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Letters from home

A soldier’s story from the Philippines during WWII

By Marlys Hagstrom

As we approach this Memorial Day, this story gives us a glimpse of the life of a WW II soldier. It shows his duty to his country, love of family and the loneliness of being gone so far away. This is the story of my uncle, Pfc Arnold Nicolai, the oldest son of Emil and Emma Nicolai. He was the husband of Irene Weispfening of Buffalo Lake and father to a young daughter, Helen. Arnold was drafted into the U.S. Army in July 1944, and trained at Camp Wolters, Texas. After Christmas, his infantry unit sailed to the Philippine Islands. The ocean trip took 47 days. He spent 156 days on the firing lines in heavy combat fighting the Japanese.

Arnold Nicolai at home before serving in the Philippines during World War II. Arnold’s war experience was like many others -- exhausting, dangerous and lonely. Contributed photo

(Editor’s note: These are actual letters from a soldier. Some terms used in these letters may be considered offensive. Updates of the war are marked with an “*” to give a timeline of the war compared to the letters)

* D-Day in Normandy, June 6, 1944

July 31 1944 – Fort Snelling, Minnesota

I got my uniform today. It looks alright on me. I got my shots in both arms. They did not feel so good.

Aug. 12 1944- Camp Wolters, Texas

It’s about the hottest place I’ve ever seen This camp is really big. At least 10,000 men or more are going to start training here. It’s going to be grind but I think I can take it. I got my rifle and knife -- about 12 inches long.

Aug. 23 1944 I got your letter. You don’t know how good it feels to get letters from home. I am going to write to Irene tonight too. She sure is the best girl anybody could ever have. We get hell every day here from the Lieutenants. They think they are really big here. I got in a fight with a guy from another company. I fixed him. They told me I was in the right and didn’t have to worry.

* Paris liberated - Aug. 25, 1944

Sept. 12, 1944 I feel good at times and then not so good. I got your candy last night and ate it all up already. Thank you for the money you sent me. Irene sent me $10, only I want her to save some for the day I get home. If they would let me out of here now, I would walk back home even if it took me a year. We put in 10 to 18 hours a day.

Sept. 19, 1944 I worked six hours on Sunday. Got up at 4 a.m. Monday. We were out all day and night and to camp at 6 a.m. the next morning. We marched 15 miles out to a hill and set up pup tents. About one hundred of us guarded the other men. Boy that was a really long day. Two of the guards fell asleep. They got hell from the top so they got KP five Sundays in a row. Lots of guys didn’t make it up the hill.

Sept. 23, 1944 I am doing OK. There are about 500 men getting discharged from camp. Well, Mom, I got myself some ice cream with the 25 cents you sent me. Thanks a lot. I’ve got 11 weeks of training left. It seems like I have been here a lifetime.

Oct. 3, 1944 It’s rained all day. The ground gets so muddy you go up to your knees and it is really hard walking. Just 67 days and then a furlough for about a week, then overseas. I hate to think about it because if I get over there I won’t ever get back. I wrote a letter to Harold Kapping and he sent a letter of six pages. It sure was good to hear from him. When I read the letters it seems just like talking to you.

Oct. 5, 1944 Say, Mother, tell Dad to take the battery out of my car cause I won’t need it anymore. If it stays in the car it will freeze and bust. Tell him to take it out and use it.

Oct. 15, 1944 Well, Mom, I got your candy. It’s all gone already. I am feeling a lot better than I did. Well, I sure am going to miss hunting but I will get plenty of that about February over on some Japanese island.

Oct. 22, 1944 I got the letters you wrote and was glad to hear from you. The war is going good again but there’s still a lot left to fight for. I think it will last til next June or longer. I almost forgot to tell you that we have the biggest parade Camp Wolters ever had. I will be in it. There will be over 50,000 men in it. That’s a lot. Boy, you should see it. The general said that’s the way we will march through Tokyo too some day. I wish you could see me all dressed up and march, and the Generals will all look at us. I have seven weeks of training left. I know now where we boys are all going. The lieutenant told us that we would go over to fight in China or the Philippine Islands, so I won’t get to Germany. I hope the war will be over with by that time, but I don’t look for it. Well, Dad, I sure miss you all on Sundays. There is nothing to do. That is when I get to thinking of you all. Gee, I sure miss Irene and Helen. Don’t forget me.

Oct. 24, 1944 Say, Mom, I get the Hector paper now. I don’t know who sent it and I’m not complaining. I read every line.

Nov. 1, 1944 We are going out in the field for 15 days and they will still bring letters so don’t stop writing. Thirty eight days left of training.

