Friday, September 16, 2022

October 15, 1944: Tomorrow our Basic Starts

 


Postcard from Opa to Grandmother, October 15: 1944.


Transcription:

October 15, 1944

Dearest,

Just a brief note so you hear from me. Your call from Topeka just got through; I wished you could come up with your folks. Phil was as excited as I never saw him before.

This has been a busy day: K.P. since five in the morning. Tomorrow, our basic starts.

Love,

Tom.

This was a short note, sweet that he keeps writing every day. My takeaway: tomorrow basic starts. What?! What have they been doing this whole time? Is he just now going into basic training?? I'm so confused.

Thursday, September 15, 2022

October 14, 1944: POWs in Missouri

 


Letter from Opa to Grandmother, October 14, 1944

Transcription:

October 14, 1944

Darling,

This has been a long day, and I actually did do a little work. In the morning, we hauled some truck loads of gravel to the infiltration range. I had my hands bandaged in gloves and that way could work fairly well. In the afternoon, after some fooling around, I swang a paint brush. There were several prisoners of war working close to me, all Germans. It was a great temptation for me to speak to them. Although there is no law against it, I believe it would be an unwise thing to do so. I had fun listening to them, especially since they did not know that I understood what they said. When they started to sing some of the old familiar German songs, I must admit that a lump came into my throat.

Tonight,at 7pm, our company commander gave us a little orientation lecture. He is a young guy, about my age, lieutenant, with a Polish name: Tetkowski. Apparently, a swell guy. His talk was as unmilitary as he could possibly make it, and it showed that he was interested in the work for its own sake. I think I am going to like him. The only thing I didn't like was the fact that the lecture took till nine o'clock, which took away the best part of Saturday evening.

Tomorrow, Sunday, I'll have K.P. Apparently they think I need some practice in that kind of work. Well, someone has got to do it.

In the mail today, together with the enclosed letter from my friend in California, was one application blank (preliminary) for naturalization, which I received as an answer from the Kansas City Immigration Service. This deal is to be a long, drawn-out procedure, but I think there won't be much trouble.

Glad you went to the doctor. You should have expected that the doctor wouldn't have the diaphragm on stock; are you embarrassed to go to a drugstore for it?

I am tired and have to get up early for K.P. tomorrow, so I think I quit now. Tomorrow's letter may be rather brief too, for a similar reason.

Lots of love,
Tom.

P.S. Please return Gerd's letter.

This letter has a lot of nice little insights into Opa's life and the cultural milieu of the day. Grandmother is potentially embarrassed to buy birth control at the drugstore, and sadly I think we're still a little embarrassed about sex and birth control as a societal norm. It have a lot of opinions about this, but it isn't the point of this letter (or even my point about this letter), so I'l move on.

I am surprised that the naturalization process for Opa (and I suspect anyone) who has literally joined the United States military, is still so long and drawn-out. Opa knows it's worth it in the end, after all, this is the main reason why he joined. 

Opa doesn't talk much about his family or friends in Germany. My guess is that's because there is nothing new to talk about: no news is coming or going from the war-zone civilians in Europe. I suspect Opa easily avoids this topic as a method of self-preservation. I do this. If I know I can't do anything to help or change something, I cope by putting the whole situation in what I like to call a "black cloud." It's basically compartmentalizing, but I like to imagine a black-hole in space that has its opening just above my head in a dark cloud, perfect for when I need to throw something in and forget about it. 

I don't think Opa has forgotten his family and friends, absolutely not. In fact, his friend in California and Gerd (who I don't know but have a guess) are likely both Germany-related contacts. His whole endeavor to get citizenship is not only for his own survival, but so that he can sponsor his mother when everything is over. I don't think he has allowed himself the chance to entertain that she might not be able to come to the US. He faces what is in front of him, making choices based on the best case scenario and planning for the worst.

The part that intrigued me the most about this letter was the German POWs. I didn't realize that there were POWs on American soil. I suppose I should have known that, but like so many other things I have been ignorant about, I just never thought about it. I did some light searching and found this documentary about the POWs. 

