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Crow Wing County Fair monument honors Bataan Death March soldiers from Brainerd

White obelisks dot the route at each kilometer, honoring the sacrifice of the nearly 75,000 American and Filipino soldiers captured and forced to march to their imprisonment or demise in the Bataan Death March during World War II. And now, a replica of one of those markers will greet visitors of the Crow Wing County Fair, recognizing Brainerd’s historic connection to that horrifying chapter of war.

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Jim Knudsen, the nephew of Julius Knudsen who remains missing in action on Bataan, pulls the sheet for the unveiling of the replica of the markers that dot the Bataan Death March route in the Philippines during a ceremony Tuesday, Aug. 3, 2021, at the Crow Wing County Fairgrounds. The replica will now be part of the Crow Wing County Fair. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch
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BRAINERD, Minn. — On the Philippines island of Luzon, a road hugging the coastline bears somber reminders of the embattled boots that once tread along its path.

White obelisks dot the route at each kilometer, honoring the sacrifice of the nearly 75,000 American and Filipino soldiers captured and forced to march to their imprisonment or demise in the Bataan Death March during World War II.

And now, a replica of one of those markers will greet visitors of the Crow Wing County Fair, recognizing Brainerd’s historic connection to that horrifying chapter of war.

Unveiling Bataan Marker Memorial
“We, the spiritual descendants of all the men of Company A, now have amongst us a Bataan memorial mile marker that epitomizes the courage, the strength, the commitment and the honor of the men of Company A, who helped save America in the darkest hours of World War II,” said Larry Osvold, president of the 194th Tank Regiment Association, during an unveiling ceremony Tuesday, Aug. 3. “Their sacrifices are reflected in the work of the remarkable professionals who, like they, volunteered their time and their talents for others.”

In 1941, the 34th Tank Company originating from Brainerd was ordered to Fort Lewis, Washington, for training, where they were combined with units from St. Joseph, Missouri, and Salinas, California, to form the 194th Tank Battalion. Company A of the 194th received orders to reinforce troops in the Philippines in September of 1941, three months before the United States entered WWII.

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Stationed near Clark Field on the island of Luzon, the 194th represented the first tank unit in the Far East before WWII. Isolated and without supplies, they fought on until ordered to surrender with the fall of Bataan on April 9, 1942. The 194th was among the troops who walked more than 60 miles to Japanese prison camps in what became known as the Bataan Death March. Of the 64 Brainerd men from the tank company who went with the 194th to the Philippines, three were killed in action — including Julius Knudsen, who remains missing in action — and 29 died as POWs. Thirty-two survived captivity.

Among those unveiling the replica monument, in the works for six years, was 70-year-old Jim Knudsen, the nephew of Julius, and successive generations of the Knudsen family. He said it felt good to see the replica project come to fruition.

“The fact that my uncle was memorialized somewhat along with all the other guys he was over there with, that just means the world to us,” Knudsen said. “We’ve got his headstone and plot at (Camp) Ripley, waiting for him to come home. We’ll find him.”

The replica monument depicts one of three in the Philippines specifically dedicated to the soldiers of Brainerd, along with Hortense McKay, a Brainerd nurse who was able to escape Luzon before the fall of Bataan. But the obelisk at the fairgrounds appears to be the only one of its kind in the United States, Osvold told the crowd gathered for the unveiling, a result of donated materials and skills from a multitude of locals.

A century of heroism: The life of Brainerd's Walt Straka, Bataan Death March survivor From Brainerd to Bataan, the life of Walt Straka was the story of a diehard fighter and American hero.
Osvold listed a variety of individuals and companies helping to make the monument happen, including Gull Lake Sandblasting and Powder Coating, which painted the steel to make it appear as concrete. The company’s owner represented yet another echo of Brainerd’s Bataan past — Jeff Strobel is the great-nephew of Herb Strobel, who was the first Company A soldier killed in action in the battle leading up to the march. He said he’s done a number of projects in conjunction with the 194th, and this one continued that partnership. Strobel’s father David Strobel was in attendance as well, a former member of the 194th and the nephew of Herb Strobel. And Brody Strobel, Jeff’s son, did the powder coating himself.

“I’m a veteran myself and I was in Desert Storm, so I just have a lot of respect for veterans and people who serve,” Jeff Strobel said.

Knudsen said as a community gathering place, the fairgrounds will serve as a perfect venue for a symbol of respect for the locals who gave their lives or endured tremendous suffering.

“The whole community can see it. We do events throughout the year with our 194th group and trying to keep attention drawn to the guys and stuff, but to have this opportunity to share the crowd with the fair is fantastic,” Knudsen said. “It’s good for both, and the fact that it’s a permanent thing at the fair, that means a lot.”

Related Topics: BATAAN DEATH MARCHCROW WING COUNTY FAIRBRAINERD
Chelsey Perkins is the community editor of the Brainerd Dispatch. A lakes area native, Perkins joined the Dispatch staff in 2014. She is the Crow Wing County government beat reporter and the producer and primary host of the "Brainerd Dispatch Minute" podcast.
Reach her at chelsey.perkins@brainerddispatch.com or at 218-855-5874 and find @DispatchChelsey on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
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