Out of the Attic, or What Price Memorabilia?
A Minnesota Couple’s World War II Letters
by John S. Sonnen
Summer 1992 (Volume 53, number 2, pages 58-67)
Late in the autumn of 1987, while engaged in the vexing annual chore of bringing some semblance of order
to the congested contents of the cramped attic of our modest home, Georgiana and I decided it was
show-down time regarding the final disposition of accumulated memorabilia. Stuff we had bumped into,
stumbled over, and shunted about in that slant-ceilinged, tucked-away space for the forty-eight years
of our marriage. Most of it was mine.
There were two cartons of 78 rpm records from the 1920s and 1930s, a seventy-seven-copy
collection of original Life magazines, an antique shotgun from my
grandfather’s days on the Minnesota frontier, a German army rifle and Luger pistol
that were surrendered to me on the Westphalian plain the first week of April 1945.
Our children, long gone from under this same roof, would be given one more opportunity
to claim these artifacts. If refused, off the items would go to the first interested
collector, historical society, or library. However, also stashed away with this
unwanted memorabilia were “those letters”–as in our annual question,
“What shall we do about those letters we wrote to each other during World War II?”
There were hundreds and hundreds of them. We wrote almost every day throughout the two miserable
years we were apart: March 27, 1944, to March 27, 1946. Contained in a heavy corrugated carton
with a substantial cover, they had been serving as a platform for our boxes of records. Letters of
mine were in their original mailing envelopes, which Georgiana had kept in three groupings: those
I wrote from basic training (Camp Stewart, Georgia), from advanced training (Fort Bliss, Texas),
and from overseas (Europe). Letters from her were more jumbled because I would squirrel them away
in foot lockers, duffel bags, or knapsacks. The first lot I brought home in August 1944 when
furloughed after basic training. The next arrived in an army-ordered shipment of personal effects
when I was alerted for overseas duty a few months later. The balance came home in March 1946.
Now here they were, more than forty years later, confronting us once again and awaiting a final
reckoning. What to do? Keep them another year? Throw them out?
“What do you think?” Georgiana asked.
“I–well, I just don’t know. They’ll have to go some day.
I suppose it might as well be now.”
“Tell you what.” I was told. “Take them down to your den.
That’s where they belong anyway–with those snapshots and maps
you brought home from the war. Then, as a winter project you can peruse them.
Maybe by springtime a decision will come easier.”
I carried the carton down to my den.
After the holidays, when winter really set in, I started that project. The first task was to
assemble the letters in chronological order. While arranging the ones from overseas, a small
magazine clipping fell from the folds of a letter dated April 2, 1945. That would have been,
I told myself, nine days after my combat intelligence squad had stormed across the lower Rhine River
in the U.S. Ninth Army’s final assault against Germany. Now why in blue blazes, I wondered, would
I have been snipping out a magazine item to mail home during such turbulent days? I read the clipping.
It was printed in small type on thin, lightweight paper, for it came from an
overseas G.I. digest of the New Yorker magazine. Cut from the
“Talk of the Town” pages, the item announced, “Psychiatrists
and rehabilitation experts are busy setting the stage for the returning veteran.”
It reported that these professionals all agreed that when he gets home, “the
fighting man will require special handling.” After listing some of the abnormalities
the experts expected, the writer (would it have been E. B. White?) observed,
“The rehabilitation people are frightening thousands of girls with these warnings and
unfitting them to be the wives of returning soldiers. Girls are receiving so many instructions
about pulling a man through the postwar marital adjustment period that they are going to be
something of a domestic problem themselves.” The advice to wives who had husbands
in the war was simply to relax. “It’s all right to mix the old warrior a
drink,” the columnist wrote, “but our advice is to mix yourself one
first–you probably need it quite as much as he does.”
Finished with the clipping, I turned to the letter, searching for my reason for slipping it in. I
found it in the last paragraph: “The enclosed item from my overseas New Yorker is sent along for a
laugh. We’ll be so busy just having fun and loving each other that I doubt if either of us will give
‘rehabilitation’ a thought!”
How true that was! Five years after my army discharge, our first-born son,
who was eighteen months old when I enlisted, had two sisters and a brother. Shaking off memories of
the verbal lambastings I suffered from my mother and mother-in-law for taking such a fast-lane,
procreant route back to civilian life, I returned to the letter. Its opening paragraph piqued my interest
further: “Dearest: Our same nanny goat came again this evening to poke its head in our front gate, and
it seemed to ask the same question: ‘Where is my master?’ Each night it gets a bit more friendly and
each night it smells a little worse.”
The letter had six other paragraphs, but nowhere was there a further explanation of that evening visitor.
