A stranger reunites Barb Clair with her dad's heartfelt letters written from the warfront
Earle Nichols served with distinction in the U.S. Army in counter-intelligence during World War II but also found the time to write hundreds and hundreds of letters to his wife, daughter and son back home in Chicago over a period of five years.
That daughter - Barb Clair, a Summerfield resident since 2000 - in mid-April received four volumes of letters from Earle that her mom Pauline had saved and bound into thick volumes labeled "England 1942," "Africa 1942-43," "Africa and Italy 1944" and "Italy 1945."
The story of those letters and how they miraculously came home after disappearing for more than a decade is filled with the same intrigue and intelligence-gathering that Earle, called "Bud," utilized during his career.
After earning a degree in military science, Earle first served in the Illinois National Guard as an enlisted man. During WWII, he held several positions that led to becoming deputy chief and then chief of the Counter-Intelligence Section of the G-2 Section of the Allied Forces Headquarters, contributing "substantially to the effective intelligence essential to the invasions of North Africa, Sicily and Italy," according to a statement by Gen. Earle Wheeler, chief of staff, at Earle's retirement in 1963.
After WWII, Nichols held several other positions, including staff officer in the Intelligence Division, Supreme Headquarters, Allied Powers, Europe; director of the Intelligence Division at the Armed Forces Staff College in Norfolk; and advisor to the deputy chief of staff for intelligence of the Republic of the Korean Army.
After retiring from the military, Earle taught at the University of Maryland until he died in 1966 at Dewitt Army Hospital in Fort Belvoir in Virginia. His wife Pauline died 10 years later, and son Robert inherited their possessions.
In 1998, Robert was planning to move to Florida and had everything shipped there but died before making the move. Barb was the executor of his estate, and rather than fly to Florida to pick up Robert's belongings, she had the boxes shipped from a storage locker to her in Oregon.
She was aware that her dad had written a lot of letters to her mom during the war but didn't know what happened to them.
"I didn't pay any attention to it after I left home," she said. "I had my own letters from my dad."
In the meantime, after Barb got her brother's boxes, the rest of the load on the truck was delivered to a woman named Jan Calvert in Snoqualmie, Wash., who found a box that didn't belong to her. Inside were the volumes of letters written by Earle.
Based on the names and information in the letters, Jan searched the Internet to find the owner of the letters but to no avail, and she finally gave up.
A couple of years ago, Barb put together a scrapbook of photos, newspaper clippings and other mementos of her dad's life and military career. After her husband Gene got sick, their son Chris came to visit, and Barb showed him some letters her dad had written in 1946 that had not been put in the bound editions.
Chris picks up the story, writing on his blog in May 2012, "Among the items that did not make it in were a stack of letters (granddad Earle) wrote from Caserta, Italy, between late February and May of 1946, and 11 Western Union telegrams he sent from Italy to his family on South Oglesby in Chicago between Dec. 24, 1945, and May 16, 1946.
"They paint a picture of a man frustrated by military bureaucracy, by the distance from his family and by the inadequacy of the spotty phone communication of the day to bring him closer to them."
Chris took the letters home and posted excerpts on his blog, evergreenparkpatch.com/groups/opinion/p/letters-from-the-Europe in time for Memorial Day 2012.
The letters meant a lot to Barb growing up because "I was an Army brat, and I was daddy's girl," she said. "He was in the war when I was 7 to 11 years old. He only visited us three or four times during the war, and I was sad that I wasn't small enough to fit in his duffle bag."
While Earle tried to protect his children from the horrors of war, Barb knows some of the stories about him.
Earle was on the first American ship torpedoed in the Mediterranean on the way to the Casablanca Conference held in Morocco in January 1943 to plan the next Allied European strategy. In attendance were President Franklin D. Roosevelt, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Gens. Charles de Gaulle and Henri Giraud of France.
"Daddy survived the ship explosion but with literally only the shirt on his back," Barb said. "He had no other clothes, and when he showed up at the conference, President Roosevelt reportedly said, 'My god, is that man in my Army?'"
When Roosevelt later saw Earle in a uniform, he said, "You certainly look different."
In April this year, Jan in Snoqualmie decided to look online one more time for the owner of the letters she had stored for more than 10 years before getting rid of them. She found Chris' blog and realized he was probably the grandson of the man who wrote the letters.
Jan contacted Chris and told him she had moved from Biloxi, Miss., in the late '90s and found the box when she was unpacking. Chris then called Barb to say that a woman in Washington "said she has books that belong to Grandpa."
Chris put Jan and Barb in touch with each other, and "Jan shipped them almost immediately," said Barb, adding that she and Jan have since exchanged notes. When Barb wrote to thank Jan for sending the volumes, Jan replied, "I am thrilled your father's books have finally made it home."
When Barb opened the treasure-trove of bound volumes, she couldn't believe her eyes at the hundreds of pages of tiny script written in perfect penmanship, and she is anticipating reading them thoroughly. And now for the first time, she can compare what her dad wrote to her and her mom.
On July 24, 1942, Earle wrote Barb from England, "I am in the country about which so many stories I have read to you tell. Do you remember Peter Pan and Winnie-the-Pooh and Mother Goose rhymes? They were all written here. This is the land of castles and giants and fairies, cathedrals and meadows."
A couple of days earlier, Earle wrote his true feelings to his wife at the beginning of a long letter, "Darling, What I am to do? I am so lonesome and homesick - every thought is of you and Barbara and Robert."
Barb noted, "Basically, this is a story of a grandson who didn't know his grandfather who looked at his mom's scrapbook at letters from 1946 and posted a blog about them, and a thoughtful stranger connected a box of books she found to the blog."
Chris ended his blog by quoting the last lines of his favorite letter from his grandfather, dated May 16, 1946: "Give Barbara and Robert each a hug and kiss for me and tell them both to be good children. I love you now and forever, Bud."
Chris added, "'Forever and ever,' as it turned out, was only another 20 years - almost to the day. He died from a brain tumor on May 24, 1966, at the age of 58, four and a half years before I was born. He is buried in Section 35 at Arlington National Cemetery."
But Earle Nichols will live forever through his heartfelt letters.