A Touch of Scurvy

From the combined lack of food and the summer heat, Harold began to notice the sores on his arms getting worse. One of his teeth fell out a week earlier. When he woke up that morning, he felt a sharp pain in the side of his mouth. Harold put his fingers back and felt around, and found one of his molars very loose and tender. He didn’t know what to do, but figured it was probably infected. Using his thumb and forefinger, Harold wriggled the tooth around for a few moments until it came out in his hand. The pain immediately subsided, and he discarded the tooth. He then made his way over towards the infirmary to see if there was anything further they could do to help him.

“My boy, you are positively yellow!” The medic on duty seemed to take a step back at Harold’s appearance. It occurred to him that he hadn’t seen a clear view of his own reflection in over a year. 

“What do you mean I’m yellow?” Harold looked down and outstretched his hands. In the light of the infirmary he realized he was, in fact, yellow. He gasped, “What in the hell does this mean?” 

“It means you have jaundice, son.” The medic took a few steps over to Harold’s side and lifted his arms, giving him a once-over.

“I just came here on account of my tooth falling out. What made me jaundiced?” 

“Hmm, well I don’t know. Maybe the lack of nutrition in this dump?” The medic was sarcastic, but Harold knew it was directed more at the Germans than him. “Tell me, what else are you feeling?” 

“Well,” Harold began, “my teeth hurt; one just came out this morning. I feel weak but that hasn’t come to me as a surprise or shock; they don’t feed us. Am I going to be alright?” 

“I have to look in the Red Cross kits and send out a couple of requests. I think the British Red Cross gives oranges in their kits; maybe we can trade some things to get you some vitamin C. Just keep hanging in there, son. Let me look at your tooth.” 

Harold had the space where his infected tooth once resided cleaned out, and the medic was kind enough to wrap a couple of the worse sores on his arms. He knew he would have to make them last for at least two to three weeks, but it was better than nothing. He returned to his bunk feeling a little cleaner than normal, but after listening to what the medic said about his skin and scurvy, Harold realized he wasn’t feeling good at all. Sure, he was playing softball with the other men when the weather permitted, but that didn’t take away the fact that he was still very much deep in prison camp. The medic told him to rest and wait to see what he could get from the British.

By the following morning, Harold developed a low fever and felt he couldn’t possibly get out of bed. He blamed the Jerry manipulation, of course – minimizing their rations to the point that Red Cross rations were exhausted only a few weeks earlier in May. He shakily sat up in his bed and grabbed for his tin can in hopes of either finding water in it, or finding water available somewhere else. 

“You should sit out in the sun, ya know. It’ll be good for ya, Red.” One of Harold’s bunkmates helped him up and outside of the barracks. He was grateful for the arm and sat down on some steps near one of the buildings. Harold opened his shirt and saw just how yellow his skin had become. There were some smaller sores on his chest but they weren’t open like the ones on his arms. He gave himself a once over and thought to himself that he looked like ketchup and mustard. Harold chuckled, and then frowned – he hadn’t had ketchup and mustard in almost two years. He thought to himself how awful prison camp really was, for him to miss condiments. The closest thing to a topping for Harold was if any gelatinous fat was left on top of the poor excuse for meat they were served. The thought of it would have made him gag if he wasn’t grateful for the extra calories that came with fat. He closed his eyes and listened to the men play softball – a lucky day for them, the guards didn’t interrupt today.

“You Schwerdt? ‘Course you are. Look atcha!” Harold opened his eyes to a large Englishman standing over him. He was very tall and his body blocked out the sunlight that Harold was so very much enjoying. Harold surmised that, from the meat on the man’s bones, he hadn’t been in the prison camp for more than a few months.

“How are you?” Harold extended a hand, but did not get up. 

“Better than you!” The man was joking, Harold knew this. He appreciated the banter. He continued on, “Name is Davies of the beautiful R-A-F.” His accent pleased Harold – almost musical. 

“You know,” Harold began, “in the Navy, my brother calls you ‘Limey’s’.” He saw the Englishman’s eyes light up.

The man let out a bold laugh, “Ha! Takin’ the piss, I see? At least you have your sense of humor still. Look, the reason I’m here is because I met with your medic, and we do have some supplies you Yanks don’t that’ll help with your little complexion issue you have going on there.” He pointed to Harold’s open shirt. “We’ll get you fixed up, just go on over to the infirmary.”

It had been a very long time since Harold was treated so kindly. Davies spoke with a boom in his voice that Harold felt was lost to him from his time in XVII-B, he just couldn’t remember when. With Davies’ help, Harold walked over to his infirmary and was met with the man from the day before who took care of his tooth and diagnosed him. 

“Ah, Red, good to see you walking about. Get some sun?” He smiled and put his hand in his pocket. “I have something for you. It isn’t much, but it will get the ball rolling. Courtesy of the British Red Cross.” From his pocket, the medic pulled out the most beautiful thing Harold had seen in months – an orange.

He was speechless. He looked at the medic and hesitated. The medic smiled and nodded his head, extending his arm a little further for Harold to take. Davies stood on and watched as Harold graciously took the piece of fruit from the medic’s hand. 

“I – thank you.” He began to feverishly peel the orange.

“More where that came from. Waiting on some antibiotics for you. Just keep those wounds wrapped up on your arms. Rest up; we’ll have you ready to play softball again with the guys in no time.” Harold nodded as he ate the orange. It was so sweet – he couldn’t remember the last time he had tasted anything so sweet.

