Brad Venaas

Brad Venaas, adjutant of American Legion Post 53, kneels at the grave of Roger Kuhlman, one of the post’s four namesakes. View more photos at LeaderTelegramPhotos.com.

William C. Johnson, Frank E. Nicoles, Roger R. Kuhlman and Rodney J. Olson lost their lives serving their country during war.

However, their names live on; each is a namesake of American Legion Post 53, also known as the Johnson-Nicoles-Kuhlman-Olson Post 53.

“If we never add another name to the post, that’s OK,” said Brad Venaas, post adjutant. “That means someone else hasn’t given his life.”

The four will be honored Saturday as part of the 100th anniversary celebration of both the national American Legion and Post 53.

Two are buried in Eau Claire — Johnson at Lakeview Cemetery and Kuhlman at St. John’s Cemetery, and Olson was laid to rest in Rest Haven Cemetery in the town of Washington.

On Saturday, members of Post 53 will lay wreaths, conduct a three-volley rifle salute and play Taps at each location. The post bugler will use the bugle that was used when Johnson was buried.

Following the ceremonies, cake and coffee will be served at Post 53, 634 Water St., where Venaas hopes to play a video of the National Park Service laying a wreath this week on the post’s behalf honoring Nicoles in Hawaii.

Venaas is hoping members of the public will attend to learn about the post and its namesakes.

“Most people don’t know we are here,” Venaas said Wednesday from the post, which has more than 400 members.

The American Legion is the country’s largest wartime veterans service organization, with nearly 2 million members and more than 12,000 posts in communities throughout the United States, according to its website.

The nonprofit is committed to mentoring youth and sponsoring programs in the communities, including American Legion Baseball; advocating patriotism and honor; and promoting strong national security and continued devotion to servicemembers and veterans.

In the summer of 1919, 15 World War I veterans applied for a charter to establish an American Legion post in Eau Claire, and a temporary charter, dated Aug. 20, 1919, was granted to Wm. C. Johnson Post 53 American Legion at Eau Claire.

The name was selected to honor Johnson, a second lieutenant who was killed in action on June 6, 1918, during World War I.

Born in Superior, Johnson came to Eau Claire in 1914 and became associated as a stockholder and officer with the Northwestern Motor Co, according to a history shared by Venaas. He later took an active part in company affairs until the summer of 1917.

Johnson entered officers’ training camp at Fort Sheridan on Aug. 27, 1917, and on Jan. 15, 1918, he sailed for France, where he entered active service, fighting first with the Marines and then the Army.

On June 6, 1918, Johnson voluntarily took command after a platoon leader was killed by enemy fire. However, the 28-year-old was struck and killed by machine gun fire while maneuvering to flank an enemy machine gun nest.

“He was one of the first soldiers from Eau Claire to lay down his life in the Great World War,” according to a tribute by Eau Claire County Judge James Wickham at the annual meeting of the Elks Lodge in 1919.

However, he wouldn’t be the last.

Post 53 received its permanent charter from the national headquarters on May 17, 1921. The following March, the Wm. C. Johnson Unit 53 American Legion Auxiliary was granted a charter.

More than two decades later, a change to the post’s charter, dated Oct. 28, 1947, reflected the addition of Nicoles to the post’s name.

Nicoles of Eau Claire joined the U.S. Navy in 1939 and served on the USS Oklahoma in the Pacific fleet with his younger brother, John Nicoles. The elder brother’s specialty was fireman.

The Oklahoma was sunk on Dec. 7, 1941, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. John Nicoles survived the attack, but Frank Nicoles, 24, was killed. He is buried at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu.

Kuhlman’s name was added to the post, according to another charter change dated March 24, 1965.

Born in Eau Claire, Kuhlman graduated from West Point Military Academy in 1949, and he fought in the Korean War.

The 23-year-old Kuhlman was killed by enemy mortar fire during the Battle of the Pusan Perimeter, a large-scale battle between United Nation and North Korean forces that lasted from Aug. 4 to Sept. 18, 1950.

The last change to the charter, dated June 19, 1972, reflected the addition of Olson to the post’s name in honor of Pfc. Rodney J. Olson, who enlisted in the Army in 1965 – three days after graduating from North High School.

After completing training, Olson was shipped to Vietnam, arriving around Dec. 20, 1965. He was killed in action on Jan. 31, 1966, making him the first soldier from Eau Claire to be killed in combat in Vietnam. He was 18.

“They were all so young, and they didn’t get to do much in life,” said Venaas of Post 53’s namesakes.

But Venaas, the son of a World War II veteran who served in the U.S. Army from 1978 to 1982, and then the National Guard from 1982 to 2001 is hoping people remember the sacrifices each of the four made.

“I don’t want people to forget it,” he said.

Contact: 715-830-5838, christena.obrien@ecpc.com, @CTOBrien on Twitter