Anoka County History: Stories of Anoka County’s sons and daughters in WWII

By John Evans
Contributing Writer

America in World War II was a nation at war, but it was also millions of individuals who came from thousands of communities across the country. These people were more than just cogs in a fighting machine; they were the sons of daughters of places like Anoka County. The Anoka Herald sometimes published pictures and articles about its participants around the globe.

Many articles were about meetings and gatherings of native sons. There was a feature on Minnesota Day in North Africa, with a picture of about 20 men who gathered for dinner, a defense plant tour, and a movie. There was a Paul Bunyan Day in Hawaii. There were quite a few photos of two or three locals who crossed paths in Europe or the Pacific. The most interesting glimpses, however, come from articles about, and letters from, specific individuals in far-flung destinations.

For example, Pvt. Allen Haroldson, in early 1943, wrote two letters from North Africa. He acknowledged the package he received with a hearty, “Boy, that fudge was really good,” and noted the weather was poor, with rainy days and cold nights. He had learned a little Arabic and his unit had a pet dog called “Yank.”

Yank wasn’t the only animal companion. PFC Warren Drew, stationed in the South Pacific, trained birds. The Herald article shows a photo of him with a red parrot named “Charlie.” One white cockatoo he trained became an “aide” to a general, and another served as his personal pet and unit mascot.

Pvt. David Francis also wrote from the Pacific, from Netherlands East Indies, in January 1945. He had just returned from an 11 day march searching for Japanese soldiers. Some veterans called it “the worst foot march we’ve ever been through.” They had hungry days with supplies dropped from planes, but now, back on base, there was good food, the USO, and Red Cross women with orangeade and donuts.

Not all animals were pets and not all heroic locals were people. Aufra, a German Shepherd formerly owned by Mrs. George Johnson of Anoka, distinguished herself as a courier operating under Nazi fire. Her handler, Cpl. Joseph Simpson, wrote to Mrs. Johnson, sending an article that had appeared in his own home town newspaper, and asking for information about Aufra’s history.

Some letters commented on the war’s conclusion. Sgt. William Murtaugh wrote home shortly after V-E day. Since censorship had been lifted, he was able to describe how he landed at Omaha Beach on D-Day, fought through Normandy and Northern France, and spent some “ticklish” days in the Battle of the Bulge. Now he was guarding a German area and living in a baron’s mansion. He had been to Dachau and had heard an escapee describe its horrors.

Lt. Robert Stewart had been a bomber pilot, and he took a victory tour over five ruined German cities. Hanover was the worst, and the Krupp plant in Essen was “nothing but twisted steel wreckage.” Paris, however, was in good shape. He sent a photo of a different type of mission he had flown, a food drop over the Netherlands.

Gertrude Heard, with the Red Cross in Guam, described a premature celebration when the women heard an unofficial radio announcement of the Japanese surrender on August 9, 1945, the day of the Nagasaki bomb. Lights went on, men started yelling, and the PA played “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.” Later, more news filtered in the hospital settled down. A few days later, the surrender became official, and Americans all over the world prepared for the long-awaited trip home.

John Evans is a volunteer with the Anoka County Historical Society.