Tag: World War II

Thelma’s Rosy Response

Stories of war, like global pandemics, aren’t only about those fighting on the front lines. There are the lovers, the brothers, the sisters, who worry and wait. They wonder about the worst and hope for the best.

***

World War II was winding down, while Walter’s older sister Thelma waited five long weeks in eastern Missouri for his next words. She didn’t receive his May 16, 1945 letter and photo of him linking arms with a somber Czechoslovakian girl until Friday, June 22.

Evidently, the Army bundled it with two others he wrote on June 10 and 12. The U.S. military transported all three across the Atlantic Ocean with a sea of other correspondence from service men and women stationed in Europe.

In 1945, Thelma was a single-and-sentimental-thirty-six-year-old secretary. By day, she worked at a branch of the Kroger Grocery & Baking Company in St. Louis. After completing her shift, she boarded the streetcar to 4218 Labadie Avenue on the north side of town. That’s where she lived in a modest, two-story, rented home with Louise and Albert Johnson, her mother and father.

My aunt was a gardening guru. A real rose and ballroom lover. Later, in the 1960’s when she and her husband Ralph owned a suburban St. Louis home, it was her ritual to lead us on a parade through her backyard to admire her flowers.

Through that gardening lens, I can imagine her coming home from Kroger on Friday, June 22, 1945, kicking off her shoes, flipping through the mail, and eagerly opening Walter’s letters while waltzing through her parents’ postage-stamp-size Victory Garden. That summer it might have been brimming with vegetables and herbs (perhaps even a few ruby-red roses) designed to supplement food rations and boost morale.

No matter how close or far my fantasy is from reality, I have in my possession proof that Thelma penned a rosy response to her brother later that night in an attempt to bolster his sagging spirit.

Here’s an excerpt of that letter, dated June 22, 1945 and postmarked June 26, 1945. She sent it via air mail from Chicago, Illinois. Incidentally, the Drake Hotel Thelma refers to, just east of North Michigan Avenue on Chicago’s Gold Coast, still operates today. It’s a few blocks south of Oak Street Beach, where Thelma and Vi likely tanned themselves that weekend on the shore of Lake Michigan.

***

Dearest Walter, 

Your fine letters of June 10 and 12 arrived today and found us happy and anxious for word from you. Also, we received today those wonderful pictures taken by you in Czechoslovakia. They are really “super” Wal and that little girl is a doll. Vi was here for supper and she too was pleased and happy by seeing you again … if only in a photograph. You look thinner, Wal–but as Vi said–he’s regained his figure and looks wonderfully handsome, younger, and really on the beam. We surely are proud of our dearest Walter boy, and justly so. I have the negative you sent in a recent letter and shall have it developed too … it looks like another Czech girl, right? …

Well Wal, Vi and I leave in the a.m. for Chicago and since the weather has taken a change for the good … we hope to have nice sunshine and a chance to get a tan on the beach and am sure we’ll find the “Drake” the finest hotel in Chicago as it’s accessible to everything …

I am enclosing some snapshots taken on Mother’s Day, Wal, and with them comes all our love to you, our dearest and most missed member. I hope you get to be around Paris for a while … so you can take it all in … and I’m hoping too you’ll be assigned to occupation forces even though it would delay our meeting it would ensure its being permanent when it did come …

With all the love of your loving but lonesome family and many thanks for the fine pictures (and I hope there’ll be more later–I can send film so just ask Wal and its yours) until a little later then its ever and always.

Your loving sister,

Thelma xxxxx

***

I’m not sure if Walter, my father, ever made it to Paris that summer. But when Thelma wrote her letter six weeks after V-E Day, there was the frightening possibility he would be shipped east to help fight the war still raging in the Pacific Theatre.

Instead, he returned to the United States on the U.S.S. Monticello in July 1945, carrying his dog tags, nightmares, a foot locker filled with possessions, and a fistful of family love letters. Dad received his honorable discharge from the U.S. Army on October 11, 1945.

This is one of the photos Thelma enclosed with her June 22, 1945 message. Thelma–the ever-exuberant, flower enthusiast–is on the right, smiling behind her corsage. Violet, my father’s twin sister, is on the left. On the back, Thelma wrote:

To our dearest brother Walter with all the deepest love of his adoring sisters

Violet & Thelma, May 13, 1945

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What Happened Seventy-Five Years Ago?

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Sometimes, long after a chapter is written, lived or buried, you unearth a grainy photo and analyze it more closely. It prompts you to consider what you suspect, but will never really know. That the truth of war, like global pandemics, is often too painful for the traumatized to reconcile, resolve and recount.

***

Who was the Czechoslovakian girl posing in May 1945 with my father Walter A. Johnson, a sergeant in the 23rd Infantry Regiment, 2nd Division? What became of her in those days after Nazi Germany surrendered? What happened to her parents? Did she have siblings? Were they split apart by the war? Did they ever reconnect? Did she have nightmares about death and destruction like the ones my sensitive father carried back with him from Europe?

