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Freedom Rock honors Hutchinson hero

Plenty of Hutchinson residents may know the name Milburn Henke. He was the owner of Henke’s Cafe, which once stood at the corner of State Highway 7 and Main Street, and later next to where you will now find Dairy Queen. He was also a common face in just about every veterans organization in Hutchinson.

But he might be best remembered here and overseas for one particular place in history: He represented his fellow soldiers in World War II as the first official enlisted American to land in the European theater. It’s for that distinction that he was included on a giant rock memorial painted just in time for the Lakeville VFW’s 100th anniversary. The Freedom Rock is one of many painted by artist Ray “Bubba” Sorenson of Iowa, who has painted similar rocks across his home state.

The honor came as a surprise to Henke’s family when it was shown to the public on July 6. Hutchinson resident Evie Bahr caught the unveiling on television.

“I said, ‘I know him. That’s my cousin,’” she said. “It was a real surprise. A beautiful surprise.”

She called Patty Brinkman, Henke’s daughter.

“I said, ‘Patty, did you know about this?’” Bahr said.

She hadn’t, but she was moved by the recognition for her father.

“I would have loved to have been there,” Brinkman said. “I took pride in his patriotism. I was brought up to fly the flag.”

Staff photo by Jeremy Jones  

Patty Brinkman holds up a photo of she and her father, Milburn Henke, at the 10th anniversary of his landing in Europe during World War II. It’s just one of many items she keeps to honor his memory.

Henke is depicted along with three other Minnesotans on the Freedom Rock: Robert Pruden, who was awarded the Medal of Honor as a U.S. Army soldier in the Vietnam War; Walter Willis, who was flying drills at Pearl Harbor when the Japanese attacked is included; and John Gerdesmeier, a Lakeville local who was killed at age 19 while serving with the Marine Corps in Vietnam.

Sorenson uses paint designed to be used on rocks and material similar to rocks. It won’t last forever, but his studio touts a lifespan that can, in some cases, stretch more than 100 years.

A PIECE OF HISTORY

On one facing of the Freedom Rock, Henke is depicted waving, posed much as he was in a famous picture taken in 1942. At the time, his story was the subject of public interest.

Henke, the son of Carl and Louise Henke, was born on a McLeod County farm in 1918. Three years later his family moved to Hutchinson.

In 1940 he decided to “beat the draft” and enlisted. Henke was assigned to B Company, 135th Infantry Regiment of the 34th Red Bull Division. The enlistees departed for Europe one month after Pearl Harbor, having merged with the Iowa National Guard’s B Company, 133rd Regiment during training.

While Henke and others waited to disembark at Belfast, Northern Ireland, on Jan. 26, 1942, a colonel asked for a man from B Company. Lt. Springer picked Henke.

“They said, ‘Henke, get over there,’” Brinkman said. “He thought he was going to have some kind of detail or something.”

Instead he was approached by Gen. Russell Hartle, who asked if he could talk on the radio — to reporters.

“He said, ‘Well, if I have to, I think I can,’” Brinkman said.

With the National Anthem playing, Henke descended the gangplank as the first official enlisted American man in Europe, though there were soldiers already landed elsewhere. While a crowd roared, Henke was asked to repeat the first step six times so photographers could get the perfect shot. Hartle was surprised when he learned Henke was from Minnesota, as he had planned to have one of his men from Iowa as the first.

“All these important dignitaries were there,” Brinkman said. “A band was playing.”

Henke was thrust into celebrity status. He met Queen Elizabeth and Eleanor Roosevelt. When he called home to his parents and to his sweetheart, Iola Christensen — whom he later married — it was broadcast in Britain and the United States. His face was printed large in newspapers and magazines.

File photo  

Milburn Henke gained a celebrity status after he was selected to be the first official enlisted American to land in the European theater of World War II. He was depicted on the cover of the Feb. 21, 1942, cover of Illustrated.

“With all the attention I got, it looked as though the Army’s plan was for me to win the war single-handed,” he recalled, according to the Minnesota Military Museum,

Brinkman said the family received letters from all over, and letters to Henke told him to make sure to get back home to his sweetheart.

Brinkman recalls her father never spoke much about the war. But one particular feat earned him the Silver Star.

While fighting to liberate Tunisia from Axis control, Lt. Springer was injured. Henke and another soldier crawled out of a foxhole and tried to bring him back, but were forced to retreat under heavy fire. Then they tried again, crawling to avoid gunshots. Henke tied a piece of Springer’s coat around his leg and pulled him to safety.

“All the men tried to save him, but he died from his injuries,” Brinkman said. “My dad was awarded a Silver Star.”