Opa's response to them seems pretty natural: tempted to talk to them but deciding against it in the end. When he said that he had a lump in his throat when hearing the old folk songs of Germany, I got a little lump in mine. Nazis or not, Germany was still his home. The language, the stories, the songs, all of that was the backdrop of a childhood which was, for at least ten or so years, a good one. It's hard to compartmentalize when the black hole spits out a reminder of what you've tossed. Haven't you had that moment? When you catch the scent of something, the melody of a special song, even a familiar phrase or word? It catches you by surprise, evoking a response before you had a chance to shove it back into the abyss. 

I keep thinking about how war dehumanizes. We look back and think in terms of good vs evil, axis and allies, etc. In this weird conjunction of military troops and POWs from enemy territory, what is actually present is a group of humans, each with their own stories, songs, and black holes of memories. 

Opa is standing on the bridge between the two, wistful but moving on.

Wednesday, September 14, 2022

October 13, 1944: Rare Hosiery

 

Letter from Opa to Grandmother, October 13, 1944.

Transcription:

October 13, 1944

Darling,

This is Friday the thirteenth; ought to be a lucky day and sure enough, I got a nice, long letter from you. Who is Mrs. Stone? The family sounds interesting.

I guess you did the right thing by buying the silver now; how large are the monthly payments?

It's terrible how this war piles tragedy upon tragedy, like the case of that boy's stepfather. You are right, honey, we must be thankful that nothing has come to us yet except temporary separation. Also, we will have a chance to be together every once in a while, and I can hardly wait for the first time.

Right now, you are probably on the way to the doctor's, and I hope he behaves himself and won't hurt you.

Every night, especially now where I see Phil and Johnny who know you and with whom I can talk about you, I am tremendously tempted to call you. However, it does cost just a little too much money.

Thanks for forwarding the letters. The name of my friend in New York is Hanna Liebes, her address, 63 Riverside Drive, New York 24, NY. She would be very pleased if you would write her, but wait a while; she might send a present.

By the way, I am not quite as bad as you think I am. I did write to the Shelley's, even though it was just a few days go; also my soul was full of repentance for that delay.

This morning, I managed to keep from doing any work till almost ten o'clock; at that time, we were called out with cartridge belt, helmet liner, and leggins, and had a good hour and a half of drill. The afternoon has just begun; I doubt if I will again be successful in avoiding work. (It's not that I don't like to work; it's only the fact that the work they give us to do is so ghastly nonessential and designed for no other purpose but to keep us occupied.) I think I can utilize this time of waiting to much greater advantage by hunting up some quiet corner and reading a good book. Right now, I am reading a textbook on Frequency Modulation. This is a field in radio which has a great future.

Well, it didn't work. Ten minutes ago, some corporal came in and called us out. Right now, we are waiting for a truck to pick us up, which may or may not come.

Well, the truck came, and I did the first piece of real work since I have been in Camp Crowder. We went out to the anti-aircraft rifle range, fixing up targets etc. The sergeant asked if any of us could install a loudspeaker. Well, I violated one of the seven of my army principles, and volunteered. it was a huge public-address system loudspeaker, to be installed on top of a 40 - feet pole. They gave me a safety belt, a rope, and pole-climbing spurs, and I climbed my first pole. Going up wasn't so bad. Up there, I did my work, which took me about half an hour, then took off my safety belt, and climbed down. When I was about 10 feet above the ground, my spur let go and I slipped. I made the mistake of holding on to the pole with my hands, so when I landed on the ground, my hands looked like a mess. Bloody, and more than a dozen splinters in them, some of them half an inch long. It didn't hurt very much, though. I pulled out the big ones myself, wrapped a handkerchief around my hand, and kept working, so you see it wasn't so bad. When I got back in, I did go to the doctor, though, for the hand started hurting again. He pulled out splinters for almost an hour, cussing all the time, for he wanted to go home. My hands are okay now, just look like a mess.

Camp Crowder has a newspaper which in every respect conforms to the common dirty journalism practices. The P.X. is starting a Christmas bazaar today. In the paper it was announced that they had a limited number of pairs of genuine silk and nylon hosiery for sale. The bazaar was to open tonight at 7:00pm. I got there at 6:15, was one of the first, and waited till 7:30, when they finally opened. I didn't know your size, but I think I would have guessed fairly correctly. Well, they had neither nylon nor silk hosiery; the whole thing was just a newspaper gag to get people to go to the bazaar. I can't remember a time when I was quite so mad.

