Everyone called him “Dip,” ever since Dorance Pershing Alquist’s childhood friends turned their initials into nicknames in their south Minneapolis neighborhood near Roosevelt High School.
After Dip was drafted into the Army in the summer of 1941, the first letter he sent to his family as a private from Fort Snelling ended with a quintessentially Minnesotan signoff: “Lots of love, & good fishing. Pvt. Dip.”
Roughly 300 letters and photographs followed during a four-year Army hitch that led Alquist to the Pacific theater during World War II. When he died in his sleep five years ago at the age of 96, his grandson found his photo negatives and letters in the attic of Dip’s longtime home in Richfield.
“His mother must have kept them,” said Christian Olsen, 39, a Burnsville electrician and the oldest son of Dip and Marion Alquist’s first of three daughters.
Finding a stash of Grandpa’s letters can be a moving experience, if not necessarily rare. What Olsen decided to do with them, however, embraces a new approach. He is roughly two-thirds through a 4½-year project, releasing what he called “an amazing resource” in real time through blogs, newsletters and podcasts on his airmailfromdip.com website.
“I wanted to ... come up with some way to present it all to his family and friends,” Olsen said.
Alquist was drafted into the Army in 1941, arriving at Fort Snelling four months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor pulled the United States into war. Olsen launched his project by posting Alquist’s July 22, 1941, letter on the same date in 2017. Letters from 1944 are being posted on the website this year, and the project will end next year with 1945 letters.
“I wanted it to be an experience akin to that of his family receiving the letters,” Olsen said, “to see just how long and slow the war was.”
Posting the letters one at a time, Olsen shows the originals and offers transcriptions and photos in an easy-to-follow format. His website counts more than 1,300 people following the project, including 85 opting to receive Dip’s letters right in their e-mail inboxes.
“Most people listen to it via podcast, but the blog and newsletter have all the visuals, which are my favorite parts,” Olsen said.
In that first 160-word letter from Fort Snelling, Dip complains about 14 “grueling” hours of kitchen patrol. He mentioned a friend from Minneapolis leaving the next morning for training in Fort Bragg, N.C.
“Funny, I haven’t got notice yet,” Dip wrote. “I wonder what they have on the fire for me.”
He sent the letter to Brainerd in care of a Finnish immigrant who owned a cabin on Gull Lake where Dip’s parents spent time each July. They had been on their way north when Dip reported to Fort Snelling.
Oscar Alquist, Dip’s dad, served as an infantry sergeant with the Minnesota National Guard before the First World War and served under Gen. John “Black Jack” Pershing, chasing Pancho Villa in Mexico. Oscar built a career with American Linen Co. in Minneapolis, working his way up from laundry collector to a management position. He and his wife, Edna, had Dorothy in 1915, and Dorance — his middle name an homage to Black Jack — joined the family in 1918.
Dip was 23, working as a clerk after graduating from Roosevelt High, when he joined the military 79 years ago this week. So far the letters posted on the website follow his WWII arc through basic training at Fort Bragg, officers’ school at Fort Sill, Okla., and on to the Pacific.
On the evening of Dec. 7, 1941, Dip wrote home from a Fort Bragg service club about how he was reading a book and listening to a piano player when they got the news on that infamous Sunday.
“Right in the midst of the activities here,” he wrote, “the news flashed on the radio about Japan’s attack on Manilla & Pearl Harbor. ’Twas startling news indeed ... It will be interesting to see what developments the morrow will bring.”
Dip was promoted to second lieutenant in 1943. His letters included a batch to Marion Sneen, a friend from Minneapolis who would become his wife for 47 years. That engagement would have to wait until 1947 after his more pressing duties, such as when he was stationed on the island of New Caledonia in the South Pacific.
“It’s Sat. nite; I hear sweet music on the radio; I have a cool bottle of Schlitz; I’m very much in the mood — but blast it all here I am all alone & lonely on this forsaken Pacific isle,” he wrote to her on May 27, 1944, from “a hell of a ways from Mpls.”
As for near-death combat stories, Dip’s grandson said that “all the action is yet to come,” promising the next year’s worth of letters will tell that tale.
Spoiler alert: Olsen said his grandfather earned a postwar mechanical engineering degree at the University of Minnesota, and after marrying Marion worked on construction projects and purchased a new house in Richfield. He was still shoveling snow there right up until he died in 2015.
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org. His latest book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: strib.mn/MN1918.