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Grace O'Connor, a former Mosinee teacher and librarian, holds a Wausau newspaper that covered the Mosinee May Day event held in 1950. O'Connor posed for the photo in 2000, when the Wausau Daily Herald did a story on the 50th anniversary of the event.

The commies invaded Mosinee at dawn on May 1, 1950.

They dragged Mayor Ralph E. Kronenwetter from his bed and put him in protective custody. They detained Police Chief Carl Gewiss too, and when he wouldn't cooperate, they executed him. Then they dismantled the American institutions in the paper mill town and systematically replaced them with those found in Soviet Russia.

None of it was real. It was a performance on a grand scale, with residents of the town — population about 2,200 — playing parts of a conquered citizenry.

Today it sounds like a version of live action role playing or slapstick, a weird mashup of movies such as "The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming" and "Red Dawn."

Certainly, parts of the episode were funny. But there was tragedy, too. Mayor Kronenwetter would die that night from a heart attack.

And to the organizers of the effort, it was no game.

The demonstration was called a "Day Under Communist Rule," according to a story in The American Legion Magazine, and was planned by members of the Wisconsin Department of the American Legion. They — including John A. Decker, a Milwaukee attorney and World War II veteran — were deadly serious about the need to inform people about the communist threat to democracy and the existence of the United States.

What did they do that day, and was their mission successful? Who were Decker and other organizers? And does what happened 73 years ago in central Wisconsin provide lessons today?

We're tackling these questions as part of What the Wisconsin? — where reporters take on questions about our state, our communities and the people in them. 

What happened in Mosinee on May 1, 1950?

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Part of the communist takeover of Mosinee in 1950 included the publishing of "The Red Star," which took place when mock communist occupiers took over The Mosinee Times.

The day started with a coup.

The mayor was taken in the early-morning hours from his bed and into custody. Shortly after, Gewiss was "executed," according to a Wausau Daily Herald story commemorating the event's 50th anniversary.

His execution managed to provide a lighthearted note for the day, though. John R. Decker, son of the lead organizer, said his father recounted that Gewiss was glad he was killed early on, because it bailed him out from a day of acting and gave him more time to do his regular duties. Later in the day, Gewiss was spotted directing traffic.

After Mosinee's leaders were dispatched, the pseudo-communist forces fully occupied the town, according the Wausau Daily Herald.

Residents had been prepared. The Mosinee Times and other area media provided context in the days leading up to the event. An April issue of the Mosinee Times explained that the purpose was to teach "the meaning of good Americanism by demonstrating what privileges and rights we all would lose if communism took over."

Still, it had to be shocking to see the red hammer and sickle flags replacing the stars and stripes on Main Street.

The communists also set up a mock concentration camp. Among those arrested and detained were people who sang religious songs and "a group of mildly frightened nuns," the Daily Herald reported.

Residents and visitors were issued new documents, including factory passes, ID cards and permits for entry, exit, gasoline, rations and cameras. Even the menu of a restaurant was altered: It featured Russian rye bread and borscht, a soup made with beets and cabbage.

The Mosinee Times was "seized" and an issue of a new newspaper, "The Red Star," was published. It outlined the laws that people would live under in a true community system, including seizure of private property; banning of political parties, labor unions, farmers' groups and youth organizations; and the closure of churches and ending of religious instruction.

Taking it all in were members of the press from across the country. Detroit Free Press and Chicago Herald American reporters were there. So was a crew from Life Magazine, which then published a spread full of photographs in its May 15 issue.

Reporter Arthur Bystrom of the Associated Press talked to some Mosinee residents to gauge their thoughts. His story ran in Madison's The Capital Times on May 2, 1950, and he found people with a range of opinions.

"The invasion opened my eyes," said a man identified as a millworker and former serviceman. "I was lukewarm to the whole thing until I saw Sunday how seriously all the newspaper people regarded this threat. I realize now we must wake up."

A part-time library worker hoped that "perhaps now we can get people to read the books that make them think. We haven't had much success before."

A person playing cards in a tavern said, "Too darned cold to go fishing, anyway."

And then there was the merchant who rolled his eyes at the whole thing: "It was bunk."

Meanwhile, one real tragedy occurred. In the evening May 1, Mayor Kronenwetter suffered a major heart attack and died a short time later, according to the Wausau Daily Herald. The mayor's nephew, local historian and author Michael Kronenwetter, told the paper his family viewed the event as an "unfortunate coincidence."

But Kronenwetter also acknowledged the stress of the day could have contributed to his uncle's death. "I guess you could draw that conclusion," he told the Wausau Daily Herald. "If they didn't play their stupid game then it wouldn't have happened. But he was a willing participant."

Organizers of the Mosinee May Day event issued mock communist identification papers and vouchers to buy food and carry a camera.

Why Mosinee, of all places?

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John A. Decker thought Mosinee was a good candidate for "invasion" because it embodied a typical small American town, full of hard-working people, according to his son, John R. Decker.

