By Michael Bodenhagen
Many years ago, when I was just a teenager, I was fortunate enough to come into possession of a collection of letters from World War II. The letters were all addressed to a woman named Altana Ryan, who lived in West Hartford, Connecticut. The collection, ninety-five letters in total ranging from the summer of 1944 to the end of 1946, provides an excellent insight into the daily lives of a variety of people. While there is no talk of storming bunkers or braving artillery barrages in foxholes, these letters appeal more so to the second line of troops, the “behind the scenes” action. While there are multiple people who wrote to Ms. Ryan, there were five main people whom she wrote to frequently.
So, just who exactly was Altana Ryan? Ms. Ryan was born in Freetown, New York around the year 1887. She moved to the Hartford area around the year 1919.1 In her 57 years in the area, she lived with her brother Ward for a majority of them. Many letters are addressed to Altana, but Ward is mentioned constantly. Altana practiced her religion at the First Presbyterian Church of Hartford. She was a hairdresser and worked for Harper Method, one of the first public hair salon franchises. It is made apparent in letters written to her that Altana was an avid traveler, and got a chance to visit Europe in the late 1930s just before Germany began invading. While Altana did not have children of her own, she was adored by her nieces and nephew, who constantly wrote to her. She lived at 59 Clifton Avenue for a majority of her time in West Hartford. This house, which was the destination of all the letters in the collection, still stands today. Just as interesting as our recipient are the people who wrote to her.
Let us start with her nephew, Corporal Ormond Ryan of the 383rd Fighter Squadron, stationed in England for the entirety of the war. He wrote the most to Ms. Ryan, with a total of thirty-eight letters, with the first one being dated August of 1944. The 383rd was part of the 364th Fighter Group of the Army Air Force, which served in Honington, England from February 1944 to the end of the wa.2 Ormand was responsible for the upkeep of two planes, most likely either P-38 Lightnings or P-51 Mustangs, as those were the fighter planes the 383rd used in the war. Ormond’s writings give us a glimpse into the life of a GI stationed in England during the war. He often writes about going to shows, dancing with girls while on a 24-hour pass, and peeling potatoes while pulling KP (kitchen police) duty. Just like in the movies, Ormond talks about winning big in poker and then spending it all while on leave. He even got to star in a U.S. propaganda film, serving as an extra with an eye patch in a promotional video for the 111th Evacuation Hospital.3 In addition to gambling and smoking like a GI, Ormond also has the mindset that the victory will come quick, like most allied troops had in 1944. On August 10, 1944, Ormond wrote to his dear aunt, saying “I bet we will all be able to celebrate New Year’s together,” however, as we all know, this would not be. Ormond realized the war was not going as well as it could be, and by October of 1944, he acknowledged in a letter that there would not, in fact, be any way for him to be home for the holidays.4 The belief that one would be “home by Christmas” was widespread among the allied troops, and it is very interesting to see how Ormand’s thought process changed as time went on and circumstances developed. Despite not being on the front lines, Ormond, along with all the other men in his unit, would receive six battle stars on his EAME ribbon (European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal). Despite having 80 points at the end of the war in Europe, Ormond was required to remain in service for a good while after hostilities ceased. Ormond arrived home in the US on November 9, 1945, and the 383rd was deactivated on November 10.5 Ormond ended up living a long life, passing away in 2003 at the age of 86.
The next two most frequent writers to Ms. Ryan were her two nieces, Lola Ryan and Ruth “Lambie” Lamb. Both the young ladies were nurses who were seemingly inseparable. They started off as roommates, working at Tilton General Hospital in Fort Dix, New Jersey. They managed to survive the Great Atlantic Hurricane of 1944, which ravaged nearby Atlantic City. Lola and Lambie were witness to the true horrors of the war every day. In a letter to her aunt, Lola wrote: “The shape of some of them (the soldiers) are in is pitiable, and yet it is amazing that they are still alive after what they’ve gone through.”6 Ormond expresses his sympathy and concern for the horrors Lola witnesses frequently throughout his correspondence with his aunt. By December of 1944, the two girls were stationed at an undisclosed location in southern France, which later proved to be Marseilles. As she gained experience in the hospital, Lola began to work in the operating room, seeing the worst of injuries that the war produced. She would eventually become the assistant surgeon, which made her very nervous. In a letter dated November 16, 1945, I found a surplus of oddly shaped metal objects in the envelope. At first, I was very confused as to why Lola would send this junk to her aunt, but as I read the accompanying letter, I found the items were far from junk.
In preparation for the holidays, and in an outpouring of Christmas spirit, the nurses at the hospital would take all of the excess caps from the penicillin bottles (which the hospital was using in great quantities) and cut them into star shapes so that they could be hung on a makeshift Christmas tree. Lola and her team managed to decorate the entire ward with decorations made from excess medical supplies.
While Ruth and Lola seemed to be the dynamic duo, they would not remain together for the entirety of their war experience. In late 1945, Ruth Lamb was transferred to Germany, much to her dissatisfaction. Ruth very passionately expressed her feelings for her partner in crime Lola, saying she “was closer to me than my own sister.”7 Ruth did not write nearly as often as her cousin Lola, but she began to write more frequently once in Germany, a possible testament to her loneliness. There is also a distinct change in her tone when she writes from Germany. It is more gloomy, often complaining more than anything else. However, Ruth would eventually make it home to the states and was soon reunited with her family, where her cousin Lola had already arrived.
