Alf R. Larson's World War II story was nearly never told. For 55 years, he hid the horrors he experienced during the Bataan Death March and 41 months as a POW.
Finally, after a friend's persistent urging, he broke his silence, sharing his story in the pages of this newspaper, the chapters of a book and the classroom of any kid who invited him to come.
Larson's late-in-life recounting illuminated for many Minnesotans one of World War II's most infamous incidents and spotlighted the sacrifices of his generation. On Jan. 30, Larson, 93, died of congestive heart failure.
"He buried it so deep in his mind," said Rick Peterson, the man who pulled the story from Larson, transcribed their conversations and posted them online. "He told me once, 'Now that I've done it, I feel like a ton of weight has been lifted off my shoulders.' He had a few years of peace.
"And that's why I did it. I did it for him, to thank him for what he did."
Larson was born in Sweden in 1918, grew up in Duluth and lived most of his life in Crystal.
In 1945, not long after he returned home to Duluth from the war, Larson's parents "insisted" that he join them for dinner with two friends and their daughter, Jane. He walked in to find the woman who would become his wife stirring gravy on the stove. Still emaciated from the war, Larson found the combination of the fragrant food and a lovely lady intoxicating, said his daughter, Linda Judge, also of Crystal.
"The joke is, she was only stirring the gravy" that her mother had made, Judge said, laughing. "My mom was not the greatest cook."
Alf and Jane married and raised a son and two daughters. He re-enlisted in 1948, this time in the Air Force as a flight engineer. After his discharge six years later, the family moved to Crystal, where Larson spent the rest of his life. He worked long hours as an electrical engineer and eventually owned a small consulting company. Jane took care of the books.
Larson got his pilot's license, learned to scuba dive and, later in life, became engrossed in astronomy. He volunteered, hosting visitors at the American Swedish Institute, helping process pensions at the VA and handling tarantulas at the Minnesota Zoo.
It was at the zoo that Larson met Peterson. "They had only a nodding acquaintance until a zoo publication ran an article in 1994 about Larson's life, mentioning his time as a prisoner of war," a 2000 Star Tribune article said.
Over many months, Peterson patiently encouraged Larson to share his story, most of which even his wife did not know. "I had a hard time telling about this," Larson was quoted as saying. "It brought back a lot of memories. Some I didn't mind. Some were traumatic. I'll tell the truth. My voice actually broke a couple times."
Staff Sgt. Larson, assigned to the Army Air Forces, was one of 7,500 American servicemen captured by the Japanese in the Philippine Islands in April 1942. They were marched more than 70 miles under barbaric conditions.
"Men went stark raving mad," Larson told Peterson. "If people would fall down and couldn't go any further, the Japanese would either bayonet or shoot them."
Larson carried in the crotch of his drawers a copy of the New Testament and Psalms. Each day in the camps, where he was more than once confined for days in a tin shack, he would steal glances at it.
"My favorite Psalm was, and still is, Psalm 23," he wrote in a letter he read at church. "When food was scarce, which was all the time, I would think of Psalm 23, 'You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.'"
In 2003, after hearing Larson's story, Gov. Tim Pawlenty invited him to attend his State of the State address, in which he thanked Larson for his service. Larson said he was "pleased and excited about the 'doings' at the Capitol," but had one reservation: "Just so he doesn't call me a hero. I'm not a hero. I was just doing my job."
Pawlenty's wife, Mary, said of Larson: "After facing unimaginably horrific challenges, he emerged with his head and heart fully intact, his faith in God unshaken. ... Courage and kindness were knit together in his soul."
In addition to Judge, Larson's survivors include a son, Alf R. Larson Jr. of Mason City, Iowa; another daughter, Laura Johnson of Brooklyn Park, five grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
Services will be held at 11 a.m. Monday at St. James Lutheran Church, 6700 46th Place N., Crystal. Larson will be buried at Fort Snelling National Cemetery beside his wife, who died in 2003.
Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168