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Local World War II veteran honored
Idaho State Journal - 6/1/2018
World War II veteran Vivian Olsen of Chubbuck was a young woman attending Illinois State Normal University when Uncle Sam’s plea on the iconic “I WANT YOU” posters got to her. She answered the call to serve her country by enlisting in the U.S. Navy and making history as one of the WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) in the mid-1940s.
Olsen, 94, was recognized Thursday by the Pocatello Rotary Club, where she talked candidly, with humor and pride, about her service and that of her late husband, U.S. Navy veteran Robert Olsen, who was the country’s youngest Pearl Harbor survivor.
Olsen, who grew up in Joliet, Illinois, said she’ll never forget her mother’s reaction when she broke the news to her parents that she’d joined the Navy when they came to pick her up from college. “My mother screamed, ‘You did what?! Stop the car!’ She was so mad I thought she was going to have a stroke,” she said. “I told them, ‘I want to help my country.’ “
Just days later, at age 20, Olsen went to Great Lakes Naval Hospital outside of Chicago to get her shots and complete her paperwork. From there, Olsen was sent by train to attend school for five weeks at the Navy barracks in New York City, where she underwent some intense testing that concluded she was academically fit to serve in the medical field.
“Sitting for days, taking those tests and writing all the answers down by hand, was one of the hardest things I have been through,” Olsen said.
Olsen was then sent on a train ride to the Naval Base in Memphis, Tenn. She recalls the train being extremely crowded with people hanging out of the windows. It was pouring rain when she arrived and Olsen got soaked to the skin. “I felt awful the next day,” she said. “I started coughing. I coughed for two weeks and ended up in the hospital with pneumonia.”
Due to Olsen’s illness, she was put on part-time night duty in the Navy hospital ward. Olsen was having dinner in the mess hall at 2 a.m., with a required male escort, when a tall, handsome man in uniform approached her and asked her what she was doing. That man, was Olsen’s future husband — Robert Olsen — who was in charge of watching the 40 German prisoners who were brought there to eat.
The two visited every night for two weeks getting to know each other. [Robert] was a First Class Pharmacist who had fudged the age on his paperwork to enlist in the Navy at just 15. He was a 16-year-old medic at Pearl Harbor when the infamous attack took place on Dec. 7, 1941. Robert received a Presidential Unit Citation for pulling an Army Captain from the water on that fateful day.
Olsen’s eyes still sparkle when she speaks of her husband, saying, “He was 6’2, skinny as a rail and oh, so handsome. He could’ve been a movie star. I knew I had met the man of my dreams. I told my friends, ‘I’m going to marry that man someday.’”
Love did indeed blossom between them and the couple married on March 3, 1945. “We didn’t tell my mother until after we were married because I knew she’d throw a fit,” Olsen laughed. “She said, ‘What did you marry him for?’ I simply said, ‘Because I love him.’”
Olsen was discharged from the Navy after serving her allotted time of 18 months as a Pharmacist Tech (earning three stripes) and becoming pregnant with her first child. After Robert left the Navy, he announced to Olsen that they would move to Pocatello, Idaho.
“I said, Poca-where? What kind of a place is that?” Olsen said. “I had never heard of Pocatello.”
However, Pocatello is where she and Robert spent their nearly 60 years of marriage and raised their three daughters: Sandra, Bobette and Sharon. Robert died in 2004. Olsen currently lives in Chubbuck where two of her daughters and many of her 14 grandchildren live.
Reflecting on her years of service, Olsen says she wouldn’t change a thing.
“My husband and I were Americans and we wanted to be a part of what made our country great. I think of him [Robert] every day. I would never change my life,” she said.
These days when Olsen sees that Uncle Sam poster that says: I WANT YOU, she declares, “I did my part. I went.”
World War II veteran Vivian Olsen of Chubbuck was honored by the Pocatello Rotary Club on Thursday for her service in the United States Navy.
Lisa Lete/For the Journal