Minnesota Goes to War: The Home Front During World War II


Brainerd, 1941: The first people began arriving at the depot at about eleven-thirty p.m. The mercury in the thermometer read twenty below zero, and it was still dropping. . . . A few minutes before midnight, the men the crowd had come to see marched into view--eighty-two of them, all dressed in khakis, responding on cue to barked commands. . . . The conductor called "all aboard." The band struck up "The Star-Spangled Banner." The men fell in and marched into the passenger cars. As the crowd surged forward, the ...
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Brainerd, 1941: The first people began arriving at the depot at about eleven-thirty p.m. The mercury in the thermometer read twenty below zero, and it was still dropping. . . . A few minutes before midnight, the men the crowd had come to see marched into view--eighty-two of them, all dressed in khakis, responding on cue to barked commands. . . . The conductor called "all aboard." The band struck up "The Star-Spangled Banner." The men fell in and marched into the passenger cars. As the crowd surged forward, the men inside the train raced to the windows. . . . Hands reached out and grabbed each other. Final kisses were stolen. The train pulled away, slowly gathering momentum, and disappeared into the night. For many in Company A, 194th Tank Battalion, the part-time National Guardsmen who had trained at Camp Ripley, that was their last look at Brainerd. Their fate and the lives of the people they left behind comprise only one of the stories in this compelling chronicle of Minnesota's war efforts during World War II. Minnesota Goes to War records the state's role in the most significant event of the twentieth century. By telling the poignant stories of those who stayed behind--in support of the men and women overseas--this book is a tribute to the sacrifices made by ordinary people in extraordinary times. With much original research including photographs, letters, and interviews with veterans and their families, author Dave Kenney chronicles the uniquely Minnesotan response to war, from the starvation study at the University of Minnesota to the human centrifuge project at Mayo; from the Minneapolis and St. Paul rival scrap drives to the use of German POW farmhands in northwestern Minnesota; from those who eagerly supported the war to those who protested our nation?s involvement. These stories honor Minnesotans who faced the war with equal amounts of determination and dread, courage and fear in places as far away as the Pacific and Europe and as close as our own hometowns. "Minnesota Goes to War is a wonderfully rich, intelligently written, and singularly unique book." -- Joseph A. Amato, author of On Foot: A History of Walking and Rethinking Home: A Case for Writing Local History
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780873515061
  • Publisher: Minnesota Historical Society Press
  • Publication date: 9/15/2004
  • Pages: 270
  • Product dimensions: 7.75 (w) x 10.25 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Dave Kenney is author of the award-winning Northern Lights: The Stories of Minnesota's Past the state history textbook, and of the forthcoming book Twin Cities: An Illustrated History (from Minnesota Historical Society Press). He holds an M.A. in Broadcast Journalism from the University of Missouri and is a writer, television producer, and communications consultant. He previously worked for CNN/Atlanta and his writing has appeared in Mpls. St. Paul Magazine, Minnesota Monthly, and Minnesota Law & Politics.
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Read an Excerpt

The Home Front during World War II

By Dave Kenny
Copyright © 2005

Minnesota Historical Society
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-87351-506-1

Chapter One Call to Arms

At a little after eleven on the morning of Tuesday, October 29, 1940, Milton and Sophia Westberg were manning the family grocery store on South Eighth Street in Brainerd. The radio crackled in the background. Customers shuffled in and out, making small talk with the proprietors as their orders were rung up. On most days, the people who shopped at Westberg's Grocery talked about the same old things-the weather, the kids, business. But this day was different. Just one thing seemed to be on everyone's mind: the lottery.

At that moment in Washington, D.C., several well-dressed and grim-faced men-including President Franklin D.Roosevelt-were gathered on a stage around a huge fishbowl. The bowl was filled with thousands of cobalt-blue capsules. Each capsule contained a number. The stage was set-literally-for the first peacetime military draft lottery in American history.

Roosevelt, visibly exhausted from his ongoing presidential campaign against Republican challenger Wendell Willkie, took his place behind a bank of microphones and, in a solemn voice, addressed the nation.

