like him targeted coastal guns, field batteries and transportation, a press release from the Consulate of France in Chicago states.

Keskitalo, middle row far right, poses for a picture with the U.S. Air Force 563rd Bomb Squadron in 1944. Keskitalo flew 35 missions in four battles and campaigns in WWII. (Photo courtesy of Hank Keskitalo)

In July and August, Keskitalo flew missions to take the strategic cities of Saint Lo and Caen. Keskitalo and his group were also instrumental in organizing three missions in aid of the Free French Forces and in supporting ground forces as they advanced across France, French officials say.

The medal, which was initiated by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802, is the highest award presented to non-French citizens in recognition of military, cultural, scientific or social contributions in France, was presented by Deputy Consul General of France Frederic Chole at Veterans of Foreign Wars post 1197 in Batavia, Illinois.

During the ceremony, Chole said Keskitalo’s “unfailing determination and bravery” restored hope to the citizens of France, but also “changed the course of history for the entire world.”

The presentation of the award was initiated by an Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs employee who noticed that Keskitalo did not have the Legion of Honor Medal, despite the fact that he seemed to meet the eligibility requirements for the award, said Dave MacDonna, IDVA public information officer.

“An Illinois veteran registers with us and we certify their discharge papers,” McDonna said. “Mr. Keskitalo called a veterans service offices and had sent his dd214 and our supervisor in the file department realized he qualified for this. To qualify you had to serve during that time period in the 40s and you had to serve in France.”

Upper Peninsula native Howard Keskitalo, 97, accepts congratulations from a fellow veteran after being pinned as a Knight in the French Legion of Honor for his service in the U.S. Air Force during World War II. Keskitalo received the award, the highest honor given to non-French citizens, at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 1197 in Batavia, Illinois, during a September ceremony. (Photo courtesy of the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs)

MacDonna said the event was very moving.

“The ceremony is amazing,” MacDonna said. “The deputy council from the French embassy was very kind. You could see tears in everybody’s eyes.”

“I had no doubt I was going to live through the whole thing,” Keskitalo said of his military service during a September interview. “It’s just my nature, I don’t know if it’s courage or if I was just young and dumb.”

It could be said that Keskitalo learned some of those traits growing up on on his father’s dairy farm in Republic in the 1920s, said Howard’s younger brother Hank.

The way Howard felt about his parents came though during conversations with Hank about the brother’s World War II service.

“They called us the greatest generation,” Howard once told Hank. “But Ma and Pa were the greatest generation. Who could have handled eight kids, a farm and with virtually no assistance?”

John Keskitalo and his wife Hilda farmed 80 acres starting in 1915, clearing the land and constructing all the buildings.

The two started their family in a two-room log cabin that John built, Republic historian Laverne Antilla said. He later built them a larger home to accommodate a growing family — they would eventually have eight children Howard, Arnold, Wallace, Erland, Hank, Viola, Verna and Vivian.

By all accounts, John, a Finnish immigrant, was determined to provide for his family.

Potatoes were initially the main sale crop on the farm, but the family also had a large herd of milk cows, Antilla said, numbering from 20 to as many as 70 head later. They also grew hay, oats and barley.

John also leased forest land four miles west of the farm and cut boughs and evergreen trees.

Early in the 1930s the Keskitalos sold 2,000 Christmas trees at 10 cents — tied into bundles and loaded on railroad cars.

Much of the progress the Keskitalos made was without the benefit of modern amenities like electricity. But the whole family was involved in improving the herd of cattle and the farm’s milk output.

Hank recalls when his father first bought an electric milking machine.

“My dad bought a milking machine that he found satisfactory, that was clean enough. He resisted all of the long hoses and so on, he said ‘I can’t clean those,'” Hank said. “He took pride in the fact that when they checked the bacteria count, the milk he produced had a lower bacteria count than the pasteurized milk. It was significant enough that he was told that.”

Hank said he remembers his mother steadfastly doing the household laundry each week, despite less than perfect conditions.

“She would be washing clothes on a Monday, freezing them out on the line, and bringing them in stiff as boards to thaw,” Hank said.

Although neither Hank nor Howard stayed in the U.P. the brothers still have a very strong connection to one another.

Hank speaks highly of his big brother who had also received the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal in recognition of his service, and is proud of the recognition he received from the French government.

“I just have such a respect for the man. He treated me like an equal, even though I was five years his junior. He is just a decent individual and humble,” Hank said.

Lisa Bowers can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 242. Her email address is lbowers@miningjournal.net.