letters home

Sometimes I am inexplicably drawn to things. That happened today when I bought a pack of letters a son wrote to his mother throughout World War II.

His name was William Rapp. The letters are from him to his mother. Her name was Florence Rapp and she lived in New Tripoli Lehigh County.

The letters start in November of 1942 when he is at Fort George G. Meade in Maryland.

The first letter I read he is telling his mother about a Veronica Lake movie he saw called “I Married a Witch”. That made me smile because I remember watching it as a little girl on the black-and-white television in my parents’ breakfast room – I loved that movie!

I have not read all the letters yet, although I have sat here obsessively reading them since I got home a little while ago.

The letters progress from being hand written on stationary to War Department V-Mail Service letters.

The V-Mail letters are like photo copies of the original letters and shrunk and mailed in tiny envelopes.

From Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum:

V-Mail or Victory mail, was a valuable tool for the military during World War II. The process, which originated in England, was the microfilming of specially designed letter sheets. Instead of using valuable cargo space to ship whole letters overseas, microfilmed copies were sent in their stead and then “blown up” at an overseas destination before being delivered to military personnel

I never knew about this mail process until I bought these letters. It’s fascinating.

William, or Billy as he sometimes signs his letters, is a prolific writer. And the letters stretch well into 1945. They go from London to France to I’m not sure where – I will learn that as I finish reading the letters.

But in these letters the soldier writes home to his mom, we learn about life in wartime Europe although I daresay it seems he sanitized the conditions somewhat to spare her feelings and keep her from worrying.

He speaks about seeing a play in London with, and a vacation pass of sorts where he went on a trip to Scotland.

We have a glimpse into a soldier’s life in France during World War II when he speaks about learning to sleep in a sleeping bag on the ground covered with pine needles.

One letter that really got to me so far was writing to his mother after he learned his grandmother had died.

Another letter, I learned he had been at Muhlenberg before war broke out.

I found his obituary. He passed away in 2007:

The Morning Call: William R. Rapp Obituary

William R. Rapp, 85, of New Tripoli, passed away on Tuesday, September 11 in his home, where he enjoyed gardening and chess. Born in Allentown, he was a son of the late Louis and Florence M. (Kuntz) Rapp. He was a 1938 graduate of Slatington High School with honors, fourth in his class and a member of the National Honor Society. Graduating with senior honors from Muhlenberg College in 1942, he was admitted to the A.S.T.P. at Ft. Bragg, N.C., and subsequently attended the Georgia Institute of Technology for one year studying mathematics and engineering. Bill served active military duty overseas in both the European and Pacific theaters of War during World War II in the Army attaining the rank of T/4 with the 3186 Signal Service Battalion. He attained a military specialty in that capacity although he saw no combat in the Pacific because the war ended before he reached Manila, Philippines.

Once he returned to the Lehigh Valley, Bill was employed by PP&L for four years being given a special training program. He was a commercial representative in Lancaster County and wrote ad copy. He was employed by Bethlehem Steel Corp. for 26 years dividing his time between industrial engineering and computer science. He was a member of Chapter 77 of the Industrial Engineering Society while employed as an industrial engineer. In computer science, he wrote FORTRAN programs for mainframes, principally I.B.M. Bill also wrote several in-house papers for Bethlehem Steel for maintenance, and also for providing for the combination mill at Saucon Mills as well as multiple machine interference factors.

He owns a copyright in a development of Ellipse Odyssey written in basic language of an Apple Computer. He was a member of New Life Evangelical Lutheran Church, New Tripoli. Survivors: There are no immediate survivors.

Services: Graveside services will be at 10:30 a.m. Friday, September 14, Ebenezer Cemetery, New Tripoli. No calling hours. Arrangements by Keller Funeral Homes, New Tripoli. Contributions: To be made to the church, c/o the funeral home, P.O. Box 75, New Tripoli, PA 18066.

Published in Morning Call on Sept. 12, 2007

And now I, a perfect stranger, have some of his letters home. I don’t know their journey on their way to reach me since the obituary states he died without survivors. I’m not sure that he ever married.

There are so few of the greatest generation left. And when we speak about honoring veterans, these are the small stories we should remember. The stories of good men who throughout our history, have fought for our freedoms.

Thanks for stopping by.

provenance

When you buy an antique or vintage or collectible item, people often speak of the “provenance” of the item. Provenance (from the French provenir, “to come from”), is the chronology of the ownership of an object. The term was originally mostly used in relation to works of art, but is now used in similar senses in a wide range of things and fields.

