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World War II veteran trained in German language, culture

November 5, 2007

By Roz Kohls
Staff Writer

Rod Stewart of Cokato spent the majority of his time in the US Army during World War II in an unusual way.

He studied German culture and language at the University of Chicago. The army wanted a group of US soldiers to be city administrators in German towns, once the towns were under the control of American forces.

Stewart, who was born in New Orleans, told in an interview last Monday about one of his instructors from the University of Heidelberg. His instructor was Jewish, and had been at a funeral of a friend in the 1930s in Germany, during the time when the Nazis were rounding up Jewish people for extermination.

The people at the funeral warned the instructor the Nazis were coming for him, and to leave immediately. The instructor escaped through the mountains, and made his way to the United States.

“Here I am,” The instructor had told Stewart and his fellow students, giving them a very real, firsthand account of the Holocaust. Once the students got to Germany, they would have learned what they would be up against.

As soon as the United States entered the war in 1941, Stewart intended to study German and registered for classes. He didn’t enter the Army and the Army Special Training Program until 1942.

The war in Europe ended before Stewart and his classmates completed the special training. The Army inexplicably switched their unit to studying dentistry.

Stewart’s wife, Marjorie, still laughs about the time she opened a desk after World War II ended, and a mold for making false teeth tumbled out into her lap, she said.

Stewart did have the opportunity to win a sharpshooter medal and good conduct medal, however, before he was honorably discharged.

Stewart’s family moved to Minneapolis from Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, where Stewart’s father was a journalism professor for 30 years. Stewart’s wife, Marjorie, is from Stillwater.

The couple have lived in Cokato since 1961, because Stewart sold agricultural chemicals and equipment to farmers in the five-state upper midwest.

One day, in the Dakotas, Stewart happened to be selling ag equipment at a farm where the barn was being fogged with insecticide. Ironically, the insecticide had been made in Germany, and was absorbed through the skin.

This was before ag chemical producers and the average farmer knew about the dangers of pesticides. The exposure to the chemical disabled Stewart, and ended his career in the ag equipment business.

Stewart still can rattle off the “Deutsch spreken,” however, although the Army’s special training was more than 60 years ago.