Getting Word Home

Pictures and letters in the exhibit 'Missing You: Last Letters From World Warr II' live to speak eloquently for the soldiers who never made it back

April 28, 2000|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

Lt. Thomas Ross Kennedy knew he was dying from dysentery when he wrote his last letters home in January 1945, from the hold of one of the prisoner of war "Hell Ships" heading toward Japan from the Philippines.

He was a signal corps officer who had survived Corregidor and the Bataan Death March and nearly three years in Japanese POW camps. He was on his third Hell Ship. The first, the infamous Oryoko Maru, had been sunk by American carrier planes. The Japanese left these ships unmarked so American fliers could not distinguish them from combat ships. They were truly hellish hulks of filth, thirst, hunger, madness and death. Some 1,619 POWS left the Philippines aboard the Oryoko Maru, perhaps 400 reached Japan.

Kennedy desperately wanted to leave a last record for his parents. He wrote in a small, compressed hand on the back of two photos of his sister and his aunts and on the reverse of a Japanese document. The messages were basically the same. He hoped one would get home.

"Dearest Mommie and Dad: I am writing so that you will know exactly what happened and won't be like so many parents. I guess I made a mistake in not listening to you and coming over here."

He was 18 when he enlisted in June 1940. He was a handsome guy whose face reflected a bit of each of his parents. He has his arms around both his mother and father in the picture taken just before he went overseas to the Philippines in October 1940. His mother wears a 1940s slack suit, her face apprehensive perhaps, his dad's sleeves are rolled up and he holds his head high, a proud father.

The pictures and letters are in the exhibit "Missing You: Last Letters From World War II," which will be at the National Postal Museum in Washington through Sunday. The half-dozen letters on display are eloquent, hopeful, compassionate, philosophical, poetic, even funny. Kennedy's are tragic.

He wrote his parents that he weighed only about 90 pounds. He asked them to hold a nice service for him and put a headstone in the new cemetery in Bakersfield, Calif., his hometown.

"Take care of my nieces and nephews," he wrote, "so they won't want anything as I want even warmth or water now."

He wasn't married but he had a girlfriend: "Tell Patty, I'm sorry," he wrote. "I guess we just weren't meant to be happy together."

He asked his parents to write the mother of a man who "died of dysentery on my shoulder. We were like brothers."

He told them to buy a ranch with the money he left: "So you will always have some place to go. Also give both sisters liberal amounts."

And he wanted his younger brother Gary to have "a sport model auto" for his first year in high school.

"If I could only have been killed in action," he wrote regretfully. "It's so useless to die from dysentery."

He signed the letter "All my Love, Tommie Kennedy O-8900346."

He died a few days later and was buried at sea. A survivor brought his letters home. One of the nieces he worried about, Jacque McNeeley, preserved them.

"Lt. Kennedy was the only one who knew he was going to die," says Nancy Pope, the curator of the Postal Museum show. "The others thought they were coming out fine. One guy complains about not seeing enough action."

That was William "Top" Frolli, a 22-year-old radio operator on a transport plane in Italy. In August 1944, he wrote his friend, Hugh Evans, a bomber pilot, a jaunty letter with a skillfully drawn cartoon of his buddy's plane dodging flak.

"I know you'd enjoy it here," Frolli wrote, "for we take daily swims in the sea."

But his routine transport flights made him restless. He had been originally classified 4-f, but later he was allowed to enlist for "limited service."

"What else can I tell my grandchildren," he wrote his friend. "I listened to Dinah Shore while crossing the English Channel. `Fibber McGee and Molly' had a swell show the night I flew over the French Riviera. Won't they think I was a hell of a hero in World War II."

He was shot down a few weeks later. Evans' reply to Frolli's last letter was returned marked "KIA -- Killed in Action."

Pope, the curator, says she has always wanted to do this exhibit. She's worked for about 15 years with the postal collections for the Smithsonian, even before the Postal Museum opened in 1993. The show is a joint endeavor of the museum and the Legacy Project, whose director Andrew Carroll, a postal enthusiast, has amassed about 3,000 letters from military men who served in America's wars during the 20th century.

"He has always been fascinated by letters," Pope says. "He's always been fascinated by family history and letters."

Carroll picked out likely letters for the museum show and Pope made the final selection.

"I have a venue to share these stories with other people and that's a responsibility I take very, very seriously," she says. "This was an awesome responsibility."

She talked to relatives or friends of most of the men who wrote the letters.

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