For soldiers' families, deep bond over WWII letters

Teresa Irish, Elaine Irish, Evelyn Wolf
"A Thousand Letters: One WWII Soldier's Story of War, Love and Life" author Teresa Irish, left, and her mother, Elaine Irish, center, listen to Evelyn Wolf describe photographs and war articles relating to the life of her brother Eldon "Don" Case, a young soldier in World War II, during a visit to Wolf's North Mankato, Minn., home, June 11, 2012. Case was killed in battle fighting alongside Aarol "Bud" Irish, whose correspondence is the focus of his daughter Teresa's book.
AP Photo/John Cross, Mankato Free Press

By EDIE SCHMIERBACH, The Free Press of Mankato

NORTH MANKATO, Minn. (AP) -- The stories of two young soldiers, whose lives intersected when they fought side by side on a battlefield in Europe, brought together their family members in a tidy apartment in North Mankato.

The survivors of Eldon "Don" Case of Janesville and Aarol W. "Bud" Irish of Michigan gathered recently at Evelyn Case Wolf's home on Garfield Avenue for a day of connecting memories.

Teresa Irish of Northville, Mich., brought along copies of the book she wrote. "One Thousand Letters Home: One World War II Soldier's Story of War, Love and Life" details her father's pact with soldiers who didn't make it home from fighting in Germany to contact their families if he did survive.

Bud Irish, a decorated veteran of World War II, was buried in 2006 in a cemetery in Saginaw County, Mich. His widow, Elaine, 89, and two of their 10 children made the trip to North Mankato.

Wolf of North Mankato is Don Case's younger sister. It was the first time the author had met Wolf in person, although they had corresponded for years.

Wolf's limited vision prevented her from reading the book sent to her soon after its release. Neighbor Joan Crye volunteered and they spent part of last winter going through its pages.

Wolf recalled finding out how her brother died. It was tough, especially since they were close in age. She was 19 and Don Case was just 19 months older.

His body was not returned to his family. Instead, Case was buried at Margraten Holland/Netherlands American Military Cemetery. Caretakers were paid to watch over his grave.

When the two surviving Case boys joined the service, Wolf felt a strong responsibility to stay near her parents, who had sold their Janesville cafe and moved to Waseca.

She found work close by the water softener business they operated in Waseca.

"I did a lot of things differently. I had meant to move to the big city, but I didn't have the heart to do it," Wolf said.

She married and became a mother. Don Case's fiancee, Patricia, was godmother to Wolf's daughter, Carol Bjugan of Chaska. Bjugan was at the North Mankato gathering to help greet her mother's guests. She remembered the survivors' list in her uncle's obituary. "It included the town of Janesville," she said.

Talking about lost loved ones was bittersweet for Wolf. It stirred up good and bad memories.

Her late husband, "El," had served in the Air Force and was exposed to radiation when the bombs were dropped on Japan at the end of World War II. The government provided compensation to the Wolfs, but he fought two types of cancer.

Teresa Irish refers to herself as an "unintended author." She was an executive for a home-health care facility in 2006 when, a month after the death of her father, she opened his Army trunk and found stacks of envelopes.

"Dad talked about the war, so we knew about Steinbergen. But we didn't know about the letters."

"I couldn't just close the lid," she said.

Inside were love letters to his then-fiancee, Elaine, as well as notes to his parents and to his twin sister, Faith. The trunk also held correspondence with his Army pals and the families of his fallen comrades. These included several envelopes with Janesville postmarks containing letters from Don Case's mother.

"Those were my favorites," Teresa Irish said.

Janet Purdy of Chaska agreed with her sister. "Being a mother, I can relate with her wanting to know what happened. They are so heartbreaking."

Mrs. Case offered Bud Irish encouragement and thanked him for describing the events of April 9, 1945.

That day, her son -- a member of a five-man reconnaissance troop -- died in an ambush near Steinbergen. He was one of three killed in that battle.

After Irish ran out of ammunition, he lay next to Don Case's body. A Nazi soldier tested them for signs of life by smashing a rifle on Irish's head. He continued to feign death until he was sure the Germans had moved on. Irish then crawled to a comrade, and the two survivors made their way back to safer ground.

Three members of that troop had made a pact earlier. If anyone didn't make it out alive, those surviving would contact his family.

Bud Irish kept that promise. He shipped Case's belongings to his loved ones in Minnesota. After his 38 months in the service, Irish returned to the United States and traveled to meet the survivors of his comrades who died at Steinbergen.

In 1947, Irish came to the Case family home to meet his Army buddy's kin. Mrs. Roy Case and he had corresponded by mail since shortly after her son's death.

Keeping in contact with the survivors had been important to Elaine Irish's husband. "Part of our honeymoon was spent going to visit the other families," she said.

In 1947, they traveled to Waseca to meet the family of the man whose body helped shield him from death.

The Irishes didn't keep the visits secret from their children. Bud Irish was photographed during the trip to Minnesota. He is holding his infant daughter, Linda.

"Dad talked about the war, so we knew about Steinbergen," Teresa Irish said. "But we didn't know about the letters."

Elaine Irish described the isolation of living in a rural area during the war, when so many young people were gone from home. She spent part of her days serving meals to German POWs who were assigned to her parents' farm.

She at first had hesitated to provide her daughter with the handwritten letters to her sweetheart overseas. They are not particularly intimate -- mostly song lists from the couple's favorite radio show and updates on her mother's health.

Eventually, she contributed six letters to be included in the book but is still not entirely comfortable with her image on its cover or its content. "Those letters -- they are personal," she said.

"'Don Case died by my dad's side," said Teresa Irish in a recent email that introduced her work. "My dad would later receive the Silver Star for Gallantry in Action, a medal he received with a heavy heart."

Letters, photos from WWII
A table in Evelyn Wolf's house in North Mankato, Minn., is covered June 7, 2012, with items she has saved, including photographs of her late brother Eldon "Don" Case's fiancee and the caretakers of his grave in Holland.
AP Photo/John Cross, , Mankato Free Press

"I was asked once if I thought he had 'survivor's guilt,'" she said. "I said, no, he had survivor's inspiration."

Shortly before Bud and Elaine Irish were scheduled to travel to Holland for a soldiers reunion in 1989, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. He coped by becoming a tireless advocate for men suffering from the disease.

Teresa Irish kept in contact with the Minnesotans throughout her work on the book. In 2008, Teresa Irish located Case's surviving siblings, Wolf and brother Dick Case, also a Minnesotan.

She introduced herself to Dick Case during an awkward phone call made 62 years after the death of his brother.

"They could not have been more gracious. And in the end, they provided me with photographs, information, and one of the letters my father had written to their mother shortly after Don's death," said Teresa Irish. Case family snapshots, along with several photographs from that old Army trunk, have been reprinted in the book.

"A Thousand Letters" is available from Amazon, and an ebook version should be available in about six months, said Teresa Irish. (The website for the book is Her husband, Lt. Col. Bradley Foster, helped edit the book.

They met on a plane, when Teresa Irish paused from working on her manuscript to ask a soldier in uniform whether he was traveling out to or coming back from service. Foster answered he was returning to the Middle East, then inquired about what she was writing.

Their conversation continued the rest of the flight. They were married in October.

During the wedding ceremony, they surprised Elaine Irish with a present of the newly released book.

"I like to say my dad gave me my legacy and gave me my future," Teresa Irish said.

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