Welcoming Committee

July 7, 1943

My Darling Wife,

I love you with my whole heart and soul. If, by shining its light, the sun could express my love for you, you’d never see darkness. And if the tide would come in every time I think of you, the ocean would be constantly overflowing. Honey, I’m madly in love with you.

I completed the gunnery course and received my diploma yesterday. If we don’t have anything else honey, we’ll at least have enough diplomas to wallpaper our house with. 

Today, I arrived at my base, and immediately dashed off to the mail room. The last time I received mail was may 28. That’s some time ago, so you can imagine how much I appreciated your letters. I got 11 from you, 2 from Erwin, and 1 from Arty dated May 20. Honey, [you’re] swell for writing me so much, and I love you for it. I enjoyed your mail and consider every letter a treasure in itself.

I knew about the shower the girls were going to give you that Saturday and am very glad to learn you had a swell time. The presents we got interest me a great deal, and is the start of a new cottage whose occupants shall be none other than Mr. and Mrs. H.P. Schwerdt. Then, after a while, I hope the stork pays us a visit and leaves a baby Loretta. Gee honey, I love you. 

Honey, [you’re] swell for taking care of the cards and etc; anniversaries and buying presents for Father’s Day. [You’re] just wonderful sweetheart, and I think [you’re] the best wife there is. 

I have $100 on me, and will get a money order and send it to you tomorrow. I’d like to [enlighten] you as to my financial status, and think it best if we keep it a secret. I thought you knew, so here it comes. First of all, my base pay is $114. Then, I get $57 for flying, then, $22.80 for overseas duty, and for being married, I get $37.50. It comes to a total of $231.30 a month. From that, you get $100, my mother gets $25, and the government keeps $7 for insurance, which leaves me a total of $99.30. I’ll be able to send you a money order for $50 (I hope) every month. You should get $100 from the government about the middle of every month beginning with July. I hope this money situation pleases you and that you’re satisfied with it. 

I’m sending you all I can cause I’m all out for a little cottage for 2; or 3, or 4 or more.

My Darling, I love you lots and lots. I think of you all day and dream of you all night.

It’s [goodnight] sweetheart.

Your Honey and Husband

All my love,

Ha

xxxxxxx

P.S. I love you

Regards to all.

Nite Wifey.

Love 

The Shack Up – or Kelley’s crew, as they were known – already completed a handful of bombing missions over Germany throughout the month of July. Harold, a technical sergeant, gunner, and sometimes radio operator, began to live for the rush of a mission. The men would hustle into position and impatiently wait as they were cleared for take-off. He loved the power of the B-17, the Flying Fortress – the Ship – as she effortlessly maneuvered down the airstrip and glided up into the sky, swimming into the clouds in a graceful climb before dropping bombs on Axis forces. It was a beautiful dance; when he was training and flying over Kansas and Oklahoma, Harold often felt bored seeing the same flat, monotone land. He hoped for ground crew assignment because at least he’d have things to work with. Then, up in the sky on his first mission, he saw the unfortunate beauty of a war-torn Europe. He saw mountains, rivers, and bodies of water that all moved their own way, that all had their own shade of blue. He saw rolling plains – and he saw destruction. He bore witness to villages that were decimated, and cathedrals and synagogues reduced to nothing more than smoking rubble. He saw people running for their lives in unknown directions – trains taking innocent men, women, and children and transporting them away to far, unknown places from where they would surely not return. It was absolute chaos – beauty and chaos.

On July 28, the Shack Up went out for its sixth mission. They followed close with other Fortresses manned by men such as Jack and Ned. After they completed the mission, high on victory, the group of Airmen encountered fire from three German 187’s, armed, carrying the intent to damage and destroy whatever B-17s they could. The men quickly went to battle stations as they already began to feel the piercing of metal by the fighter plane’s guns. 

