Today, Darrell Weldon, a military veteran and an IT specialist for our Northeast Region, shares an incredible story of his service, his father’s service in World War II, and the treasured letters that have helped him know his father.
My military career was rather uneventful. But it has a cool connection to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Aroostook National Wildlife Refuge in northern Maine is one of the places I was stationed when it was part of Loring Air Force Base. I used to work in the Weapons Storage Area. When I see photos of the refuge, such as of the bunkers converted to bat hibernacula in 2012, it brings back a lot of memories. I’ve been in many of those bunkers. Because of the remoteness, we had many close encounters with moose and black bear.
Now, my father’s military service was anything but uneventful. My father entered the Army in 1942. In April of 1943 he landed in North Africa. His journey took him to Sicily, Italy, France and then Germany. Coming home in 1945, he did OK for a while. But, as it does with many other combat veterans, the war tormented him and made life an everyday challenge. He was only 61 when he died. December 16 will mark the 30th anniversary of his passing.
I really wanted to know what my father was like before the war changed him. He and my mother were engaged when he left for North Africa. He wrote to her as many times as he possibly could and she would receive his letters as V-Mails (Victory Mail; see below image). Before my mother passed, she gave me all his letters and some photos. These have helped me to know my father in a way that wasn’t possible while he was alive. He wrote with so much passion, expressing his love for my Mom and just longing for the war to end.
Here is an excerpt from V-Mail he sent her on July 10, 1943, from somewhere in North Africa. The Allied Forces have been victorious in North Africa and are about to commence operation Husky, the invasion of Sicily:
“Earlier in the evening while on the way down to church and confession I passed through a small park that at one time must have been a favorite rendezvous of those young in love. Today this place has lost much of its former beauty and many of its numerous trees are little more than stumps. What were once benches are now but scrap wood. A beautiful statue is now beyond recognition and a huge slab of marble is the only remains of what used to be.
My thoughts recalled our yesterdays and “our park” with its little stream in constant motion and its quaint wooden bridge and I whispered a prayer of thanksgiving that this was not my country, our world. It is during moments such as these that I am grateful that I am away from home rather than near standing amid our precious memories subject to this same devastation and ruin. Here I have still the right to dream and trust that when I return all those things I love and cherish so much will still exist and there will be no heart breaking sights such as these to lessen the wonderful joy of that glorious homecoming.”
This letter is one of my favorites because I see my father stopping to reflect on all the destruction that has already taken place and wanting none of it to ever reach our country. And at this point, D-Day, one of the most known events of WWII, is still almost a year away. The war in the Mediterranean Theater was still in its infancy with some of the harshest conditions and bloodiest battles soon to be fought in the invasions of Sicily and Italy.
Thousands of soldiers and sailors would never see home again. My father was one of the “lucky” ones to return home. I can only imagine what he encountered along this cross-Europe trek that forever changed him. I have every respect for the men and women of his time who knew that this war had to be fought and won to preserve the freedoms we enjoy today. Tom Brokaw had it right when he called them “The Greatest Generation.”
Whenever I see one of these veterans still proudly wearing a cap or other article denoting their WWII service, I try to make it point to go up to them and express thanks. Over 16 million served during the war; today there are just over 1 million still alive and we lose over 500 a day.