Kermit Brekke's Workman's Coveralls

While at first glance these workman’s coveralls may seem plain and unremarkable, it is sometimes the unassuming pieces of clothing that have the most interesting story to tell. This is certainly the case for the owner of these coveralls, Kermit Brekke, a rural Wisconsin farm boy turned WWII soldier and Bronze Star recipient.

 La Crosse County Historical Society

La Crosse County Historical Society

Kermit Brekke was born in 1919 in Trempealeau County. His parents were of Norwegian ancestry, and he grew up on a farm near Blair, Wisconsin. In 1942, when he was 23 years old, Kermit enlisted in the U.S. Army and was sent to Oregon for training at Camp White and Camp Adair.

During his training, Kermit’s sweetheart, Evelyn Stutlien, came to visit him in Oregon.  On April 25, 1943, Evelyn and Kermit were married close to the Army training base where Kermit was stationed. Unfortunately their honeymoon was quite brief, as Kermit was sent to North Africa shortly after their wedding. After Kermit was deployed overseas, he and Evelyn exchanged many letters and remained in constant correspondence.

 Kermit and Evelyn Brekke on their wedding day, La Crosse County Historical Society 

Kermit and Evelyn Brekke on their wedding day, La Crosse County Historical Society 

Kermit started his time overseas in North Africa, but was quickly moved to Italy when the Battle of Anzio began. Kermit was a member of the Headquarters Company, 3rd Battalion, 363rd Combat Regiment, 91st Infantry Division. Throughout the Italian Campaign, the 91st Infantry Division continued to march north and drive the German troops out of Italy. While Kermit started out as a rifleman, he soon became a radio operator and repairman. Although he usually carried only a handgun, Kermit was often at the front lines, and many times was pushed ahead of the infantry during the chaos of battle.

Kermit Brekke lived to be 86 years old, and at the time of his death was a father, grandfather, and great-grandfather.

While Italy is often referred to as the “Forgotten Front”, because of people like Kermit Brekke it will be forgotten no more. If you would like to learn more about Kermit Brekke or the life of a WWII soldier, you can view the La Crosse County Historical Society’s Brekke Collection online at http://content.mpl.org/cdm/landingpage/collection/LCCHS

Red Cross Uniform Used in Post-WWII Japan

This year marks the first time in United States history when all military positions and occupations are open to women. As we mark this significant moment, let us not forget the many women who have selflessly served their country in the past. This WWII American Red Cross jacket was once worn by Mary Ellen Higbee Cameron, an American Red Cross worker who served in post-WWII occupied Japan.

 The La Crosse County Historical Society

The La Crosse County Historical Society

Courtesy of Richard O'Neill

Mary Higbee graduated from Central High School in the class of 1933. She then went on to study at Carleton College, as well as La Crosse State Normal School (now the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse), where she attended the La Crosse State Teachers College Training School. In her mid-twenties, Higbee attended the Layton School of Art in Milwaukee, graduating with a degree in Costume Design. By the time she was 30, Mary Higbee had joined the Red Cross and was stationed in the Phillippines, awaiting a transfer to Japan.

Mary Higbee joined the Red Cross in 1946, right after WWII had ended. She served primarily in Japan, where the Allies had begun their occupation. While we do not know exactly what Mary witnessed herself during her time in Japan, we do know that the war’s end did not signal an end to the Red Cross’s service to soldiers waiting to return home, as well as to the many who remained injured or wounded in military hospitals.

 The La Crosse Tribune - February 24, 1946

The La Crosse Tribune - February 24, 1946

The main role of most Red Cross workers was to keep up morale among the troops. This included a broad range of duties, the most common of which were: hosting parties and dances, operating clubs and “clubmobiles”, making doughnuts and coffee, visiting with the wounded, and comforting the homesick. While it may sound lighthearted, the duties of a Red Cross worker were exhausting and relentless. Most Red Cross women worked 12 to 14 hour days. The work did not come without risk either. During the war years, a total of 86 Red Cross workers, 34 men and 52 women, lost their lives.

After her service, Mary Higbee returned to La Crosse where she married Alex Cameron, a lawyer. Mary continued to pursue her passion for art, working as an art teacher at Logan High School for many years, as well as instructing several local art clubs. She died in 1991, at the age of 75.

