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Guest Column: Remembering a cold February night

It’s 70 years since that cold February night when the 34th Tank Company of the Minnesota National Guard marched down the street in formation, from the Armory on Laurel and Fifth in Brainerd, to the N.P. Depot. Their families were hard pressed to keep up, alongside them on the sidewalks. As we drew our heavy winter coats close, everyone’s breath seemed to hang in the frigid air.

Arriving at the depot, these soldiers finished supervising the loading of material. Meanwhile, families, neighbors and concerned citizens milled about, in and out of the depot. After nearly two hours, and after prolonged, impassioned and tearful goodbyes, we waved goodbye to the train carrying our men on who knew what kind of a journey. We dried our tears and took our frost-nipped toes home to strangely empty houses.

We know now what kind of a journey it was. Once they arrived in Fort Lewis, Wash., there was a total reorganization. Capt. Miller was promoted to major (and shortly thereafter to lieutenant colonel.) as battalion commander, 194th Tank Battalion. What had been the 34th Tank Company became Co. “A,” 194th Tank Battalion. Other officers were assigned other executive duties, and Lt. Edward Burke (my husband) became Company Commander of Co. “A.” A National Guard contingent from Missouri became Co. “B.” Co. “C” was principally made up of a unit from Salinas, Calif. And if memory serves me, I believe Headquarters Company was made up of specialists from all three companies, plus selectees. (Remember the draft?)

In July Col. Miller received word that they would be sent overseas — destination classified. However, by the time they actually sailed, it seemed to be common knowledge that they were headed for the Philippines. Several of the married enlisted men from our Brainerd contingent requested, and received, discharges on the basis of hardship, because their families would not be able to exist on the meager military allowances of that day.

A few of our Brainerd men were transferred to Company “B,” which was sent to Alaska. And the depleted ranks of Co. “A” were filled by selectees, also, mostly from Minnesota.

A few years ago, at the unveiling of the 37 cent Purple Heart postage stamp, the speaker stated that the city of Brainerd, Minn., was chosen for the unveiling because it was the “caldron of heroes.”

That took my breath away!

But that is Brainerd’s legacy. Too many of our beautiful, bright, patriotic young men gave their lives. They saved the world, you know. They were ill-equipped. They were starving. They were sick. Along with hundreds of other units they hung on until April 9, 1942. That surrender of our troops on Bataan was the greatest number of American troops ever surrendered in our history. It was impossible to hold on any longer. That Yankee determination gave our country the time to pull itself together to go on and win the war.

While we awaited word of our luckless troops who had been surrendered to Japan on April 9, 1942, countless other thousands of troops fought relentlessly on land and on sea, finally bringing Japan to a surrender.

Japan had intended that the atrocities wrought upon our men in Japanese prison camps should never be made known. Orders were to annihilate all prisoners of war before the ending of hostilities — however that might come about. However, with our decision to use the atom bomb, Japan was forced to surrender on Aug. 14, 1945. That was a horrible way to win, but infinitely better than invading Japan, which would have brought thousands of more deaths on both sides. And we should thank Divine Providence that we were the only power to have that knowledge at that time.

There are presently very few survivors of that band of heroes who marched through Brainerd’s frozen streets that night 70 years ago.

I am one of only a relatively small number of surviving widows. Of course we are all old. But it was a great honor to be part of their lives. We know that these men — and hundreds of thousands of others, fighting wars on — and under — and on both sides of — both oceans — saved the world!

Yes, they did!

And it behooves all of us living in this free land today, to make sure this legacy is not squandered. If we squander what has been built over the past two centuries and more, it will not be regained though there be a hundred Brainerds — all caldrons of heroes.

PERNINA BURKE is a resident of Hackensack and widow of a World War II soldier.