WANDA, MINN. – There’s not much left in this Minnesota farm town between New Ulm and Marshall, 130 miles southwest of Minneapolis.
The Farmers Cooperative grain elevator where Herbert Brand worked for 18 years stands abandoned. The American Legion Post 385 dance hall, where Brand served as commander while his wife, Faye, served drinks at weekly dances, now sits cold and dark on Main Street.
The population has plummeted to 80, less than half its peak of 191 in 1940, the year Herb and his older brother, Nicholas, enlisted in the Navy in their mid-20s. Back then, Wanda boasted two grocery stores, two bars, two churches, a farm implement business and hardware store. Most of that buzz has since fallen silent.
But Wanda remains home to one of the more miraculous stories — and souvenirs — of the Pearl Harbor attack 77 years ago this week that pulled the United States into World War II.
There’s an oil-stained $10 bill inside a display case, amid medals from his Navy days, at the home Herb Brand built for his family in 1952 on the corner of Main and Elm streets in Wanda. Brand carried that $10 bill in his billfold up until he died at 91 in 2007. Brand’s 10th and youngest child, Chuck, lives in the house today with his wife, Terry.
They’re caretakers of that $10 bill on which Brand wrote, “REMEMBER PEARL HARBOR DEC. 7, 1941” around the image of Alexander Hamilton. The bill’s blackened color came from the oil-slicked, flaming water in Pearl Harbor that day.
Herbert and Nicholas Brand were both crew members on the warship U.S.S. California in Pearl Harbor. Nine days after the attack, a telegram arrived from the War Department notifying the family their boys had died.
“Whereas, this community is grief stricken over the loss of two of its valiant and most respected young men while in the service of our country,” Wanda Mayor Paul Spalding said, beginning a proclamation that declared a two-hour “recess in business activity” for a joint memorial service at St. Mathias Catholic Church on Dec. 23, 1941.
Among the 2,400 killed in Pearl Harbor, records show about 100 sailors died and another 60 or so were wounded when two Japanese torpedoes struck the California — igniting an ammunition magazine below deck before the warship settled in the harbor mud.
In the chaos, Herb and Nick Brand were left for dead and eulogized at a requiem mass at St. Mathias.
“Details of their reported deaths were scant,” the local newspaper reported, “but immediately the entire Wanda community as well as the county mourned them.”
After all, they were the first from the area reported killed in action. Except, they weren’t dead.
Nick suffered facial burns and was hospitalized briefly. Herb was knocked out for a moment but unharmed. It took Herb a week to learn his older brother survived and another week before they were reunited. By then, another telegram arrived at the Brand farm 4 miles northeast of Wanda, saying the boys were OK.
Hearing their sons were killed, only to learn later they were alive, took a toll on Michael and Margaret Brand. “It put a lot of years on Ma and Pa,” Herb told the Lamberton News on the 50th anniversary of the attacks in 1991.
He told the newspaper he was dressed only in shorts and Oxford shoes, waiting to take a shower before church services on the California just before 8 a.m. on Dec. 7, 1941. He had a pail of fresh water to rinse the ship’s salty shower water. “Then all hell broke loose,” he said. A gunner’s mate, he scrambled to fire anti-aircraft guns. “Don’t know if we hit anything, though.”
The crew formed a bucket brigade in hopes of extinguishing fires on the California’s deck before being ordered to abandon ship. Flailing his arms to fight off burning oil, Herb surfaced three times in Pearl Harbor before finding a clear area.
For the next week, he joined the crew — sometimes wading neck deep into the sunken ship to extract bodies of fellow seamen.
“I always had it in the back of my mind that the ship could still blow at any time,” Herb said. “I had no idea of where my brother, Nick, was. Maybe I kept looking, reasoning that Nick might be down there.”
A diver recovered the $10 bill from his submerged locker — a reminder that “The Good Lord was with me,” Herb said.
He stayed in the Navy for nearly 20 years before returning to Wanda to work at the grain elevator and serve once as the town’s acting mayor and on its City Council. Nick wound up in Hopkins, working construction. “He never much talked about Pearl Harbor — he shut it out,” said Herb’s oldest son, Michael, who lives in Fargo, N.D. His second son, Joe, is a retired Army colonel in Sarasota, Fla.
“These men who lived through the horrors of World War II came home, hunkered down and got on with life,” Joe said. “He was glad to be alive but kept it inside, which probably wasn’t the healthiest thing to do. The only time we heard him talking about it was with other Navy men in hushed tones late at night.”
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org. His new book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: https://tinyurl.com/MN1918. Podcasts at www.onminnesotahistory.com.