World War II letters highlight value of education for 'Greatest Generation'

Jared Frederick
January 23, 2017

ALTOONA, Pa. — Penn State Altoona was founded as the Altoona Undergraduate Center in 1939 to serve as an extension of the University system in nearby State College, Pennsylvania. While the campus grew, it was threatened with extinction due to the mass exodus of many of its male students into military service during World War II. The campus director at the time, Robert Eiche, sought to keep the institution alive through two primary strategies: 1) Recruit more female students, and 2) Maintain a written correspondence to male students in the service. Penn State Altoona retains approximately 400 letters Eiche received from former pupils enlisted in the military, part of the campus' World War II correspondence collection.

The letters have since been organized and cataloged by the University Libraries with the hope that they can be digitized and made easily available to students and researchers. These letters are revealing and personal — offering insight into education, the Altoona community, school spirit, hope for the future, and the experiences of young men in wartime. Among the letter writers was an aspiring individual named Richard Aikey.

Aikey letter

During World War II, many Penn State Altoona students and faculty joined the war effort. While these members of the college community were stationed overseas, Robert Eiche, the first director of the Altoona Undergraduate Center, corresponded with them via letters such as this one.

IMAGE: Marissa Carney

Aikey was a young man of ambition. Clean cut and clever, his parents doted on him as the youngest child of the family. Then again, coming of age in Depression-era America offered few opportunities to be coddled. Born on August 4, 1925, to Albert and Maude Aikey, Richard was only four years old when the Stock Market crashed and the nation plunged into its most devastating economic crisis. During these strenuous days, family and community became all the more significant. Growing up in Bellwood, Aikey embarked on the adventures of boyhood in a quintessential rural town of central Pennsylvania. Neighbors knew one another. Residents could walk from one end of town to the other in a matter of minutes. A great sense of solidarity permeated throughout the local populace of 2,700 residents amid these days of hardship.

Even as Americans rebounded from the far-reaching consequences of depression, many citizens sought to improve their lives at a grassroots level. Scores of regional residents joined the ranks of the Works Progress Administration or the Civilian Conservation Corps. Some 200 Bellwood locals gained employment in 1935 at the commencement of a widespread sewage and waterline modernization project. At the heart of community improvement, townspeople profoundly subscribed to the notion that education was the most efficient means of attaining upward mobility. This maxim was fully embraced in 1937 as the people of Bellwood commemorated the 50th anniversary of their town.

Community members boasted: “As educational systems improved everywhere, it became increasingly evident to thinking people as far as a decade ago that the one-room schools were not giving the children of the township a fair training with which to compete against children trained in graded districts.” The people of Bellwood wished to purge away the false pretense that their rustic environment equated to a lower level of intelligence. The town elders continued, “During the last several years an addition was built to the [school] building with government assistance." These new amenities included “a fine athletic field, playground, and garage building."

Richard Aikey greatly benefited from this re-commitment to local education, as did many of his family members. His name appeared in the Altoona Mirror on numerous occasions for receiving “perfect marks.” He became increasingly involved in extracurricular activities, managed stage plays at Bellwood-Antis High School, and even became president of his senior class. His sister, Evelyn, gained employment as a teacher at nearby Tyrone High School. At the same time, Arthur — the oldest sibling of the family — acquired expertise as a chemist and was hired at the West Virginia Pulp and Paper Company as the Second World War was underway.

Following his June 1943 graduation from Bellwood-Antis, Aikey possessed an immediate desire to follow in his brother’s footsteps. Foregoing any leisurely activities of the balmy months, he immediately enrolled at the Altoona Undergraduate Center for summer classes with the intention of majoring in industrial engineering.

