The American Legion is celebrating its 100th birthday in 2019. In addition to national and statewide activities commemorating this milestone, American Post 328 of St. Joseph is planning a number of festive and patriotic activities for the community.
One of those special events will be profiles of St. Joseph-area veterans published in each Newsleader during 2019. The Newsleader is joining with Post 328 to recognize veterans and Legion members who served during World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and other theaters of conflict and Cold War tensions.
by Tom Klecker
St. Joseph American Legion
Robert “Bob” Wahlstrom, 93, U.S. Army World War II
Robert “Bob” Wahlstrom was born at home in Brainerd. He grew up in what he describes “as a somewhat normal childhood during the depression.”
During his teenage years, Wahlstrom worked in a grocery store. When he was 15 years old he took the train, went to California and worked on the Shasta Dam over the summer clearing brush and pouring concrete. Wahlstrom graduated from Washington High School at age 18 (1943). While yet in high school, he enlisted in the Minnesota State Guard. As a class, he and his buddies signed up on Dec. 8, 1942. Bob was 17 years old.
Waiting to be a part of the war effort, Wahlstrom and his friends joined the Merchant Marine. He underwent basic training on Catalina Island, which is 23 miles off the coast of southern California. He was assigned to a crew on a lumber/logging ship. It hauled logs from Washington State to southern California.
This period of service was marked with boredom. Wahlstrom remembers how many of the roof tops around the naval base at Bremerton-Bangor, Washington, had antiaircraft guns at the ready position, just in case the Japanese attempted an attack on this coast.
There were actually a few attempts made by Japanese submarines. On June 12, 1942, a Japanese float plane dropped two incendiary bombs along the Oregon coast in an attempt to start a forest fire.
Wahlstrom wanted to be part of what he called the action. Disappointed with the Merchant Marine, he “just quit” and returned to Brainerd to await his draft notice. His draft notice subsequently arrived on Aug. 6, 1945.
Coincidentally on that same day the first atom bomb was dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. Wahlstrom was 19 years old.
From Fort Snelling, he was determined physically fit for the army. He was then sent to Sheppard Field, Texas. From there Wahlstrom was ordered to an army training facility in Fresno, California. He became a telephone lineman (climbing poles, splicing phone lines). Within a short time Wahlstrom found himself on a troop ship (Marine Cardinal) for 17 days; destination Manila, Philippine Islands. His battalion was stationed there for a brief time. The once beautiful city of Manila was decimated by the Japanese; “it was bombed out…”
Wahlstrom was then flown to Tokyo, Japan. He was stationed there for one-and-a-half years as part of the occupation forces. His living quarters were in a building just across the street from what was once the Emperor’s Imperial Palace (built in 1868). The palace served as General Douglas MacArthur’s headquarters. At one point Wahlstrom traded a carton of cigarettes for a sword which was somehow removed from the palace. “They would not let me take home this prized souvenir,” he said. After some intense negotiation, he was able to trade the sword for a fine Japanese camera.
With Wahlstrom’s military obligations no longer needed, he returned to the states on a troop ship. It took just 11 days to sail home. He fondly recalls the day the ship docked in San Francisco. A train ride to Great Lakes, Illinois, for discharge, another train ride to Minneapolis, where he hitchhiked to Brainerd. Home at last.
Wahlstrom said, “In those days, if you were in uniform, you could hitchhike anyplace.”
Like so many WWII veterans, he went back to school on the G.I. Bill. He attended Brainerd Community College where he earned an associate degree in sales and marketing.
Wahlstrom worked for the Citizenship Bank in Brainerd. He quit after one year for higher earnings. For a while, he worked as a jobber for O’Brien and Son’s Groceries in Brainerd.
Eventually Wahlstrom found his groove in the lumber yard business. Beginning in 1952 and throughout time, he managed several lumber yards. In 1972, Wahlstrom and his partner bought a lumber yard in Silver Lake. Wahlstrom and his wife, Ellen moved to St. Joseph in 1956. He continued to manage lumber yards until he fully retired in 1989.
Wahlstrom married Ellen in 1952. In June of this year, they will be married 67 years. They have nine children and 16 grandchildren. Throughout the years the family has spent many enjoyable days at the “Wahlstrom Compound” on Kjostad Lake near Orr.
Ellen was a stay-at-home mom. She says as far as she can recall, she seemingly was always pregnant. Later, she went back to school and became an educator.
Understandably, Bob doesn’t get around quite as much these days. His interests in hobbies have tapered off.
Since building his home in St. Joseph in 1956, Wahlstrom and his wife Ellen said they continue to believe St. Joseph is a wonderful place to raise a family.
Although Wahlstrom can’t be as active as he would like, with a broad smile he cautions others “not to get old.” He has been a member of the American Legion for 73 years.
In a pensive, melancholic reflection Wahlstrom says: “It’s been a good life.”