Part Two of Hugh Pedersen’s recollections from the Second World War in the Historical Society of Easton’s continuing Series: Easton in the Service.
In a world with several methods of instant communication, it is almost hard to imagine a time when the only means of communicating with a loved one overseas was by mail. Today’s soldiers can be in the remotest parts of the world, but satellite links allow for direct communication with mothers, fathers, spouses and children back home.
In times of war, there are three things that keep a soldier going: Those lousy K-rations, the barking orders of a superior officer, and communications from home that offer the kind of encouragement and hope that every soldier needs to fight on.
During WWII there was so much mail traveling back and forth across the oceans that the government needed to come up with a way of reducing the space it consumed on the cargo ships that were necessary for also transporting weapons and food. Victory Mail (V-mail) was the answer, a method where specific sized stationary was produced that could be uniformly laid out and photographed, thereby reducing the size to space-saving microfilm that could travel for thousands of miles before being transferred back onto paper for ordinary reading. Millions of letters were sent this way, but not all, and luckily for us, the ones you will read about here are all original survivors and longer in length than V-mails allowed.
Unlike many soldiers, Hugh Pedersen had been married for five years previous to being drafted after he voluntarily gave up the permanent deferment his position at Remington had afforded him. After graduating from Roger Ludlow in Fairfield, Hugh had earned a degree in Accounting & Finance from Bentley. His wife, Dorothy, had been the valedictorian of her class at Roger Ludlow, graduating at the age of only 15, after skipping one or more grades. She then went on to graduate from Douglas College (Rutgers) as a Phi Beta Kappa. They both had good jobs when the war began, and Hugh’s upcoming deployment to the European Theater of Operations was something they both dreaded. The fear of not knowing if Hugh would return weighed heavily upon them both.
Dorothy’s final letter to Hugh before he shipped out to England in July of 1944 was written on the 3rd of July, only five days before he would sail. It was an eight-page letter that poignantly expressed her love and devotion to the man who had given her the “happiest years” of her life. He later recalled: “Many a time when I was ready to give up the battle for life, I read parts of that letter. I brought it all the way through with me and have it today in my scrapbook.”
Sometime before his passing in 2014, he told his sons to preserve that letter always, as it had been his most cherished possession all through that war and then for the better part of the last 70 years of his life.
Dorothy’s heartfelt letter dealt with all the possible realities of war, even the possibility that Hugh might not return. The young couple had lost a newborn son at only four days of age, and she reminded Hugh in that letter: “Darling, if fate goes against us, I hope there really is a life beyond this one. And, if you reach there before I do, remember that our son will be there waiting for you. Perhaps, he even needs you more than I do. Take care of him until I can come there too, and we can continue there the happiness we’ve known here.” Mature words for a young woman facing the possibility that her husband may not be lucky enough to survive what lay in front of him.
The army encouraged both soldiers and their spouses to write to each other practically every day. Spouses were instructed to remind the boys at the front that life was continuing at home thanks to their efforts in Europe and the Pacific. No detail was too small or insignificant because it gave the soldiers something to look forward to when the fighting would end. While V-mail traveled faster, all letters and packages were given top priority and were delivered whenever and wherever the troops stopped long enough to receive them. Mail call was the highlight of every soldier’s day when it happened.
Hugh recalled one particular mail call on December 21, 1944, at Rheinberg: “Just before we left, I received fourteen packages from home. What the hell could one walking doughfoot do with such an assortment? I broke them all down and took only the best articles; the rest I divided amongst my friends (those men who were staying behind when his battalion moved on that afternoon). The one package I had left, I smuggled onto a jeep. That night we walked to Wiesviller and boarded trucks for Hirbach, a town we had liberated about fifteen days before. We arrived about midnight… Before I went to sleep, I checked on my package on the antitank jeep. I was informed it had been lost on the way. All that hard work of packing those packages gone to waste, not to mention the cost. I resolved then to never ask for another package, even though I had eaten a can of hors d’oeuvres and a can of caviar.” Even though those packages had made it through to Hugh, sadly, he only got to enjoy two small items. All the thought and effort that Dorothy and his family had put into getting something to him to enjoy for Christmas was lost in the mud somewhere on a dark and lonely road between Germany and France.
All outgoing letters written by soldiers were read by censors prior to mailing. Sensitive information such as location, successes or failures regarding military objectives, and anything else that might provide any form of assistance to enemy spies was deleted or blacked out. Since Hugh was working at writing for the Stars & Stripes and various hometown newspapers by late December, he was well versed in the rules and virtually all his homeward bound correspondence was sent just as he had written it. If you look at any of the examples his family has kindly provided me, you will notice his incredible penmanship.