You who will enter this peacetime army will be the inheritors of a proud history and an honorable tradition. You will be members of an army which first came together to achieve independence and to establish certain fundamental rights for all men. Ever since that first muster, our democratic army has existed for one purpose only: the defense of our freedom. It is for that one purpose and that one purpose only that you will be asked to answer the call to training.

Milton and Sophia Westberg turned their attention to the radio and listened closely as the president spoke. They, like millions of other Americans, had plenty at stake. Milton had registered two weeks earlier with the local draft board. Although his chances of being called to military duty were slim (he was thirty-five years old and the father of two young sons), the possibility that he might be drafted was, nonetheless, extremely unappealing. He and Sophia joked nervously about the chances that his number-158-would be the first one pulled.

In Washington, Secretary of War Henry Stimson-wearing a blindfold fashioned from a strip of cloth cut from a chair used during the signing of the Declaration of Independence-thrust his hand into the fishbowl and pulled out a capsule. He handed it to the president. Roosevelt opened it, waited for the newsreel photographers to signal that they were ready, and then made his announcement. "The first number," he intoned, "is one-five-eight."

Milton and Sophia Westberg looked at each other in disbelief. Nine thousand numbers in the fishbowl, and his was the first drawn? Word spread quickly throughout Brainerd that Milton Westberg was Crow Wing County's first potential draftee. Within minutes of the announcement, a reporter from the Brainerd Dispatch arrived at the grocery, spouting nonsense about how Westberg must be "thrilled" to be part of such a select group. "Thrilled-that's no word for it," Westberg responded. "The announcement nearly floored me."

Throughout the country and throughout Minnesota, young men who had been assigned the number 158 by their local draft boards were confronted by the sudden reality that they would likely be among the nation's first peacetime draftees. In Ramsey County, twelve registrants shared the distinction of being 158s, and most seemed to take the news in stride. "Too bad this lottery wasn't a horse race," laughed Leo Hendricks, a thirty-year-old truck driver. Twenty-three-year-old packinghouse worker Thomas Gannon likewise tried to look at the bright side. "I know I'll have to take the training sometime," he said, "and I'd just as soon be in the first batch."

By the time the last of the nine thousand lottery numbers was announced in Washington the following morning, more than sixteen million American men, ages twenty-one through thirty-five, knew the order in which they might be drafted. In the days that followed, those whose numbers were pulled early in the lottery were assigned draft classifications. If they had no dependents and were not employed in "necessary" jobs, they landed in Class I, and were ordered to stand by for their call to induction. Those with wives and children-like Milton Westberg-and those working in industries deemed essential by the government received deferments.

The imminent conscription of hundreds of thousands of men was, in many ways, the expression of a collective change of heart. Millions of Americans-many of whom had clung to the hope that the United States would remain aloof to the war in Europe-had concluded that their country was now destined to join the fight. The bill establishing the draft had been introduced-over the objections of anti-interventionists such as Minnesota Senator Henrik Shipstead-two days before France surrendered to Nazi Germany and had been signed into law during the Luftwaffe's bombing raids on London. It was the product of the growing realization that totalitarian aggression was a truly global threat. "The passage of the draft law," wrote historians Garry Clifford and Samuel R. Spencer, Jr., "helped to condition the country, both psychologically and militarily, for the war that lay ahead."

Gung Ho

Army, navy, marine, and coast guard recruiters in Minneapolis were prepared for a busy day, but still, the response was overwhelming. When they opened the doors on the morning of December 8, 1941, their offices immediately filled with men, all eager to join the fight that the Japanese had started the day before at Pearl Harbor. In all, about 150 Hennepin County men applied for enlistment before lunchtime. "The enthusiasm of the men seeking enlistment is just what you would expect in view of developments," one recruiting officer said. Over the next few days, the flood of would-be soldiers, sailors, marines, and coastguardsmen swelled even further. The marine recruiting office at the Metropolitan Life building stayed open twenty-four hours a day to handle all the applications. Army and navy recruiters announced that they, too, would keep working as long as potential recruits kept showing up. Most of the 1,500 men who applied for enlistment in Minneapolis in the first two days after the Pearl Harbor attack were rejected for age and health reasons, although rejection rates fluctuated among the services. The navy, for example, loosened its application requirements considerably in the wake of the attack: married men were now eligible if they could show that their dependents would "be supported adequately"; so were men with police records for offenses that were "not too serious." As a result, the navy accepted about half of its Minneapolis volunteers.

