Saturday, May 27, 2017

Gold Star sisters, Part 1

Maxine Wolfe Zirkle and Madeline Wolfe Litten, 1993
   A death in combat does not end with a rifle in the ground. Back home there are brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, in many cases even sons and daughters, as the American War Orphans Network can so eloquently testify. And those lives are almost always changed forever.
   I met the Wolfe twins, Maxine and Madeline, in 1987, at the first reunion of the 712th Tank Battalion I attended. I was there looking for veterans who remembered my father, who died of a heart attack seven years earlier. They were there at the invitation of John Zimmer, a veteran of C Company, hoping to meet Lieutenant Francis "Snuffy" Fuller, who commanded the Second Platoon of C Company on 16 March, 1945, the day their brother, Pfc. Billy P. Wolfe, was killed.
   Ray Griffin, the battalion association president, was a veteran of C Company. Before the reunion he made some inquiries about Pfc. Wolfe. As a result, while I was making my first inquiries into the history of the battalion, the battle of Pfaffenheck, in which Billy was killed along with three other members of his platoon, would sometimes come up in conversation.
   In 1993, I drove to Quicksburg, Virginia, and interviewed Maxine and Madeline. Their mother, who had since passed away, took Billy's death very hard, and never received the kind of closure the sisters obtained by attending the reunion and speaking with veterans who remembered Billy.

Gold Star Sisters, Part 1

(Audio of this interview will be included in my forthcoming Oral History Audiobook, "Widows and Siblings.")
Billy Wolfe

Maxine Wolf Zirkle
Madeline Wolfe Litten
Quicksburg, Va.
Oct. 30, 1993 

Aaron Elson (reading into the tape):  Following is an essay written by Billy Wolfe in school:

   "If I were to be blind after today, I would want to go off by myself in the mountain, climb to the highest cliff, and look out across the valley at the towns, farms and farmhouses.
   "I would want to picture each native tree in my mind, the rough bark and the shapely green leaves.
   "I would want to see the squirrels running and leaping from one walnut tree to another, and the birds flying.
   "I would like to see the deer run and jump swiftly and gracefully and leap across the fences, and lie in a tree that leans across the water and watch bass laying under the rocks and dart out after a fly.
   "I would go through the house from one room to the other picturing each piece of furniture, every corner and everything, in my mind.
   "I would like to see all my sisters, brother and parents together as we were, and picture each as they look for future reference.
   "I would want to see all my friends and relatives so I would know what the person looked like when I would talk to them after being blind.
   "I would want to go fishing and hunting and do the things I know I couldn't do after being blind."

   (Billy Wolfe got a C-plus on this assignment!)

Maxine Wolfe: This is another English assignment:

                           A deer

   "Last fall, during deer hunting season, I took my rifle and went out on a deer crossing. I sat down about 15 minutes, then heard something come quietly out through the woods. I stopped behind a clump of bushes. I cocked my rifle and waited. I could see the dim outline of a deer's head and shoulders.
   "I put my rifle to my shoulder. As the deer stepped out, I was ready to let him have it.
   "A doe stepped out and walked slowly through the woods. By this time, I had broken out in a cold sweat, and trembling like a leaf in the wind. Boy, was I relieved when I saw it was a doe."

Madeline Wolfe: Does that make sense? This is 1944, our older brother, Hubert, left to be inducted in the Army on the 14th of July, '44, and then, the next month, on the 23rd, Billy left for the army.

Aaron Elson: Was Hubert drafted?

Maxine: Yes. He was two years older than Billy.
   This is the newspaper that we received the day, on March 16th, Mom has written here that "This paper was printed the day Billy gave his life for the country."
   And this, on Pearl Harbor day, our church burned, our little country church.

A.E.: Which paper is this?

Maxine: This is the Northern Virginia daily, our local paper. And it's dated March 16th, that's the day he was killed.

