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Love Letters from Italy
by Pamlea Purdy
August 16, 2013
I am sorry to bother you with this message but I saw you are related to William Rodney Conner who died in Italy March 3, 1945. The reason I know of William is because I reside in the area where he died. A few years ago I found his canteen engraved with his name. Thanks to the 10th Mt. Division Veterans Association I was able identify it as T5 William Rodney Conner, killed in action near Monte della Piella.
The reason I am writing you is to ask for pictures and information that could help me publish an article in the local newspaper in recognition of what he did to ensure us a better future. It is a way to honor these heroes and to thank them!
If you are anyway offended by this message, please accept my apologies!
Needless to say I was stunned by this email!
My Uncle, simply known as "Uncle Rod" had been killed when Penelope and I were 4 years old. My oldest sister Phyllis was 12 and sister Sally was 6. My mother was the oldest of 5 children and 11 years old when Rodney was born. She remembers giving him his first bath.
In 1989, my mother was notified that her brother, William Rodney Conner, was to be honored by having a Medical Clinic named after him. It was to be called: The Conner Memorial Troop Medical Clinic, Fort Drum, Watertown, .N.Y. My mother was asked to attend.
To this day I feel terrible that I did not take some time off to go with Mom and attend this incredible family honor. I was teaching, and this is one of the only regrets I have when it comes to my mother! My Mom lived with us for 8 ½ years until her death in 2007. When she moved in with us she brought precious family documents, 27 photo albums and beautiful letters from Uncle Rod...
September 26, 2011
I wrote this letter:
Dear Conner Memorial Clinic...
My letter goes on...our niece was to be married soon and not too far from Watertown, N.Y. I wrote sharing my regrets of not bringing my mother to the Dedication ceremonies in 1989..told them that I would like to "flesh out" who Rodney was by donating his Purple Heart, his Silver Star, family photos, letters to his mom from Italy and so forth. I felt that I was bringing some closure that would bring me some peace for the regret of not taking Mom to Watertown so long ago!
The response was an overwhelming "yes". David and I planned the trip. I framed family photos and chose 3 of probably 50 of Rod's letters! I had read so many letters to "Dear Mom" that in no time I read them as if I was Rod's mother! Tears and laughter at this amazing uncle I had barely known!
We arranged to meet with the officials of the Military Base in Watertown, N.Y. As I collected the various military treasures of Uncle Rod, I was at peace, feeling that I was bringing closure to this family story! But was there really a need for closure? How wonderful that Rod was being remembered 68 years after his death!
Here are 2 excepts from Rod's letters, which I framed along with family photos:
"Excerpts" Letters from Rodney Conner T/5 A Medic killed WWII Cimon Della Tiera, Italy, March 3, 1945
Thursday February 1, 1945,
your package of cake arrived today much to the sorrow of the boys and me. When I first opened the box I thought that there was only mold on the outside of the cake, but as I cut off the outside edges, the truth came out, and with each additional slice, as I cut deeper, a groan was emitted from the crowd of cake hungry guys who surrounded me. I guess we were all too optimistic in hoping that a cake a month old would be edible...(the letter continues)
Thursday February 8, 1945,
we've moved to another area since my last letter and now I'm doubling on first aid work (business is terrible) and operating a switchboard from our platoon. Today is another beautiful day, (I'm not kidding) the sun shining brightly and skies of light blue, just as it says in the book...Somebody said that war was hell, but as yet I've ventured but a stone throw this side of heaven......." (the letter continues for a while)
Rod was killed less than a month after writing this letter.
Uncle Rod (1944) with Pamela and her sisters
Along with much family history I included a letter that my Grandmother wrote to The New Canaan Advertiser:
A Mother's Letter, March 25, 1945
Editor New Canaan Advertiser:
Rod's father and I wish to thank you for your editorial and would like, through the medium of your paper, to also thank the many kind friends who have sent messages of sympathy. Because there are so many other parents who are praying for their sons safe return I search my heart for something to say that might be of comfort to them. From the bottom of my heart I hope they will know a happy reunion.
The courage our sons have shown must inspire us to courage.
The war is not all grim horror to these boys. They find a joy in comradeship and humor wherever it is to be seen.
From Kiska, that dreary remote island, Rod wrote, "In a drenching rain with the wind blowing a gale, we tried to erect cover for trenches dug deep into the ground. Just as we thought it was all set the whole thing was torn out of our hands and went sailing off in the wind. We stood there laughing heartily at our predicament."