Searching though a few previous days’ letters, I found the answer at the end of one dated March 30:
“Another day has passed. The nights fall awfully fast, but they are not so noisy anymore. There is a
wooly old sheep peering in the front gate at me now. It seems confused and lost. The poor thing is no
doubt wondering what has happened to all the people who always looked out for him (her?). Now it is
ambling down the road wondering and wandering. I see things like this all the time, making me more
anxious than ever for peace and a normal world in which to live.”
A letter dated March 26, two days after our Rhine River crossing at Wesel, jogged loose more dormant
memories of those hectic days. “We are set up in a rather fine German home furnished with modern
furniture. It was abandoned in a hurry. . . . I found clothes piled in a wash tub ready to be laundered,
sliced bread set on the kitchen table ready to be served, linens, bedding, clothes and dishes–all in
their accustomed places awaiting daily use.”
The brick house, located just east of a smashed village we had found our way through, was in a countryside
setting. It had three bedrooms. In its front yard, a bit of a formal garden arrangement was set off from
the road by a wrought-iron fence. In back of the house was a small barn, a chicken coop, several fruit
trees, and a large garden plot, tilled and awaiting its spring planting. Greening acreage and meadowland lay beyond.
Contributing to the great pleasantness of the place, beside the fact that
it was undamaged, were its beds with white sheets and its chicken coop, accommodating
four hens and a rooster. The chickens came and went as they pleased until Marshall,
my squad’s self-appointed chef, locked them in the coop. On his off-duty hours
he would capture chickens wandering nearby and add them to our flock. Thus he was assured
of a fairly stable inventory from which to choose a fried, roasted, or stewed dinner.
Good laying hens, however, were spared. He depended on them for the fresh eggs that always
livened up our C-ration breakfasts. The resourcefulness of Pete, another member of our
four-man crew, became evident early one evening when he managed to make friends with a sad,
bellowing cow out in the meadow and succeeded in milking her. Marshall was jubilant.
The next morning we were treated to the best pancake breakfast I had had since leaving
England. Fresh milk blended much, much better than water with our G.I. dehydrated pancake mix!
These were experiences never mentioned in any letters, for once any mail-censoring officer let the word
out that our observation post (O.P.) was living “high on the hog,” we would have
had to field questions regarding our tending-to-business attitude. I dared not take the chance.
Going through the letters, I found little evidence of censor snipping. My first one home from England
had two or three holes in it, but that is understandable. Crossing the Atlantic from New York to
Scotland’s Firth of Clyde in five December days aboard that great, fast, unescorted liner, Queen Mary,
in the company of 14,999 other military personnel proved a bit heady for my pen. So I learned. There
were enough experiences to tell that would not give the censor fits. We O.P. soldiers–while carrying
out duties far beyond the gun batteries and headquarters–had a rather freelance type of existence.
Our days and nights were bound to be eventful. A four-page letter to Georgiana on March 18, 1945,
reminded me of one such experience in Holland.
We had been ordered out into the Dutch lowlands well east of Venlo, very near the German border.
Throughout the day we were engaged in our usual activity of scouting and transmitting early-warning
alarms of enemy aircraft and buzz bombs, a kind of pilotless aircraft. We were also expected to report
on any civilians in the area. Coming upon a few tending their farms gave us concern. Andy, our squad’s
prime radio operator and at eighteen, the youngest, spit out this mature observation: ”These stoic
Dutchmen! Look at ’em! No goddamn war is going to disrupt their springtime duties to their land!”
One such family–an elderly couple, their son, and his wife–gave us shelter from the cold,
raw, drizzly night in a storage area that led to the pump and laundry room at the rear of their house.
We were worn out from our day’s activity. After setting up four-hour guard stints, three of
us folded into our bedrolls by nine o’clock. Two hours later I was awakened by the commotion
of the elderly farmer, holding an oil lamp over his head, picking his way between us to get to the
pump room. I awoke enough to keep an eye on him until he departed with a pitcher of water. A few
minutes later he and his son returned for more water. The old fellow, while holding his oil lamp in
one hand, gestured wildly at me with two fingers of the other, as his son feverishly pumped water
into a very large pitcher. I let them use my flashlight, for which they were most grateful. Then,
as they rushed out with the water, some key words in the son’s excited Dutch fell back on my
ears. His wife must be having a baby! Within a few minutes they were back for more water. The old
man with more smiles and chuckles and still waving two fingers, the son now a bit calmer and
deliberately speaking slower so I would understand. His wife had given birth to twins–a
boy and a girl! The next morning the proud father invited us in to see his new family.
My letter recounted:
Darling you should have seen them! The two filled the small crib (built for one)
completely, and this tickled the proud father more than anything. “Yal Yal”
he laughed while spreading his arms wide over the crib. “Full–gross full!”
We all laughed, even the mother lying in bed seemingly very healthy. We broke
out some of our concentrated cereal rations and brewed some hot porridge for her.
Later in the day we’ll give her some bouillon.
But the war goes on.... As yet I have not had any mail since leaving England, but one of
these days it should find me. Don’t worry about me. Things could always be worse...
