N.D. farm girl writes of uncle’s WWII experience | TSLN.com

N.D. farm girl writes of uncle’s WWII experience

Jerry Hagstrom

Image courtesy the Hagstrom Report

I have known Rozanne Enerson Junker, a fellow North Dakotan, throughout much of her interesting life.

When I first met her, she had just finished a doctoral degree in political science at the University of Oregon, having done her dissertation on the founding of the Bank of North Dakota, the nation's only state-owned bank.

I soon learned that she had grown up on a Hamilton, N.D., wheat farm in the Red River Valley near the Canadian border, but that she had also been a star hoer of sugar beets back in the days when Pembina County assembled teams of high school students to tend the fields.

After finishing her Ph.D., Rozanne moved to California where she went to work for Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, in his first term in office. Later she worked in Washington for Sen. Mark Andrews, a North Dakota Republican.

And after returning to San Francisco, marrying and giving birth to her daughter, she worked for Coro, a leadership training foundation supported by Leon and Sylvia Panetta and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., a graduate of the program.

Now she has written the story of her uncle, Elwood "Woody" Belsheim, a young North Dakota farmer's son who served on a secret American weather station in the Inuit village of Hebron, Labrador, during World War II. The story is a heartwarming example of a farm boy's ability to adjust to extreme circumstances.

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Rozanne said her Uncle Woody never talked about his wartime experiences. But in 2009 when she visited him in Red Bluff, Calif., she told him she had stopped in Labrador on a cruise exploring "Viking Trails to America," and he asked if she had visited Hebron.

When she shocked him by answering that indeed the ship had stopped there, he began to tell her about the station and his adventures with the Inuit family of Renatus Tuglavina, the Newfoundland Ranger, and the Moravian missionaries there. He also showed her a small sealskin kayak model that Renatus, who had befriended him, had made for him in 1944.

She was intrigued by her uncle's stories of hunting and fishing with Renatus, of the serviceman's life measuring, coding and relaying weather information as part of the Ferry Command — the movement of more than 10,000 planes from the United States and Canada to Great Britain — and of his romance with Tuglavina's daughter Harriott.

Woody said he had tried over the years to find out what had happened to Renatus's family, but their forced relocation to southern Labrador in 1959 made it impossible. He wondered whether Rozanne could help him find Renatus and Harriott.

He also gave Rozanne the model kayak, but, as she puts it, "a gift far greater" was the inspiration for several years of experiences researching the story of Hebron, the weather station, and what happened to the people there.

Using the kayak as a guide, she traveled thousands of miles across Canada, the United States and England, in search of the Tuglavina family. Each step along the way, surprising discoveries presented themselves.

2018 0213 RenatusKayakBook

The results of that effort, "Renatus' Kayak: A Labrador Inuk, an American G.I. and a Secret World War II Weather Station," has been released by Polar Horizons of Gatineau, Quebec.

The book takes the stories of the seven Americans posted at the weather station and combines them with Labrador history and the lives of Renatus and Harriott, which end tragically.

"Woody told me the story when he was 87, when he gave me the sealskin kayak made for him by Renatus," Rozanne told a recent interviewer.

"I connected with the story and the kayak and felt it was almost my destiny to tell the story … or at least find out what happened to Renatus and to Harriet," she added, explaining that she wanted to fulfill her aging uncle's request.

The war stories and the Labrador history, including the lives of Renatus and Harriott, are interesting, but so is the story of Woody, who had grown up on an isolated farm near Turtle Lake in central North Dakota during the height of the Depression. Six feet tall by the time he was 13, Woody did farm work until he drove with a buddy to Los Angeles in 1941, not quite 18.

Drafted in 1942 and trained at the foot of Mount Evans in Colorado for service in the Arctic, Woody told Rozanne that many of his fellow enlistees couldn't cope with living in tents and handling dog teams and sleds.

"They would go clear off their rockers from loneliness, you know … but it didn't bother me much because I was alone a lot on the farm."

It all served him well when he arrived with the other soldiers in Hebron. He was also impressed with the way the Inuit men could hunt and fish, although he told Rozanne that it was his relationship with Harriott that kept him sane.

Still, when a U.S. Army seaplane arrived to take him back to the United States after a year in Hebron, he knew he had to go.

"What could I do? I wasn't a hunter. I wasn't a sealer," he told Rozanne.

In the last few months, Rozanne has traveled back to North Dakota and to Canada, where the book has been well received. Scholars have also noted that they did not know the story of the secret Hebron weather station until Rozanne did her research and revealed it.

She is also reflecting on the experience.

Rozanne said in an email from Ottawa Tuesday evening, "I'm probably the only person in the world who has traveled tens of thousands of miles on behalf of a meter-long sealskin kayak."

"It is quite odd, really. I often felt that I had a piece of golden-green yarn in my hands and I simply keep on pulling to see where it would lead me — it took me all over Canada, the United States and even to England.

"Every door I knocked on, in search of Renatus and his family, opened. I recently read a 1972 interview with two Inuit hunters who mused that Renatus may have been a shaman as he was able to call the caribou. The thought came to me then that perhaps Renatus had given Woody the kayak in order to bring him back to Labrador.

"But somewhere, somehow, the wires were crossed and he called me instead."

–The Hagstrom Report