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County to publish book on WWII vets

Producing a book is not a typical project for county government, but St. Louis County is doing just that with its St. Louis County World War II Living History Project.

Producing a book is not a typical project for county government, but St. Louis County is doing just that with its St. Louis County World War II Living History Project.

The book is set for release later this year and was announced at a press conference Wednesday in conjunction with the 60th anniversary of D-Day (actually June 6).

County commissioners, veterans, county officials and committee members who worked on the project gathered outside the Depot, where, as Commissioner Steve Raukar noted, the bulk of the 4,400-plus World War II veterans in the county departed for their service and returned victorious.

Paraphrasing Mark Twain, Raukar said, "There are many unsung heroes when we look in retrospect at our society."

He said the project took about 1,000 hours of research, writing and editing over a space of years. Adding to the sense of urgency, he noted that more than 1,000 World War II veterans die every day in America.

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"Finally, your book and your story is ready to be published," he said.

Commissioner Bill Kron echoed those sentiments. "We are sad at seeing that Greatest Generation slip away," he said, also adding his hope that future generations would be able to preserve what those veterans had won.

A moment of silence was observed for the many World War II veterans from the region who have died, including some who served on the book committee.

One veteran, addressing the meeting, thanked the county for its efforts and added, "I hope we're worth remembering."

Another cracked a joke. "Considering our ages, I guess we're lucky we're here, period," he said.

Raukar and Kron are the only two commissioners who have been on the county board since the project began, about 10 years ago. Other board members were also present, including Peg Sweeney and Dennis Fink from the Duluth area and Keith Nelson.

Kron said he believes the book, which attempts to list all 4,400 of those veterans and often gives longer biographical sketches, will be a great keepsake for the families of those who served.

Raukar said some veterans were reluctant to revisit difficult wartime memories but were grateful for the recognition. He said the project does have a certain fit with county governance.

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"Counties traditionally have been involved in preservation of history," he said, although he pointed out that this case involved producing a product rather than simply preserving something.

He said that maintaining commitment was not a problem. What was difficult was pulling all that information together into an actual book.

That task fell to a group led by Wilson Spence, a veterans services officer with the county.

Spence said even the process of collecting the information was difficult.

"It took us years and years and years," he said.

The committee sought people out at malls and at fairs and at four county offices across the broad geographical expanse of Minnesota's largest county.

And that was before Spence, with a psychology degree and no experience in publishing, could even think about pulling it all together in a book.

But there he got a little help. At one of his information gathering efforts, Don Wright, a World War II veteran and a writer, offered to help.

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Wright went through the thousands of pieces of paper and entered them into a computer, transferring the files to Spence by floppy disk. Spence and the group working on the book also started digitizing an inches-thick stack of photographs of veterans.

From there, the editing process and all its red ink began, and then the layout. Of course, over time the available technology has changed, too, which meant converting between computer files that were not always compatible.

It has been an immense project, and Spence said he'll be elated when it's finished.

"I'm going to scream when this book gets out, and people in Virginia and Hibbing are going to hear me when I scream," he said.

"This is another way of recognizing these people for what they've done," Spence said, recalling a story about special recognition for some World War II vets this past Memorial Day. Raukar also noted the dedication of the World War II monument in Washington, D.C., over the weekend.

The finished product will be a hardcover book with a specially-designed county emblem on the front. Inside will be images and descriptions of the various medals noted in the veterans' stories, and the main content of the book is "a lot like a yearbook."

It's so much like a yearbook, in fact, that Jostens, one of the giants in that industry, has been consulting on the project.

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