Harold went to his position at the turret when he noticed one of the 187’s wasn’t firing at them. Instead, he was climbing and descending, matching the altitude of the Shack Up and then pulling away to circle back. He watched the plane disappear to the aft of the aircraft and looked down, knowing what his eyes would already be met with – flak. These 88mm anti-aircraft cannons were waiting for the Fortresses, and the pilot of the 187 was radioing the altitude of the B-17 so they could get a more accurate shot on Kelley’s boys. This momentary distraction was interrupted when Harold heard the pang pang pang pang of bullets getting louder and closer to his turret. He heard a bullet whiz past his ear and hit the inside of the plane close behind him. Then, he felt a white-hot pain in his right hand. Harold looked down and was met only with blood. He gnashed his teeth at the pain. Harold picked his hand up to see his pinky had been shot off. 

A loud explosion rocked the Fortress and his attention went to Kelley’s shouts from the cockpit. 

“They hit the goddamn wing again! Engine out!” Kelley struggled with Topin to keep the plane aloft as it violently shook in the sky. Ping ping ping ping ping came back around and Harold quickly realized he could no longer move the turret gun automatically. When the 88mm ripped through the wing it must have blown out part of the electrical, he thought. There was fire and smoke as the flak ripped the wing like paper. He knew his right hand was no good for firing, so he swallowed the pain and began to manually crank the turret as he followed a 187 through the air, squeezing the trigger with his non-dominant hand, and returning fire with a 50 caliber. 

Pop pop pop pop pop! 

Black smoke began to billow out of the 187 and Harold felt relief once he saw flames engulf the wing of the aircraft. It sputtered and screamed as it jolted around in the sky – victory for Harold. The plane began to nosedive for the ground.

“We gotta get the hell out of here!” 

They continued on the best they could, pursued by the last remaining 187. Three of the four engines were out. Kelley managed to stabilize the plane long enough to land in Allied territory. All ten of the men bailed out, unaware of the extent of the damage or whether or not the Fortress would explode. As they ran, they heard the scream of the fighter above them as it doubled back over their heads. Harold looked up to the sun, ready to fight – or face his death. Shot out of the sky and then killed on the ground; he thought to himself this would be such an ironic way to die. The 187 dipped low. Then, reflecting in the summer sky, the pilot waved the wings of his plane – portside down, then starboard, righting himself once more to fly off back to his own base.

“I’ll be damned,” Kelley breathlessly said, “did he just wave goodbye?”

Harold stood a moment in shock, “Gee whiz!” Kelley brought attention to Harold’s bloodied hand. The other men took notice to check themselves over for any serious injuries. Luckily they were all intact; all the other men had ten fingers each. Harold remembered then the pain in his hand and grasped the missing finger. “It’s lost somewhere in Germany now.” He winced for a moment. The crew took off on foot to be intercepted by an emergency response crew that would take them back to their base in Knettishall. They walked with a purpose, breathless and coming down off the adrenaline of an air fight. 

“Close call boys.” 

The men later went and assessed the damage of the Shack Up. There were at least 60 flack holes that ran along the side of their pride and joy. Both wings would have to be replaced, and the back of the plane was almost completely blown off. The tail gunner sighed in his own disbelief, “I can’t believe I didn’t get blown right out of the sky!” Harold and the other waist gunner shook their heads, “She’s going to be out of commission for a while, huh.” The wings were relatively simple to replace, but they had other missions that needed to be carried out and the Shack Up wouldn’t be done in time for their next run on the 30th. 

Kelley shook his head.

“Looks like we need a new set of wings.”

Relay

Relay

June 4, 1943

My dear, 

I am mailing this note for your husband. He is here now at our flying field, and I work in one of the tool cribs in the big hanger. I waited on him and I offered to help him and he asked me to write you.

I have three boys of my own and I would want some other mother to help them. I wish I could do for all the boys and I do try as I see so many of them as they take off for some distant land. 

He told me something of himself and I liked him. I hope you can get a message to his mother – 

He takes off early in the morning for the far place – I guess you can guess. 

I shall always think of you both, and God Bless you.

