On January 23rd, 1941, Ory and Ethel (Lettie) Freeland signed the following:
“We the undersigned, being the father and mother of Maurice H. Freeland, a minor, an applicant for enlistment in the United States Army, do hereby give our consent to his Enlistment therein. We further certify that we are not dependent upon him for support and that he is not Married. No objections to Overseas Service.
The said Maurice H. Freeland was born on the 7th day of Nov., 1921 at Greenwood in the State of N.Y.”
At 19, Maurice joined the Army Air Corps, aiming eventually to become a flier and a second lieutenant. Shooting for the big bucks, $225 a month. On January 28th, 1941, it became official. In late October of that year, he sent his last letter from the Continental U.S. to his parents; the next letter that they received was written aboard ship (the transport President Coolidge) and postmarked “Honolulu”. The Coolidge left Hawaii for “eastern ports”.
I have a scrapbook filled with photocopies of letters that Ory, Lettie, and their daughter Beatrice sent to Maurice, from October until the end of the war, as well as some correspondence received from friends of Maurice, including his landlady Mrs. Telsch from when he was stationed in San Francisco, and the correspondence they received from the War Department. The letters that his parents and sister wrote him I think were all returned as undeliverable; they kept them, so that he could read them later.
Between November of 1941, through the attack on the Philippines and the bombing of Pearl Harbor, until February of 1942, the only thing they knew about Maurice was that he was in the war zone. On February 16th, they received a telegram reporting that Maurice had been seriously wounded in action on February 9th in defense of the Philippines, with no further details. This was confirmed by letter on February 23rd. The letters in the scrapbook reveal the details of how war news traveled around Greenwood, it’s probably much like you imagine it would be, in small town America in 1942. On March 2nd, Lettie’s opening lines to her letter to Maurice:
My Dear Son,
This must be the most honest letter I ever wrote to you. Dad and I just do not know how to write or what to say as we do not know how badly you are hurt but how we have prayed and will pray that you may be alright again some day. Marie and I kept writing to each other and to you and we hope you will get at least some of the letters.
The whole town of Greenwood seemed stunned when the news came from Wash. D.C. you were seriously injured. Guess they are all praying for you as much as we are. It surely has aroused this town to do all they can in every way for the boys. So while you are getting better somewhere I want you to know you are still doing you’re all through the knowledge of the people in this town that one of the town’s boys was cut down seriously. Dr. Hardenburg says food just doesn’t taste good and more knowing you are hurt.
I wonder how much of the difference between how the public felt about the boys in WWII vs. how they subconsciously regard the vets in Iraq or Afghanistan is embedded in the fact that in 1942 you just didn’t know what was going on with the boys for a long, long time… and today you have satellite phones. The whole town would have known how many men had gone missing, for months or more, and the collective unconscious would have been working that entire time, inventing horrible possibilities. You read these sorts of collections of letters and the stark nature of “not knowing” seeps through every line. The horror of hope.
On March 6th, 1942 Maurice wrote this letter, the first non-“form” correspondence they received from him since that letter from Honolulu:
It is very little news I can send. The radio and papers will tell you better than I could and a lot sooner. Please let Marie know that you heard from me. All my love to you, Mother and Dad, Sister, and all the folks.
Maurice spent most of the rest of the war in Military Camp #3, in Cabanatuan, until he was transferred to Bilibid prison, where he was liberated in February of 1945. During that three years, only snippets of information regarding his status were received by his parents. Since the Philippines government had never formally surrendered to the Japanese, the Japanese didn’t provide official lists of POWs for quite some time. Troops who had been stationed in the Philippines were listed as “Missing in Action” for years.
Official notice was sent on the 18th of February, 1945, that Maurice had been rescued. On Feb. 22nd, Mrs. Telsch wrote:
Dear Mrs. Freeland and Family –
I hope by now you folks are as happy as I am and your good faith prayers are answered. No doubt you have received a telegram from the War department your son Maurice has been released from the prison camp in the Philippines. We rec. word here in Woodland over the teletype Friday. I was sitting in the show when I rec. the news. I can’t tell you how excited I was because Maurice just seems one of us. He was in that Bilibid prison camp, the worst camp there. I don’t know weather you read about it or not. They said they only put the very badly crippled prisoners in there. So I guess we cannot expect to see Maurice come back with all his limbs on him as I think there is some missing. But just to get him back will be wonderful. I think they are putting most of them in hospitals for awhile to build them up and get them well before they send them home. I just see by today’s paper they will bring them all to San Francisco…
This is the last letter in the scrapbook from Mrs. Telsch, written on March 5th:
My Dear Folks
At last I can say were are a very happy family and I know you folks must be too. Maurice arrived in good old U.S.A. Thursday, March 1 evening late and Friday they took him to a San Francisco Hospital. Saturday he called you folks and us up on the phone. My it did seem good to hear his voice. We were so overjoyed and excited.
Then Maurice called a friend of ours in San Francisco and he and his wife came to the hospital and got Maurice and brought him to Woodland Saturday afternoon in there car wich is about 75 miles from here. We had a very nice visit with him in the short time he was here. As he had to be back at the hospital by twelve o’clock that night.