Nov. 12, 1944 I am glad Irene is staying with you. I bet Helen growed a lot already too. I suppose she won’t even know me when I get home. Last Sunday night we put tents up. Two men to a tent. I was with a boy from Alabama. He is 24 yrs. old and got two kids. He sure is homesick. He’s real nice. I like him and I’m glad I got to know him.

He gave me a dollar today for cigarettes so you can see he thinks a lot of me.

Dec. 3, 1944 Well just six days left than we are done with training. The boys all talk about going home. Say, Mom, when I can come home, I will telegram you.

* Battle of the Bulge Begins, Dec. 16, 1944

Dec. 20, 1944 Well, Dad, I will be home around Dec. 20 and I need $10 so send it right away as I need it to come home on. I have to have $80 on me or they wouldn’t let me go home. I have to show them I have enough to get there. Some of the boys won’t have enough so they won’t be able to go home. That’s too bad. We start getting ready to ship out to a new camp in California.

Jan. 4, 1945 Well, I got to California on the 1st. I’m only 500 yards from the ocean. We got all new equipment. We won’t be here long. About seven days. I don’t know where I will go. I hope to Alaska. Some of the boys are going there.

Jan. 9, 1945 Well, I won’t be in the states much longer. We leave here Wednesday morning and I will be on my way across the ocean. I hope I make it over and back okay. But don’t worry about me because I can take care of myself pretty good. They will start to censor my letters so I got to be careful what I write. It’s kind of a funny feeling to think of leaving this country. What’s Alvin (Butch) doing? I hope he never has to go. Wish me all the luck in the world. Don’t forget me.

Jan. 15, 1945 Here it’s warm. Well, I haven’t got no mail yet. I am looking every day for a letter from home. I just pray I get a letter from you tomorrow.

Feb. 3, 1945 I sure was glad to hear from you. You asked me if I got the $2 you sent me. I sure did. But if you need the money don’t send me any cause I just don’t need it. Cigarettes cost five cents a pack so a dollar goes a long way. There’s nothing to spend it on. I smoke a lot more now. Almost two packs a day. The Red Cross gave everyone a carton of cigarettes. We really think a lot of them. Say, I would like a picture of me and you. I would surely appreciate it. Well, don’t be slow to write. I will answer you right away. They call me Nicky here.

Feb. 5, 1945 Well, Mom, I got lots of letters from you and Irene today. Irene sent me a family picture. It was sure a good one. Say, Mom, you asked if your letters were opened up. They are not. I wish I could tell you where I am but they would cut that out anyway. So I just have to think what I am going to say. Sometimes it’s just hello and goodbye. Well I get paid $15 today and no place to spend it. That’s a good one! Well, Mom, I’ll quit now and say good night and a big kiss for every one of you.

Feb. 28, 1945 It sure is hot here. Seems funny to think that back home its cold. Rains every day. I crossed the equator sometime ago. Almost roasted alive there. Well, Mom, I haven’t got no letters all this month from you. I know they must be on the way. Could you send me some air mail stamps? Six cent ones. Maybe the mail will go faster. I was to church last Sunday and am going tonight again. Blessings to you all.

* Allies cross the Rhine, March 1945

Pfc Arnold Nicolai and his wife, Irene, and young daughter, Helen, at their home in Buffalo Lake, Minn., before he started serving in the Philippines during WWII. Contributed photo

March 25, 1945 Somewhere in the Philippines. Well, I’ve been waiting to hear from you but no letters. The last I heard from anybody was January. That’s a long time. I pray that you are all fine. I get along the best I can. Today is Sunday morning and it really rained here. We had to dig a ditch around our little tent or we would have started to swim away. All it does is rain. The only trees are coconut trees. I have been drinking coconut milk... Lots of them... There are some banana trees too. The pay is in Filipino money. One peso is worth 50 cents. We get cigarettes every week but no matches. I wrote Irene to send me a cigarette lighter if she can. I got two pipes now so about all I do is smoke here. I wash my clothes in my steel helmet. It isn’t easy but I do a pretty good job. The Filipinos are friendly toward us. They don’t wear shoes. Sure seems funny. They are short and thin. There are lots of monkeys here. They just sit in the trees and look at a fellow. They aren’t a bit scared of anybody.

March 31, 1945 I wrote to Irene and Dora (his sister) today. You know it’s so hard for me to write. Seems like I write the same thing every time. I haven’t heard any news since January from home so I hope you are all right. Sure wish I could be home this spring. I would go fishing every day for a while. It rains every day here. We dug a well 6 feet deep and had 5 feet of water in it. Water is almost on top of the ground. One good thing -- a fellow can sleep well at night as it cools off in the evening. Our food isn’t any good here at all. So I’ll quit now and write more next time. Take care of yourselves and Irene and Helen.