It took several weeks for Harold to feel like his normal self – whatever normal was. He spent most days in bed, only venturing out to visit the Man of Confidence or the medic tent for a check up. His bunkmates were kind enough to shove over and make room, giving him the bed to himself as he mended; Harold surprisingly found it difficult to fall asleep in such an empty space. Among the scratchy straw he lay, seemingly more aware of the miniscule pitter patter of bugs around him – more conscious of the labored breaths of hungry, tired prisoners. There was no warmth next to him, no reassurance that life existed close by as he stirred and woke in the middle of the night. There was no one to suffer beside. He was so accustomed to the overcrowding of Seventeen-B – of having to quietly push past men sometimes to get to where he needed, or waiting impatiently for a water ration or to use the latrines outside. Of course the latrines were completely dismantled, and the men were relieving themselves in holes before each other, but they kept their dignity by maintaining the bathroom pits, and everyone waited their turn.

He thought often of Loretta over those few weeks, of penning a note home to tell her everything was alright, and that he was feeling much better. Every time Harold reached for a pencil, though, he stopped, finding himself unable to put on the same mask he had worn for the past year. He didn’t know if he could trust his own hand to tell her things were swell, that he played some softball, or that he learned something new. What he wanted to say was the truth – that he almost died – more than once – that he saw men beaten and killed, that she probably wouldn’t recognize him when she saw him.

When she saw him.

Perfectly Horrible & Unspectacular

Perfectly Horrible & Unspectacular

I wrote my mom’s eulogy before she died. Well, technically, she was brain dead, and I sat on the hospital bed next to her and penned what I thought were the appropriate things to say about a dying woman. She heaved her breaths — no pitter patter — more like a see-saw with cinder blocks tied to each end. Or like two men in the Pacific Northwest in the 1800s, sawing down the mighty sequoia at a pace not unlike the amount of time it took for the tree to grow. And I sat beside the heavy, small woman and wrote on my phone’s note taking app about science projects, real estate, and how her favorite saying was that she was “sparkling,” in reference to her mood. I cried with guilt that evening, as if I sealed her fate for her; The eulogy is written, no turning back. Even though she was already brain dead.

And after she died, in a church she never went to, under a God she never confessed to, I held the hand of the brother I didn’t get along with and talked about science projects and who Patricia was, or at least how I wanted her to be remembered by the masses. I wanted the rows filled with mourners in black and blue to leave with tears in their eyes and the happy memory of Patricia doing paper mache science projects the day before they were due. What a perfectly horrible intention. What an unspectacular woman.

I left the church with knots in my stomach and watched the hearse take her back across the street in a non-procession to be cremated and split between several small containers and be kept forever, so each time I returned home I could look at the physical minimization of the personality I shrunk in church for the fear of being too real. Too true. I imagined for weeks that she was looking down at me, mumbling and cursing as she often did when alive because I blotted her existence under the guise of good intention. It ate me up inside, consumed my thoughts that I failed to speak the truth on her behalf.

Until I did.

It took several months of denial and only two beers on a ferry across the sound — my academic River Styx — the gateway between the horrible truths of my home and the fluffed up ideals of undergrad. I wrote about the hospital. I wrote about driving through state after state, and taking a boat, and driving some more to see a woman with egg yolk-colored eyes and matted hair stare into my face and say, “What the hell are you doing here?” I wrote about how lucky I was to select a school only a hundred miles away just in case Patricia decided she didn’t want to live anymore. That yes, in my senior year of college, my choice to pick the school I already invested three years in finally proved itself to be the best decision, because my mom finally pushed herself over the edge and I could make it home in only a few hours.

That was my truth. And her truth. The woman who left me on the see-saw with my legs dangling in the air was an alcoholic. During much of the wake and funeral, my dad told everyone she was simply ill, or that she had liver cancer, or that her kidneys failed — all in an attempt to escape the taboo of a successful small-town business woman drinking herself into oblivion. The whispers would have been too great for him to bear alone, and I never blamed him for it. But while she lay in the closed casket for two afternoons and two evenings, I felt as if I was staring into a deep well of secrets that would follow her to her grave. I couldn’t allow that, so I wrote. I described the hidden bottles of vodka around the house, and I wrote about her throwing me into a refrigerator in a blackout. I mentioned the afternoon, just months before she died, when I talked her back from committing suicide. A couple of weeks after that, I went and studied abroad at Oxford. She sent normal emails, happy emails, don’t worry emails.

Then she left.

She was an expert at science projects. She always said she was sparkling. Those were truths. She was also unbelievably troubled, but Patricia was far from unspectacular. Never in my life have I seen another woman drum on the steering wheel of a 1984 Toyota Camry hatchback with the vigor of John Bonham, nor have I ever witnessed a middle-aged woman rap horribly albeit passionately to Eminem’s Curtain Call album. I never saw someone talk into a phone with such a commanding voice that she practically ruled the world of real estate in our town, standing on the shoulders of egotistical men in cheap cologne that was drowned out by the scent of her White Diamonds perfume. Never in my life — still never — have I witnessed someone as hard as the liquor she hid from view soften to the needs of childhood friends and feed whoever sat at our table, no questions asked. Patricia wore a name tag that said “Slut” on it for an entire day of work. She made a very detailed paper mache penguin, she taught me how to drive; She didn’t want to live. And she left me alone in the worst way.

But I shared her truth.

I shared it with friends, literary agents, strangers on my blog — the universe. I feared the responses. I feared taboo and stigma, addict non-sympathizers, etc. I also feared that my writing was garbage and that I was no more than the ramblings of my childhood diaries. So when the overwhelmingly positive responses came through, I found myself in shock coupled with pride — and most of all — humbled at the amount of people who told me they could relate. They felt less alone. They wanted to share their stories as well. They felt less horrible in their grieving.

