Wally Laba had one, simple request as the singing of “Happy Birthday” wound down and the cake was about to be cut: “Stop counting!”
With his sense of humor fully intact, the local World War II veteran celebrated his 100th birthday on Friday in a packed room at the American Heroes Café at Festival Foods in Kenosha.
Kenosha County Executive Samantha Kerkman and Mayor John Antaramian were on hand with proclamations in Laba’s honor, and high praise for his service to the country and his longevity in life.
Kerkman’s proclamation, declaring it Walter (Wally) Laba Day in Kenosha County, detailed several of Laba’s military honors and experiences, culminating with his witnessing — from a nearby ship — of the raising of the U.S. flag at Iwo Jima on Feb. 23, 1945.
“It’s wonderful to be here to celebrate you and what you have done for our country,” Kerkman said.
Born in North Chicago, Ill., on Oct. 17, 1923, Laba joined the Civilian Conservation Corps at age 17 before enlisting in the U.S. Marine Corps on March 25, 1943.
Stationed in the Pacific, Laba received multiple commendations, citations, and a Purple Heart for meritorious performance of duty for his service in military operations at Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands, at Saipan and Tinian in the Marianas Islands, and in the Battle of Iwo Jima. He was honorably discharged on Nov. 18, 1945.
After returning from service, Laba married Olga Tomas in Kenosha on Jan. 25, 1947. They enjoyed 70 years of marriage before her death, raising three children — late sons Gary and Thom and daughter Charlene, who sat at Laba’s side during Friday’s celebration.
As a civilian, Laba worked as a pin boy, drill press operator, bus driver, mechanic, and as a supervisor at American Motors/Chrysler, where he retired after 30 years.
During Friday’s celebration, Antaramian’s message to Laba and the other veterans assembled was a simple one: “Thank you.”
“Thank you for what you have done, because without you, politicians wouldn’t be here to talk,” Antaramian said. “You are the ones who have made this country, and I want to make sure that you know we do appreciate that.”
Dick Stader, a 20-year U.S. Navy veteran who has long been involved in local veterans’ organizations, presented a Marine Corps ring to Laba, affectionately known to many in the room as “Uncle Wally.”
“We appreciate you and all that you did in your service to the United States Marine Corps,” Stader said. “Thank you, Uncle Wally.”
Asked how it feels to turn 100, Laba fired back with his sense of humor.
“Rotten!” he said, with a smile.
“I can’t do much walking,” he added. “Still kicking, though.”