At 88 years of age, lifelong Winona area resident Elmer Tarras can still close his eyes and vividly remember the glowing lights of Paris, even though his one and only visit to the city happened nearly 70 years ago. “Gay Paris!” he said, calling the city by its French pronunciation.
. WWII veteran Elmer Tarras with his French Legion of Honor medal, which he received for his duty throughout southern France.
It was there where he saw and danced — albeit not as good as he would eventually learn while back in America — to the Glenn Miller Band as they performed at a theatre. Although his excursion to Paris lasted for just a few days, Tarras fondly remembered the trip as one of the very few good memories from his time spent in the army during World War II.
Last March, for his service in WWII, Tarras was honored as a knight of the Legion of Honor. According to the Consulate General of France in Chicago, where Tarras’ application was sent and processed, the Legion of Honor was established by Napoleon and “is the highest honor that France can bestow upon those who have achieved remarkable deeds for France.”
“I am very proud of it,” Tarras said of the honor. “Very proud to receive it.”
Although he is appreciative of his service now, it took a while for Tarras to accept the things he saw and witnessed while in Germany and France. He admits that for the longest time, he did not like talking about the war or anything related to it. “When I came home, I wouldn’t even talk to anybody [about my service],” Tarras said. “It took a long time.”
Born in Winona and raised in Pickwick, Tarras was drafted into the war in 1943, and was in the service for over three years. “I was 18 years old on October 6, and I was gone by Christmas to training at Camp Carson in Colorado,” he explained. While at training camp, Tarras met and befriended Vincent Mundy, who would later become Tarras’ captain for the Company A 286 Combat Engineers. It was also at Camp Carson when Mundy asked if Tarras would be his jeep driver. “He says, ‘would you consider driving a jeep for me?’” Tarras remembered. “So, I did. We did a lot of traveling, building bridges and roads to bypass the bridges and roadways the Germans had blown up.”
Prior to arriving in Germany, Tarras and his Company trained in England, learning how to build bridges and roadways, as well as becoming familiar with land mines and how to spot them. He said he can still remember how to spot a land mine from its indentation in the earth. “The Germans [would dig] a hole in the road, place a mine in [the hole] and cover it in sand. You could see [the mines] from 100 feet away,” Tarras explained of the process of recognizing a deadly land mine. “I [had good eyesight] — I didn’t have any glasses back then, either.”
As a jeep driver, he drove through many cities and made many trips, oftentimes by himself, for the supplies needed to build bridges and roads. Although Tarras and his Company were not stationed on the front lines of combat, he still engaged in fighting and was on constant lookout for the enemy. “I had my gun right by my steering wheel so I could grab it — and it wasn’t a ‘bang, bang,’ it was a ‘bum, bum, bum, bum!’” Tarras remembered, mimicking the quick sound of the machine gun he used.
In the two years he spent driving his jeep throughout southern France and Germany, Tarras saw a number of beautiful sights, like the never-ending scenery of the Black Forest and the tiny towns that cropped up throughout France. “[The forests] were beautiful,” he recalled.
Some images, however, have stayed with him longer for their sheer emotion and gravity of war. “[In France,] we went through little cities. I can’t remember the name of the town, but it only had a smokestack left.”
Life back in Winona
After the war, Tarras returned home and held a series of odd jobs. “I did work on the railroad for a while,” he recalled.
Eventually, Tarras bought Emil’s, a root beer stand and drive-in, and changed the name to Lakeview Drive Inn in 1955. “I owned the whole thing; I even bought a house right behind it,” Tarras said. “It was hard work, but I liked running it.”
Today, he lives with his wife Renette at an apartment in town. Even though Tarras has seen many things throughout his life, he said that he has truly enjoyed watching Winona’s growth and expansion over time. “The last few years, I can’t believe [how much it has grown],” he said. Unlike many people who reminisce of the good days, Tarras is proud of the change to the city over his lifetime. “I like it the way it is; it’s nice. It’s better now than it was.”