Saturday, April 16, 2016

Letters to Home and a 100th Birthday

After starting to scan my father’s letters he sent home during WW II – and before sending them to the National WW II Museum along with his War Memorabilia -- I suddenly realized that tomorrow would have been his 100th birthday. He died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 68.

He refers to me in those letters as “my little guy.”  Could he have imagined a future point in time when I would be organizing his unique WW II scrapbook, his photographs and the few letters of his I have, all sent to his brother, my Uncle Phil, for museum preservation?  He sent many more letters to my mother and sadly they are all gone. 

Or what would he have thought of the technology which has rendered most silver halide photography obsolete? That was his business. Somewhere I read that there are more digital photographs taken throughout the world today in two minutes than all the photographs taken in the 19th century. Give an infinite number of monkeys an infinite number of cameras and you could do away with professional photography.  Before digital, one had to think through the “what and when and how” to photograph; it required thought and skill and artistry.  You couldn't afford to snap away.  Photographic materials were just too expensive.  Now the accidental confluence of someone with an iPhone at the right moment results in photographs that the best photographers would envy.  All by accident!  Not skill, not love of photography.  He would be appalled.

The very first letter I came across in the collection (they were not chronologically organized) is dated May 20, 1944, full of anticipation about maybe being able to return home for a few days as Germany had just surrendered and he thought he was about to be shipped to the Pacific theater. I don’t think I am going to publish others but this first one was particularly meaningful.  He was a Signal Corps photographer and this letter to his brother tells a lot about his state of mind at the time and has interesting information about what he was going through.  “Penny” was the nickname for my mother and “Pop” is my grandfather who was running the photography business back home.

This transcription is not exact, but as close as I can make it without doing in depth editing.  I mostly dictated the contents to my iPhone as an email and then pasted it into Word and then did some light editing to make sense of run on sentences, misnaming of things from the transcription from voice to type (e.g. amusingly “Berchtesgaden” was captured as “Birch is God”), and just general but not precise clean up.

It was written on “Der Reichsminister und Chef der Reichskanzlei" stationary (The Reich Minister and Chief of the Chancellery) and presumably this was left behind in the SS facilities the GIs were then occupying

May 20, 1945 from Berchtesgaden

Dear Phil,

Well, Phil, finally the struggle lasting more than five years for the European people has ended and with great relief to us all. Now I'm confronted with the Pacific war and my utmost wish and desire is to come home or at least return for a brief stay before going into the Japanese warfare.  I don't see why that's such a tremendous problem that the Army is making us believe. Money running into billions and time running into years has been already been spent so what's the difference if it costs more and takes more time to finish that phase of the warfare.  Especially so if it is the choice of most of the prospective GIs bound for the South Pacific wishing to return home to their love ones.  I for one haven’t enough points for a discharge but neither does the majority of troops and I like many others feel so fortunate to come through this struggle without bearing any marks. Fighting in the Pacific might last more than a year and who knows if my good fortune will hold out. I do feel though that I have a pretty good chance in obtaining the route through the states before going to the Pacific. If I do I certainly will be thankful and overjoyed. I have my fingers crossed even my toes.

From my heading in the first page of this letter you can see that censorship much has been lifted. No more officers who I knew fairly well will be prying into my mail. Just the base censors as certain restrictions still exist.

I am now living in Berchtesgaden and in fairly comfortable barracks formerly occupied by SS troops. These barracks are very near to Goering’s summer home giving him the protection he very well needed. We have two rooms. One we fixed up into a writing, sitting, and chat room with a sofa and five chairs, a desk and a radio that works when it wants to. The other room we have divided in half, one half are our cots and the other we fixed up into a dark room. We acquired an enlarger, some chemicals, a hand cutter, even a deckled edge cutter, some trays, and a dryer. Here we can process our personal work along with some brown nosing material (brown nose means work which puts us in good with ranking personnel of the division). Between this work and our photography for the Army which hasn't let up we are pretty busy and have very little time for personal needs. Our mess hall has two large dining rooms and we eat from clean tablecloths and plates.  KP's are volunteer German girls who serve the chow and clean up the mess afterwards. The food is really good but our rations aren't up to par as yet but soon they will be.

With all the sudden change in living conditions I had first felt pointless doing it but in a short time I was back in the game so to speak. Everything has changed to regular Garrison life, the way it was back in the States in the Army Corps. But I think it is slightly more chicken to eat.

There is no fraternization for the troops and it is hard for most of the boys. As for myself I don't care about the feminine problem but I would like it better if conversations could be had with the civilians -- that's where it is much better being in France, Belgium, Holland, or England. USO shows are being promised and next week I heard there will be a show. The G.I. movies are being shown twice nightly. So far I haven't been to a movie, not for a long time.  The pictures playing are old ones like Eddie Cantor’s “Show Business” or “Meet me in St. Louis” and numerous others. Other forms of entertainment and classes in subjects of learning are being planned. Berchtesgaden is a beautiful summer resort situated close to the Austrian border and high up the mountains, snow capped at that. I was surprised to learn it's a very ancient town dating back to the 11th century.  Hitler’s former home, I say former for was almost completely destroyed, is standing halfway up one of the highest mountains. When the French Armored division reached here they shelled and set fire to it for what purpose just to get even --there wasn't any resistance at his home. After knocking it to pieces they looted most everything in sight, looting they are very famous for. But I have a book that once was on his bookshelf and I’ll parcel post some of my additional souvenirs home.  In more detail I have explained to Penny what his house looks like so I know you have heard all about it.

