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Military parents taught Hillsboro resident about hard work

They went on honor flight to visit World War II memorial

Staff writer

Hillsboro resident and Marion County employee Rhonda Toal grew up in a blue-collar home. Both her parents, Jim and Eleanor Gustafson of Lindsborg had a role in shaping her as a hard worker.

“Many times in my life I wish I had a bumper sticker that said ‘If you met my mother you’d understand,’” Toal said. “My mother is a pretty tough bird.”

The Gustafsons said their hardworking nature, at least partially, was fostered by individual military service during World War II.

They flew to Washington D.C. Oct. 4 to see the World War II memorial and Arlington National Cemetery as a part of the Central Prairie Honor Flight program.

“I’m scared stiff,” Eleanor said before the couple left of her fear of flying. The Gustafsons actually turned down a chance to go on an honor flight last year.

The Central Prairie Honor Flight program pays for World War II veterans to see the World War II memorial and other monuments in Washington D.C.

In spite of their hesitation, Jim and Eleanor enjoyed the trip, Toal said. For the Gustafsons the thrill of being with other World War II veterans with similar experiences dwarfed the feelings of nostalgia.

“My mother said there were too many things that had been built, too much concrete,” Toal said. “It wasn’t an open countryside as it was before.”

Many things have changed since Eleanor served as a military police officer at Henderson Hall, across from Arlington National in 1945 and 1946.

“The last time I was there I saw Eisenhower on a jeep when he came back,” Eleanor said.

Eleanor served as an MP for the facility and stood guard around the mausoleums at the cemetery.

“We had to be our own MPs,” Eleanor said.

Eleanor, 87, who grew up in Galva, enlisted in the Marines in 1945. Upon hearing that women might be drafted into the Army, she was determined to stay out of that branch of the military. Her brother was already serving with the marines in the Pacific.

“To a Marine, that’s the only branch,” Toal said.

Jim Gustafson, 83, was drafted by the Army when he was still in high school in Smollan. He served in the Pacific and he had never been to Washington D.C. before Tuesday.

He enjoyed the World War II memorial, Toal said.

Jim later graduated high school in 2000. He walked with the Southeast of Saline class.

“I practiced and everything,” Jim said.

Jim was assigned to the infantry but did not see combat. He went to Osaka, Japan, but only after the use of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which ended the war.

“Dropping the atomic bomb was the only thing that saved us guys,” Jim said.

He became a mechanic and worked on military vehicles that arrived after battles in Iwo Jima and Okinawa. Jim earned a diesel mechanic license while working in the Army. Although he said he had tinkered with engines his entire life, which led him to being a mechanic in the Army, his work in the Army spurred a career as a mechanic when he came back to the Smollan area.

He worked in a shop for 52 years.

“It covers all engines,” Jim said. “Anything mechanic.”

Even though Jim and Eleanor had similar lives, both living on farms and serving in the military during World War II, they were unaware of one each other until they met at a dance in McPherson. Eleanor was divorced and was raising her first daughter, Jeanette.

After a brief courtship, Jim and Eleanor were married and have been husband and wife for more than 50 years. They have agreed on little over that time. Jim is a Democrat and Eleanor is a Republican as one example. Eleanor has a more fiery personality while Jim is quieter.

“They banter all the time,” Toal said. “I had to see both sides of the story because I loved them both.”

The Gustafsons said they have locked horns with their younger daughter; she can be stubborn and tough. However, those are traits she picked up from her parents.

“She’s just like me, I guess,” Eleanor said.

What Jim and Eleanor have agreed on was a love of hard work that was fostered in the military — a characteristic they passed on to their children.

“I liked working in harvest,” Eleanor said. “We believe in working and providing for yourself.”

Last modified Oct. 13, 2011

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