By PAUL PETERSEN
Bridget Jensen’s article “Consideration of Conscience” in previous issues of Church and Life told of Ruben Strandskov’s experiences as a conscientious objector during World War II. Ruben Strandskov (1916-1994) was a lifelong resident of West Denmark who lived most of his life on his farm on the east shore of Little Butternut Lake. My father, Vagner Petersen, was Ruben’s cousin, and when I was a child we often stopped at his house for coffee and to visit. I remember at a young age being fascinated by Ruben’s hand, which was badly crippled. My dad explained to me that Ruben had been hurt during the war by a bomb and not to ask him about it or stare at it. Later, I came to know that many other men I knew––uncles, older cousins, and neighbors––were in the war too, but Ruben was different because he had these visible signs of it. Ru- ben really only had the use of one hand and one leg, but had learned to use or modify everything he needed to get by. I remember one time, while eating breakfast at the café in town, he asked me to open one of the individual jelly containers for him, but it was rare that he needed help with anything.
Ruben never married and had no brothers or sisters, so when he died suddenly in 1994, Kris Henriksen, a cousin of Ruben’s, had the task of going through Ruben’s be- longings. One of the items was a box of about 100 letters that Ruben had sent home to his parents during the war. Knowing of my interest in WWII, Kris gave them to me. I read through them at the time, but several years ago I started organizing these letters so I could write something with them. I had put the project aside, but Bridget’s article motivated me to finish it. While many of the letters say nothing more than what Ruben had for supper and what the weather was like, they still offer insight into what Ruben saw and experienced during his time away from home. Other than correcting a few minor spelling and punctuation errors, the letters are reprinted as he wrote them. A letter beginning “Dear Father and Mother”means that I am including the entire letter. When there is only a date for the letter, it is just an excerpt.
Although Ruben was an only child, he had a large extended family in West Denmark with more than thirty first cousins. Several of these male cousins were also in the service, and many of his female cousins wrote letters to him. If Ruben mentions these cousins, I have included their last name, and if female, their married last name. There are also several references to George and Eva. This is George (usually known as Carl George) and Eva Han- sen who were lifelong friends of Ruben in West Denmark.
I knew at a young age that Ruben had been in the war, but it wasn’t until much later that I learned Ruben had been a conscientious objector. I don’t know how common this was locally, but nationally, according to Time Life World War II, Vol. 8: The Home Front: U.S.A, “of the over 10 million men ordered to report for induction by the Selective Service, only about 43,000 were classified as COs by reason of religious training and belief. Of that number, over 25,000 agreed to enter the service as medics or other duties that would require them not to bear arms.” This is what Ruben eventually decided to do, although not before spending time at a work camp for COs near Manistee, MI. The men in these Civilian Public Service camps worked without wages and had to pay their own room and board, which made it difficult for someone not from a wealthy family. Most of the letters he sent from there were in Danish, but the first one wasn’t.
Saturday, February 21, 1942––Dear Father and Moth- er, things have been happening so fast here that I have not had time to write to you. I got to Ludington at 3:00 in the morning. Three boys were there from the camp to get me. We got to camp in time for breakfast. I was out and helped saw wood this morning. We were eight men working with a 4-cylinder Buick motor and it went slower than when you and I sawed alone with the 3-horse engine...that’s the way government jobs are I guess. These camps are controlled by the Selective Service System, so to me it is just as bad as being in the army. I don’t think I will stay here. If I leave, I will take the non-combatant service in the army. There are many good fellows...but I disagree with them on their ideas about religion and it will be kind of hard to live here if one could not take part in the fellowship between the men, there are 100 of them. Don’t worry about me Mother,...I can take care of myself and God will help us I am sure. There are fellows here who have a wife and children at home. If I could just get home at weekends like I used to I wouldn’t mind it so much. Ruben
In a March 3 letter home that was almost entirely in Danish, he wrote one sentence in English: “I feel that I cannot support the CPS (Civilian Public Service) program sufficiently to allow me to stay here.”
