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Published November 11 2011

Breckenridge High honors World War II veterans

BRECKENRIDGE, Minn. – When Merle McMorrow and the state champion Breckenridge High School basketball team returned to town victorious in 1940, they were greeted by 10,000 cheering fans at the train depot.

When McMorrow re­turned to the same depot early on Christmas Day in 1945 after serving as a paratrooper in Europe, there was no one there. He collected his duffel bag and trudged home in the snow.

On Friday, McMorrow got a considerably warmer welcome at his alma mater, where 1,500 people turned out for a Veterans Day program to honor servicemen past and present.

McMorrow was one of two World War II veterans from the high school to take the podium. He spoke about his childhood memories in town and his experiences in the service, particularly parachuting into France as the Allies fought to retake the country from Nazi Germany.

At times, his stories were lighthearted – getting his only “B” in high school, fishing in chilly Bavaria with grenades. At others, he offered a somber reminder to remember his fallen comrades.

“They were never afforded the luxury to pick up their lives after the conflict,” said McMorrow, who has written several books, including “From Breckenridge to Bastogne,” an account of his days as a paratrooper. “I only hope their sacrifice was not in vain.”

Lesley Aldrich, a 1940 Breckenridge graduate who served in the Pacific, also spoke. At one point in his campaign, he lost 60 pounds – so much that his own brother didn’t recognize him in the hospital.

Aldrich was joined by Breckenridge Police Chief Nate Harder, a former Marine himself. Harder prompted Aldrich throughout his speech by asking questions about his time in the service.

At one point, Harder asked what stuck out about the South Pacific.

“It’s big,” Aldrich deadpanned, drawing laughter.

The program also featured color guard presentations from representatives of the five branches of the military, essays on service and democracy by a handful of high school students and a patriotic score from the band and choir.

This was the second year in a row Breckenridge has held the program. Paul Whitney, a high school civics teacher who organized the event, said he hopes to make it an annual tradition.

Last year, a Pearl Harbor survivor from North Dakota spoke.

Whitney, who comes from a family of veterans, said it’s important to recognize servicemen who are slow to take credit themselves.

“They won’t draw attention to themselves, call themselves heroes or anything,” he said.

He also said it’s important to recognize older veterans, who are becoming scarcer and scarcer, while they’re still around.

Last year, he said, there were three parents in the audience who had lost sons at war.

“I think it provides a healing opportunity for a lot of families,” he said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Marino Eccher at (701) 241-5502