A Few Letters to My Dad during World War II

My Dad in 1945
My Dad in 1945

W.J. Astore

My dad was in the Army in World War II.  He was a dental technician in an armored headquarters group and never went overseas.  But many of his friends did go overseas and saw combat.  What follows are some excerpts from letters sent to my dad.

Bill Zerby was attached to the 781 Tank Battalion, 7th Army, in France and Germany.  In December 1944, just before the Battle of the Bulge, Zerby wrote to my dad that:

“Here we have plenty of mud and rain and 24 hours a day the field artillery lays down a barrage with everything they have.  The outfit is making out pretty well so far.  One good thing these boys don’t believe in taking prisoners…. We all live in houses and have lanterns for lights.  Everything is blacked out at 5 P.M. till dawn.”

I’d like to repeat Zerby’s 3rd sentence: One good thing these boys don’t believe in taking prisoners.

The fight against the Nazis was tough, and it wasn’t just the Germans who violated the Geneva Convention and its rules about taking prisoners.  War, in short, should never be sugarcoated.

At the end of March 1945, Zerby wrote to my dad again, a letter that contained this telling sentence:

“Bookbinder [a fellow soldier] sure got a break [by not going overseas] but he better hope he don’t get sent to Germany.  It seems they don’t like the Heb’s [Jews].”

By this point, Allied troops were beginning to liberate German concentration camps, and beginning as well to realize the murderous hatred the Nazis had for the Jewish people.

On a lighter note, Zerby regales my dad with the following story:

“The place where we live now is a large estate that belongs to a German big shot.  He got chased out and we moved in.  He has a wine cellar that runs all over town—all underground passages, and the dates on some of the casks run back to 1755.  Well some of the wine was really good.  The boys made a tour of the place and took all the best drinks for their own use.  Yes, I was in on it too.  Now we are tired of it and don’t take anymore.  Of course it’s bolted up now but that don’t mean anything.”

In another letter, Zerby writes about American soldiers hunting for deer.  Yes, American troops knew how to have a good time. Wine, venison, and women.  After all, who knew from day to day if you’d live to see home again?

At the end of 1945, Zerby writes again to my dad that “I am now a proud civilian and no more lousy Army life.”  And to my dad’s mention of a few of their friends from the battalion, Zerby writes with painful honesty: “I don’t remember many of those guys anymore.  A hell of a lot of them got bumped off also last winter [in action in France and Germany].  I guess we were just lucky.”

Another of my dad’s friends was Corporal Ed C. Sarna, who was assigned to a headquarters battery in Divisional Artillery.  He wrote to my dad in December 1944 that:

“To date, I have seen a number of [German V-1] buzz bombs at a very close range.  A little in regards to Germany.  If Hitler decided to fight until we hit Berlin, I can sincerely feel that the destruction will wipe Germany right off the map.  At our present place – there isn’t a place found to be livable.  Our forces are really doing a good job of it.”

The Allies wanted to make sure the Germans knew they had been well and truly beaten in this war, so as to prevent the myth that emerged after World War I that the German Army had not been defeated in the field.

This was a sentiment seconded by Corporal Paul Vella, 5th Depot Repair Squadron, Maintenance Division.  He wrote to my dad in March 1945 that “You’re right, Julie, the Germans are getting the shit kicked out of them and the quicker it’s over the better I like it.  I sure would like to see the states after a couple of years of being away from it.”

Corporal Vella also jokingly mentioned the “Soldier’s Prayer” in his letter: Please, Dear God, distribute the bullets like you do the pay and give officers first dibs. Yes, there’s some grim humor shared in the front lines.

There’s nothing really that special about these letters to my dad – and that’s their value.  They are the typical sentiments of American dogfaces in Europe in World War II.  Men who saw the destruction of Germany and the deaths of their friends.  They had no illusions about war, and they didn’t spout patriotic platitudes.  They just wanted the war to be over so they could get back to living their “real” lives.

As one soldier put it to my dad in 1945, “I sure hope that I’ll get my discharge soon, I’ve got plans to complete, my girl is getting tired of waiting so long.”

And thus baby boomers like me followed.

14 thoughts on “A Few Letters to My Dad during World War II

  1. Good stuff here…Terrific to hear their retelling of History!. The U.S. Army had it right back then. Get in, get out, and get back to being PFC’s. Poor —-ing Civilians…! Just ordinary Men doing the extraordinary under the most trying of conditions!. I never tire of hearing / reading these stories.From the revolution to the present these should be required reading before America decides to enter into any more Conflicts ie. Wars…

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    1. That seems a logical outcome of the experience of growing up with a WWII veteran for a father. For one, they never talked about it; too ugly to bring into civilized company. I remember how disappointed my dad was to learn that I had enlisted during a time of war.

