We Remember: World War II
by Mickey (Mildred) Matzke Monsen, Becketwood Member
All my high school days were during wartime—1941-1945—in a small Minnesota town, Waseca. I went to the same school building, Central School, from 1st to 12th grade. We enjoyed a huge auditorium for all ages and all sorts of programs. On December 8, 1941, everyone was in their usual seats to hear President Roosevelt’s radio broadcast of “the day of infamy” speech and the declaration of war.
Life was quite different from today, reflecting the rural past and small town values. Our three daily meals were breakfast, dinner and supper. We had no lunch program at our school, but walked home for dinner and were back in 1 1/4 hours. There were no buses. The farm kids went to one-room country schools through eighth grade and then drove into town for high school. They came with older siblings or were allowed to drive at fourteen. They got extra gasoline during the rationing period.
The schools were very good and we had great sports (go, Bluejays!) and music programs. I played a trombone and proudly marched in the front row in the many parades in which we played music of the armed services, such as for the Army (Caissons), Marines, Navy plus a lot of the famous and wonderful marches. Once a week in Home Rooms, war saving stamps were sold, and we brought money, a dime or a quarter, to buy the stamps. When a booklet was filled to $18.75 it was worth a $25 war bond for the future.
I was a member of the Senior Girl Scout Troop. We were dedicated to doing whatever we could to help the war effort. Among several activities I remember these two best: Just as our mothers did, we made gauze bandages. Rolls of gauze were cut and then pieces were made into bandages about 4 X 4 inches with all the raw edges folded in. These were packed, sterilized and sent to the military and Red Cross. Second, since our hospital was short of staff, several scouts at a time would go and give a helping hand where needed. Note: my mother was a registered nurse, not active for about 20 years, but she went back to work. Her very first night at the hospital she had to deliver a baby before the doctor arrived! She was scared, but she managed very well.
When we turned 16 we could work summers at the local canning factory, which had become a Birds Eye processing plant, during the pea pack and later the corn pack. Our high school science teachers, on summer vacation, did the vegetable grading, and I was happy to join them. Samples of peas were put into the “Tenderometer” to indicate the maturity of the lot. Dependent on these tests was not only the price paid the farmer, but the fate of the peas: most tender, best box, least tender, canned. The corn lots were also tested, but in a painstaking way of determining moisture through boiling and condensing the water in a sample. College students who also enjoyed a summer job joined us.
As young folks we needed some time off from those 10-hour days. There was no work when it rained. The fields were too wet for trucks and then some time was needed for the fields to dry in the sunshine. On that day we headed for the beach on Clear Lake to enjoy the sun and a swim.
The farms needed more help, and a site in southern Minnesota housed German prisoners from the North African campaign. I sometimes saw the young men unloading wooden boxes of freshly shelled green peas from the backs of the trucks. At corn pack time, they would “hook” corn from trucks to a moving belt. Interesting note: one night three prisoners escaped, and a huge alarm went out. Late that night they returned to camp, having walked to Owatonna to see the Steele County Free Fair that they had heard about.
We walked a lot: we walked everywhere, in rain, snow and sunshine. I remember going on movie dates when the guy and I would walk uptown to go “to the show.” We walked to go ice-skating, to go to church, to go to meetings, to go to the stores. Grandma Matzke walked to meet her friends for an afternoon of playing cards and chatting.
The Great Depression was barely behind us. During the 1930s most families had to conserve, preserve, make do, and help one another. When rationing of gasoline, tires, sugar, meats, and such was asked of everyone, it was not difficult. We used our rations, and it was easy to save stuff such as tin cans (cut both ends out, step to flatten), grease, and newspapers.
My dad was an engineer on the Chicago Northwestern Railroad. He and my mother planted a large garden of vegetables on the neighboring lot. We ate well all year from those vegetables and from the fish he caught in Clear Lake, both from his boat and from ice fishing. He also hunted pheasants, ducks and deer.
As teenagers during those years we found many ways to enjoy ourselves. We danced to the records of the big band icons like Glen Miller and Tommy Dorsey, had proms in the decorated high school gym, went on hayrides and sleigh rides, picnicked at the lake, helped with family chores, washed and Simonized (waxed) the family car, which we learned to drive with its stick shift. At age 15 by sending a registration form and 50 cents, you could receive a Minnesota Drivers License. I never had a driving test until a few years later, when I moved to Illinois.
The war ended—VJ Day—with the Japanese surrender on August 15, 1945. Two weeks later, I was off to St. Olaf College where in a few months a huge number of GIs would enroll and—that’s another big story!