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Johnsons’ book honors brave men from smallest, rural towns

In their forthcoming book, "Little Minnesota in World War II," Deane and Jill Johnson share the heroism and history of 140 men from tiny towns who gave their lives. (Shannon Geisen/Enterprise) 1 / 2
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Small town, Minnesota farm boys were highly sought after by the U.S. military during World War II.

Drawing from photos, military reports, newspapers, journal excerpts, letters and family memories, local authors Jill and Deane Johnson have crafted a unique and moving portrait of the men who gave their lives.

"Little Minnesota in World War II" allows readers to experience the war and "feel prouder than ever to be Minnesotan."

A hometown book launch will be held at noon Saturday, Sept. 23 at Beagle and Wolf Books.

"They could fix anything so they were desirable," Jill explained. "And they could all shoot. And they were all good in the woods. Do you want someone from Queens, New York standing next to you or someone from Wolf Lake? They were just excellent soldiers."

Over the course of six years, the Johnsons exhaustively gathered firsthand accounts of Minnesota's hometown heroes.

"These are small town boys from the smallest of towns. They grew up on farms. They'd never been out of Wolf Lake or Mizpah or Sunburg or wherever and they're asked to jump out of a plane over France while they're being shot at. They did it," Jill said.

"Most of them are under 22. Nineteen or twenty was typical. They look like little kids," Deane said.

Research began in 2011 while the couple worked on their first history book.

"When we wrote "Little Minnesota: 100 Towns Around 100," we discovered all these men that died in war, especially World War II. We could not believe that in a town of 100, eight men died in World War II. You're talking eight percent of your population," Jill said.

A total of 165 men from Minnesota's tiniest towns gave their lives for the country: 140 died in battle and another 25 died stateside.

Those who perished in the U.S. mainly died in plane accidents during flight training.

"They were really pushing the limits of technology with planes because they had to compete with German planes that were faster," noted Deane. "They were always living on the edge."

"Little Minnesota in World War II" begins with the first day of war for the United States — the bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. John Emery from Perley, Minn. died aboard the USS Arizona that day.

"And then we traveled through the whole war to the very end," Jill said.

Remarkably, the book covers almost every major scene in the war, Deane said. The men's stories span some of the most famed battles of the war, including the invasion of Normandy, Guadalcanal, Battle of the Bulge, the Bataan Death March and beyond.

Several soldiers were awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, Distinguished Flying Cross, Silver Star or Bronze Star.

All received the Purple Heart.

"Little Minnesota in World War II" includes Seaman First Class Herman Thelander of Kinbrae. In Dec. 1945, just as soldiers were waiting to be discharged, Thelander's plane disappeared in the Bermuda Triangle.

"He almost made it. And they went out on a routine flight and were never seen again," Jill said. "They did radio for help. Fort Lauderdale sent out help. The plane that was sent out never returned. Six planes and 27 men were lost in the Bermuda Triangle that day, and it's never been solved."

According to the book, the Navy calls it one of the "strangest unsolved mysteries of the sea."

Thelander grew up in a Minnesota town of 15 people.

Many members of the Greatest Generation have passed away — so much so that the Johnsons wish they had started working on the book a decade ago.

"We found one spouse. She's 101 and she's in assisted living in Carlton, Minnesota. Sharp as a tack. She told us the entire story of her husband, Peter Chernich. It was so interesting to talk with her," Jill said.

Merchant Marine Peter Chernich, 3rd engineer, was assigned to the USS Samuel Tilden. While unloading cargo at Bari, Italy, 105 German bombers flew in and bombed 17 ships. Chernich died in the inferno. It was later called "the Pearl Harbor of the Atlantic."

His wife, Ailie, never received a widow's pension. The Merchant Marine wasn't considered part of the U.S. military service until much later, Jill explained.

The Johnson poured through available documents to find details.

"The families, of course, were wonderful. I was able to contact most of the families through a surviving child. Most of the children never knew their fathers because their mother was pregnant or they were very tiny. I found many children, cousins, a few siblings and then we went to the National Archives in St. Louis. After 60 years it was all de-classified, so now if you request their Individual Deceased Personnel File, called the IDPF, they will release it to you. It took us a long time to get all those. In fact, I got eight more yesterday after the book was published," Jill said.

"Same day we got the books," added Deane.

Families went through trunks and attics, seeking uniforms, letters home, photos.

"They sent us poems that men had written. There were a few men that I can tell you would've been writers, beautiful writers," Jill said, adding that "Historical societies helped us a lot."

"We joined a lot of historical societies," added Deane.

Deane contacted the 12th Armored Museum in Texas. They were eager to help.

"These guys are really committed to the history. If somebody calls, they'll do anything to get the stories out," he said.

Rick Atkinson, who has won Pulitzer Prizes for history and journalism, aided the Johnsons as well.

"Everybody was just so willing to help," Jill said.

All military branches wrote a formal "after action report" each day of the war, describing exactly what happened.

"These guys would sit and type this up in a field tent," said Deane.

The after action reports provided crucial details.

"A lot of times we'd talk to the families and they'd have no clue what happened, no idea," Deane said.

Terrible accounts of hand-to-hand combat, bombings or wounded soldiers dressing their wounds to stand up and keep fighting took a heart-wrenching toll on the Johnsons.

Deane recalled one particular report about Minnesotan killed in action on an Italian hillside

"I didn't sleep that night after reading that one. It was hard," he said.

Surviving family members often weren't aware of IDPF or after action reports. The Johnsons were able to provide essential information.

"They were really appreciative. More than anything, they wanted their loved one to be remembered and not to be forgotten," Jill said. "We so much want the book to honor these men and their families. And really, that's what it's all about."

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