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Former deputy shares book honoring World War II service members - including Sebeka's Bill Johnson

He recently wrote “Leaving Campus: A World War II Epitaph,” a book about 20 men from Bemidji State Teachers College who served and were killed in service in World War II.

Five individual photos of men in military uniforms.
Seven Johnson brothers from rural Sebeka served in World War II, including Bill (Robert) Johnson who was a student at Bemidji State Teachers College. He served from Feb. 10, 1941 to Oct. 27, 1944 when he was killed in action.
Contributed / Wadena County Historical Society
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WADENA — In a short matter of years, the people who served during World War II will have passed away. Their lives and their stories are held from slipping through our forgetfulness with books, films, military histories and family legacies.

The stories aren’t always told or known—record keeping was rather different in the 1940s—but Bemidji State University criminal justice professor Dr. Michael Herbert wanted these people not to be forgotten. He recently wrote “Leaving Campus: A World War II Epitaph,” a book about 20 men from Bemidji State Teachers College who served and were killed in service in World War II.

“They truly called that the Greatest Generation for a reason. They sacrificed a ton for what we’re enjoying now, and so I don’t want those people forgotten,” Herbert said. “We need to remember what those folks did for us, and there’s fewer and fewer left all the time.”

In his own journey, Herbert moved in his family’s military footsteps about every four years, including to England, Germany, Texas and California. His professions lead him from state trooper to Wadena County deputy sheriff, professor and author.

On the road to becoming an author

Herbert graduated from Bemidji State in 1979 with a degree in criminal justice and psychology, and started working with the Minnesota State Patrol. For most of his 23 years in law enforcement, he served as the Wadena County Sheriff’s Office deputy sheriff from 1983 to 2004. Along with daily patrol work, they started a tactical team in 1990 and Herbert managed the Safe and Sober program.

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The tactical team was considered uncommon in the area with specialized officers supporting area counties in high risk situations. “Calls were becoming more problematic,” Herbert noted. He served as commander of the team until 2004.

A photo of a man smiling.
Dr. Michael Herbert, Bemidji State University criminal justice professor.
Contributed / Michael Herbert

Herbert also ran the Safe and Sober program to help address driving under the influence and speeding. Officers could work extra shifts specifically focused on these issues. In the background, he was working towards his Master’s degree in Teaching and Learning at the University of North Dakota.

But becoming an adjunct professor was “serendipitous,” he said. He discovered a joy in teaching and connecting with students. After tiring of his pager going off at 3 a.m. in his 40s, Herbert moved from adjunct to full-time professor in the criminal justice department at Bemidji State. He’s riding gladly in his second career journey of 18 years.

“I always teach my students always have at least one other plan available to you when you’re doing anything,” Herbert said.

His law enforcement experiences became a resource to the students. Herbert said this “credibility” helped his transition to the criminal justice department. He teaches junior and senior level courses, which emphasize research statistics and methodologies.

“I love working with the students here. They’re very energetic and they’re very idealistic at this point,” Herbert said with a smile. “They all want to go out and change the world and make it a better place.”

Memoir details the months following an unexpected tragedy and of new life.

Stories of Bemidji College during WWII

When Herbert looked at his interest in World War II history and his opportunities to meet service members, he decided to dig for people’s stories and unique information about the college during the war. His book features 20 men from Bemidji State Teachers College who were killed in action.

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“Life was so different then,” Herbert remarked. The college had a firearms course for women on campus. By 1944, the college had 18 male students remaining . College president Dr. Charles Sattgast served as a Monument Men, protecting cultural treasures in Europe, according to their website.

Through the dense cigar smoke pouring out of Winston Churchill's stogie, Lupe Novak of Deer Creek witnessed three world leaders shaping Europe's future after World War II.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor, students volunteered to serve alongside many servicemen across the country. Men between 21 and 35 years old were required to register for the peacetime draft in October 1940 with a total of 10 million draftees (out of 45 million registered) by the end of the war. The draft later expanded to 18 to 64 years old.

One of the 20 Bemidji College volunteers was Bill Johnson of rural Sebeka, who joined the military alongside his six brothers. He fought as a bomber pilot in the China-Burma-India (CBI) Theater. The area is considered the ‘Forgotten Theater’ in World War II.

“They remember the pilots and crews of the bomber squadrons who delivered their deadly cargo to the enemy and the ground crews who kept the planes flying,” an inscription from the CBI Veterans Association reads on a memorial in Charlotte, N.C. “When you go home, tell them of us and say for their tomorrow we gave our today.”

A memorial with names.
The Johnson brothers of Sebeka, who served in World War II, are listed at the Wadena Veterans Park memorial.
Rebecca Mitchell / Pioneer Journal

Johnson served from Feb. 10, 1941 to Oct. 27, 1944 when he was killed in action.

“They were on a low level bombing mission so that the radar and stuff wouldn’t pick them up, and so they fly very close to the ground. They were to bomb a bridge, and what happened unfortunately … is there was a plane above Bill’s plane … and this plane dropped it’s bombs and … as soon as those bombs hit the ground Bill’s plane was right over across,” Herbert described about Bill’s final mission. “When the bombs exploded, it just blew up his aircraft and the aircraft crashed and all of the crewmen died. So how tragic is that.”

“That was his story,” Herbert continued. “And people should know that. People should know what happened to Bill.”

He hopes Johnson will be remembered, and that people will take time to be grateful especially on occasions like Memorial Day and Veterans Day.

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“We should take time to think about, ‘Yeah, I should maybe be pretty grateful that I get to get up in the morning and all I have to complain about is the price of gas.’ We need to keep things in perspective,” Herbert said.

While researching through records, Herbert searched until the information became non-existent. He said, “You do the best you can.” His research included Bemidji State archives, local newspaper articles, Ancestry, the National Archives and relatives of the students. The book took two years to complete, but Herbert says his next book won’t take as long with the resources he’s now learned.

His work on a second book will feature women from Bemidji College who joined the military. While he has many more years in him as a professor, his career as an author might just last through his retirement years.

A book cover with green grass and tombstones.
In honor of 20 men from Bemidji Teachers College who served in World War II, Bemidji State University professor Dr. Michael Herbert wrote "Leaving Campus: A World War II Epitaph." The book was published in February 2022.
Contributed / Michael Herbert

“Freedom’s not free,” Herbert said. “The foundations of the things we enjoy today are all based on the sacrifices of those people, and not just the ones that died but … these women from Bemidji for example that served, all these people that gave up their lives to go and do, to contribute. I think sometimes we take that for granted.”

Herbert hopes the book serves as a helpful record of the service members and students’ stories for people to easily find, to help answer their wonderings about life during the war and the sacrifices people made.

“We leave you our deaths: give them their meaning. We were young, they say. We have died. Remember us,” reads a poem, “The Young Dead Soldiers Do Not Speak” by Archibald MacLeish, in the preface of the book. The people and the history are not to be forgotten, Herbert says, and “I think that says it all.”

“Leaving Campus: A World War II Epitaph” is available online at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

Rebecca Mitchell started as a Digital Content Producer for the Post Bulletin in August 2022. She specializes in enhancing online articles as well as education, feature and health reporting.
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