The box of costume jewelry that some kind relative had sent a boy "for the natives" and the happy fishing trip before provisions reached them pictured in a snap-shot with the line on the back, "Today we ate," gave one a glimpse of a boy's ability to enjoy what to us would seem dismal.
From Italy he wrote, "I am learning Italian and should be able to speak broken English with ease."
His last letter gave no hint of discomfort or military engagements. It said in part, "It is a beautiful day here with that famed Italian sunshine which has been less rare of late. From where I am, I can look down on a peaceful valley lying among terraced hills. What a crime that war should go hand in hand with this!"
At first I was utterly crushed because my agonized prayers for his safe return had seemed all in vain. I had believed that good was more powerful than evil, and if one held staunchly to that faith no power on earth could harm my boy. I fought defeatism, any sense of fatalism.
No promise of a future was enough; I wanted this to be a life that mattered.
But through all this pain, my lifelong belief that the Creator is a loving Father brings a consolation nothing else can.
Rod has passed from all the love we could shower on him, to the infinite Love of God. Some glorious day we will be together again.
"He is not dead but sleepeth" and life cannot hurt him anymore.
He was a boy with high standards and through school and Army he never relinquished an ideal. He looked for and found the good in everybody.
Since his days must have been numbered it is something to remember with sad pride - death came as he went to the aid of a fellow man.
Let this be his epitaph.
Edyth M. Conner, Rod's "Dear Mom"
Back to Mike in Italy...
Needless to say, in response to Mike Bonfiglioli, I was fully loaded with Rodney Conner's family history. With attached documents I sent letters, photos, birth certificates, you name it!
Here was Mike's response:
I am speechless! I will start making a few phone calls to friend editors to see if we can start thinking of going National. I think new generations should know what history is really about, beyond the dates and politics they learn in schools. Every single Italian should be grateful to those who died to ensure us a better future! I feel touched every time I hear stories about these young Americans that died for my country, but Rodney's story was always something special. Maybe because he was a Medic...Now I am even more touched!
Mike went to Mount della Piella the following week. He wrote about a special marker for Rod that he envisioned being placed there. He sent back beautiful images of the Mountains and the stone building where Rod's canteen was found.
It makes me cry to see such beautiful countryside and know that so many men died there. "A time for every purpose under heaven" is all I can think of. If ever there was a reason for war it had to be Hitler! It warms my heart to know that you and your country are so grateful for so much sacrifice....
Another email from Italy
I hope you are well seated because what I am going to tell you is something really huge. The guy I met at Riola came back to me the other day and told me he knows of a collector in Castel D'Aiano, a little town nearby, who has Rod's helmet! Apparently the helmet has the red cross markings typical of the 10th Mt. Division and painted on the liner there is Rodney's full name and serial number.
Once I have those pictures I will send them on to you.
Ciao (my way of saying good-bye)
Right away, I put Mike in contact with the Conner Clinic knowing how much they would appreciate having this further information.
Closure...why did I think that we as humans need to create closure? All of a sudden, in God's infinite Universe there seemed to be no closure!
Psalm 139 began to reverberate in my mind...I reached for my Bible and read the profound words...
O Lord, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away...You search my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways... Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely. You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me, "Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night," even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it... Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there. If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.
Now I was hearing my mother's words, "Love never dies, it knows no time or space, Love goes on forever."
Pamela Chatterton-Purdy graduated from New Canaan Conn. High School in 1959; received an A.A. from Green Mountain College in 1961, her B.A. from The University of New Hampshire in 1963.
She married her husband David Purdy, a Methodist Minister, June 7, 1963 and received her M.F.A. from The University of Massachusetts in 1966. She has taught art at Bay Path College, Longmeadow, MA, Springfield College, Springfield MA, and The University of Massachusetts at Amherst, plus the public schools of Middleboro, MA and Brookline MA. She has taught art for over 30 years.
In 1987, Pamela wrote a book titled BEYOND THE BABYLIFT, A Story of an Adoption. It was published by Abingdon Press, Nashville TN. The Purdy's have 4 children and the book focuses on the adoption of the Purdy's Amer-Asian child and the struggle to become a family.
In retirement Pamela has created a series called "Icons of the Civil Rights Movement" which has traveled to over 24 Colleges and Universities. In January 2009 the show went to Washington DC for the Inauguration of President Barack Obama.
In 2012, Pamela and her husband published a book Icons of the Civil Rights Movement, her husband doing the research and text featuring Pamela's artwork. When the show is not traveling, it resides at The Zion Union Heritage Museum 276 North St. Hyannis, Mass.
For more information about Pamela Purdy visit: www.chatterton-purdyart.com