By October 1942, some 125,000 Minnesotans had entered the nation's armed services, either as volunteers or draftees, and many more were getting ready to join up. While the War Department had considerably pared down its original manpower goals, it still aimed to build an armed force of nine million soldiers, sailors, and marines. State officials estimated that if current trends continued, Minnesota would eventually contribute more than 212,000 men to that total-more than a third of its eighteen-year-old to forty-five-year-old male population-but they never really doubted that the state would meet its obligation.

After all, it seemed that everyone wanted to join the fight.

"If I were a man, I would fight them myself," a housewife in Alexandria proclaimed after learning what the Japanese had done. In Fergus Falls, a judge responded to the emergency by suspending the sentences of two convicted felons who said they wanted to enlist. Ninety-five-year-old Civil War veteran James Gillespie of Riverton knew he was too old to fight, but he demonstrated his patriotism by walking thirty-two miles to Brainerd and back, to be on hand as his son joined the navy. Minnesotans from all walks of life were answering the call to arms.

The state's Ojibwe and Dakota were among the most willing recruits. They joined the armed services in proportions far exceeding those of the general population. According to the 1940 census, some 12,000 to 13,000 Ojibwe and Dakota lived in Minnesota during the war, and more than a thousand of them served in the armed forces. Minnesota Chippewa Tribal Secretary Joseph Northrup, for one, was intimately familiar with the contributions that his people were making to the war effort. He had four sons in the army-one in North Africa, one in the Solomon Islands, one in Colorado, and one at Fort Snelling. While some Indians questioned the logic of fighting for a government that historically had mistreated them, many others felt an obligation to serve. "We Indians fought for three hundred years to defend our country," an unnamed Dakota recruit from Prairie Island told the Red Wing Daily Republican, "and we are ready to fight again if need be."

Black Minnesotans displayed a similar eagerness to enlist. A few days after the Pearl Harbor attack, the African American newspaper the Minneapolis Spokesman interviewed a sampling of local residents and discovered what it called "a universal unity among them for defeat of Japan or any other country which attacks America." The comments of a young man named J. Everett Harris were typical:

As a young Negro of America, I realize our democracy is not perfect, but we are not going to stand idly by and let Japan and other nations destroy the gains we have made. A state of war exists and we are ready to go and protect what others have already gained for our democratic freedom.

While many black Minnesotans wanted to enlist, they were not always given the opportunity to do so. On the Tuesday after the attack on Pearl Harbor, army recruiters in Minneapolis turned away five African American men because there was "no Negro quota." "Imagine the feeling of these five patriotic American men who went down to offer up their lives for their country and were turned down as scores of other fellow Americans were accepted," the Spokesman's editor, Cecil Newman, wrote. "There is no reason why an American Negro who wants to join our army or navy ... should have to stand aside to wait until some general or admiral decides he may join." As the war dragged on, the army did accept thousands of black recruits, but only into segregated units. The navy accepted only a few African American mess hall workers. The marines initially refused to accept any black enlistments whatsoever.