Slowly at first, and then all at once, I realized I was meant to be a storyteller. I learned the value of truth and the importance of telling it to others. I felt an honor inside of me to tell the truth of my mom — someone plagued with demons — while maintaining her humanity. It inspired me to tell the truths of others, like my grandfather, and his struggles in the war. I turned it into a screenplay as well as a book, and an online series on my website for good measure. Then I received a text telling me, “Yeah, I think you’ve found yourself in the right place.” There is no need to hide the truth of others, to make them unspectacular. It’s a secret that festers and holds overhead like a specter, unwilling to leave until it is let go with reality. My mom was so dynamic, three-dimensional — human. Her story was multifaceted and something that many people may not have directly lived, but the crevices of her persona, the events of her struggles — the feelings of her life — are what brought my readers to common ground. I am most passionate about writing truths, and presenting them in such a way that shows the beauty of people without demonizing them for being human. I will spend my life telling stories, and I will spend my sometimes perfectly horrible life speaking the truth.

Return to Sender

October 26, 1943

Tuesday

RETURN TO SENDER

Dear Artie,

I received your nice letter and it was swell of you to try and cheer me up when you were probably eating your own heart out. I was sort of waiting for a letter from you and I was certainly glad that I did receive one. During the time that Ha was missing I sat down and wrote a letter to you telling you just what I was thinking and feeling. Well after the letter was finished I felt a bit better but when I read it over I decided that it was a pretty depressing letter to send to a person that needed cheering up himself. I was anxious to hear how you took the news about Ha. Gosh, you were all alone when you got the knews whereas your mother and I at least had others around to console us. Gosh, Art, I hope and pray that I never have a shock like that again. Why my hair isn’t snow white today I don’t know. Gosh! If anything ever happened to Ha I would have absolutely nothing. I never thought I would be so thankful to learn that Ha was a prisoner of war but I certainly am. After waiting for five weeks and two days of uncertainty, what a relief. You probably received El’s letter telling you of the card that Ha sent. What a good feeling to look at that old familiar handwriting again.

I met Jeanne a week ago Saturday so we sat in Goosers gabbing over a Banana Royal. We really enjoy talking to each other. Jeanne is really one swell girl, as if you didn’t know.

Eddie Wilson and Ronnie are getting married next month. Pretty soon everyone on the corner will be married.

I received two letters, one from Jack Thompson and one from Ned Transon. Ned and Jack are very close buddies of Harold’s. Both were so happy to hear that Ha was found. Jack and Ned are both on the same plane. They were on the mission over Kassel with Ha. Jack explained how one fellow in his crew said, “Hey Jack, Kelley’s in trouble.” Kelley is Ha’s pilot. It seemed like an eternity for Jack and Ned waiting for the crew of Ha’s plane to bail out. Jack counted five himself and when he and Ned got back to the Fortress base they just looked at each other. Another fellow in their crew must have read their minds and said, “What are you two guys looking so blue about, I counted ten chutes.” The two of them got so excited they started to cry. Then the two of them had to just wait for the better news. 

Judging from Jack’s letter he is seeing but plenty of action. It seems that their squadron is the group leader now. His amount of missions will be over soon but that doesn’t mean that he will stop fighting. Jack has really proved a good friend to Ha. 

Gosh! Art, I can’t think of much more to say except that I hope this war ceases soon. Then we can all start those nice little homes we dream about.

Keep well and God Bless you.

Sincerely,

Love,

Loretta

Loretta mailed the letter out from Jamaica on November 5th and was surprised to see the parcel sent back to her only a couple of weeks later. She could have sworn that the address was correct – sure, it was difficult to know for certain if Arthur had been moved around the Pacific, but she thought at least it would have made it to him at some point. The Patrol Torpedo boats were always around on the water, so he may have been missed somewhere. Maybe it didn’t pass the censoring department; she did retell much of Jack’s story from Germany. All she wanted to do was make sure that Arthur knew his twin was, at the very least, alive; everyone back home could only hope he was safe, but that was up to the Jerry’s. The last notice Artie got was of Harold’s disappearance when the Classy Chassis went down just outside of Kassel that fateful day three months earlier. 

She went to see Eleanor and inquired about whether or not she received any news of letters to Arthur coming back to her as well. Especially since she had mail returned to her when Harold was missing, an all too familiar uneasiness crept back up again in her stomach. What an unfortunate happening, she thought to herself, if both of the Schwerdt boys were prisoners of war on opposite sides of the world. It was rumored at the time that prison camps in the Pacific were much more brutal than those in Europe, and she could only hope that Artie was only moved to a new location rather than missing. 

The news came soon after Loretta received her letter back. It was much, much worse than anyone could have feared. Arthur was dead. She stood in disbelief in the doorway of the Schwerdt home, clutching the returned letter in her hand with its large red print and pointed finger across the front. RETURN TO SENDER. Her knees shook and she felt as if she would pass out right there in the hall. There must have been a mistake, it wasn’t possible, she thought. Not Arty, not Otz. But as she shakily entered the house and saw Jeanne sitting with Mary Schwerdt, eyes swollen and red and a handkerchief in her hand, Loretta wasn’t able to deny that Arthur wouldn’t receive another letter from home. 

“This… this just can’t be,” Jeanne whimpered. She wiped under her nose and Arthur’s mother got up as the tea kettle began to scream in the kitchen, a welcome sound to drown out the sniffling and crying of whatever members of the Schwerdt family were present. 

“Oh, I’m just so, so sorry, hon,” Loretta said. She couldn’t contain her own tears as she sat next to her sister in-law and placed a hand on her shoulder. “I’m just so sorry.” 

