By September 1944, 23-year-old lieutenant Erwin Blonder had seen enough of war to want to chronicle what he had witnessed—while keeping the news from his wife, Shirlee, and his mother and mother-in-law. In the letter that follows, he describes his experiences as a forward artillery observer, one of the most dangerous positions in battle, to his father and eldest brother, who were managing the family’s wallpaper distribution business in Cleveland, Ohio, while he was serving in the army overseas.
But Blonder had no way of knowing that worse awaited him. The next month, he and his unit were surrounded by Nazi forces on a mountain ridge in northern France—and became known to history as the “Lost Battalion.”
Dear Dad and Jerry,
I am writing this letter to you to get certain things off my mind. I am telling this to you because I want to spare Shirlee the horrible details of war and I don’t want this letter shown to either her, Mother, or even Dorothy. Another reason I am writing this to you is that I want these thoughts of mine recorded so in later years I can read them and use them in getting a better understanding of life instilled in my children.
I am well and in the best spirits possible for times like these. As I now write the guns are booming out sending their missiles of death to the enemy. I am not writing this to be dramatic but to show what thoughts are passing through my mind.
As you know, I have been transferred to another Battalion. The reason was one that had nothing to do with me personally but one that was a matter of necessity. As far as Mother and Shirlee are concerned, I am with the Service Battery of the Battalion. They worry enough without knowing what my real job is. I hope I am doing the right thing.
I am a Forward Observer for the Battalion. My job is to go along with the Infantry and conduct the firing of Field Artillery as the situation demands. I have seen and experienced things that I never dreamed of seeing and will never forget. The most honest words ever spoken were when Sherman said “War is Hell.” Never were truer words spoken. It is a living hell that men endure because of things we are willing to give our lives for.
Now to relate a few of my own personal experiences. As you all know by now our campaign here has considerably slowed down because the enemy is trying to
prevent us from reaching the borders of Germany.
You all read about our crossing a river and establishing ourselves permanently on the other side. We walked all night through a fog to reach the point we were going to cross. We arrived at dawn and I was the second artilleryman to cross. We had to wade across. The river was waist deep and the current was strong. A rope was tied across so we could use it to steady ourselves. When I plunged in my thoughts were not upon the cold water and getting wet but getting to the other side and
getting a place of cover in case the enemy fired on us. The river was 50 feet wide and I got across and up the bank to the protection of a farm house.
The next thing I knew I saw two Germans coming down a road on bicycles. An Infantry man waited until they came near the house and then stepped out and stuck a gun in front of them. They stopped and shouted Comrade and easily gave up. Nothing happened and I pushed out with the Infantry. We came to a wreck and I couldn’t get observation to shoot and I started back to a better point for observation.
As I started across an open field a German sniper started to fire at me. I fell and layed on the ground. I started to run again and a bullet whizzed over my head and again I fell flat on my stomach. I was never so scared in my life. I had to get back and couldn’t stay there forever. Then I thought of the words of a friend. “A rifle bullet has to hit you before it does any damage.” I debated with myself, the pros and cons of this argument. Then I came to the conclusion that this sniper couldn’t watch forever. So with a fervent prayer to God I started to run again and safely made my destination. Here we call this type of thing “Sweat it out.”
We moved over hill and forest and encountered a few Germans. I have never seen men get hit standing near me and I saw an artillery shell chew up one of my men. At least he never knew what hit him. I have seen many dead Germans. I used to be afraid of dead people but they don’t bother me anymore. I have been in artillery barrages where you sit and wait for each shell to burst. Waiting for the uncertain future to come. You don’t have time to think of the future but only what you are going to do next. You figure and figure but never seem to get anywhere. You see Germans moving a thousand yards away from you and you bring artillery fire on them. They scatter like a barrel of chickens do when an auto comes down the road. You kill a few and wound some. You don’t stop to think whether it is right or wrong but know that the more Germans you kill the quicker the war will be won. That seems to be the only thing they understand.
I have seen the suffering and experienced the suffering of the Infantryman. They are magnificent and have the dirtiest job to do. I have lived with them and eaten with them. They bitch and complain and cuss and swear. But they get their job done and do it well. They have protected me and have kept me out of tight spots.
My only thought is to get home safely to my wife, so she and I can live our lives the way we have always dreamed. I would gladly accept the hard work and worries of a thousand Blonder Company’s. What I wouldn’t give to file the bills again or talk to the painters and uncultured paperhangers. I hope that when peace descends upon the world again, we will prove capable of having peace. I don’t want my children to endure the things I have.
These are a few thoughts that run through my mind. I fervently pray that it will all end very soon. The news sounds optimistic but here in a foxhole with shells bursting around you have to be a braver man than I am to be an optimist. There seems to be no end.
I know that everything is OK at home. I dream of all of you. Please don’t show this letter to Shirlee, Dorothy, or Mom but save it for me for after the war. Give my regards to everyone. Take good care of yourselves until I return.
Three weeks later, Blonder and his unit—the 1st Battalion, 141st Regiment of the 36th Infantry Division—suddenly found themselves surrounded by German troops in France’s Vosges Mountains. Two attempts to reach them failed. Finally, a unit consisting almost entirely of Japanese Americans, the 442nd Regi-mental Combat Team, broke through to rescue the battalion. The 442nd had endured six days of heavy fighting and some 800 casualties, including 54 dead, to rescue the 230 men of the “Lost Battalion.” Blonder survived, returned to the United States on Christmas Eve 1944, and was reunited with his wife, to whom he is still happily married.
(The survival of this historic battlefield, however, is now question. In January, a French wind farm company submitted an application to develop the mountain site. Veterans and their families objected, and at press time its future is uncertain.)
Andrew Carroll’s Legacy Project (online at warletters.com) is dedicated to preserving and collecting correspondence from all of America’s wars. If you have a World War II letter you would like to share, please send a copy (not originals) to:
the Legacy Project
P.O. Box 53250, Washington, DC 20009
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