Editor’s Note: Sandboxx News presents a World War II series by Kaitlin Oster on the power of hope, letters, and love in seeing us through the terrors and agony of war. You can read the other installments here, listen to Kaitlin’s radio interview about the series here, or visit her website here.
Loretta mailed the letter out from Jamaica on November 5 and was surprised to see the parcel sent back to her only a couple of weeks later. She could have sworn that the address was correct — sure, it was difficult to know for certain if Arthur had been moved around the Pacific, but she thought at least it would have made it to him at some point. The Patrol Torpedo boats were always around on the water, so he may have been missed somewhere. Maybe it didn’t pass the censoring department; she had retold much of Jack’s story from Germany after all. All she wanted to do was make sure that Arthur knew his twin was alive; everyone back home could only hope he was safe, but that was up to the Jerries. The last notice Artie got was of Harold’s disappearance when the Classy Chassis went down just outside of Kassel that fateful day three months earlier.
She went to see Eleanor and inquired about whether or not she had received any news of letters to Arthur coming back to her as well. Especially since she had mail returned to her when Harold was missing, an all too familiar uneasiness crept back up again in her stomach. What an unfortunate happening, she thought to herself, if both of the Schwerdt boys were prisoners of war on opposite sides of the world. It was rumored at the time that prison camps in the Pacific were much more brutal than those in Europe, and she could only hope that Artie had been moved to a new location and not that he was missing.
Tragedy has struck
The news came soon after Loretta received her letter back. It was much, much worse than anyone could have feared. Arthur was dead. She stood in disbelief in the doorway of the Schwerdt home, clutching the returned letter in her hand with its large red print and pointed finger across the front. RETURN TO SENDER. Her knees shook and she felt as if she would pass out right there in the hall. There must have been a mistake, it wasn’t possible, she thought. Not Arty, not Otz. But as she shakily entered the house and saw Jeanne sitting with Mary Schwerdt, eyes swollen and red and a handkerchief in her hand, Loretta wasn’t able to deny that Arthur wouldn’t receive another letter from home.
“This… this just can’t be,” Jeanne whimpered. She wiped under her nose and Arthur’s mother got up as the tea kettle began to scream in the kitchen, a welcome sound to drown out the sniffling and crying of whatever members of the Schwerdt family were present.
“Oh, I’m just so, so sorry, hon,” Loretta said. She couldn’t contain her own tears as she sat next to her sister-in-law and placed a hand on her shoulder. “I’m just so sorry.”
Mary returned to the kitchen, stoic as ever. She had a hot kettle and extra tea cup for Loretta and poured hot water out for the girls. Loretta wanted to reach out and touch her — grab her hand, hug her — but only managed to say thank you for the tea and cupped it between her own trembling fingers. Part of her wondered how it happened. She refused to believe that anything could kill Arthur Schwerdt — he was too crafty, too sly, too good at making things work. She didn’t have to wonder for long, though, as Mary began retelling what she was told when two men knocked on her front door that morning.
Hitting the Japanese bases on the Shortland Islands
On November 1, 1943, Allied forces turned their focus towards reducing the size of Japanese forces on the main bases of Bougainville camp on the Shortland Islands, as well as taking control of the island itself. Controlling Bougainville gave access to optimal areas for airfields.
On the night of November 13, Arthur was operating with a crew on PT-154 off the Shortland islands in the Pacific. It was a nighttime anti-barge mission. Their goal was to cut the fuel sources to the Japanese who occupied the island, eventually allowing Allied forces to take over Tonolei Harbor. No fuel. No planes. No ships. The men moved silently with the assistance of PT-155.
The water lapped up against the sides of their boats as they crept along about a mile south of the main Shortland Island. The still, unmoving night was suddenly broken by blinding flashes coming from a mile north of the PT boats. From the shore, three enemy rounds were fired in succession and came screaming toward the men. The first round missed with a deafening roar as it taunted the crews. The second round hit its mark, tearing through the port side of the Tulagi boat that Arthur was a quartermaster on.
The men didn’t even have the time to return fire from their turrets as the shell pierced a readied torpedo. A large flash of fire followed as PT-154 was thrown about the black water, now littered with debris and bodies. Shouts from the shore echoed as the crew struggled to see who was alive, only to be met with blood and cries for help. Arthur lay on the deck of the boat, mortally wounded. PT-155 helped reignite the hit boat’s engine and both boats limped back to their base.
The nurses tried. Morphine was almost dry, and antibiotics were not accessible. On an afternoon round, in the hazy medical tent, a nurse came to Arthur’s cot — in her hand, a small glass vial of morphine. Arthur raised his hand.
“Give it to someone who needs it.”
“You need it,” the nurse said.
“I’m cooked.” Arthur shook his head and forced a chuckle. He lay on his side. Burns ran along his back and a crudely wrapped wound had bled through since the morning. He breathed shallow and smiled softly at the nurse, a glint in his blue eyes.
October 26, 1943
RETURN TO SENDER
I received your nice letter and it was swell of you to try and cheer me up when you were probably eating your own heart out. I was sort of waiting for a letter from you and I was certainly glad that I did receive one. During the time that Ha was missing, I sat down and wrote a letter to you telling you just what I was thinking and feeling. Well after the letter was finished I felt a bit better but when I read it over I decided that it was a pretty depressing letter to send to a person that needed cheering up himself. I was anxious to hear how you took the news about Ha. Gosh, you were all alone when you got the news whereas your mother and I at least had others around to console us. Gosh, Art, I hope and pray that I never have a shock like that again. Why my hair isn’t snow-white today I don’t know. Gosh! If anything ever happened to Ha I would have absolutely nothing. I never thought I would be so thankful to learn that Ha was a prisoner of war but I certainly am. After waiting for five weeks and two days of uncertainty, what a relief. You probably received El’s letter telling you of the card that Ha sent. What a good feeling to look at that old familiar handwriting again.
I met Jeanne a week ago Saturday so we sat in Goosers gabbing over a Banana Royal. We really enjoy talking to each other. Jeanne is really one swell girl, as if you didn’t know.
Eddie Wilson and Ronnie are getting married next month. Pretty soon everyone on the corner will be married.
I received two letters, one from Jack Thompson and one from Ned Transon. Ned and Jack are very close buddies of Harold’s. Both were so happy to hear that Ha was found. Jack and Ned are both on the same plane. They were on the mission over Kassel with Ha. Jack explained how one fellow in his crew said, “Hey Jack, Kelley’s in trouble.” Kelley is Ha’s pilot. It seemed like an eternity for Jack and Ned waiting for the crew of Ha’s plane to bail out. Jack counted five himself and when he and Ned got back to the Fortress base they just looked at each other. Another fellow in their crew must have read their minds and said, “What are you two guys looking so blue about, I counted ten chutes.” The two of them got so excited they started to cry. Then the two of them had to just wait for the better news.
Judging from Jack’s letter he is seeing but plenty of action. It seems that their squadron is the group leader now. His amount of missions will be over soon but that doesn’t mean that he will stop fighting. Jack has really proved a good friend to Ha.
Gosh! Art, I can’t think of much more to say except that I hope this war ceases soon. Then we can all start those nice little homes we dream about.
Keep well and God Bless you.
Feature Image: The “Pacific” bas-relief sculpture of the World War II Memorial, Washington, DC. (U.S. National Park Service)