Brainerd High School students and the community at large sat down Friday to hear how Bob Uppgaard helped make sure U.S. troops had enough supplies with which to kill Nazis.
Uppgaard, 94, was the featured speaker at the annual Veterans Day ceremony inside the high school gymnasium.
At age 19, Uppgaard joined the U.S. Navy Construction Battalions, more commonly known as the Seabees. His experience during World War II was extremely rare: he served in both the European and Pacific theaters of the conflict.
In the lead-up to the Normandy landings in 1944, Uppgaard and the rest of the 97th Seabee Battalion helped build one of the artificial harbors that would ensure the largest invasion in military history was adequately reinforced following D-Day itself. The site Allied planners picked for the invasion wasn't close to a port that could receive shipments of supplies, so they decided to bring their own port with them.
Called "Mulberry harbours" by the British who designed them, artificial harbors were floated in pieces across the English Channel and then installed off the invasion beaches. Uppgaard's harbor was put in off Omaha Beach, the site of the fiercest fighting during D-Day.
Uppgaard took pictures of the trip to France, including when ships in the convoy hit a mine. He recorded his thoughts on a piece of toilet paper, the only paper available on his ship.
He recalled his ship taking fire from a German shore battery still intact, even after initial landings already happened.
Uppgaard showed the crowd inside the gymnasium the diagram he drew over a postcard from the French city of Vierville. Over the the tourist-friendly vista the postcard originally displayed, Uppgaard marked where "block ships" were intentionally sunk by the Allies to create the artificial harbor, so war supplies could funnel up the beach.
"Construction was done under constant enemy fire," Uppgaard said. "I served in the medic unit, giving morphine until the injured could be treated."
His unit finally left France in August 1944. Following his experience in Normandy, Uppgaard was transferred to the Pacific theater with a post in Hawaii. Uppgaard worked a number of jobs, including desk work with the battalion commander's office and writing for the battalion newspaper.
He closed his presentation with a life lesson for the students: he emphasized the Seabee motto.
"The difficult, we do immediately," Upgaard quoted. "The impossible takes a little longer."
Students on sacrifice
The Brainerd High School students assembled for the ceremony seemed to have a sober view of the proceedings.
Senior Peyton Loss and junior Morgan Gibson both sat in the front row of the bleachers.
Loss said it was important the students gather as a school to honor what veterans did for America. Throughout a student's time at BHS, they're prompted to understand the service of veterans through things like the Elks writing contest, she said.
"It's part of the culture here," Loss said.
Loss and Gibson both said they would have attended the ceremony even if they weren't encouraged to do so by teachers.
Sophomores Mark McQuiston and Andrew Becker are in the TV production class, which served as the video production team for the ceremony. They watched the proceedings through monitors, deftly switching the feed between the cameras operated by their comrades on the platform in front of them. They said they practiced somewhat before the ceremony, but much of the shots were improvised on the fly. The crew said fellow youths in their generation recognized the point of Veterans Day, but didn't necessarily comprehend what it means for veterans.
"They respect it, but they don't understand it," Becker said.
As to whether their recording of the ceremony would help their peers understand, Becker and McQuiston both replied with a "maybe."