A.E.: And the headline says: "Mile of Superhighway Held by Yanks/ Reds Slash East Prussian Pocket Into Two Segments/Five American Armies Strike Along Blazing Western Front/Assault Beyond Rhine Captures Four German Towns/Stab Into Five Others."
   "Paris, Friday, March 16th, AP -- The U.S. First Army deepened its Rhine bridgehead to six miles yesterday, seizing command of more than a mile of the great six-lane highway to the Ruhr, and the Germans said five American armies were striking along 235 miles of the blazing western front.
  "The drive beyond the Rhine gained more than a mile during the day, swept up four more German towns, and stabbed into five others.
   "The Germans said the new U.S. 15th Army had sprung into action on the bridgehead where 100,000 American soldiers now were massed.
   "The U.S. Third Army smashed six miles south from its newly won Moselle River bridgehead near Coblenz in an offensive that was cutting in 80 miles or so behind the Siegfried Line facing the Seventh Army front.
   "Already the push had sealed off the Rhine transit city of Coblenz, was nearing the Rhine south of the city, was pinching off the enemy's Little Ruhr, the Saar basin, and was challenging the Nazis' last 150-mile grip on the Rhine's west bank.
   "The Third Army was by far the deepest into Germany of any Allied army in the west."

Maxine: Hubert was at Coblenz.

Madeline: Mom just kept everything. This is the almanac for the year he was born, May 1, 1926. And here's his death certificate. That's the Purple Heart. And here's what he wrote, another assignment: "Why I don't want to choose an occupation now."

   "I don't want to choose an occupation now because I am not sure what type of work I want. I will soon be of draft age and may be put in the service.
   "After serving my time my views may be vastly changed. I may, if the war don't last too long, want to take a little more schooling. Or I may get specialized training from Uncle Sam which might be my life work..."

Madeline: It was his life work.

Maxine: That picture was his last trip home.

Madeline: He was sick when he came home and my sister was a registered nurse, and she wanted him to see a doctor and be delayed a little bit, but he would not because he didn't want to leave his buddies.

A.E.: Who's Grubby?

Maxine: That's a little neighbor boy and girl. Charles Turner was his name and his daddy nicknamed him Grubby. They grew up together.

Madeline: Here's the telegram. Our sister that was a nurse was home on just a little break I guess, and she walked to the mailbox and got it.

A.E.: How many sisters did you have?

Madeline: There were seven of us, five girls and two boys. We're the babies.

A.E.: Now this is May 4th, 1945, "Private Billy Paige Wolfe Killed in Action," this is the Shenandoah Herald. "Mrs. and Mrs. Hubert L. Wolfe Sr. of Edinburg, Va., received word from the War Department March 27 that their son, Private Billy Paige Wolfe, was killed in action in Germany on March 16th..." Now, who was the Paige that Billy got his middle name from?

Maxine: Mom just picked it up. We have no idea. She just liked the name.

A.E.: "Private Wolfe was inducted in service Aug. 23, 1944, and took his basic training at Fort Knox, Ky. Before going overseas in February he spent his furlough with his parents. He left for overseas duty Feb. 3 and spent some time in England and France, and was sent to Germany about March 1.
   "Billy was born in Shenandoah County May 1, 1926, and was a senior at Edinburg High School and a member of the Congregational Christian Church Palmyra since childhood.

   "He is survived by his parents, five sisters and one brother, Miss Geneva Wolfe of Portsmouth, Va., Mrs. Eugene Bowers, Woodstock, Va., Madeline and Maxine Wolfe, and Mary Wolfe, R.N., at home.
   "His brother, Pfc. Hubert L. Wolfe Jr., is now serving in Germany with the First Army.
   "Billy was a highly esteemed young man of amiable disposition. He had many friends who grieve with his family over his death."

A.E.: What was your mother's reaction?

Maxine: Oh, she clammed up and Mom would not talk about it. She thought it was all a mistake, that he would eventually come home. And at night we would hear crying and she'd be up, and later we found letters that she'd write to him, but just keep 'em. She always thought he was coming back, until it went on, for years.

Madeline: But she would set up and write him letters, every night.

Maxine: Of course we wrote, that was our ritual, we wrote to the boys every night.

Madeline: She never got over it.

A.E.: How old was she at the time?

Maxine: Fifty-six.

A.E.: And how old was she when she passed away?

Maxine: Eighty-two. And she never knew what happened. She didn't know the stories that we know.

Madeline: She knew nothing beyond this right here. This counter is what she knew about. This counter right here.

A.E.: Now this is Henry L. Stenson, "April 21, 1945, Dear Mr. Wolfe," (this is the Secretary of War) "At the request of the President I write to inform you that the Purple Heart has been awarded posthumously to your son..."

