Christmas letter still stirs memories of WWII

By Howard Wilkinson

Cincinnati Enquirer


Ray Wissel, a 19-year-old soldier, sat at a typewriter on Christmas night 1944 in a headquarters hut in a village in northern Italy, pecking on the keys as the snow fell outside.

He was writing his folks back home in Mount Adams. He chose his words carefully, as he always did when he wrote them — careful not to upset them, careful not to remind them of the real and present danger he was in.

I am writing this letter about 8:30 p.m. on Christmas night ... the past two days have certainly been happy and busy ones for me ... I suppose I can really say that I enjoyed the Holiday very much, even under these conditions.

What he did not tell them was the loneliness he felt, how much he missed the winding streets of Mount Adams, the clatter and clutter and joy of a Wissel family Christmas.

Nor did he tell them that he had just seen the hardest year of his still-young life, one that would prove to be his hardest ever.

It began the Christmas before, when the teenage soldier was shipped to North Africa for training. There, he became part of a squad of 12 young men, all green soldiers like him.

They were infantrymen, groomed to fight; and they were given the most dangerous task that an infantryman could have — they were minesweepers, sent out ahead of the main body of troops to clear the fields and roads of the deadly mines the Germans set.

They were shipped to Italy and sent into battle with the famed division — “The Blue Devils” of the 88th Infantry Division. The fighting was bloody and brutal for months on end.

By Christmas, nine of those 12 men — men who were like brothers to young Ray Wissel — were dead, killed in battle.

That was the great sadness he could not write about in his Christmas letter home; it would be, for his parents, George and Catherine, too stark a reminder that their own son — their youngest child — might be the next to go.

What the 19-year-old soldier did not know that Christmas night as he carefully worded his letter was that, back home, his mother would preserve that Christmas letter and keep it all of her life, along with all the 265 other letters her son wrote her during World War II.

This week, in the dining room of his Oak Hills home, Wissel sat with stacks of those letters — all preserved in their original air-mail envelopes. He still marvels at the fact that the letters — the records of Ray Wissel’s war — still survive.

“I had no idea she was keeping these,’’ said Wissel, now 85. “I guess it meant a lot to her every time she heard from me. That’s how she knew I was still OK.”

Wissel’s daughter, Kathy Kitts of Fairfield, is working to compile her father’s wartime letters into a book.

“It’s a history of the Italy campaign from a soldier who was on the front lines, doing a very dangerous job,’’ Kitts said. “It’s something I want to preserve for our family, but also for everyone else. It is history.”

Most of the letters are handwritten — some on the tiny squares of paper called “V-mail” that World War II soldiers used to write back home. But the ones written in late 1944 were typewritten.

The reason for that was something that Wissel couldn’t really explain to his folks back home.

After the bloody battle of Mount Battaglia in September, the headquarters staff was putting out daily reports and the casualty lists were so long that they needed a soldier who could type them out, instead of writing them by hand.

Ray Wissel was one of the few who could do that.

He was pulled from the front lines and put in headquarters for a few short months, typing out the casualty reports by day and pecking out letter after letter to his family back home at night.

But his family back home knew little of that. He had joined the Army when he was just 17, a decision that distressed his mother. She had lost one son at the age of 16 in a bicycle accident; another son was serving in the Marines.

This was her baby on the front lines in Italy. So, in that Christmas letter home, there was nothing that caused her even more fear or worry.

He wrote instead of the Christmas dinner served to the troops — turkey, mashed potatoes, cranberries, peas, coffee, cake and pudding. He wrote of the midnight Christmas Mass he and some of the other soldiers attended in a nearby village, where he took communion from an Army chaplain.

The ride back was nice and we really enjoyed the scenery ... one little church in the beam of one of our spotlights shined brightly. It was on top of a hill and the one that we go to on Sunday. You could see it far away by the light of the spotlights.