Their father speaks again in war letters

Family: A soldier's letters home help four siblings discover the "back story" of their late father.

February 27, 2000|By Dail Willis

SHE WAS ONLY 11 years old when he died -- and Brenda Liechty Leister's memories of her father had worn gossamer-thin with remembering and retelling. Until one of her sisters showed her a shoebox full of letters their father had written between May 1944 and June 1945. The letters, 41 in all, were written while Sherman Liechty trained at Fort McClellan and Fort Meade, traveled to England, France, Belgium and Germany -- where he lost a leg after being shot by a Nazi soldier -- and finally returned to America to recuperate in a Utah hospital.

"My memories are few enough that they've all been rerun so many times or filtered through other people," says Leister, 39 and employed at a Baltimore hair salon. "Reading the letters is like hearing him talk again."

Sherman Liechty's voice in those letters resonates well beyond his family. The news, hopes and fears documented in the correspondence of this Indiana farm boy chronicle his passage from youth to maturity during a world war - a journey also made by thousands of his contemporaries.

"It's a coming-of-age story -- triumph over tragedy," says Patricia L. Layfield, one of Leister's two sisters, who lives in Bowie. "He told Mom he could have died . . . and the fact that he didn't was a gift from God, and he thanked God for every day he had after he was wounded."

After first reading them in November, Leister decided that the letters should be preserved and shared with the family. So she typed them out exactly as her father had written them (errors and all), assembled a brief chronology of the war in Europe to provide context, added a photograph of her father in his uniform, bound it all in a slim soft-cover book and gave it to family members at Christmas.

"What Brenda has done, it's made it really special," says Jenni Stuck, the sister who saved the letters. "He's been dead a long time, but he's very much alive in each one of us."

Sherman Emanuel Liechty was born Sept. 24, 1920, in Berne, Ind., a small Swiss-German farming town in the northeast corner of the Hoosier state near the Ohio border.

The youngest of Henry and Selena Liechty's five children, he left high school in his teens and worked first on the family farm, then as an electrician in town. But not for long. World War II touched even little hamlets hidden deep in America's Midwest, like Berne.

Liechty was drafted (as was one of his brothers, who served in the Philippines) and entered the U.S. Army on Aug. 21, 1942 -- a month before his 22nd birthday. He wrote his family regularly, and the letters home were kept bundled in a green Thom McAn shoebox -- first by his mother, then his wife and finally his daughter -- for more than 50 years.

The shoebox traveled from Indiana's farm country to Maryland's Eastern Shore, where Stuck lives now. Whether earlier letters were lost, his daughters do not know. But the first letter in the shoebox is a postcard dated May 4, 1944, from Fort Benning, Ga. "Dear folks, Just a line to let you know I'm leaving this camp today and am being transferred to Ft. McClellan, Alabama, which is only about 150-200 miles west of here," Liechty wrote.

In August, he was still at Fort McClellan, supervising a battalion and recuperating from a small injury to his finger, which had been punctured by an explosive he had handled. He was also dealing with the first of a series of personal losses the war would bring, and he mentioned it in an Aug. 7 letter to his mother.

"No doubt I received the sadest news the other day that I have up to date, that of course was about Les Mazelin being killed. . . . You know quite a while back the three of us Brondt, Les & I decided that we were going on a long vacation together after the war, probably to Minnestoa on a fishing trip -- Well theres not much to be said except that they'll be no fishingtrip. . . . I know civilian life will never be the same without him."

By the end of August, Liechty was in Fort Meade. A Sept. 4 letter showed that he was thinking of the uncertain future and was trying to plan for the worst without alarming his family unnecessarily. "You probably wonder why I sent you these papers that you find. All they are is some papers that give you [his mother the right to do anything with my bank acct that you wish. The reason I had these made out is so you can legally have access. . . . There is no particular hurry about going to the bank so whenever you get to town that will be early enough."

In the next few months, Liechty's letters described his work. "I have been given a Company Commanders job until we reach our overseas destination." He also included a gentle reminder that he could not discuss some things: "My letters to you folks back home will not be censored only by myself. There will be and is already some things I'd rather not write home about."

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