Ely’s oldest WWII veteran honored with Quilt of Valor

by Nick Wognum
Calvin Herrala was born 98 years ago in Ely’s Tanner Hospital. On Aug. 4 he was recognized for his World War II service with a Quilt of Valor.
He was one of a number of veterans saluted by the Ely Baseball Association at an opening night program in conjunction with the start of the Minnesota Junior Legion Baseball Division II State Tournament.
Herrala grew up in Ely and would graduate from high school in 1942. According to his daughter, Jennifer Herrala Webb, Calvin came home one day in the spring of 1943 and found a postcard telling him to report to Fort Snelling.
“He had applied to a program the year before where he could go right into the Army through an educational program,” said Webb.
Calvin Herrala entered the service in April of 1943.
On May 22, 2010, Webb contacted her dad, Calvin Herrala, and asked him to again tell the story of how “he won World War II.”
Cal explained that during the war he spent time on Iwo Jima doing radar maintenance since radar was used in taking daily meteorological readings from radiosondes which are reflective lighter-than-air balloons bearing instruments. Radar reflected from the aluminum foil attached to a balloon can determine how fast the winds aloft are moving and in what direction. The weather data were used to calculate the optimum loads of fuel for the tanks of bombers setting off on sorties.
Normally he saw bombers coming from Saipan, Tinian, and Guam which might need to refuel or address mechanical problems with repairs on Iwo Jima.
It was another 950 miles to Japan from Iwo Jima. His assignment wasn’t always high action, and indeed sometimes it was slow enough in his work that he volunteered for special duties that were posted.
On Iwo Jima, the U.S. Navy maintained a squadron of planes in groups called Combat Air Search Units or Carrier Service Units, and the one on Iwo Jima (one of several on Iwo Jima?) was CASU-52. The job of these units was to fly ahead of bombers when they set off for their bombing runs against Japan and to follow the bombers on their return from Japan in order to assist them.
Japanese bombers would dive on enemy aircraft and swoop away after the attack.
However if U.S. planes were flying at only 150 or 50 feet, Japanese bombers were deterred from attacking them since at such low altitude there’d be no way for the Japanese planes safely and reliably to swoop up and away afterwards. U.S. bombers were not terrifically prone to Japanese attack at high altitude partly because it was difficult for the Japanese to attack them: the B-52s didn’t fly over Japan for very long, and bombers couldn’t fire terrifically far.
In case an American B-52 were shot down, the CASU units could assist in the rescue of men from the water to spare them capture or death.
The CASU planes would alternate with each other so that each plane flew part of the time at 50 feet and part of the time at 150 feet. There was no time to jettison the plane at such altitudes; the only option is to crash land if there’s trouble in a CASU plane!
They were responsible for searching for debris or men in the water. Volunteers were needed so that there were sufficient men to monitor the sea below them for any flotsam or jetsam. These observers had positions in the tail of the plane.
CASU planes would fly in front of the bombers flying toward their destinations and then follow them back to Iwo Jima as the B-52s headed back to their ultimate stations at Guam, Saipan, or Tinian.
He did volunteer assignments like that a number of times. One day he volunteered to assist a CASU mission flying to Nagoya and Yokohama and back.
After the war ended his military service was over. Back in this country, Calvin studied under the GI bill at Harvard University majoring in physics.
One day after his classes he picked up his mail on his way into the dorm and went to his room where he planned to begin his physics assignment.
In his mail, he got a large envelope from the War Department awarding him a Navy battle star for his part in the air war against Japan. This puzzled him because he had served in the Army Air Corps, not the Navy. There aren’t a lot of people with the Finnish last name Herrala that there could be confusion with another WWII veteran.
His physics course at that time was covering nuclear fusion and nuclear fission. Obvious examples in the textbook were the atomic detonations over Japan.
Then everything began to click in his mind; the date mentioned in his text matched the date of his service, August 9, 1945, cited in the award.
Only because of the textbook reading for his assignment on that day was he able to put the pieces of information together and to realize that he’d unknowingly volunteered for a CASU search and rescue mission supporting the delivery of the second atomic bomb to Nagasaki.
“My father humorously figures if he was in the tail of the last plane coming home from that mission and if the surrender soon followed, then it must be that he ended the war! He was the last man to leave Japan. Clearly the Japanese didn’t want him ever to return—there wasn’t fighting in the same way after August 9, 1945,” said Webb.
