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Chris Mitchell, Middle East Bureau Chief for CBN News, shares a story of the angst of a world at war, the pain of separation, and the romance of two young people in love.
When his mother passed away seven years ago, the family discovered more than seventy letters that she had kept from his father who served in the U.S. Medical Corps during World War II. The letters, many of them still in their original envelopes, were dated from 1943 to 1946.
In this special feature, Chris shares a few of the letters and the powerful stories behind them.
"At present it is rather difficult to write…"
1943 ended with a dream. 1944 began with a prayer.
January 9, 1944
"…I hope and pray that this mess will be over soon. I have seen all I want to see. The U.S. will really look good to me, so will you. Won't we do the rounds the day I get my feet on that precious soil? You know dear the people in the U.S. don't know how lucky they are.
Honey I hope my letters don't sound or read depressing.
Hope all is well.
I love you
On January 14, 1944, Mitch wrote A.J.: "Honey please excuse these short and irregular letters. At present it is rather difficult to write."
It was difficult. At the start of 1944, Mitch and the Fifth Army faced the ferocious resistance of the German army. The combination of battle hardened German soldiers, man-made defenses and natural barriers made the Italian front one of the most formidable battle fields of World War II. The Allies faced German defensive lines called the Volturno, the Barbara, and the Gustav.
Mitch's 379th Medical Collecting Company followed the Fifth's Army advance. They trailed some of history's greatest war machines ever assembled that ever faced off in mortal combat. The "379th" collected the human debris of war. Mitch often told A.J. he was "busy", but didn't explain. Mitch was busy with the grim business of war. He set up field hospitals just behind the front lines. He directed combat ambulances. He made triage calls on both litters and ambulances. This sometimes life and death decision of who needed medical attention immediately, who could wait, and who was beyond help. This was the gruesome business of war Mitch lived in 1944.
He often worked under fire. He particularly hated artillery.
Feb. 18, 1944
"… I had a good time at the Officers Rest Center, but it was impossible to rest when you knew you were on borrowed time and that in a few days you would be back 'sweating them out' (waiting for the shells to come in)."
February 1944 was a hard month for Mitch. Valentine's Day came and went without Mitch sending out a Valentine. Instead, he witnessed one of the most controversial decisions of World War II, the bombing of Monte Cassino. This 6th century monastery stood atop one of the most strategic mountains blocking the Allied advance and the road to Rome. After weeks of debate, Allied planes dropped more than one thousand tons of bombs on the most important monastery in Europe and reduced it to rubble. Mitch was there. On April 6, 1944 he told A.J.: "… In your letter you mentioned seeing pictures of the bombing atop Mt Cassino. I would like to see those pictures as I had a bird's eye view of the same. That should answer your question."
Still, his thoughts were never far from A.J.
Feb. 22, 1944
"I have been sitting by a fire for the last fifteen minutes reading some of your letters, which I have been saving. Just finished reading the letter where you mentioned receiving the cameos. I am glad you liked them. I am sure they will look nice on you – you cute thing. I think of you constantly and long for the day of our reunion. Many times have I thought how nice it would be to be able to go to the phone and say honey, 'how about meeting me in New York?' Or to be dancing with you at the Plaza.
"…The mail just came in and I received your Valentine. Honey I was unable to send one, but you are my Valentine -- with all my heart."
From one who cares.
All my love,
In early 1944, Mitch experienced one of war's unexpected twists. His younger brother Tom – a new replacement – got assigned to a nearby unit. Happily, Mitch was given permission to get Tom re-assigned to the "379th" as a litter bearer. Mitch always thought it saved his life though both saw the bitter side of war. Everyone that went over with Tom never came home. Years later, Peg – Mitch's sister – and A.J. told some of their own war stories.
Peg remembered, "One thing that was good for us, the nurses unit that was attached to their unit had a nurse in it that was a sister of Mitch's best friend, Louise Derico. She used to write home everyday to her mother and father. And her sister would call us up because in her letter she would always mention Chris. How he was doing and where he was.
"The only story (Tom) told was. They laid down wires for communication and he and another guy were to go out and get the injured that were out and they were following the wires and seeing them once and a while. And Tom was color blind and they didn't know that the wires they were picking up were German wires. The two of them were walking into the German encampment. Finally, they decided they were too far away from their own lines, they'd better turn back. When they got back they found out they were in the German area."
By 1944, the war effort demanded fresh troops. The replacements came over 'green' and ill trained. Mitch almost suffered the consequences. Peg said, "One man shot at Mitch. He had never seen a medical officer dressed with all the things he carried for safety and he thought (Mitch) was a German and shot (at) him but he missed."
Peg also recalled, "Mitch brought home a Bible that (another soldier) had worn on his chest. The Bible had a metal back on it. It saved the guy's life."
After the war, Mitch described his own personal brush with death. He and three other soldiers from his medical company were on patrol. Suddenly they came under German mortar fire. They took cover in a nearby house. Mortar shells landing close by. One man – a close friend of Mitch's – felt his cover wasn't adequate. He raced to another spot. He ran by an open window. A piece of shrapnel hit him in the throat. He died before hitting the ground. It's was Mitch's closest personal loss of the war.
Yet Mitch's letters to A.J. left gaping holes in his war experience untold. Pen and paper never recorded the scenes he and Tom undoubtedly witnessed. As a litter bearer, Tom picked up the dead and wounded. Munitions do not injure, maim, and kill cleanly or quietly. He did not mention the screams for "Medic" or "Mama." He did not tell of the gruesome wounds too horrible to tell or pain so deep even morphine couldn't reach. These are the sounds and sights seldom spoken by the men of war. A.J. once said, "He never told us all the stories." Peg added, "Neither did Tom."
Despite the horrors of war, Mitch poured out a constant theme in his letters … his longing and love for A.J.
April 22, 1944
"… I write so little. In fact I started to write this letter two days ago, but just couldn't get to it. Honey don't judge my love to the amount of letters I write you. If you did I would have to be writing all the time."
May 19, 1944
"… I was very sure I loved you when tears came to my eyes when I left you at the Grand Central Station. Do you remember? … Darling it shouldn't be too long before we are together again. Let's both pray that the time will be short and pass fast.
I am in good health – no pain except a big spot in my heart."
All my love,
June 15, 1944
"…For sometime now I have been just thinking, dreaming, falling to sleep with thoughts of getting home to you. How you will look –- How I will look to you -- What we will do -- What we will say to each other when we first meet. Have you any plans as to where we should meet and what we should do on that wonderful day? I think of you so much, but I never seem to be able to really put my thoughts on paper. … Your letter of March 28th was wonderful. I have read and re-read it many times. It has been over a year since we have seen each other and I miss you more each hour --- I am glad you are suffering with me. … Hoping you are well my precious one, I will close with all my love."
July 26, 1944
"…It looks like this --- war will be over soon, at least the end is in sight. The Germans still have a lot of fight left in them even they know they lost the war. It looks like they are intent on making it a costly victory.
Darling everyday that passes is a day nearer to home and a day closer to you. Lets hope and pray that God will hasten the end.
Will write tomorrow.
All my love,
By mid-1944, Mitch saw the fall of Rome and the steady, if costly Allied advance up the Italian peninsula. He rejoiced in their victories. But a tenacious enemy and maddening war continued to keep Mitch away from his A.J.
Used with Permission: @ Dearest AJ.