Reike Schwanke of Austin, Minnesota, had made headlines in 1940 when she managed to become the only woman in the nation to successfully register for the draft. (She had persuaded the reluctant local registrar to let her sign up.) When Selective Service officials discovered the mistake and informed Schwanke that women were not eligible for military service, she was clearly annoyed. "There ought to be some place for a woman in the Army," she complained. It didn't take long for the military brass to agree. With America's entry into the war, the nation's women got their first real chance to serve in the military. Between 1942 and 1945, about 140,000 American women enlisted with the army as WACS (Women's Army Corps) or WASPS (Women Airforce Service Pilots). Another 100,000 served as navy waves (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service), and smaller numbers joined the marines, the coast guard, and the army and navy's nurse corps. University of Minnesota sophomore Anne Bosanko was among the hundreds of Minnesota women who volunteered for military service during the war. Like many of her comrades, she enlisted in the WAC out of a sense of duty and a yearning for excitement:

I decided this spring to do it because I felt so useless going to school and being Big Deal On Campus (big sucker on Campus if you ask me,) and I felt that I could do some good in the Army and it certainly will do me good. In fact, it's a good deal all around and I'm very enthusiastic about the whole thing. Think of the interesting people I'll meet and the places I'll see. I might even get to go abroad, though I'll be satisfied doing anything they give me.

Women were not sent into combat. Instead, they mostly "typed, filed, telephoned, and chauffeured," thereby making available for combat thousands of men who might otherwise have been stuck in office jobs. Still, many servicemen abhorred the thought of women serving in what had always been an exclusively male bastion, and they actively discouraged their wives, girlfriends, and sisters from joining up. In 1943, enlistments into the women's corps dropped sharply when servicemen began spreading false rumors about women soldiers' sexual promiscuity. In Minnesota, the Women's City Club of St. Paul responded to the drop-off in enlistments by sponsoring a recruitment rally on behalf of the women's corps. The evening culminated with the swearing in of 125 Minnesota women into five services.


Most newspaper editors in the state reacted-in print, at least-with resolute stoicism to the news that clattered across the wire machines in the minutes and hours after the bombs started falling on Pearl Harbor. They wrote of the need to unite for victory, to see the fight through to the end. But C. H. Russell of the Mankato Free Press was not like most editors. Instead of offering his readers predictable words of patriotic encouragement, he banged out a long column describing the scene in his newsroom when the first flashes came across the wire. The day had "dawned bright and sunny [and had] turned dark and cold about midday with spitting snow and a high wind," Russell wrote. The first bulletin crossed the wire, and a mad scramble ensued. Staff members rushed in from wherever they were spending their Sundays and began toiling on the extra. The newsroom buzzed with terrible excitement. And then, as the chaos began to subside, a young man walked in-a paperboy, ready to deliver the bad news that the people of Mankato were waiting to read. It was at that moment, Russell wrote, that the words "Pearl Harbor-350 known dead" really sank in:

And [that] carrier boy, summoned to the office remarks, "I'm seventeen-hope it goes another year and I can get in it." Those few words ["Pearl Harbor-350 known dead"] are going to make a difference to hundreds of thousands of teen age school boys-that's the greatest tragedy of all.

Despite all the lines at the recruitment offices, despite all the brave words, most Minnesotans realized, as C. H. Russell did, that there was nothing particularly glamorous about going off to fight for one's country-no matter how righteous the cause. Many men were going to die in this war, and as that sobering realization sank in, more and more Minnesotans overcame their initial urge to enlist. As historian David M. Kennedy noted, "Contrary to much later mythology, the nation's young men did not step forward in unison to answer the trumpet's call, neither before nor after Pearl Harbor." This was the case throughout the country, including Minnesota. While most young men felt duty-bound to join up, few were excited about the proposition.


Excerpted from MINNESOTA GOES TO WAR by Dave Kenny
Copyright © 2005 by Minnesota Historical Society. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

World War II timeline
Brainerd, 1941 9
1 Call to arms 14
Dispatches : Leland Rowberg 36
2 The home front 38
Brainerd, 1942 65
3 Help wanted 69
Dispatches : Al Hafner 102
4 Arsenals of democracy 107
Dispatches : Ed Motzko 134
5 Minnesota made 137
Brainerd, 1943-1944 160
6 Rumors of War 165
Dispatches : Robert Burns 191
7 Matters of conscience 194
Brainerd, 1945 222
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