Letters from a Red Wing couple donated to the Minnesota Historical Society provide insight into life, love and war during the 1940s.

The letters were written by Robert Thorstensen and wife Marion Duggan-Thorstensen throughout Robert’s military service in World War II. Their daughter, Kristin O’Connell, turned over the collection to historians in January.

Marion Thorstensen and her daughter Kristin. Photo courtesy the Minnesota Historical Society
Marion Thorstensen and her daughter Kristin. Photo courtesy the Minnesota Historical Society

“We thought this donation would honor our parents by giving their voices an extended life, and a voice in the stream of history that would not be lost with our deaths,” O’Connell said. “It felt like a homage to them and expresses our gratitude for all they did to shape us.”

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The couple met and fell in love when they were both students studying at the University of Minnesota in 1940. They were married in 1942 while Robert was stationed in San Diego. Once Robert was deployed overseas, letters became the newlyweds' primary source of communication.

“Robert and Marion connected over a shared love of literature and were both excellent writers in their own right,” Kathryn Hujda, Minnesota Historical Society manuscripts curator, said in a news release. “Their letters are witty, romantic, informative and touching and provide valuable insight into naval practices.”

She added that Robert was involved in communications code-breaking, so researchers interested in the practice would probably like to take a look at the letters, too.

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Robert's father, Edwin B. Thorstensen, also wrote to his son regularly. The contents of his letters give a further glimpse into the current events of the time. Edwin was superintendent of the S.B. Foot Tanning Company in Red Wing during the Great Depression and early years of World War II.

A letter from Edwin B. Thorstensen to his son, Robert, who was studying at the University of Minnesota at the time. Photo courtesy the Minnesota Historical Society
A letter from Edwin B. Thorstensen to his son, Robert, who was studying at the University of Minnesota at the time. Photo courtesy the Minnesota Historical Society

A paragraph from one of Edwin’s letters about the business reads:

“Got back from New York Thursday night and while Dodge did not have to buy a new spindle to take care of the orders, we made enough contacts so that we still feel that the show was worthwhile. Our exhibit was also well received, so that it was just like giving us a pat on the back for a job well done and a reputation sustained.”

After the war, Robert and Marion made their home on the East Coast. He would go on to become a professor of literature and composition at the New York State College for Teachers in Albany, while Marion taught English at the Albany Academy for Girls.

Once the collection is cataloged, the papers will be available to researchers in the Gale Family Library this spring.