March 14––Don West, who works for the educational department of The Church of the Brethren, said the respectable churches are like old trees, they do not grow any more and have started to decay. He said the church should be like a young sapling that shoots out of the ground and grows very fast. He did relief work in Spain under the revolution, and he believes direct relief spoils people. He talks about a mother with five children in London. She had been taken out of the slums and had been put in a model government house which the government has built for such people. He asked her how she liked it, she said it is very nice, but now there are so many things we want that we didn’t want before. This may give you an idea of what kind of a fellow he is.
April 6––There has been great danger for fire these last days so we have to be ready to go out and fight fire at any time. We have a fire truck here.
Ruben left the CPS camp on May 7, 1942, and enlisted in the US Army on May 14. He was assigned to the Thirty-First Medical Battalion with a non-combatant status and sent to camps Sheridan and Grant in Illinois for train- ing. While Ruben was at these camps, his letters home were sometimes in English, sometimes in Danish, and sometimes a mixture of both.
May 20––I have had about five hours of marching and I sure don’t like it. The food they give here is very good. We wash the floors every morning and you’ve got to make your bed just so. Well, the sooner they give me a real permanent job doing some real work, the better I’ll like it. We have seen a couple of good shows here with real people on the stage and some famous dance bands. It is compulsory to go to them. That’s funny isn’t it, but most anything you do here is compulsory. That’s the way of the army.
June 21––You must know by now that I am in Camp Grant. We got here Friday. I have not done much of anything at all as us new fellows are in quarantine for two weeks. I did get to church today though.
July 12––Dear Father and Mother, Well I am getting along all right here so far. We have classes and training every day, something every hour. It is too far for me to come home on a weekend leave. How about you meeting me somewhere next Sunday? Get the old car gassed up and ready to go and have someone milk the cows for you Sunday morning. I will call Jenny’s [Jenny Utoft was his aunt] telephone Saturday night between 8 and 9. If I don’t call, I am not coming, then you just stay there. I will explain the details over the phone. I am writing this on some park benches right here in camp. There is a river running by here too. It’s real nice. I have been in Rockford once. It’s a real booming town with all the soldiers spending their money there––.40 a drink for liquor what used to be .15 up at Luck, but they get drunk just the same and in a few days their money is all gone. Hilsen fra, Ruben
PS Take along two of those wheels in the basement, remember those wheels fit on the Ford if you are afraid of a flat tire.
July 20––Dear Mother and Father, I got back all right from my weekend pass. I got back about midnight. I did not have trouble of any kind. I was glad you were able to come and see me. I’ve been kind of tired today, but tonight I’ll get some sleep. When you write to me, tell me when you got home. Ruben
In early August 1942, Ruben did some training out- doors somewhere (this page of the letter is in Danish) where there were a lot of wild blackberries––”one could pick a hat full in no time.” Ruben caught a cold with a fever and ended up in the camp hospital for a few days. On August 10 he wrote:
Although I am not at all sick anymore, I still have to stay here. Can’t do a darn thing except eat and sleep. They tell you when to get up and when to go to bed and when to rest. They have a certain time in the afternoon when you are supposed to rest. I will probably get out tomorrow, I hope so as this is very tiresome. I can see you, Dad, working hard on the farm while I am sitting here doing nothing...it don’t make any sense any of it. Your son, Ruben
That was the last letter stateside that I have until one dated December 9 by which time Ruben was on the East Coast. The letter is written on Fort Bragg, North Carolina, stationery, but I don’t know if he actually spent time there.
Dear Father and Mother, thanks for the package today with the pen in it. It was about the only thing you could give me that I could keep. It writes very well. I hope you get enough coffee to drink. We get all we want here. I suppose Wally [cousin Wally Johansen who was in the navy] is in Rhode Island now. I wish I had his address last weekend, I might have been able to see him. I wonder if you have any snow at home yet. Christmas greetings, Ruben
After this there is a long break in the letters until May 1943 when he was in North Africa, landing at Casablanca, Morocco. By this time he was in the Forty-Eighth Ar- mored Medical Battalion and working as a carpenter and all-around handyman building things or repairing equipment. Once Ruben was overseas, all the letters home were in English, probably because they had to be passed by a censor. Officers from the company took turns doing this job, and I assume they had to be written in English to be passed. I know that during the war, my uncle, Aage Petersen, was able to send letters home from Africa and Italy in Danish, but Ruben didn’t or couldn’t. Ruben’s cousin, Chris Johansen, told me that he sometimes wrote in Danish just to irritate the censors, but he also was worried that they might just toss the letters away.