All my love, John
Perusal of “those letters” while reviving memories of my soldiering days, did much to
emphasize what suffering, disrupted lives loved ones back home were enduring. For
everyone, it was the lousiest of times.
In 1944 when I left home and our family’s grocery business for army duty, I
was thirty-one years old. My father, then seventy, took leave of his retirement
days’ pleasures of gardening and enjoying his northern Minnesota
lake home to supervise the business until my return. Six years earlier,
when Georgiana’s parents announced our engagement, he had raised my salary to $125 a
month and granted me a junior partnership in the firm: C. J. Sonnen Co.–Groceries
& Meats. He also offered to sell me a house he owned in the same neighborhood as
our store: Merriam Park in St. Paul. Georgiana was ecstatic, I was happy, he
was pleased. “Maybe,” he said, “this will help compensate for your
leaving college to help out at the store.”
“Oh, Dad,” Georgiana quipped, “think how I’m compensated for
whispering my telephone number to John the night I met him in Carl’s drug store!”
Carl, one of my many cousins, was managing A. H. Sonnen Pharmacy, his father’s store at
574 Rice Street. During the late 1920s and through the 1930s it was a haunt for the young and
restless as well as the old and lonesome. That whispered happening occurred one evening during
the winter of 1936–37. After Carl introduced us, we both, out of deference to her
evening date, feigned little interest. I, bending over by the soda-fountain chair she
was sitting on, mumbled my question while fiddling with my overshoe zippers. She slowly
whispered the answer, as I scratched the numbers on the lining of one of the boots. The die was cast.
We were married June 27, 1939. Sixty-five days later Germany invaded Poland. Two years later Japan bombed
Pearl Harbor. Our first born, a strapping eight-pound boy we named Stuart, arrived on August 8, 1942.
I thought: What a wretched world to present to a first-born son.
Early in 1944, while I was finishing basic training in Georgia, Georgiana and our toddler did quite well,
but the temper of the times eventually dictated a change in living arrangements. Loneliness, economics,
plus urgings by her parents and sister to come “back home” (a physical move of only
two and one-half miles) finally prevailed. Then came Georgiana’s task of renting out our
furnished home. She struggled through procuring and interpreting the proper rent-control
forms before suffering through the screening of dozens of possible tenants. The packing and
moving of clothing, blankets, linens, personal valuables and our son’s junior furniture
followed. She was good enough to leave unwritten all the sad and aggravating happenings
the uprooting from our once-happy household caused, but on occasion the message got through. An
excerpt from a five-page letter to me at Fort Bliss on October 1, 1944, her twenty-ninth birthday:
“We’re getting along pretty well, but quite frequently Stuart gets the family
nervous. Many things irk them and vice versa.... It’s a difficult adjustment for all concerned.
I’ve been warned by other girls in the same position and I try awfully hard to say nothing.”
Two weeks later she wrote of further disappointments: “Dad informed me last night in strong
tones that I can’t go to work while I live here. The kid is too difficult for mother to take
care of. My hoped-for office career has gone poof! This will be a long war indeed. I intend to
see how far I can get with him about doing any type of voluntary service.”
I suspect that, during those weeks of adjustment, my letters did little to relieve the
family’s anxieties about me. On arriving at Fort Bliss, I was assigned to a
veteran anti-aircraft mobile battalion returned from the Aleutian islands for a twenty-two-week
retraining cycle. Destined for another overseas mission, the men were in their eighteenth week
and suffering through a schedule of maneuvers in the desert outwash area of the Franklin
Mountains north of El Paso and the fort. Life in the desert, though educational, was not fun.
It gets awfully hot in the middle of the day but late at night it cools off about 2 A.m. becoming
almost an unbearable cold temperature.... We sleep right on the sand. Over me I had two blankets
and my shelter half (pup-tent) rolling myself in them like a shroud. The only clothes removed are
my leggings and shoes.... You should hear these Aleutian island vets kick and moan about Texas!
They insist Attu was heaven compared to this desert “hell-hole.” If they are having
trouble getting through this-I cannot imagine where I will end up!
I should not have fretted over their aggravations. As events unfolded I ended up quite
all right. Once out of the desert and back in camp, the intelligence-section sergeant
informed me that I was “officially on their team” Now there were hours of
training at the aircraft operation room, plotting incoming and outgoing air traffic at
nearby Biggs Field; there were lengthy classes in aircraft target recognition; there
were the usual inspections, standing of retreats, orientation classes, and
“overnights” at the firing ranges. To me, fresh out of basic training, the
schedule seemed far from taxing. “To the Aleutian vets at my side, however, the
program was an abomination.
Through the last autumn days of 1944, before our battalion shipped out, my letters recorded activities in
preparing for, then suffering through, grueling Inspector General examinations.
