Editor's note: War Stories is a new regular feature paying tribute to the veterans of Elkhart County. If you have a story to share, please contact Lydia Sheaks at 574-296-5862 or Ryan Dorgan at 574-302-7283.
ELKHART — Russ Anderson, 91, was drafted in the U.S. Army when he was 20 years old.
He left Elkhart for England in November 1942, leaving behind his wife of eight months, Pauline. Anderson said he and a friend had tried to join the Marines together, but his friend wasn't able to pass the vision test.
“I said, 'If he can't get in, I'm not going in,'” Anderson said during an interview on Aug. 12. “That's the closest I ever came to volunteering (for military service). It wasn't too long after that I was drafted.”
Anderson was part of a group of about 25 men who worked to maintain Boeing's B-17 bombers.
“I was in the carburetor department — two other guys from Elkhart were in the engine department,” Anderson said. “They were with me all the time.”
Anderson said he felt lucky that he ended up in the air force rather than the infantry. He had 16 weeks of training for working on the planes, then he went straight to work. His work was hard, “but I stuck it out,” Anderson said.
He said those in his group were working 10 hours a day, seven days a week trying to keep all the planes running. There was a backlog until Anderson decided to create an assembly line.
“I really enjoyed working with the guys,” Anderson said, but added that he wouldn't consider his time in the Army a good experience overall.
Pauline, who was in Elkhart living with her parents and working at Miles Laboratories, wrote letters to her husband every night.
“I was well known in the Army — they would say, this is the guy who gets all the letters,” Anderson said, laughing.
He also became known for giving haircuts after a stranger asked him to cut his hair one day.
“By the time I got done, there were four other guys lined up,” Anderson recalled. He continued cutting hair for his fellow soldiers until a Frenchman came in and offered to do haircuts for “one American cigarette,” Anderson said.
“By the time my number came up and I left (the Army) they were up to (paying) three cigarettes (for a haircut),” Anderson said.
When he had free time, Anderson and his friends spent time taking in the sights and looking for souvenirs to take home.
“We had a hard time buying anything — everything was a shilling or a pence,” Anderson said. “Most of the guys just held our their hand and said, 'Take what you need.' And (the merchants) were pretty good about just taking what they needed.”
Anderson was able to leave Army service and came home in February 1946. Pauline drove to Camp Atterbury to pick up her husband, but so much time had passed that she didn't recognize him.
“I was standing outside, and she drove right by,” Anderson remembered.
He also clearly remembers the food he ate right after returning to the United States.
“It was wonderful,” Anderson said. “We went to the mess hall and we could have cold milk, and a fried egg if we wanted it. We could have anything we wanted. That group, I think we drank a lot of milk.”
After the war, Anderson was able to get his job back at Adams-Westlake in Elkhart, where he worked for more than 40 years. The couple has three sons — Jim, Rick, and Tim — and the oldest two were also drafted into military service.
Russ and Pauline Anderson have lived in the same house in Elkhart since 1958. They enjoy eating at Taco Bell, where the employees know them by name, and working in their substantial vegetable garden.
“A lot of people ask me how I'm doing, and I think I'm doing good,” Anderson said. “I shovel snow, mow grass, and keep a big garden. I really like to keep busy — that's the secret of getting old.”
He looked over at Pauline and added, “We raised three wonderful boys. They didn't get into drugs, and they didn't smoke. We did a good job.”
Previous stories in the War Stories series
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