‘Whither Thou Goest:’ Thelma Anderson committed to liberty

Ruth Wiechmann
for Tri-State Livestock News
Thelma and Leo Anderson were married December 8, 1945, in bomb damaged St. PaulÕs Cathedral in London. Leo brought her a pot of hot tea in bed every morning for almost forty-eight years. Photos courtesy Anderson family

Thelma Anderson was a straightforward woman full of spunk and spirit.

Born March 1, 1920, in Harrow Middlesex, England, to Arthur Cecil and Kathleen Ellen (Andrew) Stubbs, she started school at a mere three years old. She grew up in Stratham Park, a suburb of London. She and her brother would ride their bikes fifty miles to the ocean on the weekends to catch oysters, then ride the fifty miles home and the family would enjoy oyster stew! She was a champion swimmer as well. She graduated at fifteen and got a job as head salesperson at the catering firm J. Lyons & Company.

Thelma was twenty-two when she was enscripted by the British Army in August of 1942 at Harrow Gate, England. Her fiancé, a member of the Royal Air Force, had been shot down and killed by the Germans and her grief was fierce. Her orders were to serve in the culinary department. But Thelma was not interested in cooking. She wanted to get even with the Germans for taking the life of her sweetheart.

“No,” she told them. “I want to shoot Germans.”

She joined the Royal Air Artillery to serve as an Anti-aircraft Gunner in the Section 592 Heavy-Mixed Artillery Battery. She was trained for combat and stationed in Whitby, North Yorkshire, where she operated a predictor. The firing camp, located on the cliffs overlooking the ocean, was etched into her memory during the roughly two years she served there.

“She didn’t actually pull the trigger,” Thelma’s son, Dave Anderson, a Lemmon, South Dakota, rancher and brand inspector, said. “Her job was to sight the big guns in on the incoming planes. She was working with a group of other women, and when they shot down a plane they would whoop and holler and celebrate.”

Thelma received a shrapnel wound in her leg during one of these air raids. She was awarded a number of pins for enemy aircraft destroyed. But in later years, she looked back on her experience differently, and the memories bothered her.

“When she got older, she told me, ‘That was some mother’s son I killed,’” Dave recalled. “She felt badly about it. But that is war…”

Thelma’s service also included recovery efforts after the bombing of London. A bomb shelter located in the Underground beneath the Thames River was hit, and two thousand people drowned. Thelma was tasked with helping to remove the bodies and putting them in cardboard boxes.

“My mother was one tough lady,” Dave said. “She saw a lot during the war. But that experience gave her nightmares for the rest of her life. The smell was horrible and it really got to her.”

Early in 1945, Thelma was set up with a blind date in Shrewesbury.

Leo Anderson’s parents homesteaded in Perkins County, South Dakota, in 1908. Leo was born in 1912, the oldest of four children. His father died when he was fourteen.

“At fourteen, my dad became the man of the family,” Dave said. “He took his two younger brothers and younger sister to school. He was responsible for all of the haying, taking care of the cattle, everything.”

Leo was drafted into the United States Army in 1941 after Pearl Harbor was attacked by the Japanese. He was sent to Europe in 1942 and served in the chemical corps for two years.

“They sent him to England in 1944,” Dave said. “He was told that he was too old for combat. He would have been thirty-two at the time, so although we wouldn’t consider him ‘old’ he was quite a bit older than the 18- to 20-year-olds that were coming in.”

Leo served in maintenance in England, working as a crane operator to unload supplies such as jeeps and food shipped over from the United States.

After that first date, Leo and Thelma had to walk eight miles apiece in the dark to spend time together. It was completely dark because of the curfew and a couple of times Thelma had to use her hand to hand combat training to put unsavory men in their place! In spite of the obstacles, the couple managed to spend enough time together to decide they wanted to continue being together for a lifetime. Thelma sewed Leo’s unit patch on the inside of her uniform above her heart. When her Commanding Officer found out, he told her to take it off.

“Knowing my mother, she probably told him that if he wanted it off he should just try to do it himself,” Dave laughed.

The patch stayed where she put it, and love blossomed between the two soldiers.

Leo and Thelma were married in their uniforms: his American, hers British, on December 8, 1945, in Saint Paul’s Cathedral in London. Immortalized by a photograph of its beautiful dome standing tall amidst the billows of smoke and fire during the Blitzkrieg, St. Paul’s was a symbol of hope for the British people. Winston Churchill appointed a special fire crew called the St. Paul’s Fire Watch; they along with other civilian firefighters kept the building from burning during those horrible days. Though damaged by the bombing, the beautiful church situated at the highest point in London was a sight that kept the British people’s courage up throughout the war.

The damage was still evident but the church stood tall as Leo and Thelma said their vows; the gaping holes and piles of rubble were symbolic of what they had survived and the spires were still a beacon of hope that better times were coming, even in the midst of the chaos left behind by the war.

A short nine days later, Leo sailed for America on the Queen Mary and their honeymoon was over. Thelma had to wait six months before she could join him, finally making the journey on the Henry Stinson along with hundreds of other war brides. When she arrived at Ellis Island, she took a train across the country to Minnesota, where Leo was waiting for her. The couple lived in Montana for a while before settling close to Leo’s family roots near Lemmon, South Dakota.

Life in the United States was different for Thelma, but she liked the open prairies compared to London, which was the largest city in the world when she was a child. She had never experienced harsh winters before; she had never built a snowman and had never seen ice thick enough to skate on. Living without electricity or running water was a challenge, but she did not complain. She ate watermelon for the first time and taught her three children, Dave, Bob and Kathy to swim in the stock dam on the ranch. She was a terrific cook and made marvelous Lemon Meringue Pie and Cream Puffs to die for, all from scratch.

Thelma missed her family terribly but loved her adopted home. She only returned to England once in her lifetime.

When the World War II memorial was dedicated at the South Dakota State Capitol in 2001, Thelma received an unexpected telephone call.

“Hello, this is South Dakota Governor Bill Janklow,” said a voice.

“Like hell you are!” Thelma retorted, thinking it was a prank call or a telemarketer.

It was indeed the Governor, though, and he explained that he had called to invite her to be his personal guest at the dedication ceremonies. Thelma was honored to be present in Pierre for the dedication of the World War II memorial.

Thelma is buried beside Leo in the Black Hills National Cemetery near Sturgis, South Dakota. It was a fitting honor for the woman who fought so hard for her nation and her world to be free.