I’ve fabricated my own scenario about the photo and Dad’s handwritten message on the flip side. Maybe Walter simply wanted to share a harmless, tender image of his war experience with his parents, Albert and Louise, and his older sister Thelma … without acknowledging the bloodshed.

Perhaps he needed to pretend that everything in his world was all right even if it wasn’t. To imagine that in the madness of war he had been able to put his arm around and comfort at least one lost soul in the land he would leave behind. Even if it wasn’t his own.

One of Walter’s old army buddies–Corporal A. W. Donahue from Holyoke, Massachusetts–apparently knew him well. He wrote this in Dad’s pocket-size My Life in the Service book:

“The best-natured and biggest-hearted guy I’ve met in the Army is my old pal, Walt Johnson.”

Though I’ll never really know what happened seventy-five years ago in Europe, I am fortunate to read and hold this record of my father’s true nature, along with a short stack of family letters written and mailed from St. Louis and Chicago in 1945. The handwritten and typed sentiments would help keep his spirits afloat, when he thought he might be destined for another round of duty in the Pacific. Fortunately, for him and me, that never happened.

In the coming days, I’ll be sharing excerpts of at least one of the letters he received from Thelma. It was just like him to tuck them in his foot locker and bring them all home.

For All the Soldiers on the Hill

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Every year at this time thoughts of my father resurface. Mostly because Veterans Day is drawing near. Dad served during World War II in the Battle of the Bulge. But also because he died in the eleventh month of the year. A second heart attack took him on November 26, 1993. It was the day after Thanksgiving nearly twenty-six years ago.

Now that I live in Arizona, it’s less convenient for me to visit Walter Johnson’s grave at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery south of St. Louis. But I have no difficulty summoning vivid recollections of him from afar.

I remember a tender moment between us sometime in the 1980s when he asked me if I liked the idea of him one day being buried in a national cemetery alongside other soldiers who’d served during the Civil War, World War I, World War II, and the Vietnam War. (Unfortunately, the list goes on.) I told him I thought it would be the perfect, peaceful resting place for him. A proud patriot. A man who loved his country. A citizen who served it to the best of his ability.

Over the years, I’ve been inspired to tell Dad’s story. This unfulfilled poet of good intentions–this complicated, compassionate and troubled comrade, deeply affected by the horrors of war and bipolar disorder–appears in all three of my books in various forms.

Recently, I came across a poem in a file of prose I’ve written over the past thirty years. At the time I penned this one in 1996, my grief for Walter Johnson was fresh. I had just visited his grave. I was searching for answers. Still reeling from my failed first marriage. Doing my best to raise two young sons. Finally coming out of the closet. Beginning to connect the disparate strands of my emerging life.

As it turns out, the passage of time (along with greater understanding, acceptance and forgiveness) helped me heal my wounds, find my path, and build an integrated life. I’m thankful for that eventual transformation. Walter wouldn’t have understood all of it, but he would have kissed me on the forehead and loved me anyway. He would have cheered me on during these late-in-life writing years I’ve been fortunate to find.

I’m grateful for the poetic propensity that came from this one particular soldier. Yes, he is long gone. His physical remains rest under the shade of a large tree not far from the banks of the Mississippi River. But his imperfect imprint will always appear in my writing. This is for him.

***

The Soldier on the Hill

I talked with the soldier on the hill today,

We sat, we cried, we laughed, we prayed.

The bells rang true, the trees stood free,

A breeze swept past to welcome me.

 

Shadows filled the landscape then,

Tempers rose without his pen.

Snowflakes fell, the grass turned green,

All without a change of scene.

 

Now the soldier rests with them,

Hand in hand—all blessed again.

They greet another trailing soul,

Who makes the journey past the knoll.

 

August 27, 1996

***

More broadly, I’m thankful for all of the soldiers on the hill. Many of them lost their lives in battle and had little or no time to discover a path or realize their dreams. We must always honor their service and sacrifices, past and present.

Ode to the D-Day Generation

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One hundred years ago,

You didn’t know what would happen in twenty-five.

You didn’t know what battles you’d fight or letters you’d write.

You only knew that school was out and the heat was rolling in.

You are gone now, but never far away in the stories we tell.

You live on the pages with your sepia-stained insights.

You will always be the ones who raised the flag high.

You will always be the ones we will never deny.

_____________________________________

Written by Mark Johnson on June 6, 2019

Photo of Violet, Thelma and Walter Johnson

1919 Bryan Hill Elementary School Picnic

St. Louis, Missouri

 

The Soldier on the Hill

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When I drafted this poem on August 27, 1996, I wrote it as a tribute to my father, Walter Johnson, who died in 1993. He was an aspiring-but-unfulfilled poet and proud World War II veteran, who fought in the Battle of the Bulge towards the end of the war in Europe.

Dad is buried here at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery–just south of St. Louis, Missouri–alongside thousands of others who served their country and, in many cases, died defending it.

As Memorial Day approaches, I’m posting this to honor Walter and all of the soldiers on the hill, who rest eternally on the banks of the Mississippi River.

***

I talked with the soldier on the hill today.

We sat, we cried, we laughed, we prayed.

