Gertrud Jannson arrived in Minneapolis from Sweden in 1913 to live with her grieving aunt, who had lost her sister in a fire. Gertrud was 16 and training to become a teacher when her family tapped her to make the trek to America.
Claus Johnson came over a year later, just as he turned 20, and began a long career as a streetcar conductor. He met Gertrude, who had added an “e” to her name, at a dance at the Good Templars Hall. They married and settled in the Seven Corners area of Minneapolis but never became U.S. citizens — figuring, wrongly, that they’d soon return to Sweden.
But the Johnsons did contribute to America. They raised eight boys — six of whom served in World War II and a seventh who fixed B-52 bombers as a mechanic in the Korean War.
“I was the lucky one,” said Dennis Johnson, 81, of Bloomington, the youngest of the brothers. “I went in for my draft physical and the doctor checked my arthritis and said, ‘You’re out of here,’ which was a good thing.”
Dennis’ only living brother, Jim, is 95 and in failing health at the Minneapolis veterans’ home. So Dennis is the last Johnson left to tell the story of his seven military brothers, all of whom came home from battle. Only Burton was wounded, a shrapnel injury he learned to live with.
To be sure, the brothers set no record for most siblings serving during World War II. Though draft boards tended to excuse men if all of a family’s sons were serving, many Minnesota families sent their own personal battalions into battle.
When the eight Valentini brothers from Chisholm were profiled in this column three years ago, readers promptly told me about the nine Thompson brothers who went from Carlton County to World War II.
Then there were the 10 Stanek children from Austin, Minn. Six sons served in WWII and a seventh was a mechanic in Korea. Three Stanek daughters chipped in — one as Gen. Dwight Eisenhower’s secretary, one in the State Department and one in the naval reserves. Even the Staneks’ black lab mix, King Wags, joined the Army’s K-9 corps.
The Johnsons, while not record-setters, are well worth remembering too:
• The eldest, John Arnold, would be 100 this year. Known as Arnie, he was a U.S. Army Air Force gunner who was shot down over New Guinea. He parachuted safely to find indigenous islanders who protected U.S. and English crews — even though that meant eating goat brains.
After the war, Arnie launched a stone masonry business in Minneapolis, often hiring his brothers. He died in 1989.
• Brother No. 2, Gustav Robert (Bob), was among the first B-24 bomber pilots. On the last day of 1943, armed with a deodorized skunk mascot, he ferried his Liberator bomber from the U.S. to South America to Africa and eventually his base in England.
Unlike his brothers, who remained around Minneapolis, Bob moved to Brainerd and ran a bait shop and liquor store on East Gull Lake. He died in 1990, less than 10 months after Arnie.
• Third son Arthur was studying mortuary science when the Navy called, turning him into a medic attached to the Marines. He later studied accounting at Columbia University in New York and handled the finances for guitarist Jimi Hendrix in the late 1960s, according to Dennis. He died on his 89th birthday in 2010.
• Jim, the fourth son, was the only one who remained stateside during WWII; he worked on bombers in Colorado. Dennis said the family learned one day in a newspaper that he had died in a training accident.
“My mother didn’t believe it; she said, ‘Surely they’d tell us before the newspaper,’ ” Dennis recalled. “Pretty soon [Jim] called from Colorado and said, ‘I hear I’m dead up there in Minnesota.’ ” He’s still alive at 95.
• The only brother to be wounded in the service was No. 5 son Burton. A mortar sighter on Okinawa, Burton took shrapnel near his heart. But he lived with it. After the war, he returned to Minneapolis and worked as a bricklayer. He died last summer at 91.
• Brother No. 6, Charles, lied about his age to join the Navy at 16. He later worked as a janitor at Washburn High School in Minneapolis and ran a concession stand at the State Fair Coliseum.
Dennis said he, too, worked a side job at the fair, running a corn dog stand for nearly 50 years. He spent 35 years as an assistant director in the University of Minnesota’s media division.
• Brother No. 7, Claus Richard, served as an Air Force mechanic during the Korean conflict, after which he joined Arnie’s bricklaying business.
“I was raised by my seven brothers more than my parents,” Dennis said. “They kept me in line.”
And the male gene — so dominant that Claus and Gertrude produced only boys — has weakened. Though Dennis and his wife of 57 years, Kathryn, had no children, they have eight nieces along with five nephews.
“Six brothers went to World War II and they all came back,” Dennis said. “I’d say that’s a story.”
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: tinyurl.com/MN1918.