Stories behind our fallen heroes

Jill Johnson

by April Scheinoha

    They were 140 small-town boys who had their lives ahead of them. Then they went off to war, only to be killed before their time.
    “It was a hard book to write,” said Jill Johnson. “It was fascinating but difficult at the same time.”
    Jill and her husband, Deane, recently completed “Little Minnesota in World War II: The Stories Behind 140 Fallen Heroes from Minnesota’s Littlest Towns.”
    Jill has a connection to small towns. She lived in Strandquist and Karlstad, graduating from Karlstad High School in 1970. Her father, Jim Musburger, taught in both cities. Jim provided the impetus for the Johnsons’ first “Little Minnesota” book titled “Little Minnesota 100: 100 Towns Around 100.” Jim had returned to Strandquist for the 50th class reunion for the first class he ever taught. He remarked how he thought little towns were disappearing.
    Before long, the Johnsons were researching small towns in Minnesota. During the course of their research,  they realized that many men from those towns went off to war, in particular, World War II. The Park Rapids couple then decided to write “Little Minnesota in World War II.”
    It took the Johnsons six years to gather information about the 140 men and complete the book. The men came from all branches of the service. Jill said the U.S. military wanted small town farm boys who could fix anything, knew how to use a gun and were comfortable in the woods.
    The Johnsons researched the men’s stories, where they fought and how they passed away. They relied on information from historical societies, military groups and the National Archives in St. Louis to obtain declassified information about their subjects. Jill noted that the U.S. government saved every letter parents wrote in an attempt to obtain information from the government about how their sons died.
    A letter from Strandquist resident Rose Kostrzewski was particularly poignant for Jill. Rose wrote about her son, Walter, who was declared missing in action on D-Day, June 6, 1944. He died while landing on Omaha Beach, and his body was recovered Sept. 10, 1944. A little more than a month later, not yet knowing how her son died, Rose wrote a letter to the government. She wrote, “Was there anything found of him? If there was anything found, I would like to have it for remembrance. I am a broken hearted mother.”
    Walter wasn’t the only Strandquist man who lost his life fighting in World War II. “Little Strandquist lost seven men in World War II,” Jill said.
    The Johnsons also learned that three families in “Little Minnesota” lost two sons during World War II. One of those families was the Gooselaw family of St. Vincent. “I can’t imagine these families losing two sons,” Jill said.
    After obtaining historical information, the Johnsons also interviewed the men’s survivors. Among those interviewed was Judy Iverson Skogerboe, daughter of the late Lloyd Iverson of Goodridge. Lloyd was a tail gunner whose plane took flak over Munich, Germany, on July 12, 1944. The plane then exploded. Judy recalled that Lloyd had wanted to join the Navy. However, the quota was filled, and he joined the Army Air Forces. At 5 feet 4 inches tall, he was a perfect size for a tail gunner.
    The Johnsons also told the story of the Ness family of Holt. The family participated in the war effort both stateside and abroad. Olaf Ness managed the grain elevator and ran a cattail factory in Holt. Cattails were used to make life preservers for the Navy during World War II. His son Rubin Ness fought abroad and was killed in action Feb. 25, 1945, in Luzon, the Philippines.
    Rubin and the others were killed before their time. Jill said one can only imagine the contributions they would have provided to society.
    “Little Minnesota in World War II: The Stories Behind 140 Fallen Heroes from Minnesota’s Littlest Towns” is  available at The Shed in Thief River Falls and at the Viking Diner.