My Father

Today is my father’s birthday, February 25, 1923. He would have been 96.

I’ve often wondered, as I research Grandpa’s service in World War 1, what Daddy knew of this time in his own father’s life. Did they share, as some fathers and sons do, the accounts of war, stories of camaraderie among soldiers, duty to country?

If they did, they kept their discussions private. I never heard them.

My age may have contributed to this absence of war stories. Grandpa died in 1967, when I was 15, and too young to have any interest in wars. And in 1981, when Daddy died of heart disease, at the young age of 58, I was a very opinionated 29-year-old woman, a product of the Vietnam War era, with its extreme anti-war and anti-establishment feelings. I realize now, sadly, that Daddy died long before I could open my mind to the personal stories of war, to the very experiences that had shaped the lives of his parents. What had they shared around their dinner table?

The only person who might have shed some light on both Grandpa’s service and Daddy’s own feelings about war would have been Grandma. She outlived both of them. She obviously kept the letters Grandpa wrote. But she never brought up the subject of war to me. When I was in college, I do remember spending time with her, talking about politics, which certainly would have included the Vietnam War. She listened, but never offered up any ideas based on her own experiences.

I have a picture of the three of them taken on December 7, 1941, the day Pearl Harbor was bombed. This event, which led to American involvement in World War II, would present an opportunity to my father and young men his age to engage in the great war of their generation.

Pearl Harbor portrait

Grandma, Daddy, and Grandpa. Photo taken at a studio in Atchison, Kansas, December 7, 1941.

The next summer, on June 30, 1942, Daddy registered for the draft.

Daddy WW2, 1

Daddy WW2, 2

Daddy’s Registration Card for service in World War II. I found this on Fold3.

The American entry into World War II coincided with Daddy’s college years. In 1941, he had enrolled at the University of Kansas (then known as Kansas University) in Lawrence. Many of his classmates were called to serve. But not my father. According to family stories, he failed his physical exam. The doctors found a very slight heart murmur, one that might have gone undetected had he not been so thin.

He dropped out of school and returned home, which at that time was Nortonville, Kansas. And here the story I most want to know is missing. How did this small family of three take the news of Daddy’s military disqualification? Did Grandpa, an injured veteran, want his only son to fight? Or, were Daddy’s parents happy he would be spared the experiences Grandpa had known? Did Daddy want to fight?

The fact that I grew up knowing so little about Grandpa’s war service may be related to an especially painful moment in their family life. I picture a recognition, that the son wouldn’t follow in his father’s footsteps, serving in the military. It’s not hard to see the little community of Nortonville, Kansas, keeping track of “soldier boys” heading off to war and noting that Donald was staying home. Did my grandparents feel isolated, left out of stories of the boys heading out and the fathers reliving what war had meant to them? Easier for me to imagine is this: the report of my father’s heart defect certainly sent my grandparents reeling. Their first son had died in childhood. Grandma once told me, “It’s not right for a mother to bury her children.”

Whatever they felt at the time, and in the many years that followed, is a secret they held. They got on with life, that was their way. And that’s what Daddy did. He returned to school, quickly caught up on his studies, and began what would become a lifelong passion–student government at KU. Here’s a picture of him (back row, right) with the members of the ISA (Independent Students’ Association) Council. Daddy was the business manager.

Daddy ISA Council

November 1943.

Daddy went on to serve in KU’s administration as Dean of Men for many years. After his death, we set up a memorial fund to honor students like him. Here’s how KU decides on the recipient.

This award goes to a graduating senior whose campus contributions benefit other students. Recipients may not be the highest elected officer of an organization, but they are an officer or member who can always be counted on to see through a project, program or service. The recipient of the Donald K. Alderson Memorial Award is always concerned about the greater good for fellow students.

The great wars of the twentieth century served as cauldrons to shape the young people who fought them. But certainly there are other ways, better ways, to find one’s calling. I’m glad my father found his on a university campus. I’m glad, too, he never knew firsthand the horrors of war.

The Little Knife

One of the joys of this project is reconnecting with my grandfather. Small details in his letters bring back vivid childhood memories. That’s what happened when I read about the “little knife” he received in the Christmas box from home. I’ve already posted this letter, but want to call out the section that begins with “I got my Xmas . . .”

Little knife, cropped

From a letter he wrote Grandma, dated February 1, 1919.