However, before Aikey could pursue his degree at any great length, Uncle Sam interceded. Richard was drafted into military service at age 19. Taking his oath of enlistment at an Altoona recruiting center on Nov. 23, 1943, Aikey was pulled away from his home county for perhaps the first time in his life. According to his induction forms completed in New Cumberland, Pennsylvania, Aikey was in peak physical condition. Weighing 136 pounds at five foot, eight inches, with 20/20 eyesight, his slender physique was typical of the youthful American GI. Within weeks, he was transferred to Fort Benning, Georgia.

There on Nov. 29, Aikey penned a letter to AUC campus director Bob Eiche, chronicling his latest travels and travails. After a 28-hour train journey from New Cumberland, the young private prepared for the rigors of an intense 13 weeks of basic training. He remarked, “Beside the drastic change, the Army life is alright. At this camp we are getting exceptionally good food and we are under very nice officers. I do not know just what will happen next and that is the worst thing about Army life.”  He concluded, “I would be pleased to hear from you or any of the students I knew. I am well and happy.”

Following the physical rigors of basic training in the fatiguing humidity of the Deep South, Aikey was placed in an equally challenging academic curriculum known as the Army Specialized Training Program (ASTP). Meant to mold “the most intelligent in the Army,” the initiative featured key components to further nurture the sharpest minds among enlisted men. At various universities throughout the country, trainees studied a variety of trades including engineering, languages, geography, psychology, medicine, dentistry, veterinarian science and more. Yet, all the diverse training frequently led to confusion and frustration among the students as they did not know what their assignments would be until after the program’s completion. Regardless of ASTP’s inherent flaws, it nonetheless highlighted Aikey’s abilities as an astute learner and his potential of rising through the ranks.

Aikey wrote to Eiche again on April 19, 1944. The brief letter denotes a change of address among other niceties. Also referenced was a general sense of disorganization and uncertainty regarding Army bureaucracy and logistics. He commented, “Having finished my basic training at Fort Benning, I was awaiting shipment to college when the AST Program collapsed. According to the executive officers, I was to have been sent to college at Yale."

Subsequently, Aikey was never granted the opportunity to formally build upon his educational superlatives. A new dilemma emerged when ASTP eventually dissolved and the Pennsylvania private found himself a plain infantryman once more. Transferred yet again, he was relocated to the overcrowded Camp Livingston in Louisiana with the 86th “Black Hawk” Division. Before the outset of the war, the camp was the setting of the notable 1940-41 Louisiana Maneuvers, a military dress rehearsal with war games in preparation for the forthcoming global confrontation. Between then and the time of Aikey’s arrival, hundreds of thousands of troops marched through the facility’s gates. The misery of the Louisiana heat was compounded by nightly invasions of mosquitoes and venomous reptiles that could make “a midnight excursion to the latrines potentially hazardous."

Beyond insects and forbidding wildlife, a contributing factor of Camp Livingston’s population woes was due to several hundred German, Italian, and Japanese prisoners of war living on the premises to assist with local cotton processing. Enemy combatants were not the only prisoners Aikey discovered at Camp Livingston. The base also served as an internment camp for over 1,000 Japanese Americans — loyal citizens who were deemed enemies of the state solely due to their race. Equally disconcerting was the presence of “Jim Crow” in the form of deeply-ingrained racial segregation codes. Only months before Aikey’s arrival in camp, two African-American GIs attacked a white bus driver in nearby Alexandria when the operator forcibly attempted to remove them from a “white only” section. Unaccustomed to such racial tension, Aikey became aware of these characteristics that defied the democracy he was trained to defend.

If any discrepancies of American ideals were observed by Aikey, they likely receded by late April of 1944. At month’s end he was granted a highly-prized furlough back to Bellwood. The young man reveled in the comfort of his household, the home-cooked meals, and the comparably mild spring of the Allegheny Mountains. Yet, as he relished the luxuries of home, he undeniably asked himself the questions all soldiers inevitably ponder before deployment:

“What will happen to me over there?”

“Am I ready?”

And, most importantly, “Will this be my last time with my family?”

