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Coronavirus Can't Hold These WWII Vets Down

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Once a fighter, always a fighter.

That couldn't be more true for two Oregon veterans who collectively survived World War II, the Great Depression, the Spanish Flu epidemic … and now COVID-19.

A split-screen view of two smiling, elderly men.
World War II Navy veteran Bill Kelly and Army veteran William Lapschies.
Photo By: Courtesy of Rose Ayers-Etherington, Jamie Yutzie
VIRIN: 200407-O-ZZ999-555

The virus has inundated U.S. hospitals and health care facilities over the past month. As of April 7, more than 374,000 cases have been diagnosed in the U.S., culminating in more than 12,000 deaths reported. And experts say it may still get worse before it gets better.

But just looking to 95-year-old Bill Kelly and 104-year-old William Lapschies can give us all hope. These World War II veterans got the virus and have since recovered – a huge feat because the elderly with underlying health conditions have been a hard-hit age group.

We wanted to know more about their service and recoveries, so we linked up with their families to get the details.

Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Bill Kelly

Nowadays, 95-year-old Bill Kelly keeps himself busy with his 5-year-old and 11-month-old great-grandsons while living with his granddaughter, Rose Ayers-Etherington, and her husband, Isaac Etherington, in McMinnville, Oregon. 

An elderly man and a small boy wearing medical masks give four thumbs up while sitting on a bed.
Thumbs Up
World War II Navy veteran Bill Kelly and his great-grandson, Paxton Etherington, give four thumbs up after learning Kelly was medically cleared after recovering from COVID-19. Both wear protective masks as a safety measure.
Photo By: Courtesy of Rose Ayers-Etherington
VIRIN: 200407-O-ZZ999-590

In mid-March, the normally spritely vet complained of having a low-grade fever. Because Etherington, a medical evacuation pilot, had recently flown potential COVID-19 patients, Kelly was tested for the virus. He received a positive diagnosis on St. Patrick's Day. So, instead of being allowed to celebrate his Irish roots, Kelly was told to quarantine in his bedroom. 

During World War II, Kelly spent about two years in the South Pacific. He joined the Navy right out of high school in 1943 and was assigned as a metalsmith to the 53rd U.S. Naval Construction Battalion. Better known as the Seabees, his unit accompanied the 3rd Marine Division to the Solomon and Mariana Islands. When the Marines shipped to Iwo Jima, his unit was sent to Guam.

A young sailor in dress uniform smiles for an official photo.
Bill Kelly
Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Bill Kelly during World War II.
Photo By: Navy
VIRIN: 430807-N-ZZ999-198

''The idea at that time was to build Guam up like a second Pearl Harbor so we could be closer to those enemies,'' Kelly explained. ''There we built B-29 strips and part of Marine Corps Drive .''

The war ended while he was in Guam, and he was discharged soon after. Kelly said those experiences far from home helped him get through this current isolation.

''We learned quite a bit of discipline there, so, yes, it helped a lot. I had plenty of time to rest, which I needed,'' he said. ''I was in my little room here, and my two little great-grandsons were outside it playing. I could hear them, and that helped a lot.''

A man, woman,  and a little boy pose for a photo with an elderly man wearing a World War II veterans cap.
Generation Portrait
World War II Navy veteran Bill Kelly poses with his granddaughter, Rose Ayers-Etherington, her husband, Isaac Etherington, and their young son, Paxton Etherington.
Photo By: Courtesy of Rose Ayers-Etherington
VIRIN: 200407-O-ZZ999-303

Aside from constant fatigue, Kelly said his symptoms weren't too bad. His granddaughter disagreed, though. She said he's playing it down.

''He had some rough days there. We were pretty worried about him. He looked very ashen, and he tried to be tough,'' Ayers-Etherington said. ''But we could see him slipping. He had really bad body aches. He had several nights where he just couldn't sleep because he was in so much pain. But I really think him being home here with us and the kids … honestly made all the difference to him.''

A woman and an elderly man laugh after sliding down a large, two-person slide.
Slide Laughs
World War II Navy veteran Bill Kelly laughs after riding down a slide with his daughter, Susan Nelson.
Photo By: Courtesy of Rose Ayers-Etherington
VIRIN: 200407-O-ZZ999-395

She said Kelly exemplifies America's fighting spirit. He's told her stories about remembering his dad shaving with a piece of glass during the Great Depression because that's all they had.

''He was like, 'We got through that as a community. We can do this,''' Ayers-Etherington said.

Asked if he's ready to get back to feeling young with his grandkids, Kelly said, ''I'm feeling much better! Oh, yes. I'm ready to get with it again here!''

Army Cpl. William Lapschies

Born on April 1, 1916, William Lapschies was 2 years old when the Spanish Flu ravaged the U.S. He didn't catch it, but the illness killed at least 50 million people worldwide, including 675,000 Americans. 

A man in an Army uniform stands outside in the snow.
Snow Shot
Army Cpl. William Lapschies stands on one of the snow-covered Aleutian Islands during World War II.
Photo By: Courtesy of Jamie Yutzie
VIRIN: 200407-O-ZZ999-498
A woman and a man in an Army uniform during the 1940s smile for the camera.
Couple Pose
Army Cpl. William Lapschies and his late wife, Almadean “Deanie” Buetell, pose for a photo.
Photo By: Courtesy of Jamie Yutzie
VIRIN: 200407-O-ZZ999-403

Twenty-five years later, in 1943, Lapschies was drafted into the Army near the end of World War II. His granddaughter, Jamie Yutzie, said he doesn't often talk about his service. What he did tell the family was that he was a heavy equipment dispatcher in the Aleutian Islands off the coast of Alaska. When the war was over, he was honorably discharged and went back to being a civilian.

Five World War II Army soldiers stand in the snow in front of an old truck and a small building.
Aleutian Island Soldiers
Army Cpl. William Lapschies, right, and four other soldiers in the Aleutian Islands during World War II.
Photo By: Courtesy of Jamie Yutzie
VIRIN: 200407-O-ZZ999-586

After living a fulfilling life that included two daughters, eight grandchildren and many more great-grandchildren, the 103-year-old Lapschies moved into the Edward C. Allworth Veterans' Home in Lebanon, Oregon, in 2019. To date, 18 patients have tested positive for COVID-19 at the home where there are about 140 residents. Three patients have died from the virus, but 13, including Lapschies, have recovered, according to local officials. 

According to Yutzie, doctors said the veteran was not about to have this virus take him down. His symptoms were mild, and he never developed respiratory issues, doctors said.

An elderly man wearing a ballcap smiles.
William Lapschies
Army veteran William Lapschies.
Photo By: Courtesy of Jamie Yutzie
VIRIN: 200407-O-ZZ999-742

By April 1 – his 104th birthday – he was declared coronavirus-free. Lapschies' family helped him celebrate by bringing him balloons and a cake, which they shared with him from an appropriate distance, of course. Caregivers took him outside for the first time in weeks, keeping social distancing in mind. 

Yutzie said her granddad is hard of hearing, so he doesn't say a whole lot when they ask him questions. Wearing his World War II veteran's hat during his birthday celebration, he summed up his most recent survival story perfectly: ''I finally made it.''

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