HIBBING —Then 18-year-old Steve Radika was among the first wave of U.S. Marines to land in Okinawa, Japan on April 1, 1945. The youngest of 12 children from a quaint farm on the outskirts of Hibbing, Radika went from small town life to zig-zagging across a foreign beach, sand flying up on either side of him as the bullets hit near his feet, one right after the other.
“We all jumped up and were getting fired at,” Radika, now 94, told the Hibbing Daily Tribune on Friday morning from his home near Janet Lake. “One bullet went right through my pack and busted up my can of beans.”
Radika described how Japanese forces crouched behind concrete guard posts, known “pill boxes,” and were killing his brother-in-arms in rapid succession. He said it was then he decided to pull off a sneak attack, and as he tried to run back, he was shot through the chest.
Holding up his arm, Radika showed off a scar from the exit wound. He says he was lucky; the bullet missed the bone, saving his arm from a complete amputation.
“I was laying there on the ground, and it was hard for me to breathe,” he said. “They broke my lung. Then a tank came, parked over me and pulled me up through the bottom and brought me to the hospital ship.”
During those 45 days of combat, Radika said he never once removed his boots.
He slowly recovered in the weeks that passed and was eventually transferred to Hawaii, California and Oregon. Finally, he was discharged and homeward bound. Despite having to hitchhike part of the way, Radika returned to Hibbing a hero.
On Friday—National Flag Day—Radika shared his experiences and held his Purple Heart Award, a military decoration given to those wounded while serving, while surrounded by family plus a few new friends who were eager to give back to the local veteran.
Outside Radika’s front door, city building officials from all over northern Minnesota were busy measuring and hammering away as they volunteered their time installing a new ramp free of charge for Radika, who still lives on his own in the house where he raised his four children.
Hailing from Hibbing and Grand Rapids as well as across the Twin Ports and International Falls areas, the city officials belong to a group called Arrowhead Chapter Building Officials, which acts as a resource exchange and provides continuing education credits.
Adam Schminski is the vice president of ACBO and a construction inspector with the City of Duluth.
“Every June we do a ramp project with Access North,” Schminski told the HDT earlier this week. “They organize and orchestrate where it’s going to be and who it’s for, and we all just go do it.”
He added, “It’s all volunteer based.”
Access North Center for Independent Living, a nonprofit organization in Hibbing, provides ramps for people in need throughout northeastern Minnesota. This year Radika was the chosen recipient. And Access North executive director Don Brunette, was happy to hear that.
“The fact that this ramp build is for a World War II vet makes it especially meaningful,” Brunette wrote in an email to HDT.
Earlier this month, the nonprofit hosted a picnic to celebrate 25 years of its ramp program. At the time, staff shared that they had constructed 1,441 ramps. The ramp program is one of several adaptation services provided to help people with disabilities remain independent and in their home.
People like Radika. Smiling from his red recliner Friday, Radika looked toward the window and said, “I appreciate that very much. That ramp’s not going to cost me nothing. They did a lot of work out there already.”
Radika’s children were all by his side, happy to see the work getting done. They took turns checking on progress and greeting the additional help as people showed up throughout the morning.
Jason Worlie is the access coordinator at Access North — or, in his own words, “the behind the scenes guy” — who helped guide the efforts of ACBO with this year’s build. He told the HDT this week that Access North constructs roughly 80 ramps a year by enlisting the assistance of organizations like the ACBO who donate their time.
And for this build Worlie said he could hardly think of a better group to get the job done right.
“When we pick someone for a ramp, it all depends on timing and when a volunteer crew can build it,” Worlie said, explaining the selection process. “Everyone who needs a ramp is in need.”
To that, he noted, the number of those in need still surprises him.
The morning build went quickly with many experts on hand, leveling and releveling just to be sure.
Matt Munter, is a code official with the City of Cloquet and is the president of ACBO. He joined the group five years ago as a “newbie” and said the members were always happy to lend a hand or share their expertise where they could. That same willingness, he said, comes through every year when they complete one of these builds.
“It just feels good to do something nice for somebody,” Munter said.