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Medal a long time coming

Arnold Hjermstad of Cannon Falls shows a map detailing his travels through Europe in World War II. The 96-year-old veteran will receive his Legion of Merit medal Saturday May 16 after 70 years of bureaucratic roadblocks. (Republican Eagle photo by Michael Brun)

CANNON FALLS — In 1944 Arnold “Arnie” Hjermstad with the 36th Infantry Division was to be awarded the Legion of Merit for conduct in World War II. However, because of a records error at the end of the war, the medal was never delivered.

Hjermstad let the matter go, turning his attention to raising a family and owning the local Gamble store that would become Hjermstad Trustworthy Hardware.

But his three sons, Bob, Jim and Gary Hjermstad, refused to give up. Now, after decades of roadblocks and bureaucratic delays, they secured the recognition their father earned 71 years ago.

U.S. Rep. John Kline will present Hjermstad, 96, with the Legion of Merit at a ceremony May 16 — U.S. Armed Forces Day — at his home in Twin Rivers Senior Campus.

“When he came back from the war, he was a humble person. He wanted to get on with life,” Bob Hjermstad said of his father.

Piecing it together

Thankfully his parents saved everything from around that time, and the siblings were able to piece together Arnie’s service record.

He credits a letter from the late Sen. Paul Wellstone and the help of Chaz Johnson in Kline’s congressional office with getting the issue “kicked into high gear.”

Kline contacted the U.S. Army secretary about six months ago detailing the Hjermstads’ struggle. The family got notification within weeks that Arnie would be given the Legion of Merit and a number of other commendations.

The corrected medal count also includes a European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign medal with an arrowhead device, Silver Service Star and Bronze Service Star; World War II Victory medal; Army of Occupation medal with Germany clasp; and Meritorious Unit Commendation — all earned but never received.

“As a fellow veteran, I look forward to presenting Mr. Hjermstad with the Legion of Merit award he earned more than 70 years ago,” Kline said in a statement Thursday. “Mr. Hjermstad is a member of the ‘greatest generation’ who answered freedom’s call to ensure a safer world, and our nation owes him a debt of gratitude.”

The Legion of Merit recognizes Arnie’s creation of a mimeograph form that allowed soldiers to process letters for delivery back home when the Victory Mail microfilm system was unavailable.

Additionally, the French government sent notification that he will be awarded the Legion of Honor, the highest honor for a non-citizen.

The family was “unbelievably elated” upon hearing the news, Bob Hjermstad said.

“We’re just really happy for Dad.”

He said he only wished his mother, Virginia Hjermstad, lived to see her husband get the award. She died last September at age 96.

Distinguished service

Arnie and Virginia Hjermstad were married Nov. 9, 1941, in Zumbrota, less than a month before the attack on Pearl Harbor.

“Dad said, ‘Well, with all the trouble they’re having in Europe and this now, I might as well join the Army,’” Bob Hjermstad recounted.

Arnie ended up with the Texas National Guard as a quartermaster and bugle player. He delivered supplies in the campaign to route Gen. Erwin Rommel out of North Africa, joined the Allied invasion at Salerno, Italy, and took part in the Battle of Anzio.

After only a brief rest in Italy, he was sent to the invasion of southern France.

“He brags about that,” Bob Hjermstad said. “He’s had three D-Day invasions.”

“And the funny thing is he’s listed for his job description as a mail clerk,” he added.

Accidental liberator

The Hjermstad brothers heard their father’s war stories growing up, though nowadays the stories have a tendency to run together and aren’t as accurate as they were back then.

One of the highlights is about the time he accidentally liberated a French village in a commandeered German three-wheeled motorcycle.

While returning to the frontline with fresh orders, Arnie came to a fork in the road without knowing which way to go. He decided to go right down a hill when the chain came off his motorcycle, forcing him to coast into the square of a nearby town.

He could hear footsteps on the cobblestone streets, and was relieved to see it was French townsfolk approaching. As it turned out, the occupying Germans had just recently left, and Arnie was the first American in their wake.

The story goes that he returned to his unit with a motorcycle full of wine, bread and cheese.

Bob Hjermstad said they were never able to track down the name of the village, but he has no doubt the story is true.

“Dad’s not about to make a joke like that,” he said.

Michael Brun

Michael Brun joined RiverTown Multimedia at the Red Wing Republican Eagle in March 2013, covering county government, health and local events.  He is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-River Falls journalism program.

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