Frank Goplen pulls a laminated identification card from his billfold on trips to the bank or "whenever the opportunity arises," he said with a chuckle from his Zumbrota home in southeastern Minnesota. Clerks typically squint at the photo ID and look befuddled — the card is written in German.
It's a shrunken copy of Goplen's 76-year-old Nazi-issued ID, given to him after he parachuted over Europe from a flak-blasted bomber and into captivity as a prisoner of war for the last nine months of World War II.
"They say we were the greatest generation," he said. "But we just did what had to be done."
A fourth-generation resident of the Zumbrota area, Goplen — who turns 97 on Wednesday — is among a dwindling number of WWII POWs still alive in Minnesota. He served as state commander of a prisoners' organization until that group disbanded a few years ago.
"There weren't enough of us left," he said. "And most were in wheelchairs."
Not Goplen. He's overcome heart attacks and regularly climbs on a treadmill and uses a stationary bike, dropping from 238 to 185 pounds. He weighed 180 pounds when he entered the Army in 1942, but a month after returning home from the POW camp and its paltry provisions he was at 127.
Goplen was co-piloting his 39th bombing mission on July 19, 1944, when three bursts of anti-aircraft fire damaged his B-24 bomber: "Two of our engines and the nose of the plane were hit over Berlin, so we couldn't make it over the Alps and we decided to try to make it to Switzerland."
But they ran out of gas, so they bailed out over Austria. Goplen parachuted into a small village, where a local militia member waited for him to come down. "I had no chance," he said.
Stalag Luft I near Barth, Germany, became his prison home until Russians liberated the camp in April 1945. All 10 members of the bomber crew survived and made it home to the United States after the war.
"There wasn't much food and it was lonesome, but having hope and faith was the key to getting through it," Goplen said.
"But now, I'm the only survivor left," he said.
During the peak of his isolation at Stalag Luft I, the world suddenly seemed smaller. Two other fighter pilots from the Zumbrota area — Clarence Stearns Jr. and Rolland Olson — also were shot down and captured, arriving at the prison camp after Goplen. At the time, Zumbrota's population stood around 1,400, roughly two-fifths of today's size, but the three had never met back at home. Now they found themselves together at the same German prison camp.
Stearns, an avid outdoorsman, headed to the Boundary Waters right after the war, Goplen said, and wound up in a cabin near Yellowstone National Park. He died in Wyoming six years ago, on Goplen's 91st birthday. Olson moved to Chicago after the war and went to work for a bus company; he died eight years ago this month.
Goplen earned a mechanical engineering degree at the University of Minnesota and worked at IBM in Rochester as well as General Motors, where he helped design Pontiac V-8 engines.
In 1946, he married Texas-born nurse Mary Brautigam. She'd actually met Goplen's older brother, Phillip, when he worked as an Army airplane mechanic at Kelly Field in San Antonio before the war. Phillip was transferred before Frank arrived at the same base for training.
"My brother told me to look after his girlfriend," Goplen said. "I did. I married her."
That marriage lasted 69 years until Mary died in 2016 at 91. They lived in Michigan, Florida and California before moving to Zumbrota in 1957, raising three daughters on Main Street in the town where Goplen was born. His daughter Mary, a nurse like her mother, helps him with meals during the pandemic; the other two daughters, Ann and Ruth, live in Utah and Missouri respectively. He has two grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
Through the years, Goplen's wife, Mary, knew just how to calm his postwar nightmares. "She'd wake up at night and say, 'It's OK, Frank. It's OK,' " he said.
A few years ago while Goplen was driving up Hwy. 52 near an oil refinery in Rosemount, a black cloud of smoke and the smell of petroleum "shocked" him.
"All of a sudden, I was back in a B-24 over Ploiesti," he said, referring to a 1942 Romanian refinery bombing.
Like so many of his WWII brethren, Goplen for years seldom talked about his service or confinement. About 25 years ago, he joined a half-dozen fellow veterans in Kasson, Minn., as they reminisced about the war while their wives eavesdropped from a nearby table.
"Most of them didn't know anything about what we'd been through until that day," he said. "We just never talked about it as a family."
He said he felt most comfortable breaking his silence with schoolchildren, "who ask such great questions."
"I just feel very fortunate," Goplen said — especially when someone asks to see a photo ID and he pulls out that laminated Nazi card.
Curt Brown's tales about Minnesota's history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org. His latest book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: strib.mn/MN1918.