WWII remembered from the perspective of area residents

Local man collects stories, uses them as inspiration for his writing

Longtime North Branch resident Charles King reads one of his stories during the North Branch Rotary meeting July 23.  Photo by Derrick Knutson
Longtime North Branch resident Charles King reads one of his stories during the North Branch Rotary meeting July 23.
Photo by Derrick Knutson

Charles King is a storyteller.

The longtime North Branch resident and former educator has a cadence and speaking presence, honed by decades of teaching, that grabs the attention of nearly anyone listening to him impart a story.

And he has so many stories to tell.

King, a member of the East Central Minnesota Chorale, a civic choir representing more than 10 East Central Minnesota communities, collected stories for more than a year from residents of the area who remembered World War II, in particular, D-Day, which had its 70th anniversary June 6.

He was able to travel to the communities and do the interviews thanks to an Arts and Legacy grant the chorale applied for and was awarded.

“Because of that grant, we were able to do a number of concerts connected to it with the East Central Minnesota Chorale,” King explained.

Life before and during the war 

King was North Branch Rotary’s featured speaker July 23.

He started off his presentation by painting a verbal picture of what life in Minnesota was like prior to and during the war.

He said in 1920, there were about 200 tractors in Minnesota; most residents still farmed with horses.

Electricity didn’t come to many rural areas until about 1930, and heating homes during the winter was a challenge.

“You bring a pail of water in and you set it by a stove, knowing that there will probably be a fairly thick crust of ice on it the next morning, because the wood heat would die down,” he said. “If you were a kid, you went to bed wearing every wool pair of socks that you had, because it was going to get cold that night. Insulation of walls was old newspapers.”

He noted that in the early 1940s, more than half of Americans lived on farms, with most of the rest living in small towns.

Local stories 

It is in these small towns that King takes readers or listeners back to in his semi-fictional stories he’s crafted with the inspiration he received from so many conversations with Minnesotans who remember the tenuous years of World War II.

He relayed snippets from some of the stories told to him that served as that inspiration before reading two of the stories he had written.

The first was from Pine City resident Mary Anderson, who worked as a switchboard operator for Northwestern Bell in the city.

“Mary Anderson was 18 years old at the time and was at the switchboard in Pine City at 3:10 p.m. when it just lit up; everything lit up,” King said. “(The operators) were told, ‘Don’t ever listen in.’ She had to. She found out that Pearl Harbor had been attacked. She rushed home to tell her mom.”

Next was a recollection from recently deceased lifelong North Branch resident Phyllis Lindberg, who had a brother stationed at Pearl Harbor.

“She was at the movie theater in town when suddenly the movie stopped, the lights went down, and the owner came out and came out and said, ‘We just received word that Pearl Harbor has been attacked,”’ King said. “She rushed home to tell her mom, and her mom already knew.”

Mike Ohnstad, who grew up outside of Hinckley and now lives in North Branch,  had a first-hand look at the devastation inflicted during the war.

“Mike Ohnstad, because of his stenographer skills in the Army, was sent to Hiroshima about two weeks after the bomb dropped to record information as Japanese and American doctors were studying the impact of radiation on human beings, which had never been done before,” King said.

C.J. Stubbs, King’s great uncle from North Branch — King learned of his stories by talking to his mother — was on the front lines on islands in the Pacific Ocean.

“He was scouting enemy troop movements when the front shifted just rapidly in those islands, and he found himself behind the lines with the sun going down,” King said.

“On a cloudy night, you dug a hole and dug in because you were likely to get shot in the night (without any cover). Another soldier stepped into his hole. He fought and killed that solider, and he drug the body out of the hole. The next morning, as dawn was coming up, he peeked over the lip of the hole and saw a 6-foot dead Komodo Dragon there, as opposed to the solider that he thought he struggled with.

“He said fear and adrenaline could make you believe anything, including that a 6-foot lizard was actually an enemy solider”

King said he learned so much about the war and the people living in East Central Minnesota at that time during his interviews, and he noted his life was impacted by what they chose to tell him.

“We are, after all, the sum total of our stories,” King said. “We become the people our stories say we are.”

During the next few weeks, King will be releasing his stories one at a time on the East Central Minnesota Chorale Facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/ECMChorale.

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