Mary returned to the kitchen, stoic as ever. She had a hot kettle and extra tea cup for Loretta and poured hot water out for the girls. Loretta wanted to reach out and touch her – grab her hand, hug her – but only managed to say thank you for the tea and cupped it between her own trembling fingers. Part of her wondered how it happened. She refused to believe that anything could kill Arthur Schwerdt – he was too crafty, too sly, too good at making things work. She didn’t have to wonder for long, though, as Mary began retelling what she was told when two men knocked on her front door that morning.  

On November 1, 1943, Allied forces turned their focus towards reducing the size of Japanese forces on the main bases of Bougainville camp on the Shortland Islands, as well as taking control of the island itself. The benefit of taking Bougainville was the need only for the flatlands that surrounded the island – optimal areas for airfields.

On the night of November 13th, Arthur was operating with a crew on PT-154 off the Shortland islands in the Pacific. It was a nighttime anti-barge mission. Their goal was to cut the fuel sources to the Japanese who occupied the island, eventually allowing Allied forces to take over Tonolei Harbor. No fuel. No planes. No ships. The men moved silently with the assistance of PT-155. The water lapped up against the sides of their boats as they crept along about a mile south of the main Shortland Island. The still, unmoving night was suddenly broken by blinding flashes coming from a mile north of the PT boats. From the shore, three enemy rounds were fired in succession and came screaming towards the men. The first round missed with a deafening roar as it taunted the crews. The second round hit its mark, tearing through the port side of the Tulagi boat that Arthur was a quartermaster on. 

Direct hit.

The men didn’t even have the time to return fire from their turrets as the shell pierced a readied torpedo. A large flash of fire followed as PT-154 was thrown about the black water, now littered with debris and bodies. Shouts from the shore echoed as the crew struggled to see who was alive, only to be met with blood and cries for help. Arthur lay on the deck of the boat, mortally wounded. PT-155 helped reignite the engine of their partner and both boats limped back to their base, where Artie, along with others from that night, died.

Infestation

Harold lay hopelessly awake next to his bunkie. The security lights passed over the barracks like a lighthouse. It was a cruel trick, he thought to himself, to have a beacon that would only lead him to the barbed wire walls and the cold outside. No one could try to escape this place. The barbed wire was also electrically charged, just in case any of the men decided to risk the pain of jumping on the sharp fence.  

He stared ahead at a rotted out piece of the bunk, hunger keeping him awake, exhaustion keeping him from complaining. Deep inside a rotted knot of wood on the bunk he noticed movement. It surely was the hunger, he thought. He must have been hallucinating. 

But he wasn’t. The swirl grew and turned into skittering, and from the wood came hundreds – thousands – too many to count, bed bugs and mites. They swarmed en mass and began their nightly hunt for a meal. All of the men around him were sleeping; how could they be asleep? With thousands of prisoners to choose from, these mites would eat better than the men in the barracks. The airmen were at the mercy of everyone. Once free to the skies, they were now locked up, stuffed into beds like sardines – even the bugs had it better. 

He awoke to itching on his face. Harold sat up and began to scratch as his hands caught what were certainly bedbugs crawling all over him. He began to panic and wipe and swat at his face more frantically, disturbing the bunkmate who lay next to him. In the low light of the moon, and with the aid of the passing watchtower lamp, Harold caught a glimpse of the man. He stirred, and rolled over almost too comfortably to meet Harold face to face with the horror he bore. The man, still asleep, lay covered in bedbugs and Harold watched in fear as he saw little black specks crawl around the corners of the sleeping man’s mouth and eyes. He was barely recognizable. Harold noticed the bugs took shelter under the collar of the man’s shirt, and immediately resolved to remove the collar from his own in the morning. 

He rose the next day, having not slept well at all the night before, to the sounds of the other prisoners walking around the barracks. Breakfast was hot water, served in whatever tin can or aluminum cup Harold could get a hold of. His face and neck itched, although his bunkmate certainly received the brunt of the bedbug attacks. Harold looked down and noticed a sore on the outside of his right forearm. He put down his cup and rolled up his sleeve to count another, and another – four total that he could see without the help of a mirror. 

“That happens sometimes,” a prisoner remarked. He noticed Harold examining himself. “They aren’t wounds, really – almost like bed sores but from the dirt and bugs and no hot water.” Harold didn’t say anything back, just nodded. He had to relieve himself but decided to wait for whatever remaining covered latrine was made available. It wasn’t out of bashfulness, but privacy. Harold hadn’t had any silent time – alone to himself – since England. For months he was caged up with other men, forced to shower, sleep, eat – and shit – in front of them. He just wanted some space to think for a little, even for a minute, about home. He wanted to imagine Loretta in her pretty dress on their wedding day and didn’t want other people peering in on his thoughts. 

That afternoon, he saw a man hit in the face with the butt of a rifle. It seemed entirely unprovoked; his first reaction was to run to the aid of the fallen man, but he was stopped by the prisoner who stood beside him. 

“You’re just gonna get yourself hit too,” he whispered. “Wait for the guard to walk away, and then we’ll get his bandage looked at.” 

Harold looked at the man, confused. He didn’t understand how the guards were able to hit prisoners unprovoked; they were certainly breaking the laws of the Geneva Convention. He followed the suggestion of the soldier beside him, though, and waited until the guard walked away.

