Thanksgiving Day 1942, Camp Sutton, N.C.: “I also gave thanks for the country we live in. Honey you may not realize it but this is the most wonderful nation in all the world and if possible I’m going to do my best to help protect and defend it.”
That passage is from a letter that presaged my father’s journey across Europe with the U.S. Army. A journey that ended in Bamberg, Germany, 70 years ago this past May.
In their muddy, deadly march to defeat the Nazis, the Allies covered 700 miles in 338 days, during which he wrote most of the 372 wartime letters addressed to my mother at apartment 411, 1301 E. Armour (which is still standing).
The letters were all neatly tucked in 15 manila folders my mother handed me — with no fanfare and little explanation — a few years before she died. They were meticulously organized and the tab of each folder bears a notation such as “1943 — England,” or “Aug.-Sept.-Oct. — 1944.”
Looking back now, I think she was conflicted about them. They were very personal, but she couldn’t bring herself to throw them out. I think she wanted to make sure the era they reflect is never forgotten.
Banged out on a portable Army-issue Corona typewriter or penned in longhand, they are on onion skin paper. Lightweight for airmail, onion skin seems fragile, but its high cotton content makes it surprisingly robust. It held up well under the razor blades of Army censors, and the rigors of time.
Until very recently, I had only scanned a few. Despite their age and the fact that the writer and the recipient are long dead, it felt voyeuristic.
But this week, I’ll be standing on a stage at the National WWI Museum and Memorial, reading excerpts aloud to a roomful of perfect strangers. I’m one of seven cast members. It’s part of something called “The Telling Project,” a nationwide program that aims to provide a respectful place for veterans and their families to speak and be heard.
So you see, I had to read them.
Those letters spoke to me in sharp crinkles as I carefully unfolded them for the first time in a generation.
They reflect the thoughts and thinly veiled fears of a homesick, lovesick 25-year-old who played a small part in the last century’s defining moment. But as it turns out, they also chronicle in exacting detail the defining adventure of his life.
In ways I had never considered before “The Telling Project” came along, that adventure played a much bigger role than I had ever contemplated in making him who he was.
But it was his detailed descriptions that drew me in. He was so lonely for his bride that he used this onion skin mural to bridge the 4,000 miles between them. He described the sights and sounds and smells of everyday life in the midst of war to beckon her at least part of the way into his bivouac at the edge of hell.
“Someone has a radio playing … the strains are lazily drifting here to our room. Sounds like the tune is ‘I’ll Be Seeing You’ and it’s making me just that much lonelier for you.” — Dec. 12, 1944, Somewhere in France.
In their trek from Omaha Beach to Berlin, the Allies captured 4 million prisoners and killed or badly wounded 1 million enemy soldiers. At one point after the invasion, they expended ammunition at a rate of two tons a minute, including 500 million machine gun bullets and 23 million artillery rounds.
And that’s where my dad, Bill McGraw, comes in. He was the First Sergeant, or “topkick,” of the 689th Army Ordnance Company. He oversaw men who sometimes worked 24 hours a day to keep the ammo moving from railheads to forward ASPs (Ammunition Supply Points).
While he was never in direct combat, he was strafed by the Luftwaffe, dodged friendly flak and constantly worried about “his boys.”
In a phrase he later modified for use on his three sons, he once wrote, “gosh a topkick has to be mother, father and nursemaid to some of these guys.”
But he seemed to relish that role. He really cared for “his boys” and worked hard to keep them out of trouble, but there were times when he was no match for loneliness and the rigors of war.
“Had some bad luck this morning. One of the men got hold of some French denatured alcohol a couple of days ago and … died … the fellow I lost was a good man … it’s too bad that a soldier’s life must be taken that way when we are losing enough men on the battlefield.” — Dec. 16, 1944, Somewhere in France.
On their trek across France and into Germany, he served not only as a nursemaid, friend, protector and disciplinarian, but also helped keep an eye on prisoners of war. It was there that he picked up a German phrase — macht schnell (hurry up) — that I remember hearing repeatedly in my slothful youth.
“These German PWs that we have are here are really good workers. … They seem very contented to stay here, and someone said that they had volunteered to fight in the Pacific if we can issue them American equipment. What a war!” — June 8, 1945 Bamberg, Germany.
He had enlisted at Fort Leavenworth, Kan. on Nov. 4, 1942, 17 months after getting married and almost a year after Pearl Harbor. He was 24 and had already washed out of an Army Air Corps training program at Hicks Field in Texas.
Having worked in between at the Lake City Army Ammunition Plant, which opened in Independence in 1940, he had a leg up for a job passing ammo. The other skill that helped — and that he would later say may have saved his life — is that he could type quickly and accurately.
It is clear now that the creation of his ordnance outfit at Camp Sutton on Nov. 23, 1942, was one small part of the massive preparations underway for the greatest invasion in history, which would occur 17 months later on June 6, 1944.
“Since a lot of these fellas have found out that this is an overseas outfit, they are attempting to be reclassified (flat feet, fallen arches, over 38 in age and etcetera). Well by damn I won’t try it. I’m in this outfit to do a job and I can’t yell quits until the job is done.” — Camp Sutton, Dec. 15, 1942.
He shipped out of Hampton Roads, Va., in September 1943 on the Gen. John Pope, a troop carrier steaming to Scotland on her maiden voyage.
