Violet A. Kochendoerfer was born on November 7, 1912, in Winona, Minnesota. She was high school salutatorian, but did not plan to attend college. A friend urged her to consider higher education and a faculty member at the college in Winona advised her to look into Reed College. "Even then Reed had the reputation of a college that taught you to think for yourself."
Kochendoerfer came west with $1,800 in savings, but after two years her money ran out and she had to withdraw. She took a job as assistant to Easton Rothwell, Reed's dean of men. When Rothwell left Reed in the early 1940s, Kochendoerfer decided it was time for her to hit the road as well.
"I'm always struck by how these tiny little things that happen can change a whole life," Kochendoerfer recalls, "even something like running out of money at Reed."
Kochendoerfer's first assignment with the Red Cross was to set up a service club at Spanhoe Airdrome in Great Britain. These clubs offered social activities, a snack bar, and personal assistance for enlisted men. Her job was finding and furnishing facilities, hiring the staff, and setting up programs.
After several months at Spanhoe, Kochendoerfer was sent first to Châlons-sur-Marne, outside Paris, then to Cologne, Germany, to run a club for the 82nd Airborne. There she saw for the first time the ruin and desolation left by Europe's ground war.
The 82nd did not stay long in Cologne. "When they went forward, I begged to go, too," Kochendoerfer recounts. They were heading for Ludwigslust, Germany, where they met the Russians and where the entire German 21st (approximately 150,000 men) surrendered. Along the road into Ludwigs-lust were sights Kochendoerfer called "the most poignant and unforgettable of my whole life. Coming toward us were . . .a parade of the most bizarre vehicles and forlorn human beings I've ever seen."