GOOD-BYE FOR NOW
By Paul Cantor
Jan 31, 1944, 3:35 PM: the telegram was addressed to my grandparents, Adolph and Helen Kemper, and sent by Western Union at 3:35 PM:
HAD NICE TRIP TO COLUMBIA SEND NOSE DROPS LOVE=DICK
Columbia is Columbia, South Carolina. Dick is Richard M. Kemper, my uncle.
“Send nose drops?” Clearly my grandparents treasured every word of every telegram and every letter Richard sent them.
In March, 1943, Richard enlisted in the U.S. army and subsequently received training at Fort Benning, Georgia, Fort Jackson, South Carolina, Camp McCain, Mississippi and Camp Forrest, Tennessee. A first-rate wrestler in college, by the end of his training he was an expert in hand to hand combat and a second lieutenant in an elite fighting corps called the Rangers.
February 1, 1944: “Fort Jackson surely is luxurious compared with camp McCain. Steam heated barracks and latrines in the same building are very ritzy.”
In May, 1944 Richard was shipped to England where he was given a desk job and promoted to first lieutenant. But his letters home made it clear that he would have preferred to be out leading troops in the field.
May 20, 1944: “I was quite fortunate and got quite a nice assignment over here. I am in the First U.S. Army Headquarters. I can’t tell you what my job is, but it is quite different from anything I’ve done before. The work should be very interesting, and I am living very well. My old friends are no longer with me, but I’ll find new ones…English beer is so much better than I expected it to be. The girls aren’t too bad either. Of course, there is little luxury in Britain. People don’t squander money and material like they do at home.”
May 23, 1944: “I’ve just been sitting at a desk pushing a pen and pencil. I’m not the old field soldier that I used to be tho perhaps I will be again someday.”
June 19, 1944: “Perhaps you’ve never heard the favorite question that English children ask of American soldiers. They seldom pass a Yank without demanding, “Got any gum, chum?” The British are rapidly developing into a gum-chewing race. The first person who starts a gum factory here after the war is really going to clean up…Reports from the front in Normandy state that the French kids are already pestering our boys with, “Avez-vous du goom, choom?” Incidentally, I rarely have any; it’s rationed.”
June 28, 1944: “For the last few days I have been doing nothing but sleeping and eating. The job I was doing is completed now so they don’t know quite what to do with me. While the powers that be are deciding my fate, I am leading the life of leisure.”
June 30, 1944: “I’m still waiting for a job.”
In July, 1944 Richard was shipped to Normandy, France.
July 11, 1944: “I’m still unemployed but that won’t last much longer. This afternoon I took a walk with a couple of other gentlemen of leisure. Last night I had a lengthy conversation in French with a couple of farmers. I was amazed that they could understand me.”
July 14, 1944: “I’m well fed, well rested and happy.”
July 17, 1944: “I’m still leading a life of leisure. This morning I rolled out of my pup tent at 11 o’clock and fixed myself a breakfast of orange juice and cereal.”
July 19, 1944: “Still no job but I expect one very soon.”
July 24, 1944: “Well, I finally got a job. I was assigned to the 9th Division…It’s nice to belong to an outfit again after being bounced around for so long. This outfit is a crack division so naturally I am pleased.”
July 30, 1944: “I’ve seen a bit of action since you last heard from me. We had the Germans on the run, but they still put up a pretty good scrap. The more I see of them the less I like them. They are a miserable lot. They look as much like supermen as I look like Lana Turner. We captured a Polish soldier the other day. As soon as he was captured he tore off his German insignia in disgust and I’m sending it on to you.”
Aug 1, 1944: “There is nothing new to tell you. Just wanted to let you know everything is fine…. The country around here is quite pretty. It is rolling land with lots of fields and hedgerows. The farmhouses seem to be made from some kind of sandstone and have thatched roofs. The peasants wear wooden shoes mostly. A few of them are lucky enough to have old, worn-out leather footwear. Their clothing is worn and ragged. But they seem very happy that the Boches have been driven out.”
“Good-bye for now.
“Loads of Love,
Those are the last words my grandparents received from uncle Richard. He was killed when a mortar shell exploded next to him as he was standing by one of those hedgerows he wrote about. Killed in what has been called “the battle of the hedgerows,” the allies’ effort to push the Germans out of Normandy and out of France after the fall of Cherbourg. Killed while commanding a regiment in or near Mortain, France on August 6, 1944 exactly two months after D-Day.
My grandparents even kept (filed away separately) the envelopes his letters came in. But they never spoke to me about my uncle. They did, however, purchase a plot of land right beside Mamaroneck High School which they deeded to the school district to be “maintained in perpetuity” as a memorial to him and the other 98 former Mamaroneck High students who were killed in World War II.
Richard Kemper Park it was called. There they placed trees, benches and a commemorative stone tablet with 99 names chiseled into it. Then on Sunday, May 25, 1947, 29 years to the day before my oldest son was born, they presented the park to the town of Mamaroneck.
The dedication ceremony took place in the Mamaroneck High School Auditorium. Philip Moynahan, the former school board president introduced my grandfather who said he hoped that it would never again “be necessary for others to suffer as the families and friends of those who gave their lives in the last war.” Then after Charles W. Pease, the current school board president, accepted the park for the district on behalf of the school trustees, Colonel Bernard Lentz, the former commander of Fort Slocum, delivered the dedicatory address.
“In presenting this Park to the people of Mamaroneck,” Colonel Lenz said to my grandfather, “you have seen to it that the heroes of yesterday will not be pushed out of our recollection or the recollection of the generations of boys and girls who will be receiving the blessings of liberty in the shape of an American common school education.”
Two days after the ceremony Hoyt D. Smith, the principal of Mamaroneck Junior High School, wrote a letter to my grandfather regarding the gift of the park. “Dear Mr. Kemper,” it read. “On behalf of the Junior High School teachers and students, I wish to express our appreciation to you for having converted an unsightly area into a beautiful park which will be hallowed ground for all time.
“Its location and the simple but beautiful plan make the Richard Kemper park a most fitting memorial to our heroes. Without your vision and your generosity, this project might never have been undertaken.
“I am sure that this sanctuary will inspire our pupils to a deeper sense of devotion to the great cause for which Richard and his fellows made the supreme sacrifice.”
Year after year from 1947 till the day they died, my grandparents made it a family tradition to visit Richard Kemper park on Memorial Day for two reasons. First, they wanted to echo Mr. Smith’s message that Richard Kemper Park was established next to Mamaroneck High School in order to motivate students to work toward creating a world in which everyone’s human rights are everywhere respected and hence no one would ever again die in a battle to defend those rights.
Second, it was their way of saying once more, “good-bye for now,” to their son.