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Outstate veterans recall their days in service

American veterans are notoriously close-lipped about their service, especially if they saw heavy fighting. Veterans Day provides the media with the opportunity to allow a veteran to share his experiences and remind people about the horrors of war and the reality of life as a soldier.

Dale McKenzie of Bemidji recalls the Japanese kamikazes swarming ‘like bees’ through the U.S. armada bearing down on the home islands, writes Zach Kayser of the Bemidji Pioneer. He served as a corpsman aboard the hospital ship U.S.S. Rescue. The ship endured a hurricane and a typhoon, as well as a hole in the side from a bomb. McKenzie helped transport patients between ships via a gurney suspended by rope over the ocean. When the Japanese surrendered, the Rescue liberated Allied POWs from Japanese prison camps. McKenzie still has photos of the gaunt, tired POWs he cared for. The Rescue later ferried passengers between Pearl Harbor and San Francisco and McKenzie re-upped for several more tours. After the military, he and his wife, Fran, moved to Bemidji and raised their family.

JoAnne Payment of Two Harbors was going through a box of her deceased father’s belongings when she found a letter thanking Pvt. Leo La Gesse for his service in World War I. The signature at the bottom of the letter belonged to John J. Pershing, commander of American forces in Europe during the war. The Duluth News Tribune writes that Payment’s father enlisted when he was 16 and was as an anti-aircraft gunner at ammo dumps near Paris. When officers discovered he could speak French, he also became a clerk. He was one of a crew that shot down a German zeppelin making a bombing run near Paris, which earned him and 11 other men the Croix de Guerre on Nov. 1, 1918. Pershing’s letter says, in part, “Your part in the world war has been an important one in the sum total of our achievements. … It is with pride in our success that I extend to you my sincere thanks for your splendid service to the army and to the nation.” Her father never talked about the war, Payment said. After the war, La Gesse married Edna Noble of Superior and they raised their family while he worked as a switchman with the former Great Northern Railroad, retiring in 1966.

In the fall of 1943, Robert Fritz overheard his parents talking about the financial problems they were having on their farm outside St. Kilian. Robert decided he could help by joining the Army – one less mouth to feed and if he died, the family would get $10,000 and could keep the farm, he reasoned. Julie Buntjer of the Worthington Daily Globe wrote that Robert jumped at the chance to make an extra $50 a month in hazard pay by being a paratrooper. He shipped out to the Philippines and New Guinea, where he participated in many low-altitude drops. The southern Minnesotan described New Guinea as “the damndest place you ever seen. They don’t wear clothes — they run around naked as a jaybird, things sticking in their nose and in their ears.” He and his comrades ate bananas and coconuts and cooked an animal “that looked more like a rat than anything.” In early 1945, he participated in the liberation of 2,100 prisoners at the Los Banos prison camp in the Philippines. He also participated in the occupation of Japan, where he saw firsthand the devastation of nuclear war. Robert returned to Minnesota, married, moved to Worthington and worked at the Campbell’s Soup Co. while raising a family. Now 91, he still has nightmares from his military duty, and he has had three major surgeries on his back which he attributes to the low-altitude jumps he made in the Army.

Samantha Schwanke of the Owatonna People’s Press writes about Carl Braaten, a veteran who expressed his thoughts about wartime through poetry. Braaten, who lived for a time on Owatonna before settling in Osceola, Wisconsin, is dead now, but his brother-in-law, Gerold Johnson of Owatonna, wanted to share some of his poems on Veteran’s Day. Braaten was captured by the Germans during the Battle of the Bulge and was marched to Stalag 4A in Zittau, Germany, where he was liberated by Russian troops. Braaten did not talk much about the war, Johnson said, but “he would have dreams and then wake up in the morning with the poems in his head,” Johnson said. “When he was released he weighed 110 to 120 pounds and didn’t think about home, just something to eat,” said Johnson. “Some [of Braaten’s poems] are pretty intense and they tell you exactly what he lived through.” The People’s Press published one of his poems, “A Walk Through Hell,” which can be accessed at the link above and is reprinted in full at the bottom of this column.

Meanwhile, smaller than expected corn and soybean yields are doubly troublesome for Minnesota farmers because yields are greater than normal elsewhere, driving the price of the commodities down. That means less money for fewer crops, the Associated Press reports. Some farmers are storing their crops in hopes that a weather problem somewhere in the world could reduce yields and boost prices. Michael Wojahn in southern Minnesota saw a yield about 8 bushels below normal. He’s expecting a small profit: “I can pay my bills on the farm, but what it’s coming down to is how well my family can eat,” Wojahn said.

The Kids Count study shows that children and teens in the Bemidji area are worse off than most in the state, writes Crystal Dey of the Bemidji Pioneer. Children in Beltrami County are maintaining higher than state averages in child poverty, teen births and high school dropouts. Becky Schueller, the executive director of Evergreen Youth and Family Services, said “child poverty has been an increasing upward trend since 2004. Often what we have is children growing up in families that have been in poverty for multiple generations.” Teen girls between 15 and 17 are three times more likely to give birth in Beltrami County than in the state as a whole. “It’s concerning because teen pregnancy is the single (most accurate) predictor of lifelong poverty for women,” Schueller said. The county is also two times higher than the state in terms of dropouts.

