Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Lost Letters: A Veteran's Tale

My father in uniform and as a boy in Alabama with his dad.

My father was already in uniform when America entered the World War II. He had been in the Reserve Officer Training Corps at Auburn University in Alabama. All land grant colleges were required to have ROTC in those days and when my father graduated from Auburn in 1941 he figured that would be the end of his life in the reserves. He was offered an engineering job at General Electric in Philadelphia and off he went to begin his life away from his home in Alabama.

He had held the job for about a month when President FDR called up the reserves and my father was back in uniform. By December, he was at Ft. Belvoir, Virginia, in training as an officer in the Corps of Engineers. One Sunday he was in the shower, getting ready to go to church when another officer stuck his head into the bathroom. “The Japs have just bombed Pearl Harbor! Come on. It’s on the radio!”

A few months later he was on a ship to an unknown destination. It was early in the war so there weren’t any troop ships yet and the Army had commandeered an ocean liner. My father later said: “I figured this officer thing must be pretty good. We had waiters in white coats at our beck and call. I had a great state room. The food was terrific. There was only one problem. We didn’t know where we were going and we figured wherever we were going it wasn’t going to be a heck of a lot of fun.”

He was the only son of a tight-knit Alabama family. His father and mother had made him promise to write them every day he was gone. Being a dutiful son, he did as he had promised. But their destination was secret. And what he didn’t know until two weeks into the journey was that their mail would be held for a month until their mission was accomplished, because the commanders did not want any word leaking out about what they were doing.

They were headed to Ascension Island to build an airstrip that would prove crucial to Allied success in the CBI (China-Burma-India) theater. They were deposited on the island with limited supplies and an order to complete the runway in thirty days. No other ships would be able to re-supply them and no planes with supplies could land until the job was done.

Ascension Island is in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, a big piece of volcanic lava half way between Africa and South America that was owned by the British only because during the nineteenth century nearby St. Helena was the home in exile of Napoleon, and the British didn’t want the little man to have any kind of a staging area nearby from which he might launch another attempted comeback. Gaining the use of Ascension as a base, came to the US via the FDR/Churchill Lend Lease Agreement.

On Ascension there was nothing: no port or dock, no fresh water, no edible native plants—nothing. They rationed the water they brought and they divided up the day into two twelve hour shifts and they worked around the clock. Once, they lost a bulldozer over a cliff and there was nothing to be done about it. They weren’t going to be resupplied until they finished the airfield, so they modified jeeps and trucks, called it “field expedient” and they kept on working.

Back in Homewood, Alabama, Roy and Mary Chapman and my father’s younger sister Helen waited for the mail. As the weeks went by without a letter, the little house on Palmetto did not ring with laughter. The war news in the paper was grim. The Philippines had fallen and thousands of Americans had been taken prisoners. The Germans seemed ready to invade Britain at any moment and bombs were falling on London every night. Singapore fell and Shanghai, and Hong Kong. And still no letters came.

Roy Chapman, the grandfather I never knew, was president of the city council in Homewood. He called in every chit he had to find out the fate of his only son. The postman didn’t even like coming to the house anymore because he could only shake his head when Roy looked expectantly as he came up the walk. Roy Chapman finally reached someone in the War Office, quite a task back then in the early days of World War II when long distance telephoning was not only uncommon, it was very expensive, and War Office personnel were swamped with things to do marked “urgent.”

“I’ve had no letters from my son,” said Roy Chapman. “I’m sure he must be dead. And I want to know the truth.”

“Have you had a telegram?” The bureaucrat in Washington had faith, at least, in the system.

“Why, no,” said Roy.

“Well there you are then,” said the War Office Man. “If he were dead you would have had a telegram. We always send a telegram if a soldier is dead.”

Roy put the receiver down and looked at his wife Mary. Somehow those words did not comfort him at all. No there hadn’t been a telegram carrying bad news. But there had been no news at all! That was bad news right there.

Back on Ascension my father and his fellow company commanders were right on schedule. Exhausted and short on drinking water, they had rigged traps to catch dew. They washed in sea water. They ate lots of fish and turtles eggs. And since they had landed with an inordinate amount of flour, they were able to have pancakes every morning for breakfast. And they were young. So none of it seemed so bad. They especially liked the part that nobody was shooting at them. In the midst of all this and the 24 hour-a-day work load, my Dad continued to write home every day.

The airstrip was finished on schedule and christened Wideawake Field after the local birds, called wideawakes, who populated the island. After their thirty days of quarantine, they all begin to get letters from home. But nobody back home was as yet getting letters from them.

One day somebody in the APO office in New York looked at a pile of mail from Ascension Island to families around the United States.

“How long were we supposed to hold this stuff, before we could let it go?" The private was sorting mail as he asked.

“Uh, I dunno. Thirty days? Something like that,” said a corporal, not looking up from the magazine he was reading, detailing the latest war news from the Pacific.

“Right, it’s been ninety. I guess we can let it through now. Off you go,” said the private and sent the bags of precious mail on their way at last.

In Homewood, Alabama, on Palmetto Street, the entire Chapman family assumed they would soon be preparing for a funeral. Roy didn’t say that to Mary, and Mary didn’t say that to Helen, but after ninety days without a letter, that’s what they all were thinking.

One day the postman came up the walk wearing a big smile.

“Hello Mr. Chapman. It’s a fine day sir.” he said. Then he plopped down a sack full of ninety letters from Lt. William Ashley Chapman stationed on Ascension Island. The front porch fairly creaked with the weight of them. Then the postman tipped his hat and stepped off the porch and walked with a new spring in his step to the next house on his route.

Mary wept. Helen wept. Cousins, aunts and uncles stopped by and they wept too. Roy sat quietly on the front porch smoking a cigarette and saying very little. My boy’s alive, he thought, my boy’s alive.

And his boy was lucky. He made it through the rest of the war, through the Battle of Okinawa and the bombing of Ie Shima and on to the war’s end without a scratch. And he continued to write a letter home to his Mom and Dad every single day.

1 comment:

Robin Chapman said...

Response to Lena: The manatees look large refrigerator with little tiny heads! I am so glad you are enjoying the blog! Let me know if you want to see more wildlife stories.