KEARNEY, NE - After decades of being quiet about his wartime experiences, 96-year-old Vernon Erikson of Kearney is opening up.

In the above video, he talks about being recruited to the Navy, repairing the USS New Mexico after it was hit by kamikaze attacks and the importance of his work as a soldier.

Vernon Erikson didn’t talk about his time in the war for decades.

But now, the 96-year-old World War Two veteran living near Kearney is an open book.

“I got to thinking these last few years when I got grandkids and great grandkids, how are they going to know about it if I don’t tell them?”

Erikson’s journey started at home near Comstock, Nebraska, where he was recruited out of his high school classroom as a 17-year-old. He grew up swimming in the Middle Loup River, so he joined the Navy.

“I’d never seen a ship bigger than a row boat. To the next one I’d seen was 625-feet long.”

That boat was the USS New Mexico. Erikson was a water tender, meaning he helped fire the ship’s boilers to make steam. He was far from the farm as the ship covered much of the Pacific, at one point spending 13 and a half months at sea.

“Boy, that’s a hell of a difference from driving a team of horses.”

Erikson was below deck when kamikazes struck the New Mexico in May, 1945. A group of eight specialists were assigned to a damage control party to put out the ensuing fire.

“I was one of them. I’m the only one that lived through it.”

He buried the others at sea. He helped put their bodies in a sack, laid them on a plank and tipped them into the ocean.

“I would grab the next sack, put another guy up there and (tip it over). That was home for them, they were going home.”

His orders were even tougher when sent to battle on land.

“The order was, when you go ashore, kill everybody you see. Because everybody from that tall to bigger carrying a gun, they’d all shoot you.”

He stayed alive and the New Mexico stayed afloat, sailing to Tokyo Bay to witness Japan’s formal surrender. It was a proud moment for Erikson, but not his lasting memory of the war.

“What the war really pounded into me was this picture I got of home.”

It shows a family with a pig and some chickens living on a small craft.

“They’d come alongside our ship and the best thing we could give them was a loaf of bread.”

He stopped taking his home for granted. The image of it got him through the war. 

Now, it’s his message to his family and beyond. Now it’s his message to younger generations. Now it’s his message to Americans. Now, it’s his Memorial Day message.

“If they can truly learn what home means, they know it all.”