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Paynesville Press - May 22, 2002

Remembering Virl

By Michael Jacobson

Virg Liebrenz and Mary Virl Liebrenz spent eight months in the United States Army, but only nine days in Korea. When he first set foot in Korea, after arriving by plane from Japan on July 1, 1953, less than a month of hostilities remained in the three-year war.

But Virl - who grew up on a farm between Paynesville and Regal and who graduated from Paynesville High School in 1948 - didn't live to see the truce signed on July 27, 1953.

On July 10, 1953, only nine days after arriving in Korea, Virl was killed accidently in a firearms accident in his tent when another soldier mistakenly fired a pistol, which he didn't know was loaded, into Virl's chest.

"The sad thing is if he had lasted two weeks longer things would have been very different," said his son, John, 49, who was born a month before his father boarded a ship for Japan, on his way to Korea

Virl Liebrenz, 23 at the time of his death, was one of two young men with Paynesville connections to die within the last month of the Korean War. Eugene Mohs, 21, who lived in Roscoe for 12 years while growing up, was killed on July 26, 1953, the day before the armistice was signed.

Virl was born on Aug. 22, 1929, and grew up on a farm between Regal and Paynesville with his three brothers - Dale, Darrell, and Jim - and his parents, John and Ethel.

His grandfather, Fred, had emigrated to the Paynesville area from Germany in the 1870s. Fred homesteaded the family farm and eventually owned five farms, one for each of his sons.

Virl's dad, John, got the home farm. He owned 160 acres and rented that amount again at times. Like the typical farm of their day, they grew corn, grain, and flax, and raised cattle, chickens, and hogs.

Virl was the third boy in the family, five years younger than Dale and three years younger than Darrell, both of whom served in the armed forces during World War II. Jim, the youngest, was born six years after Virl.

Easy-going by nature, Virl was a good athlete, playing football, basketball, baseball, and running track in high school. His specialty was the 880-yard run. He also played amateur baseball with the team from Regal and had a passion for softball.

After high school, he worked with his dad on the farm and met Mary Nelson, who had a sister living in Paynesville. Virl and Mary were married on July 28, 1951, 13 months after North Korea invaded South Korea and started the Korean War.

Virl in uniform After getting married, Virl took a job at Culligan Soft Water Service in Paynesville, but still helped his father on the farm.

Virl was drafted into the United States Army, being inducted on Dec. 8, 1952. He willingly joined.

"He was married and had a child on the way. I don't think he tried to get out (of serving) on account of that, but he could have," said Jim, 66, who still lives in Paynesville.

"He wanted to serve his country," explained Darrell, now 75. "Both me and Dale were in the service, and I think he wanted to do the same."

From the day he left to join the Army to the day he was killed in Korea, Virl and Mary wrote 347 letters, in just over eight months, averaging over 43 letters per month. "They were madly in love," said John, of the corresondence between his mother and father.

Virl was sent to Fort Sheridan, Illinois, and then Fort Riley, Kansas. He completed his basic training on April 3, 1953, the day before John was born.

After completing his training, and before shipping out for Korea, Virl came home to Paynesville on a 14-day furlough, which was the only time he ever got to spend with his son and the last time that his family would see him alive.

When his furlough was up, Darrell took his brother to the airfield in Minneapolis so Virl could fly to Washington state, on his way to Korea. "I can still close my eyes," said Darrell, "and see him walking to the plane."

He left by ship for Japan in May 1953, spent two weeks crossing the Pacific, and another week in Japan before arriving in Korea by plane.

Virl was assigned to the second platoon of Company E of the 85th Infantry Regiment of the 10th Infantry Division. His unit was guarding prisoners around Pusan, while the fighting between the Allies, the North Koreans, and the Chinese was being done in entrenched lines along the 38th parallel.

He was in a tent with five others when another soldier fired a pistol he thought was unloaded. "It was quick," said Jim. "He was shot in the lungs, and he didn't last long. The medic was there right away, but there wasn't much he could do."

His family learned about his death four days later, on July 14, 1953, after the army sent a telegram to his Mary, who was living with her mother in Minneapolis with John.

The fighting actually stopped on July 25, 1953, and two days later the sides signed the armistice. "I'll remember that to my dying day. Exactly two weeks later, the fighting stopped," said Jim.

Virl's body didn't arrive back to Paynesville for two months after his death, and it wasn't until the end of September that a funeral with military rites could be conducted at the First United Brethren Church, now a part of Grace United Methodist Church, in Paynesville.

