Before World War II, Bayer Ross worked as a tailor in his father’s dry-cleaning shop in the southwestern Minnesota town of Mountain Lake. After the war, he met his future wife when she dropped off some dirty laundry at the shop.
He didn’t like to talk about the years in between when he served as an Army medic from 1942 to 1945. Like so many World War II veterans, Ross was reluctant to relive what he saw in North Africa, Sicily or during the D-Day invasion and an ensuing inspection of a German concentration camp.
“It’s just that when I go back to that time I think about the fellows who died in my arms,” he said. “God knows I closed too many eyes.”
He counted 47 soldiers he personally declared killed in action. But he kept most of the awful memories to himself, stitching alterations and greeting customers in Mountain Lake — then a town of 1,700 with a lake but no mountain.
When he married Lois in 1950, her 4-year-old brother, Paul Arneson, served as a ring bearer. By 1968, Arneson began his own military career — climbing to U.S. Air Force colonel when he retired.
“Bayer must have sensed my genuine interest in his story and slowly began opening up to me,” Arneson writes in the introduction of his new book, “I Closed Too Many Eyes, A World War II Medic Finally Talks,” (www.paularneson.com).
Arneson will discuss the book Oct. 10 at the American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis at 1 p.m. He combed through Ross’ letters and journal entries to stitch together a compelling account.
“Because his source … is so very personal the reader is taken deep into the trenches of WWII in a very intimate way,” said Ralph Peluso, literary editor of the Zebra, a monthly newspaper in Arlington, Va. “Bayer’s recollections are so detailed I felt as though I was alongside soldiers.”
Arneson’s 140-page book braids together Ross’ letters, photos and journal entries. Here are 10 excerpts, in chronological order, to give you a sense of his story:
Letter home, Sept., 10, 1942, before going from training in Texas to Camp Kilmer in New Jersey, “a place you wait for a ride overseas so I’ll likely be taking a trip across the ocean soon. That will be a first for me but not the cruise I dreamed about.”
Journal, Nov. 7, 1942, two days after his 25th birthday aboard a ship about to land in North Africa: “The Regiment commander gave a speech today saying we were among the first Americans to fight on foreign soil … since the First World War. Sure hope I’m around on my 26th birthday.”
Journal, Nov. 30, 1942, upon learning the ship he just sailed on had been sunk by a German U-boat: “God I hope it wasn’t a total loss for those men. I’m learning that you just can’t think about things too much now. If you dwell on everything every day I know eventually, you’ll crack. There just has to be a reason for all this mess but I’ll be damned if I know what that is.”
Letter home, Dec. 23, 1942, from North Africa: “I am thinking of you every day and hope all is well at the shop. I know you must be overwhelmed since this is your busiest time … and I feel guilty for not being there to help. … Where I am is as different as can be from southern Minnesota.”
Journal, Jan. 24, 1943: “I still can’t believe sometimes that humans do this to themselves … shooting at each other and then carrying them off to get patched up. I’m glad I can do what I’m doing here, but I hope someday all this won’t be necessary.”
Journal, May 28, 1943: “We lost far too many boys in Tunisia. The worst few days of my life so far ... I missed being hit by about 2 feet when a shell hit our station. I worked on two of my buddies but couldn’t do any good.”
Letter home, Nov. 1, 1943, on a ship heading to Sicily, the week he turned 26: “I was on a boat writing you last year around my birthday too. It has become a habit I guess. In years to come I plan never to be on a boat on my birthday.”
Journal, Sept. 1, 1944, three months after D-Day invasion: “Well, guess I’m not the same fellow who went into the Army about two years ago. I never thought one person could see this much horror in a lifetime! I fell like I’m 76 instead of 26.”
Journal, Sept. 30, 1944, in Germany: “We took one hell of a beating … until just a couple nights ago when the shelling finally stopped. For almost two weeks I bet I didn’t get over 50 hours of sleep in total and never over 3-4 hours at a time. But thank God we’re still pushing on although many of my buddies haven’t been so lucky.”
Letter to his brother, May 30, 1945, in Czechoslovakia, waiting to go home after war’s end: “Gosh, it must be nice back in Minnesota now. Surely will love to get back there. Sometimes wonder if I’ll be content to stay in one place after I get home. Afraid I might get the wandering fever. The Army does things to a guy you know.”
Ross didn’t wander, staying in Mountain Lake, working at the dry-cleaning shop, raising three boys born in the 1950s before moving to Minneapolis in 1987. He died in 1990 at 72, suffering a heart attack while leaving a dry-cleaning shop where he worked part-time. He’s buried in the Mountain Lake Cemetery.
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org. His new book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: https://tinyurl.com/MN1918. Podcasts at www.onminnesotahistory.com.