Fort Snelling Memorial Day Service honors WWII vets ahead of 80th D-Day anniversary

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People gathered on a rainy Memorial Day on Monday at Fort Snelling National Cemetery where around 258,000 veterans and their family members are buried.
Cari Spencer | MPR News

A Memorial Day service at Fort Snelling National Cemetery paid extra tribute to World War II veterans Monday, as the 80th anniversary of D-Day approaches in June — and as the state continues to lose veterans who fought at that time. 

Several hundred gathered beneath the drizzly rain, including U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Gov. Tim Walz, who served in the Army National Guard for more than two decades. Walz referred to the Allied invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944, in which 2,501 Americans died. 

“Next week will mark, more than likely, one of the final times the world leaders will gather where there will be those who fought on those beaches present,” Walz said. “It becomes now more important than ever that we the living remember those sacrifices, remember those heroes. Our job is to [not just] remember the names, but to remember what they fought for.”

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"I always say it feels appropriate that it's raining on Memorial Day," said Gov. Tim Walz at the service on Monday. "I'm always reminded [veterans] were not always comfortable in the work that they did. But what they provided us was the comfort of their umbrella of safety and security."
Cari Spencer | MPR News

Patrick Kelly, director of VA Minneapolis Health Care System, took a moment to honor those who fought both on D-Day and in the ensuing Battle of Normandy — which concluded by the end of August 1944. The victory turned the tide against Nazi Germany. 

“We pause to honor the service members who took part in this historic campaign, paying tribute to their courage, sacrifice, and devotion to duty,” he said. “Many made the ultimate sacrifice and were buried alongside their fellow service members.”

Twelve soldiers who fought on D-Day are buried at Fort Snelling National Cemetery, Kelly said. 

As of 2023, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimated that less than one percent of World War II vets were still alive. At least one of them was in attendance: Minnesotan Ron Zabrok, who moved to Canada after the Korean War. Zabrok, a Navy vet, was honored for his service in World War II.

“We’re losing our World War II vets at a very high rate,” said Robert Selden, an Air Force vet who led the Memorial Day program. “If we have any World War II vets here, thank you for your service.”

Selden said just last week, a World War II veteran was buried at Fort Snelling National Cemetery. He was 102 years old. The Memorial Rifle Squad no longer has a veteran who served then.

Tom Mullon, a member of the squad which fired a three-round volley to close out the ceremony, said he remembers the generation of WWII vets as being particularly bonded in “looking out for their fellow service person.”

Mullon, 86, was a former Army medic and once the director of the Veterans Affairs hospital in Minneapolis. He said he was “a little youngster” during WWII, but each of his relatives and friends knew someone who served in the war. 

“Many of them are no longer with us and are buried out here at the cemetery,” he said. “But I feel a great honor to have the ability to know them, to have grown up with them, to have seen them come back from World War II and to be now, unfortunately, buried out here. We miss them immensely.”

The program also honored those who fought but were never found. Lisa Anderson, the deputy comptroller for Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, said 81,000 World War II veterans remain unaccounted for.

“For many families, the wounds of loss and uncertainty remain raw. Across the globe, there are graves marked as unknown and loved ones left waiting for answers,” she said.

Anderson said a 25-member team is currently in Normandy, searching for three missing airmen whose aircraft was presumably shot down on D-Day. But she had a success story, celebrating the identification via DNA of Pvt. Robert W. Cash.

Cash, a graduate of Washburn High School, enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Forces in 1941. He was captured in the American surrender of the Bataan Peninsula, forced on the 65-mile Death March, and eventually imprisoned at the notorious Cabanatuan camp in the Philippines. He was first buried in a grave that bore just a number. Cash’s DNA was identified in April.

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Attendees at the Fort Snelling National Cemetery Memorial Day service on Monday spanned multiple generations.
Cari Spencer | MPR News

“I hold firm in my belief that by next Memorial Day, we’ll witness a reduction in the number of unknown grave markers and an increase in the number of families finding answers that they still rightfully deserve,” Anderson said.

As a line of colorful umbrellas filed out of the cemetery, with many visitors stopping to place flowers at white grave markers, one family lingered a bit longer. 

“We came out today to support and remember all of our fallen soldiers and those who served in the military,” said Brock Staley, whose father and brother are both veterans. 

Staley said he was raised hearing stories about his late grandfather, who served in World War II. Monday morning, he brought his three kids — two 8 year olds and one 11 year old — to hear the stories shared at Fort Snelling, too. 

“It’s important to do that for respect,” he said. “I don’t know if they get enough credit.”

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