The World War II Letters of Loal Richerson, 1941–1945

From Fort Lewis, Washington, ten miles south of Tacoma, Loal Richerson wrote the first of the letters saved from his time in World War II. As he penned the note to his brother Earl, Nazis pushed through the Middle East, occupied French Syria, and had their eye on the British oil fields in nearby Iraq. The French government, in response, seemed to be negotiating with Hitler rather than fighting and Roosevelt warned against any further collaboration and seized French ships in New York as a message.

1941 Post Card of Fort Lewis

Those events were far from Loal’s mind, however. He was in training, in the Pacific Northwest, and the separation from his family and hometown seemed to bear down on him in those early days. “Some times I feel like jumping in the ocean,” he wrote to his brother Earl— who would be his consistent correspondent. He couldn’t get any information from home and all his family wanted to talk about was, well, family. He enjoyed hearing from family, but, on the other hand, the Army had taken him from his social scene in town and put him on a compound in a place he had never been before. As he neared his twenty-third birthday, Loal was alone in the rainy outskirts of Depression Era Tacoma. He told Earl about a recent letter he got from a girl named Isabelle, who “writes and tells me about every thing around P.G. She works in K.C.M.O.” That was the kind of stuff he wanted to hear.

He had recently sent Eldon and Francis each a dollar bill because he didn’t know what else to get them. “Remember what I gave you an Earl. A pair of scissors. ha ha.” He wished Eldon would write him more, but then again he wished everyone would write him more. In a world where communication and human contact existed almost solely within stamped envelopes from home, Loal obsessed over the mail.

His first few letters seemed to be written by a young man trying to keep his composure as despair, loneliness, and the fear he would be forgotten crept into his mind. When war came, he wrote, he was going to go on a drunken bender. That, of course, followed fantasies of throwing himself in the sea. He admitted he “had the blues pretty bad” that day. It had been raining and he was cooped up inside working on equipment, shining his shoes, and lounging around. Too much time to think, probably.

His next letter, addressed to Mr. and Mrs. Earl Richerson, left Fort Lewis, Washington on December 15th, 1941— eight days after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor and the American entrance into the war. There was no going back home at that point and Loal knew it. The news was all “War. War. War,” which caused his blues to reemerge. When he first entered the Army, Loal had 19 months to serve. Now he had a permanent job and added, sarcastically, “yeah. Oh yeah.” He then included, “I don’t care what takes place, because, I haven’t got any thing to loose, no women or anybody.”

There were as many good days as bad ones though. He told Earl — as the Army dropped paratroopers in Tunisia on November 18, 1942 — that he felt good. He had just returned from a trip home and, while it was hard to say goodbye, he was happy and felt “fine an sassy as ever.” He had still not entered the war, but he had been moved to Camp Pickett in Virginia and saw soldiers boarding ships for North Africa on a regular basis. It was only a matter of time and he seemed resigned to his fate.

He sent a quick note in late December, just before he shipped out, and thanked Earl for the cigarettes he had recently sent, which had arrived in “very good shape.” He wished them a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. It would be his last letter from the United States for several years.

“It is nice weather here,” Loal reported from a hospital in Africa where he was being treated for mumps — a condition he caught while crossing the ocean. It was February, 1943, and he was finally in the Sahara Desert.

In May, a few months after leaving the hospital, he wrote, “Earl, I am driving a half track, it is pretty heavy.” The half-track was a war vehicle that had two regular front wheels with tank tracks on the back. Averaging a weight of about 20,000 pounds, it was most certainly a pretty heavy vehicle. Loal kept things on the surface and carried forward that Missouri tradition of talking about weather, cars, and girls. Except now the weather was from the Sahara Desert, the car was a half-track, and the girls — well, there weren’t any except for memories of the last few he knew in Boonville and Pilot Grove.

A Line of Half-Tracks

Loal never mentioned his combat experience in his letters. He didn’t speak about the simultaneous boredom and terror of war; about the downtime that was often crudely interrupted by an unspeakable level of violence; a viciousness that made it difficult to enjoy the “rest and recreation” because you knew they were just refreshing you for something probably worse than the last worst thing you saw. He avoided talking about those occasions in which the brain only allowed one consistent thought: just stay alive.

He had many of those moments, for sure. A soldier couldn’t avoid them when serving under General Patton, who reached the height of his glorious and brutal weirdness in the North African campaigns. Loal’s future wife wrote — much later — that he had shrapnel in his knee from battle but was refused a Purple Heart because his commander didn’t believe in rewarding injuries. In addition to his belief that a Purple Heart encouraged unwarranted pride in getting shot, Patton also believed that too few casualties in combat showed a lack of effort and that he had been reincarnated as a noble soldier who died in battle.