Letters from Georgiana continued being newsy and comforting, but occasionally sad and worrisome paragraphs
slipped in, exposing some fears. On November 5, 1944, after we had visited via long-distance telephone
for the wartime allowable duration of three minutes, she wrote:
The entire morning I waited for your call and I was so happy, but just to hear you say
“Hello Georgie” tore my heart out. I’m more lonely now than I’ve
ever been and so disgusted with myself for being that way. My folks said I sounded like
I was talking to a stranger instead of my husband, but if I let myself go I know exactly
what would happen. Thus, I have a strong fortification built all around my heart. No
emotion can come in and none can go out.... I can’t reconcile myself to the fact
that you’re going overseas. I fight it out within myself a hundred times a day....
How long this war has to go on.... I’m terrified enough while you’re
being trained, with you overseas–well, it’s indescribable.
I did my best to put her at ease. I wrote that being fortified with her love and
having that love actually living in the person of our son, Stuart, put all thoughts
of danger out of my mind. I told her that our battalion would probably be assigned
to protecting railroad junctions or marshaling yards miles back in the rear areas,
“and rear areas today are safer than crossing University Avenue. Here’s
a kiss: X–X. Now stop worrying!” As cavalier as I was about my battalion’s
future, there were days and nights a few months later when I wished I were back in St. Paul
crossing University Avenue. Detailing such experiences, because of common sense and
censoring, was taboo, but general phrases dealing with location and well-being were allowed.
A V-mail note of March 8, 1945, is an example:
I am now somewhere in Germany. Don’t let this excite or disturb you too much,
but I know you’ll feel better knowing rather than wondering. My feelings are
very mixed. I am excited, scared and very tired. This idea of now being the news rather
than wondering what the news is, well–it’s disquieting. That news should be
all good from now on because I am in the 9th Army.
I love you very much. It’s the only feeling stronger tonight than fatigue.
Letters from home, when they reached me during those harrowing early months of 1945, came spasmodically
in batches and in no sequence whatsoever. One with a cancellation date of December 23, 1944, for instance,
found me on February 22. Letters I sent during that time carry postmarks two weeks later than the dates
inside. Everyone, at home and abroad, was wondering what loved ones were putting up with at the given
moment. Everyone lived on stale news. For example, the V-mail of March 8 reached Georgiana on March 22,
while she was writing her daily letter to me. This is the third paragraph from her letter, which
I received on April 6:
Darling! A letter from you! I’ve been calling everybody and telling them to
watch that 9th Army. All those knots in my tummy are loosening. I’m so glad
you’re not in the southern sectors for fear of that expected “bloody
mountainous fighting” we’ve been told to expect. If it’s any consolation–
we all are extremely proud of you. For this V-mail written March 8th–what a relief it has brought!
On the day she wrote, I doubt if I was harboring such great relief, but by the time I read her reaction the
worst was behind me. Since leaving Holland and our Dutch twins, we made three or four ordered moves along
the west bank of the Rhine. I particularly remember the village of Orsoy, directly across the river from
the Ruhr industrial area, because it was there that I saw my first jet plane: a converted JU-88 screaming
in low over the river, laying floating mines. In midafternoon of March 24 our group was recalled to
headquarters battalion. By the coordinates transmitted we knew it was north of us, across from the town of
Wesel. We found our comrades dug in along the shore below the west bank.
The battalion’s mission was to provide antiaircraft cover for the Ninth Army
bridgehead at Wesel. The city, a trans-Rhine communication center, had a peacetime
population of twenty-four thousand–just slightly less than Winona. There, however,
the similarity ended. Unlike the Mississippi River, which seems to spread around and
meander into back bays and inlets as it finds its way past Winona, the Rhine at Wesel was a
determined force rushing by the town’s high bank in a deep and clear-cut channel.
The scene reminded me more of the topography at New Ulm on the Minnesota River. Seen through
my field binoculars, Wesel, like New Ulm, developed on three terraced levels rising from the river.
After being briefed we serviced our jeep, trailer, and weapons and drew C-rations
for a week. Then, because night had fallen, we were told to dig in and leave at first
light for our new assignment–the high countryside twenty miles east of Wesel.
Because of nightfall, combat engineers had put restrictions on the pontoon bridge completed
late that afternoon. In the morning, with priority orders in hand, we were in line at
the bridge’s shoreline take-off point.
“O.P. guys, eh?” an engineer M.P. said as he read the orders.
“O.K. You’re light. We’ll swing you in between that half-track and Sherman tank
over there just to break the weight load. Maintain fifty-foot intervals. And for
chrissake don’t kill your engine! Ever been aboard a pontoon crossing?”
“Back on the Roer,” I answered. “But that was just after the front moved on”
“Yeh. Well, you sure are in it now! O.K. Here we go. Good luck”
We took our position behind the half-track, and after it got fifty feet
out on the bridge we started our crossing. Andy shouted at me:
“John, how much does a Sherman tank weigh?”
