For the diminutive 96-year-old Eleanore Moe, life has presented a ringside seat for some of the past century’s larger-than-life events, as well as audiences with the statesmen and women who helped shape our nation’s history.
Born in 1921 in Mitchell to a livestock dealer father and a homemaker mother who had a modest farm at Artesian, S.D., Eleanore Rowan became a teacher, married her high school sweetheart who had graduated from West Point, then followed him to war-ravaged Germany in the wake of the Allies’ victory over the Nazi regime.
In retrospect, considering her husband gave her a handgun to protect herself, held clandestine meetings and lived a life of secrecy, Eleanore suspects he was actually a spy for the Office of Strategic Services, the predecessor to today’s Central Intelligence Agency. But she may never really know.
What Eleanore does know she will tell in a Black Hills Veterans Forum presentation Saturday at the Air & Space Museum at Ellsworth Air Force Base. A social begins at 9 a.m., followed by Moe’s look back at her remarkable life starting at 9:30 a.m.
“I’ve seen a lot of history, that’s for sure,” she said.
Eleanore came of age during the Great Depression, graduating from Artesian High School in 1938. She said she never really knew that her family was poor because her parents, Leo and Bessie, always remained so optimistic. Every summer night, the family would sit on their green lawn with the farm’s hired help, discussing what was going on in their community as well as the world, never focusing on the bad things in life.
“One of the highlights for about five years was a hobo who would spend every summer living in the hayloft of our barn, telling us of his adventures all over the U.S., traveling in box cars,” Eleanore said last week during a visit at her apartment in Rapid City’s Westhills Village. “That was the time when I knew I wanted to explore the world, to see more than Artesian, even though I didn’t know what the world really was.”
It would not take the bright young woman long to find out.
She attended Augustana College for a year in 1938-39, studying piano and playing on a Sioux Falls radio station for a half-hour every Thursday afternoon with Myron Floren and Eldon Samp. The trio practiced at the women’s cottage at the state penitentiary, then played at various churches on Sunday evenings, paid with wonderful homemade pies Eleanore still fondly recalls.
She traveled to the Twin Cities to attend the University of Minnesota, where she studied education and graduated with a Latin major, destined to teach. And Eleanore stayed in touch with George Moe, a fellow Artesian high school student who had graduated a year ahead of her.
“I guess we must have fallen in love in high school because we weren’t together much after that,” Eleanore said. While she went to college, George enlisted in the Army and ended up at Fort Snelling in the Twin Cities for his basic training, then on to U.S. Military Academy at West Point. She would see him only one month each summer.
The couple married in October 1942, and when George graduated from West Point, they were assigned to Fort Riley, Kan. At a formal dinner there in 1944, she was introduced to Mohammed Reza Pahlavi – the shah of Iran.
“I was just 23, very naïve, a brand new Army wife,” Eleanore said, her mind drifting back in time. “But I remember it was awesome to be in the presence of someone who had such a high standing in the world.”
Off to war
On their second wedding anniversary in October 1944, George shipped out for the European theater, sent straight to Germany as a replacement in the 35th Tank Battalion of Gen. George S. Patton’s Third Army. Thinking back to those days in which she worried incessantly about her new husband, Eleanore said he simply wasn’t equipped to deal with battle.
“He wasn’t ready,” she said. “How could he be ready, taking over with some training in tanks? Of course, many, many of our troops were not ready for that war.”
As George went off to battle, Eleanore returned to her parents' house in Artesian, willing to drive five miles each day to the small town of Fedora, where she taught English and Latin at the high school.
A veteran of the Battle of the Bulge, George was severely injured on Christmas Eve 1944, when his tank was blown up by a bazooka round near Brussels, Belgium. For the remainder of his life, he credited a small leather satchel with saving his life. Strung over his shoulder and protecting his chest, the brown bag, still in Eleanore’s possession more than seven decades later, took the brunt of shrapnel from the blast. Other shrapnel remained embedded in his back for the rest of his life.
Following the battle, George’s parents were informed via telegram that their son had died.
