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Thanks to 'matchmaker Marie,' Ernie Malmskog and Harriet Danielson met during World War II. (Family photo)

Couple recalls WWII service

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Couple recalls WWII service
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Ernie and Harriet Malmskog look back on the World War II era with a sense of reverence and revelry.

The war would send them across the world and across the nation, respectively, both serving in the military.


And thanks to matchmaker Aunt Marie who resided in Long Beach, Calif., their deployment would send them down the aisle.

"We lived 14 miles apart in Minnesota, but we met in California," Ernie reminisced. Harriet Danielson, 91, grew up in Twin Valley; Ernie Malmskog, 93, called Ulen home.

Three days after their formal introduction, Harriet had accepted Ernie's marriage proposal.

"I'll send you a ring," he promised, and headed home to Minnesota on a brief leave.

Securing Pacific islands

Ernie Malmskog began a four-year tour of duty with the Marine Corps in 1942, "to beat the draft." He was 24 at the time.

He headed to San Diego for basic training and was soon bound for the South Pacific, assigned to the Tank Corps of the 12th Defense Battalion.

Security of small islands was the division's responsibility, he explained. Women and children were separated from military males, who were considered "the enemy" and taken as prisoners.

The air corps was the first to arrive on the islands, he explained of the military protocol. Then his armored tank corps came ashore to secure the island, after which the ground troops arrived.

Ernie spent time in Guam, learning the Morse code. "When training planes would pull a target, we communicated in code," he explained.

He was also often behind the wheel of a truck on the remote islands, transporting soldiers on what became a small, temporary community, complete with mail delivery. But tanks were his main mode of transportation

After two and a half years overseas, he was sent to Okinawa, where he transported prisoners to the Hawaiian Islands.

"They were mostly kids," he recalled, "16- and 17-year-old males who were scared to death of us. They'd been brainwashed. They thought we were taking them out into the ocean to shoot them."

The prisoners were "quite surprised" when they were treated with "respect and kindness," by the Americans, Ernie said.

Returning to Hawaii, he was, to his surprise, called to board another ship.

He didn't know it at the time, but he was headed back to the U.S., his first stop in San Francisco then off to visit Aunt Marie for a day or two before heading home to Minnesota.

Country kid hits Big Apple

Meanwhile, Harriet had become disenchanted with her role as a bookkeeper at Dunn and Bradstreet in St. Paul.

"I saw no future," she said of the "well established" regiment. "They were here to stay."

"Gee willikers," she said. "I was 22. I liked accounting, but I didn't want to be stuck in a rut."

So she enlisted in the Navy WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) and was headed to boot camp at Hunter College, NY, the tenth group in the country to undergo training.

"It was a mixture of country kids let loose in New York," she said. They were soon following a regimented routine. Daily inspection of barracks required "perfectly made beds," she recalled.

No one was allowed to walk the compound without a partner, "even in the daytime." Everyone wore short hair, "but it was always a battle to shampoo."

An aptitude test reflected her acumen with numbers and the medical field. Harriet bid farewell to New York and was bound for San Diego to begin training for an "elementary" level of medicine.

She worked at a dispensary for dependents of Navy, Marine and the Coast Guard, "fighting the battle of Long Beach."

During the war, over- imbibing was a common occurrence, she explained. Patients arriving at the five-story dispensary were often injured in drunken brawls.

She developed a predilection for the medical role. "If I hadn't met Ernie, there's no doubt I'd have gone into nursing," she said of her post-war aspirations.

Because no barracks were available, she shared a house with six women.

On a weekend off, Harriet paid a call to Marie Nelson, who was her brother-in-law's foster sister.

"I wish you'd been here when my nephew was here," Marie told Harriet. "He's such a great guy."

"So I wrote him a dumb letter," Harriet said, chuckling. "'I'm that crazy WAVE from Minnesota,'" she told him in the missive, accompanied by jokes she cut from the magazine "Scuttlebut."

She'd later learn he'd penned a letter to her, but threw it in the garbage.