According to the Wausau Daily Herald's anniversary story, another reason Mosinee was targeted for takeover was the influence of Francis F. Schweinler, the editor of the Mosinee Times. He also was a member of the American Legion and a full-throated anti-communist.

A month before the planned Red coup, he editorialized that it had a deeper purpose than attracting attention: "The basic idea behind the event is stated quite simply – to teach Americans the meaning of good Americanism by demonstrating what privileges and rights we all would lose if communism took over."

The country at the time was rife with anti-communist rhetoric. The Daily Herald story recounts several events leading up to the Mosinee takeover: the Soviet Union successfully testing its first nuclear bomb, spy trials that involved communists in the United States, the rise of Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy to political power.

In February 1950, McCarthy made a speech in West Virginia alleging that more than 200 communists were employed by the State Department. That speech helped bring anti-communist activism to a fever pitch.

Who was John A. Decker, the idea man behind the 'Red coup'?

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The 1950 "Communist Invasion" of Mosinee was planned as a lesson in Americanism by the Wisconsin Department of the American Legion. Seen here planning the "coup" are attorney John A. Decker of Milwaukee, member of the state Legion policy committee and who came up with the idea; C. M. Green, assistant general manager of the Mosinee Paper Mills Company; Publisher Francis Schweinler of the Mosinee Times; and Howard Dessert, a Mosinee lumber dealer.

The American Legion Magazine story and other news outlets credited John A. Decker with coming up with the concept and organizing the May Day event.

It's unclear whether Decker came up with the initial idea on his own, or whether it was the outcome of a group effort among members of the Milwaukee-area American Legion, his son said. Still, the event wouldn't have happened without Decker's influence.

Decker was a Milwaukee native who graduated from the University of Wisconsin Law School in 1939. He worked for Milwaukee as a city attorney, and joined the Naval Reserve after World War II started. His father was a Navy veteran who served in World War I.

Trained as a beachhead battalion officer, Decker was scheduled to ship out to participate in the Enzio invasion in Italy. Those plans were derailed after he was diagnosed with a serious case of the measles that landed him in the hospital, his son said. But it's easy to see how the skills he learned in his training were applicable to organizing the "Day Under Communism."

After Decker recovered, he served on a submarine chaser out of Cape May, New Jersey, and finished the war as an anti-aircraft gunnery instructor. After leaving the Navy, he got active in the American Legion, his son said.

After the Mosinee event, Decker went on to a distinguished law career, becoming the first chief judge of the Wisconsin Court of Appeals. He died in 2006 at age 91.

The 'Chief Commisar' of the coup was a former Communist Party member

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Joseph Zack Kornfeder of Detroit was another key creator of the Mosinee event. Born in Hungary, Kornfeder immigrated to Detroit as a youth. He joined the Communist Party in 1920, according to the U.S. Naval Institute, and in 1928 went to Moscow to take a three-year course in subversive political warfare at Lenin University.

He broke with the Communist Party in 1934 and devoted a great deal of the rest of his life to anti-Communist efforts.

Kornfeder helped give the event "a genuine note of complete authenticity," reported the American Legion Magazine.

Kornfeder spent 10 days in the central Wisconsin town, the magazine said, "assisting in organizing for the event and on the day of the 'occupation' served as the Chief Commisar."

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What legacy does 'A Day Under Communist Rule' have?

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The long-term influence of the commie coup likely depends on perspective. Even at the time, critics of the event derided it as being sensationalistic and manipulative. The American Legion Magazine reported that two nights before the event, "the real reds" blanketed the city with leaflets. The leaflets accused mill owners of funding the event, and described it as a "stunt to bamboozle workers into acceptance of wage cuts and speed ups under a phony ruse of patriotism and loyalty."

Seven decades later, John R. Decker, 71, believes his father's event should be viewed as a warning against not just communism, but any form of authoritarian government. When he was a teenager, he went to East Berlin as a member of a church youth group visiting sites of historical significance to Martin Luther and the Reformation period.

He remembers talking to East German residents, who lived through a real communist takeover. "People were looking over their shoulders, very much afraid of informants," Decker said. "I think most Americans have no appreciation of that kind of existence."

Now, years after the fall of the Iron Curtain and the collapse of Soviet-style communism, Decker, a lawyer like his father, sees Mosinee's May Day pageantry as a warning against a softer form of authoritarian takeover, one that's aided by voters who might be "generally dissatisfied with government," he said. "And one of the candidates for president is saying things like, 'I will be your retribution.' If that doesn't chill you, you're not paying attention. ... I personally see parallels."

Other aspects of the headlines of today hold some echoes of Mosinee's mock takeover, including those about the mob takeover of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, and accounts of efforts to create an alternative set of electors to subvert the results of the 2020 presidential election.

In that context, Decker said he looks back at his father's efforts in Mosinee with pride.

"It was imaginative," he said. "And I think it got people to think about what life under authoritarian rule would be like."

Keith Uhlig is a regional features reporter for USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin based in Wausau. Contact him at 715-845-0651 or [email protected]. Follow him at @UhligK on X, formerly Twitter, and Instagram or on Facebook.

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