Letters Home From The War: Part 3November 7, 2013
By MARTHA RASCHE
Herald City Editor
Lowell Keith Gray, who grew up in rural Washington and joined the Navy in 1942, was 22 years old when the submarine he was on, the USS Pompano, was considered lost at sea and he was declared missing in action on Oct. 15, 1943.
He was one of Juanita Hoffman’s eight brothers who served in World War II. The others came home, but Lowell did not.
“I think about it all the time,” Hoffman says, recalling that her fun-loving brother was a good artist and an excellent cook.
Calvin A. Voelkel, who grew up on the western edge of Dubois County near Otwell and joined the Army in 1944, was 21 years old when he was killed by sniper fire in Kassel, Germany, on April 14, 1945.
Voelkel’s sister Sadie Sermersheim has always wondered what might have been for her big brother, who was nicknamed “Red” because of his hair color. He had earned the title of Dubois County’s top overall student when he graduated from the eighth grade and also had completed high school by the time he joined the military.
“He would have been something,” Sadie says, her voice trailing off.
Both Juanita and Sadie now live in Jasper and shared some of their brothers’ letters from the war with The Herald.
Calvin wrote to his oldest brother, Radius “Butch” Voelkel, from Camp Joseph T. Robinson in Arkansas, where Calvin was at the Infantry Replacement Training Center with Company D of the 109th Battalion.
Butch had been deferred from wartime service because he was working for a farmer, says Sadie, now 77, the youngest of Walter and Florence Voelkel’s 10 children. Walter had served in World War I, and some of his other sons — Lee, Charles and Glen — also contributed military service to their country at one time or another.
“Say, this training is really great stuff,” Calvin wrote on Sept. 10, 1944. “Up in the morning at 5 now and they will probably be getting us out still earlier a little later. They wallow us around on our belly, give us exercise, feed us a lecture, drill us and then at night when most are worn out they will send us on a run. The run is the one thing I can hold my own on. I have so far been one of the first, if not the first, in from our platoon.”
Remembering the farm fondly, the private first class wrote that he was sure his brother was getting in some squirrel hunting and that their mother kept busy canning peaches.
Sadie, who was 8 when her brother died, recalls that her parents often followed the battles in Europe by listening to the radio. Despite Calvin’s letters home being censored — “Mom would get letters that were ripped to shreds,” Sadie says — the Voelkels seemed to sense when their son was in particular danger.
Mr. Voelkel learned of his son’s death inadvertently while on a routine trip to the Otwell mill with the horse and wagon to get feed. The telegram relaying the news had arrived in town, but it hadn’t been delivered to the farm yet. Mr. Voelkel heard some people talking about it, and returned home to tell his wife.
The telegram arrived at the farm some time later as did, Sadie remembers, a couple of men in uniform riding motorcycles.
In the Gray family, Lowell was married by the time he signed up for the Navy, and he hadn’t told his parents, Roy and Ollie, that he had done so. “He tried to get gone without me knowing,” his mom wrote to son Maurice, who was in the Army at the time.
But Mrs. Gray happened to send Lowell a card and an invitation to supper that he received just before he left home, so he came to the farm to visit.
From the Naval Training Station at Great Lakes, Ill., where he was with the 19th Battalion, 14th Regiment, Lowell wrote on Oct. 1, 1942, that he was “getting along fine and liking the Navy better every day.” He planned to be home on furlough in a few days, after training ended. Then he would be sent to Treasure Island in the San Francisco Bay, but he didn’t know what would happen from there.
“I think I made service school. I took up aviation mechanic and motor mechanic, but I don’t know if I’ll get it or not,” he wrote. “If I don’t, I’ll take up cooking or hospital corps. That would be about next to the best.”
On that trip home shortly thereafter, Lowell saw his 3-month-old daughter, Donna Jo, for the first and only time.
Lowell visited his parents and younger siblings on the farm, and when he left, heading to a brother’s house nearby to catch a ride, Juanita remembers watching him walk away with his duffel bag thrown over his shoulder.
“When he was ready to get in the car, he turned around and waved,” says Juanita, who was 12 when her brother died and now is 81. “Mom said right away, ”˜He’ll never be back. That will be the last time you see him.’”
On Oct. 23, Lowell wrote from Treasure Island to Maurice at the Walla Walla (Wash.) Army Air Base.
Answering a question his brother had asked about finances, Lowell relayed that he was earning $50 a month and was sending $22 of it home to his wife, Eleanor. “The government sends her $28 and Donna Jo $12; that makes $62 altogether. And I wash all my own clothes so I don’t have to pay any laundry bill. So I guess I’ll make it OK — if I ever get that payday. I think we’re supposed to get paid the fifth of the month. I took out $5,000 worth of insurance, too. That cost me $3.60 a month and that’s about all I have to pay out except for cigarettes and candy and stuff like that.”
“Boy, this is a swell place,” he wrote. “But I don’t know how long we will stay here.”
At home, Mrs. Gray would sit at the kitchen table where Juanita and her sister Mary were doing their homework and write her sons — Lowell, Ardith, Robert, Clifford and Dimple in the Navy and Maurice, Dennis and Gene in the Army — several evenings a week.
“To this day I can’t imagine how she lived through” having eight sons in the war, Juanita says.
The USS Pompano left Midway Island in the North Pacific Ocean on Aug. 20, 1943. The submarine did not return on schedule and official records of the Navy Department list its occupants — including Machinist’s Mate 3rd Class Lowell Keith Gray — missing in action as of Oct. 15, 1943.
Mrs. Gray had “just begged Lowell not to go on that submarine,” Juanita shares, but Lowell said he wanted the excitement. “I guess he died doing what he wanted to do.”
About this series: A few months ago, The Herald asked readers for letters written by their loved ones from World War II. We received more than a dozen responses, including from a couple of people who had letters from World War I. Some readers had fewer than a handful of letters to share, while others had dozens, even hundreds. From now through Veterans Day, we are publishing excerpts from the letters received. The words are original to the writers, though some spelling and some punctuation have been altered.
Part 1: In shared company — Soldiers and sailors wrote of new experiences and of missing the old routines.
Part 2: Pigeoneer Marty Gosman — This soldier followed the birth of his firstborn from a distance.
Part 3: Two who never came home — The sisters of Calvin Voelkel and Lowell Gray always have wondered what might have been.
Part 4: Pharmacist Denny Bell — This sailor — the father of two — wrote his wife almost daily.
Part 5: From World War I — A soldier missed the farm he grew up on, and several servicemen were pen pals with a Jasper girl.
Contact Martha Rasche at email@example.com.
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