PFC Richerson spent his early months in the war with the 15th Infantry Regiment, a take-no-prisoners raid-and-kill unit with a storied history in the military. Commanded by General Patton and General Dwight D. Eisenhower, a former member of the 15th himself, the United States Army, along with its allies, took North Africa from the Germans. The final blow came in May of 1943 when Rommel surrendered somewhere between Bezerte and Tunis. In the process, Allied Forces took 75,000 German prisoners, wounded 42,000 enemy combatants, sunk 50 ships, and destroyed 530 tanks.

None of this, however, took place in Loal’s letters. The closest he got to talking about the action around him came three weeks after the collapse of the German line in Tunisia when Loal told his brother: “Earl, boy I have things to tell you when I see you.”

And then came the downtime. In this case, what followed would be significantly more dangerous than what he saw in Tunisia. A rest, however, was a rest. After saving North Africa from the Germans, many units of the Allied Forces, including Loal’s, spent several more months near Tunisia performing light duty and recreating. Those were the chances he had to write. Loal described the merciless heat of that African desert summer in his characteristically understated style by informing Earl “it sure is warm here now.” Angeline wrote that he told her, later in life, that the moon shone so bright on the desert they didn’t turn the headlights of their vehicles on. There were moments of peace and wonder out in the desert that even the horror of war couldn’t completely stamp out.

On those imperfect holidays — removed, briefly, from an immediate fear of dying — soldiers focused on the little things. That summer in the Sahara, Eisenhower requested three million bottles of Coca-Cola along with ten supply lines, and enough syrup for six million refills. After liberating Tunisia, he wanted to give all American soldiers a five-cent Coke. It was a meager prize, but widely embraced. American soda, in the African desert, seemed like a wild fantasy and Eisenhower made it come true (for five cents).

In the backdrop, Loal was transferred to the new 805th Tank Destroyer Battalion, a reconnaissance troop charged with sniffing out German positions and leading the front-line warriors to them. He had just received his first service stripe — or hash mark — for three years of service. The time, he wrote, “passed pretty fast” and he noted that he “was home only two times” in those three years. In the fall of this break from battle, the 805th Tank Destroyer unit even won the North African Baseball Championship. Things were looking up.

On September 6, 1943, Loal, writing from “off of the Sahara Desert. N. Africa,” requested that Earl take his letter down to the drugstore in Boonville and send back two rolls of Kodak film because “one of the boys here has a Kodak.” He figured they would give the film to Earl for free.

Loal Richerson
Actress-Comedian Martha Raye Performing for the troops on an impromptu stage set up in the Sahara Desert

Loal arrived in Naples on October 25, 1944. He let Earl know about the move in his minimalist way — “I’m not in Africa anymore. I’m in Italy now.” In a subsequent letter, he was overjoyed to have had turkey for Thanksgiving and considered it “quite a treat for us over here.”

He learned, like the rest of the soldiers, to savor the small stuff: Coca-Cola, the way the moon lit up the desert, a rustic North African baseball tournament, a turkey that reminded you of home. It was crucial because death, as always, lurked around every corner and that would become even clearer in the coming months. In early-1944, shortly after his first turkey Thanksgiving in Europe, his unit joined the 34th Infantry in the First Battle of Monte Cassino.

Loal crossed the Gari River, settled in the hills, and attacked Monastery Hill along with his fellow soldiers, a German stronghold and the centerpiece of the town of Cassino, Italy. The Germans used the hilltop abbey, established in the sixth century, as an observation deck, an ideal spot for an effective defensive posture, and a way to prevent access to Rome.

The Allied Forces, then, began to climb Monastery Hill to take it. The 34th Infantry, to which Loal was attached, led a valiant charge and nearly single-handedly captured it. It took five allied armies to eventually wrestle Monte Cassino from the Germans — a task which Loal’s unit almost achieved alone. Those heroics in early-1944, however, came at a great cost. The Allied Forces suffered 55,000 casualties, a number nearly equal to the total American deaths in the entire Vietnam War. Infantry units like the 34th lost upwards of 80% of their men.

Bombing of Monte Cassino, March 15, 1944
Members of the 34th Infantry at Monte Cassino

Loal’s Tank Destruction Unit, along with the 34th Infantry, were relieved of their duties related to Monte Cassino the second week of February, 1944. They were then given a few more weeks of rest and relaxation before the next battle: an invasion of Anzio, Italy, which was designed to complement the Normandy Invasion in France. It would be a kind of Southern D-Day. The cumulative impact of the two invasions would, allied commanders hoped, finally cripple the Germans.

One month after Monte Cassino, on March 19th, Loal wrote: “earl, how about sending me a box, six ft long and three ft wide and too ft high. I want to come home soon. Maby I can mail myself up and get to see my dear ones. How bout it?” He ended “by now I’m O.K.” He was lucky to be alive and he seemed to know it.

There was little time to reflect on mortality or luck, however. Directly after writing the letter requesting a Loal-sized box to mail himself out of Italy in, he was sent to the front in Anzio. In that battle, the Allied forces only suffered 7,000 casualties and 36,000 wounded or missing. Compared to Monte Cassino, the devastation of losing (in some form or another) 40,000 soldiers must have seemed like the sign of a small victory.

