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A family's ultimate sacrifice

Fiction: In "Saving Private Ryan," the latest drama from director Steven Spielberg, due in theaters July 24, a squad of American soldiers is sent behind enemy lines after the 1944 Normandy invasion to extricate paratrooper James Ryan. He is the youngest of four brothers fighting in World War II. The other three have been killed within days of one another. For the sake of their mother, officials in Washington want James Ryan brought out alive.

Fact: Between March 17 and Aug. 25, 1944, a period of five months and a week, four sons of Alben and Gunda Borg-strom from northern Utah's Bear River Valley - Leroy, Clyde, Rolon and Rulon - were killed on battlefronts around the globe. The two youngest, 19-year-old twins, died in Europe within 17 days of each other. For the sake of their mother and their father, President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered the military to send a fifth brother, Boyd, home from the Pacific. He did not want to go.

When Karen Rapich of Tremonton was at the movies not too long ago, she caught a trailer for the upcoming war film, "Saving Private Ryan," starring Tom Hanks and Matt Damon.

"I saw the preview, called my mom and said, `They've made a movie about Dad's family!' "

Her late father was Eldon Borgstrom, the youngest son in a family from Thatcher, Box Elder County. Only a teen during World War II, he did not go to war but was impacted by it all his life. His brothers - Leroy, Clyde, Rolon and Rulon - did go and died. Boyd, a Marine, returned home safely.

All of America came to know their story. Many remember it still. The military rites surrounding their collective funeral - 50 years ago this past week, on June 26, 1948 - in particular stirred emotions around the world.

Returning from a cruise recently, Rapich's mother, Evelyn, sat next to a woman from Texas who, when she learned her name and where she was from, said, "Oh! The Borgstrom boys!"

On Memorial Day, Evelyn Borgstrom was arranging flowers around the Tremonton gravesite memorializing the brothers - four white wooden crosses in a line, flags and stone markers recalling their names and their service - "and a man nearby said, `You don't happen to be related to those guys?' " Yes, she replied, by marriage. The visitor said he was from San Francisco.

A memorial beside the Thatcher-Penrose LDS meetinghouse lists the four names, along with other local men killed in 20th century wars, as does one in Brigham City. A hallway exhibit in Tremonton's museum, upstairs in the community center that was once the elementary school, recalls their tragedy. Large images of the four brothers are draped with black cloth. And their surname has been applied to Borgstrom Hall, the Army Reserve Center in Ogden, where more photos, folded flags and service medals are displayed in the entranceway. The latter are replacements, for two decades ago a thief stole the originals, on loan to the center by the family.

The displays all, in one form or another, briefly outline the fates of the Borgstrom boys:

Pfc. Clyde E. Borgstrom, 28, a member of the Marine Corps' Aviation Engineers trained to drive a bulldozer, was killed March 17, 1944, on Guadalcanal, a southwestern Pacific Island secured only after fierce fighting, which he survived. He was clearing land when a tree fell and crushed him.

Pfc. Elmer Leroy Borgstrom, 30, the oldest and generally known as "Roy," was a medic with the Army's 91st Infantry Division. He was not allowed, by convention, to carry a gun. Nevertheless, while draping a wounded soldier over his shoulder on bloody Anzio beach in Italy, he was shot and killed on June 22, 1944.

"Clyde had joined first," in 1940, Evelyn Borgstrom recalled, before the United States had entered the expanding world conflict. "Boyd, he went in to watch over Clyde. They were very close." Roy was next. And, when they turned 18 in 1943, twins Rulon and Rolon enlisted on the same day. "They'd never been away from home in their whole lives," she said.

Sgt. Rolon D. Borgstrom, a gunner with the Army Air Force's 605th Bomber Crew, was mortally injured during an Allied raid over Germany on Aug. 8, 1944. He died of his wounds in England.

Pfc. Rulon J. Borgstrom had stormed into France with the infantry as part of the D-Day offensive. He was reported missing during an attack on LaDreff, France, on Aug. 25, 1944.

None of the boys who were killed had married. Of their immediate family, only one sister, Wilma Hawkes of Brigham City, survives. As the keeper of the flame, she remembers them as they were.

"We were just a happy family," she said. "We were poor and didn't have much."

The lively young men were, as their induction physicals proved, "as healthy as they could be" - and proud of the fact, their sister added. "They wanted to do their duty and were glad to go."

Roy, however, had a premonition and told his sister Wilma, "If I go overseas I won't come back."

Evelyn Borgstrom has in her possession a timeworn scrapbook full of clippings gathered by and for her mother-in-law.

"This was Grandma's; someone made it for her," she said, opening it on her daughter Karen's kitchen table and leafing slowly through the brittle, yellowing pages and pieces of newspapers.

Another daughter, Kathy Nielsen, had dropped by, too, along with two granddaughters, Hillary Nielsen and Mallary Jones. Kathy had a pile of fine black and white photographs of the family, mostly taken in the '40s by Zelma Fishburn, who had run a photography studio in Tremonton.

There was Gunda, seated solemnly in a living-room chair, and Alben, in coat and tie in his farmyard beside a great pile of hay. Young Eldon, who would become Eve-lyn's husband in a few years, was pictured outside the family home with his dog Tarzan, five stars visible on a poster in the window, signifying the service - and the sacrifice - of his brothers in war.

Several photos show Boyd, home again, one with a spotted calf, another with him surrounded by dark-feathered turkeys.

"Uncle Boyd had said he wanted to go home and start a turkey farm," Nielsen said, "and people all over the country sent him money so he could."

The Borgstrom boys' tragedy and their grieving parents had become, in a way, a media sensation. Life magazine did a spread in 1948; a touching photo poses Alben in the family's living room, his wife a few feet away in the kitchen. Gunda appeared on the television show "Queen for a Day." She and her husband criss-crossed the country, appearing at conferences and events.

