Remember when: More WWII letters home

Published 12:44 am Saturday, June 3, 2017

Continuing this column with excerpts from the World War II letters home from Lt. William W. Avant to his mother, father, and sisters, let us all, young and old, reflect on those war times so long ago but as close as yesterday. This young man was a graduate of the Andalusia High School was already enrolled in college at the University of Alabama in the field of engineering when the war changed his plans and interrupted his life, like so many others. The Avant family lived on Sanford Road, Fairview Hill, in the stately colonial home that has become an Andalusia landmark. About this same time, his two brothers, Max and Bubba, were also off in the war, one in Europe in the D-Day invasion and one in the Pacific island invasions.

Bill writes home, “Dear Mother, I wish you’d hang on to this (these) letter (s), because some years later, it (they) might prove interesting to me.” (Interesting to many, these words he penned in the mid 1940s have become significant historical accounts of one local soldier’s experiences.)

A 1944 song by lyricist Johnny Mercer that hit the chart at “Number 1” painted a picture of the times, specifically the military. Lots of young soldiers jitterbugged their leave time and Saturday nights away to the “G. I. Jive.”

“This is the G. I. Jive, Man alive, It starts with the buglar blowin’ reveille over your bed when you arrive; Roodley-toot, Jump in your suit, Make a salute, Boot…Chuck all your junk, Back in the trunk, Fall on your bunk, Chunk…After you wash and dress, More or less, You go get your breakfast in a beautiful little café they call ‘The Mess!’”

     January 1945 – “Since we’ve been here in Paris, we’ve really worked and my job has carried me over lots of France. Also some pretty hot places near Germany. I’m lucky, because I get out and get to move about lots. I’m wondering if and when we’ll ever get back to normal. I’ve seen so much equipment over here and so much going on. Of all the brains it took to assemble all this stuff over here and carry on such operations, it looks to me like there would be enough brains in some of the capitols in the world to keep peace, but I guess it’s just ‘C’est la vie.’”

“On the other side of my jeep is “Yea, Bama.” My driver has ‘Maine’ written on his side.”

“I’ve been put in charge of a PW camp that holds 238 prisoners of war and it’s been some headache. This is just in addition to my other (engineering) duties.”

“It’s really been cold. We’ve had snow on the ground for the past month, about a foot deep. We were in Belgium, and it was 3 feet there. Our convoy got strafed, and we lost one truck. A bomb went off about 80 yards from me that really gave me a jar. The only thing we did was just cuss the Germans and keep going. From the looks of things, the war will be over soon anyway. Boy! Those Russians are God’s gift from Heaven. They are a good bunch of boys but plenty tough and drink horrible stuff called Vodka. You know, as soon as this thing is over with, I’ll be ready to catch that boat back. I’ve had enough of this country.”

“The weather here is simply wonderful, and it looks like Paris will be a beautiful place when spring gets in full swing – blue skies and warm temperatures, king of reminds me of Alabama.”

“I wish I had Bubba’s address. I hear from Max real regular. He’s studying types of airplanes in his spare time while in England. So am I. I’m making him promise to finish school when we get back. I can finish at Bama in 6 months and draw money from the government to do it on. I can also take flying at the field there and maybe find me a beautiful coed to marry while I’m there. So you hold on to that KE fraternity pin and remember you are my only girl. When I get back, I’m going to hug and kiss the first well-fed good looking American girl I first see. I’m 23 years old now, remember.”

     March 1945 – “I guess you’ll be surprise to know I’m in Holland. The people seem to be so clean and religious. I went through one of their windmills. That was some piece of machinery. The windmill, 300 years old, was still grinding oats and wheat.”

“I’m living in a house with the town priest (Roman Catholic) and he’s really a good Joe. The children have no schools. I’ve found me a little curly haired boy who hangs around me all day. His name is Jeff. I gave him a piece of your fruit cake, and the next day, he had me two eggs for breakfast. He can’t speak English but can understand me very easily. I’ve never seen his mother or daddy. I wonder if he has any. “

“I was through the town where Max was wounded, and I really thought about him. He and the other boys really tore that town up. There’s still a question in my mind where all these people went to that used to live in some of these towns. From the looks of things, we’re going to close this affair out over here. The air corps boys really give the ground forces a lot of praise. I don’t see how Germany is holding out as long as they have.”

