Columns

A soldier’s letters home

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Dear Mom and Dad,

I’m now in the barracks and have just a short time to write before the lights go off. I wanted to ask you to send my clarinet. They are forming a band in the company and I want to join it. The commander is very strong for anything musical. He said if we send for our instruments, the army would take care of them for us. They will ship them any place we go….

Please write soon.

Your “Private” Son,

Love Jack xxx

The letters came from Fort Devens, Massachusetts, from Camp Pontchartrain, Louisiana, from Dutch East Indies, New Guinea, and the Philippines – approximately 150 in all.

Jack Rogers enlisted in the Army in 1943, at age 19. He was assigned to the amphibious engineers unit and spent three years on active duty, two of them in the South Pacific.

When he returned from the military, he embarked on a lifelong career as an artist, illustrator and teacher. I met him many years ago when he taught art at my sons’ elementary school.

A founding member of the Spokane Watercolor Society, Jack started the art department at Spokane Falls Community College in 1963 and taught there for 26 years. He never actually retired. In fact, he was still painting and teaching the last week of his life.

He was an amazing, inspiring man, and I wrote several articles about him for this newspaper. I also included Jack and Fran Rogers’ story in my book “War Bonds: Love Stories from the Greatest Generation.”

Recently, I went to Fran’s 95th birthday party. As I was leaving, their daughter Nancy asked if I’d like to read some of the letters Jack wrote home while serving during World War ll.

I eagerly pored over them when Nancy dropped them off. I thought I knew Jack and World War ll history pretty well, but these letters offered a new glimpse of military life during the war and they also reveal Jack’s wit and talent for telling a tale. Many of the envelopes are illustrated with his whimsical sketches and drawings.

Boy Mom, you ought to see me sew my insignias on. I can almost thread the needle every time. And as for my laundry, well they give you plenty of G.I. soap. We have plenty of water the rest is just plain elbow grease….

Please write real often.

Love Your Private Son Jack

Even the more serious anecdotes feature Jack’s flair.

Last Thursday Red was on guard. He felt a little sick, so he sat down and went to sleep and the O.D. caught him. Well, if you don’t know it that is a very serious offense in the Army. Friday they had a court marshell (sic) but no one would testify that he was actually asleep, so they charged him with sitting down while on duty.

Lots of Love, Your son Jack, good nite Mom xxx

He often couldn’t tell them exactly where he was or what his training entailed.

“You know, military secrets,” he wrote.

But in one letter he enclosed a small card emblazoned “Ancient Order of the Deep” that certified he’d crossed the equator aboard the S.S. Extavia on May 10, 1944.

Last night we slept on deck as it was too stuffy below. Although the steel deck didn’t have much spring, it was a lot cooler.

He asked his mom to send him things like white handkerchiefs, jockey shorts and coat hangers. She dutifully noted his requests on the backs of the envelopes.

In a 1944 letter from New Guinea, Jack already sounds like an old soldier instead of a young recruit.

Company had a rifle and personal inspection. It was the first we have had since leaving the States. How I remember the days when you shined your boots ’til you could shave in them, stood in ranks thinking of all the things that could hold up that weekend pass. Did you remember to tuck your handkerchief all the way in the pocket? Could you have missed a button, or could some dust have gotten on your rifle?

But a letter from Dutch East Indies shows that he and his buddies were still kids at heart.

They got a bulldozer and fixed up a softball field. And we have a league started in the company, playing in the evenings and Sundays. It sure roused a lot of company spirit.

It reminded me of what he’d said in an interview.

“Our whole company was made up of kids – kids dressed up as soldiers,” he’d said.

On Dec. 23, 1944, Jack wrote of Christmas plans.

Cornie is now fixing up a little java for us and we broke down and opened one of our fruit cakes. We were talking tonight that we would get us a small palm and decorate it, but I’ll be darned if I know what we’d use for decorations.

Jack’s unit was the first one back into Manila, Philippines, after Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s famous landing, and they served as part of the occupational forces in Japan. They were torpedoed by subs and shot at by kamikazes.

The letters from home served as their lifeline – their connection to the world they’d left behind and the world they wanted to come back to.

Good nite Mom and don’t worry about anything on this end. Write soon. Your loving son, Jack.

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War Bonds

The Face that Graced the Book Cover

She never thought her face would be on a book cover.

That a snapshot taken on her honeymoon would become the face of War Bonds: Love Stories From the Greatest Generation. After all, the marriage and the honeymoon might never have happened if Mary Grayhek hadn’t said to heck with vanity, tied a scarf over her hair set in pin curls, and agreed to a blind date.

