Soldiers' stories: Herreid Military Museum is monument to Rock County's World War II heroes
LUVERNE -- Whether you have an hour or an afternoon, the Rock County Veteran's Memorial Building in downtown Luverne is a must-see for anyone interested in the history of southwest Minnesota and the stories of Rock County veterans who served in World War II.
Between its opening on July 18, 2009, and the end of the year, the Herreid Military Museum, located on the third level of the four-story former jail, welcomed more than 6,800 visitors. While many of them were from the region, visitors have stopped in from California to Florida. There was even a couple from New Zealand who spent an afternoon there.
One of the most popular exhibits in the military museum is the collection of items that belonged to famed World War II fighter pilot and Rock County native Quentin Aanenson. On display are his flight jacket, goggles, helmet and boots.
"He was very meticulous," said Jane Wildung Lanphere, museum curator and director of the Luverne Area Chamber of Commerce. "He polished his boots and packed his items away before he died."
As plans for the military museum came together in Rock County, Aanenson's family agreed to loan some of the "pieces of war" for the exhibit. Aanenson is one of the featured veterans in the 2008 Ken Burns documentary, "The War." He also created his own documentary, "A Fighter Pilot's Story."
The entire World War II display consists of items on loan from veterans and their families from across Rock County. Everything from uniforms, hats and goggles to newspaper clippings, discharge papers, rifles, bayonets and medals are kept safely behind glass for easy viewing.
Lanphere said a lot can be learned from the items on display. For instance, Dale Frakes of Magnolia was the only Rock County soldier to serve as an admiral in the war. A few feet from where Frakes' uniform is displayed, another exhibit tells of Hills native and Marine Corps member Lenore Sandager, the first woman to enter the military from Rock County.
A former teacher, Sandager was assigned to direct operational procedures in all of the communication schools, including the Navajo Code-Talking class, during World War II.
Nearby is a small display about Lt. Norman Nelson, an Air Force pilot killed in December 1943, just eight months after he graduated from flight school. In recent years, Nelson's family has learned more details about his death.
"(He was) being chased by a German fighter plane," related Lanphere of the story. As the pilot, Nelson could have bailed out of the plane, but doing so would have meant endangering the people of a small community they were approaching.
"Instead, they nose-dived just outside of town," Lanphere said.
The Magnolia native was deemed a hero to the townsfolk, and they erected a memorial in honor of Nelson and his crew. It still stands today in Bolsward, Holland.
Other items on display include a uniform of a German soldier.
"After the war, no one wanted to wear a German uniform -- they were just laying around," said Lanphere, adding that Luverne veteran Warren Herreid had acquired some of them.
One display of weapons includes a Japanese Nambu pistol, Browning pistol and German bayonet. Perhaps the most unusual is a Waffen Schmidt Suhl 7x64 caliber deer rifle. As the story is told by Herreid, the weapon was captured from the deer hunting cabin of Hitler's right-hand man, Hermann Goring.
"I just find it amazing that people kept so many things -- and in pristine condition," said Lanphere.
Perhaps even more surprising to her now is the number of items being offered for display for the World War I exhibit, slated to open in the military museum on Memorial Day weekend.
Items received so far include a flag, bedroll, letters sent home, a uniform, helmet, leggings, World War I flight suit and a framed piece of a World War I fighter plane that belongs to the Rock County Historical Society. The piece is nothing more than a painted canvas depicting an American Indian.
"They had 35 planes ... and all of the American planes had Indians on them," Lanphere said, adding that the canvas covered a wooden structure. It isn't known whether anyone from Rock County actually flew the plane.
Once the World War I exhibit is complete, Lanphere said the total display is expected to remain in place for the next five years.
In addition to viewing the historical pieces in the collection, the museum has a collection of documentaries pertaining to the wars. The films are often playing when the museum is open.
Lanphere said she's seen many local World War II veterans visit the museum on a regular basis.
"They're up here contemplating what all they've been through," she said. "There were some veterans who died, and we had a lot more foot traffic up here right after that."
The Herreid Military Museum, 213 E. Luverne St., is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, and from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday.