A Father’s Days
Wartime Letters Reveal to Daughter a Dad Gone too Soon
When you are 12 years old and lose your father you may still remember the “dad times“”—birthday parties, Christmas mornings, family trips or help with your homework——but deeper insights gained from more years together are never to be. For Caroline Stevens, an old cardboard box filled with more than 500 of her father’’s wartime letters to her mother has given her a cherished glimpse into his love for family, his devotion to duty and even a fun-loving side that she hadn’’t realized. Her father died in 1966 at the age of 52.
“When you’re 10, 11 or 12, you saw a peck on the cheek between your parents, an exchange of words—some yelling once in a while—hugs once in a while, but these letters showed me just how much he loved my mother,” says Stevens, now 63. “And I discovered his sense of humor. There was one letter when he tells my mother he was eating a donut and ‘if you were a donut I’d really like to take a bite.’”
A trip last year from her New Market home to visit a brother in Michigan resulted in driving back with the trove of letters her father had written during World War II, years before she was born—although there’s a mention in one of them that older brother Donnie could use a sister. Stevens relegated her son, Jeremy, to the driving as she opened the envelopes and read nearly nonstop for eight hours. “I could not put them down,” she says, recalling the story unfolding before her eyes for the first time. “When is Dad going to get home? What’s the next story?”
John William Althaus, who grew up in Maryland, later becoming a Lutheran pastor, joined the U.S. Army as a chaplain, deploying to Europe in 1943. “My father was one of six and had two other brothers in the war,” Stevens says. “He was older, 29 or 30, and felt it was his duty to go, to spend time consoling” those confronting war’s horrors. During stolen moments, the husband carried out his promise to write to his “Dear Ethel,” signing off with “All the love in the world, Bill.”
The early letters were handwritten, some in pencil still legible more than 50 years later. Stevens recalls one letter where her father declared “I found a typewriter!” followed by mail with the sentences tapped out on onionskin paper, the edges now brown. Some envelopes contained more than one day’s missive. A 6-cent air mail stamp or a scrawled “free” where a stamp would go sent the messages over the many miles. He also managed to send a few black-and-white picture postcards of bucolic scenery before the war’s devastation.
His letters offer a glimpse of a soldier’s life.
Oct., 10, 1943
This afternoon I had a wonderful fresh water shower. Made me feel like a new man and I really mean that. And what a meal we had tonite, soup, crackers, delicious steak, fried potatoes, lima beans, Bermuda onions in the raw, bread, butter, coffee and chocolate pudding. … I know that you are envious of me living in such luxury. I feel ashamed of myself. … Another thing that bothers me is the fact that I know you are more worried about me than you have cause. Don’t worry as a result of my having been assigned to the Ordinance. Although we spend time in the field, remember that the Ordinance is not a combat branch of the service.
Stevens surmises her father never told her mother about “the bad stuff,” but recalls hearing that he was in the Battle of the Bulge, the last major German offensive against the Allies, in which 81,000 U.S. troops were killed. “He was to take a Jeep from one city to the next and instead took another Jeep. That original Jeep was blown to smithereens,” she says. Still, there were letters to his wife that touched on some of the hardships he had to face.
Dec. 7, 1944
Several new things developed yesterday which will cause me a bit of extra work. First the higher headquarters chaplain has been hospitalized as the result of a nervous breakdown. That leaves me alone to serve two battalions. I doubt that there is a replacement available for him. On top of that our own battalion has grown in the last 48 hours. … I am going to be mighty busy and letters for a little while may not be quite so frequent. But you will understand.
Many of his letters talk about how important the mail was to him, not only the letters, but also cherished packages from home.
Dec. 7, 1944
I was glad to receive the hair oil, ear muffs, socks and hankies … haven’t opened the olives as yet but they look mighty good … the pecan chocolate candy bar I have not investigated as yet but it looks mighty good … Honey, how did you get all those things in one little box?
When letters were delayed there was clearly frustration. The mail situation is still spotty, he writes when getting letters out of sequence from when they were mailed. When mail call rolled around and he ended up empty-handed, he wrote “I worried a great deal about not hearing from you.” When their letters crossed paths resulting in things not making sense, he laments: “I am afraid that letter writing is an inferior method of communication and there are bound to be misunderstandings and misinterpretations as long as we must resort to letter writing for communication.”
But just the act of writing was important, the letters show, even without a lot of information. “Nothing new, Sweet, but I love you more every day. Be good and take care of yourself and Donnie for a little while longer.”
The letters months after V-E Day on May 8, 1945, show a longing to be back home and frustrations with those in charge.
Sept. 5, 1945
Everybody is so up in the air, confused, and disgusted that it isn’t even funny. I could kick myself for even telling you that I expected to leave in a few days because now it may be more than that. That’s the way the army operates. They build you up and then tear you down and I am afraid that the effect on the home front will be terrific as far as individuals are concerned. … After what happened two days ago—orders published and then canceled—I do not have ambition to do a lick of work. … So much for now, Sweet, Hold the fort. It can’t be too much longer now.
He didn’t have to wait very long.
Sept. 7, 1945
We are to report to a replacement depot at Marburg, Germany on Monday which is the 9th. From there we will probably go to Antwerp where we will board ship. I will write you each day telling you about any information that I can pick up in regard to my trip home and the time of arrival. Sweet, I love you very much and miss you very much. But, Wow! Not for long.
Stevens says she also possesses a box of her mother’s letters. Perhaps she will get to them, as well, but, “I felt like I knew my mom, my dad was the one I only spent a short time with.”