“They called me,” said Eleanore, who was still teaching and went straight to their home. “They didn’t say a word, they just handed me the telegram and cried. None of us said a word, we just cried.”
A couple of weeks went by before they received a letter from George, informing his family that he was indeed still alive.
It was in the parking lot of that small South Dakota school on May 8, 1945, that Eleanore learned of the Allies’ victory over Germany — a date since commemorated as VE Day.
“That morning I had the radio on and was driving to the high school and it came over the airwaves,” she recalled in one of her many memoires produced for her family. “The announcer interrupted, `Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree,’ with an excited, “The War is over!’ I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. He stated more details but I heard none of his words. I had shut off the ignition, my arms were hugging the steering wheel and I was sobbing as I never had cried before. I clung to the wheel of the 1940 Plymouth for several minutes and continued to sob.
“Joy did not overcome me, as I was too afraid that this news was not true or that George had been killed or severely wounded in some of the last minutes of the fighting,” she wrote. “I could not celebrate the end of the war until almost two weeks later, when I received George’s story of the last days of the war — in a letter.”
A short time later, George was assigned to the occupying forces in Germany, all the while fearing he’d be sent to the South Pacific to fight the Japanese.
In February 1946, the federal government decided to allow dependents to join their servicemen assigned overseas, stating, “It will be up to each couple to decide whether the wife is the type that is adaptable to living the life that she will be called upon to lead over here.”
For Eleanore and George, there was no discussion of whether she would travel to Germany. They hadn’t seen each other in two years.
Driving that same Plymouth with her mother and mother-in-law in tow, Eleanore left eastern South Dakota and drove to New York City. On June 7, 1946, she boarded a troop ship — the USS Gibbons — and sailed for South Hampton, England.
On the 10-day passage across the Atlantic, Eleanore was stuck in the hold of the ship with 35 others in small, cramped quarters.
“We ate excellently, but no food has stayed down,” she wrote in her memoir. “They said, `The deal is to stick it down and let it come up.’”
Her ship dodged floating mines as it navigated the English Channel, landing at Bremerhaven, Germany, on the 11th day of her travels. Whisked by train to Wiesbaden, Eleanore stepped from the passenger car to find George waiting on the platform.
“It was unbelievable,” she recalled, tears welling in her pale blue eyes. “He was alive. He had no visible impediments from the war. We were together and it was unbelievable after what he had gone through.”
A few months after arriving in Germany, Eleanore and George spent a day attending the Nuremberg Trial of Nazi war criminals, held at the Palace of Justice. That September day, Hermann Goering took the stand and the “Blue Max” World War I fighter ace did his best to upstage U.S. Justice Robert Jackson, the U.S. prosecutor, Eleanore recalled.
“I remember Goering was very intelligent. He would go into tirades and thoroughly believed everything he did was for the good of Germany, including the concentration camps and the Luftwaffe,” she said. “He tried to embarrass Justice Jackson, because he had not prepared his case as well as he should have. They let Goering say anything he wanted without interruption.
“I was not surprised that he took his own life with a cyanide pill as he had a smirk on his face as if he knew that he would never be hanged.”
Assigned to duties in Wiesbaden, a resort town that had been spared from the ravages of war unlike most of Germany, Eleanore watched as her husband made weekly contact with Russian soldiers, held clandestine meetings with Germans and went to parties where neither of them used their real name.
“I think he was vetting people, working in counterintelligence,” she said last week. “But I was so naïve, I didn’t ask questions. It was an agreement with Germany that American personnel would not provide any types of provisions, liquor or cigarettes, to Germans. For a carton of cigarettes, you could have a painting by a famous artist.”
Some incidents implied her husband was holding secrets.
“We would go downtown in Wiesbaden and park a block away from our destination, which I thought was strange,” Eleanore recalled. “We would knock on a door, nothing would be said and if it was said, it was said very softly. George had learned German at West Point, and everything said was said in German and I didn’t know what was going on. Sometimes there were as many as 10 people in the room. When we would leave, no one would leave at the same time and there would be complete silence in the background.”
