By Dan Lamothe / The Washington Post
MESA, Ariz. — The storage unit’s corrugated metal door slid upward, revealing mostly empty space. Not very promising, thought Joe Alosi, a businessman who bid on units when tenants stopped paying the rent. Several plastic bins sat in the middle of the floor.
Inside were rows of envelopes. Alosi opened one, and then another, and then another. The Marine Corps veteran felt a slight chill.
The mostly handwritten letters dated to World War II and were penned mostly by the members of a single family — the Eydes of Rockford, Illinois. Three brothers were in the military: one in the Marine Corps, one in the Army and one in the Army Air Forces.
There were hundreds of letters, stretching over four years of war and beyond. They captured the horrors of combat, offered warm reminiscences of childhood. The brothers also used racist and pejorative language, including in their descriptions of Japanese and German forces.
Back at his kitchen table, Alosi, joined by his wife and children, took turns reading the letters aloud.
The war begins
“We have been called out on air raid alarms the last few days, but you know as much about what was happening as I do, the radio is the only dope we get as well as you about them Japs and Nasty Germans. Bastards are what they are, raiding without warnings, sneaking up at night and such wrong methods of a clean fight.” —Frank Eyde, in a letter home, Dec. 10, 1941.
Lorentz Eyde and Margaret Larsen separately came to the United States from Norway and married in Rockford in 1908. He was a cabinetmaker, she a homemaker.
Frank, the eldest child, graduated from Rockford Central High School in 1933. He had a wide smile and thick, dark hair, and worked as a traveling soap salesman for Procter & Gamble.
Frank enlisted as a Marine in October 1939 at age 26, shortly after Germany invaded Poland. Two years later, Frank’s younger brother, Ralph, quit his factory job to enlist as an Army infantryman at age 23.
In a stroke of good luck, both brothers were stationed in California — Frank with the 2nd Marine Division’s 2nd Tank Battalion at San Diego’s Camp Elliott, and Ralph with the 32nd Infantry Regiment of the Army’s 7th Infantry Division at Fort Ord, a sprawling installation near Monterey.
On Dec. 7, 1941, the Japanese struck Pearl Harbor.
Frank described the changes in San Diego.
“All the shops are putting black paper on their windows and when the alarm goes, all lights will have to go out except those on the inside that can’t be seen from the street,” he wrote four days after the attack.
In Rockford, the other two brothers — Sanford, the second oldest, and John — considered what they might do in the military. Sanford, 26 when the war began, worked at the Woodward Governor factory as a carpenter, and received a deferment.
Ralph urged John, 21, who ran a lathe at Roper Corp., making aircraft parts for the military, to enlist but avoid combat.
“If you want my true thoughts on your best bet, it’s the aviation mechanical line on airplane motors,” Ralph wrote. “That’s my advice, John. Stay out of the infantry with your keen mechanical mind.”
The Battle of Tulagi
“I was on a guncrew that shot down a Jap bomber coming right at us about 20 feet off the water and about 25 feet from our boat. In all, our ship shot down five bombers coming right close to the ship, trying to crash into it.” —Frank Eyde, in a letter home in summer 1942.
Frank became a section chief for an intelligence unit in 2nd Tank Battalion, overseeing 18 men. He told his father in a letter home in May 1942 that he had learned how to do everything from changing the treads on a tank to using a 37mm antitank gun that was pulled by a Jeep.
He deployed to the Pacific by transport ship in June.
Frank’s unit sailed to the Solomon Islands. U.S. commanders launched a multipronged attack there on Aug. 7, 1942, placing Marines and sailors ashore under fire on the islands of Tulagi, Gavutu, Tanambogo and Guadalcanal. Frank’s unit was deployed to Tulagi, where hundreds of Japanese soldiers fought to the death.
“High bombers overhead dropping eggs all around us,” Frank wrote home in the summer of 1942. “At night a real battle was on. I saw tracers blast from our ships.”
Frank’s unit withdrew from Tulagi relatively quickly, moving to the New Hebrides, a group of tropical islands off the east coast of Australia now known as Vanuatu.
In February 1943 Frank contracted malaria and jaundice, and the Marines sent him home from the South Pacific.
Ralph is wounded
“As long as you know now that it was only a slight head wound + nothing more it’s okay by me. It was plenty close but I was never out of the 18 straight days of action nor in any hospital or rest camp. Too many fellows worse off than myself at the time so I had it dressed the following day while eating my field ration (was hit the same day I landed — shell landing 15 feet away while pushing ahead). But all this a thousand times over never held up this outfit.” —Ralph Eyde, in a letter written home Sept. 28, 1943.
Ralph wrote John in April 1943 that he was preparing to deploy, as part of “one of these outfits who make beach landings in the middle of the night on the roughest coastlines possible.”
In April 1943, Ralph left San Francisco on a transport ship, heading north to Alaska. Japanese soldiers had landed unopposed in the Aleutian Islands in June 1942, taking control of the islands of Kiska and Attu.
The Battle of Attu began May 11, 1943, with Ralph’s unit landing on muddy shores. Over the next three weeks, in frosty, miserable conditions, 15,000 American and Canadian troops battled about 2,300 well-fortified Japanese soldiers. All but about 30 Japanese soldiers fought to the death.
Ralph suffered a head wound from a shell early in the battle but shrugged it off and stayed in the fight.
He and four other soldiers from his company of a few hundred received a Purple Heart, which he sent home to Rockford and called a “real honey of a medal.”
