By Owen Rasmussen
Above, Owen and a friend from the Army stand beside his 1940 Plymouth in Alaska. Photo courtesy of the Rasmussen Family Archive.
When we were young, most of us had no idea what we would be doing when we grew up, and when I graduated from high school at eighteen in 1937, I didn’t either.
I was born December 20, 1918 on a wheat ranch near Pasco, Washington. We had all the ingredients for a farm, and Dad had homesteaded it in 1908. We had forty head of cattle, thirty head of horses, pigs, and chickens. But with five brothers and four sisters, I knew I wasn’t about to inherit the farm.
I remember the first car Dad had, a Model T Ford. Our closest neighbors, the Joneses, were about a mile away. They had two children, Margaret and Marvin. Since Marvin and I were the same age, he had a real impact on my life during those high school years. He could get his dad’s car and he and I spent many good times going to the Saturday Night dances. I owe him a lot for all the good memories, and, being the only son, he did inherit the farm. Sadly, he passed away in 2002, and his wife in 2008.
In school, I was not an A student, mainly because I didn’t study enough. My third year in high school, I took algebra, but after three weeks, I was so far behind I dropped it and took typing instead (which was unusual for a farm boy in those days). I liked typing and did well at it. I mention this because this one thing changed my whole life.
In 1940, I was in Marsville, California working for a rice farmer piling rice in his warehouse. While there, I registered for the coming draft, and when I got home in the middle of November, I soon had my draft number for World War II.
Since I knew the telegrapher at the local railroad depot, I thought this could be the job for me, so I started learning the code. This goal was soon cut short, however, as by Thanksgiving Day I had received my letter of induction. Instead of waiting to be drafted, I decided to go to Seattle and join the Navy. When I got there, the first thing they did was give me a color-blind test. Unknown to me, I was color-blind, and that disqualified me for the Navy.
I had told the Navy I wanted to be a radio operator, so they suggested I go downstairs to the Army recruiters, as they needed two more to fill out a class of twenty. The Army personnel asked many questions, but as luck would have it, they asked the BIG question: Can you type? They sat me down at a typewriter and, although I had not typed for three years, I did well enough that they signed me up. I joined the Alaska Communication System, better known as the A.C.S. on January 30, 1941. Since A.C.S. was a separate branch of the Army, I was sent to Fort Lewis for one week and then back to Seattle to attend class five days a week. During this time, I was paid $80 per month, but wasn’t required to even wear the uniform I was issued at Fort Lewis. After six months of classes, I was transferred to the Operating Room, running the teletype and copying the coded messages.
It was only after war was declared on December 8, 1941, that I was required to start wearing my Army uniform. My first duty station was for one year in Anchorage, Alaska at the Federal Building in the spring of 1942. My monthly pay was $250 a month, and out of that I was required to find my own room and board. I was released from the Army October 26, 1945 at age twenty-five.
So, there I was in Seattle, wondering what to do with my life. While visiting one of my sisters, I talked to her husband, who was a telegrapher for the railroad. He advised me to apply at the Great Northern Railroad office in spite of my color-blindness, because they really needed telegraphers. He was right. They needed operators and liked my qualifications. Somehow I passed the color-blind test, and I was hired on the spot and sent to Leavenworth the next day. I retired from the railroad after thirty-four years, and I have enjoyed a good pension for decades.
I suppose you are wondering how I passed that railroad test. It was my lucky day, because instead of using the standard color-blind test from a book, as they used in the Navy, the railroad just showed me three pieces of yarn: red, yellow, and green, which I had no trouble seeing. After working ten years, I was required to take a physical and the doctor discovered that I was color-blind after testing me with the color book. When that was reported, the railroad tested me again – just like old times with three yarns – and I passed!
Those were good years in the Army, and then with the railroad, all because I chose to give up algebra!