Almost all the letters home were V-mail letters, which were written on a special form that could be microfilmed and sent back to the states and enlarged. This greatly re- duced the amount of space needed to transport the mil- lions of letters from overseas. Occasionally, Ruben would send one by airmail, especially if he wanted to send some- thing along in the envelope. Airmail was quicker, but they cost six cents while the V-mail was free to the servicemen.
May 23––Dear Father and Mother, I have now seen the Mediterranean Sea. We can go swimming there, but I have not been in yet. They made me a corporal two days ago. It means I will get a little more money. I just received two letters from George and also from Eva and Elin [Strandskov, a cousin]. I wrote you in the last letter that I had seen Svend [Utoft, cousin] and I sent a picture of us. I wonder where Aage [Petersen, cousin] is over here. I hope I can see him. It is a warm place here by the Mediterranean. I wish we could go somewhere cooler. I hope you are well, I feel fine. Your son, Ruben
June 11––Another Sunday without a thing happening. This morning we had all the fried eggs we wanted. I ate six and some fellows ate a dozen. We get musk melon and watermelon too. Yesterday we had pork chops, the food is all right. I got
a letter from Solveig [Jensen] and Anna [Sandlin] yesterday [both cousins]. Solveig wrote how nice the barn looked with the new coat of paint you put on.
June 26––I wish we could get some of that rain here that you write about. It is so dusty here. It doesn’t ever rain here in the summer I guess. When I think of the green forest at home it makes me home- sick.
July 1––Now that it is July the corn should get started. The sum- mer season is short at home, but it is alive while it lasts. Here it is like nature is dead or asleep and people act the same way, no one is in a hurry about anything.
July 8––Dear Father and Mother, I received your letter from the 20th of June. You said you were going to start mak- ing hay and I gather you are through by now. Yesterday I went to get some 3/4” plywood to fix some ambulance seats. The road is so rough here that they broke. The seats have coil springs in them mounted on a piece of plywood which is the bottom. I fixed some today and will make up some extras for them to carry as spares if more of them break. Don’t worry about me not being able to stand the heat. I weigh just as much as always. When it is hot we try to do most of our work in the morning and we have large tents where we can get out of the sun. Your son, Ruben
August 2––I was swimming in the Mediterranean today. I am getting a suntan all over my body as we go into the sea na- ked. My violin is still in good shape. I had it out yesterday and played on it. I hope I’ll be able to take it home with me.
August 14––Dear Father and Mother, I got your letter from April 25th. It was the one telling about Carl and Eva’s wed- ding. It sure must have gotten lost even though the address was plain and easy to read. It had so many different stamps on it, it must have been all over the world. Two days ago I got a letter from Alfred Madsen...I don’t know where he is except he is somewhere here in Africa. [After he got back to the states, Alfred would marry my father’s sister Edel.] I am fine, Ruben
On October 15, Ruben writes that he was able to meet with cousins Kristian Henriksen and Aage Petersen.
