A human perspective on World War II
Local historian’s book brings the war to life through Webster County accounts
Sometimes it’s the little things, seen only through the aperture of the human eye, that bring history to life.
And if you want a vibrant picture of what World War II was like for soldiers and state-side civilians alike, Fort Dodge historian Roger Natte said there’s no better place to start than the stories of those who lived locally.
Take, for instance, a young boy on a turkey farm.
“I recall that I earned my first dollar during the fall of 1942 or 1943, when I was either in kindergarten or first grade, by collecting milk weed pods and packing them into 10-pound netted potato sacks so that they might dry,” said Richard Broer. “For each potato bag, we were paid 10 cents.”
Those milk weed pods were used by the military to manufacture what was popularly known as “Mae West” life preservers, coined after the popular actress and sex symbol of the 20th century.
“If you said ‘Mae West’ to anyone during the war, they knew what you were talking about,” Natte explained.
Following victory in Europe in 1945, planes returning home from overseas terrified Broer’s father’s turkeys into a frenzy each time they flew over New Providence.
“I spent the entire summer as an 8-year-old boy unpiling turkeys to keep them from smothering the ones on the bottom,” he said.
In a sea of textbooks focused on the logistics of battles during wars, Natte’s recently published book, ”Our War: Our Heroes; Webster County in World War II,” manages to cut through the artillery noise with captivating accounts. By highlighting even the most ordinary parts of life, the book brings color to a world captured in black and white.
A former junior high history teacher, Natte figured out early on how to make history appealing.
“You might talk about the Civil War, something like that, and the kids’ eyes glazed over. They don’t identify with any of this,” he recalled. “I started then by trying to tie in Webster County.”
Natte has been a regular at the Webster County Historical Society. Over the last year and a half, Natte and co-author Lori Miller have worked to compile countless letters and articles in historical archives.
Many accounts were sourced by Natte from attendees of a presentation 15 years ago to Golden K, the senior group of the Fort Dodge Kiwanis Club.
By asking for simple memories — not ones about battles, but things that stood out during the experience of living through the war — Natte collected a volume of short excerpts that create a vignette of digestible, relatable narrations that put history into perspective.
“It can be little things, but it sometimes tells us something,” Natte said. “You’re putting it on a level where people experience it.”
Did you know that women in Webster County collected costume jewelry to give to aviators? If pilots were shot down, they would use the jewelry to barter with local women.
“Each of these things may be kind of a minor incident, but if you read it, then you begin to see those minor incidents tell us a heck of a lot about the war,” the historian said. “We know more about the war than just ‘you’ve got tanks coming in and they’re blowing up German tanks.’ I have a real problem with that type of war history.”
Other treasure troves of historical accounts were sourced through Ed Breen’s ”Your Letters From Home,” published every week to those serving from Webster County, which kept soldiers in touch with what was going on at home through interesting accounts. At the letter’s peak, it printed five to six newspaper pages in small print chock-full of local happenings and updates.
When cigarettes were in short supply, for example, the letter would demonstrate how locals got their nicotine fix.
“He would say, ‘if you go on Wednesdays at noon to the Warden Hotel and ask them for cigarettes, they’ll go under the counter and pull them out,'” Natte said.
Before his death in the 1980s, Breen asked Natte if he’d be interested in taking possession of his archives.
“Well, is the pope Catholic?” the historian responded.
And in a time when surviving World War II veterans are few and far between, these letters and firsthand accounts are the only way many will know what it was like to live through the war — not just what happened during the war.
The 200-page book is organized by accounts from those in the branches that fought in the war, the regions they fought in, young people’s views on the war and a special section dedicated to those often overlooked in historical accounts including women, African Americans and a Jewish rabbi.
The role of women and African Americans, who served in segregated roles and were often refused important positions in combat, have often been ignored.
“We didn’t pay attention to the role women were playing,” Natte said. “Those essential groups are just ignored (by many historians.)”
Readers will also learn about the unbelievable figures illustrating the cost of the war, the art of rationing on the home front and the religious views of the war. But no matter the topic, every account makes it personal.
“I’d like (readers) to take away a more human side of the war,” Natte said. “I’d like them to learn something about the war that, ordinarily, they’d never be exposed to.”
Soon, an Iowa Central Community College class on oral history may be using the book, too. Natte noted that T.J. Martin, the dean of distance learning, took an interest in the volume with the difficulty of finding living World War II veterans.
The historian asks those with material related to World War II to bring it to the Webster County Historical Society.
“We can copy it, but we don’t want to lose it,” Natte said.