“On Sept. 8, 2016 I called my dad because we are preparing to visit an air show at the Dutchess County Airport on Saturday and might be able to see some B-24s and B-29s. I wanted to ask if it were a B-29 or a B-24 that he rode. Dad felt that it would be a plane with a reciprocating engine and that it would’ve been equipped with machine guns in case of attack. The planes with the bombs would’ve been equipped with less, he thought, in terms of firepower because if they couldn’t do their mission, there’d have been nothing for them to accomplish at all.
“My dad thinks that perhaps the plane he rode was a PB4-Y2. PB stands for ‘patrol bomber’ which would’ve been a Navy equivalent of a similar or identical Army plane modified for flying and observing rather than for bombing.”
Herrala learned about photography from one of his uncles during high school, so all during his life he was able to expose, develop, and print black and white photos.
During his military service he could trade rations for beer or cigarettes for darkroom chemicals so that he could document the people, places, and events around him. He has an album containing some of his own photos from Mt. Suribachi of the island below and the buildings and people he knew and worked with.
In the fall 1945 went to Harvard graduated in 1949 with a degree in physics. He worked in Minneapolis and then worked for Minneapolis Honeywell starting in 1951 until 1989 in various locations around the country.
He would return to Ely in the summers and even worked at an observation tower at Angleworm Lake during three years of college during the summers.
Herrala moved back to Ely in 2005 after his wife passed away. He’s been in Ely ever since. Calvin has enjoyed driving around the countryside, he loved the beauty of the Ely area. Up until quite recently he was able to walk from South Second Avenue West to Highway 1 and back.
Alzheimer’s has required him to stay closer to his residence. He loved growing up in Ely and the schools he attended. He loves music and along with his wife supported various musical endeavors.
After his wife passed away in 2005, he reconnected with his high school sweetheart who by that point had been widowed and the two of them spent seven years together.
“It was clear he and Marian Cherne had been very much in love and it was clear they picked up where they left off 64 years before,” said Webb.
“He is a wonderful dad who set a good example. He was very interested in all kinds of things. He has been very supportive and very loving.
Webb said her mom, Nancy Brownell, married her dad in 1949. She grew up in Ely and her father was Burt Brownell who ran an electric services store on Chapman Street while her mother ran the Gift Corner.
Calvin Herrala has been interviewed by the Ely Echo’s Pam Roberts several times, always willing to share his stories.
In May of 2019 while sitting on a bench outside on a sunny day, he told Roberts, “I keep thinking of the days when the Lincoln School was right here on this block with Kindergarten onward to the fifth grade.
“Once a week we marched on that side walk all the way to Washington School to the library and came back right down that way... So I’ve got a lot of memories. There’s a house there that my mother used to walk me to when I was a boy. We’d go see an uncle that lived in that second house. Edwards lived in the first house, Skantz in the second house.
“On the end of the next block I had another cousin, Aijala, that lived there and we used to walk there every once in a while. We’d spend some time talking to the relatives there and then we’d walk home. At that time there was a skating rink right in here you know. (The Lincoln rink) We used to sit on the front porch of that house there and watch the skaters.
“That was quite a lot of fun we used to have. I have many pleasant memories from this spot. There’s a church down the street that I used to go to Sunday School. (Grace Lutheran) At that time it was called the Finnish Suomi Synod Church. I sing in the choir. This time I sing in the Presbyterian Church Choir. I used to sing in the Lutheran Church choir also. But they are located so close together that when I left the Lutheran Church to get to the Presbyterian Church in the winter time it was a little slippery and you couldn’t quite make it so as I got older I decided I could only do one.
“I decided to stay with the Presbyterian Church because that’s the church that my wife and my childhood friend used to go to.
“I used to remember talking about it and every time I would walk past it from Washington School to my house on West Sheridan Street I’d look at that church building. Now when I walk by it I go IN it.
“At this time I’d walk by it because I was going to the other church before I got engaged to my wife to be. So there is a lot of memories with every one of these houses has memories including the Lincoln School that was on that block there.
“This town of Ely is full of memories. I just love it. I can’t look anywhere without seeing a relative or friend or that sort of thing that they lived there or we did this or we’d play Hide and Go Seek there or we’d played that there... I love this lovely town.
“The mining industry has gone by and now the people that lived there are beginning to die out and it’s going to be a new town and you don’t know what it’s going to be like. I probably won’t be here when it’s the new town but I sure love being here with the old town.
“Every corner, every hill, every street, every view brings up a memory of something there. Every time it’s a different point every time I go because there are so many on each of these spots...”
Calvin Herrala now resides at Carefree Living in Ely. His daughter said he has signs of dementia but still loves talking to people. He was especially pleased to be honored with a Quilt of Valor for his time of service in World War II.