Letters from the front lines of World War II

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Today is Thursday, December 5th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. Seventy-eight years ago this week, the Empire of Japan preemptively struck a U.S. military base at Pearl Harbor.

ROOSEVELT: The attack yesterday on the Hawaiian Islands has caused severe damage to American naval and military forces. I regret to tell you that many American lives have been lost…

Some 2,400 people died that day. One of them was U.S. Army Staff Sergeant John Allen Price.

REICHARD: Two years ago, WORLD reporters Susan Olasky and Kim Henderson introduced us to Sergeant Price after a Mississippi couple discovered a trunk full of his letters home. Today we are re-airing an edited version of that feature in honor of the men and women who died in the Pearl Harbor attack. 

Here’s Susan Olasky with our story:

SUSAN OLASKY, REPORTER: In 2016, when Mississippi forester Bob Naeger and his wife Renee bought an old cabin—they didn’t pay much attention to an antique trunk that came along with the deed. But, last December, the Naegers remembered the trunk—and opened it. 

AUDIO: [Sound of trunk opening]

Inside they found old newspapers, an old straw hat, and 25 letters written between 1939 and 1941.

NAEGER: A lot of the letters were letters from John Allen Price to his mom Leona while he was serving in Hawaii as a U.S. Army Air Corpsman.

They began to read through the handwritten pages and peered into the life of a young soldier. 

PRICE: I kinda hate to start writing. It seems as if I should just wait until I come home and tell you everything then.

From that first letter in Dec. 1939, the 24-year-old airplane mechanic wrote one letter each month to his mother. Each one had a 3-cent Thomas Jefferson stamp in the top corner, and a sprawling return address on the back flap. 

NAEGER: It was interesting to watch his progression over the couple of years that he was there from, from being a private, when the first letter, the letter that was dated the earliest to the last letter in which he rose through the ranks, through sergeant and up to staff sergeant.   

Some of the letters dealt with life on the home front. Price’s mother Leona was a widow who had raised her own five children and her sister’s four. When Price learned of his mother’s surprise remarriage, he penned congratulations: 

PRICE: Your marriage was quite a shock to me. I have always thought lots of George Little, but even as good as he is, he is no more than my precious mother deserves. I can’t explain how I felt when I read your letter. Here I am 4,000 miles away. My mother gets married and I can’t even be there to congratulate them. I sincerely hope you both will always be the happiest possible.

Three letters later, Price called his new stepfather “Pop.” Price wrote about sickness—his squadron was quarantined after a mumps outbreak. And he had a tonsillectomy that kept him away from KP duty for nine days.

PRICE: I am going to the hospital next Monday to have my tonsils removed. It is absolutely necessary or I would not think of staying in there even one day. 

But he also wrote about squadron life. He was stationed at Wheeler Field on Oahu in Hawaii. Once, after repairing a plane so it ran like a sewing machine, he wrote:

PRICE: Well, last Monday afternoon Lt. Connor landed at about 95 miles per hour and tried to make a turn before he slowed up enough. Both landing gears gave way and down she came on her belly. Both landing gears are busted, as well as the oil lines. The propeller is bent, too. I felt like sitting down and crying and pulling my hair out. The only thing I am thankful for is the pilot didn’t get hurt. He’s just a kid – about 20 – and I felt sorry for him.

Sometimes the burden of leadership showed through. When another soldier made a suicide leap from the cliff of Pali, Price took it hard. 

PRICE: There was a very unpleasant happening last Sunday which I can’t get off my mind. One of my helpers on the plane I am crewing jumped from the cliff of Pali. I have been thinking of it ever since. I even dreamed of it. Even though I know it wasn’t caused from any action of mine, I know I was a little hard on him for a new man, and I wasn’t as friendly toward him as I could have been had I known he was in that state of mind. 

Like many soldiers far from home, the former football standout battled homesickness, counting the days. On September 16, 1940 he wrote:

PRICE: I have been here one year, one month, 14 days, and about six hours…

On November 23, 1941, Price sent his mother a four-page letter.

PRICE: I still do not like the army life, but I have a job to do for my country. As long as it is in danger, I will remain in this life to do that job. Of course, I will come home if possible when my time is up.” 

Then on December 1, he bought a classic snow-and-holly Christmas card for his mother. He signed it with a simple “your son, John Allen,” and dropped it by the post office at 3:30 p.m. Six days later, just minutes before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, dive-bombers targeted Wheeler Field and its air defenses. John Allen Price was one of about 35 servicemen killed there. 

Bob Naeger says along with Price’s letters, they found 107 condolence cards tucked away in the trunk.

NAEGER: A lady sent pictures that were taken weeks before he was killed from Hawaii, there were churches that were praying for them in Texas during their prayer service, um, letters from family and friends all over the country, including Ohio and Virginia and just everywhere, and then, um, there were several telegrams but then one stood out. it was from Life magazine, asking for a photo, and expressing their sympathies.

Six years passed before Price’s remains returned to Mississippi to be buried in Pleasant Hill Cemetery. When his mother died in 1970, she was buried near him. And sometime later the trunk ended up in an old smokehouse on the family property, where it stayed for almost a half-century.

Reporting for World Radio, I’m Susan Olasky.

The first time this story ran was two years ago, back in 2017, and since then members of the John Price family have gotten in touch with Kim Henderson. If you’ll remember to tune in to Monday’s program, you will hear the rest of that story.

(Photo/Everett Historical, Shutterstock)

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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