WW II volunteer, world trekker, storyteller

Gertrude Esteros, retired U of M design head, reflects on war, her 97 years and a lifetime of learning

dec_gertrude-red-crossGertrude Esteros still recalls the day she knew she’d see the world. It was spring. She was picking strawberries next to a wooded area on her parents’  farm near Saginaw, Minn. She was 7 years old.

“I got a little tired of picking and moved into the shade of the trees,” she said. “I sat there and ate some of those berries I had just picked, and I remember thinking, ‘When I get bigger I am going to travel all over the world. I am going to see the whole world.’”

Nineteen years later, on Dec. 7, 1941, Esteros began to realize her childhood vision as she stood in a crowded college auditorium and listened to President Franklin D. Roosevelt announce over the radio that the Japanese had just attacked Pearl Harbor. Within months Esteros quit her teaching position at Linwood College near St. Louis, Mo., and joined the American Red Cross. She shipped off to the South Pacific in December 1942 and served in the Pacific Theater until the war ended in 1945.

Seven decades have passed since the United States was drawn into World War II. Esteros is now 97 and living in a condominium at 1666 Coffman, the sprawling white University of Minnesota senior complex on Larpenteur Avenue in Falcon Heights. Her home is filled with pieces of art that map Esteros’ efforts to see the whole  world: an altar piece from India, masks and carvings from New Guinea, a wooden peasant creche from Poland, a granary door from Mali, prints from fellow faculty members.

Esteros (pronounced “es-te-rose”) retired from the university in 1980 after building an impressive resume that includes heading the Department of Design for 30 years and founding the Goldstein Gallery (now the Goldstein Museum of Design). A housing expert, she took a lead role in developing the building she now lives in.

She’s a quick-witted woman who says she wouldn’t have lived so long without a sense of humor. Her body is wearing out, she says with a shrug. Her arthritis troubles her and she depends on a walker to get around, but she can hear well and continues to participate in groups she’s been involved in for years. She  holds meetings at her dining room table and attends lectures at 1666, where she still heads the community’s garden club.

“The beauty of aging,” she says, “is you learn so much more.”

Doing something positive

Esteros was 27 when she decided to put her career on hold and head into a war zone.

“I was aware of the European war perhaps more profoundly than most Americans,” she said. A child of Finnish immigrants, she had family who had fought and were displaced in the 1939 Russian invasion of Finland. (Esteros would head to Finland with the Friends Service Committee after the war to help Finnish refugees build homes.)

Describing herself as “something of a pacifist,” Esteros felt she needed to do something to help the people involved in the war.

“Here I was sitting in the middle of the United States perfectly safe and sound while all this was going on in the world,” she said. “I didn’t believe in war. I thought I could do something positive.”

The Red Cross was recruiting, Esteros said, “and I was welcomed with open arms. I was the right age. In order to join the Red Cross you had to be a college graduate, you had to be 25 years of age or older and you had to be recommended in some way that they knew that you were a stable person. . . .  Not that they said it in quite those words, but the pressures [of war] were many.”

Her first assignment was as a recreation worker at a field hospital in Finschhafen, New Guinea, where she led activities for able-bodied soldiers. That included a group of paratroopers who were mistakenly dropped in New Guinea, Esteros said. “They found themselves with nothing to do. New Guinea didn’t need paratroopers. Here were these highly motivated paratroopers and they had nothing to do.” So she engaged them in what she called “real conversation.”

“We did storytelling,” she said. “I had sessions that were just remarkable. They adored [it]. I learned this was the most important form of recreation I could do. They could talk about their dog or their home or their wife or their children or parents or anything.”

The camp’s commanding officer told her that whenever he was looking for Esteros, he only had to look for a group of men “sitting around in a circle talking away.”

Storytelling was innate to Esteros. “I happened to be a pretty good storyteller myself because we told stories in my own family,” she said. “This is how we entertained ourselves in the wintertime.”

Her parents told such detailed stories of their homeland that when she finally traveled to Finland, her mental image of the country was quite accurate, she said.

She hasn’t lost her ability to tell a good yarn. While entertaining a visitor at her home recently, Esteros pulled a carved wooden bowl shaped like a fish from a nearby shelf.

“This is the story of my going on a trip to a village while I was in New Guinea,” she began.

