Kenmare veteran, Jim Hillestad, shares WWII memories at coin presentation
County honors veteran with coin presentation
KENMARE – Jim Hillestad’s memories of his service in the Japanese Theater during World War II are as vivid as if they took place yesterday.
At 100 years old, the Kenmare veteran speaks with humor and in detail about his time in the Army and his role in the military’s use of new, secret radar technology.
On Thursday, Ward County Veterans Service Office Director Brad Starnes presented Hillestad with a gold Ward County Centennial Coin in honor of his service. The county commission approved the gifting of the coin.
“It is spectacular, and it is an honor to be able to give him the coin on behalf of Ward County,” said Starnes, who learned of Hillestad’s service from a news article when he turned 100 last April 28. Radar was cutting edge during WWII, and Hillestad was there, playing a key role, Starnes said.
“When he tells the story, you can just see the story in his eyes. It is almost like a movie screen because you are envisioning what he saw,” he said.
A Kenmare native, Hillestad had worked for the Civilian Conservation Corps in Kenmare and Miles City, Montana, before the government drafted him into the Army at age 21.
He left basic training with a note in his file about being a good worker and an excellent truck driver. When he arrived at the base in Oklahoma, the note was enough to move him from the mule pack artillery to the mechanized artillery. While in Louisiana to prepare to go overseas, Hillestad’s driving prowess led to his selection as driver for a first sergeant who was selecting men for a new training school.
Hillestad jokingly offered himself for the training, despite having only an eighth-grade education. Many of the men were high school or college graduates. The sergeant surprised him by selecting him.
“So I went to school, and I got stuck in this brand new company that nobody ever heard of before – and that was radar,” he said.
Despite being among the least educated coming into the Army, Hillestad became an instructor, teaching other soldiers how to set up radar. He worked with radar stateside for a year.
“We would go out, set up the radar unit and operate three weeks,” he said. “This was not just teaching either, because we were guarding the coastline. We never set up in the same place twice.”
At the time, he had decided to take out an insurance policy of just $4,000, rather than the $10,000 allowed, to limit the premium taken out of his salary. His superiors felt he should take the full $10,000 and repeatedly pressured him to do so. He finally told them the only way he would be interested in a $10,000 policy would be if he was assigned overseas. Shortly afterwards, he received his overseas orders.
As a youth, he had gone to a movie that included a pre-show clip of construction of the Burma Road. Impressed with the building of the 717-mile road through mountainous terrain from Burma to China in 1937-39, he had told friends he would drive that road someday. It was halfway around the world on the globe, but he said he would travel around the world in going there and coming back.
He accomplished the first half of the around-the-world trip when he was stationed in Burma, now Myanmar in Southeast Asia.
After the Japanese overran Burma in 1942, an Allied unit known as Merrill’s Marauders cut off the Burma Road, which hampered the Japanese but also forced the Allies to use cargo planes to transport supplies. Loaded planes had difficulty with the mountains and ended up targets when they flew through valleys. They were losing a plane a day, Hillestad recalled.
Needing the help of radar, the military called upon Hillestad to immediately lead a group of soldiers to set up a radar unit.
“The moment that radar unit was turned on, they never lost another plane,” Hillestad said.
Hillestad did get his chance to drive portions of the Burma Road. On one occasion he took a bike ride down a steep pass, missing a sharp turn after discovering the brakes weren’t working.
“I went straight ahead. I didn’t get hurt. I threw myself sideways. Then I walked back,” he said.
Hillestad also fulfilled his goal to travel around the world when his return to the states took the opposite route around the globe from his incoming trip.
However, before returning to American soil in January 1946, Hillestad spent time in India, awaiting his turn to go home. Not one to sit around, he went to the quartermaster of another company and asked for a job helping tear down camp. He was such a good worker that one of the office workers warned him the quartermaster wanted to keep him on instead of sending him home. Hillestad said he didn’t show up for work the next morning.
“I wanted to go home,” he said.
Back home, he joined the Veterans of Foreign Wars and was in charge of the VFW’s firing squad at military funerals. Hillestad took part in an Honor Flight to Washington, D.C. a few years ago.
He bought, trucked and bred cattle for a number of years. He opened a second-hand store and rented furniture to area missile workers in the 1970s. He met an antique dealer and became interested in the trade. He operated his own antique business for many years.
These days, he is often found at the senior center or in his workshop, making corner shelves or bird houses from cowboy boots. One of his favorite pastimes is sitting outside his house or across the street, waving at traffic.
He and his wife, Sylvia, live with their son, Kelly, in Kenmare. They also have two daughters.