Way up the top of the same mountain Hitler had another place called Eagles Nest -- a spacious dwelling of stone where he went to meditate his fanatical ideas and also threw wild parties.  What an awe inspiring sight this place is. You can see for miles and miles around and the scenery of the Bavarian Alps is very picturesque. Again the articles that could be acquired by GIs for souvenirs are now diminished. I have two saucer plates of unique design though.  The living room of this house is a tremendous semicircular affair with heavy beamed ceiling, stonewalls and a huge marble fireplace, a large circular table in the center of the room with 10 chairs around. Scattered around the rest of the room are some other chairs and chaise lounges. There are fine large heavy windows that rolled down in the living area and abundant light which afford a view of the beautiful scenery.  There is a large sunny sun porch off to the left and a dining room of oak panel walls and a large table seating about 30 people.  There are two other rooms, one for drinking, and a toilet in another one.  An elevator that goes down to the furthest point in the roadway can go up to this place but is not working at present -- the main reason is that it is fairly well trafficked.  I had to use the footpath up to it about a half an hour’s climb.  We are making -- Mack and me-- a travel log of what the GIs are sightseeing around here. Someday you might see it in the newsreels or in a special short.  I hope so.  Anyway it is a big job and is taking many days to finish.  We laugh when we think about it.  It reminds me of one of those Fitzpatrick travelogues you remember with those closing sunsets and the line “and now we take leave of Berchtesgaden.”

A few weeks prior to the close of the war I was with the 101st division cleaning out numerous pockets of resistance all around these Bavarian mountains -- a tough job it was. When one of the regiments got their orders to take – rather than half take -- Berchtesgaden from another route I went with them walking a number of miles, for more than five bridges were all blown up recently. But still there were SS troops. This job was exciting but very tiring for the tension was hard for a few days and we couldn't get anything much to eat. When the surrender was finally declared many many SS troops had to be rounded up. This was another job I enjoyed and from Penny’s letters you already know the situation.
Uncle Phil and the "Little Guy"

I received your very lengthy and interesting letter of April 23 along with many from Penny a few days ago and Phil I sure enjoyed its contents. Both you and Penny fear that your letters are boring --  they are anything but.  I sometimes feel that way with my own especially to you and family for most everything I write to you I have already sent to Penny.

You ask if I took any shots of airborne troops leaving for Germany.  I presume you mean the airborne mission over the Rhine.  I certainly did on that mission, more than 5000 feet of film.  I'm sure some of it was used in the newsreels.  I also made a lot of footage of those troops moving up to their frontline positions into the heart of Bavaria --maybe it was what you saw.  I never received those shots you made of Penny and Robert at the zoo.  I only hope that they aren't lost in my anxiousness to get them.  Do you think Pop could make a portrait of Penny and my little guy, Phil?  I'd love to have a recent one, say 5 x 7 of my love ones.

Your description of the ballet “Undertow” sounds very interesting and intriguing.  I surely want to see ballets when I'm home once again.  I've missed real art all these past years.  The Harold Lloyd picture must have been very amusing.  I wish this damned Army would show some pictures like that as I'm sure it would be very entertaining and meet with favor with the troops.

Marlene Dietrich visiting the 101st Airborne
I'm glad the business is keeping up fairly well now that the war is over -- over here -- your shortage in paper and film should be lifted somewhat I hope anyway.  By the way remember me to everyone in the shop.  In a separate envelope Phil I'm enclosing a Photostat on Berchtesgaden written in English for the purpose of tourist trade.  Some of their descriptions will give you a laugh. Also with this you find some pictures of myself and a snapshot of Marlene Dietrich at a reunion of the 101st.  I thought you might like a snap shot like this -- she doesn't look any too well but that's the way she looked that day; the day before that she had a collapse.  She witnessed a terrible accident where two C47s with paratroopers crashed killing more than 20.

So Phil I say so long for a while, take care of yourself and my love to Jerry and everyone I love.

Love Robert

The letter is such a contrast to one he wrote on October 4 from Wiesbaden, some five months later.  He was still stuck in Germany very upset he hadn’t been shipped back as Japan had already surrendered. He was finally shipped home in the middle of December, just in time for Christmas and the New Year, but he tried to keep his mind off the delay by writing this long letter about his ideas for expanding the family photography business to film for TV, promotional use in architecture and real estate, even children’s’ programming to be used by department store child care centers while their mothers shopped (he suggested Macy’s as such a store).  Nothing came of these ideas.  Nonetheless, he speaks to me across the ages, dreaming big as a 29 year old.  It showed me a side of him I didn’t really see as a teenager when I worked with him. 

In another letter from “somewhere in France” on March 18, 1945 he confided to my Uncle (he didn’t want my mother to know yet because of the danger of the mission) that he was reassigned to 101st Airborne, the “Screaming Eagles” (the same division he mentions in the past tense in the letter transcribed above). He was being trained to photograph from gliders setting down behind enemy lines (not quite put that way because of censorship of GIs letters), so he expected a lot of action.  He expressed his fears but his admiration of the men he was serving with -- D Day paratroopers and “The Bastards of Bastogne.”  He also managed to film General Eisenhower when he visited the 101st, those shots apparently making it into newsreels back home.

So I salute him on his 100th birthday, one of the millions of “accidental warriors” who did their jobs.  May they never be forgotten.