Sincerely,

(Mrs.) Laura P. Bell

Odlin Rd. R.7.D.2.

Bangor, ME

P.S. He would like to have written more, but just ended it. 

Just as soon as he arrived in Maine, Harold got the call. On an early June morning, he was mustered from his sleep and ordered to pack his things and prepare to head out to the far lands. He, along with his buddies Jack and Ned, his pilot Frank Kelley, and the rest of his crew, was set to take up camp in England where the 8th Air Force impatiently waited. With the help of a woman working in the hanger, Harold dictated a note home to Loretta and boarded a plane. He was going to war. 

The plane that transported the soldiers was loud and hollow. Harold sat along one side and looked around him at the other men, all dressed alike – all with the same grievous look on their faces. A couple of soldiers bantered and laughed, but it was so loud on the plane that Harold didn’t bother to try and make conversation with anyone around him; Jack wasn’t seated next to him and he didn’t feel like raising his voice. He couldn’t see, but wondered what the Atlantic Ocean looked like from their altitude. When he was a boy, Harold dreamed of flying. And when he was in training, he longed for better scenery than the plains of Oklahoma. Now that it was finally happening, he regretted not having a window to look out of. 

The base was busy and filled with men who were ready for what seemed to be anything. Harold whirled around with his crew of nine others to prepare for what would be their first assignment. There was no room to rest, no room to write home immediately, just preparation for flight over Germany. He knew this was his time to prove himself to his country – and of course – his new wife back home; he hoped she got the letter from the secretary in Maine. 

The air base itself was massive, with one large runway that ran from East to West, with two smaller runways – one Southwest to Northeast, the other Northwest to Southeast. To the north of the airfield was the bomb dump, and Harold was set to do technical work on the southern point. 

Their first B-17 was named “The Shack Up.” Led by the pilot Frank Kelley, Harold – along with Topin, Carl Alexander, DB Adams, Carlton Jones, Marchinski, Ryals, Joe Maschke, and Alex Milligan – prepared themselves for what would be the first of hopefully many successful bombing missions on the Jerry’s. They were a family; Harold was very close with Jack and Ned, two other Flying Fortress crewmen. At night, they’d sing songs and tell stories about their girls back home, just waiting for the order to go up in the sky. 

“Write Loretta home a kiss for me!” Jack winked at Harold and he laughed.

“Hey, Schwerdt! Heard you’re pretty decent at engine repair.” Harold looked up and saw someone approaching him with a tool kit. He’d been at the camp for about a week, tinkering and training along with the rest of the new arrivals. 

“Sure, what can I help you with?” The fellow technical sergeant led Harold over to a plane he hadn’t worked on before and explained some issues that, although familiar-sounding, he was lost on. 

“So d’ya think you can help me out?” 

He hesitated. Then, grabbing the tool kit, Harold nodded and walked over to where the trouble was. After tinkering about for a while and going on a little faith, Harold closed everything up. “Should be good,” he said as he wiped some summer sweat off his brow. England was supposed to be cold and cloudy, he thought.

The other tech sergeant looked pleased. “Great! Let’s put her in the air!” He wiped his hands on his jumpsuit, threw up his arms and signaled the pilot. Harold panicked inside. What if he was wrong? He hadn’t seen an engine like that before – but most plane engines were similar, right? What if he did something improperly? He couldn’t tell them now.  

The engine, to his pleasant surprise, kicked on almost immediately and turned, nose towards the end of the runway. The pilot gave a thumbs up and Harold nervously watched as the plane picked up speed and grew smaller and smaller before his eyes. He felt his insides dancing while he hoped for the wheels to just lift off the ground –  even a little bit. Then, effortlessly, the plane took off! The pilot kept low and did some circles over the base. The technical sergeant clapped Harold on the back, “Hey would ya look at that! Swell job, Red. I think you’ll get on just fine here.” A tension lifted off Harold’s shoulders that he hadn’t noticed before that moment; he truly felt a part of a family in the 388th.

