In 1941, Luverne was a small prairie town of 3,110, on the banks of the Rock River, in the southwestern corner of Minnesota. The county seat of Rock County, Luverne boasted one main street with two movie theaters, a hotel, courthouse, drug store, café, bank, shoe store, electrical supply store, general store, A&P and farm supply store.
“It was great growing up there,” Jim Sherman said. “You had a lot of opportunity, growing up in a small town. You could do a lot of things that you couldn’t do in a big city. And that was fun, growing up in a small town like that.”
“Patriotism was primary, particularly during the war years,” he added. “The largest single ethnic group in Minnesota are Germans. If you combine the Norwegians, Swedes, Danes and Finns as Scandinavians are a larger group, but the Germans, they’re the largest single group. So, during those war years, you had a kind of an ambivalent feeling toward the people who were of German ancestry. ‘Cause, you know, the propaganda comes out that the Germans are the bad guys. And yet, you’re dealing with people who you grew up with who maybe were first or second generation Germans, had relatives living in Germany at the time. Or even in the German army.”
Founded in 1867 and originally settled by Civil War veterans, Luverne's inhabitants were mostly farmers of Scandinavian and German descent. Its residents had been hard hit by the Depression and the collapse of farm prices — in 1933, 500 county residents were listed as unemployed.
“I think it was pretty close-knit community,” Sherman said. “There was a saying that if you don’t want people to know about it, you don’t do it. And, everybody knew pretty much everybody else in town.”
War came to Luverne in January 1941, nearly a year before Pearl Harbor, when the local National Guard unit was called up, and 129 Rock County boys were put on active duty in the army. After training for six months, they were assigned to protect the naval air base in Kodiak, Alaska, where many spent the next three and a half years. An auto dealer named Ryal Miller visited the men while hunting in Alaska and filmed them with an eight millimeter camera. When he got back, he showed his home movies at the Pix Theater on Main Street in Luverne, and families crowded in for a glimpse of how their boys were doing. Afterwards, people were encouraged to make their own home movies and to write greetings to their far-away friends on a wrapping-paper letter that stretched 120 feet.
Dear Kay and Everybody:
I wanted to let you know that the battery received the swell letter that was written on and around the 4th of July. The boys are really having a time reading it. They’re on their hands and knees and have the paper strung from one end of the barracks to the other. It’s things like this that make us feel pretty darn good. In case you don’t remember me, I used to sling hash in Gimm and Byrnes restaurant. I was the tall slim fellow who used to work with Fred Gimm. Tell him hello for me. Well, Kay, I’ll cut this off here. We’ll promise to get all the damned Japs that stick their noses in around here.
Thanks again from all of us.
Vernon A. Fremstand
Luverne was about as far away from the action as any place in America.
“It was in the dead center of the country,” Sam Hynes said. “It was, East and West. Among people who had left Europe to get away from it. Germans, Scandinavians, Irish. They didn’t really want to know about Europe, I think. I don’t remember concern about what is going to happen to Europe. They called Europe the old country, you know. They didn’t want it. They also felt that nobody was threatening them. And they were right. Hitler wasn’t going to invade Minnesota. That was fairly sure. So that as long as Japan was being aggressive on the far side of the Pacific and Hitler was being aggressive on the far side of the Atlantic, there wasn’t really anything to worry about. It was only when the Japanese staged their preemptive strike on Pearl Harbor that there was a threat. And then it felt to me as though the whole country turned to face west. And faced west for the first year of the war.”
Each day the war’s reality grew closer and closer. Soldiers on leave began flooding into town from the nearby air force base in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, dating local girls, frequenting the local bar and flying low over Main Street, causing the windows in all the stores to rattle to the delight of local youngsters.
“If some guy was dating one of the Luverne girls, let’s say, and they went up on an exercise and he was flying one of these P-47 Thunderbolts, he would come zooming down Main Street,” Sherman recalled. “You know, like two hundred feet — two, three hundred feet over the city. And the wings are going like this to let you know if she’s working with the phone company. She’d know who it was. I mean, this is kind of the way they were signaling and the windows would rattle and people would get all upset — ‘These guys shouldn’t be doing this.’ But I don’t think it ever stopped them.”
Luverne, Minnesota. September 9, 1943.
All of us use the phrase, “after the war” so much it almost becomes meaningless…The motorist uses it when he thinks of new tires, a new model car, and the right to drive as fast and as far as he pleases. But for all of us, although the words aren’t often spoken, it means the day “when you boys come home.” It means, if you had witnessed it, a portion of a little drama as we did this week, the ecstatic happiness and the wild gladness of thousands of family reunions.
The other morning an unshaven, weary uniformed man, with a string of gaily colored ribbons on his breast, slipped off the morning train and was driven to his home. Instead of going in the front way, he went around the back, un-noticed. Probably he just wanted to feast his eyes on “home.”… His children were watching at the front, their noses almost boring holes in the window panes, as they watched for a sign of ‘daddy,’ Nobody needs to describe their shrieks of joy when he walked in from the backdoor to surprise them. If you could have seen them later, hanging on to his hands for dear life as though they could hold him home forever, you couldn’t have helped getting a bit misty yourself.
Rock County Star Herald
Economically, local farmers did their best to step up production, and several businesses contracted to do war work. The first contract in town went to the A.R. Wood Company, a manufacturer of chick brooders, which agreed to produce “a small item which appears to be part of a valve for some kind of a gun,” the Rock County Star Herald reported. McIntosh, the editor of the paper, chronicled the war’s impact on Luverne in his bi-weekly column, reporting on war bond drives, victory gardens, rationing of essential commodities and the difficulties families faced trying to keep their farms going with so many young men in the armed forces.
The people of Luverne found themselves suddenly connected to world events during the war, and that experience left a deep impression on the town for years to come.
“We had an Army airbase that was thirty miles away,” Sherman said. “And a lot of those soldiers came over to Luverne on their R & R. So we had soldiers around us. They were flying Liberators and P-47s out of Sioux Falls. So we had a lot of airplanes over us. And, the other thing was that the war was way, far away. So, we didn’t have this immediacy that things are happening right now in a war sense. And then, people had the victory gardens and the scrap drives and there were parades and there were all these things that got people into this patriotic feeling. It was a totally different feeling that I don’t think can ever be duplicated, ever. I just don’t think that you could have that sense of oneness that we had when we were growing up.”
More than 1,000 citizens of Rock County, Minnesota served in uniform during the War. Thirty-two of them lost their lives. The names of all those who served were carefully painted on a wooden roll of honor in front of city hall in Luverne. As the years passed, Minnesota winters wore away the names. One year, the monument was taken down to be repainted and repaired. Somehow, it was lost.
Of the 21 male graduates of Luverne High School’s class of 1939, 20 served in the armed forces — only a boy with a heart condition stayed behind.
Of Rock County’s 10,683 residents, 1,065 served in the military; 32 were killed.
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