ST. JOSEPH, Mo. (AP) - “Every time I see an American soldier dead, I say to myself there is another home heart broken.”
Letters from the front line of any battlefield require balance. The writers, the warriors, can’t fully describe the horrors of a fight, maybe for lack of words or maybe for guarding the sensibilities of those back home, the St. Joseph News-Press (https://bit.ly/1APjGa4 ) reported.
Yet, not knowing what their future holds, they see little need to temper their observations.
Thomas William Alderson, a farmer from King City, Missouri, wrote the words above from a locale he referred to, in deference to military censors, as “some place in France.”
He had enlisted in the Army in October 1917, and the train that carried him to Camp Funston in Kansas bore two large signs that read “DeKalb County Kaiser Killers.”
Within a few weeks of noting the deaths and the broken hearts, he would take a bullet in his right arm that would cut a gash five inches long and leave him unable to fully rotate his wrist for the rest of his life.
Eight days later, on Nov. 11, 1918, Germany agreed to an armistice.
Throughout his time in Company C of the 356th Infantry, Alderson wrote letters and postcards to folks back home. Many of them came on YMCA and Red Cross stationery, providers of writing materials and promoters of Liberty Bonds and War Savings Stamps.
Much of this correspondence rested for decades in a small box kept by Marcia Inis Dykes Alderson, whom the soldier married in 1920. They found their way to the possession of daughter-in-law Betty Alderson, who has them now in Lawrence, Kansas.
“I come from a family of letter writers and journal keepers and savers,” said Susan Hoffmann, Betty Alderson’s daughter and Thomas Alderson’s granddaughter.
About a decade ago, Hoffmann convinced her mother to let her photocopy and transcribe the collection, nearly 180 handwritten pieces, some of them with holes carved in them by military censors.
She found them fascinating not for anything extraordinary or particularly heroic. Instead, she liked the notion of a day-to-day accounting - the monotony, the worry, the interactions - of a small-town Missourian in the context of larger world events.
A resident of South Pasadena, California, Hoffmann also said her discovery of the letters coincided with a time in her life when she wanted to learn more about her family’s history.
“What it did for me that was wonderful, it was getting to know my relatives again, getting to know them in a way that I never could have,” Hoffmann said. “It was a gift.”
Tom Alderson’s family farmed on ground south of King City. He might have continued in that vocation had it not been for the war in Europe.
After arriving for training at Camp Funston, an installation southwest of Manhattan, Kansas, he trained as a cook, marveling at the amount of food 196 men in his mess hall could eat.
Just a month or so in, however, he began writing about the diseases sweeping the camp, spinal meningitis, measles and others. In one examination, he wrote, a doctor “ran the stick about a foot in my nose. I didn’t know I had such a hole in my head.”
He noted that many of his comrades, some from DeKalb County, had fallen victim to illness. In late November, the barracks left the windows open, “going to freeze up the germs, I guess.”
By February, a tone of lower morale could be detected in the letters. “Some of the boys, in fact most everyone here, say they would take a discharge. … I don’t want to quit until it is over, because I am no slacker.”
Training became more intense, and the letters, often with the salutations “My Dear Girl” and “My Dear Sweetheart,” speak to the inevitability of his departure for Europe.
“If I don’t get to see you anymore until the war is over, and maybe never, I want you to keep in mind that I was true,” Pvt. Alderson wrote. “So I will close for tonight saying and sending a double amount of love and kisses.”
Once he arrived in France, where he described the locals as “clean and intelligent-looking people,” he continued to cook for the company but also went “over the top” at the battle of Saint-Mihiel and in the Meuse-Argonne offensive.
One of the men in his company had been left on the battlefield after an explosion, presumably dead. “Tonight at supper time, he walked in without a scratch,” the soldier wrote. “He was stunned by a shell.”
Time grew more distant between letters, and he soon wrote from a hospital south of Paris. More than a month removed from his wound, and with the country at peace, the soldier even managed to joke about the number of machine guns that had aimed at him.
He shipped home on March 11, 1919, his birthday, and the stateside return featured “inspections and delousing.” In Camp Grant in Illinois, he got his Army discharge in April. But his letters indicated a reluctance to head back to King City.
He spent some time in Kansas City, then a couple of nights in St. Joseph, “running around, just taking it easy,” and bumping into a Lt. Carson on the street.
“I would wire you when I am coming, but I don’t want the people to make a fool of me at the train,” the now civilian wrote. “I mean the town people, so I would rather they not know exactly when.”
Tom Alderson farmed for a couple of years in King City, then he and Marcia moved to St. Joseph, where they lived on Lafayette Street. They had a son who died of diphtheria at age 2, and another son, Donald, would go on to be a dean at the University of Kansas. (Alderson Auditorium is named for him.)
Donald Alderson met his future wife, Betty, while at KU. They had three children: Marcia Buchanan, named for her grandmother; Dr. Thomas Alderson, a St. Joseph physician; and Susan Hoffmann, a writer.
Betty Alderson, who worked as a pharmacist at the student health center, became a de facto archivist for many branches of her family, and she has the boxes of their possessions to prove it.
“She’s keeping her head above water and just collecting all this stuff,” Hoffmann said of the collection from various family members. “She would take a car up to Maryville and just box up everything that would fit in the car.”
Active in the Lawrence community, Alderson said she had interest in the old material but lacked time to organize it. “I don’t stay home and just sort through this stuff,” she said.
Both she and Hoffmann ponder the request left by Marcia Alderson, the original holder of the letters, an instruction to destroy them upon her death.
But they seemed too valuable to do that.
“I think she was a very private person. They were personal and, when she was gone, she didn’t want anyone else to see them,” Betty Alderson said.
“Susan said, ‘Mother, she had a lot of time to destroy them if she wanted to.’”
Information from: St. Joseph News-Press/St. Joe, Missouri, https://www.newspressnow.com
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