Editor's note: Each week reporter Matthew Guerry shares the life stories of residents of Minnesota or the Dakotas who have died recently. Maybe you don't know them, but their stories are worth knowing. If you have a suggestion for someone to be featured, email email@example.com or call 651-321-4314.
Little about the plan was explained to Norman Ebinger and the other men in his company.
They were assigned to patrol the forested perimeter around a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp in Philippines. But they weren't told that the wider battalion would soon engage in perhaps the most daring rescue mission of World War II.
"We didn't really know what they were going to do. The news wasn't really spread around," Ebinger recalled in an interview for the Legends of WWII YouTube channel.
It wasn't until later that Ebinger and the others learned some 500 American and Allied prisoners were liberated in the 1945 nighttime strike dubbed "the Great Raid." He wouldn't learn the full extent of his hometown connection to the episode until even later.
Among the prisoners at the camp near the city of Cabanatuan were survivors of the infamous death march that followed the American and Filipino forces' surrender to Imperial Japan in the Bataan province three years earlier. Members of the Brainerd 34th Tank Company were some of those made to march.
To Jim Knudsen, of Brainerd, Minn., Ebinger's role in the Great Raid is especially notable. A long-time friend of Ebinger and his family, Knudsen also is nephew to tank company member Julius Knudsen, who disappeared during the march and is still considered missing in action.
But the historical intertwining of Ebinger and Knudsen's families didn't become apparent until a few years ago.
"I was visiting with Norman Ebinger as he did beaver trapping for me, and his brother John and son Terry are both good friends of mine," Knudsen, 70, said in an email. "Norm's brother John told me that Norman fought in the Philippines in World War II. Since I'm still involved in the search for my uncle over there, that piqued my interest, so I sat with Norman and interviewed him."
"That's where I found out the amazing history of this man," he continued.
Norman Conrad Ebinger died Wednesday, April 21, 2021, at Little Falls Care Center. He was 98.
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Born in Brainerd on June 13, 1922, he was the son of William Conrad and Mabel Ebinger. A decorated veteran, he earned a Silver Star, a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart over the course of his military service in World War II.
He married Irene Billman in 1941 and was drafted into the U.S. Army in December of the following year. He worked in a paper mill in Brainerd, where he raised a family, following his return from the war.
Trained at Fort Sill in Oklahoma, Ebinger was at first part of a special weapons group sent to Australia in 1943 that, according to Knudsen. But authorities denied them entry, fearing that their pack animals could spread non-native parasites and germs. His group was sent instead to New Guinea and later absorbed into the 6th Ranger Battalion.
Having been wounded several times during his service, Ebinger accumulated enough "points" to go home early but declined to do so, saying "I signed up to fight, I'm here till the war is over," according to Knudsen.
"That was those soldiers in those days," Knudsen said in an interview. "You just don't hear enough about them."
Ebinger is survived by his sons Terry and Ronald Ebinger, their spouses, and numerous grandchildren.