October 23––Dear Father and Mother, I received your V-mail letter from 10-6. I got quite a kick out of what you wrote about what Pastor Andreasen said about when we get back. There is no evidence of spiritual life in the army. I get a letter from the chaplain in the Engineer Battalion to come to church every month, but I never go because they always mix the war effort with Christianity too much for me. This war and any other war is something that mankind brings on himself and I don’t see how anyone can ask for the Lord’s help to win a war. I saw Kristian again yesterday. I gave him three copies of The Enterprise, [the Luck news- paper], and an Ungdom that the D.Y.P.S. [Danish Young People’s Society] sent me. I read the life history of H. C. Andersen written by Jean Hersholt in the Ungdom. I got another letter from George and letters from Anna [cousin] and Esther [?, probably Utoft, his cousin Alf’s wife]. I am OK. Your son, Ruben
October 30––Dear Father and Mother, We are getting cool nights here in North Africa now and we must bundle up at night to keep warm. I have not seen Kristian since I last wrote, but he is still around. Koch’s daughter Helga [later Konopacki] writes to me right along. If we ever move from here it may take some time before you hear from me. I would not worry about it because if anything happened you would know right away. The Christmas packages have started to arrive so there are lots of nuts, cookies, and candy. We would all like to come home for Christmas. I hope you are well and that we soon may be together again, Ruben
November 28––I received my first Christmas package to- day from Marion [?]. There was candy and Camels in the box. I had a letter from George today written November 8. He writes that he had to get new pants because his old ones were getting too small. He writes it is natural for old men to become somewhat bigger around the waist.
George was in the army by this time so army food must have been agreeing with him.
Just a few days after the letter of November 28, Ruben was in England, one of the many thousands of American soldiers staging for the invasion of Europe.
December 2––Dear Father and Mother, I have arrived safely in England. I have been receiving so many letters and packages since I came here. Every day the mail bags come in filled so we have many good things to eat between meals. I was to town on a pass last night from 4:30-10:15. I bought my supper in town and went to a dance. The supper cost me $.44 and the dance $.50. It is a good feeling to be among people who speak the language. I am fine. Your son, Ruben
December 9––I am getting back to carpenter work again. I got all my tools along up here from Africa and the violin too. We get good food here, lots of English cheese. It’s very good and we get more butter too.
December 15––I will wish you a Merry Christmas and a good new year. I guess I will be here in camp for Christmas as they don’t allow much traveling at Christmas, but we will get turkey. The army has decided that Christmas day is a holiday so we will not work. I have not received your Christmas package yet and hope to get it before Christmas. I feel lonesome at Christmas time and hope we can all come home soon.
At some point after this letter, things had changed and Ruben was able to get a pass and also managed to have a “Danish” Christmas.
December 29––Dear Father and Mother, I have not writ- ten to you for over a week because I have been on a Christmas furlough. I was in London. I met Danish people at the “Danish Home,” that’s the name of the place where they meet. The people that come there are members, but they invite visitors too. It is mostly Danish people that worked in England before the war, but there are some refugees too. I was invited out to a Danish home for Christmas. They had the customary food and all that. Mind you it was not like being home. Ruben
In January 1944, Ruben was able to get a couple week- end passes which he spent in Bournemouth where he saw some concerts and shows and was also able to meet with a friend, Erling Mikkelsen (from West Denmark), whom he had not seen in a long time. He’d also tried to contact Lauritz (probably Lauritz Jensen from West Denmark) who was stationed in England. He describes several projects he is working on and tells his father, “I am making good use of the steel rule you sent me for Christmas and the knife too.” His time was not all spent working though...
January 27––January is sure slipping by. Last Monday the battalion had a dance in a town close by and I went to it. The girls that came to the dance were invited from an English girl’s army camp. Their uniform is blue and gray, mostly blue. Some of them dance very well and I had fun dancing with them. The dance lasted until midnight! I’ve been playing some chess lately at the Red Cross, but some of the fellows play way better than I do.
March 22––Dear Father and Mother, I have been on a pass to Winchester which is near Erling Mikkelsen, but I did not see him this time as he was on a furlough. I just spent time resting. One gets so he likes to spend a lot of time doing nothing when you are in the army. I am plenty busy doing carpenter work when I am on the post though. Earlier I was able to go to London and see the House of Parliament, West Minster Abbey, St. Paul’s Cathedral, Buckingham Pal- ace, the London Tower, and Piccadilly which is the Time’s Square of London. I feel fine. Ruben
March 10––I would like to have you send me a money order for $20 less than what you received for the old cow you sold. I can’t tell you why I’m stating it this way, I am not in any trouble. It’s just that I’m running a little short because of the short leaves and passes I like to take.
