Marines.Together We Served

Monday, November 12, 2007

Letters Home

This past Saturday, a Veterans Wall and Museum was officially dedicated in Ripon, California honoring all those who have served in our nation’s military going back as early as the Spanish/American War of 1898. A curved wall with marble plaques with the names of some six hundred Ripon veterans is situated on a street corner in the shade of a beautiful oak tree.

On Sunday morning, Veterans Day, Julie Smit handed me a pack of letters written from 1944 to 1945 by her husband’s Uncle John Smit who was at that time serving in the U.S. Army. Julie had mentioned to me that the family had these letters, so I told her how much I would enjoy looking at them sometime.

Private John K. Smit entered the Army when he was eighteen years old in 1944. After basic training he was assigned further training at Camp Roberts, then Fort Ord, on to Hawaii, then the Marianas Islands, and finally, Okinawa, Japan. His first letter was sent September 14, 1944 from the Presidio of Monterey, California.

In this first letter home he is exuberant about Army life. It is written to his father, a World War I veteran, who was a patient in the Veterans Administration Hospital in Los Angeles. He writes,
Dear Dad, Got a little time so I’m going to try and write a little. We just got back from taking some mental tests. I did pretty good on all of them. I’m eating more and better than I ever have. The grub is tops. The barracks are first class, and so far I like the Army pretty well. Of course, I guess I really won’t know what it is really like until I get to my permanent camp.
I guess John liked the Army food because as he closed this letter, he says,
Well, we have to get some chow and I can’t miss that, so I guess I’d better close for now.

I had to chuckle at these comments about Army chow and barracks conditions. As a young recruit in 1969 the best I can say about the chow in Marine Corps boot camp was that it was digestible. Even at that, I got food poisoning. Then he says the barracks were “first class.” I would ask, “Compared to what? Fox holes?”

As John writes letters home to various family members during the next nine months, you see a subtle change. He is missing home more, wanting family members to look after things for him.

In a letter dated March 31, 1945, from the Marianas Islands, he writes,
I’d do anything to be home right now. A person doesn’t realize just how much home and everyone in it means to him until it’s too late to do anything about it. The Army was fun [during training], but out here it’s different – a lot different. A guy learns to appreciate a home, a mother and dad and brothers and sisters with who he can live and be with and know that in the real need they’ll be there to do what they can to help him. In times like this there’s a great comfort in knowing that there’s a God who knows all and can hear your prayers, and does everything for the good of those who love him.

On March 9, 1945, John received word that his father had passed away. Knowing his father was gravely ill, he wrote the family a week earlier.
Dear Mom, I’ve been putting off writing this letter because I didn’t know what to say. And I still don’t. I can’t put it into words how I feel about dad. I can only find comfort in praying for the grace of God that we will again meet each other in heaven. He’s a father I’ll always be proud of.

At that time there was a lot of talk about the war ending soon. On April 25, 1945 he writes to his brother, Clarence, offering brotherly advice.
And when you graduate, Clarence, for Pete’s sakes, stay a civilian as long as you can. The war can’t last too long anymore, and you’ve got a good chance of missing any action if you stay out as long as you can. There was a time when I thought I’d like to see action. If this boat turned around and started home – you wouldn’t hear any objections from me. Whatever you do, don’t join the Navy. They’re going to be the last ones home.

The boat John Smit is referring to was a troop transport carrying him and his fellow soldiers to an island called Okinawa. The Battle of Okinawa would be the bloodiest of the war in the Pacific. American and Allied forces suffered 12,513 killed and 38,916 wounded. Pvt. John K. Smit would be among those killed in action.

In his last brief letter home, dated April 27, 1945, John writes,
We are on Okinawa and have been assigned to the 27th District. We are going up in a day or so and will help finish off the Japs.
In closing, he says those things that all warriors say prior to entering battle,
We may not be able to write very often because once we get up there we won’t come back until the battle is finished and the island is ours. So don’t worry because I’m not writing. If I’m able I’ll try and write a letter tomorrow or tonight yet. I thought I’d better write this v-mail just in case I’m not able to write again for a while. Your loving son, John.

God bless you, Uncle John. Thank you for your service and your willingness to pay the ultimate sacrifice.

Uncle John’s name is now on the Wall of the newly dedicated Ripon Veterans Wall along with his father, Henry, and two brothers, Clarence and Leon. Leon lives in Montana.

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