My late father, Roy Rasmussen, who died suddenly at the age of 34, on St. Patrick’s Day, March 17, 1957 as a result of a brain aneurysm, was a religious zealot. At some point in his middle teen years, two young women from Seattle Washington, who were dynamic Pentecostal evangelists , arrived in a backwater farm community in South Dakota, to spread their “holy roller” version of the Christian Gospel. They held church services in a large, rented room above my uncle’s hardware store in rural Bruce, South Dakota, which was a Norwegian American enclave, settled by “squarehead” immigrant Homesteaders from Norway in the 1880s.
Mostly farmers, they were, to a man, woman and child, devoutly Lutheran.
Apparently Roy and his pretty girlfriend, future wife and my mother, Elsie Thompson, were given over completely to this new and exciting religious phenomena. So much so that Elsie’s father, in reaction to her “disloyalty,” would not speak to her for a full decade following their total embrace of Pentecostalism.
Part and parcel of Pentecostalism is the very personal obligation, a directive reported to be from the lips of Jesus Himself, to “go ye into all the world and preach the Gospel.” Their religious enthusiasm and dedication knew no bounds. By the age of 21, my father was already an ordained minister.
When World War II broke out, at least for America, in 1941, my father registered for the draft, but did so as a “Conscientious Objector.” He had no objections to serving his country, but he was apparently unable to contemplate killing another human being, whose soul he felt obligated to save from Hell. As a result, when his draft notice arrived, he reported for duty , despite his previously declared “Conscientious Objector” status. As was the custom at that time, the Army acknowledged his status and ordered him to start his training as a medic.
Father did train as a medic, and shared the physical difficulties of military training with the other young men his age.
Eventually, after their training, his unit was shipped to Colorado, in anticipation of further troop movements to ports of debarkation on the East Coast. It was December 1944 and the Battle of the Bulge was raging in Europe. The young soldiers understood the consequences of being shipped to Europe in their near future, and were reasonably fearful of what possible fate awaited them.
Many of them began to seek solace and reassurance from their Creator. By then, my father’s reputation and credibility as a devout minister led many of these young soldiers to come to my father’s barracks, where he would conduct impromptu religious services.
At that time, the leadership of the military did not want to encourage young men headed for desperate battle to be distracted by such a thing as “hope.” They preferred compliant fatalists who only thought of killing the enemy, or dying in the attempt.
Shortly thereafter, my father’s company commander called him to his office, to discuss the “problem” he was creating with his barracks church services. According to his superior , the Army in Europe was, that time, experiencing an ongoing problem with religious zealots, who were doing things such as making noise while guarding front-line outposts, or while on patrol, to warn the oncoming enemy of their presence, in order to prevent ungodly bloodshed to the enemy. Because of their actions, they were causing death and injury to our own troops.
As a result, and despite the company commander’s freely offered opinion of my father’s sincerity, he was advised that the United States Army was going to discharge him from the service as being “Mentally Unfit for Service,” better known as a Section 8 Discharge. (If you recall the popular television program, “M*A*S*H,” Cpl. Klinger was seeking a section 8 discharge but was overtly cross-dressing to do so.)
Because my father died when I was only 10 years of age, I was never able to sit with him, as an adult, to discuss those events. Nevertheless, my father was proud of his service and had a high regard for things military.
My earliest memories, from 1951 forward, was flipping through volumes of the “Pictorial History of the Second World War,” a large, seven-volume series of books that could be purchased one volume at a time. Due to my father’s abject, if not continuous poverty, and since he spent his time working for Jesus in small, ill-paying pastorates throughout the Midwest, he could only afford to serially purchase the first four volumes.
I recall spending hours looking at grainy black-and-white photographs of ships and soldiers in the midst of, and sometimes ghastly aftermath of, battle. My father told me of men he knew personally who had been captured by the Germans and made to stand barefoot in the snow while POWs; eating rats to stay alive. As an impressionable five-year-old child, stories like that stay deposited in your memory bank.
Oddly, with the outbreak of the Korean War in the early 1950s, and now with a wife and three young children to feed while attending Bible school in Minneapolis, my father somehow overcame his “objections” to warfare and took a job in at a munitions factory.
One of my few particular memories of that time, is of my father, arriving home for supper after his shift at the factory, and laughingly recounting a tale of rapidly pushing newly manufactured artillery shells past the female inspectors, forcing them to run after the shells in order to inspect them. As an adult, I had to process this memory and came to the conclusion that my father was a chauvinist, at the very least, and possibly, a sexual-harasser, at most, or both. I’m certain that “Rosie the Riveter” had a nice “bounce.”
Finally, in 1954 and while temporarily living in a motel in Wichita, Kansas, (our uncle had not yet agreed to rent his 27 foot trailer to us), there was a drive-in theater just across the street from the motel. Since attending movies, in my father’s particularly zealous brand of Pentecostalism, was considered to be “sin,” we were never allowed to go to a movie theater to watch a movie. However, when Audie Murphy’s autobiographical movie, “To Hell and Back” was showing at the drive-in across the street, I would sit in my father’s lap and we would watch the movie together, without sound. (I still l enjoy watching that movie.)
Another benefit to the motel location was its proximity to the Boeing plant in Wichita Kansas. I believe I personally observed the “touch and go” flights of every B-47 and B-52 bomber that Boeing ever produced. In an ironic bit of “foreshadowing,” my path would again cross with some of those B-52 bombers in 1969.
Despite my father reluctance to take up arms in the defense of this country, his willingness to serve his fellow soldier as a medic, permitted him the intellectual credibility to look back on World War II with the same pride as his fellow veterans.
Growing up in the home of those men who saved the world from Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, predisposed and prepared my generation, especially those of us who graduated from high school in 1965, to also accept our fate when we were told that we had to stop the Communist “dominoes”in Southeast Asia. The ghosts of our fathers and uncles would not permit us to contemplate or think of anything else, other than to do our duty.
It was, after all, “our turn in the barrel.” The 20th Century seemed to require a war every 20 years or so.
Those who graduated after 1965, and had the opportunity to observe the futility of the seemingly endless war and Vietnam, were not so predisposed.
Next; “Uncles & Cousins”