Illinois World War II veteran celebrates 79 years at Post 79
After serving overseas as an Army medic and company clerk, Harlan "Pop" Bottles moved to Le Roy, Ill., and joined Ruel Neal American Legion Post 79. He and his wife, Carol, have a son and four grandchildren. Photos courtesy Mark Young

Illinois World War II veteran celebrates 79 years at Post 79

At 99 years old, Harlan “Pop” Bottles is the last living World War II veteran at Ruel Neal American Legion Post 79 in Le Roy, Ill.

Members celebrated him at a birthday party and open house Feb. 3, but they had another, special reason for honoring Bottles. This year, he’ll have been a member of Post 79 for 79 years.

“I don’t think that will happen ever again in the history of our post,” says Mark Young, senior vice commander of the Illinois Legion’s 4th Division, adjutant of Post 79 and a longtime friend of Bottles.

More than 175 people came by the post to greet Bottles, who received certificates of recognition from State Sen. Sally Turner and State Rep. Dan Caulkins, as well as a U.S. flag flown on his birthday over the Illinois State Capitol. Le Roy Mayor Steve Dean issued a proclamation declaring Feb. 3 “Pop Bottles Day.”

Illinois Department Commander Delmar Buske presented Bottles with a plaque from the Legion, thanking him for his service to his country during World War II and lifelong service to veterans and others. “We are honored to call you brother, comrade and, more importantly, friend,” Buske told him. “People like you make our posts and our communities better.”

Bottles joined Post 79 after his discharge from the Army in 1945. His father, Carry Bottles, served in France in World War I. “He was in the Legion at Corydon, Ind., and I thought I’d like to be in it too,” he says.

For 78 years, Bottles has been a devoted member of Post 79’s color guard and honor guard, retiring only last year. He still frequents the post, getting together with other members for coffee twice a week.

“There’s just something there that makes you friends,” Bottles says of his fellow veterans. “You’d do anything in the world for them.”

Bottles was in high school when the United States entered World War II. Of the 33 boys in his graduating class in Corydon, 31 went into the service, he recalls. Six never came home. 

“We didn’t think too much about it,” he says. “It was just something we had to do. And I think we were glad to go and help the guys who were already there.”

Bottles entered the service at Louisville, Ky., and went on to train at Fort Warren in Cheyenne, Wyo., Keesler Field in Biloxi, Miss., and Camp Grant in Rockford, Ill. He ended up working as a company clerk and medic, arriving in Cherbourg, France, in late 1944. From there, he was sent to London and stationed on an Army hospital train that traveled throughout England, Scotland and Wales. 

“We never did stop anywhere and stay,” he says. “We moved all the time, hauling the wounded from hospitals to boats, from boats to hospitals, from hospitals to airplanes, from airplanes to hospitals.”

Bottles assisted doctors and nurses by administering shots and wrapping bleeding wounds. And when patients were carried on board, he took their names, service records if they had them, and any souvenirs they wanted to take home. 

One day, a ramp used to transport litters from the ground to the boxcar collapsed, leaving Bottles with a concussion and other injuries. He was flown back to the United States for surgery, first to Long Island, N.Y., and then Schick General Hospital in Clinton, Iowa. 

Bottles remembers waking up on or around Victory over Japan (VJ) Day, and hearing people talk about the end of the war. It wasn’t too long before he was out of the Army and looking for work. Fortunately, Bottles had a plan. A couple of years before, he’d visited McLean County while on furlough and knew it was where he wanted to be: black soil, fewer rocks and trees than he was used to. His uncle had moved to the area, and within two weeks, Bottles was in Illinois, ready to farm.

He didn’t know anybody, but one night he asked to borrow his uncle’s car to go to a high school basketball game in Le Roy.

“They had the cutest little black-haired cheerleader doing them flips,” he says. “I never missed a ball game after that.”

Bottles married that cheerleader, Carol, and they’ve been together 76 years. That’s almost as long as he’s been called “Pop,” a nickname he got as a 4-H leader and ag adviser for FFA students. They have a son, Kevin, and four grandchildren.

Besides farming, Bottles has owned a feed mill, run a hay-baling business, raised livestock and shown antique tractors. He also played guitar and harmonica in a country gospel band, and still performs at his church every Sunday night. 

That’s how Dick Schudel first met Bottles. The two veterans have become good friends in the 20 years since Schudel – who served in the Marine Corps from 1955 to 1959 – joined Post 79.

“It was great to see so many people come in and honor him,” Schudel says. “You’d have thought that at his age he’d sit down, but he was on his feet, greeting everybody.”

Janet Oliver has known Bottles for decades, and remembers when he drove around town delivering auto parts for NAPA. As vice president for Auxiliary Unit 79, she planned the menu for Bottles’ party, and says that’s the least she can do for the post’s veterans.

“What they did, signing their names on the dotted line, gave me the life I have. Without them we wouldn’t have the country we have.”

As for Bottles, she adds, “What can you say about him? The man gets around better than I do, and I’m 56. He’s just a big old sugar cube. He’s pure sugar. He always has a hug. That’s our ‘Pop’ Bottles.”

In just a couple of years, Post 79 has lost 10 of its 11 World War II veterans, Young says.

A small community, Le Roy saw 699 men – 58% of its male population at the time – serve in World War II. Eight did not return, including three brothers: Ralph Gaultney (USS Arizona, and the first from McLean County to be killed in action), Leonard Gaultney (USS Vincennes) and David Gaultney (Iwo Jima). Four of Post 79’s members were survivors of the Bataan Death March.

Young serves as chairman of the city’s Wall of Honor, which bears the names of 1,652 local veterans from World War I to today – many who grew up in Le Roy, and others, like Bottles, who made a life there.

“I have the utmost respect for them all, especially our World War II guys,” he says. “Pop is our last, and to us, he’s very special.”