Memorial Day may mark the official start of summer in the lakes area, but the federal holiday has a much deeper meaning for military servicemen, veterans, and their families: It's a day to honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice, giving their lives in service of their country.
"One of the main things we're gathered here today for is to celebrate the peace that we enjoy," said Larry Berguson, a World War II veteran who served as a medic on the Western Front in Europe, as he addressed a standing-room-only crowd at the Detroit Lakes Pavilion on Monday morning.
"Sometimes we just take it for granted, don't we?" he mused. "It was a costly thing. And that's what we're here for today. To recognize, to think about the lives of those that were lost to provide the security and freedom that we enjoy today."
Berguson, after stating that he was born in Anoka, Minn., on Aug. 18, 1924, joked, "You can tell from that, I'm not a spring chicken anymore."
During his 94 years of life, Berguson has been a World War II medic, a pastor, special education teacher, and for 33 years, was a fifth grade teacher at Rossman Elementary School here in Detroit Lakes.
At Monday's presentation, he talked about how he he was drafted into the military fresh out of high school, and sent to basic training at Camp Barkley, Texas.
"It was kind of rough, believe me," he said. "We did a lot of field marches, night exercises, 10-mile hikes with full field packs on our backs. It wasn't a lot of fun, but it was good experience for us."
While some of Berguson's fellow soldiers were sent overseas immediately, he ended up receiving training as a surgical technician at William Beaumont General Hospital in El Paso, Texas.
"You can imagine how in depth that training was, for three months," he said. "I didn't become much of a doctor, but I did have to assist in some of the surgeries for the hospital."
After completing his training, he was assigned to the 49th Hospital Train Unit. "It was a big responsibility," Berguson said. "Our job was to travel around to pick up the wounded in the fighting areas."
Berguson went on to describe how different the war of his youth was from the wars of today. During World War II, pretty much every American civilian knew there was a war going on, in large part due to the draft, which sent most men between the ages of 18-30 into battle.
"It (the draft) affected every family," Berguson said. "Whether it was a son, or a father, or an uncle, or a brother... everyone knew there was a war on."
As a result of so many young, able-bodied men being sent off to war, women were pushed into nontraditional roles, working in factories and munitions plants to build the ships, tanks, and other equipment needed for the wartime effort.
"In 1941, they quit making automobiles, because they were using the assembly lines to make military equipment," said Berguson. In addition, the government was rationing out food, gasoline, rubber and other essentials.
"You couldn't run down to the corner store and get a pound of sugar," he continued. "You had to go to the ration board first, and get their permission. They would let you know how much you could buy."
Rubber and gasoline rationing, meanwhile, meant "no joyriding," Berguson added, noting that people were usually allowed just enough gas to drive their automobiles to work and back home again.
"This affected everybody in the country, so they all knew the war was on," he said, then compared that situation to today's conflicts, in countries like Afghanistan. "We've been at war over there for 10 or 12 years... a lot of us haven't heard much about it, unless there's someone in your family that's involved."
Berguson also talked about the horrors perpetrated by the German despot, Adolph Hitler, and his armies - herding all the Jews into labor or concentration camps, then taking over their homes, their jobs, their businesses, and ultimately, their wealth - then using the money to build up his armies.
"Some of the things I'm saying here, you won't read about in your history books at all," he said. "These are things I observed."
Berguson described how the Jews were told to take off their clothes and led into "showers," reportedly for cleansing - only to be gassed to death, then cremated or buried in mass graves.
During the months he spent working to help liberate the camp prisoners, Berguson said, he heard many, many stories - some of them truly horrifying.
Berguson went on to recall the work his unit did to liberate some of those camps once the armistice had been declared.
"Our job was to go around all of Europe to the concentration camps, to the labor camps, and pick up people and bring them back to their own area," he said. "My god, the stories that we heard from these people."
There was one 16-year-old girl who told a story of how she and her parents were sent out to weed vegetable gardens for hours, in the hot sun - yet they were only fed a thin broth for sustenance, so naturally, they became quite emaciated and weak. One day, her parents became so weak that they fell down and couldn't get up - so the soldiers kicked them to death.
She and her little brother had to go on as though nothing had happened. But her little brother, 7 years old, also fell down, and was kicked to death.
"How could something like this happen? Nobody knows," he said.
Another young lady, about 20 years old, told them a story of how she had been kidnapped by a group of soldiers, who took her to an abandoned barracks, stripped her of her clothes, nailed her to the floor, and proceeded to rape her, one by one, and burned her body with cigarettes. Then, after they were finished, they slit her throat and left her to die - but she survived, and started screaming, until someone found her and rescued her.
Eventually, she found her way to the hospital train, to have her bandages changed, and told the medics there her story as they were treating her.
"Then, about three or four weeks after that, I got a card from this gal, from Switzerland, thanking us for what we had done for her on that train," he said. "I thought that was pretty neat."
Berguson concluded his presentation by talking about the thousands of men, women and children who died in the war.
"As I consider the people that were lost, all during that war, there were thousands and thousands of them," he said. "That's what made our peaceful living in this country what it is today. It wasn't cheap.
"As you leave here today, remember, the peace you enjoy is not free," Berguson concluded. "It's been paid for by the lives of thousands of men and women. Keep that in mind as you go off and have a good Memorial Day. Thank you for listening."