"His body arrived by train. I can remember. I can still remember going to the depot," said Jim.

Among Virl's pallbearers was Herbert Schmitz of St. Martin, who had been taken prisoner during 1951 and was a prisoner of war for two years before his release.

Liebrenz family Virl's family - his wife, his brothers, and his parents - were devastated by his death. "We were a close-knit family. When this happened to Virl, it affected all of us," said Darrell. "None of us really recovered." "Dad was never the same. He cried a lot," he added.

"I don't think dad and mom ever really recovered from it," agreed Jim. "Dad took it especially hard. Mother, too."

"It took many years for me to get over that myself. I guess at first it didn't seem like it was real, because it didn't happen here," he said. "It took awhile to sink in."

John Liebrenz isn't sure that he or his mother has ever really comes to terms with his father's death. "I'm not sure I've dealt with it," he said. "You can't miss what you've never had. I'm not sure how I'm going to ever have closure."

John does wear his father's Korean Service Medal on his black leather coat.

Virl's death did lead to John and Mary living rather atypical lives in the 1950s and 1960s. Mary, needing to support herself and John somehow, went back to beauty college and opened a beauty shop in Paynesville, which she ran until her death in 1983.

Mary seldom spoke about Virl. Apparently, even talking about Virl was painful and difficult for her. "It was something she never talked about," said John.

The love between his father and mother is clear to John, though. "She never dated another man. Never remarried," he said. "She took that relationship to the grave with her."

John, who lives in Maple Grove and works in admissions at the Minnesota School of Business, finally learned more about the relationship between his mother and his father after his mother died, and he sorted through her things, like those 347 wartime letters.

"They were just love letters. It just showed the affection that they had for each other," said John, who has explored publishing the letters so his three daughters can each have a copy.

"That's how I really got to know (my father)," he added.

Had his father lived, had he avoided his fatal accident, had he survived another two weeks in Korea until the ceasefire, "I think my life would have been totally different," said John.

Darrell and Jim - Virl's two surviving brothers - also aren't sure what Virl would be doing if he had lived. Darrell thinks Virl, if he would have made it back alive, would have taken advantage of the G.I. Bill to go to college, like Darrell did. "Had he gotten out of the service, I'm sure he would have taken advantage of the educational opportunities and done something with himself," he said.

He is equally certain that his brother would still be active in sports, like softball, which Darrell, a former engineer at Honeywell, still plays. "I'd rather die running to first base than in a recliner watching TV. I know Virl would do the same," said Darrell.

Since Virl's life was cut short, it's hard to tell what he might have done after the army. "It's hard to say what he would have done, but he loved farming," said Jim.

Growing up fatherless in Paynesville in the 1950s and 1960s. John was one of the few kids who didn't have a father. Paynesville in those days, like the rest of the world, was a simpler place and a great place to grow up, John noted.

For starters, he said, "There weren't a zillion different kinds of tennis shoes at $100 a pop." It was a good place to grow up, he feels.

Korean War/Liebrenz timeline John attributes his loner personality to his father's death and the isolation it caused in the family. "That molded a certain character trait in me," he said.

John, who came of age in the 1960s, also believes that his father's death should serve as a warning to take military action very seriously. "If you're going to put people's lives on the line, you really have to have a defined objective and kick ass," he said.

Memorial Day
The Liebrenzes also lost a cousin - Loren Bast, who was killed during World War II and buried in France, so Memorial Day had extra meeting for them even before Virl's death.

"Memorial Day means a lot to me," said Darell. "I think back at all those people who sacrificed their lives for me. It bothers me because they sacrificed themselves. It bothers me when people take it for granted and make fun of it."

No one in the Liebrenz family treats Memorial Day as a day off. "I have tears in my eyes every time I think of Memorial Day," Darrell added.

"I think it's important to me to pay tribute to all of them, especially my brother," said Jim, of Memorial Day, which will be held on Monday, May 27 this year.

"It means enough to him that he's missed only a couple Memorial Day services in 49 years," said Alice, Jim's wife.

While Jim appreciates the renewed patriotism in the United States since the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, he regrets that it takes such an event to inspire patriotism.

While many Americans treat Memorial Day as a meaningless vacation day that yields a long weekend, the Liebrenz family needs little reminder of the meaning of the day, since it strikes so close to home.

"I think of (Virl) all the time," said Darrell. "I'll never forget."

Which is exactly the point of Memorial Day.

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