5 x 8: Ernie Crippen and the people who write history

1) THE DISAPPEARING FIRST-PERSON HISTORY

Nagasaki, Japan after the nuclear bomb. Photo courtesy of Ernest Crippen.

Sixty-eight years ago tomorrow, the United States dropped a nuclear bomb on Nagasaki, three days after it dropped one on Hiroshima. The day will go unmentioned, just as the anniversary of Hiroshima generally went unrecognized on Tuesday. It wasn’t long ago that the end of war in the Pacific had significance for a country that shared the experience of a world war. But those days are gone and the few people left who lived the history soon will be.

That’s why I don’t turn down any opportunity to talk to the people who fought the war in whatever capacity; there aren’t many left.

So when Ernie Crippen of Buffalo started a sentence in our conversation yesterday with, “when we were being bombed and strafed on Guadalcanal,” I was immediately aware that it was the first — and probably the last — time someone will ever say that to me, just as I was similarly aware last week when a veteran in Luverne showed me a scar and said, “I got that parachuting into Bastogne.”

We get many opportunities in our lives to learn history from those who live it, but we take advantage of precious few of them. And time, as it has forever, is running out. Mr. Crippen has the benefit of his children, Mike and Amy, who have helped him preserve his history.

Mike Frickstad and Amy Rea with their father, Ernie Crippen. (MPR Photo)

Crippen, 91, like thousands of other Minnesota kids, saw the military draft coming in 1942 when he was cutting timber in Bemidji. So he joined the Navy for a six-year engagement as a Seabee — the Navy’s construction brigades.

“The fighting was mostly over when we arrived on Guadalcanal,” he told me while I leafed through his meticulously-kept scrapbooks yesterday. And by “mostly over,” he meant, except for the occasional attacks by Japanese planes trying to kill him. In April 1943, he wrote in an autobiography, he was part of a crew unloading supplies from a ship offshore when an attack came. All the regular crew had gone ashore, so the Seabees took the ship into open water, shooting down one plane in the process. Some of the men shielded themselves from bullets with the only thing they had nearby: canvas.

You don’t get a lot of stories like that from kids in Bemidji anymore. Or about the time Bob Hope and Jerry Colonna sat with him at dinner before a USO tour, the bugler who got into trouble for playing “Blues in the Night” instead of Taps or about being told he was to be part of the U.S. invasion force of Japan. “We were told the casualties might number 750,000,” he said. “It was sobering.”

“What was the last thing your father said to you before you went off to war?” I asked.

“I remember it clearly,” he said. “We were sitting at the depot in Bemidji and I said, ‘I might not come back.’ He said, ‘You have to turn that around and think different.’”

The atomic bombs brought Japan’s capitulation. A month later, the kid from Bemidji was working the docks in Sasebo, Japan, a bombed-out former Japanese Navy base. And a few months after that, he was walking through what was left of Nagasaki.

Nagasaki 1946. Courtesy of Ernest Crippen.

“It was amazing to me at the time that something dropped from the sky could turn steel and concrete into nothing but dust,” he said.

He couldn’t show that picture to anyone until he got home to Bemidji. The military didn’t allow anyone to send photos of the destruction home. Technically, servicemen weren’t supposed to have cameras, but, as he had during the rest of the war, Crippen kept notes and pictures, knowing that someday he’d be sharing it.

His stops read like a who’s who of war in the Pacific: Guadalcanal, Saipan, Tokyo, the rest of the Solomons, New Caledonia, and the Aleutians.

For the veterans of it, World War II was life’s biggest paradox. A gruesome habit of nations’ instinct to kill another’s soldiers provided the opportunities to see parts of the world most people will never see, and a seemingly endless number of friendships that survive through post-war “real life,” which for Mr. Crippen included years as an engineer for MnDOT and a wedding photography business with his wife.

But there’s no such thing as “endless” in life. As he showed me a scrapbook of his pictures, Crippen noted that most everyone in it is dead now. His construction unit stopped its annual reunions in 2006; There weren’t many people left or able to attend.

But next week, there’ll be one more. A few weeks ago, the family of an Indiana man found Crippen after a search. The two men had served together. The man from Indiana recently had a stroke and wanted to see Crippen again. Next week, they’ll meet halfway — Iowa — and turn back time.