I had a nice dinner for them and it seemed so good to have him at our table again, and that big smile on his face again. Maurice looks good, considering what he has gone through with. He is thin but has gained fifteen pounds in one month which shows he is in good health and another month or so he should be fine.
His mind is good and he is not shelled shocked at all and nerves seem to be very good which is wonderful. He does not look a bit older than when he left here.
I told him it did not make any difference how much the war had messed him up. As long as we had him back, and he could have come back much worse off. But I am sorry I half to tell you he has lost both of his Legs. He did not have the heart to tell you on the phone that day and asks me to tell you.
They took his legs of just between the knee and the hips about halfway. This why they are sending him back East to Washington D.C. to a hospital that makes the artificial limbs and fit them and then teach him to walk. When this is done he will be as good as new. I do not have any Idea how long it will take.
He left yesterday and I guess he is back there by now. He will send you his adress and you can go see him as he is only 300 miles from you. He bought himself a Wheel Chair and he gets arouond very good in it. It folds up and you can put it in a car. Very nice.
This is why he can not come home until he gets fixed. But they are feeding him good and doing every thing they can for him.
So I do hope you will understand and being good Christian people will not take it too hard. It did him a lot of good to visit us while he was here.
Yes I had to break the news to him about Marie getting married which was the hardest thing to do. She and her husband came over to see him while he was here. I thought she treated him very cold did not even shake hands with him. But her husband did when he did I could see Maurice wanted to haul off and let him have it. But he tried so hard not to let on he cared. But I could see it hurt just the same. But my girls helped to cheer him and he soon forgot about it. He has gone through so much I guess nothing matters any more. When I ask him if he wanted to see them he said “Hell I guess if they can stand it I guess I can”. But I wish she had waited until he came home. But that is the way life is, I guess.
I read your letter to Maurice and will forward it to him as soon as I get his address.
Mrs A.C. Telsch
Maurice lost both legs in a field hospital sometime between January 1942 and the final surrender of the Philippines in April of that year. A mortar shell had filled both of his legs up with shrapnel and amputation was required in a field hospital, with no anesthesia. Nobody in his family knew until Mrs. Telsch reported it. There is one undated letter in the scrapbook penned by Maurice where he mentions the amputation; it was never delivered during the war but arrived at Greenwood on May 11th, 1945, after the Army unearthed it from a collection of documents held by the Japanese. My mother told me that every once in a while when she was a child he would scratch at some part of his body and you could see little tiny flecks of metal that had only just wormed their way up to the surface of his skin. I don’t know how he survived the Bataan Death March, or who helped drag him through the mud and kept him going when his arms gave out. I once saw of a long line of POWs on the march, and in it you could see a legless POW pushing himself along with his hands, sitting on a little wooden platform with haphazard wheels. It was taken from the back; it may even have been him. He didn’t talk about the experience with his grandchildren, we were too young to probably even be considered conversational partners of such weighty matters. He died before any of us got old enough to have the audacity to ask him about it.
His childhood sweetheart (the aforementioned Marie) got married on February 15th of 1945; she had given up hope that he would return some time before. It has occurred to me to wonder more than once how Marie might have felt on the 18th of February, three days after her wedding, when she saw his name on the list of returning POWs in the paper.
Maurice was told by V.A. doctors that it was pretty unlikely that he would survive long. He showed them up by outlasting the lot of them, getting married, becoming a teacher, and fathering five children. Unwilling to become a morphine addict like a large number of returning veterans with chronic pain, he took too heavily to the bottle, which eventually led to his divorce. My mother, the second eldest of his children, remembers the day when she and her siblings and her mother were sitting outside the courtroom, waiting for the judge. Maurice came in, walked up to his soon-to-be-ex-wife, and said, “This is my fault, take whatever you need and take care of the children.” Thanks to the development of better painkillers, Maurice quit drinking and eventually got remarried. We saw him occasionally when I was a child, and then almost weekly when his health started to fail and neurological damage put him in the VA and then in assisted living. My mother’s family has some stories about VA hospitals in the 1980s that I’m sure families of Vietnam-era veterans can imagine. It was not our country’s finest hour, when it came to taking care of its troops.
Maurice was a not a perfect man. He was a terrible drunk when he drank. He probably scared the pants off of a generation of children that he taught when he was working as a schoolteacher, working through his reentry into civilian life. He was a man that had by all accounts one hell of a life, ending in a long drawn-out time when not only his body was a prison, but his mind was a slowly degenerating one. I remember once, after a stroke, seeing him in the nursing home and seeing a bright intelligence in his eyes even as he couldn’t speak a coherent sentence. My recollections, of course, are suspect from so long ago; I’m fairly certain this was in 1987, well after dementia had started to set in. If I’m accurately remembering, though, it must have been one hell of an experience for a man who managed to piece himself back together after his 20’s and 30’s, to see himself falling apart from the inside.
He died in 1988.
I don’t know if he qualifies as anyone’s idea of a hero. He didn’t win the medal of honor. I never heard a story of him bailing out a buddy in a firefight. I’m sure he’d say that whoever helped him on the march was more of a hero than he was. I’ll tell you this, though, if I ever am called to display any sort of fortitude in my life I hope it happens that I inherited some of his iron.
Happy Veteran’s Day, Grandpa.