In October of 2011, I wrote about the World War II wartime letters of local boy Walter Hawes, which were rescued from the trash just in the nick of time. Today, I am proud to say that Walter’s sister, Wilma Connely, has joined with an author by the name of Doug Eaton in placing those letters in book form.
Ms. Connely and Mr. Eaton will be at Joyful Journeys, 219 S. Washington in Neosho, at 10 a.m. March 30 to sign copies of their book, “Letters from Walter: A personal look at World War II through the eyes of a young soldier.”
Below is my column from the fall of 2011, which was written before the book was started. I hope it offers a little background to the book.
Hopefully, I’ll see you at the book signing on March 30.
Army Air Corps Staff Sgt. Walter Hawes couldn’t believe what he was hearing over the radio on his headphones.
The war – World War II – was soon to be declared over! He jumped into the air with tears in his eyes and let out a whoop, announcing the news. No one believed him. That is until he handed the headset over to his commanding officer, who listened to the news for himself (officers always somehow make news “official,” don’t they?)
“Sure a great day,” Walter wrote his aunt and uncle in Indiana.
That letter – along with 14 others – from a Newton County boy during the Second World War was almost fated for the garbage dump. That is until it was rescued by a family member.
I recently had the honor of meeting Walter Hawes’ younger sister, Wilma (Hawes) Connely, of Tulsa, Okla., who graciously shared copies of her brother’s World War II letters to their aunt and uncle, Calvin and Loy Hawes, of Zionsville, Ind.
Calvin, who was half-brother to Walter and Wilma’s father, Roy Hawes, died in 1994. Loy, however, is still alive at 94 and currently resides in a nursing home in Indiana. After her house was sold not long ago, Loy’s grandson, Ken Weber (yes, spelled with one “b”) happened to be driving by the home when he spotted some boxes that were placed by the garbage bin on the curb. He stopped to investigate. And what he found among the trash that the new owners were tossing out was a bundle of letters written to his grandmother, Loy Hawes, by her nephew, Walter Hawes, during World War II. Aunt Loy, it seems, wasn't one to throw anything away.
Today, Wilma (Hawes) Connely, Walter’s sister, has those letters, which she cherishes and wishes to share with the community she and her brother grew up in. Also included in the stack of rescued letters is one from her mother, Mary (Philliber) Hawes, who died from tuberculosis in November 1944, when Wilma was 15. Walter was serving overseas and, from his letters, had no idea that his mom was gone until after she was already buried.
Page 2 of 4 - Walter Hawes was born in March 1923, the oldest of seven children. He attended Cave Springs School, northwest of Neosho, graduating from the eighth grade there. Then the family moved to rural Neosho and he spent his first two years of high school there before the Hawes' bunch again packed up and relocated to the Diamond School District. Walter graduated from Diamond High School, second in his class (he was lined up to be valedictorian, his sister says, but he had an emergency appendectomy that kept him in the hospital for the crucial period just before the end of the school term.)
By January 1943 Walter was married and had a baby girl. He was working at Pet Milk Company in Neosho when he enlisted in the Army Air Corps. According to one of the rescued letters — the one written by his mother — Pet Milk offered to hold his job until he returned from the war. The company also paid him $65 when he entered the service.
On a side note, it's interesting that in that same letter, written by Walter's mother to her brother and sister-in-law, Calvin and Loy Hawes, she mentions that the children's schoolhouse mysteriously burned down. That was the Silver Moon school, Wilma tells me. The date of the letter is Jan. 9, 1943 and the incident had occurred the Sunday prior. I don't know if that mystery was ever solved or not and Wilma doesn't either.
Walter was first sent to North Africa and then to Italy. Because his letters home are censored, and he can't provide details, we only find out much later exactly where he has been all this time and what he has been doing. At first, he was a gunner on a B-25 Mitchell bomber and stationed at airfields at Oran and then outside Algiers, in Algeria.
In October, 1943, he writes his aunt and uncle, his plane flew into the Capoalichino Airfield, three miles outside of Naples, Italy carrying medical supplies for the American 5th Army. The thing was, that airfield had only just been captured a few hours before from the Germans and there was still fighting going on at the edge of it. Walter writes he was “scared to death” he would step on a land mine that the enemy had planted all over the airfield.
