The British troopship, a converted luxury liner, slipped secretly out of the Manhattan darkness. It was January 1942, just a month after Pearl Harbor, and Milburn Henke, a 23-year-old cafe owner’s kid from Hutchinson, Minn., was among 4,000 American soldiers with the 34th Red Bull Infantry Division.
When the ship docked in Belfast, Henke wasn’t sure where he was but figured Ireland. Waiting to disembark, he was sitting around “doing nothing when the colonel came around looking awfully busy and bothered.” The colonel asked Lt. Springer for a man. Henke didn’t think much about it when he was told to go with the colonel.
“When I was picked, I thought: Oh no, another dirty detail,” Henke later recalled, figuring he’d been tapped to unload cargo.
Instead, Henke walked 11 steps down a gangplank and into history’s footnotes — becoming in that moment the first American combat GI to set foot on European soil in World War II. The 75th anniversary of Victory in Europe Day on May 8 makes it fitting to remember him now.
“The fact that I was just sort of picked out of the hat doesn’t change the memories,” he said in 1971.
The Royal Ulster Rifles band played “The Star-Spangled Banner” and the crowd roared as Henke took those ceremonial steps. So many cameras greeted him that he needed to restage his walk multiple times until photographers had enough angles to stoke patriotic fervor.
“I never tried to downgrade what it meant,” he said. “I mean the symbol of America sending its boys to Europe to help win the war.”
On Henke’s way down the gangplank and into history, Maj. Gen. Russell Hartle asked him if he could talk to the waiting radio and newspaper reporters. Henke shrugged: “Well, if I have to.”
In the process, he carved another notch in the history of the Minnesota-Iowa rivalry. “When I said I was from Minnesota, a whole bunch of army mouths fell open,” Henke said in 1956. “Our outfit was mostly from Iowa, and I think it was taken for granted ‘the first’ would be from Iowa.”
After saluting U.S. troop commander Maj. Gen. James Chaney, the Hutchinson kid asked: “When do we get a whack at those Germans?”
Henke told reporters of his one regret: He’d left his girlfriend, Iola Christensen, back in Minnesota. “I don’t know if she will wait for me,” he said. “She may be stepping out on me now, but I hope not.”
Not to worry. Milburn and Iola married in 1944, raised three children and were married for 53 years. After the war he operated Henke’s Hamburger Shop near a highway filling station in Hutchinson. He wasn’t far from the McLeod County farm where he was born in 1918, during the First World War. He died at 79 in 1998 from pancreatic cancer.
“He was proud,” Iola said when he died, “but he always said it wasn’t just him. He represented all the American soldiers.”
The spotlight brought him meetings with Queen Elizabeth and Eleanor Roosevelt, not to mention 1,000 letters from all 50 states, England and South America. “I had a barracks bag full, my parents had two,” he said.
Iola said some of the letters to her came from women who wrote to say they never regretted waiting for their World War I soldiers. She said that one soldier wrote her to say “he’d personally pin my ears back” if he heard she’d stepped out on Henke.
During the fighting in North Africa, Sgt. Henke crawled under heavy fire and pulled wounded Lt. Springer to safety, earning a Silver Star. But by the time victory in Europe was secured on May 8, 1945, Henke was out of the limelight. He had fractured his back in a jeep accident before the invasion of Italy, spending four months in the hospital before a brief return to duty and then a ship ride home with less fanfare than what had greeted his arrival.
“For a while there with all the attention I got, it looked as though the Army’s plan was for me to win the war single-handed,” he told Minneapolis Star columnist Jim Klobuchar in 1971, while pouring coffee at his Hutchinson cafe.
His father had run a diner since 1930 and couldn’t afford to send Milburn to college. “I vowed I’d hock my shoes if I had to, to be sure my kids had the chance,” he said. All three kids went to college.
Henke returned to Belfast in 1967 on the 25th anniversary of his historic gangplank walk. “They sure didn’t have trouble getting me over the first time. But this time, I wasn’t so sure,” he said.
His passport application took longer than expected, delaying the trip. And the airline ticket provided him by a Belfast TV station had him leaving from Kansas City. He guessed that someone had mixed up Hutchinson, Kan., and his hometown in Minnesota. “They thought I could take a taxi to the Kansas City airport,” he joked in 1967.
Henke’s uniform is part of the Minnesota Military Museum at Camp Ripley, where director Randal Dietrich said it’s important to remember the Hutchinson soldier on this anniversary.
Even amid the coronavirus crisis, Dietrich said, “Some things should not be overshadowed.”
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.