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WWII vet Conrad Newgren, who received a Purple Heart for his service, dies at age 93 in North Dakota

World War II veteran Conrad Newgren of Fargo saluted each time the American flag came in sight during the Veterans Day parade Friday, Nov. 11, 2011, in Fargo. Newgren, who served in the 3rd Infantry Division, died Friday, March 22, 2019. Helmut Schmidt / Forum News Service

FARGO — When people thanked World War II veteran Conrad “Connie” Newgren for his service, he would say the heroes are the soldiers who are buried in Europe and never came home.

But in the eyes of others, including his son, Michael Newgren, Conrad Newgren of Fargo was a bonafide hero who fought the soldiers of the Axis powers in three countries. The Purple Heart veteran who was awarded in 2010 with France’s Legion of Honor — the nation’s highest distinction — died Friday, March 22, in Fargo from injuries he suffered in a March 1 vehicle crash in the city.

He was 93 years old.

“He was just a happy-go-lucky guy, and he liked to be around people, and he liked to tell his war stories,” Michael Newgren said Sunday, March 24. “He would always say, ‘I went to Rome for my 19th birthday, but I had to shoot my way in.'”

Michael Newgren described his father as an easygoing man who wanted to help others. That likely was because he grew up during the Great Depression and was drafted into the Army days after his 18th birthday, he said.

“My dad was one of 11 children, and they were dirt poor,” Michael Newgren said, adding his father had to quit school in eighth grade to help his family put food on the table. “On wash day, my dad couldn’t go to school because he had one pair of overalls.”

Conrad Newgren was deployed in March 1944 with the 3rd Infantry’s 10th Combat Engineer Battalion to Naples, Italy, before he was sent to the beachhead of Anzio, where the Allies broke the German stronghold and captured Rome, according to Forum archives. He fought next to Audie Murphy, the most decorated U.S. soldier from WWII. He was believed to be the last living veteran to fight next to Murphy, Michael Newgren said.

“He was a nice guy, just a kid like me,” Conrad Newgren said in a 2010 interview with the Forum. “Couple (of) kids fighting a man’s war.”

His battles included neutralizing the Germans at the Maginot Line near the French-German border and fighting along the Siegfried Line at the Rhine River.

By age 21, Conrad Newgren had been through the Depression and WWII. He had multiple brushes with death, including several bouts of malaria in Italy, shrapnel from a shell hitting his thigh while he was eating Thanksgiving dinner — a cold can of beans — in 1944 in France and an explosion that broke his back while riding in an ambulance in Germany, according to Forum archives.

“To be 21 and had gone through those two things already in your life, that shaped that generation,” Michael Newgren said. “He left his youth and his innocence on the battlefields in Europe. Eighteen years old and he was dodging bullets and grenades.”

But knowing what it was like to go to bed hungry and fighting bloody battles in Europe likely shaped Conrad Newgren’s compassion and desire to help others, his son said. The veteran was a member of the VFW, was involved in the local First United Methodist Church, served on Fargo’s fine arts council and helped build the Fargo-Moorhead Community Theater at Island Park, Michael Newgren said.

“He threw himself into the community,” he said.

He also was active in the North Dakota Democratic Party, working on campaigns for Gov. Bill Guy and U.S. Sen. Quentin Burdick.

Conrad Newgren proudly wore his WWII cap that was decorated with his medals and buttons, his son said. He had the Legion of Honor medal around his neck wherever he went, whether it was to the local grocery store, the VFW or while sitting on the bench during summer, Michael Newgren said.

Of the 16 million Americans who served in WWII, less than 500,000 were alive in 2018, according to U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs statistics cited by the National WWII Museum in New Orleans. The department estimated there were 1,023 WWII veterans living in North Dakota last year, the museum said.

“They gave the greatest sacrifice,” Michael Newgren said of WWII veterans. “They sacrifice so much, but they sacrificed for a good cause. They saved the world.”

Boulger Funeral Home in Fargo is handling Conrad Newgren's funeral arrangements, which are pending, Michael Newgren said. The veteran will receive a military sendoff, his son said.