* Russians reach Berlin, April 1945

April 10, 1945 Sure was glad to hear from you all. I didn’t get no mail for two months. You know a guy can’t write too much. We have bananas and coconuts. We got a pet monkey and parrot. The country here is like Texas. It ain’t worth a damn.

April 15, 1945 Well, today is Sunday. I got 11 letters from you. I sure was glad to hear from you. I was on guard duty yesterday. Twenty-four hours is a long grind but had to be done. I hear our president died. Guess his time was up. I hope Truman will be as good as he was. Well the war must be about over with Germany. Alvin (Butch) said he wishes he was in the Army. He better not wish that. If I ever get out, I never want to hear the word Army again. Today I got the stamps you sent me. They came just in time. Tell Gust and Otto to write. It makes one feel a whole lot better to read a letter from home.

April 22, 1945 Did you notice my address has changed again? Be sure to tell everybody. I also want you to send me the Hector paper. I want to thank you and Dad for writing to me. Just think, I got 71 letters the other day.

* Mussolini captured and executed, April 28, 1945

* Hitler commits suicide, April 30, 1945

* Germany unconditionally surrenders, May 7, 1945

* V.E. Day, May 8, 1945

May 18, 1945 I am writing to let you know I am well. Glad you are all okay. Well, I got me a few Japs already. I had a few close calls but made it okay. We took a hill the other day and got a little over 100 Japs. I got a big Jap flag for a souvenir. It’s made out of silk. They say they are worth $150 but I wouldn’t sell it for anything. You see they live in caves like rats and I crawled in one and was going to see what was in there. Three Japs were laying in it. I thought they were all dead. I was just going to turn one over when I saw they were very much alive. I was really in a sweat but I got 16 rounds in them so fast that they are with their rising sun by now.

May 18, 1945 I received your most welcome letter today. I am as well as can be expected. I am writing this letter in a foxhole so I can’t write long... Well, Dad, I don’t use my MI rifle. Instead, I got a Browning automatic rifle. It’s a better weapon as I have found out already. I got two Japs on the run the other day. My rifle holds 20 rounds in a magazine and I carry 12 magazines for it, so that’s 240 rounds, and one Bandelier also. The only good Japs are dead Japs and we’ve got a lot of them. But they are good fighters but we are a hell of a lot better. I got two white Jap bayonets which I am going to make a cross out of. That should look real pretty. You should see me now. I haven’t shaved for 26 days. I don’t think you would know me. I’ll write more once I get out of these foxholes.

June 2, 1945 I received 13 letters from you all today. Sure was glad to hear from you. I am feeling fine so don’t worry about me. We got back for a rest yesterday. You don’t know what that means to us boys. It isn’t for long but it helps. I see you got some big fish. Wish I was there to help you eat a few. Well, Alvin (Baysinger) and Glen (Redman) should be on their way home from over there. It’s going to be a long time before they give up here. Marvin (brother), I sure am glad you are only 11 years old so you don’t have to go through this. I wanted to write you on your birthday but I was out shooting Japs that day. Me and my buddy went into a cave and we found where the Japs kept their money. We found about five million in boxes. I wish I could send you some but can’t keep it as a souvenir. You know I am in the 6th Army, 35th Regiment, 25th Division, so if you see anything in the papers about the 25th Division, that’s us. Cut it out and save it for me.

* Churchill loses election, July 5, 1945

* Russia declares war on Japan, July 8, 1945

July 12, 1945 Luzon, Philippines – I haven’t got mail for about a week now. It looks like the war is almost over. We got the news Friday night. You should have seen the boys around here. We all went wild. It took us by surprise. We didn’t even go to bed that night. Mom and Dad, you don’t know what this means to me and the rest of my buddies. We sat and talked about what we would do when we get home. We may be in the occupation troops in Japan, but that won’t be bad. It’s better to go that way than have to fight to get there. I think I should be home around 6 months from now so I guess I can stand it that long if I have to. What did the people around Hector do when they heard the news? I bet they celebrated.