Mr. Crippen will bring the scrapbooks and history in the first person with him.

Related: WALTER: Lessons from the World’s Oldest People by Hunter Weeks (Kickstarter)

2) BULL RUN

Last night’s bull run at the Dakota County Fair seriously injured one person (language warning):

Does the idea to bring the “running of the bulls” to Canterbury Park still seem like a good idea?

3) WHEN THE CARNIES DON’T SHOW

It’s county fair season in Minnesota and despite all efforts to the contrary, 90 percent of a county fair these days are the carnival rides. So when the carnies don’t show, it’s not much of a fair.

The carnies didn’t show up in Goodhue County, the Rochester Post Bulletin says.

The fair board used $7,000 of Legacy Fund money to buy other entertainment.

4) WHEN AIRLINE PASSENGERS DISOBEY THE RULES

If it weren’t for people disobeying the FAA rules, it might be more difficult for investigators to know what happened aboard Southwest Flight 345, which landed like a wheelbarrow at LaGuardia in New York last month.

Several passengers didn’t turn off all electrical equipment, as we’re admonished on every flight, and that’s becoming more common, writes Christine Negroni, who writes the Flying Lessons blog for Seattle PI.

… don’t forget that recording inside an airplane below 10,000 feet is in defiance of safety rules. Investigators have so far found no evidence that electro-magnetic interference from those digital devices affected the flight systems, instruments or controls on the Southwest 737 but the fact that could have should give one pause. And with that possibility in mind, its worth considering the implications when airline passengers feel it’s okay to decide which rules they’ll heed and which they’ll ignore.

“The regulations are in place for a reason and we support them because they afford a level of safety,” Nantel said. “Its always a concern when passengers feel they don’t have to comply.”

Nevertheless, in the case of Southwest 345 investigators find themselves in a dilemma, delighted and yet uncomfortable by the source of what could be illuminating evidence. Asked what the safety board’s next step might be to prod someone to sort out the air safety community’s use-but-don’t-tell relationship with digital devices, Nantel said, “There is no next step, it’s up to the FAA to determine if there is some gross non compliance.”

5) SPORTSWRITERS WITH SHORT MEMORIES

Some of the biggest boosters of state funding for a new stadium for the Minnesota Vikings were area sportswriters.

Field of Schemes writer Neil deMause takes Star Tribune writer Patrick Reusse to task for jumping off the bandwagon now…

All of which is well and good, in a filling-dead-tree-space kind of way. Except when you remember that when the Vikings deal was in progress, Reusse wrote that it had to be approved or else the team would move to Los Angeles. And that a new stadium was needed for Minneapolis’ downtown to “remain dynamic rather than decaying.” And that he only bemoaned the lack of attention to the “financial realities” of the deal once it was done, and then not in the Star Trib but on a radio station’s blog.

This isn’t just intra-journalistic snarkiness: The Vikings bonds still haven’t actually been sold, and apparently won’t be for a while yet, so it’s not too late for the state to tell the Vikings that if they still want a stadium, they’re going to need to come up with a source of revenue that isn’t totally imaginary. That’s not going to happen without public pressure, though, which would require the public actually being informed about those “financial realities” by news reporters. Though if throwing red meat to football fans about the high price of tickets does more to prompt retweets, I guess that’s just the future of journalism, right?


More sports:
Munneke remains the Lone (original) Wolf (PostBulletin.com)

Bonus I: Baby Boom: Religious Women Having More Kids (LiveScience).

Bonus II: 40 Signs You Went To The University Of Wisconsin-Madison.

Bonus III: VIDEO: Larry the Cable Guy ‘gits ‘er done’ in Perham (Forum).

WHAT WE’RE DOING

Daily Circuit (9-12 p.m.) – First hour: Does the country need another financial crisis.

Second hour: Unemployment remains high, and underemployment is even more of a problem, yet the stock market is at record highs and housing prices are on the rebound. So how are all these competing forces impacting people’s personal finances? We’ll discuss with personal finance educator Ruth Hayden.

