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

An Hour with my Grandpa

“No, no. That was bullshit. See? I wrote there, bullshit.” And there it was, in all its glory, the shaky handwriting of my 97-year old grandpa populating the margins of a World War II story he was given.

Bull

Bullshit

Not true

He handed me a stack of paper in a plastic folio, color printed and donning the emblem of his old bombardier group he was with for the duration of the War up to, and following, his capture in Germany. The initial bullshit in question was a paragraph referring to the prisoners of Stalag 17B – a notorious prisoner of war camp located in Austria (watch the show) – and how they were rationed roughly 54 pounds of coal per day in order to warm their barracks. He and I sat side by side on the couch, while i frantically scribbled in pen his story of the barracks; Anyone who is close to a veteran of the war – any war at that –  knows the value and importance of these stories. And not just, “I was in the war (insert place and time)” but rather the experience stories, the ones that merit a thousand-yard stare and suddenly you as the listener are beside them in their own personal hell. Living with my grandpa for three years helped me to understand his night terrors, and how the war affected him almost 70 years later. It made me more motivated to listen to him, and value his stories and document them.

I saw his eyes drift into another plane, like an out of body experience, grabbed my pen, and prepared. He would systematically look down and acknowledge and make sure I was writing, smile at me, and keep going.

“54 pounds of coal. I can’t believe it. Where did he come up with that number? Hell, I was lucky to get two – a couple of lumps to warm me in the damn winter. And that part about the Red Cross….” He pointed to the next line marked bull and paused while I watched him relive cold Austrian nights in prison camp.

“We had an outhouse….we’d call it the shitter. 150 of our guys – English, American – all crammed in this barrack, and the shitter was in the middle. It was overcrowded, and it smelled, and I didn’t shower for two years. I didn’t brush my teeth for two years. I lost teeth.” He looked at me, flashed his dentures, and stuck his pointer finger in his mouth, mimicking a tooth brush.

“Anyway, the shitter was covered in wood like an outhouse would be, but you know, we’d get cold. We didn’t have anything to keep us warm; they took so much from us. A guy here, a guy there, one by one would take a piece of wood off the shitter. Next thing you know, we’re all shittin’ in front of each other. Who cared? We had to survive…we had to survive.”

I put myself there. I placed myself in this overcrowded camp, full of filth and disease and downtrodden men, and goosebumps covered my neck. Two years. Two years of hell and back for this man.

“The Red Cross would give the English their care packages, and the Americans theirs. It was never much, and it would only usually go to one guy at a time, last you a week maybe. We all shared our care packages….cigarettes, vitamins, whatever they could give us. When I was in there, I got the jaundice real bad. I didn’t know, because I never really looked in a mirror – but all the guys were asking me, ‘Harry, why’s your eyes so yellow? What’s wrong with your skin?’ The English men gave me an English care package, full of vitamins and vitamin C. I got better, I was real grateful.”

Through the squalor these men took care of each other, and this was the first time ever that my grandpa opened up about the prison camp. He remembered the layout of the barracks, the rations, the food, and the liberation. He remembered the Long March, and the pain in his eyes said so much more than his words.

“I wish I wrote down more of those days, it would be important for people to know about the march. It was so cold, we walked and walked for…I think…maybe 28 days. We didn’t have barracks anymore, we barely had shoes. I slept under a horse carriage some nights, and we stole vegetables from people’s gardens to survive until we got to where we needed. I really thought that was the end for me – out there marching – I didn’t think I was going to make it home to my girl.”