Sixty-four years ago today a letter was on its way from Europe to New Orleans.
Three days earlier, on July 4, 1944, a soldier in the American Army, camped out somewhere in France, had written to his sister:
"I’m sure you’ve heard and seen much about the invasion since D-day," the soldier – my father, Ellis Laborde – wrote to his sister, Lena. "I did not arrive in France on D-day but I came in shortly afterward, and there was still much to be seen, and plenty hard fighting to do," he continued. "I was in action several times since. Thank God thus far I didn’t even get a scratch."
War time mail was heavily censored for fear that if somehow ceased by the enemy the letters could give valuable information. Soldiers were not allowed to the specific about their locations or casualties they witnessed. Though they must have been bursting with feelings about the hell they had lived through and the triumph they had experienced, the letters were forced to be subdued, more about the setting than the fighting: "At first the Frenchmen were rather cold towards us," he wrote. "The welcome we received here was nothing like it had been in Sicily."
For the rest of his life, Sicily would be what all else was measured against. My father was a medic, and while under fire during the Invasion of Sicily, he rushed to save a wounded soldier. A passing general saw the action, thought it heroic, and later issued him a certificate of commendation. Years later, he would learn that he had also been awarded a Bronze Star medal. Sicily was also the site of one of the war’s lighter moments. One day after the fighting was over, a wealthy local man drove into the camp and asked to see the commanding officer. The man had connections in Louisiana and wanted to entertain any soldiers from there. That evening the Louisianians in the bunch were served a full pasta dinner at the man’s villa.
France was different: "Their attitude is gradually changing," my father wrote of the locals, "now that they are finding out what the Germans said about us was just plain ole German propaganda."
Optimism was high in the summer of 1944. With the Allies having broken through, the war in Europe seemed nearly over – maybe within a month or so. Earlier in his letter, the soldier has speculated about what he might do after the war – perhaps landing a job with Public Service, New Orleans’ utility company at the time, or going back to his previous job at a hotel, or maybe, he joked, just retiring.
As happy as that July 4th seemed to be, his favorite holiday, Christmas, would be miserable that year. Rather than surrender to what was by then a hopeless cause, the Nazis made a determined last stand near the German border. This final great confrontation of the European war, to be known as The Battle of the Bulge, was fought during one of the area’s coldest winters ever. Soldiers, topped by layers of snow, shivered in fox holes. The "scratch" that had thus far been avoided at the time of his Fourth of July letter came in a painful way – a leg so frostbitten that it almost had to be amputated. The leg was saved but for the rest of his life he suffered with it.
In the summer of ’44 though, his most serious malady had been sheer loneliness: "Please pass this short letter around so the rest of the family can read it as well," he concluded. "A letter a week from you would be highly appreciated. Certainly you will not let me down, will you."
He was in a hospital in Belgium when the war ended. The news was echoed by a distant bugler playing "The Star-Spangled Banner." That would be the sweetest message delivered on either side of the Atlantic.
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