written by Todd DePastino

A Veteran’s Tour showing Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota with a bridge over the river

Ten miles southeast of downtown Minneapolis and across a busy highway from the International Airport is Historic Fort Snelling, birthplace of modern Minnesota.

The Dakota tribe called the site Bdóte, “the place where two rivers meet,” and it was their home from time immemorial until their forced exile after the Dakota War of 1862.

The history is wrenching and is captured in vivid detail at Historic Fort Snelling’s Plank Museum & Visitor Center, housed in an old US Army cavalry barracks.

I visited the museum with Professor James Kimble of Seton Hall University and aviation and Eighth Air Force expert Mark Copeland, a Twin Cities native who spent two days giving James and me a silver dollar tour of the region.

At there Plank Museum, Minnesota Historical Society guide (and Army National Guard captain) Chris Belland whisked us through the exhibit space, which, in telling the story of Fort Snelling, also shares a rich and broad swath of American history writ large.

The US Army founded modern-day Minneapolis-St. Paul right on this site at the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers. Specifically, it was Lieutenant Zebulon Pike, Jr., who first arrived in the region in 1805 and coerced a fraudulent transfer of the territory from the Dakota.

Pike was searching for the source of the Mississippi River. He never found it. Instead, he focused his efforts on securing this strategic spit of land for an outpost.

At the time of Pike’s expedition, this spot was on the westernmost fringe of the mapped United States, in a place referred to as “Indiana Territory,” where Europeans had rarely ventured. From here, the nation would project itself West into the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase and beyond.

The fort would play a key role also in the sectional divide between North and South. Fort Snelling’s surgeon, Dr. John Emerson, had brought an enslaved man with him to Minnesota in 1836. Dred Scott would later sue for freedom on the basis of his residence in this free soil territory. The Supreme Court’s infamous decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford in 1857 condemned Dred Scott to perpetual servitude, denied all African Americans citizenship, declared slavery legal everywhere, and shoved the nation deeper into crisis.

During World War II, Fort Snelling served as not only an induction center for recruits but also as home of the Military Intelligence Service Language School, where Japanese Americans–many of them Nisei barred from their homes on the West Coast–were trained for service in the Pacific.

Today, Fort Snelling is a sprawling campus administered by the National Park Service, the Minnesota Historical Society, and other park and recreation agencies. Several hundred acres of it is run by the US Department of Veterans Affairs as the Fort Snelling National Cemetery.

The fort is the first stop of any veteran’s tour of the Twin Cities, but a close second is the Minnesota State Capitol Mall, an 18-acre green space serving as an immense front yard for the Beaux-Arts designed Minnesota State Capitol.

Two dozen monuments and memorials dot the yard, each commemorating a former state official (such as Hubert Humphrey), a famous native son (including Charles Lindbergh and Roy Wilkins), or other historic luminary (Leif Erikson and Christopher Columbus).

Several memorials are devoted to veterans and military families: the Gold Star Table, the Medal of Honor Memorial, the World War II Veterans Memorial, the Korean War Veterans Memorial, and the Vietnam War Veterans Memorial.

Three unusual monuments caught my eye.

The creation of the Minnesota Memorial to The Special Forces in Laos was driven by the children who survived the “Secret War” in Laos from 1961 to 1975, and completed by the Hmong and Lao Veterans Statue Committee. The Memorial is built to commemorate the Hmong, Lao and other combat veterans and their American advisors, trainers, volunteers and forgotten heroes who served and fought to maintain peace and freedom in Southeast Asia. Sculptor: Marjorie Pitz; Site Design: Kathryn Ryan and Greg Brown, AECOM; dedicated on June 11, 2016. (https://mn.gov/caapb/capitol-area/memorials-monuments/)

The first is the Special Forces in Laos Memorial, a 10-foot high bronze cone shaped like a sprouting bamboo shoot. It’s the only memorial I know of dedicated to the so-called “Secret War” in Laos, adjacent to Vietnam, from 1961 and 1975. Laos was neutral during the Vietnam war, but North Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh Trail traversed it to funnel supplies to the Viet Cong insurgency in South Vietnam. In response, the CIA recruited so-called “Montagnards”–ethnic minorities living in the mountains–to carry on covert war against Vietnamese Communists. The largest number of these allied minorities were the Hmong. Hmong guerrillas fought a fierce war in the mountains of Laos. After the Fall of Saigon in 1975, tens of thousands of Hmong fled their home country. Many of them made it to the United States, and over 60,000 Hmong live in Minnesota today.

The statue stands 12-feet high. It consists of 1,500 steel pieces hammered and welded together. The statue depicts a returning Minnesota soldier dressed in full combat gear. He represents all the living Veterans who came home from war to help other Veterans preserve the memory of their fallen comrades. His outstretched arms ask the viewer for recognition and acceptance. The statue was paid for by funds raised by the Veterans of Foreign Wars chapters throughout the state, as well as a little assistance from the American Legion. No state funds were used. The design was the work of a whole committee of people. Sculptor Roger Brodin was a Vietnam Veteran and struggled with PTSD. Creating the statue was a way for him to deal with that. The statue traveled around the state until finally being placed on the Capitol grounds. (VBC)

Another one-of-a-kind memorial is the “The Monument to the Living” devoted to Vietnam Veterans. It’s very much a sculpture of its time, dedicated in 1982 and designed by Rodger M. Brodin. The 12-foot tall green hammered steel figure stands square, arms at its side, palms facing out, head turned slightly left.

