By Diane White McNaughton
For the longest time, it sat unread in a nondescript box in a darkened attic. Its pages yellowed with time. Its reassuring words soothed no one.
Spin the hands of time forward almost 80 years, and a World War II soldier’s voice from the past with a timeless message about the mother-son bond rings out again.
When Tim Trkula of Susquehanna Township called fellow township resident Mike Solomon, Tim told Mike he had found something in the attic of the former Solomon household that he thought Mike might want.
Trkula had found a time-worn letter from the front lines of World War II in his attic, a letter unintentionally left behind after the Solomon family moved out of the home in 2003. The letter was dated Dec. 3, 1943.
Mike Solomon’s dad Jack was only 20 when he hand-wrote the letter to Jack’s mom, Rose Solomon, a widow living in the hard-scrabble, Steelton melting pot. He wasn’t old enough to buy a case of beer or order a Scotch at the local steelworkers’ bar.
The setting for the letter was post-Pearl Harbor Hawaii, though Jack could not reveal his exact location at the time for security reasons. The youngest of three, Jack had graduated from Steelton High School, enrolled at Penn State, and joined the U.S. Army.
The well-known family ran Solomon’s Department Store at 357 S. Front Street in Steelton, and later helped build the Uptown Shopping Plaza in Harrisburg.
While Valentine’s Day is the inspiration for so many love letters home from the front, this correspondence was a love letter of a different sort. It’s “a perfect son-to-mother letter,” said Solomon, an attorney at Cohen, Seglias, Pallas, Greenhall and Furman, PC.
Soldiers were not allowed to share too much because of the war and the strict censorship of the Army examiners, but what Solomon found most remarkable was not so much the content of the letter, but how it made its way to him.
Long before Skype, email and emojis, letters to home were the only form of communication with loved ones. Solomon pointed out the “Army Examiner” stamp on the weathered envelope. His dad could not reveal his location, but did reveal his proximity to beaches.
“He is trying to put her mind at ease as to his circumstances,” Solomon said. “At this time, she had been widowed living in Steelton with a daughter (my Aunt Shirley,) who is mentioned in the letter along with her boyfriend, (Ben),” Mike said. With Rose having two sons and a future son-in-law in the military, Jack was constantly reassuring his mom.
“My Dad was in the Pacific in the Army and another child, my Uncle Ted, was also in the Pacific with the Navy.” It was a double heartache for his mom.
The path of the letter from the front lines in 1943 to Solomon in 2019 was a circuitous one.
Jack’s letter to his mom Rose somehow wound up in the hands of Jack’s brother, Ted, who was a bit of a “nomad, an iconoclast,” Solomon said.
Ted, who had made his way south to New Orleans to study at Tulane University, used to frequently drop off boxes for his mom to store for him.
Inside a box, in a manila envelope sat the letter, along with an old advertisement for a men’s clothing store in the ‘50s, and vintage hotel business cards.
Somehow between 1959 and 1961, Solomon said, this motley collection of “stuff” made it into the box at 3970 Green Street, where Solomon and his family lived from 1961 to 2003. The letter sat silently in a box in the attic for 40-plus years.
The Solomons sold their beloved family home in 2003 and the Trkulas later bought it in 2007.
In 2012 or 2013, Trkula called Solomon, after the box had sat undisturbed for five more years.
Trkula then dropped the envelope off to Solomon’s law office in downtown Harrisburg.
Solomon’s grandmother Rose had already moved by then from Steelton to River House Apartments in Harrisburg.
Solomon was afraid the time-worn letter would fall apart when he read it so “I gingerly took it out.”
In the letter, Jack speaks of taking his quinine to ward off malaria.
He also encourages his older sister Shirley to write to her beau, Ben, who was serving in the military as well, stationed in Africa. Shirley and Ben eventually married.
Jack graduated from Steelton in June 1941, before Pearl Harbor. He enrolled in Penn State in September 1941. Three months later– December, 7, 1941 –was the seismic shock of the Pearl Harbor attack.
“All the Penn State students knew their life was about to change,” Solomon said.
Jack, in his sophomore year, returned to Penn State and joined the PA National Guard. In 1942-1943, he joined the 28th Infantry.
He headed off to boot camp in Fort Wheeler, Georgia in February 1943, and then in the spring, shipped out. He took a train to Philly, then off to the West Coast before being sent to Hawaii.
He was stationed on the island of Peleliu, one of the 16 states comprising the island nation of Palau. The island is notable as the location of the Battle of Peleliu in 1944, which took place from September through November of that year. The island was a stopping point on the way to capturing Japan.
Solomon, a student of history, can tick off the many key locales that played a part in World War II: Okinawa, Iwo Jima, the Philippines, the Coral Sea, Midway.
Solomon said the Marines stationed in the Pacific were particularly hard-hit. Then it was the Army’s job to hold the island. The Army soldiers referred to it as “clean-up,” a sanitized moniker to represent the gruesome clearing of corpses. Jack never talked much about it. His war stories were more about leave than about war, and his search for Southern belles, Solomon remembered. To his family he shared a “romanticized” version of the war.
After the atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August, 1945, the war mercifully came to an end.
Jack returned home safely and met his wife-to-be at a dance on New Year’s Eve in 1945, still in uniform.
He operated Harrisburg Beer Distributors at Division and Jefferson Streets, with a warehouse and a collection of trucks. He also served as a long-time Susquehanna Township Commissioner, spanning the early 1990s through the 2000s.
Across from his beer distributorship was land owned by American Can Company, an enterprise that buzzed with activity as they made tins for rations. After the war, the frenzied pace of rations production died down to a standstill.
Solomon’s Dad envisioned a shopping center on those 13 acres. Jack became the developer of the Harrisburg Uptown Shopping Center.
He passed away in 2011, but his words resonate still.
Carrying on the torch, Solomon and his wife Sheri are proud parents to a son Dan and a daughter Rebecca. Rebecca is on-air talent on WPIX in New York City. Son Dan is married and has an 18-month old daughter.
The enduring love between a mother and her son, decades ago and miles apart, still rings true with the Solomons. As King Solomon has been frequently quoted as saying, “One generation comes and one generation goes, yet the Earth remains the same.” A long-lost letter from the front lines proves that fundamental truth.