I have no idea why he couldn’t say a dollar amount for the money order.
April 19––We are having a nice spring rain tonight. It is good sleeping weather. Don’t look for a thing about operations in my letters because I can’t write about it––the censors are strict about that. There is a lot of nice grass here for the cows if you could get them over.
April 30––I am sending the violin home because I am afraid of losing it. I am sending some of my photos also. Take care of them. I may have you send them back to me when the War Department will permit it.
Ruben still had this violin when he died. It was given to Mark Pedersen from West Denmark whose daughters are accomplished violinists.
May 7––I guess it’s about time I send greetings to you Mother for your birthday [May 21]. Right now I am in the hospital with mumps, but I’m over the worst of it. I was quite sick for two days but feel fine now.
May 10––I’m still at the army hospital. I’m getting along fine. Confinement is very tiresome, there is nothing to do but eat and sleep. It’s funny that I had to come over here to get the mumps, but I suppose it’s because of all the time I spent alone as a child.
May 21––I’m back with the outfit today and feeling fine. I am sending a money order for $75 in this letter. I won’t need the money since I can’t get furloughs anymore.
I assume passes and furloughs had been cut back or cancelled as it got closer to D-Day. Many troops were con- fined to base for several weeks before the June 6 invasion.
June 4––Dear Father and Mother, I wrote about looking at stars through my telescope, but it don’t get dark before midnight and that is too late to be up. Maybe someday I will be up late enough to look. So far I have received a birthday
card from George and Eva and from Elin [cousin]. I wish I could come home and help you make hay. Your son, Ruben
Later in life Ruben was known for retiring early.
On June 5, Ruben writes that he is waiting for some birthday presents and says, “I have not been doing so much work lately.” At this point he was no doubt just waiting for the invasion and so was not working much on carpentry projects.
Ruben’s battalion landed on Omaha Beach on June 9, 1944, just three days after D-Day, and it was almost a week before he found time to write home.
June 15––Dear Father and Mother, I am in France now. I am getting along fine. The French civilians are happy to see us here. We are having good weather and it is a beautiful country. I have suffered not at all. I hope you don’t worry too much about me. I can write more about it later. Best wishes, your son Ruben
June 19––This is the second letter I am writing to you from France. Everything is going along fine for me yet. As I write this I can hear the big guns thunder in the distance, but they are far away. Our Air Force dominates the sky, I guess we couldn’t be here without our strong Air Force.
June 26––Dear Mother and Father, we have been in action as a medical company and everything worked all right. When we were in action we were about seven miles behind the lines so all we heard was the artillery firing and that was our own. Once in a while we see a German plane but they are scarce and always have a Spitfire right on their tail. The climate is kind to us here and so far we have been very lucky. Your son, Ruben
After I read these letters the first time, I told Kris Hen- riksen that I had always thought Ruben was a front line medic, but it doesn’t seem like he was. Kris assured me that most of them that were overseas made things sound much safer than they actually were when they wrote home to their parents. So Ruben may have been closer to the front at times than what the letters indicate.
On June 29, Ruben was still fairly close to the Normandy coast as he writes:
I found some canvas on the beach so the last two days I have been sewing sides on my tent. There are cute little French boys and girls running around here, we give them candy and chewing gum. One little boy already knows how to say “any gum, chum?”
July 2––Dear Father and Mother, The sun is shining again and it is warm. I had a letter from Selma [Grumstrup, cousin] telling about herself at Camp McCoy. I am getting along fine here in France. Now that the Americans have the port of Cherbourg we will be able to dock big boats. We came across the channel in small but none of us got sea- sick...they give us pills to prevent it. When we got to the coast of France the sea was so full of boats you could hardly see the water, what a sight! We had no trouble landing. Your son, Ruben
July 9––I just made a folding table and chair of solid oak for the Company Commander, Capt. Lambert. The wood I got was from wrecked trucks. Yesterday we had steak. Each man in the Company paid $1 and we bought a young beef. It’s a nice change from that canned stuff although we live well on that.
