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A moment ‘forever etched in your mind’

Menahga man lost two brothers in WWII

By Vivian (Makela) Sazama

The eight Hillstrom brothers of Menahga all served their country. Two gave their lives for our freedom. Picture of Hillstrom brothers of Menahga taken Christmas Day, 1944. Left to Right: Ernest, Albert, Erland, Rudy, Marvin, Albin, Melvin, and Kenneth Hillstrom. Kenneth was the youngest and served during the Vietnam conflict. Contributed photo

On Christmas Eve, 1944, the mother of Ken Hillstrom of Menahga had the foresight to have her eight sons line up in their yard dressed in their Sunday best, right after Pearl Harbor was bombed on Dec. 7. Little did she know that soon after this photo was taken that four of her sons would be serving in the Army in Europe.

Two other sons who were working in the San Francisco shipyards when the war started were exempted from the draft because they had wives and families, and as long as they signed contracts to remain working at the shipyards. At one time one of the brothers sat in a Jeep with a 50-caliber machine gun guarding an ammo dump in Belgium near the “Battle of the Bulge,” where another brother gave his life. One was wounded, and another was taken off the frontlines after two of the brothers were killed. In later years the second youngest son served during the Korean war but was not sent there. Ken joined the Air Force during the Vietnam War but was not sent there either. Perhaps the Army decided this family had sacrificed enough.

Ken Hillstrom holds a photo of he and his brothers taken right after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Photo by Vivian Sazama.

The brother who was killed in “The Battle of the Bulge” was eventually returned from the south of France to a military cemetery in Illinois. The other brother who gave his life is still buried at Margraten, Holland, along with 8,000 other U.S. soldiers. Years ago, Ken and his wife, Linda were able to go to his gravesite during a three-month trip to Finland, Sweden, Norway, and Europe. Recently, Ken received notice that there is an effort to organize an Honor Flight to bring family members and veterans there in 2022, and he hopes to be on that flight!

Ken was seven years old when he rode with his parents to the train station in Menahga to get a telegram. His father came back to their Model A and told his mother what it said - their son had been killed in the war. Ken was in the back seat as his mother let out a loud scream, and his father took her into his arms. Bewildered and afraid, Ken said he tried to wedge his way in between them for comfort. His father reached back and pulled him up front and set him in between his parents, crushing him as they wept. Ken said, “It’s one of those times that are forever etched in your mind.”

One of Ken’s brothers, Erland Hillstrom, pictured in Rome, Italy, after recovering from severe wounds. Contributed photo

As a teenager, he remembered his mother had gone to help with a new grandbaby when his brother who had been wounded came over and sat at their kitchen table with Ken and their father. His brother had not shared anything about his experience up until then. Ken said he talked for hours, describing what he saw. He said when he was wounded he was thrown across the road from his platoon by a blast. When he came to and saw where he was he slowly got up and made his way towards the sergeant, who took one look and exclaimed, “Look at your side!” His whole left side had been torn up, and it was a miracle he was even walking. He was immediately put on a gurney and brought to the field hospital.

We may never know what those two brothers who gave their lives went through, we can only appreciate what one family sacrificed for our freedom, along with the thousands of other families throughout the years. Ken will certainly never forget, and those memories will forever be with him.

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