Saw Phil tonight again; he told me some of his experiences as M.P. Many of them rather exciting, but I know I wouldn't want the job. Phil must have been doing an excellent job, though, for his idea was to help the boys rather than to get them into trouble.

Today is G.I. day like every Friday, which means that we have to scrub the barracks. However, due to my bruised hands, I got out of that. You see, even an accident has some good results.

I think I shall keep up on my studies a little. If you should see in one of K.U.'s bookstores an inexpensive pocket slide rule, I wished you would get it for me. Don't spend more than a dollar or at the utmost two dollars for it. Or $1.50 you should get a fairly good one. Be sure it is not made of cardboard, though, and don't waste much time looking for it.

I haven't found either field jacket or cap yet and don't expect to find them. From another soldier, I got a second-hand cap which almost fits me. It is not very good looking, but enough to pass inspection.

Good night, my dear, I'll see you in my dreams.

Tom.

Opa writes to Grandmother, listing the ins and outs of another day in the life of a soldier with no real assignment. His ability to get to know Grandmother's brother Phillip is a nice happenstance. 

There is something constant about the way humans live, work, and play. Here, in 1944 during a war and tragedies all around, there is a small base with men who go to shows, drink beer, steal jackets, have minor accidents, and line up for the hot commodities of the day... in this case rare hosiery. That made me laugh.

Time continues on and despite the cause and effect of the world's happenings, we still do life about the same as we always have. I'm not sure what to make of that other than to appreciate and enjoy the time I have and not get too fatalistic about the current causes and effects that surround me. 

Monday, November 29, 2021

October 12, 1944: Wit, Humor, and a little bitterness

 


Letter from Opa to Grandmother, October 12, 1944.

Transcription:

October 12, 1944

Dearest Crystal Ball,

This is my first anniversary: one week at Camp Crowder. I guess Johnny and I are going to celebrate it somehow or other. There is a variety show here in the Service Club, but neither of us is sufficiently interested in legs to waste an evening looking at them, so we will probably end up by going to a movie.

Remember that good-looking officer's field jacket I had? Last night, while Philip and I were at the Service Club, I hung it up out on the clothes rack, and it was stolen, together with my cap. There is a slight possibility that someone took it by mistake and will return it, but I doubt it. If I don't get it back by the time of our next clothes check, I'll have to pay for a new one, or approximately ten bucks. Even then I won't get one which looks as nice as mine did. It made me sick. I'll have to buy a cap tonight, for I am not supposed to go outside without cap.

This afternoon, I caught up on one badly needed sleep. I just took a chance on it, hit my bunk at 1pm and slept till five; no one objected. At night I saw Johnny and Phil again. Phil reminds me an awful lot of my uncle; a man with lots of experience behind him, who still has kept some of his wit and sense of humor, but who has become more serious and even a little bitter by the series of unhappy events which life so often forces upon this type of people. Yet, Phil jokes a lot and seems to be well-known and popular around this place.

My eyes are still bothering me a little, but by tomorrow they should be completely all right. By the way, I don't think I would like your extended correspondence with Johnny too well. If you want to check up on me, you will just have too come here yourself. You could come to visit me every day if you want to, but I think it would be better if we saved that money for the time I get my weekend pass, don't you? If you have a chance, though, to come here in someone's car, by all means do so!

It was nice to get your long letter today; I wished I had taken this afternoon to writing to you instead of sleeping, but I didn't. I'll try to write more this weekend.

Love,

Tom.

Opa is most likely referring to his Uncle Kurt in this letter. Kurt is Ella's younger brother, the baby in that family. I'm guessing Philip had the same charm and laissez faire sense about life. Kurt was a bit of a ladies man, and I don't know if Philip was similar in that way or not. 