“Slightly over thirty-seven tons” I called back.
“Oh, my God!” he exclaimed. “Why did I ever ask that question?”
The velocity of the rushing Rhine underneath us and the scream of outgoing artillery overhead were my concern.
I was worrying about how securely the engineers had anchored the pontoons and how long a range the field
artillery had calculated for the barrages. After all, our assigned area was only twenty miles east of Wesel.
As we neared the last section of the pontoon bridge, I had to concentrate on other matters.
The half-track ahead of us, upon reaching the shoreline, was directed off to our left.
We were waved onto a meshed metal apron stretched across the beach leading to a rutted
trail that climbed the bank at an oblique angle. The town was a shambles. We slowgeared
our way up to, then beyond, the business section, which was on the second level above
the river. Winding our way up through rubble, we got to the town’s third level,
suddenly coming upon a cemetery. Ravaged by the previous night’s artillery barrage,
the small, consecrated acreage had the appearance of some macabre stage set–a ghoulish
scene of unearthed corpses flung helter-skelter out of shattered coffins. The bodies lay
in grotesque, unshapely positions among, over, and under blasted, upended headstones and
tangled remnants of the cemetery’s wrought-iron fencing. It was awful. It became one
of those tucked-away memories. I recalled the scene, however, while engaged in genealogical
research in the 1980s. My paternal great-grandfather’s final resting place was the
town cemetery of Duisberg on the Rhine–just fourteen miles upstream from Wesel.
Following that unforgettable assault crossing, my letter of April 5, 1945,
hints at my real feelings. Inserted in the letter was a clipping from the Stars & Stripes,
the daily newspaper of U.S. Armed Forces in the European theater of operations. This clipping
was a concise reprint of General Dwight D. Eisenhower’s April 3 Order of the Day, only
the fourth issued since D-Day. He praised the Ninth and First U.S. armies for
“yesterday’s magnificent feat of arms” and declared that the encirclement of
the Ruhr “will bring the war more rapidly to a close.” My one-sentence comment
about it was: “All of us get depressed, exasperated, worn out and into a plain
don’t-give-a-damn mood, but recognition from our Theater commander fills us with new spirit.”
The letter then shifts to how “pressing business” during the previous night’s
radio transmissions led to hilarious situations involving a delightful fellow at another
observation post, nicknamed “Tall-in-the-Saddle”–he was from New Mexico.
Two weeks passed before Georgiana received the letter, and it pretty well confirmed the feelings
she had of where I was and what I had been doing. In her answering letter, which I received in
the middle of May, she wrote, ”That letter on April 5th, the day you had so much fun
with ‘Tall-in-the-Saddle’ and (do you remember?) the one year anniversary of your
leaving St. Paul. . . . I want you to go on laughing and having fun, but everything seems
so mixed up. You are shielding me from the bad spots aren’t you?”
Through those weeks of April 1945, my letters relate the changes taking place as we moved eastward toward
the Elbe River. With the collapse of the Third Reich, mobile antiaircraft battalions such as ours
were assigned policing and transportation missions. The battalion’s rolling stock became a
provisional trucking company. Observation post personnel served as police patrol teams and
checkpoint operators. O.P noncommissioned officers (non-corns), if not on police duty, were
chauffeuring commanders of truck convoys moving Displaced Persons (DPs) to railheads or camps.
As the tempo and tenor of those 1945 spring days changed for me, so did they for Georgiana. After
V-E Day her letters take on a less worrisome tone. On May 9 she wrote, “We celebrated your
victory on Monday as the authentic day and Tuesday as the official day!... around town there
was nothing hilarious or boisterous, not even like the Saturday nights of yore.... The best
ever though, was an agreement of the Twin Cities that all bars would be closed. Lo and behold,
St. Paul double-crossed Minneapolis and remained open. Good! Good!” Her letter then went
on telling of farewell parties for Eleanor, a lifelong friend who was marrying a Navy man,
and the trousseau-shopping arguments the women got into. “I’ve seen to
it that she will have oomphy clothes, and for my choices Ed will thank me. . . .
We must have behaved badly in the stores . . . she’d lean to conservative styles
and prices. I would go the opposite. We’d exchange words. Who won? Guess. She has a screaming
swim suit and several voluptuous dresses. Ed sent the money with warnings to buy glamorously. And did I!”
When I read the letter I thought to myself: Is this the, College of St. Catherine
girl I married and the mother of my son? What has God–and the war–wrought?
The next surprise was her announcement that she was working afternoon hours at my family’s
grocery store. She would be away from her parents’ home only during our son’s nap time.
Evidently, she had negotiated her way through her father’s objections. She wrote,
“The work is very interesting, but, Lordy, how is it possible to keep all details
clear in one’s head? Let’s get a farm so you only have to make hay and children. . . .
this grocery work, at times, gives me the urge to start reeling like a ballerina.”
