As long as there has been war, there have been stories about strangers who have showed compassion to soldiers, or their families, when they needed it most.
On Saturday, June 29, author Lisa Spahr was in Hillsboro to share some of those stories about a group of individuals who turned a hobby into a way of bringing some semblance of comfort to those whose loved ones were prisoners of war thousands of miles away during World War II.
Her book, WWII Radio Heroes: Letters of Compassion, shares some of the letters and stories of short-wave radio operators who would listen to broadcasts coming out of Berlin and Tokyo and relay messages from POWs back to their families in the United States.
“Some of these men and women didn’t get the address correct, or the name correct, or the message correct,” Spahr said about the messages, “but they heard enough to try to piece it together to send it on to give you some comfort.”
Spahr’s inspiration for the project came about in 2006, when she returned home to Wellsville, PA, from Washington, D.C. and asked to look inside a trunk that once belonged to her grandfather, Robert Spahr.
While he passed away when Spahr was 12, the author lovingly recalls memories of “Pappy” when she was growing up in Pennsylvania.
“I knew that he was a very proud veteran and that he served in World War II. I knew he was in the Army,” Spahr said of her grandfather. “I also knew that he was a prisoner of war, but I was just a little girl and I didn’t know what that meant. I would learn more as I grew up.”
Military service seemed to run in Spahr’s family. Robert Spahr was one of 12 children and one of eight boys, all of whom were in the military in one form or another.
In her grandfather’s trunk, Spahr would find several items from his time in the service, such as his German phrase book, his uniform, his hymnal and prayer book, his selective service card, and a Western Union telegram telling her great-grandmother that Private Robert M. Spahr had become a prisoner of war.
Also in the trunk was a cigar box, with the words “War Letters From Prison” written on the outside. Spahr assumed she would find letters from her grandfather to her grandmother, who were dating at the time of World War II.
What she found instead were nearly 100 letters and post cards from short-wave radio operators who took the time to relay a message from Robert to his mother.
While the letters varied slightly, all had the message that Robert had arrived safely in Germany after being captured in northern Africa. Some of the letters were from individuals who were listening to information on their own loved ones. Some offered assistance on how they could contact their imprisoned family member through the Red Cross. But all of them were from complete strangers who wished nothing more than to give some peace to someone who was undoubtedly worried about her son in some prison camp in a foreign land.
After discovering the letters, Spahr began to ask around to see if anyone had ever heard of similar stories of short-wave radio operators sending out messages of comfort to families of WWII prisoners of war. No one had.
So with a stack of 70 year old letters and addresses, Spahr set forth trying to locate those who had written the original messages and to tell them thank you for what they did for her family.
She would focus on the more unusual names, assuming that Flavius Jankauskas might be easier to track down than those with names like Johnson or Smith. Spahr eventually would connect with a number of the letter writers, including Jankauskas, who provided a significant bit of information.
Jankauskas, who was 16 when he wrote the letter to the author’s great-grandmother, told Spahr about a group of 45-plus short-wave listeners organized by Ruby Yant of Ohio, known as SWAM (Short Wave Amateur Monitors), who monitored the enemy radio stations so that no POW family would go without notice.
These individuals from all over the world would send out thousands of letters, and sometimes even audio recordings, notifying those back home that their loved ones were safe, sometimes at a personal cost. In her presentation, Spahr told of one individual, John Fike, who was visited by the FBI after they believed he was a German spy, before seeing his short-wave radio in person.
Spahr also told of individuals who requested correspondence back, asking whether they had received any other letters from other short-wave operators. Some of the listeners would tune in every single day, just on the off chance that if they didn’t relay the message that there might not be any one else that would do it.
“When they learn that they did and the magnitude that some of them did this, 4,000, 10,000 letters, they are overwhelmed in a very pleasant way,” Spahr said of people’s reaction to the scope of the letters and their writers. “Some people have called it a love story. It’s not your traditional man and woman love story, but it’s a love story of people caring for one another in the most personal way.”
Spahr would say that eventually her grandfather would get to come home and led a full life before his passing. While the book is a way for her to honor her grandfather and those who sent the letters, her new goal is achieve congressional recognition for those men and women who diligently stood watch over the enemy air waves just to give a stranger some hope.
Spahr has assembled almost 300 names of people who were involved in monitoring these radio transmissions and sending letters to the POW families. She encouraged all of those in attendance to write their senators and representatives to help this goal become a reality and offered to share her list with anyone who was willing to do so.
For more information on Spahr and her book, you can visit her website at www.powletters.com. There are also links on the website on how to order WWII Radio Heroes: Letters of Compassion, which was recently published as a second edition with additional information.
Spahr’s presentation was part of a special weekend for the Montgomery County Amateur Radio Club, who sponsored the event. In addition to Saturday’s talk, the club also held a special event with a radio call honoring those who fought in World War II.
“We received a special radio call for this, which is called a special event, which is W2W,” Mark Osborne said of the call, which honors World War II. “The number has to be in the middle to be a proper ham radio call, so instead of WW2, it’s W2W. This morning six stations were on the air, contacting other ham radio operators, saying we were doing this.”
Osborne said that many of the operators would ask the individuals they were talking to whether they were veterans, or had family members who served, during the special event, which took place on both Saturday, June 29 and Sunday, June 30.
“Some would say they were, or their father served,” said Osborne. “There were some pretty good stories that came out of that.”