by Paul Rignell
After lights were dimmed and doors were locked through most of the Chisago Lakes Area Library, more than 30 library guests filed into one open conference room for an evening of education Friday, Sept. 27.
Early in the two-hour program, they watched a Library of Congress video on the Veterans History Project, which was passed by Congress and signed by President Clinton in October 2000 to collect and preserve stories and memories – mostly from veterans but also from some of their supporters at home.
The video’s narrator explained there are 19 million war veterans in the United States, though 1,700 of them are dying each day, often without having had a chance to share their tales.
The evening’s host at the library, Army veteran Donald Bungum, of Lindstrom, has recorded some of the history by sitting and interviewing more than 150 other veterans as they have told stories from their duties during World War II (Bungum has spoken with at least 90 survivors who served in that time) through Operation Desert Storm.
Most of his talks with veterans have been videotaped in the Chisago Lakes Chamber of Commerce building, which is the former Lindstrom Library, in the heart of the district where Bungum served as superintendent of Chisago Lakes Schools from 1969 to 1987.
He worked later as a consultant for schools, but he had finished with that, too, when in 2006 he read a local newspaper ad seeking assistance in interviewing veterans.
As a veteran himself who had a reasonable amount of open space on his calendar, Bungum agreed to offer his communication skills that he had polished as a teacher and school administrator.
“I’m kind of an itchy person, and I always need to be doing something,” he said of his eagerness to join the Veterans History Project.
Finding his way
Bungum was born in 1931 in Hayfield, Minn., starting his own education at a country school, staying there through sixth grade before graduating high school in Mantorville.
He continued his studies at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, and trained as an educator prior to volunteering for three years of Army service in September 1953. Midway through his service, he registered for “jump school” and made a total of 13 jumps as a paratrooper at Fort Campbell, Ky., and Fort Benning, Ga.
Back in the Midwest, Bungum taught world history and other subjects at schools in New Albin, Iowa, and Redwood Falls. After earning certification for administrative work, he served as principal in Ceylon, Welcome, Hector and Minnetonka, all in Minnesota, before moving to Lindstrom.
He shared his own special memories recently from his interviews with veterans, many of whom are now deceased, including John Blackford, who served as pastor 29 years at Lindstrom’s United Methodist Church.
Blackford was exempted from the draft after studying ministry at Asbury Seminary, Ky., following his earlier education at Minneapolis South High School and Hamline University. He volunteered as a Navy chaplain, however, and told Bungum of incidents where he had presided over burials of dead soldiers and other personnel after their remains were brought stateside.
Blackford also spoke of having ministered to German prisoners along with American troops during regular worship.
Veterans share memories
Several veterans who have met with Bungum for past interviews were there for the library presentation.
Navy veteran and retired teacher Doris Brand, 98, of Chisago City, addressed the other guests from the podium. Brand hails from the Red River Valley, and she had taught school for nine years in North Dakota before enlisting for her service in 1943. She began with training at Hunter College in New York City, where the East Coast enlistees barely acknowledged her state.
“They thought we still lived in tepees,” she said. “I had to defend the good state of North Dakota a good many times.”
She served as a link operator who taught flight cadets how to read the controls and plot their missions. Pilots liked to spook the link operators, Brand said, by taking them up in the aircraft for demonstrations of “loop-the-loops,” barrel rolls and other aerial maneuvers. She enjoyed those trips as thrill rides.
“I never got sick,” she said. “I loved it so. It was fun.”
Army veteran Clarence Ahlstrand, 95, of Shafer, served in Germany during World War II and said last week that he was not always up for sharing his stories.
“It took quite a while,” he said. “At first, you want to forget about it (the war). That’s why when you first come home, you don’t want to talk about it.”
Ahlstrand was accompanied to the library by his daughter, Wendy Grubbs, of Wyoming, who said her father has been willing to tell the stories now for 25 years or so.
“I think probably because (his) grandkids had asked a lot of questions,” she said.
Interview recordings available
Bungum, who was interviewed about his own service by another veteran, has agreed to meet with subjects in places other than Lindstrom. He interviewed a veteran in Woodbury in mid-September. He has returned to Hayfield and Mantorville for reunions and interviews with friends from his youth.
“If somebody wants to be interviewed, I’ll do it,” he said.
His recordings from Lindstrom and all other towns for the Veterans History Project are available for viewing on DVD at the Chisago County Historical Society in Lindstrom. Many of them have aired for cable subscribers through the local access Chisago Lakes Television channel.
Depending on the stories each veteran may have to share, Bungum said the talks will range from 30 to 60 minutes. He will take the time that each subject needs to state their stories for the record.
“Some of them will get very emotional,” he said. “Sometimes we have to say, ‘it’s time for a break,’ and we leave for a minute.”
To schedule an interview for the Veterans History Project, call 651-257-4172 or 612-718-4393.