My grandfather loved a good pocket knife, and I wonder if that’s what he meant by “little knife.” He found utility in a small knife that could be tucked in his pocket–to cut string or open letters or pry open boxes or carve out a plug of watermelon to see if it were ripe or help in any number of important tasks.

And he thought a child needed a knife, too.

I’ll never forget the day he gave me my first pocket knife, which may be this one. I found it at my mother’s last summer. knife-open-cropped.jpg
I remember a small knife, about 3 inches long like this one, brown with a mottled surface, and featuring 2 blades. I was looking for details on it to help me date it. All I found was the mark of the J.A. Henckels company, in Germany, with the distinctive “twins” logo they used between 1900 and 1969, when they added a red background to the logo and coincidentally stopped making pocket knives.logo 2

The day Grandpa gave me the knife, I was staying at their house in Effingham, Kansas, a little rural town of about 500 residents. Every summer, as a special treat, my brother, sister and I individually spent a week with our grandparents, enjoying their full attention. They let us work in their giant vegetable garden, ride in the back of Grandpa’s 1950 GMC pickup truck, squealing in delight as it bounced over the train tracks a block from their house. We walked “to town” with Grandma to get the mail and the latest gossip. Grandpa let us hang out in his lumberyard, and later, after he retired, in the poultry house, where I remember carefully gathering eggs from grumpy hens he kept in the back room.

Effingham lumber yard

Undated photo of the lumberyard in Effingham, Kansas. Grandma and Grandpa stand behind the counter. Mr. Demmon, whom I don’t remember, stands in front.

I never felt like a child during the visits, even though I was very young. Somehow, my grandparents created a magical space where I was an equal player in their charmed life. That meant, when it came to the little pocket knife, that Grandpa saw me as a mature and capable little girl, ready for a knife.

One morning, I was surprised to hear them discussing whether I was old enough to have a knife. I must have been 9 or 10, I’m guessing, placing this memory in the early 1960s.

“She’s too young,” I heard Grandma said. “No, every child needs a knife,” Grandpa responded. “She’ll cut herself,” Grandma offered, but with no success. I listened in, from a distance, excited to be at the center of such an important decision.

Grandpa gave me the knife. Maybe he opened it, and showed me how to use it. I can’t remember. At some point, I found a twig and began to whittle away the bark. And, no surprise, I cut myself.

Grandma calmly took care of the injury. I don’t recall if she scolded Grandpa (maybe he’d gone off to work) or lectured me about knife safety. She quietly opened the metal cabinet in the narrow hallway between the dining room and kitchen, a cabinet that smelled (badly) of ointments and medicines. I stood still while she cleaned and disinfected the cut before putting on a band-aid. And then we turned our attention to something else.

There was no discussion of taking back the knife. It was mine, and I treasured it for years, both as the handy tool Grandpa intended and also as a marker of the confidence he had in me.

Of course I wondered, as I read Grandpa’s wartime letter, with the reference to the “little knife,” and held my own, if the knives were one and the same. I would have liked that. But it seems, after a brief look online, that my pocket knife is typical of ones made closer to the second World War. It doesn’t matter, which knife is whose. The childhood memory is what I value, and also the thought that Grandpa, after fighting in a horrible war and being badly injured by a German machine gun, could find pleasure in the receipt of a little knife for his Christmas in France.


Valentine’s Day

In 1919, Valentine’s Day fell on a Friday. Around King City, Missouri, people were exchanging cards and hosting parties.

Valentine cards

King City Chronicle, 14 February 1919, p. 8.

The King City Chronicle ran this simple question in the February 14, 1919 paper. And the next week, they ran notices of parties like this one.

Valentine party

King City Chronicle, 21 February 1919, p. 3.

My grandmother didn’t attend a party. Instead, she stayed home and wrote a letter to Grandpa, one of only two letters that survive from their wartime correspondence. (*)

14-Feb 19, Gma, 1Her letter, which runs in full at the end of this post never found its way to Grandpa. The envelope records the long and unsuccessful journey–to Europe and back, over four months–as the military attempted to locate my grandfather.

14 Feb 19, Gma, envelope (front)In the middle of the envelope runs the address Grandma thought was correct: Private Thos. W. Alderson/Evacuation Hospital No 24/American Expeditionary Forces/A.P.O. 798. The American Expeditionary Forces presumably sent the letter to France, as did the A.P.O. number, 798, which belonged to the area of the Mesves Hospital Center, where Grandpa had been convalescing. But the Evacuation Hospital No. 24 was incorrect, and that mistake belongs to Grandpa. He thought he wasn’t getting his mail as regularly as his buddies and decided to have Grandma send letters directly to him; but No. 24 was not the number of a hospital, but rather the number of a unit of a larger base hospital (whose number he didn’t have).