Getting a gun
Shortly after she arrived, George presented his wife with a small handgun — a 6.35 mm automatic pistol — with which to protect herself during his frequent absences. Eleanore pulled it twice, the first time when she almost shot her maid in the middle of the night when she heard strange noises. Eleanore has little doubt that it protected her life in the second instance.
“Every day I went for a walk with Beibrich, our German shepherd, and this day I was later than usual,” she remembered. “We were on our way back to our home when I saw these two young men, Nazi youth, and I had a strange feeling as they were coming toward me.
“As they approached me, they did a `Heil Hitler’ to me, which I knew wasn’t good. When they did that I immediately took out my gun, flashed it in their faces, and told Beibrich to get them and thankfully they retreated. It was such a Nazi nest where we were.”
Eleanore said she would watch Germans on her daily walks, seeing upper-class men still wearing suits, carrying briefcases, and walking from one garbage can to another searching for stubs of cigarettes or anything of value they could trade for food. Sympathetic to their plight, Eleanore said she and her husband would intentionally leave meat on their plates so their maids could take home the leftovers.
Admittedly a bit slow on the uptake, Eleanore said she later realized her husband was something more than an Army officer, particularly after she found an order issued Dec. 22, 1951, which said, “Top Secret materials to be withdrawn from individual’s 201 Military file and destroyed.” Later, she discovered that five years of George's military files had mysteriously vanished.
“That tells me he was doing work that was nonmilitary and very sensitive,” she said. Later, when George was assigned to Washington, D.C., she and their three children would occasionally pick him up after work, but always on a street corner and never at the building in which he actually toiled.
“We really never knew where he worked,” she said. “One time, years later, the kids asked him about his work when they had come home. He said, 'Some people couldn’t keep their mouths shut, but I never had that problem.’”
In Eleanore's remarkable life, she also met a bevy of notables, including Presidents Kennedy, Bush the 41st and Reagan, as well as many ambassadors. She still regards the Pattons and Eisenhowers as family friends, and she once spent a day escorting former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt around West Point.
“I found her super intelligent, charismatic, caring of others and kind, as well as beautiful when she spoke,” Eleanore said. “She treated me like a queen.”
Over the years, the couple moved 19 times, including three assignments in Germany. They had three children, Margaret, Marian and Robert, now living in Colorado, California and Texas, respectively. Today, Eleanore is proud of their accomplishments, as well as her four grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.
George retired in 1964 as a lieutenant colonel, then returned to Washington to earn his doctorate. The couple moved to Rapid City in 1966, where George became department head for liberal arts at South Dakota School of Mines & Technology before retiring a second time in 1984. He died in 2007, and Eleanore quietly admits, “Life has never been the same.”
While George was pursing his career goals, Eleanore taught English, Latin and German at Douglas High School in Box Elder for 18 years. She was named Douglas Teacher of the Year in 1979 and 1980, and proudly shows off a glass eagle presented to her by the 28th Bomb Wing at Ellsworth Air Force Base when she was named Civilian Volunteer of the Year in 2001, the same year Freedom Chapel at Ellsworth dedicated its library in her name.
Despite her age, and perhaps because of it, Eleanore still volunteers one day a week at the library of First Congressional Church, but she positively lights up when she talks about her five-woman synchronized swimming team at Westhills Village, which is planning a public demonstration for October.
Eleanore attributes her long life to her faith in God, staying mentally and physically active, having a goal each day and maintaining a love for humankind. She’s quick to note that people of any age shouldn’t put themselves first because when they’re thinking of themselves, they don’t have time to think about others.
And on Saturday, when she steps to the podium at the Air & Space Museum, she hopes to impart a message of struggles and hopes, of contributions made when a world was at war, and her enduring love of a military man she followed from a small South Dakota farm to strategic places around the world.
“I think I want them to know that wives played an important part in World War II,” Eleanore said. “Some went to the factories; I was fortunate to go overseas and be with George. I think women began to become more independent in that time, one of the good things to come out of the war."