The weeks and months leading up to my dad’s death were very difficult and fatiguing. No one could have told me anything that would have prepared me for the unspeakable heartache of watching someone you love die, particularly when he was so certain God had “one more miracle” in store. I was 44 years old when I said “Goodbye, I love you” to Dad for the last time. We had spoken those words each time we parted and at the end of every phone call for as long as I can remember. “Love you” was a sentiment expressed often and easily in my family. Dad would then add his trademark “Have a good day and a great life,” a wish he imparted to anyone with whom he spoke, friend or stranger. My dad appreciated and embraced life unlike anyone I have ever known. He simply did not have idle days. He was a charismatic speaker, and deeply loved his faith, his family, and his country. He had a tremendous business mind, boundless energy, and great courage when it came to living. If someone had asked me, “Did you know your father well?” I would have thought it a ridiculous question and replied simply, “Of course I did, he was my dad, and I was his daughter.” Little did I know that one year later I would answer that question very differently.
On Friday, May 26th, 2006, one month and one day following Dad’s death, I sat alone on a Memorial Day weekend in my parents’ home in Saginaw, Michigan. I had been traveling weekly for work since Dad died, trying to do the “right and responsible” thing each day, but pretty much going through the motions. I recognized the need to find the right place and time to allow my grief to surface. This would prove to be it, and my Dad’s infamous army trunk would begin the journey.
The trunk had resided in our family home for my entire lifetime plus some 16 years before. Although at various times one of us would offer to go through it with him, Dad would usually take a deep breath and simply say “maybe someday.” We never pushed, he never invited, and the trunk contents remained a mystery to us while my dad was alive.
It was 11:30 p.m. when I opened the trunk, my breathing slightly labored, altered by adrenaline and anticipation. I will never forget the musty scent that seeped into the room as I raised the lid. As my eyes surveyed what was immediately visible, I found myself not wanting to disrupt the manner in which he had so carefully placed things, these items visited only by him over the course of 60 years. Sensing a direct correlation between exhausting the contents of the trunk, and finally accepting he was really gone, I was tentative. The contents were the only new chapter that remained. Once explored, there would be nothing left to learn about this man. No new insights, no more fatherly words of wisdom, no new memories. My lifetime with him was soon to be finite. I don’t recall ever experiencing so many conflicting emotions at one time…love, admiration, curiosity, sadness, regret. This thing called Life.
No matter what age you are, you are never ready to lose a parent. Little did I know, and with detail I could never have imagined, I was about to meet my father all over again.
I gently removed the items that lay in the top tray of the trunk. They included the insignia of the 102d Infantry Division, a German Luger and daggers, an army issue field shaving kit, a program from a Mass celebrated in a war-torn foreign land, another from a USO concert, and a photo album containing more than 250 black and white pictures forever capturing the images he witnessed in his years as a soldier of WWII.
As I sat at the foot of my dad’s empty chair, time seemed to have stopped. Each item was fascinating and suggested its own story. Stories not only of Dad in his starry-eyed youth, decades and decades earlier, but of a world history that I had not remotely begun to understand or fully appreciate. Surely there was a multitude of stories that accompanied each keepsake. Since his chair now sat empty, I could literally only imagine.
I emptied and gently removed the top tray. For a moment, I sat motionless. It wasn’t possible to fully comprehend the emotional and historical value of what lay before me. Placed neatly, nestled in row after row, were nearly 30 bundles of letters. Each bundle was carefully tied with fragile and tattered old ribbon, each letter in its original, hand-addressed envelope, and all postmarked between November 1942 and December 1945. All were addressed to Dad’s parents, his sisters, Alice Adele, Sister Mary Robert Irish-Religious Sister of Mercy, his twin sister Faith, his youngest sister Joyce, or to his sweetheart who would later become my mother, Elaine Marie Corbat. In the top left corner of each was the signature of the sender, my father, Aarol W. “Bud” Irish. Here, preserved for over six decades, were this young soldier’s nearly 1,000 letters home. From his first day at Fort Custer, to his last aboard the “Norway Victory,” on which he sailed home from Europe 38 months later, this was a moving, transforming, fully documented end-to-end account of WWII as told through the eyes, heart, and words of one man.
