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THE CITY REBORN FROM THE ASHES OF AMERICA'S MOST DISASTROUS FOREST FIRE
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Lena Twin Brothers to Mark 100th Birthdays

Issue Date: December 5, 2019

Identical twins, Merne, left, and Mark Gilles, right, turn 100 on Dec. 11th. Raised on a dairy and crop farm outside Lena, the boys spent their youth milking cows, working in the fields and finding a little time for high school sports.

The 2nd and 3rd of 10 children, the twins initially had two brothers, John and Francis, and two sisters, Mary Ellen and Agnes.  Their mother, Ann Maloney Gilles, passed when the twins were 11 years old and their father, Francis, remarried Susan Lisowe and had four more boys, Joe, Bob, Dick and Leo to complete the family.  

Merne, the "elder' twin, after graduating high school in 1937 and passage of the REA [Rural Electrification Act], worked on wiring Oconto County farms for the first time. It is difficult to imagine now, but at the time, some people wondered "what will farmers do with electricity?" Merne took over the family dairy and grain farm in 1948, eventually totaling over 750 acres. Merne was an active leader in many civic organizations, serving as a Midwest Breeders Director and on its Executive Board; the president, VP, treasurer and membership chairman of the Civic Club and Lyons Club; and the chairman of the board for the Federal Land Bank of Green Bay for many years. He was active in the Democratic Party and the St. Charles and Holy Cross Community Church. He is an advocate for progressive farming, especially soil conservation, and travelled to China as part of the People to People program.

Merne's wife, Claire passed in 1993 and his second wife, Betty died in 1998.   Merne lives in his Lena home with some assistance from family. He is very proud to have spent his life as a farmer "feeding the people," he said. Just a few weeks ago and with a little help, he climbed up into the combine one more time and did a few laps in the corn field. Family members will gather in Lena Dec. 7 to celebrate the centenarian.

Mark left the family farm Nov. 1941 to join the Army Air Corps, followed by his brothers, John and Francis. Merne, ineligible for military service due to a poorly set arm fracture as a child, stayed on the farm to help his father. Pursuing his childhood dream to fly, Mark became an officer and pilot in the Army Air Corps and went on to pilot 32 B-17 bombing missions over Germany and other parts of Nazi held Europe.  He flew two tactical missions on "D-Day' in support of the allied invasion operations. He flew his bombing missions out of England as a member of the "The Mighty Eighth' Air Force, the 95th Bomb Wing, and its 412th Bombardment Squadron. After the war, Mark continued his career in the Army Air Corps, soon to become the U.S. Air Force. He flew over 5,000 hours covering over a million miles. He and his family moved 14 times to Air Force bases in the Pacific and across the US. His Air Force career included three bomber squadron commander assignments, spanning the perilous Cuban Missile Crisis, when his nuclear-armed bombers were on highest alert. In addition to the B-17, Mark flew the B-29, the B-50 and finished his Air Force career as a B-47 jet pilot and squadron commander at Pease AFB, NH.

Upon retirement from the Air Force, Mark became a Regional Manager of United Services Life Insurance Company serving Military officers and their dependents. Upon his retirement in 1986 he moved to Sanford NC where he lives independently with his wife, June in their home. He has been active in the Order of Daedalians, a military pilots' fraternal organization, and St. Stephens Catholic Church. The couple celebrated 75 years of marriage on Oct. 21st with 28 family members from around the country in attendance.  

Merne has seven children and Mark had five children. All totaled, they have 14 grandchildren and eight great grandchildren.

The twins lived very different lives, however, growing up on a northern Wisconsin dairy farm instilled in them a strong work ethic and steadfast values which carried them through life. Both derive great joy in reading and sharing their stories and their hard-earned wisdom.


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