Despite the constant hardships endured each and every day, soldiers like Hugh sent mostly positive messages home to family and friends. His Christmas note to his parents and siblings was short but upbeat: … “You will all be missed this 25th of Dec. but we’ll make it up some day. Please go all out this Christmas and have a great time just as if I were there. I’ll be with you in spirit. Merry Christmas folks and may you have many more.”
Occasionally, his letters to Dorothy were more inciteful and retrospective in nature. New Year’s Eve, December 31, 1944: “This morning I didn’t hear about protestant church, so I went to Catholic mass. It seemed so unfair to God to hold services under such conditions. Shells from our artillery whistled overhead throughout the service. As you looked towards the ceiling you could see a hole where the roof was blown out by a shell. All along the roof were smaller holes where planes had strafed with machine gun bullets. The beautiful stained-glass windows had been blown out near where I knelt. It snowed during the night and blew through the window leaving a small drift on the sill of the window and on our seats. One wonders how all this could happen to such a religious people as those inhabiting this country (the church was in Bastogne, Belgium, but Hugh could not reveal that information in his letter home).
“Darling, I pray that the day will soon come when we can be tourists here. The destruction caused by the war will be repaired quickly. The marks, or rather scars, on the people’s hearts never will. Fighting from village to village like we do inevitably results in the loss of life to some of the populace.
“The little boys and girls walking up and down the church aisle this morning this morning were so cute. All Europeans seem to be down to wooden shoes, at least in the rural areas.
“Our chaplain conducted the service while the local priest and the nuns sat with the parishioners.
“I know this isn’t the type of letter you like to read, but we can’t help but think that people at home take this war too lightly. I know that you are not one of them…”
Those few sentences said so much. Hugh knew those buildings could be rebuilt, but the scars of war on the innocent civilians whose homes and villages were ravaged, and who had lost friends, family, and neighbors to a fight that basically wasn’t theirs, would last forever. That was a lot of weight to bear for a twenty-nine-year-old infantryman fighting in a strange land so far away from home.
Towards the end of the war, Hugh penned another letter to Dorothy that revealed much in only a few well-written lines. Somewhere in Germany, May 2, 1945: “Darling! This has really been a month of celebration and good news. Yesterday, the Russian slave laborers celebrated May Day by killing some German cattle and feasting. To add to their celebration, Hiltler was reported to have died at 22:17. It will make little difference to the average G.I. (German soldier in this instance) as they will crumble just as fast with or without him. There was no let down here when President Roosevelt died, although many a G.I. thought he had lost a true friend. Today’s news of the surrender of 110,000 men in Italy was even better.
“Our boys on entering one farmhouse found twelve civilians kneeling on the floor and praying. They wanted to know when they would be shot. Hilter had told them we would rape their woman and kill all of them. In the barn of this house, we found the only Jew we have ever encountered here (Meaning on German soil). He said, ‘These are good Germans, they have hidden me for years.’
“A little later in a small town outside the Ruhr pocket, some civilians and three German soldiers shoved four little tots ranging from two to six out the door. They came carrying Rosary beads in their hands which held were over their heads. They wanted to see if we would shoot the children. When they saw that no one paid any attention to them, they promptly gave up. You can see what propaganda will do to a people. No wonder they fought so savagely…”
Once again, Hugh’s inciteful prose captured so much of such a complex story in so few words.
After Hugh left the Army, he returned home to Connecticut. In 1946, Hugh began a career with the Warner Brothers Company in Bridgeport that would last 31 years. He and Dorothy soon moved to Massena, New York, where Hugh managed his first factory. While there, he served as a member of the St. Lawrence River Seaway Committee, was vice-president of the Chamber of Commerce, President of the Massena Country Club, and Fourth District Adjutant of the New York American Legion. After the birth of their sons, Eric and Neil, the family moved to Dothan, Alabama in 1954, where Hugh opened another factory for Warner’s.
In 1958, the family returned to Connecticut where they settled in Easton when Hugh became the plant manager of the Warner’s factory in Bridgeport. Then in 1963, he became the production manager for all the Warner Brothers Company factories. He finished his career with the company as the vice president of manufacturing. During the course of his career, Hugh was charged with opening new manufacturing facilities in the eastern and southern United States, as well as in Mexico, Central America, Puerto Rico and the Caribbean. He retired in 1977.
Hugh’s beloved Dorothy passed away in 1995.
Hugh later married Joyce Pohl, a talented artist who at 95, continues to occupy the family home in Easton today.
I’d like to express my sincere thanks to Eric and Neil Pedersen for their cooperation and contributions to these articles about their father. Hugh’s letters offer an incredible view into a young soldier’s wartime experience and are an important part of America’s history. I am grateful for the Pedersen family’s willingness to share them with the world.