Then destiny called.

'The right man'

The WAVE and Marine may never have met face to face had not Aunt Marie insisted upon motoring over to Harriet's house when Ernie arrived on leave.

Harriet, Ernie and Marie went for a ride, Ernie deciding to extend his stay for a day.

The second night, just the two of them went to an outdoor concert.

Day three, he proposed, promising to send the ring.

"I accepted it," Harriet recalls, grinning.

"Harriet, how was he?" her friends prodded when she arrived home. She was known to be persnickety in her choice of men so her roommates were aghast when she announced she was betrothed.

"Six dates and three months later," the couple was married.

Ernie admits to some trepidation. "Maybe I was still kooky from being overseas," he joked.

"I knew I'd found the right man," Harriet said.

Ernie went home to announce the news. "You're engaged?" his mother asked, incredulous.

"I'm sure she thought I was crazy," he said.

Harriet told her family a Marine would soon come to call.

"Snookie was smitten," she recalled of her 12-year-old sister's impression of the man in uniform, asking for her sister's hand in marriage.

The Malmskogs joke about the "strictly friendly" letters they began sending. After their marriage, when the letters caught up, they laughed at the proper tone of the missives - and cookies arriving three months late.

Out in left field

When Harry Truman announced the end of World War II Aug. 14, 1945, Ernie was stationed in Philadelphia; Harriet was discharged and was soon bound for Philly, where the two were to tie the knot.

But the Chicago White Sox threw them a curve ball.

Harriet had plane reservations to fly from California to Chicago where she was to change planes and head for Philadelphia.

Meanwhile, the "darn Chicago White Sox" had won the right to play in the World Series and a throng of fans bumped her from the plane.

"I was determined to get to Philadelphia," she said. From Chicago, she flew to New York, boarding a train for Philadelphia.

In the meantime, her fiance was unaware of the mishap. He'd reserved a room for Harriet at the YWCA.

Harriet hailed a cab when she arrived in Philadelphia and headed for the Y, 48 hours after her journey began. "I took off my coat and flopped on the bed," she said, still in uniform with the discharge emblem.

"The next thing I knew, someone was pounding on the door," she said. "I was never so happy to see someone in my life."

The couple was married in the Lutheran Service Center in downtown Philadelphia Oct. 13, 1945.

Years later, the Sox were again facing the Phillies in the World Series, a game played on their anniversary. "I wanted to write a letter," the rankled WAVE said. "Tell them what I thought."

"She's still bitter," Ernie said.

66 years together

The couple lived in Philadelphia briefly before Ernie was transferred to Quantico, Va., training new recruits in weapon use.

But inadequate housing - "they showed us a place with dirt floors" - precluded co-habitation for long. They rented a room above a tavern for a couple of days. But the nickelodeon blasting "Let It Snow" repeatedly prompted Harriet's return to St. Paul.

Cpl. Ernie Malmskog was discharged in April 1946, the Northwest School of Agriculture (Crookston) graduate going to work as a field man for Fairmont Foods in Moorhead. He was employed with Fargo's health department, working in public health sanitation, before moving to the Cass-Clay Creamery. He was a procurement manager of raw milk until he retired. Cass-Clay had burgeoned from a $3 million to $130 million company.

"Milk. That was my business. Milk."

The couple became parents to five children, Harriet assuming the role of seamstress, chauffeur and chef.

The family began spending summers on Belle Taine in the mid '70s, now calling SummerField Place home.

Reflecting on his experience during World War II, Ernie said he was "never too frightened.

"The Japanese didn't have the firepower of the Germans. And I was protected by the armor of tanks...I had a lot of faith in the tanks. We maintained them well.

"I felt compassion for the prisoners," he said. "They were brainwashed."

Harriet recalls her role as a WAVE to be "a very good experience," building confidence and character for the role she was soon to assume, motherhood.

The couple will mark their 66th anniversary, come autumn.

"If it hangs together," Ernie quipped.

Jean Ruzicka
(218) 732-3364