Thursday, December 23, 2010

November 11, 2010: Veteran's Day

A book compiled by a Doylestown Twp. woman honors one particular veteran - her father - and his father who made sure letters from home were as much style as substance during World War I.

In 1917, thousands of American men left the comfort of home and family, perhaps for the first time, to fight on the battlefields of war-torn Europe.

There, in the muddy, lice-filled trenches, surrounded by enemy fire, crushing tanks, and the fear of mustard gas, these boys faced death on a daily basis.

For many, the only reprieve from the hell of the Great War was a letter from home, offering words of love and encouragement and reminders of what awaited them upon their return.

For 18-year-old Private Walter L. Myers of Ohio, his letters from home carried something extra. Actually, it wasn't so much the letter, but the envelope.

Myer's father, Ross, an artist, hand-painted each envelope to his son, adorning them with patriotic or military scenes, some in cartoon format.

The correspondences gave Walter and his Army buddies something to smile about. And they made Walter quite popular with the officers. Walter, himself an artist, was tapped to paint their lockers and luggage.

"It created a bond between father and son that lasted through the years," says Walter's daughter Nancy Myers Hopkins.

Hopkins, a 78-year-old Doylestown Township resident, recently published a book about the hand-painted envelopes, 48 of which survived the war.

Called "Mail Call," the book features images of the envelopes sent to Walter, as well as excerpts from Walter's letters home and his memoirs decades after the war.

One envelope, mailed to Walter in June 1918, features a soldier walking tall and proud, having just taken a shower, a rare but welcome activity, since the men were covered in mud and lice.

On Oct. 7, 1918, Walter sent this letter home from the front:

Dear Mom and Dad:

+.I just took a "cootie" bath and got rid of a fine bunch of "cooties+" I walked ten miles to a cootie bath house and got my clothes steamed, put on a brand new suit of underwear and took a hot bath. That was the end of Mr. Cootie. Don't suppose I'll get another bath until I get another batch of them. Water is scare over here."

Walter and Ross Myers came from a long line of artists. Ross ran a scene shop in Steubenville, Ohio, first painting for stage coach shows and then for vaudeville. Walter helped out and was himself quite talented.

At 18, Walter enlisted in the Army and was assigned to the Signal Corps because he knew his way around as wireless operator. Walter's own artistic skills and the envelopes caught the Army's attention, and Walter was assigned the task of painting camouflage, a difficult job to get for a young soldier.

On March 11, 1918, Walter wrote his father:

The fellow who examined me here said I knew more about painting than 3/4 of the men he had ever examined. I know darn well I will like camouflage if I ever get a good chance at it+. Those envelopes of yours help a good deal. Most every day a Lieut. or somebody drops in to see them.

Advertisement Walter was also adept at spotting camouflage in the terrain and was soon assigned to the 3rd Balloon Squadron. He was sent up in a hot air balloon to find and map out enemy troop movements.

It was dangerous work since the balloons could be shot down at any time, though the men carried parachutes.

On Oct. 25, 1918, Walter wrote:

Dear Mom and Dad:

+.We lost another balloon the other day. Burned by a boche airman. God knows but maybe our machine guns didn't give him "H" but he got away with it. Our observers landed safe in their parachutes.

The Boche shelled us the other night and one shell landed about ten feet from yours truly's tent. Say, boy, you ought to have seen our gang high-tail it for the dugouts.

Many of Ross' envelopes to his son depicted the balloons on reconnaissance missions. Others carried images of eagles or infantrymen, or just Army life. At one point, Walter asked his father not to send any more decorated envelopes because people were stealing them.

Walter traveled through France, carrying his father's envelopes in a muslin bag his mother made. Walter thought they were lost after his unit's bags were misplaced. But the bags were eventually recovered and the envelopes were safe.

"From the time he got them he knew he wanted to keep them," said Hopkins.

Both Walter and the envelopes survived the war.

After the armistice was signed on Nov. 11, 1918, ending World War I, Walter stayed in France for several months playing the ukulele in a vaudeville-style troupe with fellow soldiers. Walter also sang and drew illustrations of the performances.

He returned to Ohio in 1919 and eventually took over the family business, which had evolved into painting and decorating mostly churches, service organizations and schools.

Walter's mother, Daisy, stored the envelopes in her attic and Hopkins remembers playing postmaster with them as a child. Eventually they were given to Walter's eldest son, Walter Jr., and the brittle, delicate pieces are today stored in a safety deposit box in Ohio.

Walter died in 1978.

Hopkins, who grew up listening to her father sing patriotic songs or use the French he learned during the war, wanted to ensure future generations of Myerses could enjoy and appreciate the envelopes. She began compiling transparencies of the pieces and finally published "Mail Call."

"It's something I wanted to do for many years," she said. "I did this so his posterity would have copies of it."

The book is not yet in general circulation. (Bucks County Courier Times)

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