Such reflections were even more frightening when considered by a 19-year-old student not even old enough to vote or legally sip a beer. Aikey had a full life ahead of him. But he was also forced to recognize that nothing in that life was guaranteed — including its duration. Now, after a brief reprieve from the tedium of military life and drill, Aikey parted ways once more and prepared to travel the farthest from home he had ever been. He first made his way to Fort George Gordon Meade in Maryland, his final posting in the United States prior to sailing overseas. In early September 1944, Aikey was ordered to pack his gear and prepare for departure. His destination was England.

During the choppy, week-long journey across the Atlantic Ocean, Aikey’s thoughts were constantly of his family. Mailing them a letter was one of his first acts upon reaching the soggy shores of Great Britain. The scenes unfolding in England were of epic proportions. While the June invasion of Normandy, code named "Operation Overlord," occurred over three months earlier, facets of the mammoth military undertaking remained in constant motion. The Allies had recently liberated Paris, however, and a constant stream of supplies from the ports of Great Britain was necessary to maintain the advance into Europe. Prior to the invasion, a profusion of tent cities, air strips, and supply depots blanketed the once-bucolic pastures and coastlines of England. As historian Craig Symonds noted, “American equipment and supplies soon began filling up some 20 million square feet of warehouse space and then overflowed into another 43 million square feet of open storage.” The ships pulling into port were filled to the brim “with supplies of every kind, from beans to bullets.” The logistical machinery of war was well at work in the months following D-Day. One could not be but impressed by the colossal scale of the effort.

At the very moment Aikey disembarked his troop transport vessel, Allied soldiers and airmen were attempting to plow their way into the heart of the Third Reich in hope of ending the war by Christmas. Aikey was assigned to the 47th Regiment of the 9th Infantry Division, a unit engaged in constant combat since its arrival on Utah Beach three days following D-Day. Known as “Hitler’s Nemesis” and “Old Reliable,” the division was in perpetual need of replacements as it inched its way across the continent. Aikey’s correspondence with his family was subsequently listed by the Altoona Mirror and reflects the rapid movements of the armies. “Letters from him followed the fighting across Europe,” wrote the Mirror, “with one dated in Normandy on October 13, Belgium on October 21, and Germany on October 23. In those dreary weeks of autumn, Private Aikey found himself immersed in the intense world of combat around Zweifall, located in the industrious Rhineland of Germany."

Situated along the German-Belgian border, Zweifall sat within the heavily fortified German defenses of the Siegfried Line in the ominously named Hurtgen Forest. The three month-long battle for control of the borderlands was Aikey’s baptism of fire. The ensuing struggle was murderous: “Last-ditch German defenders were holed up in massive fortifications within the fog-ridden woods.” The innumerable trees in the dense forest rendered navigation, troop movement, and aerial support untenable. When those same trees were obliterated by enemy guns, rainstorms of splinters and shell showered troops below. The Ninth’s drive became a slow, bloody struggle with ever-mounting casualties. The onslaught accurately earned the woods the nickname “The Death Factory.” The subsequent Battle of the Bulge and its horrid winter conditions only intensified the appalling experiences of its combatants.  Somehow, Aikey survived the melee unscathed.

By the end of January 1945, German resistance diminished after Hitler’s failed winter gamble to push the Allies back to the sea. Eventually, the 9th Division crossed the all-important Ruhr River, a tributary of the Rhine. After months of stalemate, Allied progress gained momentum and the war in Europe appeared one step closer to final success. On Jan. 29, only four days after the Battle of the Bulge’s conclusion, Aikey composed a letter to his parents, undeniably expressing relief at having survived one of the largest battles in human history. Nearly one month passed until his envelope reached home, arriving in Bellwood on Feb. 21, 1945. His mother and father, too, were reassured that Richard withstood the carnage unharmed. However, they did not realize that in their hands they held their son’s final letter home. Aikey died three weeks earlier.

