A Memorial Day tribute
WORTHINGTON -- Memorial Day, a day to honor our nation's fallen heroes, has been observed on the last Monday in May every year since 1868.
Steeped in the tradition of a lone bugler playing taps, a firing squad shooting skyward and a message of remembrance, Memorial Day programs were offered throughout the region Monday in cemeteries, amid war memorials and, in Worthington, at Chautauqua Park.
Members of the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars Color Guard, who had conducted brief ceremonies at each of the local cemeteries and Freedom Veterans Memorial Park earlier in the morning, raised the flags as members of the Firing Squad took aim over Lake Okabena, firing shots three times before Taps rang out. Meanwhile, on the lake, flowers were tossed from a pontoon boat, and a Civil Air Patrol plane added another stream of flowers as it appeared overhead minutes after the program began.
With veterans representing nearly every branch of the service in attendance -- they were recognized during the "Service Men's Salute" performed by the Amazing Worthington City Band -- Monday's message honored a Minnesota World War II hero.
Guest speaker Rev. Joe Behnke, a World War II history buff, met Robert Michelsen while a student in a history class at Concordia University in St. Paul.
"His story was something you'd almost imagine out of a TV series, maybe a movie or something you'd read in a book," said Behnke, now a minister at St. Matthew Lutheran Church in Worthington.
Michelsen had seen, first hand, the "horrors of World War II," despite being called to duty late in the war. A member of the Army Air Corps, Michelsen served with a crew aboard a B-29 Superfortress. Stationed in Guam, their crew flew missions over Japan, dropping bombs on urban and military targets, Behnke shared.
On May 25, 1945, Michelsen's plane was shot down. The entire crew made it safely to land, where they were immediately taken hostage by Japanese soldiers.
"They were blindfolded, they were beaten and they were taken to a prisoner of war camp," said Behnke. The crew members were separated from the general population and deemed war criminals for the bombs they dropped that killed innocent civilians.
As war criminals, they were beaten, starved and interrogated by the Japanese Secret Police about the Enola Gay, which would later -- on Aug. 6, 1945 -- drop the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan. Michelsen knew nothing of the superfortress bomber, nor did he know the bomb was dropped during his captivity.
The crew endured daily beatings and questions throughout the summer, and then one day, it stopped. Soldiers ordered the men into the back of a truck and Michelsen thought this would be his last ride. He feared they were being taken deep into the wilderness to be killed.
"It didn't help that the Japanese soldiers told the prisoners the Americans had surrendered -- that the Japanese had brokered a truce with the Americans," Behnke said.
When the truck finally stopped and the prisoners were ordered out, Michelsen found himself on the beach, looking out on the ocean at an American ship. The men were told they were free to go, and just as Michelsen began to taste freedom, a Japanese soldier took him by the arm and held him back. As a war criminal, he wasn't going to be freed.
As Behnke retold Michelsen's story, he said an American Major who overheard the exchange walked up to the Japanese soldier, pulled out his gun and pointed it at the man, saying, "You no longer have authority here anymore. He's free to go home."
Michelsen returned home and now resides in the Twin Cities. When he visited the World War II History class at Concordia, he was asked by one of Behnke's classmates how he survived life as a prisoner of war.
"I tell this story because of what Robert said ...," Behnke shared. "He said it was his faith in Jesus Christ. Jesus was his rock, his strength, his fortress -- and that was what was helping him get through the tortures, the beatings, the interrogations that took place. It all reminds us of the importance of Jesus in our lives as well as in the lives of those who are serving. His death and resurrection can serve as a place of hope for them to be in the midst of some discouraging time.
"On this Memorial Day, may we not only remember Jesus and his death on the cross and resurrection, but may we also remember those who have shown that love to us -- those who have served and given the ultimate sacrifice of their life, so that we may enjoy the freedoms that we have today," he added.
Daily Globe Reporter Julie Buntjer may be reached at 376-7330.