Taps’ haunting melody hung in air that on a spring day couldn’t be described as anything other than bitter.
It didn’t deter people from braving a harsh gusty wind at the National Guard Armory in Brainerd Monday morning to gather for the Bataan Memorial Service for Company A, 194th Tank Battalion. People gathered to remember those who didn’t return and honor those who did.
“We are here today to honor the sacrifice of these soldiers and their families,” said guest speaker, Dan Holmes, honorary colonel with the 194th Tank Regiment. “These were ‘the Battling Bastards of Bataan,’ They had no support — no mama, no papa and no Uncle Sam. But they kept the Japanese at bay long enough for U.S. military to react and keep the Japanese from our shores. We owe much to these men.”
Holmes said in the midst of 1937 with the Great Depression, joining the National Guard provided extra income, a nice uniform and Saturday night dances in a new Brainerd armory.
“Little did these National Guard soldiers know what was in their future,” Holmes said.
They fought on the Bataan peninsula until they were out of food and ammunition. With no reinforcements coming, they were forced to surrender to the Japanese on April 9, 1942. But many did not survive the infamous Death March or the Japanese prison camps.
Carol Alverson of Nisswa attended her first Bataan Memorial Ceremony Monday. Alverson read about Brainerd’s Bataan survivor Walt Straka and wanted to attend. She took refuge along the armory’s wall away from the wind, wishing she hadn’t taken winter gear out of her car the day before. American flawgs lined the armory parking lot with veterans, members of the National Guard and Patriot Guard in attendance, along with area residents. There was a mix of ages but many in the group were older. Alverson said she hopes younger generations remember the sacrifice at Bataan.
“I think it’s going to be forgotten and that worries me,” she said. “I’m glad to see the turnout there is for such a cold day.”
Alverson said the Billie Brown American Legion Post in Nisswa, formed in 1946 and named for one of the 194th who didn’t make it home, is now looking to help soldiers who will soon be returning from service in Afghanistan, Iraq and Kuwait through the Beyond the Yellow Ribbon campaign.
In his remarks, Holmes noted many of the families of the men at Bataan didn’t know about their loved one’s fate for 42 months.
Don Samuelson’s father survived the Death March but not the prison camp that followed. They didn’t get word of his death until a year after the fact. Samuelson, former long-time Brainerd Legislator, said his grandfather refused to believe the news.
After Monday’s ceremony, Samuelson said the ceremony brought back a lot of thoughts. It was a cold day when the soldiers left Brainerd, Samuelson said. In June, Samuelson went out with his mom and sister in a caravan of Brainerd families who went to see the soldiers at Fort Lewis in Washington state. In August, they learned the soldiers would be shipped out as the first tank unit sent to the Far East before World War II. The Samuelsons were renting a place in Olympia, Wash.
“I remember that day when my dad came home,” Samuelson said. “He came in the kitchen and said to my mother they were leaving.”
Samuelson said his dad, who was older with young children, didn’t have to ship out but he went with the men.
“We came home not knowing what to expect next,” Samuelson said.
For Christmas of 1941, the Samuelson family gathered to record a message to send overseas. Samuelson was 7 years old. He still has a copy of the recording. He doubts it ever reached his father. Finally, the families and the community came to understand the depth of their losses.
“Those were sad times for us and the other families,” Samuelson said.
Money raised by the community for a memorial went into the carillon bells that chime each hour from the Crow Wing County Historic Courthouse in Brainerd.
“Brainerd has really hung in there,” Samuelson said. “They’ve had this ceremony every single year and they voted to never forget.”
During the ceremony, each man’s name lost with the Brainerd tank company in Bataan was read aloud and a flower placed at the memorial. Bataan survivor Walt Straka was part of the 70th anniversary wreath-laying ceremony.
Now men from Brainerd-based Headquarters Company, 1st Combined Arms Battalion, 194th Armor (HCC 1/194 CAB) are based in Kuwait and serving in Iraq. They are part of what’s been described as the second largest deployment of the Minnesota National Guard since World War II.
At the Bataan memorial, Capt. Rob Grutsch said the 1/194thCAB has been involved in more than 600 missions. Lt. Col Brian Melton, 1/194th commander, is at Walter Reed Army Medical Center’s for medical issues while deployed in February.
“We as citizens must never let our government leave soldiers untrained or partially trained and unsupported,” Holmes said. “So I would expect to see you all in attendance every year — even after these veterans are gone.”