Over his name, notice the postmark (in purple) with the date of April 17. I’m unable to read the complete postmark to know if this was stamped in France or after the letter’s return to the U.S. I’m guessing in France, as letters took weeks to make the trip across the ocean and to the military camps.

In any case, on the postmark (or beneath it?) is a pointing finger and “RETURN TO WRITER” stamp. That return trip included a stop at Camp Funston, stamped in all capital letters in purple. And then, on the left edge of the envelope, a handwritten note states, “No Record, 6/12/19.”

14 Feb 19, Gma, envelope, back

The back of the envelope carries still more information. May 15, 1919, stamped in that same purple as CAMP FUNSTON on the front, makes me believe it was received there on that may date. And the postmark of June 10, may indicate the day the letter finally started back to Missouri, to Grandma.

So, where was Grandpa? By February 1, two weeks before Grandma wrote her letter, he had already begun his long trip home. Notice the location he gives, St. Agnan, France. This was the first time he’d identified his location during his service in France. The letter begins on the right half of the page.


Thos W. Alderson

Co C 356 Inf

Feb 1, 1919

St. Agnan, France

My Dear Inis, again I will drop only a line. You will see I have made a move, hope I have started home. I am in a large camp living in tents, having some winter. Had the first snow about a week ago. I have a pair of over shoes and am doing very well. Have nothing to do only sleep and eat. Go out twice a day for exercise. I am feeling good, although I miss the warm food and good bed at the Hospital. They wanted to attach me to the “Hosp” unit and let me stay but I preferred moving—as I think we are homeward bound of course we know not when but hope soon. I got my Xmas box the morn before I left the Hosp. Every thing was fine. I am sure holding on to those socks and the little knife. I expect it will be hard for you to read this as I holding the paper on my mess kit.

So I close with lots of love and kisses


In this letter, Grandpa included cartoons he’d clipped from the newspaper, The Stars and Stripes. Military humor.



The Stars and Stripes, 24 January 1919, p. 7

Here’s Grandma’s Valentine’s Day letter (although without a mention of the day). I haven’t transcribed it, since her handwriting is legible. Her letter is what my family refers to as “newsy,” and it is that. Notice her references to housekeeping and motherhood, which she seems to be looking forward to. The baby she writes about, the one that earned her the title of “Aunt Inis,” was born to her older brother Charley. Join me in wondering about the expression, “busy as a cranberry merchant”! But mostly, enjoy getting to know my grandmother.

14-Feb 19, Gma, 114 Feb 19, Gma, 214 Feb 19, Gma, 314 Feb 19, Gma, 414 Feb 19, Gma, 514 Feb 19, Gma, 6

Happy Valentine’s Day, Grandma and Grandpa! This is my love letter to you.


(*) The second letter returned to Grandma is dated February 16, 1919. More on that in an upcoming post.

The Gloomy Aftermath of War

The Armistice may have ended the fighting, but the war didn’t end for American soldiers like my grandfather–some 4 million in total. After their quick military training in the US and deployment overseas, they waited now to go home. (There were only a limited number of ships to transport them.) And they waited for assignments, for something to do. It was a time of uncertainty, a time of suffering from war wounds, and a time, for some, of despair.

Grandpa remained for months at the hospital complex near Mesves, in the Loire Valley.  It was miserable that winter, raining all the time, he wrote. In photographs I’ve seen of the complex, where tens of thousands of soldiers received medical attention after the war, row after row of nearly identical barracks created a monotonous scene of uniform plainness (depressing to my eye). (1)

He tried to keep an upbeat tone in his letters, even as he admitted ongoing problems with his arm.

12-21-18, 1 plum good

December 21, 1918 letter to Grandma.

After noting he hadn’t received mail in two months, he wrote,

My arm is plum healed up and don’t bother me at all only a little weak and I can’t straighten it plum out but I am sure if I were with you it would not bother me at all. Get me.

Did he think he would fully recover? In December, it seems he did.

“Our Division is up in the Rhine Valley as they are in the army of Occupation,” he wrote on December 14, a month into his recovery. “I would love to be with them, but you know I would rather come home you can bet.”

