Dear Diehl: WWII letters

Those of you who have been reading for a while may remember the letters that I bought in an auction a year and half ago. I mentioned them at the end of my first post. It’s been a while, but I wanted to update you on them, because it is quite a story! (And quite a long one–apologies for the lengthy post!)

I’ll start at the beginning–the Crumpton auction. My siblings and I went one day last June to look for furniture and whatever other treasures we might find. The auction is held in two big fields near the crossroads in Crumpton and is always full of the hustle and bustle of people. I love walking the rows of items in the dusty fields and examining each of the different lots. Quite often they will sell off a whole row of items, and the bidder will only want one part of it and will leave the rest. There are plenty of opportunities for scavenging, and I have gotten a free lamp, armchair and coffee table that way! Sometimes it isn’t free, but the new owner will sell you it for a dollar or two.

And then there are the people. The auctioneer in his golf cart, who sounds like he is speaking a different language or with marbles in his mouth until you get used to the speed in which the words fall of his tongue. There is Pickles, one of the women who follows the golf-cart and collects the money once a bid has been settled. And then you have the regulars. In the last few years I have been going to Crumpton quite often, and so have begun to recognize some of the dealers. There is the stocky middle-aged woman with short hair and a tattoo who brings her Chihuahua in an enclosed baby stroller because he tries to attack other dogs. The mesh stops him from going anywhere, but he tries to snap at them anyway. There is an older Asian woman that I often see there bidding on furniture. There are two men that I see there often–one of whom is the father of my mom’s former student. We often say hello to each other and speak in Spanish. For a while I saw two men with young boys with them who might have been Haitian? or Afro-Caribbean, speaking French. Sometimes bidding can get particularly fierce between some of the regulars as they shout at each other. The mix of people is very diverse–Afro-Caribbean immigrants, Latinos, African-Americans, White, Asian, Amish, middle-class, working-class–I love listening to all the different languages that are spoken there.

There is also a barn where the smaller items are stored. In the hot summer it is nice to walk into its dark, cool interior and buy some home-made Amish ice-cream or lemonade. And if you ever visit Crumpton you must try the pretzel logs!

It was inside the barn that I found the letters, on the very last table to be auctioned off. They were sitting in a stack, dated 1941 and 1942, and I immediately wanted to buy them, wondering what story they contained. Patrick, my brother, noticed some knives on the table that he wanted, and though my sisters and I had to leave, my mom stayed to bid. The entire table was sold for 70 dollars to someone, and Mom was able to buy the letters and knives from him. Since reading the letters I have realized that many of the items on the table probably belonged to Diehl, including some photographs and I have been kicking myself ever since for leaving early and not buying those items too.

There are 54 letters and several postcards mostly addressed to Diehl Young and dated from February 1941 to August 1942. Some of the postcards are from earlier (1929 and 1933) and are addressed to the Snapp family. The majority of the letters are from Diehl’s mother and his sweetheart, Lucille Thompson, as well as from other friends and family members. His friend Charles sent quite a few post-cards as well as very lengthy letters. I spent a few days reading the letters out-loud to my grandparents who were visiting. It was really fun and I felt that I got to know Diehl’s family through the letters and their writing styles.

He was in the army and was stationed mostly in Texas but also Alabama, Washington and Alaska, though he never served overseas. His family lived in DC and his mother wrote often with updates about his siblings and family. She also writes about the general store being knocked down and a new pharmacy being put up. In one letter she reminds him that he owes “Dr. Lewis $4, the bill is here.” In another she thanks him for the $1 he sent his father for Father’s Day. His brother who was also serving in the military is admitted into the psychiatric military hospital at one point for treatment and she chronicles his progress, though there are no details about what exactly happened. Sometimes she admonishes him for not writing, or asks if packages were lost.

