Time Traveling With Bill Hahn: Final Chapter
By NANCY PATRICK
“Somewhere at sea”—These words appear at the top of Bill Hahn’s first letter home, dated September 22, 1944, as he looked back at the shores of New York and headed toward Europe.
His last set of letters did reveal what I felt sure would happen once he deployed to Europe and faced battles on the ground and in the air. Until this deployment, I knew a young man who enjoyed his training, met new friends, saw other parts of our country, and anticipated assignments he hoped would prepare him for his future civilian career.
As I had expected, the rest of his letters home reveal a more somber tone of a boy becoming a young man. He faced a long voyage aboard a Navy ship as he headed toward the reality of war. The letters began showing the work of censors who cut out any “secret” information.
Bill’s mood indicated his awareness that his life would soon change forever, and he faced an uncertain future. He writes, “It is all according to where I go more or less and what they have once I get there. Write as often as you can. I’m sure sorry I took the Army as my choice. The life on the sea is much nicer although on land you can do more things.”
Obviously, he wrote these words at the beginning of his journey as he sailed for days and days—bored, hot, tired, and apprehensive about his future. Many of his letters refer to the activities his family pursued in their normal lives. Homesick, lonely, and fearful, Bill longed for his California climate and its welcoming beaches.
His reference to mail indicates the importance of mail call to deployed military personnel. It connected the soldiers to their homes, families, and friends. Bill faithfully wrote letters throughout his military career. Even in Europe he wrote at least three times a week and often sent packages home—mostly gifts, photographs, and souvenirs.
The quantity of mail posed a problem once soldiers arrived in Europe. In addition to incoming mail from the United States, the soldiers produced outgoing mail in equal amounts. Because the mail consumed so much of the cargo space in ships, the government initiated a program called V-mail.
V-mail, short for Victory Mail, provided a hybrid mail process designed to reduce the cost of traditional mail. The process involved censoring the original letters, copying them to film, and printing the content back to paper upon arrival at its destination. This filming process greatly reduced the bulk of the mail.
Following Bill’s locations chronologically proved difficult because he couldn’t reveal specifics, but he often mentioned the kindness of the British and French people and their appreciation for the American GIs.
The soldiers experienced much discomfort because of heat, cold, rain, snow, and lack of accommodations. Although Bill avoided complaining to his mother, the following request implies much about his situation moving around constantly: “Along with some of the things you can send me I think some of those real large safety pins about 3” long. I could make a sleeping bag affair out of my blankets then. At least a dozen if you can get them.”
I mentioned in the previous article that he met a young woman who lived in Houston. They dated throughout Bill’s time in Texas, but by February 1945, he began questioning the wisdom of continuing that relationship beyond the war. Bill felt his Protestant faith may not meld with Natka’s Catholicism. Although Bill had converted to Catholicism while in Texas, he wrote his mom the following:
“I have changed my mind about Natka. I think I will be better off if I pick up civilian life where I left it off and think only of my Army career as something that couldn’t be helped. So I am going to write Natka and tell her the same . . . .”
Bill loved learning and always accepted passes for travel—mostly in England and France. Knowing his time in the Army might provide his only chance to see the world, he couldn’t understand why so many of the G.I.s turned down offers of travel; as a matter of fact, his Sgt. actually denied Bill one pass that no one wanted simply because he said, “You go too much.”
In November 1944, Bill wrote that he had seen Buckingham Palace, Parliament, and Westminster Abbey. His tour bus had taken him along the Thames River where he saw London, Waterloo, and Tower, and Blackfriars Bridges. In addition, he visited St. Paul’s Cathedral, saw #10 Downing Street, Fleet Street, and Trafalgar Square.
In his travels across Germany, his battalion discovered several of their members in a POW camp and released them. They also went through a former concentration camp. Despite the horror of what he had witnessed, his language spared his parents from the level of brutality he saw.
Bill was officially discharged on February 11, 1946. The 12th Armored Division had a reunion in 2001, and many of Bill’s fellow soldiers joined him at that celebration. I met the “real” Bill by viewing his interview on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aGbmD0lmyeo&list=PLgAjAviuyvxD0exGqhnsR_8Ge9W0oNWWP&index=17.
When Bill returned to Culver City, he met and married his wife Madelyn with whom he had four children. Though Bill was 78 at the time of the interview, he lived to the age of 97. He and his wife participated actively in the Culver City Historical Society.
Bill’s generation knew how to live successful lives. They also understood the meaning community. When people went into the military, they signed on to follow orders, accept not knowing where they might go from one day to the next, and recognize the importance of family, friends, patriotism, loyalty, sacrifice, and honor.
Those of us in today’s climate of personal rights, choices, and freedoms could learn much from following the examples of humility and selflessness exhibited by people like William Hahn, U. S. Army, 1943-1947.
Nancy Patrick is a retired teacher who lives in Abilene and enjoys writing