by Britt Aamodt
Dec. 7, 1941, is one of those dates, like 9/11, that grips America in collective remembrance.
That was a day when 8-year-old Orville Staffenhagen splayed before the radio set. It was a battery-operated set. The farm wouldn’t hook into the grid until the Rural Electrification initiative brought power to remote northern Minnesota town of Akeley in 1947.
It was that morning when Staffenhagen’s older brothers Wesley and Neal’s cruiser, the USS Oklahoma, sunk into Pearl Harbor.
Even today, 72 years on, Staffenhagen can’t talk about the event that triggered America’s entrance into World War II. One brother made it to shore. The other went down with his ship.
Staffenhagen and wife Delores have lived in Rogers since 1963. They met at Akeley High School.
“I was the new kid in school,” said Delores, whose family moved from North Dakota her junior year.
She first noticed the boy who would become her husband in study hall.
“I liked his shirts. He had pretty shirts and he used to roll the sleeves up one, two times. That’s what I remember,” she said.
Their first date was to a movie theater in Walker. Delores even remembers the date: April 14, 1952.
“My mother and dad fell in love with Delores right away,” said Staffenhagen.
But wedding bells wouldn’t ring until after Uncle Sam came calling. Just weeks after Staffenhagen’s mother died, at age 58, the young man boarded a Pullman car out of Minneapolis. It was 1954 and the train wound through the heartlands to St. Louis, Mo., and Fort Leonard Wood.
“They had segregation back then. I never heard of segregation. If you had a black friend, you couldn’t go the same places,” he said.
The shock was worse for an African-American recruit traveling with Staffenhagen who suddenly had to learn how to navigate a country that expected him to serve its military but drink from a separate water fountain.
Staffenhagen wasn’t thrilled about the draft. But the military was a way of life for his family. Of nine brothers, all but one served.
Westley and Neal, the two oldest, enlisted in the Navy when the United States was still a neutral party in the fight against Hitler.
Wesley’s work shift had just ended when the Japanese fighter pilots roared into the quiet harbor inlet. His brother Neal, a mechanic, was on post as the ship took its fatal blow.
The below-decks area quickly filled with water and Westley found himself trapped behind a half-open hatch. His crewmembers saved his life by helping him off with his uniform and oiling him down so he could slip through the hatch.
“When he got to the surface, the Japanese were strafing the lifeboats, cutting them all to heck,” Staffenhagen said. “The water was on fire with burning oil.”
Westley survived the Japanese bullets by submerging himself and coming up for quick gulps of air.
A month later, in the chaotic aftermath, he still didn’t know Neal’s fate. He wrote his mother: “I’m terribly worried. I haven’t seen or heard from him since the war started.”
Neal died at Pearl Harbor.
Staffenhagen’s time in the military followed a decade later when Cold War tensions iced up between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. By then, he and Delores had married, though his bride would have to remain stateside during his German tour.
He saw the vestiges of World War II, bombed out buildings and huge mounds where death camp victims were buried.
In 1956, Staffenhagen returned to Minnesota and civilian life. He took a job with a construction firm. One of his jobs was to lay the foundations for the overpasses spanning the newly built I-94, part of Eisenhower’s interstate plan inspired by the German autobahn system.
The couple’s house in Rogers sits just south of the highway that has gradually turned their quiet town into a bustling exurb.
Steffenhagen is the only brother now living. He inherited Neal’s Purple Heart.
Every year on Dec. 7 when America remembers Pearl Harbor, he remembers two young men whose destinies were forever altered by what then President Franklin D. Roosevelt immortalized as “a date which will live in infamy.”