Recently, my mother handed me a scrapbook of letters my great-grandmother had received from her son – my great uncle, Leroy – while he served in the Army during WWII. As a writer, my mom thought they’d be great inspiration for my next novel. The letters were fascinating for many reasons, and I grew to know a relative I never had the privilege of meeting. I had head to toe goose bumps when I read how he had planned to be a writer after the war, wanting to buy a typewriter as soon as he got home. My grandfather (Leroy’s brother) had told me how the two of them had planned to start a band, but it was the first I’d heard about Leroy’s love of writing.
My great uncle was in the Army’s 4th Infantry Division and trained for years for one purpose: to storm the beaches of France, march through Europe and defeat the enemy. He’d told my great-grandmother about learning to use the bayonet, wade through swampy waist-high waters carrying supplies, and even meeting General Eisenhower. After missing Christmases and years with his family, D-Day grew closer but he couldn’t even tell them when he was to depart; it was all top secret.
Some of his letters were redacted, but he did manage to send my great-grandma a scrap of newspaper with the date and hid a message. He had scrawled, “My overseas physical is Friday. This is it, Mom. Don’t worry. Keep quiet.”
There were more letters once he reached England, and the last letter was dated May 30th (today!). He told her not to worry. His final words to her were, “It might be three or four years, but I’ll be home.” Leroy was among the first to hit the beaches of Normandy (code name, Utah Beach) under German fire.
My great-grandmother had a few letters that she wrote to him after D-day, but they are at the end of the scrapbook stamped “Return to Sender.” He was reported missing, and on August 8, 1944, two months after the invasion, he was officially reported as deceased. His final words to her came true when his body was returned to the U.S. “four years” later and laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery.
We were always told he died during the first day of the invasion, but his tombstone says, June 7th. No one knows exactly what happened, but he never made it home alive. Never made it past his 22nd birthday. Never formed a band and never became a writer. Or did he? Because his letters are richer than any novel I’ve ever read or could ever write.
But one letter in particular hit me directly in the heart and filled me with immense pride and gratitude for a man I never met, but share his DNA. It was a letter he sent on his final Christmas on this earth. He lists each family member and what he imagined they were doing Christmas day – Grandma in the kitchen, cousins laughing, and then he goes onto say,
“That’s why I joined the Army, to fight, mom, so that those things can go on in the future. So that Americans can speak freely, read a newspaper that isn’t censored, so that a Christian may worship in any way he chooses. These are the things we are fighting for, why I joined to fight, and by God, I am ready to die fighting for them if necessary…I’ll see you after the war. Don’t worry about me. I’ll be back as good as I left. I’ll be a better man.”
So, I did find inspiration for another novel in his writings, but really, I found inspiration to live my life to the fullest, to be grateful and proud to be an American, to thank him and all our military every day for the abundance of freedoms we enjoy daily. And to my great-grandmother: the glaringly empty pages at the end of the scrapbook tell the tale of her sacrifice she made for our country, as well.
Leroy Erickson did not die in vain and he achieved a goal bigger than writing a book or starting a band – he helped to protect our American way of life. His division went down as one of the most successful from World War ll. Those who survived stormed through and liberated France, participated in the Battle of the Bulge, leading to the eventual defeat of Hitler.
Thank you, Uncle Leroy, for your service and your sacrifice and to all those who fell with you. To those who did not go on to achieve another personal goal, but achieved the greatest goal of all. Thank you.
Visit Lori’s website: http://www.lorimjones.com