The family’s false sense of alleviation was broken the day after obtaining their son’s letter. The Aikeys received what all parents of the 1940s feared most: a Western Union telegram from the War Department. Early reports indicated that Richard was “seriously wounded in Germany” on Feb. 3. This early notification could not possibly have predicted that Richard’s wounds were mortal. Seeking to push the Germans out of the town of “Dreary Dreiborn,” Aikey and his comrades of the 9th Division were lured into close-quarter urban combat. Soldier Donald E. Cross wrote of that day, “Upon entering the outskirts of town, I was pinned down by machine gun fire. I can remember there was a furrow about six inches deep. I buried my face in it. The bullets were hitting close enough to kick dirt up in my face. I sure figured that was it, but it wasn’t my time yet.” While the town was ultimately captured, Aikey was not as fortunate as Cross. Descending upon the nearby village of Hofen, Germany, Richard and his comrades endured intense German artillery fire. Amid the pandemonium, shell fragments punched through Aikey’s right chest and exited through his back. As frontline medics promptly attempted to halt the gushes of blood pouring from his wounds, Aikey slowly faded from consciousness.

Richard was hastily relocated to the 2nd Evacuation Hospital in Eupen, Belgium — where he succumbed to his wounds at 2:45 p.m. the following day. For his surviving comrades, the war persisted at an excruciating pace. One month later, Aikey’s division seized the Ludendorff Bridge spanning the Rhine River into Germany at Remagen, helping to seal Germany’s eventual defeat.  For the Aikeys, any success of Richard’s unit must have been bittersweet. The boy was only 19 years old. His aspirations of becoming a well-versed engineer would never be realized. His remains were laid to rest in a makeshift cemetery at Henri Chapelle beside scores of similarly young Americans. He was among some 3,000 men of the 9th Infantry Division killed during the war.

The bureaucracy of wartime death yields compelling testimony of individual sacrifice. As was customary of all wounded brought to sites such as the 2nd Evacuation Hospital, an inventory was taken of the personal belongings on Aikey when he was ushered into the facility. By February 1945, the private carried with him only the barest of essentials. He toted a fountain pen, a compass, a single spoon, a deck of cards, his pay book, and a bible. In addition to his basic GI gear and weaponry, these select items were the only possessions the teenager had on his person when mortally wounded.

Celebrated war correspondent Ernie Pyle reflected on such debris of battle the year prior, shortly after the Normandy invasion. He wrote, “Here in a jumbled row for mile on mile are soldiers’ packs. Here are socks and shoe polish, sewing kits, diaries, Bibles and hand grenades. Here are the latest letters from home, with the address on each one.” Whether scattered on the battlefield or in blood-soaked field hospitals, these piles of abandoned objects invariably represented the lost or tattered lives of their previous owners. Like the casualty lists, as Pyle interprets, these inventories of material consist of “gear that will never be needed again.”

On Feb. 18, the 47th Regiment’s Protestant chaplain, Richard W. Day, wrote of his fervent grief for the Aikeys' loss. He assured Albert Aikey that his son “did not regain full consciousness” following his wounding and he “suffered little or no pain.” Day also conveyed emotions he repeated time and again via consolation letters: “We, the officers and men of Company D and of the Regiment, extend to you our heartfelt sympathy. Your son’s death is felt most keenly by all who knew and served with him and his memory is an inspiration to us who carry on with the task. We share your loss and we remember both Richard and you in our prayers."

Maude Aikey gained the unfortunate distinction of becoming a Gold Star Mother. The solemn token of bereavement hung from the front widow of the Aikey Family household for the duration of the conflict. On May 9, 1945 — Victory in Europe Day — homage was paid to local parents, including the Aikeys, with a memorial ceremony at Roosevelt Junior High School in Altoona. Blair County judge George G. Patterson reflected, “We are thinking of our Gold Star Mothers, the fathers and widows of heroic dead. They gave their loved ones for liberty ... We pray that someday all these loved ones may understand that their great sacrifice has not been made in vain.” In the judge’s view, the spilt blood was a necessary evil in order to ensure “a just and lasting peace." The Aikeys could barely find solace in this moment of jubilation. Their son remained buried in a primitive, foreign cemetery nearly 4,000 miles away. For as distant as the war was, its dark consequences loomed above the Aikeys' lives in the most sorrowful of ways.

