Honoring a Minnesota hero who died at Normandy

  • Article by: ANNA PRATT , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 24, 2013 - 3:29 PM

The high school student and her former teacher paid tribute to a Minnesota soldier who died during the famous invasion.


During the visit to Normandy, Ron Hustvedt and Matti Martin went to the town of Périers where Virgil Tangborn has been immortalized in a statute. Tangborn, who was a musician in the 90th Infantry Band, was drawn into the fighting as a medic. He is the figure at left.

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Matti Martin, a senior at Blaine High School, thought long and hard about her eulogy for Virgil Tangborn, a Minnesota soldier who is buried at the Normandy American Cemetery in France.

Martin had never met Tangborn, who died while trying to rescue a fellow soldier in a blast during the invasion of Normandy in World War II. But she’d gotten to know him through her research, and she felt that he was a kindred spirit.

She and her middle school history teacher, Ron Hustvedt (a.k.a. Mr. H.), learned of Tangborn after they embarked on a National History Day project earlier this year through the Washington, D.C.-based Albert H. Small Normandy Institute. As a part of the program, which had a competitive application process, they traveled to Washington and to Normandy in mid-June.

Along the way, Martin and Hustvedt documented their experiences, as required, with a website they put together titled, “A true hero, PFC Virgil John Tangborn.” But they didn’t stop there: They recently launched a similar website dedicated to the 241 Minnesotans buried at the Normandy cemetery. On this site are snapshots the pair took of each soldier’s gravesite. Visitors to the website can contribute to each soldier’s page, Hustvedt said.

The idea is to “bring stories to the millennial generation,” Martin said, “so it will be out there, to make sure that someone remembers.”

They’ve gotten some attention for their efforts, giving speeches at a Fourth of July event in Elk River and to various local veteran groups, she said.

Getting to know Tangborn

During the two-week trip, the pair, along with 14 other student-teacher teams from around the country, immersed themselves in D-Day history, Hustvedt said.

In Washington, they visited the National World War II monument and the National Museum of American History. Their itinerary also included lectures by historians and hands-on research at the National Archives and Records Administration.

The following week they went to Normandy, making a special stop one day in the town of Périers, where Tangborn has been immortalized in a commemorative statue.

Preparation began months beforehand, as they soaked in all kinds of readings, Hustvedt said. A key assignment was to study the life of one soldier from their home state, he said.

They were fortunate to track down Tangborn’s younger brother, Wendell Tangborn, who is in his 80s. Besides giving colorful anecdotes about his brother, Wendell, who lives in Vashon, Wash., also supplied Virgil’s diary entries, letters and photos.

Reading through these materials, Martin found she had a lot in common with Tangborn, who hailed from the small town of Nary, Minn. He was an avid reader, and she said she wished she could call him and discuss the books that he’d scribbled about in his diary.

A classical music lover, he used to listen regularly to opera on the radio on Saturdays. Wendell knew to keep quiet during those broadcasts, Martin said. Tangborn also played in the town’s band. Despite his modest means, he dreamed of a career in film, she said.

He writes in his diary about how people should make themselves “a tool for the progression of mankind,” she said.

‘Empathy on a new level’

After he was drafted into the army in 1942, Tangborn, a French horn player, made it into the 90th Infantry Band, which was part of the 359th Division. Later, in the face of mounting casualties, the musicians had to take on other roles. Tangborn, who’d been trained as a medic, was helping the wounded when he died on June 14, 1944, at age 24.

He was awarded a Purple Heart and the Silver Star Medal posthumously.

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  • Matti Martin at the Normandy American Cemetery. She and one of her teachers visited the historic site as part of a Washington-based program.

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