But at the insistence of her friend, in 1946, Mary agreed to a double date with a handsome Marine. The date with Roy Grayhek changed her life.  Six weeks later, they wed in the Naval Chapel in Bremerton, WA.

The photo snapped of Roy and Mary standing on a piece of driftwood in the Puget Sound, became the cover of book filled with stories of people who married during, or shortly after World War Two.

 

War Bonds

The Grayheks enjoyed 68 years of wedded bliss before Roy’s death in 2014.
Sadly, he passed away before the book’s release. But Mary was able to enjoy  seeing their faces on the cover. Even more importantly, she got to see the book in the hands of her great-granddaughter Grace, and her soldier husband, Ryan, shortly before he was deployed.

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Mary Grayhek died December 20, surrounded by her family.Grayhek wedding low res

I’m quite confident that Roy was the first one to greet her, and that he hasn’t taken his arm from around her shoulders. And that they picked up their story right where they left off– with happily ever after.

 

 

Columns

Soldier left lasting impression

11222012327060032108057A_t210[1]Staff Sergeant Matthew Henrick Stiltz

His face stared out me from the photo album. Dark hair with straight bangs falling across huge green eyes. A goofy grin and a Nintendo controller clutched in his hands.

Taking a sharp breath, I blinked rapidly as my eyes filled with tears. He looked so much like my son Alex they could have been twins.

Not all stories can be told in 1,000 words or less. Sometimes the nuances don’t match allowable column inches. Every once in awhile, the rest of the story stays with me – an unwritten, but ever-present ghost.

Today’s story about Matt Stiltz, for example.

When a local credit union decided to name one of its scholarships after the Shadle Park grad who was killed while serving in Afghanistan, I called his parents, Mark and Terri Stiltz, to see if they’d be willing to be interviewed.

They agreed, but during the course of our conversation I learned that it wasn’t an easy decision for them. After Matt’s 2012 death, he was featured in a flurry of newspaper and television news stories.

Strangers reached out to Mark and Terri, sending mementos, cards, even memorial dog tags. Military specialists shepherded them through the process of retrieving Matt’s body and funeral arrangements. Gold Star families sent a beautiful quilt. “We were embraced by a new family,” Mark said.

All the attention proved both comforting and unsettling. While thankful for the interest in their son, they know he’s just one soldier out of thousands who’ve lost their lives in Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom. Are those stories being told, they wondered?

Having their picture in the newspaper made them feel uncomfortable. Mark said, “We haven’t done anything special.”

Sometimes reporters are accused of journalistic voyeurism – of peering into private moments and broadcasting them to the world. And sometimes it feels that way as I sit with grieving parents or spouses, carefully documenting their heartbreak. But I believe the death of a bright 26-year-old man isn’t just a loss for his friends and family – it’s a loss for the community and for the country he loved and served.

Mark and Terri were so transparent with me that I wanted to be equally frank. I explained the short shelf life of media interest. “Honestly, five years from now it’s unlikely anyone from the newspaper will be calling,” I said. “And the only people who will remember Matt are those who knew and loved him.”

So, we sat at their kitchen table with photo albums and Matt’s baby book in front of us. Stories and memories tumbled out. Some made us laugh. One of Matt’s chores was cleaning up after the dog in the backyard. He developed a special outfit to deal with this task.

Terri said, “He’d put on his scuba mask and snorkel and attach two empty two-liter pop bottles to his back.” That’s right. He’d developed a dog clean-up breathing apparatus.

She continued, “He’d put on gloves and off he’d go. He wore this every time! I wish we’d got a picture of him in it.”

Turning a page, I came to the photo that took my breath away. “He looks so much like my second son,” I said.

The photo blurred as I gazed at it. That grin. That game controller. That glint in his green eyes.

Taking a breath, I quickly turned the pages to see pictures of Matt playing his trumpet or celebrating birthdays. I began to get a sense of the boy he’d been.

A lasting sadness for his parents is that since he joined the military immediately after graduation, they never really got to know the man he’d become. “The military grew him up,” Mark said.

Soon it was time to go. I thanked them for allowing our readers a glimpse of the person behind the Matthew Stiltz Scholarship.

As I drove away the tears I’d blinked back returned. I realized I hadn’t been truthful when I’d said five years from now, the only people who would remember Matt were the people who knew and loved him.

I never met him. But I know I’ll never forget him.

Staff Sergeant Matthew Henrick Stiltz

B. August 5, 1986

D. November 12, 2012

Contact Cindy Hval at dchval@juno.com. Her previous columns are available online at spokesman.com/ columnists. Follow her on Twitter at @CindyHval.

This column first ran in the Spokesman Review, April 3, 2014