That night, the men gathered to play cards before it was time to turn in and go to bed. They were going to start running missions in a couple of days. Tensions were high but they all seemed to do a good job of keeping it under wraps with songs and games. Ned, Jack, and Harold reminisced about the ice cream shops on their block, the busy sounds of New York, and their gals. It was unfortunate for them to be so far from loved ones, but at least they had each other.

The men were called in for a briefing at one of the Nissen Huts to discuss their next missions.

“Daytime raids, boys,” the commanding officer began, “are going to be frightening for some of you. I know a lot of you fellas are still getting settled into the 388th station here – I get that. But, we have no time to waste. Everyday we spend on the ground is another day those Jerry’s advance around Europe.” 

He went on to explain the importance of the daytime raids. Before them on a table lay an aviation map, complete with a key and writing. The navigators all huddled around in one group and looked over the terrain. The pilots, in their own circle, went over the flying formation and what steps to take in order to look after each other. Harold, along with other technical sergeants and gunners, left the Nissen Hut to finish up some last minute maintenance on their fortresses. 

I Love you. Do you Love me?

May 19, 1943

Dearest Loretta,

Received your letter of the 17th and must answer it immediately. I can’t call you up cause I don’t have any time – I’ve too much to say, so I won’t send you a telegram. Here’s the set-up – I’ll write and tell my mom about it today – I know she won’t want me to get married, but she’ll approve and we’ll get her blessings. How about your mom? I believe she’ll approve and hope to get her blessings.

The ring can be purchased when I get home, or, if you care to get it let me know and I’ll send you some dough I don’t know about an engagement ring; if you want one, we’ll get it when I get home. If not, we’ll get a very good wedding ring.

My furlough will begin in June, and I think about the middle of the month. I can’t give you an exact date now, but maybe later on I will. You can get ready in the meantime. You will have to get a blood test and I want you to do it soon. I’ll get my blood test here in camp. That way, we won’t have to waste time but I can get married right away. Where will we get married? I know in your church, so if you can pay the priest a visit and tell him about it, it would be appreciated. We can’t set a definite date yet. So everything will have to be taken care of at the last minute. Announcements will have to be sent (I think) and that will have to wait for the last minute. Sweetheart, as I’m writing, I’m getting more involved and things are getting complicated. I wish I could talk this over with you. I’m going to let you take care of everything. Not that I don’t have an interest or anything, but I think you will take care of everything perfectly. It would please me fine, and whatever you choose to do is approved by me.

Darling, I’m sorry, cause I wrote 2 pages and didn’t tell you I love you yet – I love you Loretta, I love you with all my heart and soul; and will love forever and a day. I’m crazy about you and the thought of marrying you next month is giving me chills and thrills, and already, it seems I’m living in a new world. Concerning Rock Hill, I’d love to go, but whether or not we will, it’s still to be seen. My dreams are going to come true next month. Honey I love you. I love you. Love you. Love you.

Ha  xxxxxxxxx

Harold told Loretta he’d marry her on a Tuesday if he had to, and he managed to take leave before heading to a base in Maine to wed her on a Tuesday – as promised. On June 1, 1943, Loretta officially gained the title of Mrs. Harold P. Schwerdt, and she couldn’t be happier about it. The ceremony was rather short notice, but beautiful, with Loretta picking a dress right off the rack and Harold donning his Army dress uniform. What a handsome couple, people would say about them. 

Since Harold and Arthur enlisted in the military, and after they were called to war in April of 1942, tensions were growing more and more dire in Europe, and he knew that at any moment he would be sent off to fight the Axis powers. Artie was already in the Pacific, fulfilling his own dreams. Harold hoped to use his engineering and tinkering skills to remain on the ground while in the Air Force, but it was looking like he would be in the air in no time. He completed many of the required courses already, always eager to learn and improve in any field he found himself working – but a knot lingered in his stomach. If he was going to be in an airplane, he’d most certainly have to use a gun. And if he had to use his gun, he’d have to kill. B-17s were equipped with five, .30 caliber machine guns; guns for serious damage because he knew he’d be in the thick of things up in a plane like a Flying Fortress. Harold had an unwavering love of country and a great amount of pride in being in the Army, and he resolved with himself – without worrying Loretta – that he was prepared to do whatever he had to in order to come home to his girl when all this was over. 

