Keeping Their Word


By Sam Garfield

July 17, 1950

The scale of some stories –like this one– are too sweeping for only one dateline:

(Paris, Mid-September, 1944) –Nineteen-year-old Pfc. John Crandall, 28th infantry, writes home, telling his family of the warmth of Paris: “Mom, you’d love Paris, especially the way I see it. There’s a fuel shortage so there’s hardly any traffic. It’s so different from our walk from the country into Paris when the roads were clogged with burned out German tanks and vehicles. We ate berries from the bushes and all the apples we could eat as we walked. Now in Paris, we stroll the wide boulevards, which are lined with wide trees and beautiful parks. People hug us and everything. It’s a Sunday and the bells of Notre Dame are ringing. The people here say that when Paris was liberated a few weeks ago all the churches in the whole city let go with their bells at the same time. That must have been something. The other thing is the colors, from the dresses on the beautiful women to the flowers in the parks to the bluest sky I’ve ever seen. I guess that’s why there are so many painters in Paris. Oh yeah, I forgot about the smells. Seems like every little shop is baking bread. It reminds me of Sunday dinner after chuch at our house…..”

(England, January 17, 1945) –Pfc. Crandall’s letter to his older sister: “Sis, sorry I haven’t written for a while, but I’ve been in a hospital in England with frostbite of my feet. I wound up here a few weeks ago after some pretty tough fighting in the Ardennes, a place of forests and mountains filled with snow and ice and more Germans than I’d ever seen. But you know it was the weather that was worse than the Jerries. The fighting was so tough when you’re so cold. Your fingers couldn’t move and most of the time you had no feeling in your feet and toes. Because of the terrible weather and the thick forest all the fighting was done at point-blank range. The Germans rushed at us like a herd of cattle, kind of like the Civil War fighting we read about in school. I’ve killed my share of Germans but never face-to-face, looking at them right in the eyes. They’re so young. But I guess I am too. Funny you don’t think about that when you’re fighting but since I got here, and had time to think, it’s even more scary. It was so hard to dig foxholes in the frozen ground…and sleeping was terrible. We tried to sleep on our sides with our knees up against our chins to get warm. The funny thing was that you tried to sleep because you were so tired, but you had to wake yourself up to get the blood running again because you were so cold. You had to try to keep your feet warm, but I guess I did a lousy job at that. Some of the guys lit their K-rations and held their boots over the fire. But mine were so wet and full of holes they never got dry. I guess that’s why I’m here. But I guess I’m lucky, too. The doctors say I won’t have to have my feet amputated like some of the guys. But God do they hurt…Sis, don’t tell Mom about my feet. Just say I haven’t written lately because they couldn’t get our letters out of the forest…Christmas was tough. It was hard to concentrate on the enemy because I was thinking about home all the time…The nights were horrible because it was so damn quiet in those woods, in all that snow and fog and all…every little sound scared you, what was happening?…I don’t think I’ll ever get warm.”

(Ardennes, Belgium, December 22, 1944) –Hitler’s surprise counter-offensive in the Ardennes drives a wedge in the Allied forces. The Germans, with 250,000 troops — 25 divisions– more than six times the strength of the Americans. With the American front lines falling back, a German major and English-speaking captain, under a flag of truce, approach the American lines near Bastogne. They carry a note from the German Commander. It’s a surrender ultimatum for the American Commander, Brig. Gen. Anthony Clement McAuliffe, acting division commander of the 101st Airborne. The note, in part, reads: “To the U.S.A Commander of the encircled town of Bastogne. The fortune of war is changing. This time the U.S.A forces in and near Bastogne have been encircled by strong German armored units…There is only one possibility to save the encircled U.S.A. troops from total annihilation: that is the honorable surrender the encircled town. In order to think it over a term of two hours will be granted with the presentation of this note…All the serious civilian losses caused by this artillery fire would not correspond with the well-known American humanity…” McAuliffe’s handwritten reply: “Nuts.”

(Chicago, Mid-February, 1950) – As he is on most mornings, ten-year-old Mike Dolan is running behind on his South Side paper route. On the last leg of his route, he cuts across the snow-covered corner lot on Bennett Street, but drifting overnight snow made this familiar short cut a bad idea. As he heads back toward the sidewalk he notices a large brown envelope half covered by snow at the base of a row of bushes. He puts the package in his knapsack next to the stack of rolled-up newspapers and goes about his business.

(Bastogne, July 16, 1950) –They’re here from all across their country, thousands of grateful Belgians standing in the pouring rain on the hill of Le Mardasson. They’re paying tribute to the thousands of American soldiers who fought in the Ardennes in the Battle of the Bulge. The solemn ceremony features the unveiling of a stately hilltop monument of  white stone, marble and brick in the shape of a five-pointed star overlooking the valley. The names of all the 48 states, in bronze, are chiseled around the monument’s crown. On the inside, chiseled on huge marble slabs, is the story of the battle, including the insignias of the American battalions. Maj. Gen. McAuliffe dedicates the memorial, and President Truman sends a note, calling the monument “an enduring testimonial to the common devotion of our two countries to the cause of freedom and to their partnership in arms for its defense.”

A few months ago, I got a rather large package in the mail. Inside was a dirty brown envelope with about a hundred letters, all addressed to a family named Crandall, on Chicago’s South Side. There was also a note attached to the front of the envelope from a young boy who wrote that he found the envelope in a snowdrift while on his paper route: “My Dad tried to take the letters to the address on the envelopes but I guess the family moved…Can you help?” I telephoned a police contact who said he would look into it. It seems the Crandall family moved to a new home. But how did the letters wind up in a snowdrift on Bennett Street? Well, the police-work discovered the Crandall’s new bungalow –not far from where young Mike Dolan found the package– was broken into this past February. The burglars, seeing no value in a bunch of wartime letters, apparently tossed the envelope in the snow as they fled the neighborhood.

The Crandalls were very happy to see their letters again, and they were more than gracious to allow me to print portions. The Battle of the Bulge, historians believe, will be remembered because of the united courage of America’s young soldiers. How symbolic, years later a young soldier’s lost letters of war find their way into a snow drift, only to be rescued by another youngster, whose own words hopefully will be kept safe and free.

Copyright © 2011. John Theodore — All Rights Reserved. Text may not be reproduced without permission.

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