Wartime letters launch Post publisher into a personal journey, deeper connection to his father
SALISBURY — When Salisbury Post Publisher Greg Anderson started reading his father’s letters, he couldn’t stop.
“I became obsessed,” Anderson says.
There were roughly 700 letters written by his father, Alvin, to his mother, Faye, over Alvin’s 20-year career in the Army.
But it was in the letters written during World War II, in particular, that Greg Anderson came to know his father better.
Alvin Anderson had died of lung cancer in 1971, just short of Greg’s 12th birthday.
Over the years Greg had heard bits and pieces from his family about his father’s World War II years. He knew Lt. Alvin Anderson had received the Purple Heart and Bronze Star for his combat service along the Siegfried Line and in the Hurtgen Forest, the “Green Hell” of German resistance.
“But it was more than that,” Anderson says of reading the letters. “It was a story of people falling in love in war time.”
The letters revealed a man who was romantic, loyal, patriotic, stubborn, frustrated, prideful, sensible and heroic. He suffered terribly from being separated from, first, his girlfriend Faye Walker, then his wife, Faye Anderson.
“I think they were both very much in love with each other,” Greg Anderson says.
Penned on whatever paper Alvin could find, the handwritten dispatches painted an almost daily picture of his courtship with Faye, their marriage, his intense military training, Faye’s work for the War Department in Washington, D.C., and her pregnancy with the first of their five children.
But they also showed two people protective of each other. Back home in Branford, Fla., Faye hid the fact she had typhoid fever during her pregnancy, when Alvin was on the front lines.
And Alvin went to great lengths to downplay the horrors of war he had seen, while depending on his guile and guts to escape from behind the German lines.
More than once in his letters, he would mention only that he had been in “a tight spot.”
At first, Greg Anderson didn’t want to read his father’s letters, which were among some of the things his wife, Melanie, brought back with them to North Carolina after his mother’s funeral.
Faye died in March 2010 in Gainesville, Fla., from complications after breaking her hip. She was 86.
Melanie Anderson organized the letters by date and read some of them. “She said to me, ‘You need to read these,’” Greg recalls. “I couldn’t. It was too soon.”
After Faye’s house in Florida sold in November 2012, Greg Anderson came across some of his father’s military records in the process of moving things out.
“My mother told me some stories about my father’s military service that left me only to imagine what he went through,” Anderson says. “When I returned home to North Carolina, I began to read his records and research where he was trained and fought in World War II and Korea.”
Anderson also remembered the letters and wondered whether they would help in his efforts to find out more about his dad’s wartime experiences.
They did, of course, but war clearly was secondary to Alvin’s longings to be with Faye, and later, their first child.
“I felt like I really got to know him as a person,” Greg says.
As a kid, Greg Anderson knew a father who was stern, yet also a gentle, fun-loving instigator. He was mostly a regular dad whose big hands and giant forearms always seemed to be working on something, such as the family vehicles.
Greg lived what he considered an idyllic life. He was only 4 years old when his father taught him to water ski at the family’s small getaway on Spring Lake in Keystone Heights, Fla.
They fished together, and when Alvin went quail hunting, he allowed Greg to walk behind him. Alvin owned a cherished bird dog named Gus.
Greg Anderson liked when other soldiers saluted his dad whenever they drove to Jacksonville and shopped at the Navy base’s PX.
Alvin belonged to the Elks Club, and much of his hands-on charitable work focused on helping youth, especially disabled children.
Greg also remembers his father being interviewed on Gainesville television stations several times during the integration of schools in the 1960s.
After he retired from the Army as a major, Alvin Anderson first headed the maintenance department for Alachua County schools, then became the school system’s transportation administrator.
He was in charge of 85 bus routes — an important job during integration.
Faye and Alvin had five children: Stan, born in Florida during World War II; Candace, born in occupied Japan; Deborah, born in Alexandria, Va.; Susan, born in Germany; and Greg, born at Fort Campbell, Ky.
Stan fought for the Army in the Vietnam War. Greg remembers his mother crying every time Stan sent her a picture from Vietnam because she thought he was too skinny.
The couple also would have nine grandchildren and six great-grandchildren, but Alvin, because of his death at 53, only saw his first grandchild.