The bells rang true, the trees stood free,

A breeze swept past to welcome me.

 

Shadows filled the landscape then,

Tempers rose without his pen.

Snowflakes fell, the grass turned green,

All without a change of scene.

 

Now the soldier rests with them,

Hand in hand–all blessed again.

They greet another trailing soul,

Who makes the journey past the knoll.

 

 

Thanksgiving 1993: The Mourning After

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It was eight o’clock on November 26, 1993, the morning after Thanksgiving, when I answered my phone in suburban Chicago. Mom’s voice cracked. Six words spilled out of her mouth, traveled through the phone line and hung in the air. “Mark, your Dad died this morning.”

My father had passed away peacefully in the middle of the night at his home south of St. Louis. Instantly, I no longer felt thankful. The mourning unfolded. Numbness inhabited my body.

Gradually, the facts began to sink in. My parents Helen and Walter Johnson had enjoyed the holiday with his two sisters in north St. Louis County. They had gathered at my cousin’s home for a big meal in Missouri that night. After Dad consumed a second slice of Thanksgiving pie, Mom and he kissed his sisters goodbye, drove home and prepared for bed. Shortly after midnight, Dad leaned back on his pillow and uttered, “Helen, I think I’m going to die now.” And he did. Unceremoniously.

Mom told me the paramedics came immediately after she dialed 911. They tried to revive Dad. But his second heart attack, thirty-one years after the first, claimed him that Friday morning. His life ended one week shy of his eightieth birthday.

Later that week, I stood near the banks of the Mississippi River with my mother, sister and two young sons. We watched as two stone-faced soldiers folded the flag on top of his casket into a triangle. Dad, a World War II veteran, was laid to rest at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery. He was buried by a large tree on a hill overlooking a chapel.

Twenty-five years have passed. Row after row of simple white marble stones surround my father there, marking the remains of hundreds of other veterans. I imagine each of them were as proud as Dad was of his service to his country.

I’ve probably visited Dad’s gravesite twenty times since 1993. I go there to pay my respects to my father’s well-intentioned and turbulent life, to hear the clear tones of the clarion ring from the chapel on the quarter hour, to retrace my steps between the rolling rows of stones, to gaze at the deer that saunter by, to kneel beside Dad’s grave and that of my mother’s. She joined him, the other veterans and the deer there in 2013.

I’ll never forget how my father struggled with his bipolar disorder … how he searched endlessly for relief. But with the passage of time, the pain I witnessed has sifted away. Now I’m thankful to remember the entire picture of him: his corny jokes, crooked smile and chatterbox style; his love of family, the St. Louis Cardinals and a cold bottle of beer; his enthusiasm for Big Band music, sappy old movies and overflowing cups of coffee; his unbridled sincerity and patriotism; his quest to write his poetry in the 1960s.

I’m absolutely certain Dad would have been proud of his two grandsons and the men they have become. I’m not as sure he would have understood or accepted me as a gay man. But, because I know he loved me, he would have tried. He would have marveled at how I maneuvered through life as a single dad, juggled a demanding consulting career, sang on a stage with other gay men, wrote and published three books, married and moved across the country with my husband, and forged ahead in our Arizona home after suffering a heart attack of my own on my sixtieth birthday.

In 2018, when I see the American flag flap in the breeze, watch the Cardinals play ball or board the treadmill to keep my heart strong, I think of Dad. I have greater compassion for my father’s frailties and his plight to recover from his own heart trauma in 1962.

I wish I could have one more conversation with Walter Johnson to tell him these things and hug him once again, but this will have to suffice.

You’ve been gone so long, Dad, but I still love and remember you. Happy Thanksgiving.

 

 

 

 

 

A Salute to Walter and All Veterans

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My father, Walter Albert Johnson, was an Army sergeant in the 23rd Infantry Regiment and veteran of World War II. Dad was proud of his service to his country. He fought in the Battle of the Bulge, the last great conflict of the European phase of the war.

When the war in Europe ended and Walter returned home on board the U.S.S. Monticello in July 1945, he was scheduled for a thirty-day leave prior to reassignment in the Pacific Theater of the military operation. But on August 6, 1945, the U.S. dropped the first atomic bomb on Japan. World War II ended  shortly thereafter. Walter’s fighting days were over. He received his honorable discharge from the Army on October 11, 1945.

Walter didn’t talk much about his experience as a soldier. But I know he endured foxhole fright and frozen feet alongside hundreds of other soldiers who faced a similar plight. Years later, he suffered horrible nightmares. Even so, in the early 1960s when he huddled with my sister and me along parade routes that wound down St. Louis streets,  I remember how Dad jumped to attention to salute the American flag as it passed. I admired his sense of patriotism. It was one of his finest qualities.

Though Walter has been gone nearly twenty-five years, I think of him often. Snippets of him and his lasting impressions on my life appear in all three of my books. In honor of Veterans Day and the sacrifices made by all military veterans living and deceased, the purchase price of the Kindle version of my latest book, An Unobstructed View, will be reduced to ninety-nine cents on Amazon from November 9 through 15.