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Across many miles and years, special World War II cap connects veteran and students

The USAAF portion of the WWII: Airmen in a World at War exhibit in the World War II Gallery at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force. (U.S. Air Force/Released)
November 13, 2019

Band director Darren Seymour faced a simple task: plan a yearly concert at Illini Bluffs School District 327.

But in the process, he and his students got an unlikely and unforgettable lesson in service, sacrifice and patriotism — all from a 92-year-old veteran whom they met only through a chance encounter triggered by an old, worn Army cap.

“It was one of the coolest things I’ve ever experienced as a teacher,” Seymour says.

Since 2002, Seymour, 42, has been with the district, where he teaches grades 5 through 12. Each fall, he coordinates the Pops Concert, which involves the high school’s concert band and jazz band. Sometimes, the show is held at the school, but sometimes it goes off-campus.

This fall, after talking with students, they decided to have the concert at the local American Legion Post No. 35. The school and Legion are no strangers: post members often appear at community events with band students. For instance, at Veterans Day and Memorial Day ceremonies, the post will march with flags as the band plays a martial number.

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The Pops Concert is free, though donations are accepted. By having the show at the Legion, Seymour could share the donations with the post.

“I’ve worked with those guys before,” he says. “I thought we’d throw a little money their way.”

With the Legion in mind, the concert would have a World War II/USO theme. The 20-member concert band would play patriotic songs, while the 15-member jazz band could do swing numbers. As such, Seymour urged students to come up with their own military outfits, such as from thrift stores.

“I told them not to spend a lot of money,” he says.

As chance would have it, one weekend he was traveling through Wisconsin and encountered a flea market. There, he spotted a dealer with a small pile of World War II garrison caps. Thinking these would be useful for students’ outfits for the concert, Seymour bought several for $5 each.

At the next concert practice, he showed the caps to students. As they looked them over, a flute player peeked inside a hat — well worn, with small holes poking through — and discovered a name inside: Ebner Luetzow.

Moments later, another student whipped out a cellphone and googled the name. Boom: someone with that name was 92 and living outside Milwaukee.

“You should call him up,” one of the students said to Seymour. Others echoed the challenge.

“OK,” he said.

After a couple of traded messages, Seymour talked with Ebner Luetzow, who goes by the name of Gus and has lived all of his life in and around Milwaukee. Indeed, he had served during World War II. At Seymour’s invitation, he agreed to a conference call with the concert students to recount his experiences of yesteryear.

Yet as it turned out, the nonagenarian has plenty in common with the teens, as he and his wife share their affinity for music.

During the 1944-45 academic year, as a senior-year drummer for Bay View High School in Milwaukee, Gus Luetzow ran the marching band after the director got drafted into the service. Meantime, he caught the eye of a comely flute player named Joan, whose voice was well known by the student body. Every morning, she’d get on the public-address system and sing songs, mixed with announcements regarding the latest drives for paper, clothing and other wartime necessities.

During the Illini Bluffs conference call, students stared at a phone speaker in rapt attention. You mean, they wondered, there was a time where American life was so dire that teens were collecting cooking grease to help win a war? In class, they’d learned about World War II, but not in such everyday detail.

“It was unique,” says senior Anthony Jurewicz, 17. “To actually interact with someone from that period of time was super-cool.”

Right after graduation, Luetzow enlisted into the Army Air Forces, following the footsteps of his older brothers — William, Albert and Kenneth — each one of them a fighter pilot during the war. William died when his plane crashed during a stateside flight. Later, Albert and his co-pilot ejected over Italy when the cockpit of their P-38 burst aflame; they parachuted to safety and later found out that a member of their squad had sabotaged the plane. That airman did not return home alive; his family was told he’d been killed in action, but not that the fatal shot had been fired in vengeance by his own squad.

The students were wowed by such tales about Luetzow’s brothers. As senior Jurewcz says, “Normally, you don’t really hear these kind of stories. I’d never talked to a World War II vet before.”

As for Luetzow’s own Air Forces tour, he never got to fly: by the time he was to train as a fighter pilot, the war had ended. With no additional pilots needed, he became a mechanic and was stationed stateside, where he also played drums for his camp’s band.

After the service, Luetzow returned to Milwaukee — and Joan. After the two wed, he went to work for his family’s dry-cleaning business and she got a job as a high school band director. As they raised a family, he sang for 40 years in the couple’s church choir, which she directed. They now live outside Milwaukee in a retirement home, where she sings in the choir.

She says with a laugh, “You just don’t stop singing.”

Her husband was grateful for the chance to recount his life with Illinois Bluffs students, who went on to put on an inspired concert. Meantime, the class sent his cap back to him.

And what about that cap? Luetzow was issued more than one while in the service. But how did that one cap — a special cap that connected a 92-year-old vet in a Wisconsin city to a group of teens in rural Illinois — end up in a flea market?

“I don’t know,” Luetzow says with a chuckle. “I have no idea.”

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© 2019 the Journal Star