“… frankly, we were all half scared to death all the time. We encountered a severe storm and several times imagined that we were being pursued by a host of u-boats and sea serpents.”
They billeted in England nearly a year until D-Day, as the Allies quietly assembled 11,000 planes, 2.5 million tons of supplies, hundreds of ships and 2.9 million men.
“To give you an idea of the state representation in this camp, among other tunes I heard a soldier playing on the guitar ‘There’s a Home in Wyoming,’ a French harp slithering out ‘Deep in the Heart of Texas’ and one lonesome GI whistling ‘Carry me Back to old Virginny.’ … The fellow in the next tent down, who is a reasonable facsimile of Harry James, was mournfully tooting ‘Carolina Moon’ on his trumpet.” — England, Dec. 30, 1943.
According to the official history of the 689th, the company first saw action on July 13 at Depot 100, a half mile northwest of Formigny, France.
This is where the letters begin to take on a more somber tone; where the war finally comes into sharp focus. They reveal a coming of age by fire.
“We’ve got a job to do sweetheart, a huge tremendous project that won’t and can’t wait. We’ve got an adversary to crush that is powerful, cautious and fanatical. There isn’t an iota of doubt in my mind that we won’t be able to do it, but the big element is time and that is something that we mortals have very little to reason or reckon with.”
They become a diary of his growing despair over the mundanity of war.
“The boys on the front line have certainly had their headaches, what with all of the mud, rain and weather. … The mud has become so bad that our highest headquarters has offered some valuable prizes for suggestions on how to combat it. First prize is a trip to Paris.”
Loss: “We had to send a detachment of men to a small ammo depot in Luxembourg in March … they were unloading some German bombs in a demolition pit … when one of them prematurely exploded and set off the others, making a hell of an explosion. Five men were killed outright. One died on the way to the hospital (135 miles away) and one died three days later. It sent seven other men to the hospital … one of them is blind and one may lose a leg.”
Dreaming of post-war plans: “Can’t you just see us now walking down Armour Boulevard, your arm in mine, smiling at everyone we meet; our hearts skipping a couple of beats now and then. After church, dinner at Nance’s or the Green Lantern or a steak at the Savoy; an afternoon walk to Swope Park.”
The high point for the 689th came in December 1944. By Christmas, the Battle of the Bulge was well underway, and more German planes strafed the depot.
The company had become the forward ASP for Patton’s Third Army and an important ammo source for the First, Ninth and Seventh armies. It operated 24 hours a day, and later received what its official history called one of the “finest commendations ever written by the Third Army.”
I’m in this outfit to do a job and I can’t yell quits until the job is done.
1st Sgt. Bill McGraw, Camp Sutton, Dec. 15, 1942
By the time of Franklin Roosevelt’s death in April 1945, the 689th was in Germany. By then, perhaps because of what he had been through, 1st Sgt. McGraw felt confident enough to handicap a new president from what would later become his adopted home town.
“The news of President Roosevelt’s death was naturally quite a shock to all of us…. The big question now is what kind of a president will Truman make. Lots of the fellas consider him still a Pendergast man and more of a politician than a statesman.”
Another death that would more directly affect him was soon to follow: “This is a Wednesday morning May 2nd. The Sun is out and bright, the birds are singing and the radio told us last night that Hitler was dead. Now it is only a question of hours or days before the complete surrender of Germany.”
Years later, in the mid-1980s, while I was working for The Hartford Courant, my parents came for a visit. My wife and I joined them for a trip to Kennebunkport, Maine, to attend what would be his last reunion of the 689th.
It was a pleasant evening. The liquor flowed. Nearly everyone there had a story to share with or about “sarge.”
As the evening was winding down, a diminutive man approached us on the deck, as Dad and I shared one last drink together — the last time we would have the chance.
This was 40 years after the war ended.
“Sarge, you son of a bitch,” he growled. “You sent me to the front and changed my life forever.”
My father just stood there for a moment, then explained that there wasn’t much choice in the matter, that this fellow was the last unmarried man in the company; that his hands were tied by Army regulations.
It didn’t matter; he stomped off in a huff. Two years later, 1st Sgt. Bill McGraw was dead.
As noted in former Kansas City Times reporter Rick Atkinson’s exhaustive trilogy on the war, from which I have drawn liberally here: “By the time Japan surrendered, on Sept. 2, 1945, the Second World War had lasted six years and a day, ensnaring almost 60 nations. … Sixty million had died in those six years, including nearly 10 million in Germany and Japan, and more than twice that number in the Soviet Union.”
My father’s story is just one of 16 million that could be told by the servicemen in World War II, 400,000 of which ended on or near the battlefield.
He left his sons five bronze stars, four overseas bars and 372 letters home.
He was one of the lucky ones. He survived. And it’s clear to me now that the war, and what it took from him, had a lot more to do with making him the man he was — proud, confident and intent on living large — than I had ever considered.
“Telling: Kansas City” at National WWI Museum and Memorial
Local veterans and military family members will speak about their experiences at 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday, Oct. 20 and 23; and 2 p.m. Saturday and Oct. 24 at the National WWI Museum and Memorial, 100 W. 26th St. Performances are hosted by the museum, KCPT and by The Telling Project. Tickets are $10; $7 for museum members and $5 for veterans. www.theworldwar.org