It’s as if the sculptured soldier were saying, “Hello . . . I’m back . . . did you miss me?”

Looking down at the inscription, I see the quotation is more direct and challenging: “Why Do You Forget Us?”

Keep in mind that when this statue was erected, few had ever heard of PTSD, readjustment counseling was new, and the National Vietnam War Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC,–“The Wall”–had yet to be dedicated. In other words, our national reckoning with Vietnam was just beginning.

Another unique monument is really an artifact: the number-three deck gun from the USS Ward (DD-139). This was the canon that fired the first US shot of World War II.

I couldn’t resist hamming it up on a naval 4 /50 gun that was mounted atop the USS Ward’s midships deckhouse, on the starboard side. On December 7, 1941, the gun was manned by St. Paul reservists on the U.S.S. Ward. A Japanese Midget Submarine was fired upon and subsequently sank. This was the first shot by Americans at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, hours before the attack on Hawaii. The gun displayed is the actual gun and not a replica. (VBC)

On December 7, 1941, the Ward was patrolling at the entrance to Pearl Harbor when she caught sight of a periscope tracking a US cargo ship. The gun, manned by Minnesota Naval Reservists, fired shots at what turned out to be a Japanese Ko-hyoteki-class, two-man midget submarine.

No one on board the Ward could tell if they hit the submarine. Only in 2002, during a search for wreckage, did divers find the mini-sub with a tell-tale shell hole in the starboard side of the conning tower. The shell hole was made by the Wards number-three gun, the very one on display in St. Paul. The two Japanese submariners interred in the wreckage were the first US-caused casualties of World War II. 

Mark drove us three miles northwest of the State Capitol, to Lake Como, to see another nautical artifact serving as a memorial. It’s a 20-foot World War II vintage torpedo above a plaque dedicated to the crew of the USS Swordfish (SS-193), the first submarine to sink a Japanese ship. The Swordfish itself disappeared in early 1945 en route to conduct operations off Okinawa. The crew was never heard from again.

Mark shared the scuttlebutt that submarine torpedos were tested on Lake Como during the war, and that may be the connection to the Swordfish memorial.

The torpedo itself is probably a Mark 14, a model that gave the US Navy much trouble for its inaccuracy and failure to explode during the first part of World War II. The whole story of the Mark 14 is a cautionary tale of how ego defenses and bureaucratic inertia can condemn any organization to a path of failure.

USS Swordfish monument of torpedo with two benches in front of it

USS Swordfish monument at Como Park, St Paul, Minnesota.

The final stop on our history tour of Minneapolis-St. Paul was the breathtaking Minnesota History Center near downtown St. Paul. The History Center is a museum and library that serves as the headquarters of the Minnesota Historical Society. Opened in 1992, the building is grand and skillfully combines classical and modern elements that complement the nearby State Capitol and St. Paul’s Cathedral.

Exterior of the Minnesota History Center, part of the Veteran's tour in St. Paul

Exterior of the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul (Cliff, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

Jim Kimble and I were there to give our presentations to the Dr. Harold C. Deutsch World War II History Round Table, but we had plenty of time to kill, so we toured a well-conceived and executed exhibit called “Minnesota’s Greatest Generation: The Depression, The War, The Boom.” It’s the only museum exhibit I know of dedicated to a generation, rather than to a region, event, or era.

The exhibit space is huge, 6,000 square feet, with plenty of artifacts and interactive displays. The museum was closed to the public when we arrived, but Chris Belland let us in and showed us around.

From a soda fountain and movie marquee to a M8 Greyhound light armored car and C-47 fuselage, the exhibit’s displays draw your attention at every turn.

Graco Convoy Luber in the Greatest Generation exhibit at the Minnesota Historical Society. This was used in 1944. For its outstanding production record, Graco was even awarded the Army-Navy “E” award for excellence. And after the war, the luber was re-purposed for use in the rapidly expanding fields of highway construction and maintenance. (VBC)

One item that caught my eye was something called the “Graco Convoy Luber.” Built by the Gray Company of Minneapolis, it was an all-in-one repair and maintenance trailer that included everything necessary for field-lubricating military vehicles. The luber kept trucks, jeeps, tanks and aircraft operarating in both Europe and the Pacific during the war.

There was much more to see, of course, but soon it was show time. Jim and I made our way to the theater -style 3M Auditorium to give our talks and meet the WWII history enthusiasts who have made the Minnesota Round Table such a staple of education and community for 37 years.

Professor James Kimble of Seton Hall University gives a superb lecture on Selling the War: Propaganda in World War II on March 12, 2024. (VBC)

I look forward to a return trip to the Twin Cities. I enjoyed it so much, this Pittsburgher might start cheering for the Vikings.