Loretta, with very little time to prepare, ran to the boutique three blocks over from her house with Eleanor and one of her sisters.

“It just has to be white, I really don’t care otherwise.” Loretta quickly thumbed through hanger after hanger of dresses, looking for her size.

“Oh, hush! You want something that’ll at least look good on ya, Loretta! I won’t allow you to marry my brother dressed in rags.” Eleanor had two dresses – one in each hand – and held them out in front of her for her future sister to inspect.

“I like that one,” Loretta said. She grabbed the gown and took another one of her own.

“I’m just here to judge,” Loretta’s sister said with a smirk. Loretta gave a huff and went into the fitting room. The clerk followed her in and after about ten minutes both ladies returned, Loretta in front with her choice.

“Wow,” Eleanor gasped. “You look beautiful!”

Loretta gave a twirl, “Not bad for a gal grabbing a dress off the rack, huh?”

“I have to admit,” Loretta’s sister said reluctantly, “you look elegant, Rette. Harold’s a lucky guy.” She smiled. She was proud of her sister.

On the other side of town, Harold was rushing into the court offices. 

“Yes, hello sir how may I help you today?” A secretary looked up at the man in uniform and flashed a pleasant smile.

“I need to marry my gal! Tomorrow!” Harold was breathless and eager. His leave was only slotted for a few days and he was desperate to exchange vows. 

The secretary looked in her ledger and frowned. “I’m sorry, sir. It doesn’t seem like we have any availability in the next couple of days.”

“You don’t understand, ma’am. I have to marry my girl.” Harold pleaded with her to check again, but she was correct. There were so many soldiers and civilians coming through that court office to marry that they were positively booked.

“Excuse me, soldier. If I heard you correctly, you’re looking to get hitched?” An older gentleman in a tailored suit was walking out of the offices when he noticed the exchange between Harold and the secretary. He was a lawyer in the courts.

“Yes, sir. I really need to. She’s even buying her dress right now.”

“Hmm,” the lawyer began, “could you get married today?” 

“Well gee, I think so. I have to go get her. You’re able to do that? Yes. Yes I’ll marry her today.” Harold was resolved. Loretta wouldn’t mind the expedited arrangement; she wanted to marry him just as much.

“Alright then! Come with me.” The lawyer gestured for Harold to follow him back into the courts. “You! Don’t leave for the day yet. This soldier needs to get married!” He turned to Harold, “Now, son, you got all your papers? Got your blood work and tests done? You’re clean?” 

Harold nodded. He got all his medical exams done the week prior on base. 

“Perfect! Go get your gal!”

When he looked at Loretta on their wedding day – the woman he was in love with since he was 17 years old – all he could think about was being home with her, starting a family, living in a cottage and enjoying life. There wouldn’t be a life to enjoy, though, he understood, if Hitler and his followers turned out to be victorious in this global War. This sacrifice to be away from his love would be worth it in the end, he thought, to have a guaranteed peace and to serve his country at the same time. He just had to make it home again. 

“I got the telegram to go to Bangor, Maine.” Harold sat at the kitchen table, his wife before him. He swirled a cup of coffee around in small, nervous circles.

“When?” Loretta knew this was an inevitable call. She just didn’t think it would be two days after she married Harold.

“Tomorrow, Doll.” Harold looked down, almost ashamed. He wanted nothing more than a few extra days with Loretta. He sat still and waited for her to react, or be mad. 

“Well,” she began, “you better come home to me, Harold Schwerdt.” She smiled when he looked up at her. 

