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War Brides


Themes can be valuable tools for sketching the history of any community. Agincourt is no exception. Some come immediately to mind–public health, the Great Depression, war and peace, for example. One that didn’t occur to me came from Mitch Dressel as we prepared the 2007 exhibit.

Mitch proposed to create Agincourt’s first pizza shop. He would design the twenty-five-foot store front on South Broad Street–certainly the remodeling of an existing building–but he wanted to go well beyond that, researching and crafting the menu (with appropriate 1950s prices); even the play list on the jukebox hadn’t escaped his attention. At the exhibit opening, the only thing missing was Mitch in a poodle skirt.

His back story, however, was inspired. This ’50s teen hangout was opened by a couple (whose names escape me; sorry, Mitch) barely out of their own teens. He was a local boy, but his wife was an Italian war bride whose family recipes for pizza and pasta came with her, directly from Napoli. Not incidentally, that exhibit opened my eyes to the breadth of our students’ experience and their ability to imagine lives well beyond their own.


I don’t know the number of Iowa men who served in the Italian campaign, but I’m guessing that more than a few did one or both of these things: 1) they left pregnant women behind, or 2) they brought brides home to surprised families and friends. Mitch’s story line was a typical “American Tale” acted out in communities across the country. In my own limited experience, there are two war brides of my acquaintance: Bill Burgett, who taught architectural history at the University of Oklahoma in the 1960s, was married to a beautiful woman from Italy; I was often a guest in their home. And at the local Sons of Norway lodge I’ve much more recently made the acquaintance of Gerda Johnson, a delightful Polish woman who married a Norwegian-American soldier from the Red River Valley. As a twenty-something I didn’t have the perspective to ask Mrs Burgett about her wartime experiences, but Gerda has been forthcoming with uncomfortable stories about the Russian treatment of young Polish girls–too grim to share with you here. Mrs Johnson’s reminiscences make me ashamed of my species.

Even Anson Tennant’s family sprouted a branch with wartime connections, but I’ll save that for another day. Suffice to say our nation of immigrants was further enriched this way.

Do you suppose there were war husbands? 

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