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A special ceremony for Vietnam veterans: Area man built his own museum, war memorial

Howard Maninga stands beside the veterans memorial he built on his property in rural Ponsford. All new flags will be raised at a ceremony open to all Vietnam veterans on Aug. 26. (Nathan Bowe / Forum News Service)1 / 4
The tailpiece of an Army plane sits in the rural Ponsford yard of Howard Maninga, who is holding a Vietnam veterans ceremony next Saturday. (Nathan Bowe / Forum News Service)2 / 4
Howard Maninga went to Vietnam as a Marine 50 years ago. He is holding a ceremony for all Vietnam veterans at his rural Ponsford home on Saturday, Aug. 26. (Nathan Bowe / Forum News Service)3 / 4
Some of the uniforms and equipment on display at Howard Maninga's war museum, which he built at his home in rural Ponsford. The uniform under glass is for a child. (Nathan Bowe / Forum News Service)4 / 4

PONSFORD, Minn. — Fifty years ago, Howard Maninga of rural Ponsford went to fight in Vietnam as a young Marine. He came back, but he brought Vietnam with him.

"I went into Vietnam in '67," says Maninga, now age 69. "When I got home, I couldn't get married unless my dad signed off on it — I was too young."

He fought in the battle of Guay, and spent 10½ months in Vietnam, fighting the Viet Cong, North Vietnamese, and at times, the Chinese, he said. Most of the time, he carried the "The Law," an M79 shoulder-fired grenade launcher.

"We were sent there to kill people, and that's what we did," said Maninga, who grew up near the small southeastern Becker County community of Midway and joined the Marines because he "wanted to be a grunt," he said.

The war was 50 years ago, but he said it has never left him. "You can't put nothing aside — it keeps coming back, like yesterday," said Maninga. If not for strong family support, especially from his wife, Trudy, he said he would have been dead long ago.

Instead, he has kept busy, in spite of the quadruple heart bypass operation he had 10 years ago. Like a lot of Vietnam veterans, he said he has health issues arising from the Agent Orange defoliant that was widely used in the war.

But he hasn't let health problems slow him down too much. With help from a grandson, he dismantled a 1910 log-plank cabin built by his immigrant Finnish grandfather for his immigrant Finnish grandmother, and rebuilt it on his land.

And he has turned part of his peaceful, wooded 80-acre spread into a war memorial, with flags flying high in honor of all the military branches.

He has also built a sandbag bunker, a sandbag foxhole, and has planted the tail section of an Army airplane in his yard. He has obviously put a lot of work into it all, especially the building that has become his own war museum—filling it with uniforms, equipment, flags, weapons and memorabilia from both world wars, Korea, Vietnam and even Iraq.

"I've been collecting stuff for years," he said. "Marine Corps stuff is especially hard to find — it's in demand."

"I think of all those young guys who (died in Vietnam and) didn't get a chance to do anything — I try to think what they would do," he said. He also mourns for the 2,000 to 3,000 American prisoners of war that he says were never allowed to go home after the war.

"The memorial, they all told me how to do that, their spirits... Our lives got wasted, all those young people that died for nothing. It was never meant to be won. There's where you lose your trust."

Others have added to his memorial. A veteran dropped off a large chainsaw-carved eagle. "I came home and it was in the yard," Maninga said.

To honor those who served in Vietnam, the Maningas are hosting a special ceremony and turkey dinner at 1 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 26, at their home at 33517 Bunker Hill Road, Ponsford.

They are planning for about 200 people. All Vietnam veterans are welcome.

Maninga has kept in touch with nine or 10 of his fellow soldiers from the third platoon in Bravo Company, First Marines, First Battalion. Their first reunion was in 1997, and they've met every year since then, twice at Maninga's place. At their first reunion, they didn't leave their hotel for three days, just talked and drank, he said.

A member of the Marine Corps League North Star Detachment, Maninga also spends a lot of time performing honor guard duties at the funerals of veterans. "We've done 370-some funerals," he said. "We did one yesterday, on a Sunday in Park Rapids. We've gone to Camp Ripley, Fort Snelling, Duluth, the Minneapolis area, the International Falls area ... We take pride in what we do, we do the whole works, flag-folding, boots, rifles, casket guard — it means a lot to the families, and it means a lot to the the veterans."

To get to Maningas' place from Detroit Lakes, take Highway 34 east to Highway 37 (The Island-Shell Lake Road) for about 13 miles. There will be direction signs.