Mary Higbee’s jacket represents not only her individual story, but the story of all the women of the Red Cross who served their country in WWII. The war was not only physically scarring, but was also a mentally scarring experience. Without women like Mary Higbee Cameron to provide care and comfort, many soldiers may not have survived to return home.

Korean War Eisenhower Jacket

There is no better way to remember the “Forgotten War” than by putting a face and a name to one of the many individuals who offered their service to their country during the Korean War. This Eisenhower jacket from the Korean War era once belonged to Howard Thiel. Although Thiel never served overseas during the war, he was stationed with the U.S. Army at Fort Hood, Texas for two years from 1951-1953.

 The La Crosse County Historical Society

The La Crosse County Historical Society

 The La Crosse Tribune - February 26, 1954

The La Crosse Tribune - February 26, 1954

From one of the patches on his jacket, we can tell that Howard Thiel belonged to the 1st Armored Division. This division, nicknamed the “Old Ironsides”, was one of the first divisions in the Army to integrate black soldiers throughout its ranks. After nuclear warfare became a major concern in the 1950s, the 1st Armored Division was one of the first to participate in tests of the “Atomic Field Army” at Fort Hood.

Thiel married his wife, Rose Marie Seemann, in December, 1950, shortly after the war broke out. Their first daughter, Barbara, was born at the Fort Hood, Texas Army Hospital during Thiel’s time in service. When he returned to La Crosse with his family in 1954, Thiel started work at his father in law’s company, Seemann Lumber Co., managing lumberyards in Sparta and La Crosse.

Thiel continued to serve his community in many ways outside the military. He was a member and, at one time, president of the Jaycees (Junior Chamber of Commerce) in Sparta, receiving one of their highest honors, the distinguished service award, for answering over 50 fire alarms as a volunteer of Ervin Edwards’ Rural Fire Fighting Company. He was also a member of the Boy Scouts of America for over 14 years, receiving one of their highest honors shortly after his service in the military: the God and Country Award.

 The La Crosse Tribune - February 15, 1959

The La Crosse Tribune - February 15, 1959

 The La Crosse Tribune - April 10, 1963

The La Crosse Tribune - April 10, 1963

While Howard Thiel survived the war and lived a fulfilling life with his family and community, we cannot forget the more than 70 individuals from the La Crosse area who were not so fortunate. In remembering Howard Thiel, let us remember that he was able to live the life he did because of those who gave their lives in Korea.

Howard Nestingen's Navy Hat

This Navy officer’s hat was part of Cmdr. Howard Nestingen’s World War II Navy dress uniform.

Nestingen, born in Westby in 1921, was an officer in the Navy for 38 years. During his time in the military, he survived four trips across the Pacific Ocean on the USS Rankin, an ammunition ship, and he served in occupied Japan after World War II.

When he returned home to La Crosse, he joined the Naval Reserve and was appointed commander for the Navy Reserve Officers School at the Naval Reserve Center along Green Bay Street.

 The La Crosse Tribune. Thursday, July 26, 1962. Page 13.

The La Crosse Tribune. Thursday, July 26, 1962. Page 13.

Although the building no longer stands, the center trained thousands of men from the area from 1949 to 2006. In the first 20 years alone, more than 3,200 men attended the Naval Reserve Center.

The reserve unit stationed in La Crosse was so successful in its training that in 1961 the unit, commanded by Nestingen, was ranked No. 1 in the 14 states of the 9th Naval District; it also was ranked eighth in the nation.

 The La Crosse Tribune. Thursday, November 9, 1961. Page 1.

The La Crosse Tribune. Thursday, November 9, 1961. Page 1.

Outside of his position at the Naval Reserve Center, Nestingen continued to play an active role in the La Crosse community. He was the public affairs coordinator for Dairyland Power Cooperative for many years, and he was influential in the creation of the nuclear power plant near Genoa.

In a 1963 article from the La Crosse Tribune, he was quoted as saying, “While the cost of nuclear fuel is still considerably higher than conventional organic fossil fuels, the expected shortage of conventional fuels in the future makes the development of atomic power necessary.”

Nestingen also was a member of the United Way board of directors, a member of the board of trustees of La Crosse Lutheran Hospital, was a founder of the Heritage Society of Gundersen Health System in the 1960s, was President of the Congregation of the English Lutheran Church, and was past president of the La Crosse Optimist Club.