The fish bowl story

“It’s strange. There are whole long periods of time when I was at Finschhafen where I have no memory at all. It must have been dull,” she laughed. “We must have been just marking time.”

One Saturday morning in New Guinea has stayed with her: “It was a free day and some men soldiers said they were going to go on a trek to visit a village.” She was eager to join them. “I wanted to see something more than just our G.I. encampment and the hospital life,” she said.

“There were eight of us to begin with, two jeeps full. We drove the jeeps as far as we could go and then we had to walk [through] grass over the height of your head—thick, thick rush—and the other women said, ‘We aren’t going to spend our weekend walking through that,’ and I said, ‘Oh, I’m going. There’s a village there somewhere. I’m going.’”

The other women drove back to camp, but Esteros continued. It was a difficult hike, she said, particularly when the group reached a wide ravine. “I did some running steps and I leaped across, and at that point I’m thinking, ‘Isn’t it a good thing those other women didn’t come?’ ”

The group eventually met up with some native men. “They came through between the trees carrying long wood spears and I thought, ‘Oh, my goodness, isn’t this fascinating,’ ” Esteros said. “I was just thrilled to see something like that.” One of the soldiers was able to speak some of the native language and the group was led to the village, where Esteros said she saw only men and boys. “Where are the women and the little girls?” she asked. “And this got translated to the head man and he grinned at me.”

Esteros was led to a clearing where she was introduced to a woman she assumed was the head man’s “No. 1 wife.”

“She was a little woman, the oldest woman in the group,” she said. “I think he had five wives. I stayed there with the women and he went back to be with the men.”

Esteros was wearing her Red Cross uniform: a long-sleeved khaki shirt, khaki pants, boots and a cap. “And the women came and felt my sleeve and touched my arm and were curious. . . . They were wearing no clothes at all down to the waist, and so I took off my shirt to show them I was a woman,” she said. “Oh, they were so pleased. But then they were curious about my bra, so I took it off.”

The women passed the bra around and tried it on, she said. She laughed hard as she continued to describe that day:“It was so funny. I remember thinking, ‘I’d like to have a picture of this.’ ”

Esteros sat on the ground and the women gathered in a circle around her. A little girl climbed onto her lap and Esteros saw the head man peer around some trees.

“He smiled so broadly,” she said. “I think he was so pleased that I was getting along with his wives and his children.” Eventually, Esteros put her shirt back on and went back to the men.

As the group of Americans were leaving the village, “the head man came and gave me two gifts: a spear and a bowl shaped like a fish, and as I understand it this is a ceremonial bowl, though I do not understand what kind of ceremony it was.

“It was a lovely exchange. I never had such a wonderful experience.”

‘So much absurdity’

Esteros says humor is the key to telling a good story and living to 97: "This is why we told stories during the war. You just wouldn't have made it if you couldn't have laughed. (Park Bugle photo by Lori Hamilton)

Esteros says humor is the key to telling a good story and living to 97: “This is why we told stories during the war. You just wouldn’t have made it if you couldn’t have laughed. (Park Bugle photo by Lori Hamilton)

As the war progressed, Esteros was relocated to the Philippines where she worked in hospital wards as the casualties mounted. Though she had “marvelous experiences” serving with the Red Cross, she also experienced much horror.

“You really wonder why we haven’t learned,” she said quietly. “We are so willing to go to war. Eventually you have to make peace, you might as well keep it in the beginning and not go through the terrible conflict. The violence does an awful lot of damage. It’s so very, very wasteful.”

When Esteros looks back at her work during World War II and her long life, she sees her ability to laugh as the thread that has made it a satisfying near century.

“If I didn’t have positive ways of thinking, I don’t think I would have lived to 97,” she said. “You can’t live with hate. It does bad things to you. It messes up the organism.” With that last statement, she lets out another deep laugh and then looks at her guest: “This is why we told stories during the war with the GIs. You just wouldn’t have made it if you couldn’t have laughed. ‘There is so much absurdity; there is nothing more absurd than war.

“You do war to bring peace? Isn’t that crazy?”

Gertrude Esteros is featured in the Minnesota Historical Society’s exhibit The Greatest Generation. You can read more about her time in the war at http://stories.mnhs.org/stories/mgg/war.

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