A footlocker full of old letters show the highs and lows of life for an Army vet of World War II. His daughter, who spends part of her time in Palatka, collected them in a book.
After her father’s death, Sherie Zahn found a small, crumbling, Army-issued footlocker among his belongings. Inside there was treasure: letters Tony Zahn had sent home during World War II, packed with details of his Army life, from training in America to combat in the Philippines.
His family had saved them all, 256 letters written over 38 months. Most were lighthearted, detailed and chatty, beginning with the cheery salutation: "Dear Folks."
In those he talked about train rides across the United States, seeing Indians and cowboys, the blue Pacific, muggy Missouri, muddy Tennessee. He talked about USO shows, movies he saw, the good chow he ate and the occasional sighting of good-looking young women. He enclosed his own photos and some deft sketches, including one of a nurse who was "the cutest little blonde a lonely soldier could ask for."
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Even after he made it to combat, Zahn — writing under the keen eye of censors —kept the tone light. And one point he noted that while Japanese Zero fighter planes made frequent bombing runs, they were just as often shot down: "Zeros are a dime a dozen and any villager without at least one in his backyard is a social outcast."
Later letters, mostly ones he sent to just his father, as if to spare his mother from the horrors of war, were darker, even troubled.
At times he was angry at his father who, after reading all the breezy letters, concluded that his son had "not yet experienced war."
"I have not experienced war!" Tony Zahn wrote back. "God, man — what do you take this for, a Ladies’ Aid Clambake? And what do you think I’ve been doing all this time so that you may sit at your desk and write letters like that?
"I’ve had bombs land so close that they showered me with debris. When the tracers were cutting the grass I’ve been so close to the mud that I’ve had to spit out quantities of it. I know what it is to see the place you've just quitted go up in a crescendo of flame ... I know what it is to sit up all night with your finger on the trigger, waiting for an airborne attack — waiting and waiting for God-knows-what. Waiting!"
The letters gave Sherie Zahn great insight into the life of her father, who rarely if ever spoke of his wartime experiences, although he often had a tall stack of WWII Pacific Theater books by his chair.
"He was immersed in it," she said. "It was like he never left."
Tony Zahn’s private letters to his father show that he grew disillusioned with American civilians who, he believed, had little understanding of what the war was really like.
"You probably think I am mad even as I think that you are mad," he wrote. "It is just that we are living in two separate worlds as far removed from each other as the earth and the sun. Your world will never understand mine and mine will never understand yours. The best thing that we can do is to drop the whole matter and indulge one another’s whims of fancy."
Sherie Zahn, 70, who spends some of her time in Palatka, has collected her father’s letters, supplemented by some of his diary entries, in a 274-page book called "Tony’s War" (Gatekeeper Press). She released it this year to mark the 75th anniversary of the war’s end. All proceeds, she said, are going to veterans groups.
Her father was raised in an upper-middle-class family in New York. He was well-educated, a classically trained pianist, a sailor, an artist and photographer. He was a voracious reader who kept up his New Yorker magazine subscription during the war and found great meaning in the works of Somerset Maugham.
Yet his life after war — a life of poverty and drinking, leading to an early death — fell far short of that promise.
Through his letters, his daughter began to understand why.
"I suspect it’s survivor’s guilt," she said. "Who was he to be a success, when all these people had no chance? I really think he had survivor’s guilt, and his life was an apology for still being alive."
Her father was part of the Battle of Leyte Gulf, the largest naval battle of the war, then was part of the American force that, led by Gen. Douglas MacArthur, took Leyte Island from the determined Japanese occupiers.
After the war, he lived a year with his parents and plowed through the nest egg of money he’d accumulated in the Army. Though his earlier letters had mentioned possible careers as a photographer or musician, higher education or entrepreneurship, he eventually took an entry-level job as a telephone company switchman.
He kept it for 38 years, refusing promotion or other opportunities.
He got married, had a daughter and a son, began drinking more and taking prescribed sedatives. The marriage ended after just four years.
Zahn moved into a room at a YMCA, where he was likely the only tenant with a tuxedo. That was a holdover from his life as a concert pianist, and he’d put it on to crash high-society weddings, eating and drinking and having a good time.
By the late 1970s, Zahn returned to Fort Ord, Calif., where he had gone through training. It wasn’t the same, so he wandered south, stopping for a night at a hotel piano bar north of Santa Barbara.
He decided he liked that nightspot just fine, so he stayed another night there. And another. And another.
He got a room at a nearby Motel 6 and lived there for six years, drinking and smoking in taverns during the day, at the piano bar at night.
Zahn was just 63 when he died. "Cirrhosis or emphysema, take your pick," the doctor said.
In her epilogue to the book, Sherie Zahn said he was a good father. When his children visited, he took them on outings throughout New York, and at home he taught them how to develop film, cook, sew and set up model trains. He read to them from "Alice in Wonderland," which he’d had during training. And he took them to his favorite taverns, where his friends bought them Shirley Temples.
"He really limited his own life after the war," she said. "He really became unproductive, but he really didn’t want that for his kids. He always said you can be anything you want to be."
She, for example, got a doctorate in infectious disease epidemiology and a degree in tropical medicine. She worked for the federal and various state governments, traveled to 121 countries and all seven continents.
Her father often talked of traveling again, but he had too little money to go on such journeys.
Reading his letters home, Sherie Zahn saw his lost opportunities but finally understood why he lived the life he led.
In the book’s epilogue, she wrote, "I believe that he forsook a life of accomplishment and prosperity, ignored his skills and talents, and marginalized his living conditions because so many of his army buddies never had a chance to live beyond their youth and achieve their potentials.
"In that sense, Tony’s life became an apology for having survived WWII. Rest in peace, Dad."
Matt Soergel: (904) 359-4082