Today we remember PFC Bernard (Bernie) Tom of F Company 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment 101st Airborne, who was Killed In Action on the dike between Randwijk and Heteren, Netherlands, near the Crossroads. If you know where Dukeman was killed and turn around, that is where F Company also fought.
My husband, Johan van Waart, adopted Bernie’s grave at Margraten (Netherlands American Cemetery). Several years ago he connected with one of Bernie’s nephews and niece in-law, who gave Johan a collection of photographs, documents, and over 100 letters Bernie wrote just prior to joining the Army until just before his death. These letters have never been published.
I started reading these letters and after reading 39, I have a better idea of who Bernie was as a man and soldier. I know about people in his family and town. I am able to document much of his service history that may have been in his OMPF (it did not survive the fire). I’m also learning a lot about the training itself. This is the first article about the contents of Bernie’s letters and what we can all learn by reading wartime letters.
Bernie’s OMPF (service file) burned. Only seven pages remain which contain letters and requests for information written by relatives in the 1980s. The information provided in this article is only the tip of the iceberg. My target is to help readers understand the depth of information you can find in these family letters.
The letters begin on 3 November 1942, when Bernie is living in Akron, Ohio, having left Athens, OH for work. His letter mentions he took his exams for the “Navy and the Air Corps.” He wished to fly planes, based on the information in his letters.
Once Bernie is in the military, much of the paper he uses to write letters is on camp letterhead or some really cool Paratrooper letterhead. His letters are primarily written with fountain pens in ink colors of red, black, and various shades of blue, though a few are in pencil.
He enlisted in the Army on 1 February 1943 and went to Camp Taccoa to join the Airborne. He did not initially make the cut due to low blood pressure. By the end of the month, he was transferred to Fort Jackson, SC and assigned to H Co 328th Infantry Regiment 26th Infantry Division. In his letter to his parents, he said, “I didn’t tell you because I didn’t want you to worry, but Camp Toccoa was a hole. I mean it was awful but this place is O.K. good food barracks and such.”
Using the envelopes that are with each letter, I am able to establish a timeline of his service history because some of his letters only say “Saturday evening”. The envelopes are important because not only do they have the date they were posted but also from where. Without the envelopes, I would not have known he spent a lot of time at Camp Mackall. It is so important if you have envelopes with the letters to keep them with the letters!
I can document the units and training camps Bernie was in until the point he officially entered the 101st Airborne. Bernie mentions as he is transferred from one unit to another (and camp to another) his service records are “lost” and it takes a long time for them to make their way to his current location. This caused him some issues with rank and pay while waiting for his records to show up.
Many of his letters mention family members, including his brother who is in the Army Air Forces. He mentions many of the friends from Athens, Ohio, he knew. This information is especially important for anyone writing about wartime in Athens, Ohio. It was a small town and using letters from soldiers, may provide information about the whereabouts and service of the young men who left to fight.
Bernie appeared to have a strong work ethic and sense of adventure young men often have. Prior to joining the Airborne, he volunteers to take a swimming instructor course, in which he stated, “It’s a 50 hr course on [i] time. One class i 4 hr. long every afternoon. During this course I’ll swim through burning oil, and with a full field pack. It’s very interesting work.” In the same letter he talks about a Ranger course he took. “One time I crawled 75 yds under machine gun fire dodging blasts of T.N.T. also I had to craw under 30 ft of barbed wire entanglements. We also did many other interesting things such as, a booby trap course, T.N.T. course, and ect.” (All misspellings are his.)
He documents some, but not all of his jumps, with details about each one. Using the letter dates, I can tell you what dates he jumped. His letters indicate the day he received his jump boots. I learned more about his paratrooper training and when he is transferred after training to a replacement depot and heads overseas. Bernie was not officially in an Airborne unit until early 1944 when he is overseas.
There is so much information in these letters, it would take a book to explain it all. I hope this first article gives you an idea of who Bernie was, a little about his service, and the depth of information you can find in these letters.
Thank you Bernie for your service. We will keep you memory alive.
Does your family have letters from your soldier? Are the envelopes in which they came still with the letters? What information can you learn about your soldier’s service history, his family, and life from these documents?
© 2017 World War II Research and Writing Center