“I love you. Do you love me?” Harold stopped swirling his coffee.

“Of course,” she replied.

Traveling Man

April 30, 1943
Army Air Base

Wendover Field, Utah

My Darling Loretta,

Your letter today truly was swell and was enjoyed a lot. You know honey I love you too, only I love you more. I love you all I possibly can.

Today was payday, and I got my regular pay but not my flying pay. I’ll get that some time next month (I hope). I intend to send $50 to my mother so I’ll have some dough for my furlough. Honey when I get home we’ll do the town. Maybe you think I’m silly, but every day and every night I dream of going home. I’m still wondering what I’m going to say when I first see you. Even if I say nothing, I know what I’m going to do. Loretta, you are going to be kissed; and I do mean kissed with a capital (hug too). Gee I love you. I’m still hoping for that happy day in June. I love you more honey.

Your brother Joe is a good man and he’ll make a darn good sailor. An indication is how well he took it when he left. He is a man, for I could see that when I was home a year ago. I hope he manages to get home when I do. I love to see him in his uniform.

Honey, it’s nice of you to go and see Ed. If you bring him just 1% of the happiness you brought me, he’s very happy. You’re just swell (my swell girl). I love you sweet heart, I love you lots. 

I’m glad you liked the box of candy. I hope to fatten you up so I can have more to hug when I see you. Loretta, you are going to be hugged. I love you. 

Honey, when you go over to my house again and they have some good cake, ask mom for my piece. Say, “Mrs. Schwerdt, I want Ha’s piece.”

I know how much much Abie wanted to get in the service. I feel sorry for him, please give him my regards. My regards to everybody, OK? Mom, Pop, the family, Johnna, Bena, the girls.

Honey, remember the pictures I said I had taken? Well, I’m sending them home. I only have one set, so I wish you would show them to my mother. I hope to get some more, but that’s going to take a couple more weeks. 

I think the pictures are pretty good, I hope you like them. The one picture that is faded is Jack in a summer flying suit, and me in a winter flying jacket and helmet and goggles. I’ve mentioned the name of “Ned” in my previous letters; he’s Jack’s radio man. He’s in one of these pictures, and you can recognize him cause he’s wearing a summer flying suit. The guy on the other side of me, is the 1st sergeant and a very nice guy. He’s a dummer, and really can beat it out. Yes sir, a nice guy. The close up picture of me was taken by Jack. He had the camera so I went up to him and said heil Hitler; he took the picture too. I think it came out well, don’t you?

In one of the pictures I look like a tough guy; I had that taken specifically for you. Are you afraid of me? Better do like I say or else I’ll get tough with you (I may even lop you!).

Honey, I wish you could feel my eyes on you and hear me  saying, Sweetheart. I love you, more love to you, sweets. I was supposed to leave Wendover Field Sunday May 2, but orders have been changed, so I’m good here for at least another week. Darn it. 

So my doll, your letter made me very happy. I hope these pictures make you happy. 

Bye my sweets, all my love, your honey.

Love,

Ha

I love you darling. I love you.

Bittersweet Relief

Oh, to receive a note to signal the heart of your love still beats half a world away. Loretta spent weeks not knowing whether or not Harold was alive, only MIA in the summer of 1943. She held onto hope and still wrote, even though the letters were returned. She still put her love out on paper and sent it away and prayed an envelope would reach his eyes. What bittersweet relief to know your husband is alive, but captive. Shaken. Injured, probably. Trapped behind an electric fence.

O’Brother O’Mine

May 20, 1940

Wednesday

Dear Kid,

After receiving your swell letter I sort of feel ashamed of myself for not writing sooner. I know you will understand when I say it’s not because I didn’t want to write but because I don’t have enough time to write, so I’ll just let it got here. O.K. Now you will have to excuse the pencil because I can’t get any ink at the present, and then you’ll have to excuse the penmanship because I’m sitting on the deck and writing on my knee. There’s a dam lot of apologies doing on, isn’t there? I know they’re not necessary kid, but if I feel like apologizing, let me. Dot all. 

