Minnesota’s warm persona soothed WWII troops

Published 8:42 am Monday, November 11, 2013

Marian Krinke, 94, at her home in Bloomington, looks through an album of photographs and other memorabilia Friday from her time as an American Red Cross volunteer in England caring for wounded World War II American soldiers. Jennifer Simonson/MPR News

Marian Krinke, 94, at her home in Bloomington, looks through an album of photographs and other memorabilia Friday from her time as an American Red Cross volunteer in England caring for wounded World War II American soldiers. Jennifer Simonson/MPR News

By Dan Olson

Minnesota Public Radio News, 90.1FM

The wounded troops loved listening to Frank Sinatra. Marian Krinke, a Red Cross volunteer who cared for them at a hospital in England during World War II, knew music and other diversions were only temporary salves. Many soldiers would return to combat.

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It’s easy, though, to imagine how Krinke’s warm laugh and welcoming personality offered a tonic to the wounded troops.

“We had a lot of wards of amputees,” Krinke, 98, recalled recently. “That was sad to see, so we had to find things to keep them busy.”

Veterans Day today will be filled with remembrances of bravery in battle and perseverance at home. Stories like Krinkie’s don’t often get told. On a recent day, though, she lead a tour from her armchair through a collection of photographs from WW II and stories that need to be heard before they disappear.

Born and raised in the tiny farming town of Lamberton in southwest Minnesota, Krinke finished college at the University of Minnesota with a degree in home economics. But the Great Depression meant that jobs weren’t easy to come by in the late 1930s.

She found a job with the Works Progress Administration, the WPA, teaching gardening and food preparation to homemakers in northern Minnesota. That’s what she was doing on Dec. 7, 1941, when Pearl Harbor was attacked, drawing the United States into World War II.

Krinke wanted to do something for the war effort but the military only wanted women with medical training. Even so she thought “Maybe there was another way that I could be of more help with the skills that I had.”

The American Red Cross decided Krinke’s organizational skills were a good fit as a staff aide for a hospital unit.

Krinke was a member of the 162nd U.S. Army hospital unit. She was a paid volunteer, earning $250 a month which she points out was taxable income. She and other volunteers first went to Washington, D.C., for training including visits to the psychiatric ward at St. Elizabeth’s hospital. The unit assembled at a military base near Rockford, Ill., where they received orders to travel east and board a former luxury liner converted into wartime troop ship.

The unit landed in Liverpool, then traveled to London for three more weeks of training. Krinke and the others ended up at the sprawling U. S. military hospital in Nocton, three hours north of London.

She and four other young women who made up her unit lived together in one room, complete with beds, a fireplace — and gas masks and helmets.

At the hospital, the needs were painfully apparent. Krinke says many of the soldiers in the hospital’s psychiatric wards were unresponsive to the staff.

“The hardest were these patients who had seen things that they had never experienced in their life so they retreated into themselves,” she said. “They did not speak.”

One patient, she recalled, sat alone and never talked. One day she touched him on the shoulder and said, “Soldier is there anything you’d like?”

The young man looked at her and said, “I’d like a fresh egg.” Wartime rationing dictated a steady diet of powdered eggs. She says she and another volunteer bicycled into the nearest village and began a search for fresh eggs. They returned to prepare scrambled eggs and toast for the soldier, an act which apparently helped him. Krinke says he slowly emerged from his silence and began talking with hospital staff and other patients.

Many soldiers were happy for the attention of Krinke and other volunteers. There were card games and dances.

“We had dances on Friday or Saturday night, and the English girls that came were all dressed up in their pretty dresses,” she remembered. “Our men were in their pajamas and robes.”

Krinke worked nearly 2 years as a Red Cross volunteer in England. When the war ended she returned to the United States and to an economy that was booming. She landed a job at a Minnesota-based Robin Hood flour milling company in 1950.

The job included a stint once a week as a host for a half-hour baking program on Twin Cities TV station WTCN, a gig that made her a minor celebrity.

There was no thank you, though, for her service to the troops. “People were so busy themselves with their lives and everything,” she said. “A few of them would ask me, but not many.”

That changed in 2004. When she was 90, Krinke attended the dedication of the World War II Memorial in Washington. She carried her Red Cross uniform and was thanked warmly by people who wanted to know what she had done during the war.

Krinke, who’ll share her stories on Tuesday afternoon at the American Red Cross Northern Minnesota Region headquarters in Minneapolis, calls her Red Cross work a great part of her life. The life lessons were invaluable.

“I learned to be a better listener,” she said. “I learned to be more caring and compassionate.”

At 98, Krinke is still volunteering. She reads the newspaper to the visually impaired at Presbyterian Homes in Bloomington where she lives, and she’s on the chapel worship committee.

Looking back on the destruction caused by WWII, Krinke said leaders should think long and hard before entering new battles.

The U.S. can settle conflicts in the world in other ways besides war, she added. “We can give them aid and we can help in other ways,” she said. “Humanitarian ways.”