I like to know the provenance of things I buy, even if it isn’t an antique or true collectible. These things all have a story, and sometimes the back story or journey is more wonderful than the item.

Today, I had that happen.

I went to an estate sale in Malvern, but in Charlestown Township.  It was magical.

I drove up this beautiful little road that was deeply wooded, and so quiet save for the early morning song birds. I parked and walked down the driveway. It was a pretty house. Modest in size, it was lovely in its surroundings in the woods.

I greeted the estate sale people whom I like a great deal and have dealt with several times before – Caring Transitions of Chester County. When they run a sale or an auction they are so wonderful to deal with. They research what they are selling, price fairly if they are doing an estate sale, and the sales are neat and organized and easy to navigate with items priced clearly. They have staff in the majority of the rooms and it is always just a pleasure to deal with them. 

And they are legitimately estate sales when they hold them, as not all sales that call themselves that are. And while some estate sale companies seem to create states of chaos where people are just grabbing and often stealing things while nearly destroying the homes, Caring Transitions doesn’t operate in that manner. They are nice, knowledgable professionals.  They run a nice, tight ship.

I walked into the house and the first thing I noticed was how happy the house felt if that makes any sense. It was spotlessly clean, but just had a nice vibe. I had come for nutcrackers and Christmas ornaments I had seen advertised but found other things.

The woman who had lived there had been an amazing embroidery and needlepoint and petit point artist. The needlework took my breath away. An estate sale professional in an upstairs room told me the lady of the house had been German. I asked her if she had been a war bride. “How did you know?” said the employee. I pointed to some of the World War II uniforms hanging in a closet.

I have been to estate sales where old military uniforms were sort of tossed in piles in corners. Not these. Lovingly hung in closets, and neatly folded in opened footlockers or trucks. These uniforms meant something. Looking at them was like a history lesson.

I wandered into what had been the master bedroom and saw this completely lovely framed sampler, just lying displayed on the bed. I love vintage samplers. To me they are the ultimate in folk art. I have several little ones scattered around my house. 

I bought the sampler. 

I drove home thinking how warm and happy the house had felt.  When I got home I hung up the sampler. The woman who made it in 1988 had stitched her name in it. Annaliese Nagel.

I decided to Google her obituary to learn more about this needlework magician to give my sampler more of a provenance. I found it and learned more about Annaliese Nagel:

ANNELIESE NAGEL OF CHARLESTOWN Anneliese Nagel, 89, of Charlestown, was taken by her Lord on Friday, September 7, 2012. She was the wife of Harry W. Nagel, with whom she shared 66 years of marriage. Born in Heddesheim Germany, she was the youngest child of the late Katharine and Johannes Scherb. She moved with her family to Westtown where she lived for 17 years before moving to Charlestown. She attended schools in the Heidelberg area of Germany and later took courses at the Technical University in

Hannover, Germany where her husband was studying under a Fulbright grant.

She was a homemaker in the fullest sense of the word, an expert cook, baker and a gracious hostess who truly enjoyed people. She was also expert in many forms of needlework, through which her memory will live on in many of the homes of friends and family .

Now I wanted to know about her husband. So I Googled again. I found her beloved husband,  Harry Nagel. I hope his family is not upset, but I am sharing a big chunk of his obituary. He wrote it himself, and he was part of the Greatest Generation and theirs was such a love story, and what a life he lived!

 

Obituary for Harry W. Nagel

Hi everyone! It’s me, Harry. I’ve decided to create my obit myself prior to the actual event. I thought this might make for more interesting reading. The two photos illustrate the toll time takes on all of us. One was Harry at 20, the other is Harry at 82. 

I had hoped to survive until stem cell technology or some other medical procedure might enable once vital organs to be reproduced, therefore, extending life. However, should dementia or Alzheimer’s intervene, life extension would be a questionable goal.

I was born in Union City, NJ on 21 January 1925, the first child of Anne Elise Christine Nagel (nee Von Spreckelsen) and Harry Conrad Nagel. I grew up during the ‘Great Depression” in, strangely named, West New York , NJ . Upon graduation from Memorial High School in 1942, I was accepted at Columbia College (Columbia University), class of 1946. However, December 7, 19 41 changed America’s and my destiny. As most of my former classmates were already in the armed forces, I volunteered for the Army on my 18th birthday.

