It’s a tale of love, war, and the seas in between.
This Veteran’s Day, siblings Judy Kelsey and Cal Lantis will be remembering the legacy left by their parents: Richard and Esther (Pritchard) Lantis, two native Ottawans who survived World War II and returned with mettle forged by war to build a life in the community.
“I think it matured both of them,” Kelsey said. “They had such a loving relationship — they took the good times with the bad.”
Richard and Esther’s story began with a childhood spent in early 20th century Ottawa.
“When my mom was five and my dad were six, they were neighbors,” Kelsey said. “They both went to Ottawa High School. Neither one of them came from a particularly rich family, so both had struggles. My mother‘s father owned Pritchard Nursery here in Ottawa, and my dad, his parents were farmers.”
Kelsey’s grandfather had a prediction about Richard and Esther that would prove true years later.
“My grandfather Lantis always told my mom that she was going to marry my dad,” Kelsey said. “My mom never really believed him, but he always said ‘You’re going to be my daughter someday.’”
However, before anything of the sort could happen, the United States joined World War II.
“My dad was drafted right out of high school,” Kelsey said. “My mother, she volunteered in the Navy, and the reason she volunteered was because her younger brother, Jim Pritchard, was drafted into the Marines. And she missed him so bad that she decided she was going to go into the Navy.”
Esther’s family’s disapproval of her decision to volunteer was no match for her independent spirit, Kelsey said.
“At that time [parents] had to sign off to say it was OK for them to volunteer, and her father would not sign for her,” Kesley said. “So she went to a neighbor, and him sign her papers so that she could go into the Navy.”
After training in Oklahoma and Maryland, Esther joined the 128th Naval Hospital as a Hospital Apprentice First Class aboard the USS Mercy hospital ship, one of the vessels stationed in Pearl Harbor after the location’s bombing in 1941.
Richard would end up stationed on the other side of the world.
“He was in the 778th Tank Battalion — Patton’s third army — as a Technical Sergeant,” Kelsey said. “He served in every country in every European theater except for England, and he said they were waiting to go into Russia when the war ended.”
While Esther rarely spoke of her experience on the hospital ship, Richard had several anecdotes of his time in the service he shared in his later years.
“He was a mechanic, so he was in a tank, but part of their job was to go out and get tanks that had broken down at enemy lines,” Kelsey recounted. “Sometimes they be out there, and then have to stay overnight. They would be on street, and they would be able to hear the click of the hobnail boots of the German soldiers on the cobblestones – they were that close to them.”
Richard would return home with with a purple heart for an incident that he would often humorously recount for family, Kelsey said.
“He was driving a jeep with his first sergeant in it, and the jeep was blown up by a landmine,”
Kelsey said. “When it was all said and done, they both walked away from it, but but he always talked about having the steering wheel still in his hand after the explosion — that was all that was left of the jeep.”
On another occasion, Richard met General George S. Patton, a key figure in the war.
“[Richard] was doing mechanic work and had slipped back in under the tank, so all that was sticking out were his legs. Somebody pulled on his leg, and he said it really upset him because he was working, so he said some choice words. And then when he slid out, there was General Patton,” Kelsey said. He said he thought he was really in trouble, but General Patton just said, ‘Keep up the good work.’”
Esther was released from service in late December 1945 to a poetic homecoming.
“She was released on December 23,” Kelsey said. “She got home to the Kansas City, and got a taxi to [her parent’s] house down on Sycamore in Ottawa. She got out at the end of their block, walked up on and knocked on the door — it was Christmas Eve.”
Richard was released days later on January 7, 1946.
“Dad got home in January, and he hadn’t been home but a couple of days when he was driving a car around town, and he saw my mom walking with her sister — they had just been to the movies,” Kelsey said. “Dad stopped and asked mom if she wanted to go to the movies that night. Mom said ‘I’ve already been, but I’ll go again.’ And they were married the following August.”
Richard and Esther created a loving marriage and home, Kelsey and Cal said, despite bearing scars from their time at war.
“They both saw things that neither of them wanted to see,” Kelsey said. “Mom didn’t talk a whole lot about it. For the rest of her life, she wasn’t a water person — she didn’t really even like to drive across a dam. And dad, if someone died in the tanks, he would have to clean them out.”
The family’s streak of courage runs back generations, Cal said.
“Our family has a history of service,” he said. “Great grandpa Levi Lantis was in the Seventh Cavalry, and got out right before they they went to Little Big Horn. And then we had our great uncle Leo, who was shot on the last day of the first world war, and died a few days later in Europe and is buried in Europe. Of course mom and dad went into the service, and I went into the Air Force, and served from ‘68 to ‘72.
Richard and Esther would go on to emulate their family’s history of service in civilian life, something Kelsey and Cal look back on with with pride — their mother especially, who continued to find ways to serve despite dealing with the era’s institutionalized sexism.
“When she came back, she really wanted to be in the VFW, because she was a veteran of the foreign war,” Kelsey said “But they didn’t allow women to be in the VFW in that day and age.”
And while Kelsey and Cal miss their parents — Esther died in 2014, and Richard in October 2018 — the two are glad for the chance to honor their lives of service yearly on Veteran’s Day.
“They taught us a lot, my brother and I,” Kelsey said. “Mom is the stricter of the two — dad was the one that she would let you get bio stuff — but they both made [service] a part of life — you were always active in your community.”