MARTINSBURG, W.Va. — From a postcard dated Nov. 9, 1942.
“Dear: I have been sworn in and I think we are going to Camp Lee (Not sure yet.) Talked to the Lt. about your allowance and he said it would be taken care of at the camp where I am sent to. He also said that a man of my character and ability would be a credit to the army and he was sure they would take good care of my problems at the camp. (Chin up.) Les”
That is the first of 162 cards and letters that Lester H. Plume sent to his beloved wife, Ruth, between November 1942, when he enlisted in the U.S. Army at age 28, and November 1945, when he was discharged after serving with the 83rd Infantry Division – the Thunderbolt Division – in the European Theater during World War II.
Lester’s and Ruth’s daughter, Elizabeth “Libby” Plume Fuss, has published the letters in a book titled “A Faithful Solder Writes Home.” It also includes several photos taken by her father while he was stationed in Europe, and letters from her mother’s youngest brother, Roy, who was killed in the war. Roy was Libby’s uncle, whom she never met.
“It’s a human story of a soldier’s life and his ability to share his life, to write letters, to keep in touch with home,” Libby said in a recent interview. “It struck me with Uncle Roy’s letters how very important it was to get letters, and to be able to answer letters. I also came out with a better understanding of how the soldiers interacted with the people who they liberated, how they got to know them.”
Lester’s letters demonstrate his unfailing faith in God that apparently never wavered, even in the darkest days of the war. And he lived his faith through his kindness, compassion and charity for the unfortunate victims of the Nazi occupation.
It also is a love story – a lump-in-your-throat love story about a man far from home, in the direst of situations, missing his beautiful, devoted wife and their wonderful life together.
Ruth lived with Libby and her husband, Jerry, in their home in Carroll County, Maryland, the last five years of her life. She died in 2006 at age 90.
They had moved all her stuff from her home in Martinsburg to their home when she moved in. There were boxes of stuff collected over a very active life and a big brown suitcase.
As Libby describes in the introduction to the book, the family, which includes Linda Plume Snyder of Shepherdstown and David Plume of Martinsburg, their mother distributed some of the stuff to the family before her passing, “but Mother would say ‘not yet’ whenever I asked about this suitcase.”
After her mother’s death, Libby began sorting through the boxes of stuff.
“I would go through as much as I could each day,” she said. “The suitcase was the last thing. I discovered the letters in 2007.”
She discovered a treasure.
“At first, I thought I would divide them up between family members, but then I thought, ‘No, I’ll keep them all together, and maybe type them and give them as Christmas gifts,'” Libby explained. “I kept them in a notebook and gave copies to the family. I shared them with friends and they said, ‘You should publish this.'”
She retired a year ago in April after a 45-year nursing career. That is, when she started to get serious about publishing the letters. She took a seminar on self-publishing, and got input from David and Linda about the idea.
Libby worked with an editor at Maple Creek Media in Charleston, South Carolina. She colated the letters according to dates and typed them.
“He had very good handwriting, which was a blessing,” she said.
Libby selected the photos to be included, the layout and design, divided the collection into chapters based on the location from where the letters were sent and created the summary.
Lester and Ruth were married June 8, 1935, in Hagerstown, Maryland. He was from Union Bridge, Maryland. She was from Shady Grove, Pennsylvania. They moved to Martinsburg after he got a job with Potomac Edison electric company.
They lived on Illinois Avenue, but Ruth moved into an apartment on West King Street after Lester went into the Army.
He was a chaplain’s assistant and worked very closely with the medics at aid stations. He was not a combat soldier, but he carried a .45 semi-automatic pistol for self-defense, and he came under fire, being so close to the front line.
He was awarded the Purple Heart for being wounded and the Bronze Star twice for heroic actions in the Battle of the Bulge.
Lester wrote to Ruth nearly every day and often two or three times a day, but there is a gap between Dec. 22, 1944, when he sent her a telegram wishing her a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, and Jan. 12, 1945, when he wrote her a letter from “Somewhere in Belgium.” That was the Battle of the Bulge.
In the Jan. 12 letter, he relates how he and a couple of others rescued wounded soldiers from a snowy hillside while being bombarded by Nazi 88 mm artillery.
