Friday, May 23, 2014

Aunt Libby and the Canteen

Elizabeth "Libby" Lippincott Pitner with Lt. Wallace Lippincott Jr.'s canteen.


In 1971 I spent nine months in Paris. A buddy of mine from college was there, too. He was going to be the next Hemingway and I was going to be the next Fitzgerald. It didn't work out that way, but I have no regrets. Whenever my friend got upset with a Frenchman, he'd say "My uncle liberated you!"
While I was in Paris I courted a young woman of a different nationality. Wanting to appear worldly I suggested that we go to the Louvre. So we're walking from gallery to gallery and there are all these famous paintings. All of a sudden there I am standing face to face with the Mona Lisa.
"Wow," I said. "It's much smaller than I imagined."
"Oh, you Americans," the young lady said. "You think everything is as big as Texas."
For our next date, hoping to rehabilitate my knowledge of art, I suggested we go to the Rodin Museum.
We walk through the first gallery and out into the yard, and there in front of us is a working model of the Thinker. It's only about two feet tall. And I thought, gee, that's much smaller than I imagined it would be. I didn't say a word.
Which brings me to earlier this month, when I drove from New Britain to Canonsburg, Pa., just outside Pittsburgh, to see an artifact from World War II, which I imagined would be much bigger than it actually was. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
Last December, I called Vern Schmidt, a veteran of the 90th Infantry Division who's in one of my books. I needed some information about his brother, who was a prisoner of war, for another project I was working on. We talked for half an hour and I was about to hang up when Vern said "By the way..."
By the way, Vern and his wife had been to Europe where they have a friend named Norbert Morbe. Norbert is an avid collector of World War II artifacts. You can find him on Facebook, where his page is like a virtual museum. A few years ago he found a canteen in the woods with a name, "Lippincott, Wal," and a serial number etched into its side. Lieutenant Wallace Lippincott was killed in the Battle of the Bulge, but Norbert's efforts to find anyone in his family so he could return the canteen proved fruitless. So he asked Vern to take the canteen home to Fresno, Calif., and see what he could find. He, too, wasn't having any luck.
Lieutenant Lippincott's Canteen
 My father didn't know Lieutenant Lippincott, but they were both in A Company of the 712th Tank Battalion. I had researched the incident in which Lippincott and two members of his crew were killed on Jan. 14, 1945, near Sonlez, Luxembourg.
Lippincott's widow married a Navy veteran and became Libby Pitner; hence the difficulty in locating her. About ten years ago the lieutenant's  great-nephew, Ted Nobles, was researching his family's genealogy and  contacted me. I sent him some information. I still had his email, but it was no longer active. Then I found Ted on Facebook.
Vern sent Ted the canteen. Columnist Dan Rubin of the Philadelphia Inquirer covered the story -- the Lippincotts had lived in Swarthmore, Pa. -- and Ted said he met Mrs. Pitner many years ago but didn't remember her last name or even know if she was still alive. At the end of the article, he said, "Aunt Libby, where are you."
Libby Pitner had three children by her second marriage, to Craton Pitner, who has since passed away. The day the article came out, she answered the telephone and heard "Grandma, you're on the front page of the Inquirer."
Ted Nobles planned to drive the canteen out to his great Aunt Libby, but the harsh winter and car trouble kept him from making the trip from Delaware, so he finally FedExed it. Vern Schmidt decided to fly from Fresno to Pittsburgh so he could meet Aunt Libby and see her with the canteen, so I agreed to drive out and meet them as well.
I met Mrs. Pitner in the lobby of the assisted living facility where she lives, and we went up to her room to talk. There on the bed was what seemed to me to be a pretty small box, about the size an iPad or a hardcover book might come in.
"That's the canteen?" I said. "I imagined it would be bigger."
Nevertheless, there was no putting a size on the amount of closure touching the canteen brought to Elizabeth Pitner. She and Wally were only married for 11 months, but she never got over his loss. She had never received any of his effects.
Libby and I talked for almost four hours. She had an album with photos from their courtship and marriage -- they spent their honeymoon in Atlantic City during a nor'easter that tore the canvas top off their Fort Phaeton. She attended a reunion of the tank battalion in 1998, when the unit's monument was dedicated, containing her husband's name and those of 97 others who were killed in action -- two more have since been added. Sam MacFarland, who was her husband's platoon sergeant, sent her a blow-up of a photo showing Wally's head sticking out of his hatch. The picture was taken in Bavigne, Luxembourg, a few days before he was killed.
 
Lt. Wallace Lippincott, Jr. (top)
 
Lt. Lippincott's tank (front) going into the Battle of the Bulge.

She also kept every letter Wally wrote, and read to me from a few of them, removing them randomly from their envelopes. Wally was a Quaker, and in the letters he addressed her as "thee." I wondered if he spoke that way with his crew, but I doubt it.
"Today I saw a peculiar sight," he wrote from England, "and that was two white English girls walking down the street with two Negroes. There is no racial discrimination whatsoever over here, and the blacks are accepted. Some of the Southern officers almost blow their tops when they see this, but all have been warned by higher command to do nothing about it."
"By the way," the letter concluded, "happy 11th anniversary."
"Only 11 months," Libby interjected.
"And just think, soon it will be one year," the letter continued. "I sure wish I could be home for it. Never before have I been homesick, but I sure have a case of it for thee now. Hoping to see thee soon. Lots of love and kisses, thy husband, Wallace."

In a letter dated Jan. 6, 1945, Wally wrote: "It is a good feeling to know that we are building up a little nest egg in the bank for after the war. I can think of no greater pleasure than that of buying a place of our own and going round furnishing the house.. Dreams such as these make this mess seem worthwhile. If I didn't have something to come home to, this war would seem pointless to me. I suppose that is a selfish attitude to take but I almost consider it a personal fight against those who have deprived me of doing the things a man deserves most: having a home and a family to provide for. ... Lots of love and kisses, thy loving husband Wallace."
Wally was killed eight days later. "That may be a letter I got after he died," Libby said.
Libby had another photo which is prominent in the battalion's history. It shows tank driver Bob "Big Andy" Anderson, a farmboy from Illinois,  butchering a cow and handing out steaks.
My ears almost popped out of my head when Libby read a passage from a letter written Jan. 4.
"Another day has gone by without much of importance happening," Wally wrote, "with the exception that I am so full of steak I can hardly maneuver."
Big Andy butchers a cow.

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