'That story will never die' — Lost veterans celebrated in upcoming Perham Memorial Day

Memorial Day honors veterans no longer living, and Perham's In Their Own Words Veterans Museum is dedicated to preserving those veterans' stories.

Garry Menz flips through the directory of Otter Tail County men who served in World War I, found at the ITOW Veterans Museum.
Elizabeth Vierkant / Perham Focus

PERHAM — "In their own words" is the phrase that makes up the acronym of "ITOW," the name of Perham's veteran museum. And this phrase truly is integral to the museum's mission of keeping veterans' stories alive. As Memorial Day approaches, ITOW's Shirley Davidson and volunteer/veteran Garry Menz shared the importance of preserving the memories of veterans lost — in their own words.

"We tell stories about the past," Davidson said. "We want to tell stories — to preserve — to show what's happened in the past and what could happen in the future … It's nice to have that story. That story will never die because we can pass it on."

That is what Memorial Day is all about, after all: honoring and remembering the veterans no longer alive to share their own stories. Thanks to the video and audio tapes of veterans sharing their stories themselves, that remembrance is made possible.

These recordings of area veterans play on screens throughout the ITOW, giving visitors a chance to hear first-hand accounts of wartime. Artifacts from wars of the past are on display throughout the halls, showing physical representations of a deployed Otter Tail County veteran's life from their uniforms to their food to their letters.

Twins Larry (bottom left) and Garry Menz (bottom right) are pictured with their older brother, Tom (top) while serving in 1969.
Perham Focus file photo

"We have a lot of stories in here from a lot of people that used to live in Perham that have passed on, but their grandkids and their families come in," Davidson shared. "We had a family come in here not too long ago. The grandpa died. We had the DVD (of him discussing his service). All of his grandchildren came in here and sat down and watched it. And a lot of the kids said, 'I didn't know Grandpa did that.'"


Without the recording, the grandkids would likely never know their grandpa's story. Garry Menz, a Vietnam veteran and ITOW volunteer, shared an audio recording of a World War I ambulance driver's journal. In this firsthand account, the driver talks about the horrible conditions in which he and the other soldiers lived, the violence they witnessed, the joy they felt at the end of the war and his subsequent return home to Perham.

Another exhibit displays the interview of Anton Cichy, a World War II soldier from New York Mills. He became a prisoner of war in 1942 and survived the Death March from Bataan, during which captives were starved and forced to march in tropical conditions with very little water for a week straight.

In 1944, Cichy and about 1,800 prisoners were taken to the ship Arisan Maru. This ship was later sunk by a torpedo, and only nine prisoners of war survived. Five of those nine — including Cichy — were able to escape captivity with the help of a lifeboat that took him to mainland China about 250 miles away. From there, Cichy was able to return to the U.S. by plane as one of the very few survivors of the 1,800 prisoners.

Stories of veterans, shared by them, play on television screens throughout the museum. Those walking through can look at authentic uniforms and other artifacts that show what life was like for veterans of previous wars.
Elizabeth Vierkant / Perham Focus

"I think we were lucky — very lucky — to get as many World War veterans taped as we did," Davidson said.

Not many World War II veterans are still alive. In fact, the last two living in the Perham-area community recently died, Menz said. Thanks to the ITOW preserving their stories, however, they won't be lost. History can be preserved, which both Davidson and Menz find to be important.

"I watched a documentary once about a co-pilot in the Bockscar that was the second plane that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima," Menz shared. "(The co-pilot) says, 'I'm at a prestigious college out east, and the guy introduced me as somebody from World War Eleven.'"

The Roman numeral for two, "II," looks like "11" in Arabic numerals. But as any history buff will tell you, there was no "World War 11." There was, however, a World War II, and people like Menz believe it's important to keep that history alive.

He continued, "(The co-pilot) says, 'People are forgetting history. They don't know history anymore."


The ITOW Veterans Museum has several Meal Ready to Eat packages on display to give visitors an idea of what deployed veterans ate.
Elizabeth Vierkant / Perham Focus

The ITOW continues to preserve veteran stories every single day. With a lot of World War II veterans gone, Davidson said they're currently working on interviewing the "next generation," those that served in the Vietnam War. However, the ITOW has found that a lot of Vietnam veterans aren't comfortable being interviewed because they often witnessed a lot of violence and weren't welcomed back home.

When Menz himself returned from the Vietnam War, he and other returning veterans never came home in uniform. They were nervous about displaying their veteran status.

"I would love more veterans (to share their stories) if they've got a story and would like to preserve it — like the World War II vets," Davidson said. "We now enjoy seeing them, their past." As she said before, with that story preserved, it will never die, and it will live on to be remembered for generations.

The ITOW Veterans Museum will honor these stories of lost veterans on Memorial Day this Monday, May 29. From 9 a.m.-12 p.m., they will serve breakfast and host a silent auction. The VFW Post and Auxiliary Post 4020 will host a program beginning at 10:15 a.m. All proceeds will go toward veteran programs.

For many more veteran stories and interviews, visit the ITOW at 805 West Main St. in Perham. They can be reached at 218-346-7678.

Elizabeth (she/her), 24, graduated with a degree in Journalism and Communications from the University of Wisconsin–Stout in 2020. Elizabeth has always had a passion for telling stories about people and specializes in community features, which she uses for her Perham-centered content.
What To Read Next
Get Local