Neither of these were options, at least not at the time. Any hopes he held for a return to his company were dashed in early January. That’s when the doctors reviewed his condition and classified him as “C” class, which recommended “sedentary work” or work that didn’t include more than a five-mile march. (2)

Did he know, or want to suspect, that his injury would never fully heal, that it would limit his abilities the rest of his life?

The one time I sense a note of despair in his letters, or maybe a bit of defiance, was here, in a letter written January 6, a few days after receiving his classification.

1-6-19, 4 nurses

January 6, 1919 letter to Grandma.

After writing about piano players in the Red Cross “hut,” he continued,

The Nurses are trying to get me to cook in their mess, but I tell them I don’t want to tie myself to any job. As I was a Doughboy, you know I went over the top every time the co did and cooked up to that time of our first drive.

Wounded, he still identified as a soldier, still a member of Company C.

News from his buddies in Germany was scant. If he’d had better contact, Grandpa might have learned about the kind of despair some American troops faced there. I found this description in the History of the 89th Division, written by George English, himself a member of the division that served in Germany as part of the occupation. He recalls the days after the Armistice, when American forces began their march through the desolate “No Man’s Land” in France, on November 24, before entering Germany twelve days later, on December 5.

Should we mention our feelings on seeing green fields well kept–roofs and chimneys whole on the houses–fat cattle and well fed people in unharmed Germany–all after devastated France?

There was anger, he wrote, and also a note of melancholy.

The stately, spire-like poplars which line the French roads and give a characteristic tone to the landscape, were now supplanted by smaller, wide branching trees, whose gnarled and twisted limbs gave, in the winter season, a melancholy impression of suffering. (3)

My grandfather didn’t express his emotions, certainly not the way people do today. He witnessed suffering, and endured it, without complaint. That’s my memory of Grandpa. But what did he carry with him after seeing what he describes here, about halfway down? “When I look at so many one-arm, one leg’ed and one eye’d men I think I am sure lucky to only get a few scars on the arm.”

1-24-19, 2

January 24, 1919 letter to Grandma.

Suffering visited King City, Missouri, too, Grandpa learned in letters he received from home. “I was sure sorry to hear of so much sickness and so many deaths,” he wrote Grandma on January 3, 1919. This was a reference to the Spanish Influenza, the virulent type of flu that had become a worldwide pandemic, thanks in part to the movement of infected troops fighting in the war. The King City Chronicle ran notices of school and church closures, as well as obituaries of the victims. The paper also published advice columns from doctors, like this one recommending “pleasant purgative pellets” as a means of prevention.

King City, ad for purgative pellets

King City Chronicle, 29 November 1918, p 3.

In that same letter, dated January 3, Grandpa continued, “I am hoping it will soon be stopped but as Mother said in her letter I guess everyone must have some trouble and it looks like it.”

His mother was right, of course. But I wonder if she or any one of that generation really comprehended the scale of suffering–from the war and the Spanish Influenza–and the steely presence each kept in the lives of its victims.

Some wounds never fully heal.



(1) For photos and information (in French) on the hospital center:

(2) From the research center at the National World War 1 Museum in Kansas City, I learned that this classification system likely was adopted from the British. Here’s the chart they sent me.

   A Able to march, see to shoot, hear well and stand active service conditions.
Al Fit for dispatching overseas, as regards physical and mental health, and training
A2 As Al, except for training
A3 Returned Expeditionary Force men, ready except for physical condition
A4 Men under 19 who would be Al or A2 when aged 19
B Free from serious organic diseases, able to stand service on lines of communication in France, or in garrisons in the tropics.
Bl Able to march 5 miles, see to shoot with glasses, and hear well
B2 Able to walk 5 miles, see and hear sufficiently for ordinary purposes
B3 Only suitable for sedentary work
C Free from serious organic diseases, able to stand service in garrisons at home.
Cl Able to march 5 miles, see to shoot with glasses, and hear well
C2 Able to walk 5 miles, see and hear sufficiently for ordinary purposes
C3 Only suitable for sedentary work
D Unfit but could be fit within 6 months.
Dl Regular RA,RE, infantry in Command Depots
D2 Regular RA,RE, infantry in Regimental Depots
D3 Men in any depot or unit awaiting treatment

(3) English, George. History of the 89th Division. The War Society of the 89th Division, 1920, p. 263.