In Winona, a similar survey found that while smoking among teens has gone down, the use of e-cigarettes has skyrocketed, reports Abby Eisenberg of the Winona Daily News. The study found that the number of high-school students who smoked cigarettes in the past 30 days dropped nearly by half in the last three years. However, nearly 13 percent of high school students and 3 percent of middle school students had used an e-cigarette in the last month. Winona Senior High School assistant principal Dave Anderson said he doesn’t catch many students smoking traditional cigarettes at school, but that “e-cigarettes have taken off dramatically” since the end of the last school year. It’s illegal for minors to possess e-cigarettes and against school rules to have them on school property.

Somebody at Cloquet High is in big trouble after a skit meant to rally the school for a big game is being described as insensitive to Native Americans, writes Jana Peterson of the Duluth News Tribune. At a pep rally prior to Cloquet’s Class AAAA state quarterfinal game against the DeLaSalle Islanders, a student dressed in a paper crown and war paint, then attacked Cloquet Coach Tom Lenarz with a swimming pool noodle before being overcome by the Cloquet High School Lumberjacks mascot and dragged out of the gymnasium, Peterson wrote. Some local Native Americans didn’t think the skit was so funny. Veronica Smith, a member of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, asked the Cloquet school board “how could that happen? There’s supposed to be an adviser working with the students.” Cloquet High Principal Warren Peterson said the skit was not intended to be offensive and the Islander was not depicted as a Native American, although he understood how it might have looked that way. Superintendent Ken Scarbrough said the district has had numerous staff in-service meetings and discussions with students about cultural relations. “This shows we still need more improvement,” he said.

“A Walk Through Hell”

What once was a full Company

Now only nine remained,

We had fought for six long days

Over cold snow-covered terrain.

We had no winter clothing

Only summer fatigues to wear,

We’d had no food for four long days

Our ammunition belts were bare.

The German soldiers captured us

At night asleep in the snow,

We had stopped for just a moment

To decide which way to go.

In a war torn Belgium village

They gave us some “sawdust” bread,

And put us to work digging graves

To bury the village dead.

Christmas Eve in an empty building

Sitting on a cold hard floor,

We thought of home and loved ones

And Christmases gone before.

Christmas morning we were handed

A slice of “sawdust” bread,

And begin the march in to Germany

To a prison camp miles ahead.

We started our march in freezing cold

In the winter of forty-four,

They said it was the coldest one

They had ever had before.

The fighter planes got some of us

Bombs got their share,

And the ones that fell beside the road

They were too weak to care.

For twenty four days we walked,

On twenty four slices of bread,

We had walked four hundred miles

But the worse was still ahead.

The first camp was at Mulburg

On Germany’s other side,

But to a labor camp we had to go

And a train we had to ride.

When the train stopped at the prison

They pushed seventy of us in a car,

Some had to stand so some could sit

They said it wasn’t far.

Five long days and four long nights

We tried to stand the pain,

For the doors were never opened

By the guards who rode the train.

We ate our four potatoes

We licked frost off the walls,

And prayed that God would listen

As we made our feeble calls.

The ones that were too weak to move

Were frozen to the floor,

We cursed the ones crawling over us

To use the bucket by the door.

When the train pulled into Zittau

They opened up the doors,

We thought our suffering was over

But learned there would be more.

The soldiers that died along the way

Will be enshrined forever more,

They made the greatest sacrifice

They died a “Prisoner of War.”

By Carl Braaten ex-POW at Prison-Stalag 4A Zittau, Germany.

Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by David Frenkel on 11/11/2014 - 06:32 pm.

    War is hell

    These memories seem not to be lessons to our leaders that war is hell for those fight on the front lines. My uncle earned a bronze medal in WWII but never talked about until the final years of his life. Given his experiences in Italy with the 10th Mountain Division his memories were probably numb with the stories of death on both sides. When I asked him if he brought any souvenirs home from Italy after the war his quick reply was that he was the souvenir.

  2. Submitted by beryl john-knudson on 11/11/2014 - 07:33 pm.

    War makes poets in the aftermath?

    My brother died a year or so ago so I add this for him…war makes poets of so many who served … in this instance,
    The Korean Conflict:

    to hail the dead

    Sadistic pleasures of sordid masses abound
    to wrench the groans from a thrashing man in death,
    to leave unscarred and clothed in grief alone,
    would force the mighty to withdraw in shame
    and leave the victory to a vanquished foe?
    but let the writhing victim
    offer blood and cringe for pity,
    beg the multitude to cover o’er his grave
    and utter words of charity for penance due
    then at his knell the world will hail a martyr,
    thrust him lifeless in a marble tomb,
    and raise a saint where flowers ought to bloom.

    Merlyn R. Johnson ‘Jonny Merton’
    Korean Conflict
    Miltary; Rangers plus
    Special Forces

  3. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 11/12/2014 - 06:31 am.

    We band of brothers

    I recall this scene on every veterans day. It summarizes my feelings perfectly for having served my country.

    We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
    For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
    Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
    This day shall gentle his condition;

    And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
    Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
    And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
    That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

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