Family members were not the only people who wrote to Ms. Ryan. She had a number of friends who were in the army during the war. One of them was Master Sergeant Harold Eells, who was very busy during the war. He started out in Italy and landed in Normandy on D-Day +1 (June 7). Though M.Sgt. Eells was not an infantry soldier, he saw his fair share of action, including dodging sniper fire and bombings. As he worked in the rear, he encountered a lot of German prisoners of war, many of whom believed the war would come to a quick end as early as August of ‘44.8 Interestingly enough, M.Sgt. Eells managed to break both his arm and leg in the invasion of South France, although it was not combat-related so he would not receive a Purple Heart. He did receive a Bronze Star and the Croix de Guerre, but he does not mention why he received these prestigious awards. In the summer of 1944, he was a part of the HQ 6th Army Group, but would soon be transferred to the First French Army, and he thoroughly enjoyed every second with them, as he has indicated in his letters. Harold and Altana traveled Europe before the war, and he often reminisces in his letters about his travels with Altana, and also writes about how all their vacation spots are now completely war-torn. His unit would move into Lindau Germany, where he would conclude the war as the Mess Sergeant, which may have come as a relief to him. His last responsibilities were to make sure the men ate well and to keep the Russian cooks from fighting with the German prisoners of war, who were very good at making American meals. Master Sergeant Harold Eells returned home on September 10, 1945.
Of all the people who maintained contact with Ms. Ryan, nobody endured more hardships than Sergeant Nicholas Ostapkevich. He was the top turret gunner of a B17 for the 305th Bomber Group of the Army Air Force. In terms of combat, Ostapkevich had an extremely short war. He shipped out to Europe in early August of 1944,10 but he would not fight for long. On August 24, 1944, Ostapkevich’s plane was shot down and he, along with his crew, were taken prisoner by the Germans. He spent the remainder of the war in M-Stammlager Luft 3, a prisoner of war camp run by the Luftwaffe. The camp, reserved specifically for airmen, was located in Lower Silesia.11 Ms. Ryan must have been surprised in October of ‘44 when Ostapkevich wrote to her from the Stalag informing her of his capture. Many people do not realize that allied POWs were able to write letters home from captivity, which were of course heavily censored. Despite being captured, Sgt. Ostapkevich survived and returned home after the allied victory.
Although this collection follows the paths of a very diverse group, common themes are present in all the letters. One of these themes is the concept of censorship. Being at war, officials could not risk sensitive information falling into the wrong hands, so troops were not allowed to divulge certain information to troops home. This in turn usually meant that troops could not discuss where they were, or what is really going on. This is why letters containing graphic content about battle or criticisms are not common. On November 22, 1944, Lola wrote an entire letter to her aunt, but there was no actual content in the letter. Instead, Lola took up two pages complaining about the censorship. Ormond also frequently writes that he needs to be mindful of what he is writing so that he does not get censored. Another common theme seen in the writings is the extreme gratitude for loved ones back home. Every single person you have just read about has, at least once, acknowledged Altana for her kindness and gratitude. Judging by the letters, it seems Altana sent many packages to Europe for her friends and family. Harold Eells writes about how Altana’s letters do wonders for his morale. Yes, it is true that everyone in this collection complains about something at one point or another, but they are also very grateful for the love and support back home.12 One feels a personal attachment to these people as they read about their adventures during the war. This collection gives a rare insight into points of view not commonly taken into consideration during the war.
1 “Obituaries.” Hartford Courant. January 7, 1976.
2 Wyllie, Arthur. WWII Victories of the Army Air Force. Morrisville, NC: Lulu Press, Inc., 2005. pg 278.
3 Ormond Ryan. Ormond Ryan to Altana Ryan. March 3, 1945. Bodenhagen Collection. Altana Ryan Scrapbook of Correspondence.
4 Ormond Ryan. Ormond Ryan to Altana Ryan. October 8, 1944. Bodenhagen Collection. Altana Ryan Scrapbook of Correspondence.
5 Wyllie, pg 278.
6 Lola Ryan. Lola Ryan to Altana Ryan. August 20, 1944. Bodenhagen Collection. Altana Ryan Scrapbook of Correspondence.
7 Ruth Lamb. Ruth Lamb to Altana Ryan. January 24, 1946. Bodenhagen Collection. Altana Ryan Scrapbook of Correspondence.
8 Harold Eells. Harold Eells to Altana Ryan. August 21, 1944. Bodenhagen Collection. Altana Ryan Scrapbook of Correspondence.
9 Harold Eells. Harold Eells to Altana Ryan. June 20, 1945. Bodenhagen Collection. Altana Ryan Scrapbook of Correspondence.
10 Nicholas Ostapkevich. Nicholas Ostapkevich to Altana Ryan. August 10, 1944. Bodenhagen Collection. Altana Ryan Scrapbook of Correspondence.
11 “Stalag Luft III.” The Real Great Escape, November 11, 2011. http://therealgreatescape.com/stalag-luft-iii/.
12 Harold Eells. Harold Eells to Altana Ryan. September 12, 1944. Bodenhagen Collection. Altana Ryan Scrapbook of Correspondence.