Springer’s wife sent Henke a letter, “thanking him that her husband didn’t die out on the field by himself, and thanking him because he died in his fellow soldiers’ arms,” Brinkman said. “He had children, and it meant so much to them that he didn’t die alone.”

She still has the letter, and recalls when she first read it.

“I cried because it made me realize, the Silver Star, how much it did mean. He risked his life,” Brinkman said. “But he didn’t talk about it much. They didn’t talk about those things then, but that’s what I was most proud of.”

BACK HOME IN HUTCH

During preparation to invade Italy, a jeep overturned and fractured Henke’s back. He spent four months in the hospital, returned to duty briefly and was sent home. He asked Iola to marry him, and they were wed Aug. 20, 1944. They had three children: Gary, Bob and Patty.

Henke worked at his father’s cafe before opening Henke’s Cafe with Iola. He became an active member of the American Legion, Veteran of Foreign Wars and Disabled American Veterans. He was asked to participate in numerous parades over the years and helped with Special Olympics. Brinkman said her mother took pride in patriotism, and was always there to help Henke as he sought to honor other soldiers. She sold poppies to gather donations to assist disabled and hospitalized veterans.

During the 10th anniversary of the landing, Henke was photographed holding Brinkman. She still has the photo.

“He always said he just represented all the veterans,” she recalled, “all the soldiers. It wasn’t just about him. And that was so important to him. He was a humble man about this. He was proud of what he had done, but he was humble and gave more than 100 percent of the credit to all of the soldiers. They were all heroes.”

He remained famous in Northern Ireland, however, and was invited back for the 25th and 50th anniversaries of the landing.

As a father, he provided an example of work ethic.

“He always vowed his kids would go to college,” Brinkman recalls. “He would make it happen because he never had the chance. He once said he would hawk his shoes if he would have to, to make sure. We all went to college.”

Operating a cafe turned out to be great work for Henke, who loved to be social.

“Oh my gosh he was a talker,” Brinkman said. “And he worked so hard to provide, he and my mom did. They worked side by side.”

When Henke died April 26, 1998, he was buried at Peace Lutheran Cemetery near several men who followed him down the gangplank all those years ago.

“My mom sold poppies until she was 87 years old,” Brinkman said. “Two years before she died, she had to stop. She laid her last wreath (for Henke) at the ceremony the year before she died.”

In addition to many photos of her father, newspaper clippings and magazine covers featuring Henke are kept by Brinkman, along with other keepsakes. She has his medals, his Silver Star, hats and pins from organizations he was active in, and his dog tags are kept in a case.

The Freedom Rock provided one more way to honor her father.

“It kind of touched my heart,” Brinkman said. “It was another way to remember my dad.”


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Hutchinson police revise body camera policy

An independent audit of Hutchinson Police Services’ body-worn camera policy found two discrepancies in an otherwise positive report. Changes have since been made to correct those discrepancies.

The audit was conducted by Lynn Lembcke Consulting with the goal of verifying that Hutchinson police comply with state statutes regarding body cameras.

“To be honest, I’m pretty ecstatic that it came back with just those two minor discrepancies,” Hutchinson Police Chief Tom Gifferson said Tuesday during a City Council review of the report. “Both were just minor overlooks if anything else, and they were easily corrected. The audit went much more in depth than just looking at our policies. It’s how we store our records, retention schedule, if we’re using consistently within our policy.”

One of the discrepancies was that the Hutchinson policy did not specify officers are only allowed to use agency issued portable recording systems. The other was that the policy did not state officers are not responsible for notifying people they are being recorded. Both discrepancies were fixed by updating the policy, which is posted on the Hutchinson Police Services website.

The new policy states officers may use only department-issued body cameras, and officers have no duty to inform people they are being recorded.

The audit also examined issues such as data classification and retention, data access and inventory of body camera technology. Hutchinson Police Services was found to be in compliance for all of these requirements.

Hutchinson Police Services has been using body cameras since April 2017. In 2018, it began using Axon Capture, a program that allows officers to collect photographs and verbal statements as part of an investigation, then secure evidence directly from the scene into a case file.

In 2018, the department’s first full year with body cameras, officers uploaded 21,014 videos, 4,059.99 hours of recordings and 8,013.55 gigabytes of video. All video evidence is stored on evidence.com, a cloud-based storage website.

“We have yet to find a case where body camera footage has been negative for the police department,” Gifferson said. “So it’s only helped.”

Gifferson also said that since implementing body cameras, they’ve been able to hold officers and the public to a higher standard of accountability.

