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The Heroism of an Ordinary American Woman on the World War II Homefront

This year marks the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II, with VE Day (Victory in Europe) on May 8th and VJ Day (Victory over Japan Day) on September 2. Those anniversaries will undoubtedly be marked with stories of heroism and sacrifice, as well as combat and derring-do.

Rightly so.

But as is often the case, the majority of those tales will leave out the critical role played by millions upon millions of people whose contributions made those victories possible.

One of those millions was a young teenager named Arlene. A resident of Clinton, Iowa, Arlene was just about high school age when the war broke out. She’d seen a lot of life, and a great deal of sacrifice by then. Her father had first lost his job as a farm manager because of the Depression, which ravaged the Mid-West farm economy as surely as it did Wall Street; then he found himself unable to work anywhere because of a job-related injury. Arlene and her mother took on the dual roles of bread winner and caregiver—working odd hours, caring for the younger children, and, in Arlene’s case, going to school.

Just as things were starting to improve, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and America was thrust into the war. Arlene’s young sweetheart, Henry Langrehr, joined the Army and went off to Europe with a kiss and a promise of marriage.

No ring, just a promise.

Henry dropped into Normandy on D-Day with the 82nd Airborne. Though he fought bravely, his contribution was relatively short-lived—wounded, he was captured by the Germans, taken to a prison camp, and made to work in a coal mine. Eventually he escaped, and through a combination of luck, courage, and savagery, was rescued by an American unit as it advanced at the very end of the war.

Arlene, in the meantime, had found work in a factory turning out machine gun stands. She was part of a wartime labor force that churned out a wide range of necessary items, from aircraft carriers to rucksacks and boots. It’s a commonplace that armies rise and fall on the strength of their logistics. But logistics can only do so much if there are no items to move. And while we tend to think of massive assembly lines producing endless rows of Jeeps and B-17 bombers when we think of America’s WWII production effort, in actual fact the role played by small independent factories and shops, like the one in Clinton turning out accessories for the guns, were every bit as important.

Arlene would be the first to say that her story is hardly unique; that she did only what millions of other women were doing, and that she really felt she had no other choice. She knew in her heart that her future husband was coming home, even though he was initially declared missing and news that he was alive didn’t arrive for months. She prayed, and she worked, and took care of her family.

Nothing out of the ordinary. That was what it took to survive.

As we struggle now to recover from the worst health disaster since the Black Death, it’s lives like Arlene’s that can truly give us hope. Regular people doing as much as they can to keep things together, to make some contributions to the common good, dealing with inconveniences large and small, suffering through loss and pain—that was what it really took to win World War II. That is what it will take to recover from the Coronavirus—and whatever the next massive challenge will be.

We should definitely celebrate people like Henry Langrehr, the paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne, and the other troops who fought with them. But we should also spend a moment thanking people like his wife, who made their triumph possible.