Frank struggles at home
“I am still here at the U.S. Naval Hospital being watched over by some experts in the art of bringing one back to normal.” —Frank Eyde, in a letter to his mother from a hospital, July 11, 1943.
While Ralph remained on Attu, Frank returned to San Diego. He initially appeared upbeat, writing his brother Sanford in June 1943 that he had just arrived “from the other side” and was looking forward to a 30-day furlough in Illinois.
“I am feeling fine and looking to the day I can see you all again.”
But Frank had begun a long downward spiral. Traveling back to Rockford, he experienced a paranoid episode on Chicago’s Navy Pier on July 7, 1943, believing people were watching him, according to military documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. Authorities found him confused and restless, prompting the military to admit him to the Great Lakes military hospital north of the city for observation rather than allowing him to continue home.
Frank played down his problems. “I needed a short rest, for my nerves were kind of jittery.”
Frank was diagnosed with combat fatigue — often considered a precursor to the modern diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder — a few weeks later. By mid-August, doctors reported that he had improved and was no longer fearful or confused, and had a mood that is “one of quietness but not depression.”
He was transferred in September to a Navy base in Crane, Indiana, where he could be closer to home, but was court-martialed in December 1943 after an unauthorized absence from the base. He was demoted from sergeant to corporal, with Marine officials pointedly noting that he had a drinking problem.
Ralph gets wounded again
“When dawn broke and the sun was shining brightly, the dead Japs were piled in lines where our machine guns had been mowing ’em down all night.” —Ralph Eyde, in a spring 1944 letter to Frank.
By January 1944, following jungle-warfare training in Hawaii, Ralph was back on the high seas. U.S. commanders sent his division to assault the Marshall Islands, on which the Japanese had several airfields.
Allied forces launched Operation Flintlock on Jan. 31, 1944, with soldiers from the 7th Infantry Division coming ashore on Kwajalein Atoll.
The Army caught the Japanese underprepared, but they still fought fiercely. On Feb. 4, Ralph and his comrades found themselves facing Japanese soldiers who screamed wildly as they made a final, furious charge under cover of darkness.
“Wham! Shell just misses us. Wham! Another right behind us,” Ralph recalled later in a letter to John. “The machine gun let go with a roar, mowing down some Japs several yards away. My machine gun keeps mowing them down all night.”
The battle continued until after dawn, when Ralph was hit by a Japanese shell and blown 20 feet out of his foxhole, with shrapnel wounds to the lung. Ralph was dizzy from his concussion and wounds, he wrote, but continued to throw hand grenades.
By then, John was a member of the Army Air Forces, and training for a deployment to the Pacific.
Frank is discharged; John deploys
“Japan hasn’t seen 1/100 of blastings she’s going to in the near future.” —John Eyde in a letter home, July 1945.
Frank’s situation continued to worsen. He was ordered from his base in Indiana to the naval hospital in Charleston, South Carolina, where he was diagnosed as schizophrenic.
“It is the opinion of this board that this patient is unfit for service; that his condition did not exist prior to enlistment and that he will be a menace to himself and the public safety; and that further hospitalization is indicated,” said one hospital document. “It is recommended that he be transferred to the National Naval Medical Hospital, Bethesda, Maryland for further observation, treatment and disposition.”
Doctors there found him “dreamy and preoccupied but in good conduct,” but also said that he “smiles fatuously and inappropriately.” Institutional care, they determined, was still necessary. Frank was transferred to a psychiatric hospital in Washington.
Sanford, meanwhile, was rejected by the military in 1944: Doctors declared him “4F,” meaning he was not suited for the service.
Sanford traveled to Washington in June to visit Frank, reporting back to the family in a letter that his brother had gained weight and looked “like his good old self at 190 pounds.” By the end of July, Frank was discharged from military service.
John deployed late in the year to an airfield on Tinian, which Allied forces had seized that summer. The island, part of the Mariana Islands, was viewed by the United States as a key base from which B-29 Superfortress bombers in John’s unit could wage an aerial assault against Japan.
“I can’t tell you where I am at present due to censorship,” John said in his first letter home.
John stayed abroad for another eight months, working on the electrical components of airplanes.
In August 1945, the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan. Within days, the war was over.
“Thanks for keeping my whereabouts a secret and that is a good way to describe my movements — “in and out” all the time. Ha, ha.” —Ralph Eyde in a June 1959 letter to Sanford and John.
Frank continued to struggle for many years after the war, unable to hold a steady job.
But he outlived John and Sanford and died in 1996, aged 83.
John, who opened a window installation business after the war, fell ill in 1962, dying from a brain tumor in Madison, Wisconsin. Sanford, who continued to work at Woodward Governor, died in 1971 at age 56.
Ralph’s life took more unusual turns. He took a job with the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, witnessing the testing of nuclear bombs in South Pacific in the 1950s.
He continued to work for the government for decades, in a somewhat clandestine fashion, writing his family from everywhere from Africa to Asia, with many years in Europe during the Cold War.
Ralph was assigned to perform work on a Navy construction contract in Saigon in 1967. He wrote letters through at least 1970, as the Vietnam War raged around him. Ralph’s family suspected that he was in the CIA. When he died in 2003, aged 85, his obituary said he had served in the agency.
The Washington Post’s Julie Vitkovskaya, Carol Alderman and Bridget Reed Morawski contributed to this report.