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Fourth in a series on war veterans
She had been married four days when her husband left for war in 1944. She didn’t know where he was going, and when—or if—she’d ever see him again. Barbara Larson, 94, shrugs and smiles: “That’s just the way it was back then.”
Larson wedded John at 18. She had already been working in a St. Paul airplane propeller factory, A.O. Smith Corp. Her mom worked in a defense factory. Her brother volunteered for the Navy. Her dad had fought in World War I. Larson grew up with a sense of duty.
Women who took jobs in factories and shipyards during World War II became known as “Rosie the Riveters,” based on the iconic poster of a woman flexing her biceps, with the words “We Can Do It!” splashed above. Plant officials made Larson manager of the tool crib—like a hardware store—her first day on the job. She supervised staff and recorded where tools went.
Daily, she drove a “Hi-Lo lift truck”—a forklift—to deliver supplies throughout what had been animal buildings on the state fairgrounds but were converted into one enormous factory. She recalls zipping through buildings delivering loads of little black diamonds and sanding pads used to polish plane propellers.
But while supporting the war effort at home, she worried about John overseas. She remembers others living with the same fears: “I dreaded seeing employees coming to work in tears because they’d just found out a loved one had been killed or lost in action.” She recalls a neighbor who came barreling out of her house, struck by an awful premonition and screaming her son had been killed. Later that evening she received a telegram reporting his death.
Larson feared John would be killed, too. She learned he was serving somewhere in Germany. She would occasionally receive letters from him written a month earlier. Even after the war, John would share only that Nuremberg was one battle he fought in. He never disclosed details, saying, “You don’t want to know.”
During their lengthy separation, Larson says, she went to bed praying and woke up praying. She had devotions daily, and on nights she couldn’t sleep she’d lie there and pray more. After work, she’d come home, quickly falling into bed exhausted. She had no desire or energy to go out much with friends.
Every evening she helped her mom hang blankets on windows for mandatory blackouts. They used ration coupon books for necessities, and like their neighbors, they planted a Victory Garden. “All of us sensed we were in this war together,” Larson says.
That blessed day came when her husband arrived stateside at Camp Campbell in Clarksville, Tenn. She dressed in high heels, nylons, white gloves, and a hat and boarded a troop train, standing-room only for the 350 miles from St. Paul to Chicago. Switching trains for Clarksville, a 450-mile trip, shoes in hand by now, she nervously waited to see the man she’d married a year and a half earlier.
“It was wonderful to finally see him,” she grins. “We hugged and couldn’t say a word. We were so happy.”
John died in 2003, after 59 years of marriage and four children—a beautiful life together, declares Larson.
Ruminating on those war days, Larson says simply, “I was a GI wife, a government issue wife. I was just doing what I should.”