“I would much rather fight it out in the air than on the ground — much safer,” Walter writes.
Later, his squadron is transferred from North Africa to that same Naples airfield, where Walter works at the operations center, coordinating flight missions. He never sees actual combat, but writes that he has “been bombed by the Germans a good many times,” especially early on.
“I used to be very glad to jump into a fox hole that was half full of water and mud,” he tells in his letter. “It was always a great feeling when our night-fighters were airborne, and the 'ack ack fire' [anti-aircraft guns] began to open up and I've seen a few of the rascals knocked down.”
Page 3 of 4 - He invariably refers to the enemy as either “Jerries” or “Krauts,” interchanging the derisive terms throughout his letters. His words for the Japanese are also typical of the times.
In one letter, following Germany's surrender in May, 1945, Walter doesn't believe rumors of a pending peace with Japan, speculating that “they will have to be crushed like the Germans were,” but that, “I don't think they'll surrender until their homeland is invaded.” That was an invasion predicted to cost up to one million American causalities. After the two atomic bombings on Japan, Walter is in awe.
“I never thought that air power could knock out a nation,” he writes.
Later, he hears the news of the war's impending end quite by accident. He's working the air to ground radio, trying to pick up a plane that had been calling a distress, when a Naples radio station broadcast comes across that Washington was going to announce the pending end of World War II sometime that evening.
“Boy, it almost floored me,” Walter related. “I jumped up and yelled it with tears in my eyes. Everybody in the office had thought I had gone crazy. No one would believe me until I handed the operations officer the headset and let him hear himself. Sure a great day.”
But Walter's letters to his aunt and uncle are mostly routine, family stuff. He asks about different family members, passes along news about certain ones he knows of, talks a little about what he's been up to but without going into detail, at least not in the earlier letters. He writes in one letter about how he and a few of his buddies were getting tired of noisy barracks life, so they built themselves a two-room house! It is a “swell set-up now,” Walter brags.
“I guess a group of soldiers can do most anything,” he writes.
Later he talks about they rigged themselves up a giant fan, using an airplane generator and sheetmetal for blades, in the hottest part of the south Italian summer, which he complains is extremely dry and dusty. They also made themselves an icebox to keep their drinks cold.
One letter is dated Nov. 13, 1943. In it, Walter rambles on cheerfully about visiting Rome and the sights he saw there, and ends his letter with “dad writes that mom is better. Sure hope she continues to improve.”
He apparently didn't know that his mother's funeral was being held that very same day. She had died four days earlier at the state tuberculosis sanitarium in Mt. Vernon. Wilma, Walter's sister, still wonders why Walter didn't get to go home for the funeral. The fact that he didn't doesn't surprise me. What does surprise me is that, by the date on the letter, he had not even been notified that his mother died, at least four days after the fact.
Page 4 of 4 - He writes a little about his conditions. Mostly, it doesn't seem so bad. Walter sees some USO shows, including one with Humphrey Bogart, who “looks and talks the same way” as on screen, according to Walter.
However, in his later letters, after the war in Europe ends, Walter complains about the slowness of the mail and the quality of the food rations, which had degenerated into a steady diet of pig tongue. Before, Walter writes, he didn't mind because he figured the grub was probably better than what the infantry guys were getting. But after the defeat of Germany, and especially after Japan surrenders four months later, he starts to feel that that the troops left behind on foreign stations have been placed on a shelf.
“We are the forgotten men,” Walter bemoans.
Eventually, of course, he would return to Neosho, picking back up his old job at Pet Milk Company.
Walter Hawes died in 1961 and is buried at the Neosho IOOF cemetery.
The fact that his wartime letters were rescued from the trash is a good thing, as it offers just one more ground-level glimpse into World War II by the common serviceman, no matter what his duties happened to be. I actually almost prefer the “slower” experiences that are documented and preserved because they represent the service of so many World War II veterans who perhaps never made it into combat but whose service means nothing less.
The fact that Walter Hawes was a Newton County boy makes his letters even more special.
A huge thanks to Walter's sister, Wilma, for sharing them with us.
Wes Franklin serves on the Newton County Historical Society Board of Directors. He is also public relations director and events coordinator for the City of Neosho. Contact him at 658-8443.