The Allied Landing at Anzio

Having helped eliminate Hitler’s lethal Italian blockades, Loal was bound for Rome. He arrived on June 5th, 1944— one day before the Normandy Invasion. Upon arriving, he told his sister-in-law, “sis, I have been to Rome. It is a very nice place and a lot to see.”

Allied Forces Liberation of Rome

Loal encouraged her “do not worry about me. If anything happens Uncle Sam will let you know about it.” At the tender age of twenty-five, he seemed to have accepted the idea he might not make it home alive. Monte Cassino had taught that lesson to its survivors quite effectively. He was not grim about it, though, and told Earl that he was “fat an sassy. mean as ever.”

In later years, according to Angeline, he would tell her fragments of stories about his time in Italy. During his stay in Rome, he “saw the Pope, the paintings in the Sistine Chapel, & a lot of the historic buildings.”

Pope Pius XII Speaking to Soldiers in Rome, 1944

It was a whirlwind tour of the city that he took and Rome had certainly seen better days than the ones he saw it in. He was off again, in summer of 1944, as the 805th Tank Destroyer Battalion moved into North Italy applying increasing pressure on the Germans. Loal mostly participated in indirect-fire missions at that point. In Angeline’s account, “he would take his men out at night & try to locate the German troops & get information as to their location.” He told her about one night when Germans, talkative and noisy, could be heard approaching. Loal and his men laid down in a road ditch on their stomachs with heads buried. Angeline wrote, “he said there was column after column of Germans marching by — they didn’t see the guys in the ditches.”

He wrote to Earl that summer: “I’m tired of this county. It’s no good” and confessed that “sometimes I wish that I had never joined the army.” He suspected he would have “been drafted at the first any way.” He had been away from home for over four years as he wrote, probably exhausted in all possible ways. That period of dismay also coincided with the time he was captured by the Germans and freed by an American strike before they were able to secure him as a Prisoner of War. It was another brush with potential death and he must have wondered how many more of those he could get away with.

“He never did tell me the story of this,” Angeline wrote. Even after returning home, he avoided any discussion of the violence and trauma that surrounded him during those years. “He never talked very much about the actual war,” she said, “he would talk about his buddies & some of the good times they had,” but that was as far as it went. He was willing to discuss the downtime but not the violence that often followed it. One of those buddies had been killed while going to see a girl in Italy. Another, “an Alley boy from the Lamine area was killed in the war & when he was brought back here for burial in the Peninsula Cemetery, we went but [Loal] could not go & talk to the boy’s family.” Angeline wished she had kept better notes of the stories he told her over the years. When she asked him to tell the stories later in life for a book of memories, he refused to discuss it.

After the Normandy invasion and the liberation of Rome, the war was all but over and Loal felt unusually good. He told Earl he was “fine and dandy, never feeling any better” than he did at the “present time.” He urged Earl not to worry about him and that he would be back “some of these days.” His tone was hopeful, less grim than it had been in some of his previous letters. A year had passed since Monte Cassino and Anzio, a period of time in which he had likely been greeted as a hero in Rome, heard the Pope, and marveled at the Coliseum. He was, by then, an old soldier — a battle tested member of a conquering army strolling through Rome to applause. Then he was heading North out of Italy and out of the war, which meant he was finally headed in the right direction: home.

After surviving yet another deadly battle in the Spring of 1945— the Po Valley Offensive — Loal seemed genuinely upbeat. He wrote to “Papa, moma” and the “Little Bears” and said “yep, here is the hill billy again.” He told them he had no “room to complain” and hoped they all felt as good as he did. That self-described hillbilly had survived the North African campaign with Patton, withstood the slaughter at Monte Cassino, ran the beaches of Anzio, strolled through Rome and saw the Pope, nearly got imprisoned in a German camp, and avoided becoming one of the 20,000 American casualties in the Po Valley. It was hard to imagine something worse than what he had already seen — and what he had already survived.

He had also gained a new pen pal at some point, a seventeen-year-old-girl from back home in Missouri. They had been exchanging letters since he first arrived in Italy. She wrote him regularly and seemed to enjoy doing it. He, of course, loved letters — all of them. Whether they were from Earl, his sister-in-law, mom, dad, the little bears, Eldon, Noal, Isabelle who worked in Kansas City and knew about Pilot Grove, or total strangers. For him, he reckoned he averaged about fifty letters a month, which he claimed was “quite a few for a male.”

From Italy — on May 9, 1945 — one day after news of a complete German surrender spread throughout the world, Loal wrote Angeline in Glasgow, Missouri. “For myself,” he told her “Im fine as could be. Especially since the war is over, over here.” He told her that he “celebrated last night” and “sure felt bad this morning.” Loal confessed to Angeline, “I sure wish I were there to go with you to the school play. I used to be in all of them when I was in school. Infact I always like to be on the stage. Some of these days I will be home then we will talk things over, is that OK with you?”