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Brothers from Northland family recall nine sons going off to World War II

Imagine raising 14 children on a farm in Carlton County. Now imagine nine of your kids going off to war at the same time. That's what happened to Finnish immigrants Mathilda and Jacob Thompson. Nine of their 11 sons served during World War II. Th...

Brothers in arms
This photo was taken in Moose Lake in the spring of 1946, after all the Thompson brothers returned from World War II. Pictured are (clockwise from the back left corner) Arthur, Charlie, Jack, Ray, Bill, Fred, George and Bernard. All eight of the brothers were drafted. Not pictured is Edward, who served in the Merchant Marines during the war.

Imagine raising 14 children on a farm in Carlton County. Now imagine nine of your kids going off to war at the same time.

That's what happened to Finnish immigrants Mathilda and Jacob Thompson. Nine of their 11 sons served during World War II.

Theirs are believed to be the most sons from any U.S. family to serve in the same war.

Fortunately for all involved, the story of the Thompson boys has a better ending than the five Sullivan brothers who were all killed in action on the same warship in 1942, or the Niland brothers, whose story was the inspiration for the film "Saving Private Ryan." All of the Thompson sons returned from the war alive.

Of the 14 children -- 11 sons and three daughters -- only Charlie, George and Arthur are living still: Arthur in Hermantown, Charlie in Cromwell and George in Duluth. George and Charlie got together in Cromwell on Tuesday to tell their story.

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Charlie was drafted first, in November 1941, before the U.S. entered the war.

"It was supposed to be in for a year during peacetime," Charlie said. "Then Pearl Harbor happened and I was in for the duration."

Charlie nearly served in Europe, but fate intervened. On a troop train bound for the East Coast they learned their ship had been sunk. The train did a turnaround and Charlie and his fellow soldiers ended up shipping out of San Francisco to the war in the Pacific.

Charlie said he would write letters on whatever he could find and send it off without a stamp.

"Sometimes I wrote on the C-ration box," he said. "It didn't matter, they'd mail it anyway."

Charlie's younger brother, George, was drafted in October 1943, three months after his 18th birthday.

Although none of the brothers served together, George tells an amazing story about running into Ray accidentally during the war.

"I was in the infantry at that time," said George, now 85. "Ray and I were in the same division [Seventh Division], but different battalions. I was in the 13th Engineer Battalion (Combat). Anyway, it was the Invasion of Leyte, in the Philippines, and he was with a group that was building a bridge over a river that that had been bombed out. And my bunch was going to the south end of the island for mop up.

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"My buddy and I -- Dick Story from Austin, Minn., we were always together -- we had to wade across this river and carry supplies, ammunition, etc. We walked by this guy and his serial number had been stenciled on the back of his jacket. I said to Dick, 'That guy must be from our area, he has some of the same numbers.' Dick told me there must be millions [of soldiers from Minnesota and Iowa], but when we passed him again, I said, 'That guy looks familiar.'"

At this point, George says, he took the protective wax paper off his address book and looked for the list of his brothers' serial numbers. The number was the same as his brother Ray's.

"So I tapped him on the shoulder and the first thing he says to me is, 'Who the [heck] are you?' I said, 'According to the serial numbers, I'm your brother, George.'"

It was a happy, albeit short, reunion.

"We had about five minutes together," George said, adding that both he and his brother had changed in appearance during their time overseas. Ray was gaunt, George recalled, his skin yellowed from malaria.

"I was supposed to meet him three weeks later," he said. "I found his outfit, but they had already shipped him home."

George was the only brother seriously wounded in the war. It happened in Okinawa, when the truck in which he was riding hit a land mine. George was blown off the truck and his foot was badly injured.

"I refused a Purple Heart," George said, explaining that his friend had gotten a concussion and both eardrums blown out in the same explosion, but was not offered a Purple Heart. "So I told them where they could put [that medal]," he said.

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Charlie came home to Lawler, Minn., in 1944.

"The day I got the notice to come home, they were going to make a beachhead near Manila [in the Philippines]," he said. "They wanted me to go, said they'd promote me. I said, 'No, I'm going home. I'd sooner go home a PFC as die a sergeant.

"That's what happened, too, that gang got shot up."

Charlie said he served 27 months overseas. Although he was discharged because he had enough "points," he was also ill with malaria.

"That malaria is a bugger," he said, describing how men would get fevers of up to 107 degrees and have their heads covered in ice while their bodies shook from the cold. They would also become delirious at times, unaware of the difference between visions induced by the disease and reality.

Now 91, Charlie recently moved into Villa Vista Care Center in Cromwell with his wife of 63 years, Vienna. He still speaks with a trace of a Finnish accent, a reminder that -- even though he was born and raised in Minnesota -- English is not his first language. He spoke only Finnish until he started school, a one-room schoolhouse in the Automba area.

Although times were tough when they were growing up, both George and Charlie said their big family always had enough food. Somehow their mother found time to bake bread, make meals, milk the cows and put aside food for the winter. They had chickens, so eggs were also a staple.

"She canned in two-quart bottles," Charlie said. "Everything ... berries, deer meat, veg, anything that needed to be canned."

Within a few years of the war, both brothers were married and working at various jobs around the Northland. George met his wife in Duluth, then they moved to Two Harbors where he worked for the railroad. They had four children.

After being laid off from the railroad, George ultimately ended up as chief engineer for Tasty Bread, a job he held for 25 years. He and his wife retired within 15 days of each other and divided their retirement time between Duluth/Superior and Florida until she passed away in 1996.

Charlie and Vienna built a home in Esko. After running a bar in McGregor, he got a job at a plumbing wholesale house where he worked for 35 years.

When asked if they have any advice for younger generations, George didn't hesitate.

"Don't go to war," he said.

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