Rugby veteran’s son works to solve mystery about dad’s World War II service
Former Rugby resident Aaron Stenson has been working to solve a family mystery for two years.
The Enderlin resident said he still visits Rugby on occasion to say hello to friends or check on his parents’ graves at Little Flower Catholic Cemetery just east of town. His father, Raymond A. Stenson, was buried there in 1983. Stenson and his family buried their mother in the plot in 2018, when she died at 98.
Mildred’s death revealed information about Raymond his three sons never knew. It also created a mystery for them to solve.
“She lived in Enderlin at the time she passed away, but she and my father had farmed in Willow City for years,” Aaron Stenson said of his mother. “Then they moved to Rugby where my dad was crop sprayer. They moved here in the early 1950s.”
Stenson said R.A. operated an auto body repair shop north of Rugby for many years.
“They lived just east of the airport. His shop was called Stenson Garage,” Stenson noted.
After Mildred Stenson died, her children sorted through her property and found an Army enlistment card signed by R.A. in 1942, along with a letter, written decades later, thanking him for his service.
Stenson brought his father’s yellowed enlistment card to Rugby, showing friends, veterans and Pierce County Tribune staffers a black and white photo of his 24-year-old father and a few lines of information describing him.
“Dad never said a word about his service. My mother never said a word,” Stenson said.
The scant information about R.A. Stenson from his enlistment card, issued in Minneapolis and dated Nov. 4, 1942, says he was to serve “for the duration of the war, plus six months.” The card assigns the young farmer to the Air Force, described as part of the Enlisted Reserve Corps of the Army. The card says he stands five feet, seven inches tall, with blue eyes, brown hair and a fair complexion.
“I went to the regional office for veterans’ services in Fargo, to the V.A. hospital, and the lady there helped me,” Stenson said. “We were looking for his records. She got this back,” Stenson said, taking out a form letter from an archives technician with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. “The records were here in July of 1973,” Stenson said, pointing to a paragraph describing the VA’s archive warehouse in St. Louis, Mo. The warehouse suffered a devastating fire that destroyed military records for thousands of veterans serving in the military between 1912 and 1955.
Stenson said his father’s military records “would have been in the area that suffered the most damage in the fire. A lot of veterans’ records were destroyed.”
“I took this to (Pierce County Veterans Service Officer) Ron Montonye,” Stenson said. “I showed him this and we talked about it. He said he’s come across several cases where records were destroyed and nobody knew anything about what a veteran’s service was.”
Stenson also produced a letter embossed with a gold-toned presidential seal thanking R.A. for his service, signed by President Donald Trump. “It’s kind of odd I came across all this in my mother’s stuff,” Stenson said.
“My uncle, my dad’s brother, served in the Navy in World War II. He never talked about his service, either,” Stenson added. “No one knew where my uncle served,” Stenson said, noting his uncle, Rodney Stenson “never talked about his service either.”
A few Rugby residents still remember R.A., among them Duane Paul of H.E. Everson Auto Parts, who did business with him.
“I remember him but I don’t remember him talking about being in the armed forces ever,” Paul said of R.A. Stenson.
“He had an auto body shop north of town and he was a regular customer at the time. I don’t recall him ever mentioning that part of his life, though,” Paul said.
“I don’t know who else would know,” Paul added after pausing. I hate to say it; a lot of them were my customers, too, but a lot of them have passed away.”
“I got along with him great,” Paul recalled. “We laughed and got along. We’d give each other grief a lot. If he gave it to you, you’d have to make sure to give it back,” Paul said of the joking jabs he traded with R.A. Stenson.
Gabriel Scheet, one of Rugby’s few remaining World War II era veterans, said he remembered R.A. Stenson.“He sprayed crops,” Scheet said.
When asked if he remembered R.A. talking about his military service, Scheet answered, “Never.”
Scheet recalled assisting the Stenson family as a firefighter with the Rugby Volunteer Fire Department when the Stensons asked for heavy equipment to clear water and sewage lines. “That’s all really that I knew about R.A. Stenson,” Scheet said. “He was a nice guy, but he was real quiet about anything. He did his work. He would come and go, but for him to tell us anything, he never did. I don’t know why, but he was really a quiet man.”
Scheet said he had empathy for the Stenson family as they searched for R.A.’s military history. “A lot of my records also burned up in St. Louis,” Scheet said. “All the records up to a certain length of time were destroyed in St. Louis in that fire. The only records that I have are the records I brought back with me when I was separated.”
Duane Baillie, a former Rugby pharmacist who served during World War II in Japan, said through staff at Heart of America Medical Center’s long-term care unit he remembered R.A. Stenson at the Rugby Airport.
“He didn’t know much of him other than he worked as a crop sprayer,” said HAMC nursing staffer Amanda Cole. “He stated he wasn’t sure if they were in the war together but they could’ve been.”
Tilman Hovland, a military veteran who taught music at Rugby schools for many years, said he wasn’t surprised that R.A. hadn’t talked about his military service to family or friends.
“That was typical of World War II veterans,” Hovland said. “I had four brothers who were in the service at the same time (during the second world war), and you could not get them to talk about anything as far as their military service. They just clammed up.”
Hovland, a member of the Rugby Clarence Larson American Legion Post 23, has played taps at local veterans’ funerals for many years. Hovland said he didn’t remember whether Stenson had been a post member and didn’t recall playing at Stenson’s funeral.
“I don’t remember R.A. (as a legion member), because I came here in 1952,” Hovland said, noting he knew R.A.’s three sons better than he knew their father. “I had them as students,” Hovland said. “But I did not get to know their parents very well,” Hovland said. “Aaron Stenson’s dad was one of those quiet guys that you could hardly get to know. You’d say hello to him and he might exchange a dozen words with you, and that was it.”
Rugby Veterans’ Service Officer Ron Montonye said he never had the chance to meet R.A. Stenson because he hadn’t moved to Rugby until late 1994, 11 years after R.A. died.
“I did speak to Aaron via phone earlier this month,” Montonye noted. “Since he had already heard back from the VA about his father’s records being destroyed in the 1973 fire, there is not much I could do, either.”
“I did ask Aaron if he had a copy of RA’s DD214 as this would provide basic information about his time in the service,” Montonye said. “It would show the highest rank he achieved, his years of service, and if any of them were overseas. It would also show the unit he was attached to and any medals and ribbons he may have received. Aaron said he had not seen this discharge paper. I did look in the files here at the courthouse to see if it had been filed here, but it had not been.”
“I then asked Aaron where his dad lived. When he said Willow City, which is in Bottineau County, I then suggested he should contact the courthouse there or the Bottineau County VSO to see if it might have been filed there. He said he would do that and he would also see if he could find it in any of his dad’s old files at home. I have not heard back from Aaron if he had any luck with this.”
Stenson said he had not contacted the Bottineau County VSO office.
A call by Tribune staff to the Bottineau County VSO office yielded no information. “Unfortunately, that fire took a lot of (records),” said the office’s Heather Thompson, who indicated she would check with other possible sources.
Aaron Stenson said he wasn’t surprised at the roadblocks veterans’ service workers encountered. “More than likely, the discharge papers weren’t registered there,” he said. “A lot of veterans didn’t register their papers at their counties.”
“I guess I’m kind of at a dead end,” Stenson added.
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