“I’m now in Germany. You don’t speak or look at the Germans. It’s a serious offense to fraternize with the Germans. Don’t even wave at the children or give them candy. These German people are licked and they know it. These German towns are really beat up. It’s really something to see how much damage the air force and the army can do. They are really getting a taste of what they gave out in 1940, but I guess it’s all in war. The big operations that took place in and around my sector were something for the books, especially the air invasion. I’ve never seen anything like it in all my life. By now you should know what army I’m in and that should be enough.”

“Last night I took my first bath in over two weeks, and it was really funny. My jeep driver heated a lot of water, and he had a big wash tub that I sat right down in the middle of the floor, buck nude and long legs over the side. I got a good bath anyway!”

April 1945 – “Don’t be in the least bit worried about me because I’m doing fine. I guess you all are really thrilled over the war news. It really looks good, and I hope we’ll be leaving this country before long. I’ve seen all I want to see of this place now. That includes the Rhine and all the other stuff. I wish you would send Bubba’s address. I’ve just about lost complete correspondence with him. I hear from Max regular. He’s all for this flying business, and I’m right with him. I’m sending a box of junk home consisting of a German helmet, pillow cases & tablecloth (for you), wooden shoes for Daddy in his field work, German money and a German flag. Also a slide rule made in Berlin. I guess the farm is well in its way to be planted. My platoon Sgt. Is a farmer from Georgia, and he and I really talk over the farming business.”

“These Germans really know how to farm over here, but still are backward in the methods and other ways. They keep their fields real clean and practically every inch is in cultivation. It looks like checkerboards from the air. Another funny thing is the way they kill some kind of insects in the ground. They get a tank of horse _ _ _ _ and spray the field!”

“That was bad about the president’s death. I guess everybody back home was torn up. We started flying the flags at half mast. I got some terrible news today about one of my best friends at college. Howard Conner was my fraternity brother and we studied aero together. We talked much about air planes. He was in the 22nd fighter squadron which flies P-47. Today, I got a letter returned marked ‘missing in action.’ I guess that’s this God forsaken war for you.”

“I’m a 1st Lt. as of last April 16, 1945. It was some surprise when the C. O. came up and congratulated me. It’s not much but means $15. a month more and also means more respect.”

“I guess this must be the biggest mess in history. Every nationality in the world is on the move up and down these roads. The liberated people pull or move on everything you can think of – wooden wagons to horseback. These Russians will salute you and do anything in the world for you. These liberated PW’s are another thing – Frenchmen, Russians, and Americans are really being rushed out. Most of them fly out because of shortage of trucks. You don’t know how good the men feel, because this thing is drawing to a close. One of the boys says, ‘We’ll see the Golden Gate in ’48!’”

May 1945 – “These 3-day passes to Paris are already planned for you. The Red Cross meets the trains and takes care of you from then on. Gets you tickets to any show, and I mean the boys coming from the front are really treated like kings. It looks like I’ll celebrate V-E Day in Paris. When I get there, I‘ll try to find Rebecca Darling. I guess you read Hitler and ‘muss’ head (Mussolini)is dead!”

“Yes, as you know, V-E Day caught me in Paris and that’s enough said there. I guess the next best place to celebrate would have been New York. Actually, there were a lot of people hurt (in the crowds). G.I.’s on leave were covered with lipstick from the girls. I’ve never seen so much kissing in all my life! Frenchmen were giving away champagne and cognac everywhere. I guess you all really tore up Andy on V-E Day. You’ll have to tell me about it one day! School is usually out about this time and everybody has started going barefooted, haven’t they?”

