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posted: 5/31/2010 12:01 AM

Letters from the front chronicle a World War II soldier's ordeal

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  • Lyle S. Wessale poses with his mother, Lillian.

    Lyle S. Wessale poses with his mother, Lillian.
    Courtesy Jerry Wessale

By Vincent Pierri

Lyle S. Wessale was an 18-year-old kid when he was drafted by the U.S. Army in 1944.

Pulled from the security of his home in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Wessale was shipped to the front lines in France and Germany. He promised to stay in touch with his parents, George and Lillian Wessale, who waited anxiously at home.

And keep in touch he did. Wessale averaged one letter every four days during his two-year deployment.

His son Jerry Wessale, 58, of Grayslake, eventually came across the nearly 170 letters stuffed into two brown paper bags on a shelf in his grandmother's home. The discovery was a surprise for Wessale.

It's an emotional task, but Jerry Wessale is slowly assembling a timeline of his dad's experience. The letters give a vivid glimpse into the soldier's ordeal.

Scenes from jazzy night life in New York City to an arduous voyage on the Queen Mary, and battle stories including an account of losing a buddy to a German bullet.

Jerry Wessale said he's only read about two dozen of the letters, though he's had them for more than six years. He opened some of the yellowed envelopes shortly after Lyle Wessale died in 2004. He was 78.

"These are very personal letters between my dad and his parents," he said. "I'm amazed at some of the profound things he said. These are very human, very touching. It helps me realize what he went through."

Flagging the envelopes with sticky notes, Jerry Wessale is marking each with a date and location.

The fresh-faced member of the 63rd Infantry Division of the 7th Army spent a few nights in the Big Apple before sailing to the front lines.

Jan. 20, 1945, New York City:

"Man that is some city, believe me. We had some swell times and endless things to do. I saw that hot band Lionel Hampton, which I've always wanted to see. He beats every band, even Duke Ellington. Tommy Dorsey was up the street playing at the Paramount. I liked him too. I also saw Woody Herman."

Jerry Wessale said the letters, rich with detail, are in contrast to how little his dad talked about his service in later years.

"He didn't talk much about the war," he said of his dad. "I can count the number of stories on one hand."

As much as his grandparents relished the son's updates, Jerry Wessale imagines some of the dispatches were heartbreaking.

Jan. 26, 1945, on the Queen Mary:

"Yesterday was a very rough day on the ocean and almost everybody was vomiting or staggering all over the place if they could find room. I wish this was the journey back home instead of going over."

As the war dragged on, the details became more grim. April 13, 1945, Germany:

"Please don't worry about me. I came out of the battle unscratched. All I can say or do is get on my knees and pray to God for thanks and for being with me. You can't help but think about the fellows who were unfortunate as my buddy was. I try to forget about him but it is hard."

That letter had more details, but a portion of the pages were torn off by Army censors. The soldier finished with a compelling thought.

"I almost broke down from the strain and lack of sleep but stuck it out."

To say Lyle Wessale was a witness to history would be an understatement. He was in France the day Adolf Hitler and the Nazi forces surrendered, formally ending the war in Europe. V-E Day was celebrated in the streets. But knowing fellow soldiers were still fighting in other theaters, Wessale couldn't rejoice.

May 8, 1945, France:

"The war is over today and the French are doing a lot of celebrating. The war is over for them. Myself, I say it's only half over. I'm going to do my celebrating when the Pacific war is over and I'm safely home."

You might imagine the war-weary young man to resist the thought of another deployment, but he said he was ready.

June 18, 1945, Germany:

"It is more possible than ever that I'll be home by August and then I'll be heading for another division because the 63rd is no more. It is also very sure now that I'll go to the Pacific. I'm not afraid and I'd just as soon go there as stay here. This life is getting very tiresome and combat life is never dull. Besides, I want to get some of these Japanese cameras."

Wessale wasn't sent to the Pacific, and finally came home in June 1946.

His son plans to continue reading the dozens of letters in the coming months. For Jerry Wessale, the notes are providing a unique bonding experience.

"As time goes on, I'm realizing the importance of these," he said. "It's a part of him that I can hold on to."