'I wanted to do something good'
Sixteen million. That's the number of Americans who served in the military during World War II.
Among the ranks of brave men and women was Brainerd resident 2nd Lt. Eleanor Gustafson.
Now 92, Gustafson is a walking, breathing piece of history. A first generation American, she served from 1943-1946 in the U.S. Army as a combat nurse. Like millions of other young Americans, she saw the need for military service as a duty to her country and she was proud to serve.
"I wanted to do something good," she said. "I wanted to be where the action was."
Gustafson's story is one for the movies. Enlisting in the military in the midst of the one of the world's greatest conflicts landed Gustafson a front row seat to the action.
After finishing up her training at Swedish Hospital in Minneapolis, Gustafson enlisted and signed up for overseas duty.
"I remember they had this notice on the bulletin board requesting nurses to volunteer to go overseas," she said. "I wanted to help the wounded soldiers. It was an opportunity."
Initially, Gustafson was sent to Kilmer, N.J. and assigned to a hospital ship platoon. "Our mission was to relieve personnel that needed rest while we waited for overseas order," Gustafson explained. "It never did work out though."
Gustafson said her first deployment overseas started out with a 14-day journey across the ocean on a hospital ship escorted by a convoy of battleships. She spent a year in North Africa in a staging area in Ain-el-Turk.
"We did work in a few hospitals, but mostly we waited to replace active nurses," she said.
Gustafson said after a year in the tent camps, orders came that her platoon was reassigned and would be returning home for a year to work on a hospital train that transported wounded soldiers from Norfolk Air Force Base in Virginia to a base hospital in Rome, Ga.
Six months later, it was back to where the action was for Gustafson.
"I made four trips across the ocean while I was in the service," Gustafson said.
This time, Gustafson was sent to Naples, Italy, to wait for orders in another staging area.
"It seemed like I was waiting for orders most of the time," she said. "But it wasn't so bad. I did a lot of sightseeing."
Finally the orders came that landed Gustafson right in the middle of the action. After first being shipped to Marseilles, France, Gustafson volunteered when the request was made for nurses to go to the front lines.
"It was comparable to 'M.A.S.H,' she said, "but it wasn't fun."
Gustafson was assigned to the 10th Field Hospital following the German lines as they retreated from Allied combat.
"The hospital moved so many times I lost count," she said.
It was on the front lines that Gustafson was reunited with her best friend from back home.
"I walked in my tent and there she was," she remembered. "I was never so excited to see her."
Gustafson said her most memorable experience of the war was a patient she took care of who was badly wounded, but would recover. The man knew Gustafson's next-door neighbor back in Moose Lake. Gustafson wrote the soldier's mother to let him know he was recovering well from his injuries.
"My letter was an answer to their prayers, because he had been reported as missing in action," she said.
When the war ended, Gustafson was stationed in Dijon, France. After the hospital closed, Gustafson was sent to Paris where she waited for three months before moving onto Reims, Belgium and, finally, boarded a ship and made her way back home.
"That was my last ocean voyage," she said.
A few years ago, Gustafson's family had her write down her story so she could pass it on to her grandchildren.
"They made hard copies so I was able to give a copy to each one of my grandchildren at Christmas," she said. Her military experience, along with her letters home, are neatly bound together preserving her history for generations to come.
Among the documents are letters to her mother, one in particular written just hours after the war ended.
"Today is Victory Day," she wrote. "The war here in Europe is finally over and that's what we have all been waiting for.
"Yesterday I heard Winston Churchill speak at 3 p.m., I began to realize that our boys have laid down their arms and combat has ceased - no more wounded, shell-shocked boys to take care of.... I'm anxious to get home to see you all, but have no idea when or how that will be."
After being discharged in 1946, Gustafson went back to work as nurse. In 1947, she met Carl, whom she would later marry, and the two eventually settled in Brooklyn Park with their three children.
In 1996, the family built a cabin up north and made it their summer vacation home. After retiring, the couple sold their home in the Twin Cities and officially took up the snowbird life, spending their summers in the Brainerd lakes area and winters in Arizona.
Carl passed away in 2000 and Gustafson now resides at Woodland Hills in Brainerd.
"I love it here," she said, "Here everyone is about 90. We're all in the same boat."
Friends noted Gustafson's energy and her work in the gift shop. And, they said, she continues to show those skills she applied as a nurse by checking in with other residents at Woodland on a regular basis. A friend said Gustafson is a giving person who continues to be concerned about others and willing to reach out to them.
Gustafson said this winter will be her first in 25 years.
"I'm looking forward to it," she said. "I like the snow."
Gustafson said her memory is not what it used to be, and some of the details of her time in the service are a little fuzzy these days, but as she recalls her experience, the memories seem to come to life.
"I'm so fortunate," she said. "I was able to see so much of the world."
"Everyone has some kind of story," Gustafson said in sharing her experience, "You never know what kind of story a person might have."
SARAH NELSON may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 855-5879.