Nestingen’s Navy officer’s hat is an important tangible link that helps us remember the brave people in La Crosse’s military history. Perhaps Nestingen’s service to La Crosse can be best summed up in his address at a 1972 Memorial Day observance in Oak Grove Cemetery. According to a story in the La Crosse Tribune, Nestingen said of those who had died in military service: “They were just plain men who felt freedom in their very being. Freedom cannot be taken for granted as a permanent factor in our lives.”

 The La Crosse Tribune. Thursday, June 26, 1969. Page 16.

The La Crosse Tribune. Thursday, June 26, 1969. Page 16.

In the process of researching Howard Nestingen's life, I've found myself more invested in his story than I first thought. Although I initially saw him only as a stranger, I now see him as something much stronger: family. It turns out that Howard Nestingen's wife, Opal, had a mother named Josie Clark from Dell, WI. This piece of information set bells off in my head when I first saw it because my great-grandmother, Cecilia Clark, was also from Dell, WI. Since Dell is a tiny town far into the rural country of Vernon County, I knew that another Clark from Dell meant that there must be some sort of family relationship. After speaking with my mother on the subject, I came to find out that Josie Clark was my great-grandmother's sister, and therefore Opal Nestingen was my grandmother's cousin. This would make Howard Nestingen, Opal's husband, my relative by marriage. You truly never know what you might find when you start looking into the lives of some of these soldiers, and it's amazing the connections you can find simply through something as small as a hat.

Dr. Edward Evans - La Crosse's WWI Red Cross Surgeon

As we celebrate the Fourth of July, I thought it would only be appropriate to write my first post in this blog, La Crosse’s Men in Uniform, and pay tribute to one of our local military heroes. During the first leg in our survey of the La Crosse County Historical Society’s military collection, we’ve combed through many artifacts from WWI. One of the most interesting so far has been the uniform of Dr. Edward Evans, former Chief of Staff at St. Francis Hospital and one of the most prominent surgeons in the Midwest during his time.

Dr. Evans was originally from Canada, and moved to La Crosse in 1888 in order to work at the Marine Hospital, La Crosse’s only hospital at the time, which was operated by the Franciscan Sisters. He quickly rose to prominence in the medical community, and eventually was promoted to Chief of Staff at St. Francis Hospital. When WWI broke out, Dr. Evans served as the United States base hospital surgeon in La Crosse for the first years of the war. Then in 1918, he offered his medical expertise to the U.S. Army, but was refused by the regular army medical corps because he was beyond the age of 55, the maximum age for service at that time. He then offered his service to the Red Cross and was enlisted to go to Europe. A newspaper article from May, 1918, titled “Fightin’est Family Has Been Discovered in Wisconsin Town,” states:

Dr. Edward Evans is the father of the “fightin’est family” in La Crosse. The surgeon, who has a wide reputation, has three children in the war. Some time this month he will go to Europe himself to work for the cause of democracy, sacrificing his practice which is netting him a large income, for a position which carries no salary with it.

It turns out that not only did Dr. Evans himself serve in the war, but so did three of his children. His eldest son, James, served on the western front driving ambulances for the Red Cross until he was wounded in action. His daughter, Mary, also went to France as part of a medical unit. Evans’ other son, Arthur, would go on to serve in the Italian Army as an ambulance driver.

While the historical record does not indicate how long Dr. Evans served in Europe, we do know that he survived the war and went on to live to the age of 72. From the three black bars on the sleeves of his uniform, we can tell that he most likely achieved the rank of captain during his time in the service of the Red Cross.

Coming to know the story of Dr. Evans has made me realize that these uniforms have much more to offer us than first meets the eye. Although at first military uniforms may appear standard and impersonal, they are actually very unique and individualistic if you take the time to analyze the artifact and its owner as one.

Introduction

Hello! My name is Sophie Olson, and I am a current junior at Wellesley College in Massachusetts. I am pursuing a double major in anthropology and history (with a focus on early American history), and this summer I am an intern at La Crosse County Historical Society. Although I go to college on the East Coast, I was born and raised in La Crosse, Wisconsin, and this summer I hope to learn more about the history and the people in the place I call home. The LCHS is currently performing a survey of military uniforms in our collection, and part of my internship will be assisting in the cataloging, photographing, and preservation of these uniforms. This blog is dedicated to documenting our progress in this survey, and letting you know all the interesting details of what we find!

  Me with our new mannequin, Coppélia, whom we put together during one of my first days as an intern.

Me with our new mannequin, Coppélia, whom we put together during one of my first days as an intern.