August 1945 – “Yesterday, I went by the 189 General Hospital and looked up Rebecca Darling and, boy, was she glad to see me. She is still the same old Becky and looks the same. I really enjoyed talking to her and after I left her, I really got the blues for home. Over here, you sit and dream about home and just ache for the day you get back there. Lord only knows when I’ll see you.”

“Here at the camp, they had a USO show for us. A singer who is from Dothan said she went to school in New York with Ella Reid (an Andalusia girl). She said she last saw her in NYC studying music. (Ella Reid also became associated with the USO and traveled the war zones entertaining troops playing the piano.)”

“I’m glad to hear Max is getting out of the Army. That civilian life just can’t be beat! The short time I have been around Max when we have gotten together over here, he seemed to me the best soldier I’ve ever seen. You know how he is quiet and never brags or anything like that. When I left home, he was still in high school. It was hard for me to picture him as a man. You’d never know that he was a real combat man. It looks like I won’t be able to see Max again, because all our vehicles have gone to the port. I think he enjoyed his trip back up here to see this camp and see my outfit. I hope he gets home soon.”

“I’d sure like to be home and kiss my future sister-in-law, Marie. I’m wondering what she looks like. Send me a picture. I bet old Bubba has really been through the grid since she came. Give my regards to all and find out when Randolph (Kyzar) is coming home.”

“We’ve done nothing in the past 7 weeks but get ready for the Pacific. I’m ready for the show to get on the road.”

August 13, 1945 – “Well, I guess you all are really up in the air about V-J Day. It looks like everything will be over in a very short time.”

“August 17, 1945 – “At the present, I am sitting in the Red Cross at Cannes, down at the Riviera. It’s really a swanky place and good for a summer vacation, but I’ll still take Ft. Walton. The water looks exactly like the Gulf, but the sand isn’t as white and no surf whatsoever. I’d much rather spend my time in Ft. Walton. Guess I’m just too far from home.”

September 12, 1945, Boston, Mass. – “Arrived safe. Expect to see you soon. Don’t attempt to contact or write me here. Billy”

By November 1945, Avant received orders to an engineering group in Camp Gruber, Oklahoma while awaiting his discharge request.

“I sent my foot locker home today by express. It’s got a real good radio in it. Also, there is a pup tent for Buck and Bob (his nephews).

December 1945 – “Do I want to see Alabama play in the Rose Bowl. I’d sure like to see them beat Southern California, but I guess there is no leave for me this Christmas. I surely do need a car, because I get tired of these buses, and I’ve found a girl, a college girl, who lives about 30 miles from here, a senior in a small college. She’s tops, nice-looking, and we’ve gotten along so well together. I’m still in a fog over her! Tell Daddy to goose Howard Ward to get me a Ford or a Mercury. Gas is 20 cents a gallon and out on the post I can get gas for 18 cents. I just keep my fingers crossed and hope a new Ford comes thru.”

The rest of this story is that Patty Guinn and Bill Avant got married in January 1946. Bill was sent to Camp White, Oregon for a few more months for processing while Patty completed her Chemistry degree from an Oklahoma college on May 24. The Avant family had a big Andalusia homecoming reunion for everyone in late summer. Bill lined up to complete his college education in Tuscaloosa beginning in the fall of 1946 under the G. I. bill where he completed requirements for his B. S. Degree in Aeronautical Engineering in February 1947. For the next 30 years, Bill was employed in the engineering field in California and Phoenix, Arizona. His passion of flying, and his interest in aviation continued his entire life even when he retired and returned to his home place in Andalusia around 1997.

April 1946 – “Mother, I can hardly believe I’m getting out. It seems like I’ve been in this thing for 20 years. This army career is coming to an end next week. You’ll never know how much I enjoy your letters. They’re so newsy. I think you should start writing for The Andalusia Star.”

“Well, here I (finally) sit as a full-blooded civilian. I had to tell you about the good news of becoming a Mr. (Bill was discharged from the Army Combat Engineers in April 1946.) I listed Sanford Road as my permanent address so all my remaining pay and all my mail will be sent there to home. Remember (when), hold everything in the road, and I’ll be seeing you. Love, Billy