Alvin Anderson knew he was dying. Greg, 11 years old at the time, says his father took him to his room, asked him to sit down on the edge of his bed, and as he stood before his son, Alvin told him he had only six months to live.
Looking back, Greg Anderson thinks it was good his father took that honest, Army-like approach to prepare him for what was coming.
The family dealt with another traumatic setback four years later when Susan, 16, was killed in a car wreck.
Faye Anderson showed her own kind of courage after her husband’s and youngest daughter’s deaths when she went back to school, going two years at a community college and two years at the University of Florida, graduating with a 4.0 grade-point average.
While Greg Anderson was in high school, his mother was in college.
She went on to a long career as a special education teacher.
This year, Greg Anderson became absorbed in his father’s military career, and he learned much about Alvin’s weapons expertise and what he must have gone through in Officers Candidate School at Fort Benning, Ga.; his jungle warfare training in Panama; and the toughest of maneuvers in California.
Anderson believes now it was the extensive training that probably saved his father’s life during his brief but horrendous two-and-a-half months as a weapons platoon officer on the front.
During his highly personal journey with the letters and military records, Anderson also began reading all the books and articles he could find related to the Hurtgen Forest, the German town of Schmidt and anything connected to the Army’s 28th Division, the 112th Infantry Regiment and specifically his father’s Co. K.
He also reached out on internet message boards and through Ancestry.com to find survivors and relatives of the fighting his father had seen.
The search led him to people such as Murray Olderman, an award-winning columnist and syndicated sports cartoonist who was on the same mountain maneuvers of the 71st Light Division in central California; and Liz Bailey, the daughter of a Co. I platoon officer.
He corresponded with Bruce Drapeau, whose late father, Al, kept a diary of his experiences as a private in the 112th Regiment; and Al Ferek, whose uncle Victor was a machine gunner in Company L and became a German prisoner of war.
Anderson also reached Patrick Mack, grandson of Co. K Sgt. Joseph Mack; and Barry Tyo, son of Richard Tyo, the only other Co. K platoon officer to survive the Schmidt battle.
Anderson hopes to connect with a surviving relative of Thomas A. Brandt, one of two men who was trapped behind German lines with his father. An ultimate quest is to learn the identity of the other man. All three were wounded in making their escape.
Anderson also wants to find a family link to a Lt. Woodward, a platoon leader who was killed just feet away from his father by the friendly fire of a P-47, which apparently mistook them for Germans.
The lieutenant’s dying words were directed to Alvin Anderson: “Andy, giv’em hell,” he said.
There have been and will be many other contacts and leads. Anderson thinks it will become a lifelong pursuit, trying to fill in some of the details his father purposely left out of his letters back home to Faye.
From one of the letters, Greg knows Alvin Anderson gave a detailed interview to a reporter from Army headquarters in England, where he was first sent to recover from injuries he sustained at the front.
“He told a major that was with him that he had never heard anything so amazing,” Alvin Anderson recounted in a Nov. 17, 1944, letter to Faye. “... I’ll tell you about it someday.”
Greg Anderson continues to search for a written account of that interview. But some historians such as Cecil B. Currey, who authored “Follow Me and Die, the Destruction of an American Division in World War II,” fear the post-Hurtgen Forest interviews that were unflattering to the Army might have been classified and sealed or just plain destroyed.
“I have a feeling they threw it away,” Greg Anderson says.
Meanwhile, Alvin’s letters also provide a capsule look into a time of gas rationing, war bonds, songs, shows, attitudes and just how important letters, photographs and packages were to the troops overseas and the families at home.
Anderson plans to have all of his father’s letters transcribed for his family, then send the originals off for permanent preservation at the Center for Military History in Carlisle, Pa.
At his death in 1971, the Alachua County school board passed a resolution in tribute to Alvin Anderson.
“Living,” the resolution said, “he exemplified for his fellow man unquestionable character and integrity and dedication to serving his country and mankind so that others may have life a little easier.
“Dying, he left behind, as a lasting monument to his memory, the imprint of his leadership, fellowship and goodwill toward all people regardless of their background, culture or creed.”
But there was something else more important to Alvin Anderson. If he could write a letter to Faye today, it most surely would state the simplest of facts.
He found the love of his life during the toughest of times.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or firstname.lastname@example.org.