Judging by my letters those April and May days of 1945, I too had my “reeling”
urges. Checkpoint incidents, policing problems, and convoy-trip experiences all demanded
that one be a sociologist rather than a soldier. Everywhere there were refugees plus
confused and surrendering Germans. At one checkpoint a one-horse wagon with four unarmed,
bareheaded Nazi officers and three refugees aboard was being shepherded along by two nuns,
Because of the heavy flow of refugee traffic, I quickly checked them out, casually
mentioning to Andy that the nuns were in charge.
“Well, by God!” he stormed, “This war has deteriorated into a hell of a
condition when they let damn enemy officers wagon through the countryside under the
charge of nuns!”
A late April letter tells of a three-year-old Russian boy clinging to me at a DP
camp and then four adults almost crushing my ribs with hugs when I related the news
of their armies encircling Berlin: “The Russians are marvellous people.... It is
not too difficult to talk to them. A confused and cluttered German seems to help,
and gestures plus sand drawings solve some of the more complex statements.”
My chauffeuring duties that memorable month of May included an assignment to a brigade
captain ordered to search out and inspect a rumored German airplane assembly plant in
our sector. We found the plant but no assembled planes. A letter from May 22 tells about
a two-day convoy trip covering more than seven hundred miles of Germany, moving 1,500
Russian DPs one way, then 1,330 French and 250 Belgians another way. All went to
railheads to board trains (boxcars) for their countries.
But all was not drudgery. A letter on May 28 details the experience of a trip to
the Elbe River. An O.P friend, Bob Mahen (“Tall-in-the-Saddle”), had
permission to visit his brother Carl, who was with an anti-aircraft unit on the Elbe.
Through some off-the-record finagling, I got to go along. In February Carl had been
wounded but had been discharged from the hospital in Paris on May 1. We found him
quartered with a gun battery in the town of Gardelegen, thirty miles west of the river.
For the brothers it was a joyous reunion, and all of us, including Carl’s buddies
and I, got caught up in an evening of wine and song.
The next morning, under Carl’s guidance, the three of us drove to the Elbe River.
I wanted to get some pictures of the damaged bridge beyond the village of Tagermunde.
Through the blown-apart, tumbleddown wreckage of the bridge, engineers had built a narrow
wooden walk–up, over, and through the wreckage–allowing at least a
pedestrian crossing. It was the U.S. Army’s farthest “Eastern Allowable
Penetration” point. While we were up on the first planking, a Russian guard, from
his post down in the middle of the wreckage, motioned vigorously for us to join him.
We scurried down that rickety walkway and soon were shaking hands, laughingly conversing
with gestures and my fractured high and low German while snapping pictures of him and us.
With the arrival of summer came the movement of all American troops into the southern
sector of Germany. My letters of the first weeks of June originated from a variety of
one-night stands, as the battalion meandered down into Bavaria. A letter dated June 8
from Landau on the Danube reports a new A.P.O. (mailing address) number and the news
that the battalion is now in the Third Army. That letter, which Georgians received ten days
later, triggered mixed feelings in her: “If you were slated for the Japanese Empire
at least I’d have you for 30 days. If it’s definite you’re occupational
your folks and mine are happy. Seeing all the servicemen in town and listening to
Ike’s homecoming didn’t help any today.”
That letter did not find me until July 27. In the interim, we O.P. non-corns had been
quite busy with delivering messages and chauffeuring not only battalions but also such
units as military government and investigative staffs of the Counter Intelligence
Corps and Office of Strategic Services. Through that summer my letters read like a travelog
of battered western Europe. From the Austrian border in the Salzburg area: “Now
I’ve seen some real mountains. It’s amazing I’ve seen the Alps before
the Rockies” Then from the Oherammergau area: “Occasionally a real lake would
appear, and this, plus the thick pine woods gave me a twinge of lonesomeness for our cabin
up at Trout Lake.” As expected, I found a sad paragraph in my letter of June 27, 1945
–our sixth wedding anniversary–sent from Luxembourg, where I had gone on a mission.
I shall probably drag myself through the day wondering more than ever just when
it will be that I will again be in your arms. The minutes will struggle into hours
and the hours will somehow, over a thousand obstacles, make themselves into the day.
And suddenly our sixth anniversary will be gone–our second one
apart from each other. I hope to God it will be our last separated one.
And it was.
There remained, however, a separation of nine more months through which we anguished
our way trying to maintain an optimistic, cheery attitude. It was not easy. Two or
three times during July my letters noted that the battalion’s status remained as
Cat. II (category 2: bound for the Pacific). What sustained both of us was my thought in
one letter of a “great possibility of a 30 day furlough at home before being sent
on to the Pacific, but what month (Sept., Oct., Nov.) remains unknown.” On August 1
Georgiana was cheered by the delivery of four of my letters that were three and four
weeks old. In her three-page answer that day, there is a melancholy tone in her description
of “lots of G.I’s in the store with their mothers or wives to pick out
special food they’ve done without while overseas. We have no news of you later than
July 15, so maybe–I’m just dreaming again.”