After training in lesser known vacation destinations in Alabama and Louisiana and having been introduced to such denizens as coral snakes, armadillos, wild boar, chiggers, heat rash and fellow Americans who could neither read nor write, we embarked for England on the army transport, George Washington, in the midst of a 100+ ship convoy.

While in England, we engaged in the same type of exciting training which we had done in Louisiana, substituting cool rain for heat and humidity. Then, that mysterious hand of fate loaded us onto ships, and, the next we knew, we were stepping off of LCIs (Landing Craft Infantry) into the mud and wreckage of Omaha Beach , France. The beach landing was required as all of the French ports were still incapable of accepting ships.

Life as a PFC (Private First Class), rifleman, infantry, was about as grim as it got. During WWI we were called ‘Cannon Fodder!’ Our division was employed in combat in Holland , Belgium and Germany . The Battle of the Bulge began on 16 Dec. 1944 . We were there on 17 December. It was there I earned my first Purple Heart medal (first of two). This got me out of the snow and a happy stay at a huge hospital in LeMans, France. There I was patched up and returned to my rifle company as ‘fit for duty’.

After crossing the Rhine we fought our way across Germany (Purple Heart #2) to link up with our Soviet comrades on the Elbe River . Shortly thereafter, as the territory we had bled for was to become the Soviet Zone of Occupation (later East Germany ), we were moved to the Heidelberg area. It was there I was to meet my future wife, Anneliese. As Americans were prohibited from marrying Germans at the time, I was returned to the US in November 1945 and discharged from the army in December 1945.

Resolved to return to Anneliese, I joined the Merchant Marines, signing on the George Washington (the ship which took me to England as an infantryman) as an engine room oiler. The ship was being used to return German soldiers who had been US prisoners of war to Europe. On one voyage to LeHavre , France , I jumped ship and, disguised as a German POW, made my way into the city of LeHavre , dressed as a seaman. From there I traveled by train to Strasburg via Paris. There, disguised as a French soldier, I was able to cross the Rhine back into Germany and back to Anneliese.

After a couple romantic months, with me disguised as a German civilian with a German ID card, I decided to turn myself in to the US authorities and try a legally approved approach to remain in Germany. This approach saw me incarcerated in the 19th century Bermen City prison. After my trial I was permitted to re-enlist in the US Army. I was assigned to third Army Hq. (General Patton) in the intelligence section in Heidelberg . Anneliese could not believe our good luck! As I was fluent in German, one of my more interesting assignments was to interrogate ex-SS personnel and war crimes suspects at the former concentration camp, Dachau . While there I also sat in on the trial of Ilsa Koch who had been the wife of the commandant of the concentration camp, Buchenwald. Ilsa, known as ‘The Bitch of Buchenwald ,” was accused of having inmates with interesting tattoos killed and skinned. She allegedly then made lamp shades of these skins.

In December 1948, Anneliese, our two children and I left Bremen on a tramp steamer bound for Mobile AL , and then on to Leonia, NJ to stay with my dad and two younger brothers. From there I commuted daily to Columbia where I had been re-admitted. Motivated by my family I earned three degrees in five years, receiving an AB, BS and MS in Chemical Engineering, topped off by a Fulbright Grant to do post-graduate work at the West German Petroleum Institute in Hanover , West Germany . While there Anneliese and I traveled widely and the children stayed with relatives and went to German schools. Upon returning to the US, I resumed work at Sunoco where I had already worked summers while at Columbia, retiring in 1983.

My second career! While at Columbia, the Cold War with the Soviet Union was intensifying. Having been an NCO (Non-commissioned Officer) in the Infantry, I was convinced, should war break out, I’d be right back at my old WWII job. As a result, I took advantage of an existing law and applied for a direct commission as a second lieutenant as I knew my family would be better off if something happened to me. At this time I had no further interest in the Army. Fate intervened! I met a fellow officer at Columbia who convinced me to attend an Army Reserve meeting with a group of ex-WWII infantrymen. I was hooked! 

At this writing I am a retired colonel, having completed the Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and the Army War College at Carlisle, PA , with over 36 years of combined active and reserve service.


What a life they had! What quite literally,  a love story.  My sampler has its provenance. And I learned the happy house I visited today had as part of it’s history, it’s provenance, and amazing love story. 

Thank you Annaliese for my sampler. I will treasure it and remember your story.