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Martinez WWII veteran and TikTok star "Papa Jake" marks 80th anniversary of D-Day

Martinez WWII veteran, age 101, marks 80th anniversary of D-Day
Martinez WWII veteran, age 101, marks 80th anniversary of D-Day 04:34

Thursday marked the 80th anniversary of the D-Day invasion of France, the turning point in the war against the Nazis. One of the survivors who attended the ceremonies at Normandy is a Martinez man who had an insider's view of the operation and has inadvertently become an internet star because of it.  

Along with the Stars and Stripes, the tri-color flag of France flies over the Martinez home of Jake Larson. He helped liberate the country. If you haven't heard of him, there's a good chance your kids have.

"Papa Jake" Larson
  "Papa Jake" Larson KPIX

When you sit down to talk to Larson, it's clear that even he is amazed by his own good fortune.

"I'm 101, going on 102," he said. "Hell, I'm the luckiest man in the world. I don't have an ache or a pain in my body!"

His unlikely story began in 1938 when he lied his way into the Minnesota National Guard at the age of 15.  By the time Pearl Harbor happened, Jake had already been in the infantry for more than three years.  But a typing class he took in high school changed everything.

"They transferred me into 5th Corps. I didn't even know what a corps was!" Larson remembered. "And into G-3. That's...G-3 is plans and training."

As the U.S. geared up for war in Europe, Jake was transferred to Ireland, where he served as a clerk for the officers planning the Army's move into France.

"Papa Jake" Larson in uniform
A photo of "Papa Jake" Larson in uniform. KPIX

"I got in on the planning of the invasion! Every person that landed on Omaha Beach on D-Day came through these fingers!" he said. "These fingers I'm showing you right now typed their names."

When D-Day arrived, Larson was on the command staff ship and was ordered to hit the beach with everyone else. He said his greatest fear was the million land mines that he knew the Germans had buried in the sand. As the war progressed and the Allied front advanced, so did Larson, moving across France and eventually ending up at the Battle of the Bulge. The clerk typist was ultimately awarded a Bronze Star for his role in the war. But like most, he never talked about it.

"Who the hell would believe me?!!" said Jake.

It wasn't until long after that he got his true recognition, all thanks to his granddaughter, McKaela. She made a Tik Tok video introducing Larson to a new audience during the pandemic.

"I would like you to meet a WWII veteran, my Papa Jake. Say hello to TikTok!" McKaela is heard saying in the video that introduced her grandfather on the app.  

"Hi, Tik Tok! Papa Jake here," Larson said. 

After that, it took off. He now has more than 813,000 followers on his TikTok account, @storytimewithpapajake." His recorded memories of the war have reached a new generation, with some of his videos receiving millions of views.  

"I'm world famous, right now!" Larson smiled.  "If you talk about Papa Jake to the world, they know about me!  Everybody knows me!"

And that's especially true in France.  His son Kurt said Papa Jake is treated like a rock star when he travels back for D-Day observances.

"They know him over there," said Kurt. "He'll be going down the street in a parade, and it's like, 'Papa Jake! Papa Jake!'"

 "They wear little bands around their wrists," said Larson. "And it just says on that band, 'We remember.' Yes. Yes, I remember, too."

Larson said he remembers everything, including the horror of watching so many people die.  

"When I go to that cemetery, I feel the presence of the souls of these guys that gave their lives," " he said, his voice cracking. "They're with me."

And he believes there may be a reason he got through the biggest battles of World War Two without a scratch.

"I used to think it was coincidence," Larson said. "I know it's not coincidence, anymore. It's too lucky. I'm too lucky."

His family never knew about his war history until 2019 when he was invited to attend the 75th commemoration of the D-Day invasion. He has attended each one since, and joined other D-Day vets in Normandy for Thursday's 80th anniversary ceremony. 

Larson believes it's fate that he's still around to speak up for those who never came home. And he said he considers himself the "luckiest man in the world" to be able to do it.  

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