“Then in about this same area we picked up another fellow. He had his hand off, a large hole in his opposite arm and a slight wound in his leg. Just about the time we started out with him they threw some more artillery. After this let up we started out. There were only three of us. We decided that we could not make it in time so one of the fellow went back for help. In the meantime the two of us carried him as far as we could make it. When we set him down this fellow said, ‘If you boys can’t go any farther maybe I can walk.’ I said to myself if he has the nerve to and stamina to walk I will certainly help him along till I fall over. …”
He and the other fellow held him up and continued to walk through the foot-deep snow and the continuing artillery barrage. Finally, some help arrived and they were able to get the wounded man to an aid station.
For this, Lester was awarded the Bronze Star. He also was wounded by shrapnel in the leg, which bothered him for the rest of his life, but he did not tell Ruth about the wound in the letter.
“I don’t want to scare you, dear, or to cause you to worry too much. However I know you will feel better if I do tell you everything I can.
“I will also add that certainly the Lord was with us and I feel sure he answered those prayers that I uttered. If it were not for Him we would not have made it.
“I only hope and pray this dirty bloody mess will soon be over.
“From the one who will always love you and call you my own always.
“All my love, all my life.
His prose style was quite eloquent and the sentiment always sincere, genuine and romantic. He writes about how he built a slit trench and fortified it with fence posts. He writes about food, sleeping accomodations and friends.
He writes about trying to find Roy and about learning he had been shot down the night before D-Day and did not survive. He writes about finding his grave.
He writes about the people and he writes about the war.
“I am getting very tired of this cruel, destructive war and how it affects people of the whole world. And the ‘hell of battle’ can hardly be described. I feel certain you will be the only one I will tell about some of the experiences and some of the things which I have seen because they are unbelievable, that is they would be to people who don’t know about it.
“I pray that this senseless killing and maiming will soon come to an end so that we may have that ‘Peace on Earth, good will toward men’ which He has given us if we would only believe and try to live that way. I have tried to know why it has to be, but there is no reasoning or believing or sense to war. … Everyone loses and no one gains in a war, not counting the misery, suffering and heartaches.
“I will close this letter dear hoping and praying for the day when we can be together again and start our life together again and know what it is to be happy once more.
“Closing with a good night prayer and hoping I can soon say ‘good night’ to you.
“As always, Lester”
In one of his letters, he included two strings. He told Ruth that the long string was the length and the short string was the width for a new pair of shoes for the young daughter of a couple in Luxembourg who had provided room and board for him and helped him when he got sick. The shoes were to be a Christmas present for the little girl.
And he wrote about the time he was in Germany and came across a woman and her little girl who were obviously starving. He took them to a German farm he and some of the men from his unit had stayed at the night before because he knew the farmer had plenty to eat.
The farmer told him he would not feed the woman and girl. They had the Star of David sewn on their coats, marking them as Jews under the Nazi tyranny. Lester, patting his .45 pistol holstered on his hip, made it clear to the farmer that he would feed the woman and her daughter and that he, Lester, would be back to make sure he fed them. The farmer apparently fed them.
After the war, Lester came home and he and Ruth were able to start their lives over again. They had three children. He got a job with the U.S. Postal Service. His bad leg acted up once in a while. Both remained devoutly loyal to their religious beliefs as active members of Christ Reformed United Church of Christ in Martinsburg, and they both remained devoutly loyal to each other.
While vacationing with his family at Ocean City, Maryland, in 1970, Lester suffered a massive heart attack. He was taken to a hospital in Salisbury, Maryland, and then flown to Martinsburg on a special Air National Guard transport, where he was admitted to the VA Medical Center.
He died at the age of 56.
Libby feels that the stress of war contributed to his early death.
But, he lives on through his letters.
“Fortunately, the next generation has gotten the chance to know their grandfather,” Dave said.
Published in April, “A Faithful Soldier Writes Home” is available through Maple Creek Media at www.maplecreekmedia.com; Amazon at www.amazon.com in paperback and Kindle; and Barnes and Noble at www.barnesandnoble.com in paperback and Nook, but without the photos.
Libby will be at Everything Cheesecake at 324 W. Stephen St. in Martinsburg from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday for a speaking and book-signing engagement.
For more information, contact her at [email protected] or 410-848-0307.
– Staff writer John McVey can be reached at 304-263-3381, ext. 128.