And so began the “journey of the letters.” I never went to bed that night. In the end, it would be 13 months from the time I opened and read the first fragile and yellowed pages, to the very last written more than three years later. That first weekend I attended a Memorial Day service with my mom. I saw the veterans who were present, and the American flag blowing in the wind, through completely different eyes. Forever I would have a deeper reverence for each.
Suddenly I was a spectator, peering in the window on my parents’ courtship. Witness to a love that transcended time, distance, heartache, and a war that would change the future of millions of people, entire nations, and ultimately the world. Once I’d finished reading the letters, my feelings of loss were heightened. Not only had I lost an ever-present, strong and vibrant dad in his twilight years, but now, too, I felt the absence of this starry-eyed young boy I’d come to know and love. A young man who had his whole life ahead of him, sustained in heartbreak and despair by an unwavering faith in God and a belief in true love. Both would serve as his constant companions.
Aarol William Irish was born on January 11, 1922, to Damon Lou and Alice Virginia (Reid) Irish. The third of five children raised on a dairy farm in Hemlock, Michigan, he was born only minutes before his twin sister, Faith. He was an optimist with a gift for words. He attributed his optimism to his mother who he once wrote was “always full of encouragement in good times and bad.” That attitude would be prevalent throughout his life. In late 1940, Bud met Elaine Marie Corbat at a dance hall social. Elaine was six months his junior and lived a few miles to the west in Ryan, Michigan. She was the eldest of the six children of Joseph and Alma (Tighe) Corbat. Dad would recall it as being love at first sight. Their first date was on December 18, 1940, when he accompanied her to the movie “Down Argentine Way”. Just shy of two years later, he placed an engagement ring on her finger, put the accompanying wedding band and his life savings in a vault at the local bank, and enlisted in the army as Private First Class Aarol W. Irish. Little did they know the years that would pass or the burdens they would encounter before he would finally take her hand in marriage.
Dad had a great love for music and was performing publicly by age 11. Whether at home on Christmas Eve, around a bonfire at our cottage in mid-Michigan, watching the sun slowly dissipate into his beloved Gulf of Mexico, or visiting a retirement home on a Sunday afternoon to accompany the residents down a melancholy lane of musical memories, he loved to play his 12-string guitar. His amazing ability to recall every verse of a song would almost lead you to believe God had given him a separate compartment in his mind for music. Every song started with a story of its association to a time and place in his life. Once he began playing, no matter what the setting, he could have total strangers singing in unison. Dad sang the melody, Mom the harmony, and music would become a staple in our family. It had a profound place in Dad’s life, literally to his very last breath.
Dad was 20 years old when he penned his first letter as a soldier of World War II. He would be assigned to the 102d Mechanized Cavalry Reconnaissance Troop, an advance scouting team responsible for locating and reporting enemy activity. Although he could have exercised the “only son” deferment, which would have allowed him to remain home and farm, he volunteered ahead of the draft. He felt a sense of obligation to his country, and a desire to advance himself with the training and experience the military would provide. He saw life as an opportunity, not an entitlement. He would serve his country and begin building a foundation for his future, providing God brought him safely home. He left as a boy, and after years of forced maturation brought on by the atrocities of war, he came home a man.
In a time of heartache as we were learning to live without him, he would once again speak words that would instill confidence, reinforce the importance of family, integrity, character, and honor, and encourage responsible choices in life. He would remind us the world is filled with possibilities. Through these letters he would reaffirm that you can’t choose the cards you’re given, but you can certainly decide how you’re going to play them.
This book is comprised of selections from Dad’s original handwritten letters, placed into historical context with excerpts from the book “102d thru Germany” (published by the division’s Public Relations Office in 1945), as well as other sources. What a gift and legacy my family has been given in these letters. It is my privilege to share them with you on behalf of, and in memory of, my father.
And so it begins – the journey of “A Thousand Letters Home” and this young soldier’s story of war, love and life.
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