Third hour: Both Minneapolis and St. Paul are promoting the return of streetcars as part of the region’s transit puzzle. Proponents argue that streetcars are less costly than light rail and more conducive to development than buses. We’ll hear from a transportation expert about whether investment in streetcars is worth it.

MPR News Presents (12-1 pm): From the Aspen Ideas Festival, New York Times Magazine reporter Paul Tough, the author of “How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character.”

The Takeaway (1-2 p.m.) – Drones in Yemen: A Scene from Ground Level | The Lingering Stress of War for Military Families | New Cups & Straws Detect Date Rape Drugs.

All Things Considered (3-6:30 p.m.) - When the young lions of jazz were making a big national splash in the early ’90s, the Twin Cities band mostly likely to have joined the movement was the Illicit Sextet. Chapter One, the group’s recording of original modern jazz compositions, was innovative and groundbreaking. But all that fell by the wayside when trumpeter Steve Kenny fell into a long cycle of drug abuse that ended with his arrest several years later. For Kenny, jail was the key to breaking the cycle. Handed a trumpet when he regained his freedom, he began working on his chops. After a 15-year gap, the band welcomed him back. This weekend, the group will celebrate a new CD, Chapter Eleven, in St. Paul. MPR’s David Cazares will have the story.

Twenty five years ago, students in Burma rose up against their country’s military dictatorship. Few Americans know about it even though the uprising was bigger and bloodier than the one in China’s Tiananmen Square. NPR provides the story of 8/8/88.

  • tboom

    Thanks for the story about Ernie Crippen. My Dad was in the Army signal corps, he died before I was old enough to hear any WWII stories. The only thing my Mom or Uncles told me was that he was part of the invasion force to land on Japan.
    My Mom recently passed and just yesterday I was trying to decide what to do with a foot locker full of photos of men I don’t know living in a silk factory in post war Japan.

  • Moffitt

    I would suggest that people like Ernie did not write history, they made it. Thankfully, he has his memories, his scrapbooks and his kids to help tell the story to any who will listen. That’s where you come in, Bob. You are the one writing the history, by finding and sharing these stories. Hat tip.

  • jaime

    Thank you for the story about Mr. Crippen. And thank you to Mr. Crippen and his family for their willingness to share. My father’s uncle was sent to Hiroshima shortly after the bomb was dropped and he steadfastly refused to talk about it for the rest of his life. My dad remembers writing a school paper about the war and when he interviewed his uncle he was told in no uncertain terms that that part of his military service was off-limits. But stories like Mr. Crippen’s are what make the history feel relevant – much more so than what you get in dry history books in school. Maybe schools should have units that bring these people into the classroom (perhaps some already do!).

  • kevinfromminneapolis

    People ignore the rules and leave their devices on because airlines fail or just plain refuse to give them reasons why they should.

    • MrE85

      Toby Ziegler, in an episode of “The West Wing”

      FLIGHT ATTENDANT 2
      [approaches Toby] Sir, I need you to turn off your computer.

      FLIGHT ATTENDANT 2
      I need you to turn off your laptop, sir. It interferes with our navigational
      systems.

      TOBY
      You know when you guys say that, it sounds ridiculous to most people, right?

      FLIGHT ATTENDANT 3
      Mr. Ziegler? A message was just patched up to the cockpit for you. I’m not sure I’ve got it right. POTUS in a bicycle accident?

      TOBY
      [stops typing and looks up] You got it right. [reaches for his cell phone]

      FLIGHT ATTENDANT 2
      You can’t use your phone until we land, sir.

      TOBY
      We’re flying in a Lockheed eagle series L-1011. It came off the line 20
      months ago and carries a Sim-5 Transponder tracking system. Are you telling me I can still flummox this thing with something I bought at Radio Shack?

      • Chuck

        Can’t really go wrong with a reference to West Wing!

  • kennedy

    Re #4: “…investigators find themselves in a dilemma, delighted and yet uncomfortable by the source of what could be illuminating evidence.”

    I don’t see any need for discomfort. Investigators should gather all the evidence possible. Using video taken by passengers will inform the investigation. Though they should take extra care so that publicly released information does not glamorize or condone the practice.