October 18, 1943

Monday

TELEGRAM

DEAREST HA,

HELLO, HOW ARE YOU. HOPE MY LETTER FINDS YOU WELL. WAS OVER TO SEE YOUR MOTHER SATURDAY AND SHE IS ENJOYING GOOD HEALTH. ELEANOR WAS HOME AND SHE IS ALL RIGHT TOO. GOING HOME I MET JEANNE SO WE STOOD ON THE CORNER TALKING ABOUT OUR HUSBANDS. SHE IS VERY CONCERNED ABOUT YOU AND WANTS TO BE REMEMBERED TO YOU. EDDIE AND RONNIE ARE DEFINITELY GETTING MARRIED NEXT MONTH. SATURDAY I RECEIVED SOME MORE LETTERS WHICH YOU NEVER RECEIVED. ONE LETTER WAS THE ONE IN WHICH I TOLD YOU THAT JACK FENTON, JACK HOUSTON, VINNIE FINNEGAN, AND WALTER HICKEY HAD SENT US A WEDDING GIFT. IT IS A GLASSWARE SET WHICH CONSISTS OF FOUR DIFFERENT TYPE GLASSES AND CANDY DISHES. IT REALLY IS A VERY BEAUTIFUL SET AND THE GLASSES ACTUALLY RING WHEN YOU CLICK THEM TOGETHER. THAT IS A SIGN OF VERY GOOD GLASS, ROCK CRYSTAL. YOU WILL BE VERY PLEASED WHEN YOU SEE THEM.

WELL DEAR, IT IS GOODBYE. WHERE YOU ARE DARLING, ALWAYS REMEMBER THAT I LOVE YOU WITH ALL MY HEART.

YOUR VERY LOVING WIFE,

LORETTA

Unfamiliar Territory

Unfamiliar Territory

Well, fellas, here she is.”

Harold, Kelley, and crew all stood before their new B-17, Classy Chassis. It was originally operated by a pilot, Alexander, who was to replace Topin as copilot while Kelley took over his seat as the captain. Jack and Ned gandered at the damaged Shack Up. “Good job, boys. You broke the plane.” Jack stood with his hands on his hips and cocked his head dramatically and comically to the side. It reminded Harold of his mother when he and Arthur would get in trouble as young boys; she would reprimand Harold for something his brother did, and vice versa. Harold would defend himself and then ask his mother to dress them differently. The group laughed at Jack’s comment because it was funny, but also because they were still in shock that they managed to land the plane. 

“Where’s your digit?” Jack pointed to Harold’s bandaged hand. 

“I dunno, somewhere near Dusseldorf, if I had to guess.” Jack laughed, “You boys ready for this one we got coming up? Dropping in on Kassel. Going to give those Jerry’s a nice wake-up.” Jack and Ned were set up to fly into Kassel and drop several tons of bombs in their wake; each B-17 was capable of carrying up to three tons. They hoped to be home that afternoon. Harold had a letter to write back home to Loretta. 

Several days prior the Allied forces began an operation against German ball-bearing and aircraft factories. Ball-bearings were vital to the aviation industry, and used in just about all machinery. This factory in particular was assembling FW-190’s. It was speculated that the Focke-Wulf was the best single engine fighter aircraft of the war. The FW-190 took its first flight in 1939, and since then its appearance over the skies always left a little extra tension in the already strung-out airmen. If they successfully destroyed these, they could begin the process of sweeping out Germany – at least in the sky. By 1943, Germany was already wavering on its pedestal, with more and more propaganda highlighting Hitler as unstable, his people starving – and as a result more and more Jews and minorities were unjustly punished. The killing of innocent people only increased as the end of World War II – hopefully – approached.

The ships took off out of Ipswich early July 30th. Kelley and his crew departed for Germany just after eight in the morning. The low roar of the plane shook Harold with a slight uneasiness – the same uneasiness he felt each time he went up in the sky. It had only been a couple of days since their previous plane went down – but this was war and a job had to be done. If they were successful in their mission, there wouldn’t be so many planes to worry about shooting them down, he reasoned. It would get done. 

Jack and Ned flew close by to Classy Chassis – two of over 100 bombers set to destroy the Junkers and Fieseler aircraft factories that sat just outside of a small village called Dorla. The B-17s did not have the protection of the Mustang fighter planes this time, and were resolved to defend themselves as well as each other. Daytime missions were always a risky run, sure, but they had luck on their side – especially following the July 28th mission. 

After flying into Germany, Classy Chassis began its mission. They turned north. These ships moved so smooth and elegant, Harold thought, as Kelley maneuvered Classy Chassis effortlessly to the drop location. The sinking feeling in Harold’s stomach came back, knowing the crew would have to fend for themselves, as well as being unreasonably deep in enemy territory. They were over the town of Bebra when suddenly an explosion rocked the left side of the Fortress. Harold was thrown to one side and the ball turret gunner ran to his station without saying a word. Through the ten-panel plexiglass the men saw fighter planes bob and weave about their formation. From below, German anti-aircraft weapons blew a hole straight through the wing of the plane. Engine number four was completely shredded and replaced only by smoke and flame. Flak pierced the metal and the crew screamed out in confusion and fear. The sound of metal ripping from the fuselage and wings was like if every train scheduled to pull into Jamaica Station back home came in at once without stopping. The men tried to steady themselves and Kelley fought to keep the nose even as thick, black smoke poured from the portside of their aircraft. Harold felt a deep, burning pain in his back but continued to look for something to shoot at. He jerked his wrists forward to choke up the sleeves of his bomber jacket and get a better grip on the turret gun when he noticed the gash on his arm. He gritted his teeth at the pain and yelled for direction, not knowing how many of the crew were still present. 

More smoke filled the ship. Sparks flashed and Harold began to find it difficult to see. Things looked grim; they still had a bomb shaft filled with artillery, and it was confirmed that two engines on the wing were torn clean off. Harold tried to desperately see if there were any other planes around them caught up in the mess. He wanted to see if Jack was out of harm’s way and on his route back to England.

