Joe Tacheny remembers the day his older brothers went to war.
They were among several dozen young men from Litchfield and surrounding area who boarded a troop train on a brutally cold night in January 1951 that eventually brought them to Camp Rucker, Alabama. It was a kind of raucous occasion at the Litchfield Depot, Joe recalls, as a large crowd gathered to send off members of the town’s National Guard unit.
“It was a huge gathering,” Joe said. “They were all excited to go to war and end communism. You know how it goes, they were all wound up.”
There were 71 men in all, ranging in age from 17 to 22, who were part of the Minnesota National Guard’s Company I, 136th Infantry Regiment, 47th Viking Division. They had been sworn in to active Army duty by Lt. Col. E.S. Sponenburgh on Jan. 16 at the Litchfield Community Building. Six days later, they marched from the Community Building — now the Litchfield Opera House — to the depot to board the train amid great fanfare.
“The next time I went to the depot, it wasn’t quite so happy,” Joe said, recalling how he and his sister accompanied his parents when they picked up the remains of his brother Ralph Tacheny in February 1952. “That’s when his body came back. I’ll never forget the rail car door rolling open and seeing that coffin.”
SADNESS AND PRIDE
Those memories and many others — a mixture of pride and sadness — flooded back for Joe this summer when he traveled to Washington, D.C., in late July for the dedication of the Wall of Remembrance at the Korean War Veterans Memorial.
Joe and his sister, Carole Mueller, along with several other family members were among the Gold Star families who participated in the Wall of Remembrance dedication events, which included a private ceremony July 26 and the public dedication the following day. Joe and Carole also went to the Library of Congress after the public event, where they were interviewed about their family’s connection to the Korean War.
“We did interviews that they recorded, told about our childhood and what (Ralph) was like when we knew him,” Joe said. “It’s all on record at the Library of Congress.”
Joe drove to Washington, D.C., with his nephew, Dale Granlund, a Manannah resident. They met Carole, who lives in Plymouth, Michigan, now, as well as Joe’s daughter, Kate Najera, who had flown in from her home in Loveland, Colorado, and a few other family members.
Joining them were Cheri Bo-line, Ralph and Verna (Madson) Tacheny’s daughter. She was born after Ralph was killed in Korea. Ralph and Verna were married when he came home on leave from Camp Rucker, and the couple returned to Alabama before he shipped out for Korea.
Letters they exchanged that have been kept by the family indicate Ralph knew of the pregnancy, and “he was excited about that,” Najera said.
Joe Tacheny, the youngest of Joseph and Grace Tacheny’s eight children, grew up on the family farm about 10 miles south of Litchfield and attended country school in a one-room schoolhouse.
He was 9 years old when his older brothers headed off to undergo training in preparation to fight in a conflict halfway around the world. Joe admitted he didn’t really understand the significance of it all at the time, and certainly didn’t expect to never see one of his brothers alive again.
Ralph was the first of the Tacheny brothers to receive orders to go to Korea. Another brother, Stan, was on his way to Korea when word came that Ralph had been killed. The Army changed Stan’s orders when he reached Japan, sending him back to Camp Rucker, where he would serve with two other brothers and fellow Litchfield National Guard members through the end of the Korean War.
The brothers — Stan, Jim and Bob — returned to Litchfield for Ralph’s funeral and burial in March 1952.
Glad to see his brothers again after more than a year, Joe also remembers the unbearable sadness Ralph’s death and the funeral-reunion brought then and for a long time after.
“It was a very bad several years for us after we got word he was killed,” he said. “I don’t believe my mother ever got over it. My father was the same way. It struck so hard. When my mom got word of what happened, it just bothered her forever, the rest of her life.”
TRIP FILLED WITH MEMORIES
When Joe’s niece, Beth Mueller, a teacher in Michigan, learned about the Wall of Remembrance dedication, she brought it up during a Tacheny family gathering this past spring. Before long, they were planning a trip to Washington, D.C.
Joe was eager to participate, and especially grateful when his nephew volunteered to make the drive with him. But he admitted he wasn’t prepared for the emotions the trip and events brought to the surface.
He had never been to the Korean War Veterans Memorial, what he now calls, “the most impressive of all the memorials.”
The memorial, which commemorates the sacrifices of 5.8 million Americans who served during the three years of the Korean War, was originally dedicated July 27, 1995. The memorial includes 19 stainless steel statues, each about 8 feet tall, that depict Army, Marine, Navy and Air Force members of various ethnicities to represent a cross section of America, seemingly walking through rice paddies of Korea. A granite mural wall includes etchings of 2,400 photographs of the Korean War, while reflecting the images of the 19 statues.
Supporters had raised funds for decades in an effort to add a Wall of Remembrance that would carry the names of 36,634 Americans who died supporting the war and more than 7,174 Koreans who died assisting the U.S. Army. Finally, with funds from the South Korean government, the wall was built — 100 granite panels weighing between six and eight tons. Along with Ralph Tacheny, two other members of the Litchfield National Guard unit — Sgt. Roger Gustafson and Sgt. Eugene Kronbeck — were killed in fighting. Another, Maj. Sgt. Austin LaPlante was wounded and became a prisoner of war. Seven others were wounded.
Joe said he was overwhelmed with the dedication ceremonies, especially the first one for Gold Star families. He also was impressed with the hospitality from volunteers, who arranged bus transportation for families to and from events. Because it was a smaller gathering, the Gold Star families event allowed Joe and other family members to get up close and linger at the Wall of Remembrance, finding “Ralph F. Tacheny” etched on a panel.
“Me and my sister talked about this afterward, and it was very emotional — for me, her and my brother’s daughter,” Joe said. “It almost felt like we got some closure by being there, being part of it.”
Those emotions continued as the group traveled to the Library of Congress to share their oral histories. Joe and Carole each were interviewed by their daughters, and the daughters then interviewed Cheri together.
The idea behind family members interviewing them is to put the person speaking at ease as they share memories. As family, the interviewers also have greater knowledge of the family history, allowing for more intimate questions.
Such was the case for Kate Najera as she interviewed her father about his older brother. She recalled a photograph of Ralph Tacheny, taken shipboard on his way to Korea, a wide grin spread across his face.
“That gorgeous picture of Ralph on the ship, I asked my dad about it, that huge grin, but yet he knows what he’s going into,” Najera said. “I asked if that smile was just the kind of person he was.
“My dad said, ‘That is 100 percent the truth,’” Najera said. “He was always going to make something better for everybody else. He was just a happy, charismatic guy, the kind of brother that made things fun at home.”
Najera said she and her cousin, Beth Mueller, both felt fortunate to be part of the trip. It allowed them to learn more about their family history, but perhaps more important was seeing the cathartic effect the trip had on their parents.
“They didn’t realize they needed this closure until they got there,” Najera said. “I just don’t think they knew how much they needed that trip to sort of come full circle. That was truly important to them.
“From my perspective, being a daughter, it just meant a lot for me, and I know for Beth, too, to sort of help facilitate them having those moments. Just being able to help was really beautiful. Being there, the weight of all the emotions ... it’s something I will never forget that I got to do with my father.”
That closure was evident for Ralph’s daughter, Cheri, too. Because she never met her father, Joe said, adding, Cheri was uncertain of her place in the event.
“She said she never really had any feelings about it, because she never knew him,” he said. “But it all came home to rest when she saw his name carved in stone.”