Madeline: This is the letter from Woodle, that was with Billy, he didn't write until 1949, and he wrote Mother a letter and sent a picture, the last picture we have of Billy.
   "Dear Mrs. Wolfe, For some time I have been gone to write to you in regard to your son Billy.
   "I took my training at Fort Knox with your son and was rather close with him. We went overseas together, and even shared the same seat on the train when we crossed England.

   "We were both assigned to the same outfit, 712th Tank Battalion, but not the same company, after we arrived in France. He was assigned to C Company and I went to Headquarters Company for a short while. It was at this time your son was killed.
   "I and several others were sent to C Company after they were badly hit. They lost several tanks in a short while. I was then assigned to a tank that the driver was with your boy when he was killed. He gave me a snapshot of your boy which I am sending you. I am only sorry that I haven't sent it sooner.
   "I was not right where your boy was killed and cannot name the town or place, but I will give you the name of the fellow that was with him, and in that way will he be able to get any information you want.
   "I was going to write sooner but I thought that you might have heard from some of the others sooner. I cannot express myself the way I feel, and I want you to know that I will never forget him.
   "If there is anything that I can tell you, please don't hesitate to write." Truly yours, William Woodle, Box 153, Mapleton Depot, Pa."

Maxine: He's passed away...

Following are some letters from Billy Wolfe:

   "August 24, 1944,
   Dear Mom,
     "I am now at Fort Meade, Md. I don't know how long I will remain here. I am in Uncle Sam's Army.
    "We got in here about 9 o'clock this morning. We rode almost all night.
    "I washed windows in the barracks this afternoon, went for my meals, and slept. A real busy day.
   "Give my best regards to the friends, and I will write a letter later when I get an address. My address is on...where you can write. Love, Bill"
    "August 31, 1944 -- I received your letter "A" yesterday. I wrote to Hubert, Peg, Gigi and you the other day.
   "I had to cut Peg's card short and go scrub barracks. I didn't go to church Sunday. I was on KP. I have been on day KP twice and on guard from 12 to 3 o'clock once.
   "By the time you receive this I will be on my way. I am shipping out at 3 p.m. today. I will write the first opportunity when my destination is reached.
   "Vic Fleming and Doug Bennett are going, too.
    "Love, Bill."

    "August 25, 1944 -- Dear Mom, While I think we get our uniforms tomorrow, I think I will get an overnight leave this weekend, too.
   "I am on guard duty from 12 to 3 o'clock tonight.
   "I just watched a parade, and I'm waiting for supper or chow.
   "I wrote a card yesterday. I suppose you received that. We haven't taken any shots yet.
    "We will get some tomorrow.
   "I just went over to the PX to get some stationery. I didn't bring any along.
   "I will try to write more after chow.
   "Saturday afternoon -- I got back from chow. We have good food but it don't taste like it does at home.
   "I am sending some important papers -- save them for me. Tell all the folks back there hello, and I will write to them when I get time.
   "I have my uniforms. I go on KP tomorrow, 5:30 a.m., ain't that something?
   "Well, news and time is scarce, so I will say so long. I am going to send my clothes home Monday I think.
   "We were in line for a pass this weekend, but we go on KP. Love, Bill."

This is Sept. 2, 1944:
    "Dearest folks, We left Fort Mead 6:20 p.m. Thursday, arrived in Indianapolis, Indiana, about 11:30 p.m. Friday. We got in Louisville, Ky., about 7:30, had dinner, and arrived in Fort Knox, Ky., where I am now stationed, at 3 a.m. Went to bed about 4 and got up at 5:45.
   "I am to begin training in the tank corps week after next. The lieutenant took us around and showed us a few important places.
   "I don't know where Vic and Kenny Fleming went. They were with us a while. I think they went to St. Louis, Mo., and hard to tell where after that.
   "I hate to think of that rough tank business. That is really rough. I just watched about a dozen and saw enough to turn my stomach. We just had a physical checkup this morning. I received your letter "A." I don't believe I have mentioned the twins in any of my letters. Are they still awfully fat? Are they ready to go to school? I am to start training with the infantry about tanks, then shift to a medium tank.
   "I haven't written to anyone except you and the family since I left. I bet Miss Cleda wonders what happened to me but I have been too busy to write much. Will you please give Mary, Gigi, Dad and Hubert my address."