July 19––The other night after supper Cpl. Ozanich and I made a three-foot dam on a stream running through our camp to make a swimming hole. Then we also have a waterfall running over the top. It’s a really nice spot. We have a horseshoe pit and a volleyball court here. There are goats and small French children running around camp. I wish you could come and visit me here. The place looks more like a golf course than a farm.
July 25––Dear Father and Mother, Things are going all right for us here. I just made a case for a new typewriter we got here in our treatment station. We are divided into sections and I am in the maintenance section so have nothing to do with the wounded. I wrote about people making hay here. The civilians don’t move out just because there is a war on their land. The only place they will leave from is the no-man’s land, that little strip of land between our lines and the Germans. It sure rains a lot here. Your son, Ruben
Ruben was wounded on July 30 when German planes dropped anti-personnel bombs on their camp. He was evacuated and sent back to England but was not given much chance of survival. The next letter home that I have was sent from England and written by someone else. The V-mail is damaged and has no date.
Dear Dad, the Red Cross is writing this as my arm is in a cast. I am in England now. The hospital is in the nicest part of England. I am getting along fine so don’t worry. They treat me well and I have been getting the best of care. Well, Dad, ... [this part of the letter is missing] Your son, Ruben
The next letter was sent from O’Reilly General Hospital in Springfield, Missouri, on October 14; again, this was written by someone else.
October 14––Dear Mother, Happy to receive your letter today. I am getting along well. I have been going for short walks every afternoon outside. I didn’t get any of the let- ters you sent to me in England but I did get the card that Solveig sent me so I know you got my letter. I had hoped I could get home when the leaves were still on the trees, but it don’t look like it now. This is where I was when Dad got here to see me. I wish you could have come along with him. Your loving son, Ruben
The last several letters I have were written by Ruben but with a much-changed handwriting, difficult to read as he was learning to write with his left hand. All of these were written in Danish. In 2008 when we hosted a Danish foreign exchange student, I asked her to translate a letter for me:
October 28––Dear Father and Mother, I have gotten two of your letters since you wrote that George is coming to visit me. I am doing good so far. I walk an hour every day, but it progresses a little. I don’t know when I can come home, I hope I can come home for Christmas. Your son, Ruben
The last letter I have is written January 12, 1945, so he didn’t get home for Christmas. He writes that he has gotten letters from George and Stacy (?) and also that he had dinner in a restaurant in Springfield, which would indicate that he was recovering. I have not been able to find out just when he returned home but guess it was soon after this letter.
My memories of Ruben started almost twenty years after he returned home to live with his mother and father. My parents would visit there often, and I enjoyed these vis- its as I could explore along the creek that flowed through his yard, fish in his canal, or best of all, get a pontoon boat ride on the lake. When I was very young, Ruben’s parents were still alive, and his mother would sometimes serve “nec- tar” in the summertime, which my brother Roger described as “six raspberries mashed up in a gallon of water.” Ruben was a fixture at any West Denmark event, and he often had a home movie camera filming things. As a teenager, I some- times helped him bale hay, and later I would house sit for him occasionally when he was on trips. In addition to taking visitors on pontoon boat rides around Little Butternut Lake, he also had a sailboat he used often. I would definitely agree with Bridget Jensen’s description of him as “a unique individual.” He had interesting ideas and would make humorous comments followed by his memorable laugh, which was almost a cackle. He would often ask my dad or brothers for carpentry advice on some project he was envisioning, and they worked on several of them. My brothers were remodel- ing his basement at the time of his sudden death from a heart attack in 1994. He had been asking their advice on an idea he had to modify an old grain binder to cut and bundle lumber trimmings to be used for kindling. Nobody seemed to
think that it would work, but he had spent several months tinker- ing with it. He was still plowing snow for his neighbors with his little John Deere tractor until the time of his death.
Ruben made a few trips to Denmark in the 1970s and 80s and was in England at least once. I would imagine that he went back to some of the areas where he had been during the war, but I doubt he made it back to North Africa. I wonder if he ever went to France to see that farm that looked like a golf course where his life’s course was altered forever by shrapnel from an exploding bomb.
Bridget Lois Jensen