Your son, John: Letters from a trunk, part 3
This column is the third in a special four-part series.
For the past few weeks I’ve been telling you about an antique trunk my friends Bob and Renee Naeger found on a piece of property they purchased last year. When they opened its rusty hinges in December, they set free seven decades of smells clinging to its contents. Beneath a wallpapered panel they found 25 letters.
The lines of longhand were written by U.S. Army Air Corpsman John Allen Price, a McComb High School graduate who was stationed at Wheeler Field on the Hawaiian island of Oahu from 1939-1941. All 25 of the letters were addressed to his mother, Leona. As I had the honor of going through them one by one, I felt as if I was reading Price’s unintentional autobiography.
“There’s a rumor that everyone is going to be required to wear a uniform off the post,” he wrote one day in October. “That will kill my soul, as bad as I hate that thing. I don’t think I could do it.”
Another letter contained a request. “Tell everyone hello for me, especially Leonora. I sure would like to see her. If you have a little snapshot of her, send me one.” Leonora, I discovered in a book of Price family geneaology, was his niece.
On May 7, 1940, he gave an accounting: “Maybe I can send money next pay day. I had to put out too much this time on your Mother’s Day necklace (let me know if you got it), a picture for Juanita, and a graduation prescent for Lorraine — seven bucks on the head. I hope she doesn’t have one like it, for seven bucks is a lot of money to take out of a soldier’s pay.”
And then there are mentions of military life: “The fleet has been in port for about a week. Twenty thousand sailors in one place — that’s a lot of white caps. The USS Omaha wasn’t with them. I guess it will be in later in the year.”
The monthly letters continued to arrive in McComb throughout 1941, providing the Price family members with colorful sketches of John Allen’s daily life. The Day of Infamy, however, came early to Wheeler Field. Just minutes before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, dive-bombers hit Wheeler.
Home to the 15th and 18th Pursuit Groups, the base was a primary target. The Japanese goal was to keep Wheeler’s planes from getting airborne, and they were successful. Even so, 12 Air Corps pilots managed to find planes and engage the Japanese in courageous dogfights, scoring some of our first victories in World War II.
But John Allen Price was not to know any of the details of that battle, or any of those to come. He was one of some 35 servicemen killed in the initial attack.
For the Naegers, the sad ending came as no surprise. They had seen the condolence letters — 107 of them — tucked away in the trunk beside Price’s letters. Expressions of sympathy arrived from a stranger in Anniston, Alabama, and Price’s sister, Etha, in Jeromesville, Ohio. Tabernacle Baptist Church in Waco, Texas, sent theirs after a prayer meeting, and Mississippi U.S. Senator (and later governor) Theodore Bilbo typed his on official stationary.
Price once confided to his mother his doubt that a dozen people in his hometown cared where he was stationed. He would have been surprised by a Western Union telegram that arrived at Leona’s doorstep on December 10. John Manthrop of Life magazine requested a photo for a story on the first casualties of the war.
Bob and Renee’s daughter, Samantha, has handled that telegram, as well as the other items in the trunk. Sentiments that outlive their senders can be educational, she admits: “Even though we didn’t know John Allen, we have this connection to him now. It makes history personal.”
The week prior to his death, Price bought a classic snow-and-holly Christmas card for his mother. It would be the last piece of mail Leona would ever receive from him. He dropped it by the post office at 3:30 p.m. on December 1, 1941, after signing it in his typical style:
“Your son, John.”
Kim Henderson is a freelance writer. Contact her at email@example.com.