Either way, Kurt had indeed suffered a lot of hardship by this time in his life. In 1944 (if I've got my dates right), he had just escaped a concentration camp and was working on a British ship as a cook. He had fathered two children in 1939 (with two different women) and sometime in the mid 1930s, his wife had disappeared to Russia with her family, never to be heard from again. She didn't leave him so much as she was forced to join her family, and they had to sever communication to protect him. It is assumed that they died in the gulags.

I'm not sure exactly what Philip's hardships were, or how exactly he reminded Opa of Kurt, but it sounds like he still had a charm and wit about him that endeared Opa to him.

I want to say I can't believe Opa's jacket was stolen, but if it looked good and the penalty for not having an item of clothing was at least $10, I can see a number of reasons why it would have been stolen. We have a sort of fairy-tale ideal of soldiers, but we forget that they are a normal bunch of humans who for many more reasons that just valor, decided to join the military. Like any group of people: they're not going to be perfect, no matter how you dress them.

Opa and Grandmother have been married almost a month, and they've barely seen each other. Opa is hoping for a weekend pass soon.

Monday, October 25, 2021

October 11, 1944: Blurr



Letters from Opa and Philip to Grandmother, October 11, 1944.

Transcription:

October 11, 1944

Dearest,

This letter is apt to start in a peculiar setup. I am at the hospital for an eye check; they gave me some eye drops, and these drops are making everything appear extremely blurr. Right now, I can see only the lines I am writing; the words are very indistinct. They say it is going to take several hours before this effect ceases.

Probably, I am to get one or two pairs of S.I. glasses. I won't wear them much, though, for I don't want to look any more like a moron than I do already. Right now, I am waiting for the examination; thought I'd utilize the time.

Last night, after I mailed your letter, Johnny came and we went to see the show "San Diego, I love you." Awfully cute and funny; see it if you have a chance.

Slept through reveille this morning, but did get up for breakfast. (Missing breakfast would be too great a sacrifice even for Morpheus.

A while ago, we were issued a whole slug of stuff, including a bayonet. Yesterday, this bayonet was taken away from us, indicating that we are not going to have any bayonet practice. You can't imagine how glad I am for that, for in my estimation, bayonets are slaughtering instruments of more cruelty than any others. I'm getting a headache, so I had better quit and finish this when my eyes are normal again.

Your letter came a few hours ago, and with it those of Spohns and Philip. I can't do any work today on account of my eyes (good excuse, anyhow) so I went over to the prison office (there ain't no z I prison) to look up Philip. He is a swell guy, much nicer than I had expected from your description. We had a good talk together, and now I am at the Service Club. Philip will come up here after work, and we will have supper together. It is too bad you can't be here too; better buy some ice cubes and put them on your ears, for they will need cooling off.

I don't have your letter here to answer it but I didn't think there was anything in it which was intended as a question. Don't worry about my swearing, since there is nothing to worry about. I'll write to the Spohns one of these days; not only for the wedding gift either, even though this decidedly plays in as a mighty good reason.

Philip may be going home around the 19th. I hope he stops in Lawrence, which he probably will. Too bad I can't go with him. On my first weekend pass, however, we might go together. By the way, he is a corporal now. 

Well, my eyes start hurting again. The next time they dope me like this, I'll quit my job. I decided anyhow to send a petition to the colonel which would state that Company A of the 27th Battalion be granted an honorable discharge, with $10,000 mustering-out pay, and a monthly pension of $500 for life. A general survey has revealed that most numbers of my company would be in agreement. I, however want to wait till after I get my citizenship, while the rest of them do not see any need for that. I am sure the colonel will have no objections, aren't you?

Write me a long letter, darling, and be as sweet in my dreams as you are in reality.

Lovingly,
Tom.

(over)

Dear Marjorie,

Was surprised and happy this afternoon to have Tom come walking in the office and introduce himself. We have spent a very pleasant afternoon and evening visiting, eating and playing ping pong, which by the way is a new sport to me and it's needless to say who won the games. Tom seems like a very nice fellow and I find him very interesting and feel sure we will be the best of friends. I'm awfully glad he landed here. I hope some time you can come down and see him soon so that I can see you too. Now that he is here I still don't expect to hear from you often as I will be seeing Tom every once in a while.