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  2. Will: Paul Vella not only grew up with dad in the Bush, but after he got out he built Homes in the Brockton area “Vella Construction Co. I met him once too White haired by then, but a real nice guy as I remember…

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  3. The comment about not taking prisoners is not really surprising. The vast majority of Waffen SS troops who surrendered – on the Western front as well as the Eastern front – never made it to POW camp (in my own personal opinion, all of those dedicated Nazi bastards should have been shot). Max Hastings pointed out 30 years ago that in Normandy, where the British and Canadians were fighting the Hitler Youth SS Panzer Division, all of those who surrendered were shot out of hand (most of them fought to the death, so brainwashed were they). It actually became a bit of a scandal when a few of them survived to be picked up by rear area troops who didn’t understand who/what they were.

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    1. I agree — it’s not that surprising if you know the real history of combat in World War II, and not the version sanitized by Hollywood and in more than a few history texts. Thanks.

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  4. I find the casual tossing aside of the Geneva Conventions in these comments more than a little disturbing. “Everybody’s doing it!” (taking no prisoners). Ah yes, in “the good old days” the US Army knew how to obliterate a designated enemy. This feeds into the bullshit (pardon my French) that said military “wasn’t allowed to fight to win in Vietnam.” And how about Iraq and Afghanistan? I guess Dick Cheney was a wimp in how he deployed the current military?? Mr. Soft Guy!! Or could it just be that conditions in the world actually have changed in the past 60 to 70 years? Conscription was in place for WW 2, of course, and one was deployed until it was over, barring a sufficiently serious injury to find an early exit. During the war against the peoples of Southeast Asia, a combat deployment was one year, period, for non-lifers. Now we have an all-volunteer military, many of whose members are there because they couldn’t find adequate wages for surviving in the civilian world. One of the ugliest stabs in the backs of the troops I’ve seen in my lifetime was when combat deployments to Iraq (and possibly Afghanistan, though I’m not sure of that) started getting extended involuntarily. Oh, one could dismiss the grumbling with a cold “Well, they signed on for it.” Or is there, perhaps, still room for a little compassion in the world?

    GREG LAXER
    US Army 1967-71

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    1. Speaking for myself, Greg, I’m not casually tossing the Geneva Conventions aside. I don’t think most of America’s troops in WWII did either. But the truth is that “war is all hell,” and in battle and under pressure men will do things that can’t be controlled by rules like the Geneva Convention. All it takes is one or two instances of Nazi SS troops faking surrender, or of Nazi troops committing atrocities against U.S. troops,, for the other to respond in kind. We’ve probably seen it in all wars throughout history. Atrocity begets atrocity. Rule-breaking begets rule-breaking. Such atrocious behavior is exactly why wars should be avoided unless they are unavoidable, which I believe WWII was.

      American troops were not saints, but most reports I’ve read argue that they behaved more decently on the whole than their French, British, and especially their Russian counterparts. Which is exactly why so many German civilians were fleeing west in the closing weeks of the war. They wanted to surrender to Americans.

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  5. “It seems they don’t like the Heb’s [Jews].” ….. I seldom heard this term “Hebe” used in the Air Corps. It was a derogatory term and even those who may have been anti Semitic were cautious in using it. Never the less every one should know that our government used this term officially to designate Jews by designating on our “dog tags” the letter “H” for Hebrew, rather than “J” for of the Jewish religion.. Catholics earned a “C” and Protestants a “P”.
    Phillip Roth wrote a book, The Human Stain, later turned into a powerful movie about an light skinned African-American who chose to pass himself off as white when he went into the army because of the very prevalent prejudice.existing inthei country against minority’s.

    I have told this story before on this site of a close friend of mine who was captured during the battle, described above, and because he was Jewish was sent to a concentration camp by the Germans rather than a POW camp. . He told me this story after the war. He escaped and was able to cross the lines and be saved by an advancing armored unit. Since he was in such bad shape and they were advancing so rapidly they could not handle POW’s so they gave him a machine gun and told him to take a group of teen aged “Werewolves” ( Nazi teens who were told to shoot Allied stragglers) to a holding area behind the lines. They started singing the Nazi youth Horst Wessel song and he shot them all.

    War can turn good people into animals. I will try to dig up the poem my friend wrote about this and include in this post. In my opinion that is why we are seeing so much murder of African-Americans by police today. Police forces around the country have been hiring ex soldiers from our current wars who killed many civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan with impunity just because the attitude was that these darker skinned people weren’t that important.

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  6. My Father In Law a Decorated Army Sgt. before passing from this World told me a similar story while he was in Europe during World War ll about running into a small fleeing Squad of Gestapo Officer’s also Singing in Unison before he and his Brothers in Arms also took them all out… I believe after seeing the Concentration Camps, and liberating them these Gestapo Officer’s knew as well as said Father In Law’s Squad that they had it coming in Spades!. Direct quote from my F.I.L…

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