This week marks the anniversary of PFC Bernie Tom’s death on 9 October 1944. After reading three binders of letters from him to his parents and friends, and some from his parents and friends to him, I chose to write a few articles to honor his life and service. Also to explain what we can learn about our soldiers through their words. You can read the first article, Band of Brothers in Letters – Bernie Tom KIA 9 October 1944.
All quotes are typed as Bernie wrote them, spelling and punctuation.
Bernie arrives overseas early in 1944, first landing in Ireland. the V-Mail to his parents for 19 February 1944 stated, “The Crossing was awful, especially for me. I was sick most of the time. Not so much sea sickness but it was the food. It was the worst I had ever left on my plate. I lost about 10 pounds all together.”
Can you imagine losing 10 pounds within a short period of time crossing the Atlantic? For most of these soldiers, this was their first time on a boat or a ship. I wonder what they were thinking, how they felt.
As the months of February and March 1944 go on, Bernie reports the food is better, he is better and that he will have a lot to tell his parents when he gets back. His letters provide a sense that he will return. In some of his letters, there is a sense of homesickness, as he describes thinking about his mother’s apple pie or playing football with his friends. He also seems to mention in most of his letters, that he received another letter from his parents dated x, and it took a month/2 weeks etc. to cross the ocean. In future months, Bernie reports the air mail is much faster than V-Mail and asks his parents to send air mail stamps.
Bernie often has to cancel dates with local girls because of last minute guard duty he is told to do. He mentions this often in his letters.
By April 1944, the unit has moved from Ireland to Scotland to England and by 10 April 1944 (exact date unknown until I do the research), Bernie has been assigned to F Co 506th PIR 101st Airborne.
His letter of 17 April 1944 stated he was in the field for a week and it rained the entire time. The men stayed in the same clothes all week as it rain fell and the mud got deeper. Seems they were being prepared for what was to come – fewer showers and changes of clothes.
Bernie writes his parents often and while he seems to write at least weekly, and often more when he knows he’s about to move, he apologizes for not writing enough. In his 1 May 1944 letter he ends with, “PS – I think your the swellest folks a guy could ever have. I love you both more than you’ll ever know.”
As the month of May progresses, Bernie writes more often to his parents, using V-Mail as the primary communication tool. He talks about a night jump he did where he was not injured. Mentions friends he received letters from and boys from Athens, OH, where he’s from that he runs into here and there. Thanks his parents for every box they send filled with cookies, candy, film, and other things Bernie requests. He always mentions how much the boys in the barracks enjoy the box as each time one receives a box, they all share.
Wouldn’t it be great if all of us stopped to appreciate these “small” things in life and stopped blowing up over the insignificant things? Every letter Bernie writes and mentions a box, is filled with gratitude. You can feel it. What would it be like if we all lived that way every day?
As May winds down, Bernie’s letters increase as he must know things will happen soon. He tells his parents more than once, not to worry if he doesn’t write for a while, he’s just out in the field. One very interesting thing he wrote on 23 May 1944 is a request for his parents to donate all his clothing, except the uniforms he sent home. He wants to buy all new clothes when he returns. The energy I picked up on this letter was strange – I couldn’t quite tell if he knew he would never return home or if his body had already changed so much from the food (or lack of) and training, that after the war, he would not be the same as he was before – in any aspect.
Finally, as D-Day approaches, Bernie sends off several more letters and mentions he has no idea what is happening with the war. The Athens Messenger newspaper he was receiving is at least a month old. The men are told almost nothing. So he is not able to respond if his parents mention something in their letters. Sadly all their letters do not exist in this collection. A few do, but not all.
What else can we learn about Bernie’s service from his letters? Well, he is about to jump into Normandy and there are more letters to read.
© 2017 World War II Research and Writing Center
D Marc says
Have you ever tried to relate it to soldiers nowadays? Or how soldiers think in general? Selling clothes for example is not a strange thing to do and many still do. I lost weight once for example but most important: I was making more money and was looking forward to buy new clothes. No more use for my old clothes so it would be better of with people in need of clothes and asked my family to get rid of it The first huge joint airborne exercise in Tennessee in 1943 was also without changing clothes and showers for example. Not a real exception, more a common thing for them.
Jennifer Holik says
Thank you for your comment. My target at this time is to explain information found in records, letters, photographs, to get people to consider things no one talks about. To go deeper into the research. To heal family wounds. I also cannot put everything I’d like to into an article or one of my books or programs. People have short attention spans these days.
When I lecture and ask the audience, ‘Did you know the men would be in the field a month without showers? Did you ever stop to think about the conditions in which they fought during the Battle of the Bulge? Did you consider what their feelings were, or those of their families, as these men were fighting? Do you consider how long it took for information to go up the line of command and get to families? That mistakes were made in identification of soldiers OR that we had pencil and paper then to document things not DNA and a computer?’
Most people stare blankly back because most in this day and age of daily showers, instant social media/email communication, DNA, computers, comfortable homes/clothes, never consider these things. I then explain when we explore these files and especially if we write the stories, it should be more than names, dates, and places. Go to the depth of ‘it was 5 above zero the day my cousin James was killed in the Battle of the Bulge. The men had been freezing for weeks as the ice first came after rain and mud. Then snow up to their knees. James was killed by a high explosive shell and not recovered right away.’ THAT makes people stop and think for a moment. That is my target.
What seems like a common thing for soldiers then (in our eyes as researchers or soldiers or whatever role we take) is not common for most Americans. I help bring these things into the light.