Lars Johan Stark emigrated from Sweden at age 24 in 1850, becoming an early postmaster and legislator in Chisago County. There's an unincorporated community named for him about 50 miles north of St. Paul, and Stark Road runs just north of Covenant Cemetery near Harris.
That small graveyard, lined with tall junipers, is a good place to focus on this Memorial Day weekend.
Nearly a century after Lars headed west to America, two of his great-grandsons — Army Air Corps Sgts. Russel Stark, 21, and Harvey Stark, 19 — headed back to Europe from Harris.
On Sept. 11, 1944, the Stark brothers climbed into their B-17 bomber, nicknamed the Arkansas Rambler, in southeastern England. The Starks, both gunners, were part of a nine-member crew. Their mission: Bomb Nazi targets in Leipzig, Germany.
Seven German fighter pilots swooped down during the B-17's second run at the target. Four of the American crewmen died in the ensuing crash near Neuhausen, Germany, including both Stark brothers and Sgt. William Dodge, 21, a radio operator gunner from Virginia, Minn.
Russ and Harvey were the younger two of Marie and Lawrence Stark's four children. Their father farmed and worked at a feed mill in Harris, according to the 1940 census. He and Marie Collins, a Wisconsin native, had married when both were 20.
After the Stark brothers died the same day in 1944, the War Department transferred their older brother, Pvt. Lorrie Stark, to permanent duty in the United States "in recognition of family sacrifice to the war." Lorrie would live to be a month shy of 90, while his kid brothers were among 9,765 Minnesotans killed in World War II.
Four years after the crash, on a mid-November Sunday, the Stark brothers' remains were reburied at Covenant Cemetery on the south side of Stark Road, following a memorial service at the Harris Covenant Church. By then, their parents had moved to Minneapolis. But they too would return to Harris, buried in the graveyard a mile southwest of town in the 1970s. When Marie Stark died in 1978 at 81, two years after her husband, her short obituary featured the words: "Gold Star Mother."
Nearly 77 years after they died, information on the Stark brothers is hard to find. Facebook says that American Legion Post No. 139 in Harris, to which Marie Stark belonged as an auxiliary member, is "permanently closed." The Chisago County Historical Society has neither displays nor files on the brothers. Newspaper archives have only sparse references. Dying so young, Russ and Harvey fathered no children. With their older siblings and parents all dead, there's almost no one left to tell their story.
From their draft cards, we know Russ was a beanpole — 6-foot-1 and 155 pounds — with blue eyes and blond hair. His younger brother also had blue eyes, but Harvey's hair was darker and he stood 2 inches shorter and weighed 20 pounds less at 135.
Much of what we know about the Starks comes from Mary Peterson, 73, a retiree in Austin, Minn. Her uncle — Army Air Corps Sgt. Kermit Olstad of Blooming Prairie, Minn. — was a B-17 gunner who died when his plane exploded over Munich, about six months before the Starks crashed.
Peterson, who retired from the business office of Austin's Riverland Community College in 2012, fell down the rabbit hole of WWII research in March 2020 as the pandemic shutdowns began. Since then, she's updated nearly 2,000 military web pages and written 700 short biographies of fallen WWII soldiers — including those of her uncle and the Stark brothers.
"It has become very addicting and emotional to work on the research and the stories," said Peterson, whom we first met for a column last Memorial Day. She focuses on B-17 and B-24 aircrews, she said, "because I feel like I bring them together again by telling their story of how they all died together."
Peterson has immersed herself in websites such as Find A Grave and Fold3, the military offshoot of ancestry.com. She's joined a volunteer network of researchers, working with a nonprofit group called Stories Behind the Stars. Their aim: preserving the memories of our war dead.
"Mary Peterson is perhaps our most prolific story writer," said Don Milne, the founder and director of Stories Behind the Stars. By next Memorial Day, he hopes to have a smartphone app up and running that will enable people to scan a veteran's gravestone and link to their story.
In addition to her uncle Kermit, Peterson's father, brother and three nephews served in the U.S. Army, one of whom is still on active duty. Peterson recently saw a maxim — We Don't Know Them All, But We Owe Them All — on a veterans' Facebook page. It sums up why she keeps doing WWII research.
"I also find it rewarding to acknowledge their service and the sacrifice so that future generations will never forget them because we will have it in writing," she said.
Curt Brown's tales about Minnesota's history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org. His latest book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: http://strib.mn/MN1918.