“The public, when they see you wearing the camera, they act differently,” he said. “Police officers are also more accountable because they’re wearing it. It helps resolve issues a lot quicker that way. It’s been 100 percent positive, in my opinion.”

City Attorney Mark Sebora also highlighted how footage from body cameras has helped him as a prosecutor.

“From a criminal prosecution standpoint — as the chief alluded to — a picture tells a thousand words,” Sebora said. “It helps me when I’m evaluating cases whether I should go forward with prosecution or not.”

A full copy of the audit report will be available on the city website at tinyurl.com/yyxsgzm4.


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Put the phone down Aug. 1

Police will have a new law to enforce starting Thursday, but they hope it will actually make the rules simpler.

It’s already illegal to text and drive, but as of Aug. 1, if you’re holding your phone while you drive, chances are you’re breaking the law.

Jack Hammett / Staff photo by Jack Hammett 

Chief Tom Gifferson

“The way the (new) law reads is it is illegal for you to make use of your phone unless it’s voice activated or by voice command, or single-touch activation,” said Hutchinson Police Chief Tom Gifferson. “So what that essentially means is if you are operating your vehicle and the phone is in your hand, that is a violation. So that makes it relatively easy (to enforce) within reason.”

GPS navigation, music and podcasts will be allowed to be used on phones if it is done in a hands-free manner, or if they are started before the vehicle moves. McLeod County Sheriff Scott Rehmann said the change takes some guess work out of enforcement.

Sheriff Scott Rehmann

“It’s always hard to know what exactly they’re doing unless you take it into evidence and have it looked at, which is costly and a waste of resources,” he said. “Now it’s clarified. It’s hands-free and that’s the way it is.”

“It doesn’t matter if you are talking on the phone or utilizing an app, the law is straightforward,” Gifferson said.

Gifferson said the public has had ample opportunity to learn about the law, and the state has done a good job getting the word out. He hopes that means the public will comply with the new law and officers won’t suddenly need to make more traffic stops.

“I’m hoping the law going into effect will make a noticeable difference, rather than our enforcement of that law,” he said.

On the other hand, because he believes the news of the new law has made the rounds, he doesn’t see much room for people to claim they weren’t aware.

“Officers have some discretion, but I think we want to take a proactive approach to this,” Gifferson said.

Rehmann believes it may take a little time for the public to catch on.

“I imagine it will be an educational period,” he said. “It’s such an ingrained habit with people. Those habits are hard to break, as any habit is. ... I think people will try to cheat, hold their phone lower, which is even more dangerous. Our deputies will be out watching.”

He said sheriff’s deputies may start with a warning before a ticket is given. The first violation of the law comes with a $50 ticket plus court fees. Subsequent violations come with a $275 ticket plus court fees.

The violation is a petty misdemeanor, which is not considered a crime in Minnesota. Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, authored the bill that launched the law. He said he wanted for it to be a petty misdemeanor because the goal was to get people to stop using their phones, not to create a new group of criminals.

There are exceptions in the law for 911 emergency calls.

As a milk hauler for First District Association in Litchfield, Patrick Riley has witnessed his share of bad driving habits and welcomes the new law.

“I have daily near misses where someone starts to drift into my lane. and when they get close you can plainly see the phone in their hand,” he said. “Last summer I had to take the shoulder to avoid one car. It’s both sexes, all ages.”

“It’s a good law,” Rehmann said. “Most of the time when we deal with distracted driving, cell phone use, it has been part of automobile crashes and fatalities. That’s always been our big concern.”

Gifferson cited a Minnesota Department of Public Safety report, which found that between 2014 and 2018, more than 60,000 crashes were related to distracted driving, and 1 in 5 Minnesota crashes was due to distracted driving.

“It’s not worth people losing their lives over someone being distracted on a phone,” Rehmann said.


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Hutchinson City Council hopes to finalize Econofoods purchase

Hutchinson City Council hopes to finalize purchase plans for the former Econofoods building during a closed meeting Monday, according to Mayor Gary Forcier.

“That’s where we’re looking to move (the police station) to,” Forcier said.

The former Econofoods building along Washington Avenue East has been vacant since November 2013. During council discussions earlier this year, the building was identified as a possible location for a new public safety complex. The current police station has been in use for 30 years, and the department is outgrowing the facility.

“The biggest issue with our building is just space,” said former Police Chief Dan Hatten in 2017. “The police department has grown since the building was built in 1989.”

According to state law, meetings may be closed to discuss certain property transactions, but City Administrator Matt Jaunich said any final decisions would be made at an open meeting.