The bureaucratic process of war-dead repatriation was often an agonizingly long and drawn-out affair. Next of kin were essentially granted three options: leave a killed son buried overseas, return the remains to their hometown, or lay them to rest in a domestic national cemetery. The Aikeys elected the second option. Yet, that day would not arrive soon enough. After the war, “families had to wait two, three, four, or five years and longer before being able to bury their loved ones. This delay had many perfectly logical reasons, but logic plays little part in the normal range of human emotions, let alone at the extreme edge of grief that accompanies death.” Families were left in an emotionally painful limbo as they awaited an essential component of grieving: burial.

A moment of assuagement may finally have arrived on March 30, 1948, the day Richard Aikey returned to the United States. On the liberty ships SS Robert F. Burns and SS John L. McCarley, 10 Blair County men who “died in the struggle for the liberation of Europe” were brought home in caskets with hundreds of others who paid the ultimate price in the war. Aikey’s remains were eventually removed from the Burns, placed in a rail car, and embarked on the journey to central Pennsylvania.

At 5 o’clock on the evening of April 10, a train arrived in Tyrone’s station to bring Private Aikey home. Scores of local residents stood by Albert and Maude’s side in a gesture of sympathy and goodwill. The local chapters of the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars also attended the track-side service with a special purpose. William Robert Fuoss of Bellwood’s Legion lauded the honor guard tasked with supervising the somber proceedings. “Never were my emotions so deeply stirred as at the Tyrone depot when your post rendered a last sad rite to the return from abroad the remains of the late Pfc. Richard D. Aikey,” Fuoss wrote. “I wish to highly commend your honor guard for the manner in which it added reverence and respect due our heroic dead of the recent war ... I think your example worthy of emulation over the state as our dead come back to us to sleep in home soil.”

Back in Bellwood, friends and family streamed into the Aikey Family home throughout the week. What did these visitors say to the mourning family? What else could be said to the beleaguered parents whose youngest son had been dead for three years? Whatever sentiments were shared, they were unquestionably appreciated. In an April 21, 1948, statement to the public, the Aikey family expressed their heartfelt gratitude to the community: “We desire, in this manner, to express our sincere thanks and appreciation to our many friends, neighbors, and relatives for the wonderful kindness and sympathy shown during our recent bereavement for the loss of our loving son and brother." Even so, the family’s pain endured and questions lingered about the private’s fate.

The next day, William Bush of Bellwood’s American Legion penned an inquiry to the Adjutant General’s office in Washington. He wrote that the family “would appreciate a copy of the Service Record ... and would also appreciate receiving the medal due this young veteran." Five months later, Aikey’s posthumous Bronze Star Medal was delivered to the Bellwood home; also received was the requested account of Aikey’s military exploits that likely provided little consolation. The brief summation noted that Aikey “received emergency treatment” and that “every possible medical aid was administered to save his life, but death occurred 4 February 1945 as a result of those wounds.”

The parents were also issued Gold Star lapel pins from the War Department in January 1949. Albert and Maude Aikey bore these emblems of mournful pride for the remaining two decades of their lives. In those interim days, they sojourned to their child’s modest headstone in Milesburg’s Eagle Cemetery in neighboring Centre County.  Amid those two decades following the loss of their son, the mother and father conceivably pondered what Aikey might have done with his life, his degree, his profession, and his own family. Tragically, these questions could never be answered.

  • Richard Aikey

    Among the writers of WWII correspondence to Robert Eiche was Richard Aikey.

    IMAGE: Penn State
Last Updated January 31, 2017