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Fall 2005: North Dakota's veterans telling their stories

Posted by Andrea Winkjer Collin 10/20/2016 1:11:51 PM

"Thousands of our men will be returning to you after Europe. They have been gone a long time and they have seen and done a lot and felt things you cannot know. They will be changed. They will have to learn how to adjust themselves to peace. Last night we had a violent electrical storm around our countryside. The storm was half over before we realized that the flashes and the crashings around us were not artillery, but plain old thunder and lightning. It will be odd to hear only thunder again. You must remember that such little things as that are in our souls and it will take time."


Written by famed World War II journalist Ernie Pyle in late August 1944, France, and published in his 1944 book, "Brave Men."


Six years and one day after it began, World War II officially ended on September 2, 1945, with the signing of surrender papers by the Japanese aboard the battleship USS Missouri at Tokyo Bay. 


The 60th anniversary of the end of this great war has been observed around the world in many ways. In North Dakota, veterans of all military conflicts have joined with others around the country to quietly tell the story of their service to their country. This has involved no more than a tape recorder and a conversation between a veteran and an interviewer.


Of North Dakota's 60,000-plus veterans, more than 1,200 of them have taken the time to tell their stories. They are sharing "the little things that are in our souls," about which Ernie Pyle wrote eight months before he lost his life from Japanese sniper fire on Okinawa.


The importance and - in the case of the World War II veterans especially - the urgency of recording these stories is an effort that has consumed the time of many North Dakotans.


They are participating in the North Dakota Veterans History Project, which is being coordinated by the State Historical Society of North Dakota through funding secured by U.S. Senator Byron Dorgan. The national Veterans History Project began in 2000 and is run by the Library of Congress. Volunteer support has come from the state's Department of Veterans Affairs, the Humanities Council, colleges and universities, local historical societies, AARP, the Retired Senior Volunteer Program, county veterans service officers, and veterans organizations.


Of the more than 1,200 interviews collected for the project, more than half have been from World War II veterans. Others have been from veterans of World War I, Korea, Vietnam, the Persian Gulf, Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Grenada, Panama, Bosnia, Kosovo, the Berlin Crisis and the Cuban Missile Crisis. Veterans who are current and former residents of North Dakota are encouraged to participate.


Some find it difficult to talk about their experiences, and are instead donating papers and other memorabilia to the archives of the State Historical Society at the North Dakota Heritage Center in Bismarck.


When gathered by the State Historical Society, the interviews are mostly on audiotape. Others are on video, and Project Coordinator Larry Wegleitner says efforts are underway to transcribe as many of the interviews as possible. Biographical information on every North Dakota veteran interviewed will eventually be sent to the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. Several hundred have already been posted, and they can be found at and by clicking on "search Veterans Database," using either the veteran's name or searching by state.


Anyone interested in listening to tapes of the interviews can do so at the State Historical Society archives at the Heritage Center in Bismarck.


Funding for the state program will continue through next summer. However, Wegleitner says the State Historical Society will always accept interviews and donations of photos or other memorabilia.


Veterans can set up an interview appointment by contacting the veterans service officers in their county, or by calling Wegleitner at 701-328-3533, or emailing him at Volunteers interested in helping with the program should also contact Wegleitner. They are given equipment and training in how to conduct interviews veterans, including standard questions to ask.


Veteran interviews forge bonds between generations

More than 1,200 veterans have recorded interviews for the North Dakota Veterans History Project. Some of them have stepped forward voluntarily. Others have been sought out by family members and friends. For some of the oldest veterans, it means finally recording the stories they have privately shared over the years. For others, it means talking for the first time. Many of the younger veterans from recent military conflicts have been compelled to tell their stories when they are fresh.


Helping with the collection of these stories has been a corps of dedicated volunteers that has been fiercely devoted to the mission. Veterans have interviewed each other. Sons and daughters or grandchildren have sat down with their parents or grandparents. Some have interviewed neighbors and friends. Others are total strangers.


Vern Useldinger of Fargo, himself a veteran of World War II and Korea, has interviewed 30 veterans after first sharing his experiences. Mountrail County Veterans Service Officer Gene "Skip" Wing of Stanley helped line up some 56 interviews of area veterans - again, after he gave his own interview. 


Students participating in the pro- gram have been from high schools in Washburn, Turtle Lake, Goodrich, McClusky, Drake, New Salem, Center, Max, Garrison and Bismarck. The six students in Drake High School's Future Business Leaders of America club, Matthew Adams, David Holler, Eric Blumhagen, Brittnie Oster, Lisa Martwick and Samantha Martwick, along with adviser Joan Birdsell, began the interviews as a community service project. They soon found out they couldn't stop with just a few. This fall they will complete their 36th interview of Drake-area veterans. They have also participated in special observances and ceremonies with members of the Drake American Legion.


College-student volunteers have come from the University of Mary, Minot State University, Dickinson State University, Williston State College and North Dakota State University, who have been given the interviews as class assignments.