"They sold a lot of war bonds, just like the movie stars did," Evelyn Borg-strom said.

But the experience and the loss were as painful as could be, Wilma Hawkes said.

"If my mother and father hadn't been as religious as they were, they couldn't have ever stood it," she said. As the brothers went to war, "Mother prayed every night that they'd come back, if it was the Lord's will. She didn't realize it could happen" the way it did.

The course of 1944's events is laid out in the scrapbook headlines, though precise dates and the names of most of the newspapers are missing.

Clyde Borgstrom reported killed in South Pacific, one reports.

Then, Second Borgstrom son killed in action.

Box Elder parents lose third son in battle, says another.

Mourn 4 sons, want 5th home, a subsequent clip adds, and Last son denied furlough.

Finally, 1 of 5 Borgstrom boys is coming home - alive.

When Rolon was killed, Utah's senators, congressmen and governor petitioned the federal government to release Rulon and Boyd, but no decision was made before Rulon was reported missing in action. Even after Rulon's death was confirmed, Boyd's commanders on Johnston's Island in the central Pacific were reluctant to send the fifth brother home, for he'd had recent furloughs. Besides, added Evelyn, with the war not yet won he was reluctant to go.

FDR, however, ordered him out of harm's way.

The family possesses a letter the president sent to Alben and Gunda Borgstrom. "The White House, Washington," it says in the upper left; the date, Oct. 11, 1944, can be found to the right. Roosevelt was apparently unaware that the fourth son had died in action, but wrote:

"I cannot forbear to extend to you this assurance of my deepest sympathy in your loss. Their manner of passing, however, is something for which you can justly be proud and I know it has served to increase the determination of all of us to bring this war to an early and successful con-clu-sion."

The family received scores of telegrams as well, Evelyn Borgstrom recalled. "I can remember one from the king of Sweden. There were so many, but nobody got together and saved them."

The clippings convey sorrow enough.

"What a war," she said, turning another page. "We'll never have another one like that."

Young Eldon Borgstrom was still a teen when all this was happening around him. Although he had three older sisters, Mildred, Wilma and Aleda, his parents were on the road a great deal and he was left to fend for himself. In 1950 he married Evelyn, a Logan girl.

"He was really glad to get married; then he had somebody to cook and take care of him," his widow said. But, Kathy and Karen added, he was a pretty good cook himself.

He didn't enjoy going out to the movies, but he loved to watch television - and whatever was on would remind him of family, Kathy Nielsen said. "He'd always tell us about his brothers. Everything would remind him of them - it was never far from his mind."

Eldon and Evelyn had only girls, five of them. "People would ask, `Are you sorry you don't have boys?' " Nielsen said, "and he would say, `No.' " The deaths of his siblings may have influenced such a reply. "I think it had something to do with it," she added.

Boyd, the survivor among the Borgstrom servicemen, lived only to 52. Eldon died in 1980 at age 50.

After the war, the government set about returning to Utah the bodies of the four brothers, scattered though they were around the globe. Rulon had been missing in action; his body came back sealed and was not viewed by anyone, said their sister Wilma, "not even the mortician."

A collective funeral was planned. Gen. Mark W. Clark, who directed the invasion of Italy and subsequently was commander of the Presidio in San Francisco, was assigned to represent the military.

According to family memory, "Grandmother chose him because of the kindness in his eyes," said Kathy Nielsen.

The eyes apparently reflected the truth, for Clark maintained contact with the Borgstroms the rest of his life, sending cards, calling on the telephone and delegating representatives to attend Gunda's funeral. Her husband had died in 1956; she passed away in 1971 at age 83.

It took a year to plan the joint 1948 services for the Borgstrom boys, a particularly hard period for her mother-in-law, Evelyn said. "She was a strong woman, but how she lived through it I don't know."

The caskets did not arrive in Tremonton until June 25, 1948. The funeral was held the next day in the Garland Tabernacle, with LDS Church President George Albert Smith, Utah Gov. Herbert Maw, Gen. Clark and hundreds of others in attendance. The rites were, said the hometown Bear River Valley Leader, "impressive, yet simple military services."

"It was something," Wilma Hawkes recalled. Sad, but a sight to see.

"There were thousands and thousands" of people at the tabernacle and at Tremonton's Riverview Cemetery, where a grandstand had been built beside the graves. The services were broadcast live on local radio.

President Smith spoke briefly, the Deseret News reported in that evening's edition, "bearing his testimony of eternal life to comfort the dead heroes' family."

Gen. Clark captured the essence of why the nation had taken the loss of the Borgstroms so to heart:

"These four boys - Leroy, Clyde, Rolon and Rulon - symbolize the spirit of sacrifice evidenced on land, on the sea and in the air by millions of American fighting men - the living as well as those now dead."

And, he said, they "achieved what very few of us dare hope will be our fortune - a share in the shaping of destiny. To them belongs a page in history, a page of courage and strength that will be forever read and re-read by their fellow citizens."

It is, Evelyn Borgstrom noted, a story that bears repeating every now and again. "People should be reminded what happened," she said, and perhaps "Saving Private Ryan" is about to serve that function.

Another American family's World War II sacrifice has also been preserved in a Hollywood movie: 1944's "The Fighting Sullivans" tells the story of five brothers who went down on one ship.

The family of the Borgstrom brothers was never alerted that Steven Spielberg had any interest in their tragedy. In fact, though the brothers' fates may have provided the kernel for what became the plot of a movie, they don't know that for sure.

Evelyn's daughter Karen is glad a movie has been made, and would like, perhaps, to see a fact-based version come along down the line.

"I'd just like people to know that our family really went through this," she said. "It's not fiction."