War tales in an old trunk
ELSA KERSCHNER/times news Lisa Spahr reads the letter from Flavius Jankauskas. On the screen is one of the letters from the book.
A seldom-mentioned aspect of World War II was found in a cigar box inside a trunk.
The contents were written about by Lisa Spahr, granddaughter of a German prisoner of war. She brought the letters and the book she wrote from those stories to Mrs. Bush's Personal Care Home in Kunkletown on March 4.
Carrie Shafer, activities director, said Spahr contacted her. Whenever she is in the area she tries to schedule appointments either at homes such as Mrs. Bush's or at veterans' events. She was to speak at a convention near Philadelphia.
Spahr is the author of a book, "World War II Radio Heroes: Letters of Compassion."
She, her husband and daughter drove in from their Pittsburgh home the previous day and stayed overnight in Palmerton.
Spahr said her book requires some background.
"Imagine a woman who had 11 children and was pregnant when her husband died. That was my great-grandmother," she began her story.
She farmed the children out, a common practice at the time, and the children worked mostly for room and board.
"My pappy (grandfather) worked on a farm. There were eight boys and all eight went into service. Pappy enlisted in the Army. He served proudly and was a prisoner of war," said Spahr.
She said a lot of her life decisions were made based on him even though she only knew him for 11 years.
Spahr was so proud of him. She worked with the American Legion in Washington, D.C., where she was allowed to do her own thing. Later, as a military contractor, she went to Fort Benning, Ga.
"A few years ago I went home to Wellsboro, Pa., and asked to look in a trunk with Pappy's things in it. We found his German phrase book and a hymnal and prayer book he had been given in the POW camp," said Spahr. His pipe, glasses and uniform were in the trunk.
He wrote notes in the book during the 26 months he was a prisoner. That made it special for Lisa.
There was a cigar box filled with a two-inch stack of letters tied in a bundle.
"I thought they would be beautiful love letters, but no. The letters were addressed to her grandmother.
On Saturday, May 8, 1943, between 8:05 and 8:15 p.m. one writer said he listened to shortwave radio messages the Germans allowed prisoners to send. The important message was that Robert Spahr arrived safely in Germany as a prisoner.
It was signed by John Fike.
Robert Spahr had been captured in Tunisia shortly after arriving, and was transferred to Germany.
Another letter gave the same information and ended, "I hope you are consoled by this message." A third began with "Dear Friend."
Seventy letters were received between May 8 and 17. They came quickly. A Western Union telegram came confirming that he was captured.
"These men and women were sitting in their living rooms and hoping to hear about someone serving. They captured whatever they could of a message and sent it on."
The family was able to send letters and gifts, but no cans, to the prisoners through the Red Cross. Packages had to be under 11 pounds. The "boys" had to wear khaki so even socks had to be that color or they could not be used. Dehydrated foods were light weight. Pappy liked cocoa so the family made a powdered milk, cocoa and sugar mix that needed only water.
Families could not send books or other literature but they could be ordered and sent directly from the publisher.
Some of the letters did not have the correct address. One arrived without a name but only Route 2, Dover, Pa. Another said, "This message is from a POW. Please find his family."
Spahr said when she found the letters she was naÃÂ¯ve. She thought it would have been sad for her grandmother to hear that her son was a POW. But she was told, "Lisa, you get it wrong. She would be joyful to know he was alive."
She took the letters and cards home to D.C. and found out about shortwave. Each night she read a few of the letters until she became teary eyed thinking about her pappy.
"My next step was to try to find the men and women who wrote the letters just to say thank you," said Spahr.
She chose Flavius Jankauskas because she thought his odd name would be easier to find. Spahr found a Jankauskas but it was the wrong one. However, he had heard from the right one and a week later Spahr heard from him. He is from Chalfont and his amateur call is W3JAK. He gave her the radio he used to listen to the broadcasts in 1943 when he heard about Pappy.
In five months Jankauskas forwarded 873 messages and over the period of the war he sent 10,379.
Postage was donated by a woman in Tennessee who was happy when she learned about her husband being alive.
In 1940 amateurs were banned from contacting foreign countries but they listened to the Nazi shortwave.
Charles, Fike's son, still has the radio his father used to listen to the broadcasts.
Spahr said the pictures of her pappy after he returned home were so happy.
"If a man can come back from war and be that optimistic, I don't have any troubles," she said. Her boyfriends had to measure up to Pappy.
Spahr hopes to create a documentary and would like congressional acknowledgment of the effort the people put forth to forward the messages. The book may be purchased at major bookstores though they may have to order it, or at Amazon.
Nora Butz, wife of Styles Butz of Palmerton, brought a book to the talk. It was written by her father, Wilhelm Von Schramm, and is titled "Conspiracy Among Generals." He was a senior reporter for the German Army. It is available at Amazon out-of-print books.