Best of Luck and with Love,
Your Brother
Philip

I started laughing when I realized Opa was writing this with dilated eyes. You can tell by his handwriting and some of his small errors. Opa needed glasses for as long as I knew him, so perhaps this was the beginning of that truth being known. He seems to think glasses won't look good on him, but he quickly adjusted. I thought he looked very dignified with glasses on. 

Opa's mention of his relief in skipping the bayonet and its cruelty was an interesting aside. It reminds me of his pacifist origins, still in there even in the middle of army life. 

Grandmother's brother, Philip, was in the army, and at the same base as Opa now. Opa introduced himself and they seemed to get along well. Philip was much older than Grandmother, 17 years older. For Grandmother, he was almost like an uncle and not a brother she knew very well. He was the oldest in her family of six children (two of whom died as young children). Grandmother was the youngest and only girl. That helps explain Philip's letter to her: sort of formal and paternal. It is sort of a "small world" thing that Opa and Philip should be meeting on base like that. 

I'm reminded of the quick and small wedding Grandmother and Opa had, hardly any of Grandmother's family was there, including Philip. I can't imagine meeting my sister's spouse for the first time a month after they were married! 

Also, I realized that Opa still hasn't gotten his citizenship, his main reason for joining the army and hanging in there when things are bizarrely inefficient. I'm waiting for that big day!

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

October 10, 1944: Waste of Manpower

 



Letter from Opa to Grandmother, October 10, 1944.

Transcription:

October 10, 1944

My darling wife,

Today I have been working just awfully hard. After breakfast, I changed into my best uniform and went down to Headquarters to apply for correspondence courses. I didn't find out much. Was sent from the Orderly Room to Headquarters; from Headquarters to Special Service, from Special Service to the Field House where I finally found the guy who is the expert in this field. Mr. Expert gave me the following advice: to write to Washington and ask them. I thanked him for his all-inclusive information and walked back to my barracks. There, I lay down to recuperate from the hard labor. After about half an hour of sweet dreams, a lieutenant happened into the barricks. He thought he may have some work for me; I should change into fatigues and report to him. It took me another half hour to change clothes, then I reported to the lieutenant. He referred me to the first sergeant, who deferred me to the corporal, who told me to remain in the barricks till he called me. At chow time, one of the boys woke me up, and I really had an appetite after all that hard work. I wouldn't have minded it so much if they had given me some rest in the afternoon, but the Army would not consider such a waste of man-power. At 1:00pm, I was to report to help breaking, loading, and unloading rocks. At 1:30, the corporal in charge appeared and told us to wait at the next block for the truck which was to pick us up. At 3:00, the first sergeant appeared and asked us what the hell we were doing, lying in the grass, smoking, and shooting the bull? We told him we were waiting for the truck, so he asked three of us (including me) to go with him. Ten minutes later, the truck got there, and the boys who stayed really had to work hard. The three of us, however, were told to go to the supply room and get shovels. The supply room was closed, so we waited. It finally opened up at 4, we got our shovels. In the meantime, the first sergeant had disappeared, and we didn't know what to do with the shovels, so we sat down and waited. Right now, it is close to five. We are still waiting.

Time for retreat now. The first sergeant is still missing; probably a.w.o.l. No kidding, this waste of manpower in the army is scandalous.

Did you read about the plan that came out of the Dumbarton Oaks Conference? If it should be followed, and it probably will, it means that our kids or at least our grandchildren will have to fight a war again. There just can't be any peace as long as nations retain their sovereignties. Also, the fact that the proposed counsel can't do anything but make suggestions, means that no nation will ever take it serious. It seems as though they will never learn.

It's after seven now, and I am at the Service Club, waiting for Johnnie. Just wrote two letters: one to Winton, one to the Shelleys. Writing letters is almost a recreation here, for one has to do at least a little thinking for it. Elsewhere in the army, the ability to think is a liability rather than an asset. 

What is the address of Philip? I think I shall look him up one of these days, just to see another one of the possible types our kids might resemble.

I do hope army life won't last forever, but the news of Europe seems to indicate that the Germans may be able to hold out through the winter. Not a very pleasant prospect.

