Every day starts a new story. In December 1944, stateside Americans were working long hours in factories and decorating for the holidays. All they wanted for Christmas that year was a letter from their loved ones saying they were safe and maybe coming home soon. One such letter was written in the Ardennes on Dec. 5 by Cpl. Walter Blakely to his sister Lt. Belle (Fuller):
“Dear Belle, it’s about time I answered some of your letters isn’t it? We have been pretty busy building log huts and I haven’t written to anyone. At present another boy and myself are living in a two man dugout and with what little ingenuity there is between us we have made it fairly livable. The first night we slept in it it was a one man affair and a bit crowded I assure you. We enlarged it to about 5x6 the walls are about 3 feet high and up to the cone of the roof it is about 5 feet. We have a door at one end and a bunk on either side of the door. The aisle between the bunks is about 6 inches deep and 14 inches across. We made a stove out of a gallon oil can and have used fruit juice cans for the chimney. For a light we made a candle out of a piece of wire, a wick, and a ration can. We were burning old lard, but ran out of this so we are making tallow by rendering beef fat on the stove. I can’t think of much more at the present so I will close and try to write more later.”
Belle received the letter in January 1945 along with the confirmation that her brother was gone. Cpl. Walter Blakely had been drafted in 1942 and served in the 394th Infantry 99th “Checkerboard” Division. They were nicknamed “Battle Babies” because they were a new unit that hadn’t been tested in battle. Indeed, Walter had just turned 22. The 394th was on the northern flank of the Ardennes. They were surrounded and cut up. Despite their inexperience they held their ground till reinforcements came. The heart of their battle began on Dec. 16. Walter was killed on the 18th. One can only imagine the terror Walter faced in his last two days. Walter was buried in the nearby Menden Cemetery.
As the grave ages I wonder who will remember Cpl. Blakely. Once we are gone the scene is like the aftermath of Christmas with someone deciding what to keep and what to throw away. We are reduced to scraps of paper blowing in the winds of time. At some point all who knew us will be gone and we will be found only in old photos, handwritten notes, saved emails, and tweets that somebody just couldn’t let go – like Belle who saved her brother’s V-mails till she died. Who will someday read this column, or watch Belle’s interview, or read Walter’s V-mails and touch his story?
Don McAllister directs the National Veteran’s Historical Archive. His column appears the second Sunday of each month. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and www.nvharchive.org.