Lucille Thompson’s letters are quite amusing and were full of colloquial expressions like “having a swell time” and “I hope you are fine and dandy” as well as terms of endearment like “honey,” “sugar pie” and “darling”. She writes about work–something to do with typing–and the little girl she lives with Barbara, and Barbara’s mother Susanne. I am not sure how they are related, possibly sisters? Her letters get more serious after Pearl Harbor. Though the actual attack is not mentioned she talks about the war and how she is worried that Diehl might be sent overseas.

And then there is Charles, who sends long lenthy letters about his nights out with friends, his volunteering and plans to sign up. He has a great sense of humor, writing on one postcard, “Have you lost an arm or something? Please write, I am anxious to hear from you.” It is wonderful how these letters chronicle these people’s lives and while I was reading I thought often about the value of hand-written letters and the way they last through time. What is going to happen in terms of archives with all the digital mail that we send now?

After reading through the letters I decided to hit the interwebs and see what I could find. Diehl is an unusual enough name that I actually found some information on him on ancestry.com! I signed up for their two week trial so I could access the census files and family trees. I discovered that the Snapp postcards are addressed to Diehl’s maternal grandparents. Even more exciting I found a member of ancestry.com with a tree with Diehl’s family on it–with names matching those in the letters. I emailed her, and she confirmed the identities, and was very excited to hear about the letters. She is Diehl’s niece, the daughter of his little sister, and his mother is her grandmother. She didn’t know her grandmother that well and her mother died at a young age, so she was particularly excited about this connection to her family past. Diehl passed away a few years ago at an old age, but one of his brothers is alive and still living in MD. She lives in VA. Neither of us could figure out how the letters ended up on the Eastern Shore of MD!! I agreed to send the letters to her but wanted to scan them first.

Through Ancestry.com I also found the nephew of Charles Mullican, Diehl’s best friend and contacted him. He never knew his Uncle but had heard many stories. Charles did enlist in the army, as he had been saying in the letters and was sent overseas. His body was never found, but he is presumed to have died in the Battle of the Bulge. Even though it was so many years ago it was sad to learn that such a lively young man had lost his life, and I wondered what that was like for Diehl to lose his best friend. Charles’ nephew was also interested in the letters and I emailed him scanned copies of them.

Fast-forward to this past November. It had now been more than a year since I bought the letters, and while I had scanned them all, I hadn’t yet gotten the physical copies to Diehl’s family. Diehl’s niece and I had lost touch and had not spoken in a while. I felt bad that I still had them, and then finally decided to do something rather than feeling bad! So I called her up again, to see if I could get them to her. She was glad to hear from me again, and said she’d been really busy too. We found out that her son lives near the University of MD and works at the movie theatre near my house! I was nervous about sending the letters in the mail, because of the chance that they would get lost or damaged, so it was decided that I’d meet up with her son and he’d then get them to his mother.

I felt like I was in a spy movie, carrying a cardboard box full of the letters, standing in the lobby of the theatre, waiting for her son to come downstairs. I had told him I was standing near the Happy Feet poster wearing a green coat and glasses. Finally he came over, not looking like anything I had imagined and we exchanged a few pleasantries. I explained who the letters were from, and then I handed the box over and that was that. It felt a bit strange but it was also wonderful to be handing the letters back to their family.

I still have a few questions that I suppose will never get answered. Like what happened to Ralph, the brother who was in the hospital? Where did he serve? I also have a ton of questions about Lucille, as apparently Diehl did not marry her. Despite all my searches I have not been able to find any information about her on ancestry.com. It is difficult because she has quite a common name and she would have probably changed her name through marriage. I also don’t have the names of family members to help me search for her. So, if anyone knows a Lucille Thompson from Arlington, VA, that would be awesome! Also I’m interested in finding information on Josephine Baker, one of Diehl’s friends from DC.

I leave you now with some photos of the scanned letters and postcards. I find the ones from DC particularly interesting.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Advertisements

2 thoughts on “Dear Diehl: WWII letters

  1. Pingback: National Poetry Month Day 22: Your Weekly Poetry Challenge « THE BUCKNELL AFTERWORD

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s