Minnesota woman works to identify soldiers in Dutch cemetery

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — When it comes to war, it’s a small world.

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What began as a search for the missing B-17 “Flying Fortress” co-pilot of an infamously ill-fated World War II bombing raid reunited distant family members from Minnesota and Germany.

Throw in a Dutch researcher who was determined to lay the small-town rumors of the airman’s mysterious fate to rest, and you had a tale titillating enough to garner some German media attention.

But the search’s tragic end — it’s believed the airman fell through a propeller as his plane broke apart and he plummeted to the ground — isn’t even the point anymore.

The search has driven the Minnesota daughter of one of the airman’s fellow crew members to search for what happened to other service members just like him — “faceless” soldiers and airmen, buried with oft-times little known about them other than the day they died and the county they lived in.

Including 17 “faceless” Minnesotans buried in a distant Dutch cemetery.

“I just have their counties, I don’t even have their town,” said Peggy Linrud of Edina, who’s been calling counties for months, trying to track them.

And that suits the Dutch just fine. In fact, memorial officials are hoping for more information about the 8,301 service members interred in their Netherlands American Cemetery in Margraten. They want information — and more important, they want faces for the names, the St. Paul Pioneer Press reported.

‘THEY TREAT THESE SOLDIERS AS THEIR OWN SONS’

What you have to understand about the Dutch attitude toward those graves is how fought over they are.

A drive to get people to “adopt” the gravesites years ago met with wild success. They now have a hundreds-strong waiting list of citizens, schools and community groups wanting to care for at least one of them.

What those adoptions mean gives goosebumps to both Linrud and the Ramsey County officials she contacted in search of the faceless.

“They treat these soldiers as their own sons,” said Linrud, who’s visited the cemetery multiple times.

On the service members’ birthdays, memorial days — even decidedly American holidays like Thanksgiving — the Dutch adoptees adorn the graves with flowers and wreaths.

“I’ll admit that I was stunned by the number of people that are left there,” said Ramsey County veterans services director Maria Wetherall. “To me that is just a tremendous effort and wonderful thing. I have it a lot on my mind because we did add names to our own monument (at city hall).”

Before May 5, 2020 — the 75th Anniversary of the end of the Nazi occupation in the Netherlands — those putting on the Margraten ceremony want at least 7,500 of the 8,301 Americans buried to have a photo beside their grave.

By last count, a year ago, they had 5,800.

“Join us to help us to put a face to even more names of our liberators. ... Lest we forget,” wrote Dutch retiree Wim Slangen to a slate of contacts worldwide.

BLACK THURSDAY

It was hard for Slangen to forget: He vividly remembers his great-uncle bringing the war up at the kitchen table. Often. How the massive wing of a Flying Fortress fell from the sky, landing in the farm field he was working in, in the small Netherlands coal mining town of Eygelshoven, on the German border.

“They saw this plane coming down like a leaf in autumn, and he was running around, away from it. A big wing,” said Slangen, who still lives in Eygelshoven.

But with that wing came a load of mystery. Especially about the four American airmen who accompanied it, along with the tail-end of the B-17 that landed not far away.

That day — Oct. 14, 1943 — would later be known as “Black Thursday.”

It was as infamous as it sounds: Bombers took off from Britain, but with so much fog and so much time spent getting into formation, their fighter escorts ran low on fuel and had to turn back.

They flew toward Germany, largely defenseless, attempting to target a ball-bearing factory.

The plane where Peggy Linrud’s father was stationed as a gunner was hit by something massive — a rocket or large shell — and started to go down. Art Linrud made it out, watching from a parachute as the back half of the plane split away and descended upon Eygelshoven.

Linrud and three of his crewmen landed in Germany and survived. Of the other four — trapped in the back half — three were found dead.

As for the last one ...

“There were lots of talks, all kinds of stories, about why he got missing,” Slangen said of the plane’s co-pilot, Donald Breeden, a young Idaho airman whose body was never found.

One family claimed to have found his boots. Perhaps their ancestors had taken him in.

The story earned an article in the German newspaper, Aachener Zeitung — along with a list of the eight airmen’s names.

One of those names was Linrud. Peggy’s distant family, in Germany, read the story and contacted her sister in North Dakota asking if “Arthur Linrud” could be her father, who’d recently passed away.

It was. The sisters and other family traveled to the Netherlands and met with Slangen, who was quoted in the article — which garnered another article.

In the end, Slangen said he dug up a 1949 investigative report that surmised the mysteriously missing co-pilot, Breeden, had fallen through a propeller, and what remained was buried in his compatriots’ coffins.

The debate at the local historical society was muted, at least for the moment.

But the relationship with Slangen’s American friends remained.

CAPTURED AND IMPRISONED

Art Linrud was captured and imprisoned at Stalag 17. He returned home to the small town of Velva near Minot, North Dakota, and never spoke to his family about the war or his time in a camp. He never returned to Europe.

But, over time, he started to accept places in parades. And he wrote about his experience in a column in the Fargo Forum newspaper in 1979.

“He started talking a lot about it toward the end of his life. As a reporter I would’ve liked to ask him some questions,” said Linrud, who was a lifestyle reporter at the Forum around the same time.

“The things he rehashed in all those articles, it was all news to me. I opened up the newspaper that morning and there it was.”

Still, Linrud remembers even seemingly innocuous appearances taking a toll.

“When he would go to these schools, he’d relive it,” Linrud said. “Coming home, he’d have nightmares, have difficulty going to sleep, after talking about it with these children.”

Arthur Linrud died in 2012 of natural causes at the age of 91.

Said Wetherall, the veteran services director: “Part of what I spend a lot of time thinking about is the importance of it, to not forget. To take every opportunity to remind people why we are able to live in this country free — it didn’t happen without a commitment.

“And a sacrifice.”

FACES OF MARGRATEN

One of the 1,584 names engraved on the pillars and walls of the Ramsey County courthouse belongs to Gerald E. Young, a county resident who was a member of the “Hell on Wheels” 2nd Armored Division and was killed in action on March 1, 1945, near Garzweiler, Germany.

He’s buried at Margraten and is one of the “Faceless” soldiers officials there are trying to track down.

HOW TO HELP

Dutch officials are hoping to secure 7,500 photos in time for a ceremony commemorating their 75th anniversary of the end of the war, displaying faces alongside the graves.

Those with any information — particularly photographs — pertaining to any of these men or women should visit thefacesofmargraten.com and follow the “submit a face” link.

Additional information on the service members, including possible family members, may be included in the database at fieldsofhonor-database.com .

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Information from: St. Paul Pioneer Press, http://www.twincities.com

An AP Member Exchange Feature shared by St. Paul Pioneer Press

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Information from: St. Paul Pioneer Press, http://www.twincities.com