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Consumer Reports

Letters link WW II vets with posterity

By Lou Marano | (UPI) -- When Operation Mail Call gives the letters of World War II servicemen to their families, it's sometimes the only link the survivors have with the deceased.

"These three letters are all I have of my father," one man told Mail Call's chairman, Francis R. Carroll, at an emotional ceremony on Nov. 9.

The story -- which begins in the 1930s with a group of friends growing up together in the blue-collar town of Worcester, Mass. -- conjures up images of Norman Rockwell paintings and Frank Capra movies. During the Depression, the boys played ball in Vernon Hill Park. As teenagers and young men, they hung around Oscar Leavitt's soda fountain and flirted with the nursing students who flocked there on their breaks from nearby St. Vincent's Hospital.

"Like a lot of neighborhoods at that time, we had a close-knit group of 25 or 30 of us who chummed around together," Donald R. Gribbons, 83, told United Press International. "One by one, they went into the service."

Gribbons' brother George, who had joined the Navy in 1938, was captured in the Philippines and survived the Bataan Death March and a notorious prison camp only to die when an Allied torpedo sunk the Japanese ship transporting him to Tokyo. Another brother, Warren, was shot down over Germany, taken prisoner and survived. Lenny served in the U.S. Army in France. Don Gribbons worked as a firefighter in Worcester and part time at the local newspaper, the Telegram and Gazette.

Gribbons corresponded with his brothers and his friends as much as he could, basically saying the same thing to all of them. "It just became a kind of a task," he said, thinking: "There ought to be a better way of doing this."

He used the newspaper's facilities to mimeograph and address 25 or 30 copies of a newsletter he called The Vernon Hill Spiel (slang for "talk"), which was an instant hit. He dropped off some copies at Leavitt's soda fountain, where the families of service members left the addresses of their loved ones, and "it just took off" to a circulation of 850 mailed every two weeks.

He would type the stencils at the fire station and run them off at the newspaper. Back at the station, the firefighters volunteered to collate and staple the four-page, 8 by 14 inch, single-spaced newsletter "crammed full of neighborhood news." The biggest source of Gribbons' news was excerpts from the letters the servicemen wrote, most addressed to Leavitt's, the old hangout. The subscription "price" was one letter a month, "or whenever they could write one."

Gribbons estimates that because the Worcester men passed their copies on to their buddies, at least 4,000 service members read each issue of The Spiel. "A lot of it was written tongue in cheek," he said. "They could compare it to their own neighborhoods, even though they didn't know the names of the people we were talking about. It was the only newsletter of its kind. They were starving for mail, anyway."

In September 1944, and again in September 1945, Gribbons published anniversary issues on glossy paper with photographs of those who had died on active service during the year.

After the war, he put the 1,473 letters from 495 individuals into a cardboard box, which he stored in a closet in his home, where it laid undisturbed for almost 60 years. Gribbons' goal always was to return the letters to their writers, but an effort five or six years ago came to naught. Gribbons said Operation Mail Call owes its success to Frank Carroll, 67, the Korean War veteran who put his time, money and effort behind the committee.

Carroll's staff at his Small Business Service Bureau read and cataloged the correspondence. He was the driving force behind the Nov. 9 reunion, when 1,150 people packed the Massachusetts National Guard Military Museum in Worcester for the presentation of the letters to the veterans and their survivors.

"The event was unbelievable," Carroll told UPI in a phone interview. The letters had a tremendous impact on those who received them, "so much so that I've been getting calls all week."

Four veterans read their letters. Then the widow of a soldier read her husband's letter, and three sons and daughters read the letters of their deceased fathers.

One man, who brought 20 people, told Carroll: "You allowed me to speak to my father 14 years after he died. I never knew he was such a good writer. This has been the most wonderful experience in my life."

A recent stroke victim attended in his wheelchair with 35 family members.

Widows said: "I'm going to read my husband's letter and then go home to have a good cry."

Other widows said how much they missed their husbands and how grateful they were to have a letter in his handwriting.

"The event was full of love, patriotism and meaning," Carroll said. "You could have said, 'Would you like the letter or a bag of gold?' Honest to God, I think everybody would take the letter.

"Out of the 495 families, we have mailed back or given out in person (the correspondence of) 313 of those veterans," living and dead. "It took us three years to finish this, but Don Gribbons was the one who started it," he told UPI. Carroll and his associates sometimes had to identify the letter writers by service numbers, then track down the surviving veterans by phone, word of mouth and mailings.

The Worcester Telegram and Gazette ran the story on page 1, publishing the list of 495 names. Readers were asked to call Carroll's office if they knew any of the veterans, living or dead, and calls came in from all over the country. "Our problem is getting the word out nationally," Carroll said, "and the search goes on."

Nov. 9 was only the first reunion. Only three-fourths of the 495 letter-writers have been identified. "We've got a 182 to go," Carroll said. "It's not over for us."

It came as a surprise to Frederick J. Gay, 79, that Gribbons had kept the letters. "The Spiel was a fabulous tool," he said. "We'd write a letter to The Spiel and get the copy back and find out where all our friends were and what they were doing. It was quite a morale booster." His buddies got a kick out of it. "We looked forward to it all the time."

Gay was stationed with the 8th Air Force in England and the Air Transport Command in North Africa.

But it was sad when he learned of the deaths of friends in The Spiel. Of the 10 pictured in one anniversary issue, he knew eight very well.

James Looney, 77, called the Nov. 9 event "a great occasion" with "tremendous spirit and enthusiasm."

Looney entered the Army in August 1943, and landed in France in December 1944. His outfit saw its first combat in the Battle of the Ardennes Forest, otherwise known as "The Bulge," on Dec. 23, and was in action almost constantly until mid-March, 1945. His 809th Field Artillery battalion of 155 mm howitzers was not associated with any regiment and seldom stayed in one place for more than 48 hours, so sometimes The Spiel didn't catch up with him.

As a 19-year-old corporal, Looney manned a .50 caliber machine gun. When his outfit was on the move, the weapon was mounted on the front of a 2 ton truck. When the howitzers were set up, Looney would dig a position for the machine gun -- sometimes through 2 feet of snow -- and stay on the alert around the clock.

Did he have a crew or an assistant gunner?

"No," he said, laughing. "It was just me." He would grab naps when he could. "Somehow, I was always there when I had to be. I can't explain that, really."

Their main problems were fatigue and the lack of proper footwear for the very cold winter of 1944-45. Their leather boots got soaked. "Almost everybody got frozen feet." And as exhaustion set in, "pneumonia became a big issue."

The newsletter "was a great idea," Looney said. "In a way, it typified the way I felt about Vernon Hill. Don Gribbons did a fantastic job." Over the years, "I always felt like I'm a Vernon Hill guy," the retired high school history teacher told UPI.

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