In a special gathering of lakes area folks of all ages, genders, creeds and backgrounds packing the bleachers to the ceilings, Veterans Day 2019 was commemorated Monday, Nov. 11, in the gymnasium of Brainerd High School with grand aplomb.

This year’s rendition of the hallowed date shed special light on the life of Walt Straka, the state’s last remaining Bataan Death March survivor, as well as the sacrifices of World War II veterans of the Pacific theater whose actions often go unheralded compared to the European theater.

In his address Monday, Lt. Col. Josh Simer sought to honor Straka and set the record straight on the Pacific theater, especially in the minds of the younger generations -- of which, hundreds looked on in silence and enjoyed a vivid lesson on history and how it resonates to the current day 77 years later.

Lt. Col. Joshua Simar with the Minnesota Army National Guard explains the timeline of the Brainerd National Guard Unit deployed to the Philippines in 1941. His speech was centered on the state of affairs in the Pacific during the time the Brainerd soldiers fought and were later forced on the Bataan Death March. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch
Lt. Col. Joshua Simar with the Minnesota Army National Guard explains the timeline of the Brainerd National Guard Unit deployed to the Philippines in 1941. His speech was centered on the state of affairs in the Pacific during the time the Brainerd soldiers fought and were later forced on the Bataan Death March. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

Notably, Simer reminded the crowd that Imperial Japan posed a similar threat to the world as Nazi Germany in that it, too, was a military powerhouse driven by extreme ideologies, notions of genetic superiority and gross disregard for human life.

“Across east Asia and even Japan itself, our World War II vets achieved that liberation and brought that freedom and justice and human rights to a huge group of people,” Simer said. “We remember because that’s our national heritage and, in the case of Brainerd, it’s a huge part of our local heritage. ... This is a community that, today, in 2019, still believes that this is important.”

The crowd applauds Monday, Nov. 11, after Brainerd mayor Ed Menk proclaimed Monday to be Walter Straka Day. Straka is seated in the center with the plaque. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch
The crowd applauds Monday, Nov. 11, after Brainerd mayor Ed Menk proclaimed Monday to be Walter Straka Day. Straka is seated in the center with the plaque. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

In particular, the crowd gave Straka a standing ovation that thundered on and on for more than three minutes after Mayor Ed Menk declared Nov. 11, 2019, as Walt Straka Day. In 1942, Straka, 100, survived extended battle on the island of Luzon, Philippines, took the 60-mile trek of death and torture, held on for a further 43 months of hard labor and deprivation, and furthermore lasted through a journey on a Japanese “hell ship” and narrowly avoided being killed by an atomic blast.

In addition, 13 veterans were presented with handmade quilts and Brainerd High School choir members gave a stirring performance of “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” while veterans of all foreign wars and service in the Armed Forces were asked to stand and be acknowledged.

Cookie Knopik presents a quilt to Navy veteran Milt Halverson Monday, Nov. 11, during the Quilts of Honor portion of the Brainerd High School Veterans Day Program. The volunteers from Quilts of Honor presented quilts to 12 veterans. Lt. Col. Joshua Simar, active duty Minnesota Army National Guard, was also presented a Quilt of Honor. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch
Cookie Knopik presents a quilt to Navy veteran Milt Halverson Monday, Nov. 11, during the Quilts of Honor portion of the Brainerd High School Veterans Day Program. The volunteers from Quilts of Honor presented quilts to 12 veterans. Lt. Col. Joshua Simar, active duty Minnesota Army National Guard, was also presented a Quilt of Honor. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

In her address, Brainerd High School Principal Andrea Rusk challenged students to make the effort to thank veterans for their service and, beyond that, to take the extra step and appreciate their sacrifices in a meaningful way.

“Appreciation and words are important, but more important is going beyond to say thank you to a veteran,” Rusk said. “Go beyond words and move into action to help our veterans and those serving our country now.”

Larry Osvold of Brainerd, a retired lieutenant colonel and 31-year veteran of service in the 194th Tank Battalion based in the Brainerd Army National Guard Armory, said the ceremony presented the astonishing and often horrific sacrifices of World War II veterans in a compelling manner, but also noted veterans of subsequent conflicts were included and honored as they should be.

“I think they pointed out that history in graphic detail, really poignantly. It makes you really think about what you have, what they sacrificed,” Osvold said. “Otherwise, we might be speaking Japanese.”

“Sacrifice,” added Shawn Adamek, a 21-year veteran of the service and former Army recruiter. “The sacrifice they gave up so that we can have what we have today.”

Cathy Wells of Baxter said it’s important for the next generation to acquaint themselves with history in a way that illustrates the connections between the sacrifices of men like Walt Straka and their relevance to the everyday freedoms and advantages enjoyed by Americans today.

Nolan Allord (left), Kloey Hostetler and Ethan Johnson sing Monday, Nov. 11, during the Riverside Elementary School Veterans Day program. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch
Nolan Allord (left), Kloey Hostetler and Ethan Johnson sing Monday, Nov. 11, during the Riverside Elementary School Veterans Day program. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

“I think it’s super important for our kids to hear messages on that,” Wells said. “We actually had a conversation in our household. I told them, today, if they meet Walt Straka to shake his hand and thank him for his service. I think it’s one thing to thank someone for their service, it’s another to learn what they’ve done for us, all the veterans.”

For more photos of the Riverside and Brainerd High School Veterans Day Programs go to https://bit.ly/2X5O033.