July 14, 1945 I wanted you to know I am in the hospital with yellow jaundice. It wasn’t bad and I feel alright now. I’ve been here quite a while but should be getting out in a week. The war is over here in the Philippines so we got it easier now. I was sorry to hear W. Laffen got shot in the arm. I’ve been lucky so far, not even a nick on me, but I guess I have changed a lot. I don’t worry so much about it as God is with me. I hope you understand I can’t write every day. I see Marvin is through with Bible school. I suppose he will be a preacher when I get home. I am waiting for the Hector and Buffalo Lake papers. Irene is going to send me some pictures. That is what I want most is see how you all look now. I am going to send you a picture of myself but I don’t think you will know me.

July 18, 1945 It’s raining again today. We get all we want to eat now, so I am starting to get fat again. We get ice cream once a week. I’m glad to hear Irene and Helen are coming to stay with you awhile. I think the world of them and just hope I can get back to them.

July 29, 1945 Glad to hear Butch got a job. Tell him to save some money so I and he can start a business when I get home. I got three letters today. Sure feels good to get mail. We get all the candy we want now. Well, I don’t know what to write for now. I guess it must get tiresome reading my letters. I write the same old thing all the time.

Aug. 5, 1945 I’m glad you got my letter. I know how you must feel when you don’t hear from me. I’m going to send you a couple of pictures. I want you to write and tell me if I look the same yet. They were taken just before I went to the hospital. Irene sent me a picture of her and Helen. I wish I was back with them again but I think it will be a long time- yet. I am going to church this afternoon. We get Lutheran services and the Lord’s Supper.

* Atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima

Aug. 7, 1945 Well, just a line to let you know I am feeling okay. It’s raining again. Will try to write as often as I can while we aren’t in combat. We may never see any action again. I pray that we don’t. I don’t know if I should send my flag home or not. I also got a sabre... it’s a long blade and sharp as hell. I got a lot of pictures of Japs too. I hope to be home in a year or so.

* Atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Aug. 9, 1945

Aug. 14, 1945 I am as well as can be expected but would feel better if this old war was over. It rains a lot. Almost every other day. It won’t be long and I will be here a year. Gee, it seems longer than that. Tell Marvin I will get him some souvenirs when I get to Japan. How did you like the pictures I sent you where I didn’t shave for a couple of months.

* Japanese surrender, Aug. 14, 1945

Aug. 20, 1945 I haven’t heard from you for about a week now. It rained again. Enough to make it miserable. We get lots of talks about Japan and the people. They have small game and pheasants. Maybe I will get a pheasant dinner this year yet. I have been learning to say a few words in Japanese. I sure am happy to hear it’s all over with as a fellow feels he has a 100% chance of getting home again. I just want to get home and forget all about what us boys had to go through. I sent my flag and sabre home to Irene. The flag means the most as it was a close one -- I had to get it.

Aug. 23, 1945 Mom and Dad, please don’t worry about me. We are still training seven hours a day but that’s a lot better than fighting. We won’t be here much longer. I think you can guess where we are going next. It’s rained here about two weeks now and still raining. I should be home in six months. I got the Buffalo Lake newspaper today. It was dated June 28, but it was news to me.

Aug. 28, 1945 I am okay. It’s finally not raining so much. Well, I suppose a lot of boys are coming home now. I hope I get home in another six months. We are playing a lot of softball. Our team hasn’t been beat yet. Irene sent me a picture of Helen. She looks like a little queen. I read in the news they are going to start making cars again. In another two years, they won’t even think about the war. I will write again soon. Your loving son, Arnie. God bless you all until we meet again.

A clipping from Nicolai’s hometown newspaper (Buffalo Lake) after his body was brought home and reburied.

* Gen. MacArthur accept’s Japan’s unconditional surrender

Sept. 15, 1945 A letter from Grandma to Arnold – I couldn’t sleep at all last night. Thinking about you and praying you are okay.

The Aug. 28 letter was the last letter my grandparents received from Uncle Arnold. The letters Grandma sent in September kept asking him why he had not been writing. My aunt got a letter dated Sept. 12th that he was in the hospital but said very little about his illness. In the letter he wrote, “Hope to see you all by Christmas.”

Little did they know he was home. Only it was his heavenly home. On Oct. 4, 1945, Irene received a telegram from the War Department. The Secretary of War asked me to express his deep regrets that your husband, Pfc Arnold Nicolai died in Luzon, Philippines Island, 17 September 1945, of pneumonia, yellow jaundice and malaria surrounded by his buddies. Edward F. Wetzell, Acting Adj General US Army. Later in November, Grandma received back a bundle of letters she had sent stamped return to sender, deceased and signed by David Coswell, 1st Lt. Infantry.

War is hard on everyone, but we still have the responsibility to support our servicemen and women... On this Memorial Day, we salute my uncle and countless others for their sacrifice.

“All gave some and some gave all.”

Let us never forget.

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