The war was not yet over, but the Germans were on the retreat and General George Patton’s 94th Infantry Division was marching towards the Rhine River. The changing tides brought hope to America, besieged by years of war and renewed the strength of Allied soldiers ready to return home. But for Edward Cowley Jr. — Eddie Jr. to his parents and little sister back home in Buffalo, N.Y. — the impending victory meant one thing: a clean sheet of paper he could use to write his next letter.
Young Eddie wrote his first letter home while stationed only a few hundred miles away. The year was 1943 and Mr. Cowley, 18, was training at Camp Upton on Long Island, N.Y. “We got a sermon from the chaplain,” he wrote in beautiful, looping script uncharacteristic of a boy recently graduated from high school. “It’s kind of funny down here. Catholics, Jews, and Protestants are all one and the same. That’s the way it should be everywhere.”
In the following two and a half years, Mr. Cowley traveled from New York to Georgia to train, and from Georgia to Europe to fight. His march began in France and ended in Germany. Each week he used what he could — stationery when in training, paper overseas, and tree bark or the backs of old letters from the foxholes when the fighting was at its worst — to send his letters home. Most weeks he sent two.
His mother, a stenographer, filed them away in a cardboard box stamped in bold: Overseas Shipper. This box was to be used only for sending merchandise to the Armed Forces outside of the United States.
By the time he returned home, the box was packed tight, 228 letters organized by date inside.
When he joined the U.S. Army, Mr. Cowley did not expect to leave American soil. An avid painter, he joined reluctantly. “Did I want to go into the Army?” he asked out loud on a recent morning.
It was the day before Christmas and Mr. Cowley was seated on the sofa in his daughter’s Oak Bluffs home. She sat next to him, listening intently, her bright eyes brimming with tears every so often. His wife and grandsons were scattered in the room. Perched on chairs and stairs, they jumped to grab the phone at the first ring so as not to interrupt the stories. “No,” said Mr. Cowley, now 82, “I wanted to be an art student.”
After only one year of art school, Mr. Cowley took and passed a written exam and entered the Army Specialized Training Program. The program provided technical training and a four-year college education to academically talented enlisted men. Mr. Cowley expected to go on to Bowdoin College in Maine after completing his training at Camp Upton. Instead he was told to pack his bags for Europe. With the impending invasion of Normandy and the need for more strength on the ground, the secretary of war had decided to disband the program and send the college-bound men overseas.
Following the carnage of D-Day, Mr. Cowley boarded the Queen Elizabeth II. In August, 1944, he landed in France with the 301st Division and soon graduated to General Patton’s Third Army. “He was an SOB,” Mr. Cowley said with a chuckle. “He was a good soldier though. We used to say, ‘Patton’s guts and our blood.’”
Mr. Cowley fought under General Patton for a year and a half. He was with him during the Battle of the Bulge. With 19,000 U.S. deaths, it was the bloodiest American battle of the war, one which Mr. Cowley described as desperate.
Yet in the retelling, he managed to remember the brighter sides. “I was drinking champagne in the corner when someone rushed in and said, ‘We have to move in,’” he remembered. His eyes, like those of his daughter, turned bright with the memory. “I found I was a better soldier when I had wine in my canteen.”
For an infantryman in World War II, every day was full of fear and the dawn of each new morning was a blessing. “We moved wherever we were told to go. We were doing whatever had to be done,” Mr. Cowley said. He quoted General Omar Bradley when he said the rifleman fights without promise of either reward or relief.
And so it was that on an April day still heavy with the cold of wintertime, Mr. Cowley found himself on the march into Germany. As his division advanced, the Germans fled, he said. In their wake, they left many things behind, including abandoned prison camps. Mr. Cowley does not remember any sign marking the building he encountered on his march. He remembers no Germans in sight. But he does remember the smell inside, a foul one, he said, and the people, most of them too weak to walk, but all skeletal and all scared.
“It was a big camp,” he said. “The Germans had cleared out before we got there. The people, some responded with smiles, some with a handshake. But they were dying.”
Mr. Cowley likes to smile, likes to laugh and joke, but as his mind flooded with images of the few hours he spent among the prisoners, his voice grew softer, the dance left his eyes. There were people on the floor, people hiding in cabinets, Mr. Cowley remembered, but what struck him most was their silence. “It was a level beyond crying,” he said. The people were Polish, he guessed, not all Jews. “We did not speak the same language, so we could not communicate, but they knew,” he said. “They knew we were not enemies.”
Before seeing it for himself, Mr. Cowley had only heard rumors about the camps. Now he knew them to be true.
The troops called in for medical back-up, but eventually had to continue on their march. “We left with the understanding that medical help was on the way,” Mr. Cowley said. “There was nothing I could do. We got back into our trucks. You can’t think too much about things like that. Anyway, that was that.”
But Mr. Cowley did think about it. He wrote to his family on April 29, 1945: “I haven’t seen too many of their ‘atrocities’ but I’ve seen enough to know that there is some basis to all this talk. There is nothing kind about the Nazis whatsoever.”
Mr. Cowley said he never did learn whether medical help arrived at the camp. He expected everyone inside died.
After leaving the camp, the troops continued on until they reached the small German town of Velbert. It was there, while cutting his toenails, that Mr. Cowley learned the war had ended. Amid the revelations, he found a quiet moment to write home. “The war is over today,” he wrote, “and the world will know it in a few hours.”
Mr. Cowley returned to New York and reenrolled in art school. He went on to get his master’s degree at Columbia University and became a professor of fine arts. He married a woman named Bette and together they raised a family. They lived in Albany and spent summers in a gingerbread cottage in the Oak Bluffs Camp Ground. Their daughter, Kathleen, chose to stay on the Vineyard and raise her family here.
On Columbus Day weekend of this year, Ms. Cowley returned to her childhood home and was up in the attic when she stumbled upon the box marked Overseas Shipper. She pulled out the letters and brought them down to the kitchen table to read aloud. They had not been touched since her grandmother filed them away. “I started writing my first day at Camp Upton and just went on and on,” Mr. Cowley said of the collection. “It was a long time ago that these letters were written.”
Ms. Cowley contacted the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. after reading the letters. The 94th Infantry Division has never been recognized as a liberating unit, she said, and she wondered if the letters provided the documentation. The family, with the help of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, is now going through the process of getting the unit recognized. Once it is, the flag of the 94th will be flown high at the museum. “They didn’t think of themselves as liberators,” she said.
Ms. Cowley also contacted the Library of Congress and the U.S. Army Center of Military History, whose largest letter collection to date is of 40 letters. For now, the letters are locked safe in a vault, but Ms. Cowley said the Library of Congress has expressed interest in them. It is something the family is considering, once they have read them all for themselves.
As the afternoon wore on, the stories of canteens full of wine and tales from Patton’s trenches trailed off. There were more presents to wrap and customers waiting next door at Ms. Cowley’s candy shop. As his family returned to the tasks of Christmas time, Mr. Cowley turned solemn once again as he reflected on the true meaning of a liberator. “I guess it’s as good a word as any,” he mused. “These people were trapped in this situation and you released them from this torment,” he said. “Anyway, that was that.”