On that first day of August 1945, Georgiana and I appear to have been enveloped in
the same melancholy mood, for while she was writing me that Wednesday evening, I,
in my own time zone, seven or eight hours earlier, had apologized for the shortness
of my letters “because there’s nothing to write about except the continuous
odor of manure in this village, my inactivity and horrible heart-tearing rumors of our
battalion not getting home this year.” What sparked the similarity of our moods
that same day could well have been thoughts of our son’s approaching fourth
birthday on August 8. Thankfully, the immediacy of these melancholy moods, whether indicated
or openly confessed, was gone by the time we received each other’s letter. Weeks would
have passed, as well as yesterday’s dispositions. It was the golden age before
direct dialing. Even as I wrote another blue note on August 7 the Enola Gay B-29
had returned to base on Tinian Island after completing its mission over Hiroshima. By the
time Georgiana received my letter, it was V-J Day and the war was over.
The V-J Day letter I wrote the night of August 15 is a pack of seven pages that
overweighed its airmail envelope and arrived with six cents postage due. At the
letter’s end I put the question that would be on all of our minds: “When do
we get out? Well, you and everyone at home know as much about it as we do. If you could
see the thousands of 85 or higher pointers still over here you would understand who must
be moved first. It looks like a long, tough sweat for my 49 point rank.“
In her V-J Day letter to me that day, Georgiana reported, “Stuart got to see all
there was to see of Victory Day, but nothing was as impressive as the little kids in
the block. They formed a parade of their own and, with regret, I took him out of the
ranks to see mediocre sights downtown!”
Ten days later, upon receiving my first postwar letter, she wrote further reflections
of that memorable V-J Day. This time all the bars were closed–in both cities! There
was “lots of laughing and shouting, but everyone knew somebody who was never coming
home.... At first I thought it was just me,” she wrote. “Then the next
day at the store everybody said they felt that way. It must have been universal.”
She informed me that she had not, as yet, “filled the car’s tank with gasoline.
Now that rationing is over it doesn’t seem to dwindle away so fast! I read in the paper
that a man went one better on `fill ‘er up’ command at a station. He called out:
‘Splash ’er over!’ Another motorist had a fill and the tank, not used to
the weight, dropped off.”
The euphoric mood of V-J Day was enhanced for me on August 17, when I received temporary
duty at two hotels in Berchtesgaden that the U.S. Army had taken over to serve as rest
and relaxation centers. I had, to say the least, a plush assignment. All I had to do was
drive my jeep on errands for the hotel staff and perform small supply and marketing runs
for the chef. Judging by my letter home announcing the assignment, the best percs
were “no guard duty, no reveille, no aggravating detail duty and-thank God!–no
more manure–filled streets of Waging village!) The war is certainly over!”
During the remaining months of 1945 our letters, while still newsy accounts of our
day’s happenings, tend to reflect more and more what was really gnawing at
us–War Department vacillations in carrying out discharge plans. Every third or
fourth letter through those months contains a comment or two about some rumor, rumble,
or argument concerning the latest “point spread” between duty-bound and
home-bound G.I.s. On September 21 I wrote: “Whenever soldiers meet the conversation
is ‘points’ along with Congress’ pending action regarding two year
men and fathers.“ Then in next day’s letter I report: “According to
today’s news I again have 49 points. This point system is getting laughable.
Up, down, in and out we go!”
From Georgiana came worrisome questions and wondering comments that were prevailing
on the home front. October 17: “We read and hear much about the E.T.O. men with
44 points being replaced after the first of the year. Haven’t you heard that?”
October 19: “Does that softly whispered change of 50 points discharge by December
mean anything to us?” November 9: “G.I.s with 45 points and over are being
discharged in the U.S. Will you tell me why so much legislation has been put across to
soothe the brows of those ‘unfortunate’ ones who have never been overseas?”
December 16: “There has been a complete blackout as to change in point scores
from the War Department. That’s no help! As an added attraction hardly any mail is getting
through. I should get first prize for grumbling, shouldn’t I?”
What she wrote about the mail was factual, but nominating herself for the grumbling
award was erroneous. Nobody could out grumble the G.I. combat veteran. What had
contributed to the foul-up of our personal mail delivery was the deactivation of
the battalion that had brought me overseas. Then, from October on, the unit I was
transferred into had four A.P O. address changes. In addition, I was sent on assignments
in five different localities: Berchtesgaden and Munich, Germany; and Salzburg,
Wels, and Linz, Austria.
