Soldier's letters to his love

Life-savers: For a Crisfield boy at the front on D-Day, luck and being able to exchange messages with his bride were all that kept him going.

June 06, 1999|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN STAFF

Two weeks into battle -- dodging artillery fire and stepping over the bodies of his fallen comrades -- Austin Cox crouched behind a Norman hedgerow, laid down his rifle and picked up the other weapon that helped save his life in the Second World War: a pen.

My Dearest Jeanne, he wrote to his bride.

. . . I am in my little home which is about 3 ft. underground, sometimes called a foxhole. I've always wondered why they call it that, now I know; it's not the nicest place in the world but at times you sure wouldn't trade it for anything else in the world.

I have your picture right over my heart and every night I can lay here and look at you until it gets too dark to see you. I know your ears must burn an awful lot for every nite I have a nice long talk with you. I guess you will think I'm nuts but it sure makes me feel a lot closer to you.

We can never be beat now for every mile we go is bringing us that much nearer to home and to the ones we love. . . . All my love to the sweetest girl in the world,

Austin

The first steps of the first mile toward home were taken 55 years ago today, when Cox, a 24-year-old from Crisfield, and 175,000 other Allied soldiers landed in Normandy as part of the largest armada in history against Hitler's Fortress Europe.

It was June 6, 1944.

Several thousand Allied troops never made it beyond the first few feet, let alone the hundreds of miles that followed before victory in Europe in spring 1945.

For Cox, who survived, June 6, 1944, marked the beginning of a streak of luck that lasted until Berlin fell. He enjoyed a lifetime of good fortune during his 11 months in combat, day after day of narrow escapes that included a German bullet that rattled in and out of his helmet.

Of the 43 soldiers from the watermen's town of Crisfield who landed on the beaches of Normandy, six never returned home.

Of the survivors, just five are left in the town today.

Looking back, Cox is convinced that the letters he wrote to his wife and the ones he received from her almost daily played an equally powerful role in keeping him alive during the war.

The best soldiers had "somebody that loved them and wrote to them. Some boys lived and died without getting a letter," said Cox, now 79.

Jeanne wrote more than 400 of them. And he replied as often as his nerves and daylight allowed.

"I was trying to put into words how I felt. It was about wishing I'm dead. I wanted to be wounded. I wanted to be anything. I wanted to be out," he said.

All of Jeanne's letters are lost, reduced to ashes one by one in foxhole cooking fires. Cox's unit was required to destroy all correspondence.

"That was the worst experience I had," he said.

Sealed in Pandora's box

Cox's letters survived, sealed in a small box in his Crisfield home and unopened by the author for 50 years.

Like many soldiers who shared his experience, Cox was tight-lipped about his war, preferring to look forward to the life he built after it rather than the destruction he left behind.

He preferred to keep this "Pandora's box," as he called it, closed.

All that changed with the great fanfare surrounding the 50th anniversary of D-Day and the attention given to World War II veterans in Tom Brokaw's book, "The Greatest Generation," and Steven Spielberg's Academy Award-winning film, "Saving Private Ryan."

Cox submitted a brief testimonial to a World War II Web site last year and typed up a two-page description of his military experience for his family, telling his six children: "As you all have read and seen so many war stories I can only say that everyone that was there has their own little war and hell inside of them."

Old stories surface

Lately, he's allowing that hidden part of him to emerge.

"I've clammed up for 50 years," said Cox.

Nowadays, he said, "I can't sleep because it's on my mind."

He finds himself staying up late in the blue glow of his television screen watching old war movies like "Battle of the Bulge."

He can still recall the sound of a German shell, the taste of corned beef hash heated in his helmet, and when he looks over his letters he remembers the terrible knot in his stomach when he tried to write to his wife about it all.

Censors kept tight restrictions on what he could write.

"The letters were really about nothing," Jeanne, now 75, recalled.

Yet, they both agree, the letters convey a time and a place they both are glad are past.

"He gets very emotional about it," Jeanne said. "It's hard for him to look. It's too heavy."

My Dearest Jeanne,

Well darling today is the 4th of July, the day they shoot all the fireworks at home. I can't say that I'm missing any of the bangs this year. I got a new issue of clothing today. I was beginning to feel pretty badly with the ones I had on. How I wish I could take you in my arms now. It seems I miss you more than anything about this time every evening for I just lay here and do nothing but think of you.

All my love, Austin.

They met in 1942 at the corn exchange dance hall in Witney, England.

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