Again, another explosion. A shell effortlessly ripped through the cockpit and the oxygen systems engaged. Electric was now completely lost and Kelley knew then that there was no hope for getting this ship back to England. They had been in the sky for just over an hour, trailing smoke like a bad omen across Germany. 

The controls were so damaged that they were flying a ticking time bomb if they stayed. Thinking quickly, Adams jumped into the bomb bay and used a large screw driver to wedge open the bomb shaft. All at once, the artillery dropped from the underside of the plane with no target in mind – the only goal to lighten the load and give the crew some more air time as they thought on what to do next. 

“Bail out! Bail out!” Kelley called from the cockpit as he made his way to the bomb bay. It seemed obvious at this point. He knew their situation was making them nothing more than an easier target for German fighter pilots. Jones ran over to radio an emergency message. By the time he returned to the front of the plane, the cockpit was empty – the rest of the crew had bailed out. Papers and wiring flew around and were sucked out into the sky as pieces of metal ripped from the fuselage. Jones found his way to the bomb bay and jumped.

One by one, the men descended onto Germany in different locations. They were separated, wounded, and far into enemy territory. Jack and Ned watched helplessly from the B-17 in front of Classy Chassis, his own crew avoiding flack and bullets from the Germans, and returning fire when they could. The parachutes disappeared among the trees as Jack counted and recounted how many he saw leave the Chassis, telling himself over again that Harold made it.

August 1, 1943

Sunday Night

RETURN TO SENDER

My Ha,

My darling, I’m home now. I was over your house today and your mother is feeling very well and cheerful. Erwin and Frances too. Bob, Irene, and the children were there also. They are well too and Diane is a little devil. God! She’s so cute when she’s naughty. She makes you laugh. I left your house around 8:30, bought an ice cream and moped home. The sky is very beautiful tonight and its countless stars are shining away. Several planes flew overhead and I tried to visualize my honey in one. Honey, I love you very, very, very much. I really think about you all the time darling, you are so nice. 

Honey, take good care of yourself as you belong to me. If you don’t get good meals, step out and buy one that is good. Keep well and don’t ever change.

Enclosed is the card where my place was at Erwin’s reception. I love the way that looks, my Mr. Schwerdt, don’t you?

Annamae Hennesey had a 9lb, some-odd ounces – baby boy. I’m so glad everything turned out so well for her!

I’m sorry this letter is in pencil, Ha. Gosh! I’m always apologizing huh! But I love you.

My regards to Jack and Ned.

Be good honey, I love you lots and lots.

Your,

Loretta

From the Pacific

From the Pacific

June 22, 1943

Dear Sis,

I’m saving my pennies up now so when I hit the States I can buy an Army uniform and have two wives. I received a letter from Jeanne today and she told me all about your wedding and how successful it was. I don’t see how it could be, especially when it meant getting married to a lug like my twin brother. Did I ever tell you how much better I was than he? That’s not all, he and I are going for a couple of rounds when we meet. Yeah, up in Longs.

Well ReillySchwerdt – you old pot, congratulations and I wish you the best of everything. Don’t forget the kiss you owe me.

P.S. I thought we were having another air raid while all the time they were celebrating your wedding.

Love and Kisses,

Artie

Loretta had a good laugh over Artie’s letter. He was always going to be the funnier of the two. She never regretted her decision to marry Harold – the heart wants what it wants – but boy did she love seeing his handwriting. Receiving his letters took what felt like forever; the Pacific was a strange place. Artie obviously wasn’t permitted to discuss the toils of war on the other side of the world, but from what Loretta read in the papers and heard on the radio, it seemed just awful. There were internment camps for Japanese citizens in the United States – President Roosevelt deemed them necessary – so she could only imagine the type of treatment American soldiers received if captured in the Pacific. She hoped Artie would stay safe. 

Summer in New York seemed a little emptier. There was a bittersweet feeling of being newly married to a man who was now halfway across the world. Loretta sat over a pot of coffee with Jeanne, admiring her delicate gold band.

“I wonder if Harold looks at this often – and as fondly.” Jeanne poked a little fun at Loretta. Loretta looked up shyly and laughed, blushing. Jeanne smiled after she realized she got the desired effect out of her new sister. 

“So,” she began, “Mrs. Harold Schwerdt. Don’t ya just love it? Married to a Schwerdt man?” Jeanne and Artie were already married, and she was just as in love with her redhead as Loretta was with her own. 

“It’s a dream come true. No matter how quick it was – that doesn’t matter. None of that does. I just want him to come home safe to me.”

“He will,” Jeanne said as she sipped again. “They both will.”

Loretta felt at ease at hearing Jeanne’s words of reassurance. Her new sister’s confidence in the safe return of their husbands helped her to truly believe everything was going to be alright. It was a warm night and the coffee was cooling off the longer they sat in Jeanne’s kitchen in Hollis. She began to think about a nice warm night at their future cottage, little ones running around and animals chirping. She listened fondly in her imagination for water lapping the shore and the creak of a rocking chair next to her. The cars and people bustling around outside the window distracted Loretta from her daydream for a moment, and she returned to Jeanne’s kitchen. Someday, she thought. 

On her way back to her house that evening, she checked to see if any more letters came in. Unfortunately, the only parcel on the table was the note from Artie that she opened up earlier that afternoon. Loretta picked it up and carefully put it back in its envelope. She put the letter in her old shoe box full of other war letters from the likes of Harold, Jack, and Ned, and put it away again until the next message would come.  

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.

All My Life

April 24, 1942

Dear Doll,

Excuse [my] writing because I’m riding [on] a train. My destination is [Keesler] Field Miss; where Gerry used to be. I think I’ll be in the ground crew of the Air Force. I’ll like that. I left Camp Upton at 11:00 AM Friday. We don’t expect to leave the train till Sunday 1 PM. I’m playing cards and having fun with the fellows; no girls and no beer since Sunday. I miss you very much and wish you could be here with me. 

