A child growing up in Rock Hall, MD during WWII, Patsy Reihl recollects the tribulations her family experienced following the death of her Uncle Preston who served in the Engineering Corps in North Africa.
Patsy’s Uncle Preston
I have that vision that my mother had a phone call. She picked it up and she began to cry. She had received word that Uncle Preston was dead. We did not know anything except he had died on May 10th. But we didn’t know it May 10. My grandmother was never notified because war was going on and things were in turmoil. She was never notified until the middle of June. We were fighting a war; people were dying. Many, many people — Americans — died in the first battle.
The only thing I know is that my Uncle Preston grew up on a farm, and he could drive a truck around probably when he was 12 or 13 years old. You got in a truck and you worked. You knew how to drive a truck. He knew how to shoot a gun because [there was] hunting in that area, especially geese, rabbits and squirrels. So this is my surmise, they needed everybody. He had finished high school. He couldn’t stay on the farm, he couldn’t make a living at home so he enlisted. So he died, and grandmother was notified in June. Later, she was told in the official letters from the war department, “We can’t send the body back; war is on.” Well that’s terrible to say, “We can’t take time and ships to send bodies back. We’ll let you know, we’ll let you know when.”
In the meantime, she waited and waited, and there’s nothing she could do about it. Each time her letters came; he had been buried four different places. Where he died, [he was] buried because they had to bury them right away. And when they moved on to someplace else, he was buried. I have pictures of four different burial sites. After the war, they began the battle cemetery, the National Cemetery, and now they’re all over. He is buried in North Africa American Cemetery where five to six thousand tombstones are. There are many missing because many went down on ships in the Mediterranean. My grandmother decided, “Don’t bring him back; bury him in North Africa.”
Preston’s Grave in North Africa
My husband and I, seven or eight years ago, [were] the first in the family to ever see [the grave]. If you have ever been to a national cemetery, you know Normandy is where everyone goes because it’s the most famous. Finally, we wanted to go to Tunisia. But you can’t just buy a ticket and fly into Tunisia because there’s always been turmoil. It’s not safe. There were no tours to Tunisia but I wanted to get there. My grandmother was gone, but I, my mother and my aunt were still living. I wanted to go there for them, to see it. So I happened to be looking through cruise books, and there was the cruise. It stopped [in Tunisia] for the day. I said to my husband, “If I got off the ship in Tunisia, the port, where is this cemetery? How could we get there?”
It took a year, almost a year, of writing letters to the National Cemetery Committee, writing why I wanted to get to the North African [Cemetery]. So it ended up that the superintendent of the North African Cemetery assured us that he would pick us up at the dock and take us to the cemetery. When we got off the ship, pretty soon I see a man over there[who] looks like any of us. He has a sign, and he’s holding the sign up – “Mr. and Mrs. Reihl.” I go down the plank and introduce myself. He lives in Virginia; he’s from Virginia! He is the superintendent, or whatever the title, of that cemetery. He says, “Welcome, you are the fourth one – it was in May – “to come to this cemetery. This cemetery has very few visitors. Everybody wants to go to Normandy, and it’s easy to get to. There’s no conflict there. Here, there’s conflict. Welcome.” Well, it was an oasis. As you rode out there, it was just a terrible place – trash, junk, poor, poor. And then you open the gate, a paradise — water fountains, flowers. I had sent money beforehand because they said if you want some flowers to put on the grave – and all these hundreds of thousands of flowers. When I walked in the gate, there’s Preston’s flowers right there, just heartbreaking!
Preparing for Disaster
I was there, Rock Hall Elementary School, during World War II. Now, the war began December seventh with Japan. We’re talking about Rock Hall – there were naturally no televisions, some people had radios, very few people got a subscription to the newspaper. You just couldn’t go to the store and buy them. Well, they had heard about it, but they didn’t know. And I can remember my parents talking about, “Where is Hawaii ? Where is Pearl Harbor?” No one traveled there; we didn’t know where it was. It was far away, and we were really not going to be confronted with it at all. So, nothing was mentioned in 1941 on December the eleventh. I mean they heard bits and pieces, but not enough. The community were a class of people that were hardworking, I don’t want to call Rock Hallers poverty, but during the depression time, people didn’t have money. They had barely enough to eat.
The first time was January fifth, thirty-one days later! The board of education had to have approved this. They asked for all schools … Kent County has a school in every [town]; in Rock Hall, there were five or six one-room schoolhouses, very close by. They were not all consolidated. They announced that medicine cabinets should be filled in every classroom with essentials in case of emergency. War was not mentioned. And the teachers also had to supply several buckets – and I want to say galvanized buckets – fill them with sand and keep them in your classroom in case of an incendiary bomb if the school was bombed. Now, we’re very close to the Chesapeake Bay. We’re right on the bay, right across from Baltimore City, and Baltimore City is ship building. If they’re coming over, they’re not just going to be bombing us. Also, a couple miles away on the other direction of the Chesapeake was Washington D.C., the capital. So it’s very possible. So close to Baltimore, so close to Washington. Who knew what was going to happen? “The Germans,” we thought, “were going to come right across, and they’re certainly going to get rid of the children.”