On Memorial Day I often read through copies of a collection of letters written from, to and about my Uncle John who served in the Army in WWII and who died in combat in northeastern France on November 9, 1944.
I am fortunate to have these copies of a few of the letters that he sent home as well as letters that were written after his death. I love the familiar references to people I later knew. John wrote to my Uncle William and Aunt Lucille that “Santa Claus is going to be good to Eula and Mary Jane” (my cousins) and how he looked forward to a good turkey dinner on Thanksgiving or Christmas. He told my Uncle Dan (who was following him) that “when you get over here you sure appreciate how lucky you are to be living in the good ole’ U.S.” And he wrote my Aunt Rachel that he was so hungry that she should “Tell Grandma if I was at the table now she’d think I was Tom (my dad who would have been 14 at the time) or Dan or James eating.” Apparently they each had healthy appetites!
There’s a beautiful letter from my Uncle James (who at the time was serving in the Navy) to my grandparents expressing his own sense of loss. Evidently my Uncle John had suffered a serious bout of pneumonia as a child, which somehow created a special connection with his older brother James. In the letter James writes: “I hope that as time goes on we can come to the place where we don’t feel so bitter about the enemy which robbed him of his life but now I can’t feel so. Please forgive me for speaking so but at this time I can’t think otherwise. I feel that aggressors should be crushed completely so that nothing like this could ever happen again.”
Uncle James also wrote of the inspiration he found in the sacrifice his brother made: “knowing that John gave himself without restraint to the cause to which he had pledged himself. I believe he will be happy to know that he had a little part in making a place for us all to live in the future. It makes me feel mighty little to realize that I’m giving so little when he gave everything he had. Yet there is a task for each of us to do and it gives me determination to do the best I can where I am.”
Reading these letters on Memorial Day has become my own tradition and memorial for all those who continue to (in the words of Company D’s CO in a letter to my grandparents) “set an example of personal courage and devotion to duty.”
The following letter was sent to my grandparents from a Dr. Webb (I can’t make out his first name) – whom I assume was from Great Falls and a family friend and who it seems served in an Army medical unit.
Written on United States Army Stationary
21 December 1944
Dear Mr. and Mrs. Ferguson and Family
I must confess that this letter is a painful to write as the last one [as best I can tell Dr. Webb sent a first letter with news of John’s death]. A day has not passed that I have not thought of your boy. Hank [evidently another friend from Great Falls] only learned of his death recently and was truly a heartbroken boy. I spent Sunday afternoon with him and we talked for the most part about John, you and friends we have in common.
Hank learned of the nearness of the 8th and went back to try to find John. A boy who been with John at the time of his death told him about it. He tried to get in touch with me then and then several times after but it was only Sunday I was able to catch him.
You note that my letter was dated after John’s death. It is illegal to write about one injured until the W.D. notification has been received. However, I pleaded friend of the family and knew [you] would want to know.
Capt. Grisgby was in our place when I learned he was Co. D of the 8th I went to ask about John and then learned of his death. It was near a small town Clairfontaine and John’s section was called upon to assist another company in taking a piece of high ground. They had to cross an open field and as they advanced John was struck in the head and instantly killed. The boy in front noticed John not with them and went back. He found him a few yards back already dead. Capt. Grisgby then went to him even though the field was covered by fire and time precious, to make sure.
The action of our units in this section played a large part in pushing the enemy from the Vosges Mountains. So you can imagine how early in combat it was since John’s death was Nov. 9th.
No one has a harder task in the war than the infantry soldier and certainly John’s was one of the hardest. Our job becomes even more difficult as Germany proper is approached. There is much suffering and misery yet before us and I honestly believe there are some things worse than death. I can explain much better when I see you. Censorship forbids some things I would like you to know.
John was buried at Epinal in a cemetery maintained by the War Department. So many things happened to prevent me going down to take that picture. You know we go ever forward and it doesn’t take long to pass a place too far to return to. The cemetery is usually a day’s journey back of the front. They are all the same, rows and rows of white crosses each with a name printed across it at the end of the grave. The German crosses have swastikas on them and the Free French have the tricolor of their flag. In the cemetery live the caretakers and an American flag flies over the place all the time. The French people put flowers of the graves of our men even as they do their own.
You can see in the rush of things how soon we reached the front. I asked John and Hank to come back so I could take their pictures to send home. They were coming the following day but orders, supplies and entrainments prevented it.
Lights are never extinguished in our place, as our work never ceases since the mill of war unendingly grinds out the sick and injured. We do our utmost to give them the very best. I shall try to remember all the things connected with this business that I wish to tell you.
You might be interested in some of the pictures I sent home. I told Marjorie to send Dr. McClure a complete set of them, as it was thru him that I obtained the film. All of the places shown are places John had been and one or two quite near the place where he died.
John was a good fine boy who loved his parents and family. He kept me posted on the family, where they were and how they were getting along. And the last time I saw him he told me of his girl and of his intention to marry after the war. He even told me of his brother being an MP and not wanting you to tell him about it. We talked of army life and his job. He told me of his gun and his platoon leader and Captain Grigsby. He liked them and his job very much. When I suggested he had tough job, he just smiled and said someone had to do it.
Thank you for your letter and in advance for the cake. Please forgive them for his death. The enemy wounded are just about as pitiful as our own. I met a sweet lady who lost a son in March in the German army. Then I realized full well for the first time that Germans are grieved for and prayed for. That lady was so good to me with eggs and cookies etc. that I shed tears when she told me of her son. I doesn’t make sense but I do feel sorry for them. I will be at the memorial service in spirit! Please pray for me and the other men in service and write me again.
With regards to everyone
Dr. ? Webb