I was really homesick. The Army keeps me pretty busy and I don’t have much time to think about things. Of course I don’t forget you, I never will. You occupy my mind every night, and my heart all the time. It must be that I love you. How could anyone help it, you’re so swell and nice and even beautiful. I love you doll.

I would like you to thank the family for me for the presents I received. [They’re] swell. Give them my regards and wish them health. I’m sorry I couldn’t call you last night, but I only received your message at 8:30. I called up home and told them I was leaving; I had hopes that Herb would look up the train and tell you when I would arrive at Jamaica. Got to Jamaica about noon and I was looking for someone to be at the station. I wasn’t disappointed altogether, though, because I saw my home and the vicinity I used to reside in. That was the only time.

The Pullman will be around soon to make my bed so I’ll see, kiss, and hold you in my dreams. Good night Doll and dream of me. 

I’ll remain your Honey Sweets.

Love, 

Ha

P.S. I love you with all my life. 

Harold was called to train for the second World War on April 20. His brother, Arthur, was called to the Pacific on March 16. Both brothers were caught with feelings of excitement and fear. It was the longest they would ever be apart in their 22 years. They each had their girls at home, they had jobs; they were now going to go defend those jobs, defend their loved ones back in Queens. Loretta waited until her love was beyond her sight before she turned away back into the doorway of the now-empty home and wept. Her tears were mostly those of pride, but also of uncertainty. She never wanted to think the worst – but it was war. She hoped and prayed with all she had that Harold would return home safe from wherever he was called to, but a small flame – a small pin prick in the back on her mind kept asking, what if he doesn’t?

Newly engaged and with dreams of a cottage on the water, Loretta’s mind swirled at the idea of Harold risking his life – of her not having him to share the rest of her life with. She couldn’t imagine it. Even in a place like New York, with all the people and new faces to be seen each day, she couldn’t envision anyone else by her side other than Harold. She knew she wouldn’t go on without him, so she decided that he would have no other choice but to return home to her. Eventually, she rose from her chair, wiped her tears, and smoothed out the front of her dress. This was no way to think, she thought. Besides, she took comfort in knowing that Harold was in the company of familiar faces, like Jack and Ned. 

There were the Schwerdt boys – and then there were Jack and Ned. They all grew up around each other, through the Depression, school, holidays; the boys were simply one large extended family. The brothers were many, even with their different last names. Harold, Arthur, Jack, and Ned were determined from their boyhood to be men in uniform – not just for the discipline and the looks, but because throughout their lives the military was something that seemed to always be constant regardless of the economics. Born in the 1920s, one of the most prosperous times for the United States, these young men experienced an absolutely tragic economic downfall before any of them reached double digits. Harold and Arthur had to watch their family of eleven struggle and work to keep a roof over their heads; their father going from milkman to brewer, musical performer to handyman – anything to put food on the table. They helped, sure, but as children they were wary of what their lives would entail when they were their father’s age. So – at least for the twins – a life in the military would guarantee steady pay; they could honor their country, and also take care of their loved ones. 

Harold sat in his train car as it pulled away from Jamaica Station. He was leaving the haze of New York for the unknown. As men hung out the traincar windows and kissed their girls goodbye, he sat quietly, staring out into the crowd. Deep down, Harold wished his gal would be on the platform, waiting anxiously to see him off one last time, but he knew there was a good chance that his brother wouldn’t receive his message in time. The train jerked forward and as it did he rubbed his hands along the tops of his thighs. This is really it, he thought. Soon, Harold would be somewhere in the south. Then, the midwest. Then Maine. Then – the far reaches of the world, fighting the Axis Powers, killing the enemy, ending the war (he hoped). What a strange time, he thought, to go from the little block in Jamaica to being away from his family, Loretta – Artie – with no real end in sight. The only certainty Harold had was of his train’s destination. 

He realized he’d been gripping his knees for quite some time. Calmly, he picked up a hand and smoothed back his hair. Harold watched as the buildings became smaller and took out a pencil and paper to write Loretta. Sending her parcels always brought him comfort because he knew the enthusiasm she had when reading his notes. She really was swell, he thought, and he knew he’d have to make it home to her once all this was over.

That evening Harold found himself unable to sleep. The train rocked in a way that was similar to his summers on the boat, but it was more jarring than anything. He tried to persuade himself to sleep on the memories of water lapping against the hull of the old boat, and would soon drift off into a light slumber until the train rocked too much in one direction and he was again jolted awake by the sound of metal on metal. 

“Damn it all,” he said to himself as he rolled over, trying to sleep and failing again. Only a couple of days left of this, he thought. Harold knew eventually he’d have to adjust to the methodical cranking and panging of machinery now that he was officially off to the call of duty. He had to sleep with the busy sounds of Jamaica outside his bedroom window night after night as a boy, but this was different. Too loud a bang, too bright a flash, and it could mean death. He thought fondly of the summer before at the rental home. Loretta and Jeanne visited him, Arthur, and the rest of the boys for some fishing and barbeque. He loved watching Loretta work on a tan that was fruitless, for she was entirely Irish and could manage no more than a pink hue. Pink, like her favorite strawberry ice cream. He smiled. He missed her and their ice cream dates. It made his stomach queasy, thinking about how much uncertainty surrounded the war; the train jerking around didn’t help, either. 

Harold got up from the bed and opened his car door. A Pullman was walking down the hallway towards him.