The mother-daughter team of Tammy Hilton and Nicole Johansen, both from Williston, was given the assignment to each interview a veteran. They were both students in the World War II history class at Williston State College taught by Professors James Stout and Richard Stenberg. They got hooked, and together completed seven, interviewing Willis "Pete" Yeager of Rock Lake; Roland "Rollie" Trowbridge, James Holter, Hugo Strom, Mabel Hoff Iverson, all of Williston; Edward Krieger, White Earth, and John "Jack" Steinberger, Minot.


Hilton transcribed each of these interviews. Among them was her series of conversations with Hugo Strom of Williston. He was a U.S. Army officer attached to a Chinese regiment in Burma, known as Y-Force Units, which had as its mission cutting Japanese supply routes and communication lines. This interview produced a 117-page transcript, which may be the largest document the project has received so far.


"We knew Hugo had a great war experience, but we had to court him a bit to get him to talk," Hilton recalls of their conversations last spring. "But once he got going, what a story he had to tell!"


"There's more I could have told," Strom now says. "But with some of it I have forgotten too much to accurately recall. And the rest, well, nobody would believe me."


During all the interviews, Hilton and Johansen recall how the veterans' eyes would almost glaze over as they went back 60 years to relive some of their experiences. "Most of these people couldn't tell you what they ate for dinner last night, but they can tell you the dates, times, smells, noises and emotions in what they are describing from 60 years ago. One veteran detailed the smell of burning coconut trees," Johansen recalled.


"We fell in love with the World War II generation," Hilton says of her and her daughter's experiences. Their ethics, their fierce patriotism, and their appreciation for life. It really had a great impact on us."


"There is something about seeing an elderly man cry when asked how the war affected the man he is today," says Johansen. "It added a lot to my definition of freedom."


Exploits of North Dakota aviators come to life in authentic paintings

King George VI and Queen Elizabeth have been visitors to Scott Nelson's home in southern Morton County this summer. They or, more accurately, their images, have been standing on a large canvas in Nelson's family room that doubles as a painting studio at his ranch north of Solen.


They are there to illustrate another story about the exploits of North Dakota's World War II veteran aviators that Nelson is retelling through his oil paintings. 


When he is not ranching, Nelson is painting. Or he is researching his next painting. He is melding together his love of art, a fascination with World War II aircraft and a dogged determination to preserve the stories of North Dakota's veterans.


Nelson got the idea about six years ago to find a North Dakota veteran and to illustrate his story. After hearing about Noble Peterson, whose North Dakota ranch is just north of Lemmon, South Dakota, he had his first project. This became Dakota Kid II. Once completed, he has heard more heroic stories and he has kept on painting.


In addition to Peterson, the veterans whose exploits have found their way to Nelson's canvasses have included George Ott and Gale (Bucky) Cleven, Dickinson; Richard Baron and Dick Skjod, Mandan; Ernie Sands, Bismarck, and "Whiskey" Bill Reynolds, Washburn.


His current project is his tenth, the second one he has done about George Ott. Tentatively entitled Brush With Royalty, this new painting depicts the time Ott was told to pilot Dakota Demon, his YB40 B-17 bomber, to Bassingbourn, England, following a training mission. Once on the ground, the plane was ordered to follow a jeep, which led them over to another plane. All of the crewmembers from that plane were in their dress uniforms, a stark contrast to Ott's crew in work clothes. Ott recognized one of the other crew as the famed Bob Morgan, pilot of the Memphis Belle. As they were standing there, a Rolls Royce drove up to them. Out stepped England's King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, who had come to congratulate Morgan and his crew for being the first to complete 25 successful missions. The king and queen also viewed the Dakota Demon and met Ott and his crew.


Before beginning to paint, Nelson meticulously researches the information he has been given by the veteran, through historians, veterans groups, books and internet searches. Once the painting is completed, Nelson has its accuracy authenticated with a signature on the canvas by the veteran he depicts.


He also writes up the veteran's story which is displayed along with the painting. "Without the story, the paintings would have no value," Nelson says.


In addition to painting, Nelson has been an active volunteer with the Veterans History project, having completed several interviews with veterans in southwestern North Dakota. 


Nelson's paintings have been displayed at various locations around North Dakota, including the Fargo Air Museum. This fall most of his paintings will find a permanent home at the Minot Air Museum at Minot's Airport. In addition, one painting at a time will be displayed at the World War II exhibit at the North Dakota Heritage Center, "North Dakota Remembers World War II," when it opens November 4.


His projects have involved the entire Nelson family. His wife, Lori, a teacher in Carson, and their children Majalisa, 9, and Levi, 7, also have become acquainted with the veterans whose images on canvas have made residence in their family room while a project was being completed.


Nelson has no idea how many more paintings he will do - he has a list of other veterans he's going to check out once his current project is done. He does believe, however, that he will only depict World War II scenes. "I started out as a western and cowboy artist and decided to put that on the back burner because I thought these World War II projects were so important. When I am done with these, I plan to go back to that."


Complete summaries of his paintings can be found at, and he can be reached at 701-597-3525, or through his email:

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