With the dawn of 1946 our worries and frustrations escalated almost into despair
with the War Department’s devastating announcement that the point system of
discharging would be abandoned. Deployment and discharge would be accomplished
“only at the Army’s pleasure.” At the time I was on duty in the security
section of the Transportation Corps at Linz. When the Stars & Stripes
broke the story on January 5, tempers of the thousands of G.I.s billeted in the
city rose almost to flashpoint. Tempers were short not only about the point-system
abandonment, but also Secretary of War Robert Patterson’s admitted ignorance
of the system and how it worked. Every “pipeline-bound” soldier was
a bundle of nerves awaiting the Stars & Stripes of the day. In one letter
I reported, “And when the paper hits the street murmurs and vocal abuse crescendo
into roars as we read another asinine statement by some character in a supposedly
responsible position. For example: General Collins, Public Relations Officer of
the General Staff: ’There are few, if any men who are left in Europe that ever
heard a shot fired in this war!’”
That irrational action by the War Department not only alienated we moldering
warriors overseas but was most distressing to loved ones awaiting us at home.
”All the announcements coming from the War Department about demobilization
have me frightened no end” Georgiana wrote. A later letter of hers pronounced,
“It’s getting impossible to wait for War Department announcements, letters
or word from you if you are needed or not in Europe. And wouldn’t this last
hurdle be the most confused one!’
During the last days of January my letters, however, exhibit a growing conviction
that within a few weeks my forty-nine points would qualify me for discharge. Throughout
the month, despite all the nerve-wracking press releases from posturing officials and
misguided editorialists back home insisting that deployment was “now at too rapid
a pace” men with fifty-two to fifty-five points continued to be transferred into
homebound units. In a January 22 letter I mentioned that “if I were in Italy
I’d be on my way home or, at least ready to ship. Maybe V-Me Day is pretty
close at that.” Then there is my January 31 letter:
I met a new “stateside” replacement last night. He’s a new kid
that came up from Salzburg as currier from headquarters. We have over a hundred
such replacements and more due in. The outfit will soon be a “young”
unit. My day for transferring must be getting close. Yesterday the battalion
executive officer offered me a couple of promotions if I would sign up for 60
or 90 more days. It’s nice to know that I had the privilege of refusing.
It was February 8, 1946, that the long-awaited news of my “particular day of
transferring” burst upon me. Orders were that on the following
Thursday–February 14–I would be transferred into the Eighty-third Division,
which was scheduled to sail early in March. How absolutely appropriate, I thought, to
start the journey home to my love on St. Valentine’s Day
By February 16 I was in the pipeline with dozens of other home-bound soldiers
from the Linz area. Trucked up into the small resort village of Bad Aussee in
Austria’s highland and lake district southeast of Salzburg, we remained
packed inside two or three local inns of that snow-engulfed village for a week.
There was no incoming mail, for on my last day in Linz, post-office forwarding
cards had been filed. Georgiana would be getting back her letters–to be followed
shortly, we trusted, by her husband. The last dispatch, the end-most communication
in our collection of 1,116 letters, is a Western Union NLT cable night letter
dated March 2, 1946. BUY THAT BEEF ROAST AM NOW IN LEHAVRE SHOULD SAIL
WITHIN TEN DAYS ALL MY LOVE – JOHN
Thus it ended–my winter project of perusing our wartime letters: 1,116 of them unfolded,
read, refolded. Sorted, bundled, accompanied by forty-five pages of notes on legal-pad
paper and now assembled into four conveniently sized boxes, properly labeled. They rest
atop a low-legged console table in my den. It is early spring of 1988. Ringing in my ears
is Georgiana’s premise: “Maybe by springtime a decision will come easier.”
It does not. I am no longer noncommittal about the letters. We should keep them.
Georgiana insists hers should be thrown away–only mine should be saved. This is
ludicrous. The collection becomes meaningless, I tell her, if one-half of the
whole is destroyed. The argumentative banter continues until all we do is agree to disagree.
Through the spring days of 1988 I conclude that, because the letters are out of the attic,
no longer a part of its tucked-away jumble, now arranged and cataloged in sensible order,
the major condition of “doing something about them” has been met. I will
hold the collection in my den, and on occasion, when the signs are right and moods in
sync, reopen the subject about its final disposition.
But it was not to be. As spring evolved into summer Georgiana’s health began
to deteriorate, and for the next eighteen months the battle was fought to save her
from that most insidious of all diseases–cancer. The matter of our letters
never again was raised. She died on the Sunday evening of December 3, 1989. Down
in my den our wartime letter collection remains neatly boxed and undisturbed. The
same cannot be written about my memories or emotions.
The letters have been donated to the Minnesota Historical Society, where they are part of the
John S. and Georgiana Sonnen Correspondence, 1944--46.
Also included in this collection are letters from other Sonnen family members to John and letters John wrote
to a brother, who forwarded them to Georgiana.