Maxine: Miss Cleda was the lady that lived down the river from our home, and the day that Mom got the telegram she went down and spent the afternoon with her, she couldn't stay at home so she went down and stayed with Miss Cleda until we got home.

    "It seems like I can't find time to write. Boy, twins, you should see your handsome young brother in his uniform. I have most everything dirty, that damned train..."

Madeline: Momma would get so angry when he'd say "damn!"

   "We just had a fire drill and a lecture on military courtesy. It is about time for chow so I will have to cut this short. Be sure to have my adress, you know what. I mean even if I have forgotten the spelling.
   "P.S. I just got back from chow. White beans, cooked tomatoes, buttered bread, coffee and jello. It was good. Well, I think I will close and go to the PX."

Madeline: After he got away from home he could say those little words.
   "September 3, 1944. Dear folks, Are you old, fat twins ready to go back to school? I'll bet both catalogs are worn out by now. How about that, Mom?
   "I just got back from a trip to the swimming pool with Doug Bennett. We couldn't go in because we didn't have bathing trunks. How about sending me mine?
   "Did Gigi and Peg come up today? I haven't written to Peg yet, only a card from Mead. I wrote to Gigi and Miss Cleda yesterday.
   "The camp is right in the mountains. Big trees and hills. It is almost as pretty as Virginia. Indiana is pretty, too. The soil is almost black.
   "It is level as a walk, and pretty big farmhouses. It isn't quite as pretty as Virginia.
   "Well, I don't know anything else to say, so I will close for this time. Please send my trunks soon, before it gets too cold to go in swimming. The weather here is almost like back there. It may be a little warmer.
   "Write soon. You can send my stationery, too, if you can pack it. I had to buy some at the PX. I wrote to Hubert twice and haven't heard from him yet.
   "Tell Mary M I will get around to writing to them one of these days. What is Scorcher..."

Madeline: That's a neighbor. Scorcher was his nickname...

   "Sept. 18, 1944, Dear Maxine and Mom and Madeline, Maxine, I received your letter just before chow. I just back from eating and am going to try to answer it.

   "I got a letter from Elaine Painter, too. Tell Perry and Shack, also Neff, to write.
   "So Lloyd Thorpe is home? Has he a discharge? Was June Bug in? Yes, Doug and I still run around together. We went to the PX last night and to the new hall, had a couple of games of ping pong, met a Puerto Rican boy, and the three of us went back down to the PX. The boy's name is Bisiena. He is nice.
   "I had KP yesterday from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Just my luck to have it Sunday. And Mom, I thought of you Saturday and Sunday almost all day. We haven't been having so much rain down here. It has rained about twice.
   "We had grenade and gas mask drill so far today. Also a film on camouflage. So far, we go on an eight-mile hike with and everything tomorrow. We are supposed to have a gas attack and everything just like real battle. A lot of boys got gigged Saturday for not having their shoes greased, or dubbed, as we call it. Polish is strictly forbidden. I will have to get a pair of brown slippers for dress. They have to have plain toes. If I ever get to Louisville I will, but I will need a stamp. Oh, well. I don't really need them.
  "Miss Matt (Madeline), what is wrong with you? Are you miffed? I will add your name to the salutation, but you had better write next time. I suppose you have the boys on your mind. How about that, Maxine?"
    "Dear Madeline, Here is your pin. Take care of it, and no boys are to wear it. Also I want a big letter of thanks, understand? That costed me a big pile of money, you old soak. You never write. Maxine does. Well, don't be too bad, now. I am in a hurry. So long, Love Bill."

Madeline: This was the last time he was home, January 30th, 1945. We didn't have any transportation, and we walked him to the Greyhound bus, up to Route 11, and this is the last time we saw him. And when he said goodbye to us he said "So long, kids, and if I never see you again, goodbye." And he waved all the way down the road.

Maxine: But going out the road, that mile, he walked between us and there was snow on the ground, I'll never forget. And that snow laid for it seemed like weeks. And every day, when we went to school, we would walk in his tracks. That's how sentimental we were.

(to be continued)


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Gold Star Sisters, Part 2


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