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Honoring a father she never met

Phyllis Johnson never met her father. Less than three months before she was born in 1945, Army Staff Sergeant Walter O. Brunko was killed while fighting for his country in France during World War II. The soldier from the Fair Haven-Kimball area of Central Minnesota was 23 years old. But Johnson has come to know and love him in the nearly seven decades since then through stories told by family and friends, a photo album he left behind and a recording and a stack of letters he sent home. Americans will honor him and countless others who have paid the ultimate price for freedom during Memorial Day ceremonies across Minnesota and the nation on Monday, May 28. Brunko (pronounced Bronco) lies beneath a white stone cross in the Lorraine American Cemetery at St. Avold in northeastern France alongside 10,488 other fallen heroes. He’s one of 405,399 U.S. citizens who gave their lives in World War II alone. Brunko died Sunday, Nov. 26, 1944, of wounds received as his unit, Company G of the 378th Infantry Regiment, 95th Infantry Division, and other U.S. forces pushed the German army out of France and back into Germany. Johnson, now a 67-year-old mother of two and grandmother of five who lives in Roseville, north of St. Paul, calls herself a “honeymoon baby.” Brunko and her mother, Olinda Muehring, were farm kids who met at Concordia Lutheran Church in Fair Haven, where they were in the same confirmation class, she said. Later, they were married there on May 4, 1944, while he was on leave from the army, then honeymooned in Pennsylvania, where he was stationed at the time. Not long after, he shipped out and was killed in action less than seven months after the wedding. His daughter entered the world on Feb. 9, 1945. “I never met him,” she said, “and he never saw me.” Johnson recalled a childhood phase when she was angry about that. “I went through a period of time when I was mad that I didn’t get to know him,” she said. “I blamed God for taking him.” But then she started hearing what a good person he was from people who had known him, and she began to recognize how much she resembles him. According to everything she’s heard about him, he was fun-loving, happy and “very caring.” “They just said that he was friends to everybody,” Johnson said. “He liked people and people liked him because he had a great personality.” And on top of that, he had dimples that appeared on each cheek when he smiled. Besides having her father’s dimples and blue eyes, Johnson said she developed many of his mannerisms without ever having set eyes on him. Though she disliked the habit, she had a natural tendency to stand with her hands on her hips. “That’s one of the things he did,” she said. Like him, she also has a way of arching one eye- brow and likes to play pranks to make people laugh. Ultimately she concluded she didn’t need to have actually known her father because she’s so much like him. “I just think that I’m an extension of him.” Brunko was born Jan. 1, 1921, on a farm east of Carnelian Lake just north of Kimball and Fair Haven in Stearns County. The last of Henry and Mary Brunko’s 12 children, he stood about 5 feet, 7 inches tall and had a slender build. Known as Walt, Brunko attended “country school” but not high school, Johnson said, and worked on the farm. Harlan Muehring, now 90 and living in Tempe, Ariz., was a close friend of Brunko back then, and when Brunko married his sister he served as his best man. “He was a very interested and bubbly person,” Muehring said, recalling that they used to hunt pheasants together. “He was a good shot.” They also played softball together for a few years on a Fair Haven team, Brunko at shortstop and Muehring at second base. Bunko drove around in a 1930  Model A Ford with a rumble seat, and Muehring’s cousin Elmer Meyer, who died last year, had a   similar car minus the rumble seat. The three paled around together, he said, and formed a trio. Dressed in blue satin shirts and black cowboy hats, Brunko played guitar and the other two sang western songs at Parent-Teacher Association and other school events. “We weren’t professionals in any way, shape or manner,” Muehring said, “just three guys who liked to sing.” He allowed that Brunko was “a pretty good guitarist.” “Walt serenaded Linda with some songs,” he said, and an old one that went “I am thinking fondly of your brown eyes” was one of his favorite tunes to sing to her. Johnson said her father volunteered and was sent to Camp Swift in Texas in August 1942. “I heard that he was really excited to go and fight for his country. He felt like that was his duty and he felt proud to be (in the army).” Brunko compiled an album of black and white snapshots he took while in the army that Johnson keeps in a clear plastic bin with other memorabilia her mother saved. The album includes a number of carnival gag shots depicting Brunko and friends as babies, dressed in cowboy outfits and peering out from a jail cell. He enjoyed being on leave, she said, “and he did fun things.” After he was shipped overseas, Brunko sent a record home to his wife, and she played it for her daughter, who was about 12 years old at the time. “So I’ve heard his voice. I’ve heard him talk to her. “He said, ‘Don’t worry. I’ll be home soon.’” The record made her mother cry. Johnson has a copy of the recording. Brunko also wrote a number of letters to his sister Esther back on the family farm that Johnson keeps in the bin. In one sent from England he complained about British beer, while in another he confided that “Jr. is on his way.” In a letter from France two months before his death, he wrote that if the baby turned out to be a girl she would be named Phyllis. “That will be a happy day,” he wrote of the baby’s birth. “I sure wish I could be home then. … Guess I’m missing quite a little by not being home. But someday I’ll get back again. And then things will be so much better. I’ve so much to look forward to.” But instead of returning home, Brunko died on the last Sunday of November, a few days after he and other American soldiers in Europe had stopped fighting long enough to have Thanksgiving dinner. Officials provided the family with few details about Brunko’s death, but Johnson said an army buddy who was there later told her mother that the footsoldier died in a mobile field hospital after being wounded in an explosion. More than 60 years later, an army document obtained by Tony Renken of Montrose, a great nephew of the soldier, through a Freedom of Information Act request confirmed the death cause was “concussion” and revealed that he died at Momerstroff, France. According to “HyperWar: US Army in WWII,” Momerstroff is one of the villages the 95th Infantry had taken from the enemy on Nov. 25 as it drove toward the Sarre River on the border between France and Germany. Concordia Lutheran pastor John Beck, who had married the couple months before, delivered the news of Walter’s death to Linda Brunko and members of her family at the Muehring farm just north of Fair Haven, Harlan Muehring said. She broke into tears, and the rest cried with her, he said. “He was a good friend to a lot of people.” The news was “very devastating to all of us,” Muehring said, “because we knew him well.” For his sacrifice Brunko was awarded the Purple Heart and the Silver Star, the United States’ third-highest military decoration for valor in the face of the enemy. Johnson keeps the medals in a blue leather case in her plastic bin along with a belt, tie, cigarette case, wallet and New Testament returned by the army. Her father is a hero, she said, because he died for his country and “because I know that he cared so much about it. He was proud to be a serviceman.” But it saddens her that he died so young. She realized when she turned 45 that she had lived twice as long as him. “He didn’t get to see my kids. He didn’t get to see the grandkids that I had.” Her mother remarried in 1950, and when her second husband died 40 years later, she began receiving Brunko’s army pension again. “She really got closer again to my dad in her heart because she felt he was supporting her again,” Johnson said. Her mother used some of the money to buy a pendant with three diamonds signifying past, present and future. “When you get it,” she told her daughter, “it’ll be from your dad.” Linda Brunko died in October 2006 at age 86. “I got this overwhelming feeling,” Johnson recalled. “I could see them up in heaven together.”

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