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.

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.”