I just wrote a letter to Mom about my rifle practice today and instead of repeating it to you kid, do me a favor and read her letter when you go over to the house. I won’t have enough time to repeat it now. The first thing I want to tell you is that I graduate May 26th and that will be a day I’ll never forget. I’ve been here for more than a month already. This Sunday I go on liberty again and I’m going to have a good time in Milwaukee because the company started to break up today. All men going to cooks school left tonight on about an hour’s notice. I made signalman school but I don’t know where it is or when I go. That is whether I get a leave or not before I go. My buddy, and he’s a damn good guy, made gunners mate school and that’s the reason for a good time Sunday. I like it here and I feel swell. I must admit I’m a little homesick. Nobody could have a better reason than Butch, Ha, or myself. 

Love,

Artie 

As Loretta waded her way through Arthur’s misspellings and scratchy pencil handwriting, she smiled. She remembered fondly the letter she wrote him earlier and was relieved that it was received well and that Arthur was simply too busy to respond. Even though it never worked between them, and she was now Harold’s girl, Loretta always loved the other twin. How could she not? He was her beau in every way – except his handwriting… and maybe personality, as she thought on it more. Arthur, always the funny man, could have been seen as younger than his twin by years, even younger than Loretta, with his personality. She always admired that about him, but she admired Harold’s seriousness more. She gently folded the letter and placed it in the old envelope box that she kept in a drawer in her bedroom for days where she felt like revisiting memories. Loretta threw on a pair of shoes, found a hat, and stepped out for the short, warm walk to Harold’s mother’s house to read about Artie’s day at rifle practice; Mrs. Schwerdt was probably very proud of her youngest. 

Harold wasn’t away training for the Army just yet. He was working in the city as a sales clerk. He thought it was responsible to try and take a couple of classes of night school and work during the day in order to set up funds for him and Loretta. Although she was only 18, Harold was 20 – and a man by his own eyes – and that meant he needed to have a plan for a future with the woman he knew he was going to spend his life with. The war certainly wasn’t showing any signs of slowing down; the United States seemed closer and closer to declaring war themselves, and even though Harold always wanted to be an Army man, he didn’t want to have to fight anyone. “Not very Christian,” his mother said one day. But he would, to protect his home. 

Loretta made it to Harold’s home and sat with Jeanne – Arthur’s love – and Eleanor, of course. They read over again his experiences in rifle practice. Loretta beamed when she saw the way Jeanne’s eyes lit up when she spoke of Artie – for all his jokes, he certainly took love seriously, just like his brother. They were going to be together for a long time, Loretta thought to herself. And she thought to the dreams of a small cottage like she and Harold talked about – filled with loved ones and warm summers, fires and cookouts. She couldn’t wait for the rest of her life to begin. 

I’d even marry you on a Tuesday, you know.” 

Keep your eye on the Doughnut

I rang the doorbell three times before a nurse let me in the building, only to meet me in the hallway and tell me I was the first to know, and that my grandfather just died. What immediately followed was something I experienced when I watched my mother – his daughter – die seven years ago: tunnel vision, loss of breath, silent and uncontrolled sobs. My aunt arrived not two minutes after. We said our goodbyes to Harold in his bed, finally at rest and home with Nan, with my mom, with my family dog who died only four months ago in September. He was reunited with his identical twin, Arthur, who died in 1943 on a PT while Harold sat in prison camp in Krems, Austria.

I feel like I’ve become a professional at death and grief; the state of being dead is not what scares me, though. I am not afraid to kiss a recently-departed loved one on the hand or forehead one last time. The process of dying – the suffering, the pain, the uncertainty of whether or not that person will be around for three more days, or two – is what eats at me. Since January 9th my soul has felt heavy while my life has felt emptier. I will miss Thursday morning physical therapy appointments, grocery shopping, holding hands in the car, and singing old songs. I will miss him there in my life. It is something that I know I will get through, but I am not quite sure how yet.