“Can’t sleep, sir?” He flashed a smile and tipped his porter’s cap. Harold returned the smile.
“Can’t seem to, no. I have my sea legs but I am yet to find my train legs.” The porter laughed and patted Harold on the shoulder. 

“Well, sir, I sometimes find myself working near-on four hundred hours a month on these trains and I have to tell you, there are times when I don’t think I have my train legs!” They shared a laugh and Harold felt at ease to be in decent company. 

“The name’s Harold. What do they call you?” He extended a hand and shook the porter’s. The porter returned with a firm grip. 

“My name is Charles. Pleasure to meet you Harold. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to make rounds up and down this train. Better keep the momentum up before I lose my train legs.” Charles flashed another smile to Harold. “You get some sleep now, sir. Try counting sheep.” 

Harold took the advice and excused himself back into his car. His bunkmate lay silent and peacefully asleep – how Harold wished he could do the same. He lay on his back and pulled the blankets up to his chin; scratchy but warm. Then he began to count sheep in his head like Charles suggested – one, two, three…

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.” 

Budding Love

The tall, narrow homes and straight brick buildings of Jamaica, Queens stood in neatened order like soldiers at attention. Each structure was uniform on the outside, save for little window boxes, a chain link fence, or the occasional vegetable garden. Inside the homes of Jamaica were varied with families bustling about, doing what daily tasks could be done in the Depression. Children ran barefoot, played hide and seek, or searched for an open space to play stickball. The Reilly family was one brood with five children – there were six, but the youngest passed away when he was very small. The Reilly children were known for having a mother on the police force – something not common. They were also known for swiping potatoes from the kitchen when their mother was at work and roasting them in back alleys and eating them plain. 

Only a few houses down from the Reilly’s, in an identical structure, was the Schwerdt family. The mother and father, both German immigrants who left before the first World War, raised a family of ten children, the youngest two being identical twins. The twin boys had bright red hair and bright blue eyes and their own mother was unable to tell them apart. Their father, John, was a brewer – and at one point a milkman – but in the economic downturn of the United States, his skills as a brewer were in great demand from the general working class. His wife, a homemaker, spent her days making and repairing clothes and raising ten children. 

This tangle of youths, generally unsupervised – especially in the summer months – made the most of their time by adventuring outside and exploring what there was to do for free in the Great Depression. They ran around in dirtied clothes, equal parts oblivious and affected by the poverty that haunted most families in the 1930s, not just the children of immigrants. 

One of the German twins, Harold, made his way to the playground at the end of the block. Oftentimes it was crowded with other children, but on this particular evening there seemed to be only a smattering of playmates. The sun sank behind the brick horizon that New York made as he reached a swing set occupied by one other.

“Hello,” the young girl said as he sat down on a swing, leaving one between them. “I like your hair.”

Harold felt himself blush. She was very pretty, maybe fourteen years old to his sixteen. 

“Thank you. I’m Harold. What’s your name?”

“Loretta,” she replied. The children sat in a comfortable silence, peppered by the squeak of swing chains, the scuff of dust below their feet, and the occasional honk of traffic. They learned their homes were very close, and Loretta believed she saw Harold a week earlier, down by an ice cream shop.

“Oh, that was probably Arthur, my identical twin. Y’know our own mother can’t tell us apart?” 

Loretta laughed. “Wow, identical twins. You must do everything together.” 

“Well, most things. He’s more of a prankster. My mother says I’m too serious for my age.” 

In the distance, towards the low glow of the setting sun, “Dinner!” was called. Loretta stirred a moment before hopping off her swing. 

“That’s my mother. It was nice meeting you.” 

“Maybe you can find me by the ice cream shop one day, and I’ll buy you a cone,” Harold said. He stood to tip his head to Loretta, and from the opposite direction of the block he heard, “Abendessen!” 

Loretta wrinkled her eyebrows. Harold shrugged a little and chuckled, a little embarrassed.  

“German. It means dinner.

“Oh,you speak German?”

“No, not really,” he admitted. “Our parents prefer us to speak English. But when my siblings and I are out and we hear someone hollering German, we know it’s our mother.”

“That is very clever,” Loretta laughed, “and ice cream sounds lovely.”

The two agreed to meet again at the playground towards the end of that week and before he left Harold took Loretta’s hand in his to shake.

“It was a pleasure meeting you, Loretta Reilly.”

“Likewise, Harold Schwerdt.” She pronounced his name Schwartz but he didn’t dare correct her. Harold believed, at sixteen, that he found love at first sight.

July 13, 1938

Dearest Harold,

I received your letter and was glad to hear from you. I was surprised you wrote so soon. Well, since your first topic was about the weather, I’ll be a copycat. At eight o’clock, Monday morning I was awakened by a large crash of thunder. What a storm it sent everyone out of their beds. It rained off and on all day, so I stayed in. Tuesday, I got up at ten thirty and it was so warm, I sat around and listened to the radio all day. Tuesday night Evelyn, Lil, and I went to see Albie. He has a heavy cold. Today, I got up at ten thirty and helped around the house, then to the playground. I stayed there about an hour then came home. Tonight, I went to a meeting, then to Nachlin’s. Later, Harry took several of us including Lil, Betty, Gert, Ed W., Eppie, and myself to the night baseball game on Hillside Ave. I go in at 11:30 and boy! Did I get a balling-out.

Now, I must ask you how is everyone, if they look as well as they did Sunday. They are swell. Oh! Pardon me. How are you? As far as missing you, I do (not). Hoping to see you soon I’ll close. 

Affectionately yours,

Your Honey (I hope)

Loretta (chubby in your eyes)

P.S. “The Old Gag.” Excuse pencil and paper writing –

Also, give regards to the family. 

(the perfume is my sister’s) xxx