Wasta rancher left a WWII treasure trove
Rapid City Journal. April 8, 2017
When Wasta-area rancher Leonel Jensen shipped off to serve in World War II, he wasn’t that different from the 16 million other U.S. military servicemen who fought to preserve freedom and democracy. But he did have a routine that made him unusual — he wrote it all down.
Captivated by Jensen’s treasure trove of daily journals and historic photographs, some taken during the heat of battle, Rapid City authors Ray and Josephine Cowdery will talk about the remarkable life of the son of Danish immigrants and his real-life war-time adventures in a presentation at 9 a.m. today at the South Dakota Air and Space Museum next to Ellsworth Air Force Base.
Most veterans of World War II came home, went to college, married, frequently moved and, over the course of their lives, discarded mementos and documents related to their time at war. But Jensen was different, Ray Cowdery said earlier this week.
“Jensen came home to his ranch near Wasta and stored those materials, and they were there 75 years later,” said Cowdery, who with his wife has published more than a dozen books about World War II. “He was unlike normal soldiers in that he had a camera and he took hundreds of pictures and he had them all. That’s what makes this deal unique — it’s not the same old stuff.”
To raise money for college, the young Jensen worked for President Calvin Coolidge in Custer State Park in 1927, taking care of a garden and farm animals, Cowdery said. Today, Jensen’s habit of keeping a day book, started when he was a young man, sheds historical light on a summer that changed the Black Hills.
On June 11, 1927, Jensen drew a floor plan in his journal of the Coolidge rooms at the State Game Lodge. His written remarks state he drove a steam engine for the first time and warmed himself by the lodge’s fire.
“Rainy and cold all day,” he wrote, before turning his attention to “Silent Cal’s” accommodations. “Swell cloth- upholstered furniture from Sioux Falls. Sat in his chairs and laid on his bed.”
After spending two years at South Dakota State University, Jensen moved to Wall, worked as a banker, and befriended entrepreneurs Ted and Dorothy Hustead, who had purchased Wall Drug Store. The couple later credited Jensen with providing the concept for taking Wall Drug’s signage overseas.
After serving on the eastern Pennington County draft board, Jensen twice volunteered for service during World War II. As the senior American Red Cross official in the U.S. 75th Infantry Division in Europe in 1944 and 1945, he witnessed combat campaigns in the Battle of the Bulge, the Battle of the Colmar Pocket and across the Rhine into the Ruhr, Cowdery said.
Amid his Red Cross duties, Jensen kept his daily log, took photographs and, in a salute to his Badlands friends back home, installed signs in war zones throughout Europe advertising Wall Drug Store.
After the war, Jensen returned to South Dakota and took over his father’s cattle ranch near Wasta. The veteran died in 2002 in Rapid City, two years shy of the century mark, Cowdery said.
No strangers to the waning memories of World War II, the Cowderys conducted European tours for hundreds of veterans for 17 years and have published extensively on the topic. They’ve also helped frame the stories of more than a dozen members of the Black Hills Veterans Writing Group, sponsors of today’s program.
But in all their travels, writing and newfound friendships, they say Jensen’s story stands out. And, using his archival stash, they expect to produce a book about him in the future.
“It’s a great story, from Danish immigrants to pioneer homesteaders to ranchers to soldiers,” Ray Cowdery said. “It’s not a common tale, which is what attracted us to his story.
“Jensen was given the Bronze Star at Ellsworth Air Force Base in 1946,” he added. “Of all the hundreds of veterans I’ve met, he was the only one with a medal citation signed personally by Harry Truman and that just doesn’t happen, because he was not a typical Red Cross field director. He was exposed to fire in carrying out his job. He was a guy like no other.”