I don’t even really know how to explain my grandpa when people ask. After newspaper interviews and his eulogy I still conclude that that he was – simply put – a good guy, because if I spent the amount of time I wanted to talking about him a whole year would pass before I was done. He died just a week shy of his 99th birthday, born before sliced bread and lived long enough to build the World Trade Centers, watch them fall on television, and watch Tower One be rebuilt. Harold lived long, but he lived. He lived enough for three lifetimes, and I was lucky enough to hear his stories and to commit them to memory – those moments of invaluable tales of war and love and sayings that I will write down and give life to until the day I myself am dead.

He always told my brother, cousin, and me, “As you ramble through life, Brother, whatever be your goal, keep your eye upon the doughnut, and not upon the hole.” As silly of a quote as it sounds, I finally understood what he meant. Harold wanted us to keep our eyes on the good, not the bad; on love and forgiveness, not hate and grudges; on the sweet stuff, not the void. He was infectiously positive and kind until the day he died, and I always found it difficult to understand especially when our visits were peppered with war stories that – when told – would take him far away, back to 1943 and prison camp. His liberation from camp seemed like his only victory, but even in his stories, there was something positive to shed light on.

One tale in particular – and the one I shared at his wake when delivering his eulogy – has become affectionately known as the “egg story.” In March of 1945, as the war was coming to a foreseeable end, and Russian troops were closing in on Stalag XVII-B in Austria, Harold, along with about a thousand other soldiers, were forced to march along the Danube River with Berlin as the goal, in one of the harshest winters on record in Europe. He spent two years with meals that included hot water, black coffee, boiled cabbage, and sometimes nothing at all. He watched bunk mates’ faces and bodies ravaged by malnutrition, bed bugs, sores, and disease. And still, he along with many others were seen “fit enough” to march, maybe to Berlin, most likely to their deaths. The end of the war was certainly near, but the end of their lives was also looming overhead.

Harold told me one day in June of 2018 that as the men marched through fields and farmland they would pull vegetables out of the ground and eat them without washing them, simply for nutrition. They operated mostly in groups of three – one man to collect firewood, one to guard the food, one to find the food. Harold was the food finder. He would pull carrots, potatoes – anything he could find – to share with his two companions. He told me of older German women who would hide bread in the bosoms of their aprons and break off small pieces to throw at the feet of the soldiers, who scrounged and ate quickly as to not anger the SS that flanked them with guns and vicious dogs. Even in that time of horror and uncertainty, he still encountered kindness and humanity of strangers; he had hope to continue on marching. He had the belief that he would hold his wife again, his childhood sweetheart who he married on June 1, 1943, only to be captured July 30th that same year.

In his search for food, Harold came across what he described to me as “a German-speaking, Polish slave-girl.” She was on a patch of farmland that had animals as well as vegetables. He approached her and put a hand in his pocket, producing a sewing needle that he held onto from a British Red Cross care package he received earlier during his imprisonment when he had scurvy. He extended to her the needle, and told her in broken German, “Ich habe eine nadel,” which translates to, “I have a needle.” The young girl accepted the needle and handed him an egg, the first egg he held in over two years. Harold joyously returned with the egg to his two companions and split it between the three of them, a meal he described to me as “the best meal I had in two years.”

Pain and suffering is relative to each person and situation, this is a given. But tears poured down my face to see how such a simple act, and such a simple meal could bring out hope and humanity in a man who otherwise was stripped of everything. He lost his bomber jacket, teeth, weight, and yet he was so grateful and rejoiced in the tiniest of victories – the egg. He could have easily kept it to himself, but chose to share it with two men he might never see again. He ate that egg as if he knew it wouldn’t be the last time he’d taste one, and I can personally vouch that Harold had an egg almost everyday for the duration of my 28 years. The war and the suffering bore a giant hole in Harold’s future, yet he kept his eye on my grandmother, on freedom, on the doughnut.