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Soldier’s Letters at the WVRHC

Posted by Jane Metters LaBarbara.
June 9th, 2014

Blog post by Jane Metters LaBarbara, Assistant Curator, WVRHC.

We would like to mark the 70th anniversary of D-Day (the invasion of Normandy by Allied troops in World War II) by telling the story of Private Ralph J. John, who served with the U.S. Army’s 3rd Battalion, Headquarters Company 112th Infantry, 28th Division.

Ralph was inducted into the army in March of 1941.  The collection of his papers at the WVRHC includes letters he wrote to his parents while in basic training and later while serving in the European Theater during World War II.

In his letter of September 2, 1943, while in Camp Pickett, Virginia, Ralph tells his parents about his “Vegetable Supper” at the Service Club, which gives us an idea of what life was like for soldiers during rationing.  His 65 cent meal included “carrots, corn on the cob, String Beans, Ripe Tomatoes and lettuce, with a piece of peach pie for Dessert and also a couple of small Bottles of chocolate milk to drink…”

Page 1 of Ralph John's letter, September 2, 1943

Ralph John shows us what soldiers in training wrote about in their letters to family.

Ralph typically writes about daily life activities at training camps and about family and friends back home.  He occasionally tells his parents what he is learning in training, but sometimes his words are removed by the censor.  Ralph clipped the picture below out of an Army newspaper; it shows men in his unit (at that time, part of U.S. Medical Corps) performing training exercises.

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Newspaper photo clipping titled “The Medics Rehearse For Invasion Role”

Ralph sent the clipping to his parents along with a letter, a page of which is shown below.  More than two lines of the letter have been cut out by a censor—we can only assume they contained an explanation of what the soldiers in the photo are doing.  While censorship of details like soldiers’ exact locations at the front, their activities in training, or battle preparations was intended to keep troops safe, it removed information from the historical record that cannot always be replaced.

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Censored page of Ralph John’s letter to his parents on May 1, 1944, from England.

Though Ralph was not involved in the D-Day landings at Normandy, he knew his parents would worry.  In his letter dated June 6, 1944, he writes “Now that ‘Invasion Day’ is no more a Secret I want to drop you a few lines letting you know that I am O.K. thinking of you and Home, looking forward (now more than ever) to be coming Home before very long…”  His location was censored, but the censor left enough to see that Ralph was probably “Still in England”, as he wrote in his June 8th letter.  Unfortunately, Ralph died before returning home.

In the World War II Honor List of Dead and Missing Army and Army Air Forces Personnel, 1946 (found through Fold3, a subscription database which is accessible to WVU Libraries patrons), Private Ralph J. John of Greene County, PA is listed as “DOW” or “died of wounds.”  He was probably buried in a European cemetery until the end of the war.  The Army contacted families of fallen soldiers to learn their wishes for the final resting places of their loved ones, but it was a lengthy process.  Private Ralph J. John died on August 15, 1944; funeral services were not held in Pennsylvania until January 16, 1949, when he could be reburied back home.

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Program from Private Ralph J. John’s Funeral Service

The lives of many members of the American armed services can be reconstructed through the letters, government records, and personal effects left behind.  The WVRHC is proud to preserve this important part of the history of our state, region, and nation.

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