The Greatest Generation of all at the Minnesota History Center

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“It was terrible. Everything was disarrayed — the wind and the artillery,” said Ed Haider of Roseville. A paratrooper during World War II, he was describing the scene in 1943 when he and 27 others stationed with the 82nd Airborne parachuted into Sicily. Of the 28 who jumped, only three survived. Following the jump, Ed was captured by the Germans, shelled with artillery, and wounded. Ed was held as a prisoner of war (POW) in a small prison camp in Capau in Italy until VJ Day in September 1945.

Ed is one of the people whose stories are told at the Minnesota History Center’s newest exhibit, Minnesota’s Greatest Generation: The Depression, The War, The Boom.

After the war, Ed married and had two sons. He worked for the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy (now Burlington Northern) Railroad for 39 years.

Excerpt from Blood in Our Boots by Ed Haider

One bitter, cold morning in January of 1945, we were rousted out and told we were leaving. The weather was like I was used to back home in Minnesota, lots of snow and very cold. We started marching and would keep moving until we came to a barn big enough to house us all for the night. There were about 100 prisoners in this march. It was about 20° below zero and most of us didn’t have any socks to wear, just bare feet inside our boots that were like a couple of boards. At night in the barns we would take our boots off and pour the blood out. It seemed like we each had about a shot-glass full of blood in our boots from the walking. We would shove our feet into piles of straw, hoping for a little warmth, but there was none to be found. In the morning we had to put our boots back on – it wasn’t easy over raw feet. It was just hell walking the first mile or two, but the farther we went, it all just settled down into a painful march. One time we noticed one of our guards take off his boots and for socks he only had rags wrapped around his feet. We figured things were not going too well for Germany if even their soldiers had no socks. From our perspective though, rags were at least better than nothing.

Ordering information for Blood in our Boots.

Ed is 86 years old now, and still travels around to tell his story to school children, to veterans, and to church groups. He has published the story of his wartime experiences in a book called Blood in our Boots.

Gertrude Esteros, a native of Cloquet, Minnesota, is also featured in Minnesota’s Greatest Generation. She served as an American Red Cross volunteer in the South Pacific during the war. Invited by the army, Gertrude was attached to the 37th field hospital in the South Pacific. She arrived in New Guinea just before Christmas in 1942. She worked as a recreation worker with a team of three people. She said, “ My job was to set up recreation activities for ambulatory patients, and half of the time I was with patients on the wards who were seriously ill or injured.”

Gertrude retired from the University of Minnesota in 1980 and now lives in Falcon Heights. Reflecting on her time with the Red Cross, she said, “It was a very intense kind of experience. It’s never really understood by someone who was not a participant… I heard directly from vets and combat soldiers.”

Years in the planning, the Greatest Generation exhibit opened to the public on Memorial Day weekend. I attended a media preview event on May 21, as final preparations were underway. A brief ceremony took place as the last artifact — the flag from the US Navy ship, the USS Minneapolis — was lifted into place at the entrance to the exhibit. The ship was first launched in 1930 and carried soldiers back to the United States from foreign shores. The flag was flown when the ship was in port.

Covering a span of time from the Depression through World War II through the post-war years and beyond, the exhibit is both heart-warming and heart-breaking as stories are told with recorded interviews and interactive technology. Real-life displays of a soda shop, a hospital nursery, a dry cleaning shop, and an old-time television showroom bring the past to life. A replicated movie theater shows clips from films that were popular during the era. A soap box derby car, a Betty Boop doll, tea sets, a restored 1955 Ford, and artifacts from the Civilian Conservation Corps are on display. A variety of uniforms from all types of organizations are there, and Gertrude planned to find her uniform.

Ed Haider speaks in one of the recorded interviews. After listening to the recording of his voice, he told me, “I go in there and I cry to think that there were so many boys who never made it.”

The exhibit at the history center covers 6,000 square feet, but that is only part of the project, which will be ongoing and evolving as more people tell their stories, An interactive web-based data base displays pictures from the past where viewers can add comments. With so much to see and read and absorb, it may take a few visits to really take in all that the exhibit has to offer.

Beyond the sights and sounds, the Greatest Generation takes us into the era that belonged to our mothers and our fathers, our grandpas and our grandmas. Events and times that changed the world forever shaped their lives and brought them together in a way we may never see again.

Nina Archabal, director of the Minnesota History Center, said that the experience of working with this generation as they told their stories has “really helped me understand in both a personal and more public level as well.”

“As a daughter of this [greatest] generation,” she said, “this project has touched me in ways I never imagined. … I recall my mother saying that life was never the same after World War ll.”

The History Center’s Greatest Generation website offers parts of the exhibit, as well as hours and location.

Mary Thoemke, a lifelong resident of Saint Paul, is a free lance writer for the Twin Cities Daily Planet. Email marythoemke@tcdailyplanet.net

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