Dr. Al Ahlgrim has two gravesites he would have liked to have visited this Memorial Day but, living in Oregon, he was between those two disparate locations — Brainerd’s Evergreen Cemetery and National Memorial Cemetery in Honolulu.
The retired eye doctor, who lives in Oregon City, Ore., will remember, in particular, the two World War II soldiers who are buried in those cemeteries — his father, Mel Ahlgrim in Brainerd, and his cousin and namesake. Alvin Ahlgrim in Hawaii.
Dr. Ahlgrim is 65 now and wants people to remember the sacrifices of those who served the U.S. in World War II. He shared a story about his father and his cousin, compiled primarily from his father’s stories, with the Brainerd Dispatch.
“That was part of my motivation for the whole thing (the story he wrote). Maybe to perpetuate it a little longer.”
Three men, all related and all with a very real connection to World War II.
Brainerd Daily Dispatch (June 1, 1945) — PFC Alvin R. Ahlgrim, 21, a Marine, was killed in action in the fighting on Okinawa his mother, Mrs. Gladys Ahlgrim, West Brainerd, was informed today. The message sent by Gen. A. A. Vandergrift, commanding the Marine Corps, said the Marine was killed May 20.
PFC Ahlgrim was born in Brainerd and was a graduate of Washington High School.
Alvin Ahlgrim was Dr. Ahlgrim’s cousin. Born June 17, 1923, Alvin lived with his mother at the home of his grandfather, Louis Ahlgrim, on Charles Street in west Brainerd. In May of 1943, young Alvin, a recent high school graduate, came home and announced he had joined the Marines. His motivation, in part, was to fight and help liberate American POWs like Mel Ahlgrim (Dr. Ahlgrim’s father and Alvin Ahlgrim’s uncle). Mel Ahlgrim had fought in Bataan, survived the Bataan Death March and was imprisoned by the Japanese.
Dr. Ahlgrim, 65, wrote that Alvin Ahlgrim told the family “the Marines will be the first ones to get to Mel and rescue him.”
The invasion of Okinawa began April 1, 1945, Dr. Ahlgrim wrote, and would claim the lives of thousands of U.S. soldiers and sailors with tens of thousands wounded. Alvin Ahlgrim died at a location called Sugar Loaf Hill, according to Dr. Ahlgrim. He fell short of his goal of rescuing his Brainerd uncle.
“I was very young when my father told me that I was named after someone special to him,” Dr. Ahlgrim wrote. “When I asked questions about Alvin, not much was said. My dad, grandfather and Aunt Gladys just couldn’t seem to say much. I would just see solemn faces. I was only able to understand when I was older that the subject was just too painful for them to bear.”
The big news on Aug. 6, 1945, in the Japanese prisoner-of-war camp where Mel Ahlgrim was held, was of the U.S. bombing of Hiroshima. Japanese guards first thought the dropping of the first atomic bomb was a massive bombardment of several bombs at one time.
It was Mel Ahlgrim’s 32nd birthday.
Shortly after the dropping of the second atomic bomb on Japan, the war ended and the POWs were liberated by U.S. troops. Mel Ahlgrim received medical care on a hospital ship and then in Hawaii. He then spent nine months recuperating in a San Francisco hospital. When he was discharged he was flown to Minneapolis and taken by ambulance to his family’s home in Brainerd.
“He spoke little of his time in hell,” Dr. Ahlgrim wrote. “Occasionally a brief sentence would pop out of him of some atrocity. He kept it mostly to himself.”
Dr. Al Ahlgrim
Dr. Ahlgrim’s father, Mel, was in remarkably good health for most of his life, according to his son. He returned to Brainerd where he worked for the Northern Pacific Railroad and the Minnesota Highway Department.
Mel Ahlgrim occasionally was plagued by bad dreams and did not tolerate heat because he had contracted malaria and other tropical diseases while he was a POW.
“Physically, he was quite healthy,” Dr. Ahlgrim said. “He wasn’t sickly. He wasn’t deranged. He was healthy.”
Mel Ahlgrim died in his early 70s.
Dr. Ahlgrim worked as a Stearns County deputy before studying optometry. He was a 1966 graduate of Washington High School in Brainerd.
As he grew to adulthood and accompanied his father to Bataan reunions he learned more stories of atrocities carried out by Japanese soldiers.
“Whatever has been written about their suffering and whatever honors they received can never be overstated,” Dr. Ahlgrim wrote.
Still, even at the reunions the talk was mostly of families and of old buddies who didn’t survive the war, Dr. Ahlgrim said.
Food was of paramount importance to the Bataan veterans, perhaps because they knew what it was like to go hungry.
“They were damn tough,” Dr. Ahlgrim recalled. “They still could drink pretty good. They had a big breakfast, then they had highballs, then lunch — they had another massive meal. They’d cap off the day with a big supper and more drinks.”
Dr. Ahlgrim recalled sharing a room with Bataan veterans who were “snoring and burping all night.”
Last summer, for the first time, Dr. Ahlgrim visited the gravesite of his namesake and cousin, Alvin Ahlgrim at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu. He said at one time he had considered having his cousin’s remains returned to Brainerd but after visiting the pristine Hawaiian cemetery he felt that his namesake belonged in a paradise.
“It was beautiful and solemn,” Dr. Ahlgrim said. “I’d been wanting to go for years.”
The retired doctor named one of his sons after his cousin, Alvin Ahlgrim.
“I dedicate Alvin’s story to honor all those veterans who have never had their story told,” Dr. Ahlgrim wrote. “Many of those lost stories came to pass because of the events on the Bataan peninsula in 1942.”
There’s little doubt that the two World War II soldiers will be in Dr. Ahlgrim’s thoughts on Memorial Day.
“I wish I could visit both of their graves,” he said.