Community honors fallen soldiers at every corner
By Scott Thoma
During World War II, the community of Appleton saw 29 of its service men fall in battle; an inordinate number for a town of just under 2,000 people nestled within the prairie of western Minnesota.
Appleton native Robert A. Miller was a battalion commander with the 135th Infantry regiment of the renowned “Red Bull” 34th Division during World War II.
The “Red Bull” Division, which was created from National Guard troops from Minnesota, Iowa, North and South Dakota, and Nebraska, was activated on Feb. 10, 1941, and were the first division to be shipped overseas.
Stationed in North Africa, Italy and Sicily, the 34th Division suffered heavy losses in battle. Among the 3,737 killed were 13 young men from Appleton.
Miller, who later went on to become a major general, spent five years in World War II; two of those years were spent overseas. Upon returning from war, the twice-wounded and highly-decorated Miller returned to his hometown where he spent 43 years as a dentist until his death in 1973.
But it was during Miller’s two-year stint as mayor in 1946 and 1947 that he came up with an idea to honor the fallen heroes of Appleton.
In 1946, the City of Appleton was planning to reorganize its streets and avenues. Miller saw this as the perfect opportunity to see his idea come to fruition.
He contacted family members of each of the fallen heroes with his plan. Had he not received unanimous approval from these families, he was determined to scrap the project.
Upon receiving full support from each of the families, Miller then took his proposal to the town council where it was also unanimously approved.
On Memorial Day of 1947, a dedication ceremony that revealed the new street signs drew over 1,000 people and made state and national news.
During that Memorial Day ceremony, a morning parade included a broken formation flying overhead by the 133rd National Guard Fighter Squadron.
The dedication of the 26 street signs representing the 29 service men killed in action (three of the young men share the same last name and street sign) was held at the Appleton City Cemetery where many of these fallen heroes are now buried.
The number of streets named for those who died in battle has since increased to 36 (for 39 fallen heroes) with the addition of those who also died in the Korean, Vietnam and Iraq wars.
“It really gives you a lot of pride to see these street signs,” said Patty Kashmark-Krebs, whose uncle Kenneth W. Nelson is honored by one of those street signs. “I don’t think a lot of people realize just how we get these freedoms and how much these people gave up for us.”
Pvt. Kenneth Nelson was killed on D-Day on June 6, 1944 in Normandy, France. He was buried there until his body was returned to Appleton for re-burial on Dec. 17, 1947 in the Appleton City Cemetery.
Nelson Street honors three Nelsons: Kenneth and brothers Pvt. Maynard A. Nelson and Pvt. Richard H. Nelson.
Werring Avenue is named for both Sgt. Burt A. Werring and his brother, Capt. Leigh H. Werring.
Appleton’s population has diminished over the years and is now hovering around the 1,400 mark. But the pride within the community is as strong as ever. It is still the only known city in the United States to have its streets named for fallen war heroes.
“I’m very proud that the town did this for the men who died in war,” said Gary Running, a member of AMVETS (American Veterans) who lives in Appleton. “It means a lot to the people of this community and to the families of these men.”
When Running’s son Patrick, who was based in Irag in 2004-05, was a guest speaker at a Memorial Day ceremony after returning to the States, he admitted that the street signs didn’t hold much meaning before he left for war.
“He said he had driven past the signs all of his life and yet never really paid any attention to them,” Gary recalled.
But after returning from war, Patrick told the many people in attendance that they had much more significance and that “driving through town was like driving through history.”
“(Patrick) also said that day that he didn’t consider himself a hero,” Gary told. “The men that were killed in battle were the heroes.”
AMVETS Commander Dennis Kohlman honors those who lost their life in war on the painted tailgate of his pickup truck. “All gave some, but some gave all,” it reads.
Having streets named after hometown heroes has significantly more value than the more familiar First Street, Elm Street or Second Avenue.
The most recent addition to the Appleton street signs is Lhotka Avenue; named for Sgt. Jesse Lhotka, who along with two other Minnesota National Guard soldiers, was killed by a roadside bomb on Feb. 21, 2005 near Baghdad, Iraq while assisting injured soldiers in his unit.
Appleton also honors over 200 deceased men and women veterans at its Flags of Honor site. Each name is etched on a gold nameplate and encased in a brick memorial wall. Each of these deceased war veterans also has a casket flag at the VFW Post 4955 with their name on it. During patriotic holidays, VFW and Auxiliary members raise 100 flags at the Flags of Honor site to honor the memory of these brave men and women.
The Appleton City Cemetery is home to 564 veterans from the Mexican War, Civil War, Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, Korean War, Vietnam War, Operation Desert Storm, and Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Throughout town an observer can find military memorials.
A Streets of Honor memorial site is situated on the corner of Thielke Avenue and Miles Streets, named for Corp. Reuben W. Thielke and Pvt. Hugh S. Miles, respectively.
The Streets of Honor includes seven pillars. Six of the pillars are 6 feet high by 4 feet wide and represent each of the military branches -- Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, Coast Guard, and Army National Guard -- with a large branch emblem. A corresponding flag of each branch waves proudly in the breeze behind its appropriate pillar.
The seventh pillar, sandwiched between the other six, is 81/2 foot high and 5 foot wide with an eagle adorning the top. The names of the soldiers whose are honored with street signs are also engraved on this pillar. An American flag is flown behind that pillar.
And a World War II tank that marked the entrance to Fort Ripley in Little Falls for over 20 years was brought to Appleton and positioned in Civic Center Park in 1967 as a memorial to National Guard members who lost their lives in WWII and to honor all who served in a tank company.
“We really want people to remember these people,” said Running. “We have all these memorials for them. And we honor them each year with a big Memorial Day ceremony at the cemetery that draws a lot of people.”
Some of the most famous battles in history such as the Battle of the Bulge, the invasion of North Africa, Okinawa (Operation Iceberg) and D-Day, are forever linked to the streets of Appleton.
There are only a handful of streets in Appleton remaining that have the more traditional names.
“We’re hoping we won’t have to re-name anymore streets,” said Kashmark-Krebs.