Oh yes. If you should have hid at the extreme corner of your closet some extra clothes hangers which you are just about to render to the scrap drive wrap them up and send them to your hubby. We need them pretty badly, and they can't be had for any amount of dough. Send them only, though, if you don't need them, for I get along without them better than you would.

No sign of Johnnie yet, so I think I'll go investigate. For some strange reason, I had no K.P. today and won't have any tomorrow. The sergeant must be slipping.

Good night, darling. If you head would rest on my shoulder now, I would be perfectly happy.

Forever,
Tom.

I do believe this letter contains within it all of my arguments for why I struggle to work for institutions of all sorts. My tolerance for inefficiency and waste is severely low. I have become much better, even recently, as my fierce need for efficiency has some terrible consequences for my sanity (and those around me). But my God, this army day of Opa's is testing my zen-like growth. 

Anyone in any institution can attest that the army is not the only behemoth with efficiency problems. I think the whole thing would be easier to swallow if they weren't so insistent on pretending they are such a well-oiled machine. I think I mentioned this before, but just like you can rag on your mother but no one else is allowed to- those in the military all know very well how ridiculous things are- but if you are NOT in the military- you better shut your mouth. I get a pass as a military brat.

I was once a part of an organization (I won't say which, to protect the innocent) that had every bathroom in the facility outfitted with brand new, fancy soap dispensers and hand dryers. Just six months later the bathrooms were remodeled, with recent upgrades cast to the side. Or maybe it was the door locks on the stalls. I can't remember, but it was ridiculous. 

Friday, October 15, 2021

October 9, 1944: Sad Shift

 


Letter from Opa to Grandmother, October 9, 1944.

Transcription:

October 9, 1944

Dear old lady,

Three minutes just aren't enough. The call just came through, and in my mind are still all the many things I was going to tell you when we were so rudely interrupted.

When I came home late last night from a long visit with Johnnie, today's K.P. list was posted, and I was again assigned to the Officer's Mess. So, I wound a towel around the foot of my bed and was awakened early in the cold, dark more. The work wasn't bad, in fact I think the horrors of K.P. are vastly exaggerated. Not that I like it, but I bet thousands of boys overseas would give their paycheck to get K.P.

Last night, Johnnie and I went to a Service Club. We played chess for a while (Johnnie beat the life out of me), and then, while Johnnie danced, I had a good look around the library.

Today, shortly after dinner, I was called away from K.P. for processing. First, they gave us a test in electrical work; out of 50 questions, I got 43 right. That gets me in the highest group; the average is 20 and less. Afterwards, we were interviewed and classified. After basic, if there should be any openings, I would get into radar work. As second choice and most probable, they listed me as radio repairman; third choice, repeaterwant. (not sure of this transcription?) Radar would let me go to an Eastern school right after basic, while both other possibilities take two to six months training our even more right here at Crowder. I may have had a chance to apply for O.C.S., but for the time being I turned it down. It would mean at least one or two extra years in the service.

Well, I have to admit that I am rather tired today, so I will quit and get a good night's sleep. My sergeant must be slippery, but I am not listed for K.P. tomorrow. (He probably has some ditch he wants dug, or some latrine he wants cleaned.)

Lots of love,
Tom.

When Opa mentioned that he bet thousands of boys overseas would give their paycheck for K.P., I had a brief moment when I thought he was talking about Europeans. Then I realized he was talking about American soldiers, which of course makes absolute sense. But for some reason this realization made me sad. 

Opa's mind is off of his past and those from home, and on the present, in his new country. Sympathy and perspective was gained by comparing to US soldiers, not European soldiers, or  citizens. It's a shift for Opa. It makes me a little sad. I know he still cares for folks back in Germany, still worries about his family, but something in this shift shows me that Opa is beginning to forget. 

When we were growing up, Opa didn't talk much about Germany to us. He didn't ever mention his friends, we barely heard about his family. Even in his autobiography, everything was written as a prelude to him joining the army, as if he were hoping and planning to have the opportunity to be in the US military and fight against the Nazis. He certainly never mentioned his past pacifism. 

This is one of those subtle moments when Opa moves into his new life, leaving the old behind.