Web writes: "Having been a newspaper reporter for some 40 years, I never completely eliminated my frustration in trying to trace mysteries like this one."
Letter-Like Elusive Trout
Well, we were at a “dead end”—but how could a serviceman write a letter after he was dead?
General assignment at a newspaper often involves exploring strange stories, occasionally including a confounding mystery… like this one.
I was one of three general assignment reporters working the day shift on a hot but dull news day in July some 30 years ago when I got a weird one.
No assignments had been looming, and I had been about to tear into a long-range social issues project I had been working, when the city editor motioned me to drop everything and bound to the city desk immediately.
Jerry—the assistant city editor for the day—was just hanging up the telephone when I arrived panting, jacket in hand, ready to spring on an assignment.
He said he just received a call from Zidell Industries, saying that crews dismantling a ship there had just found something interesting.
I was to call Zidell’s public information flack, Betty Ipswich, and get the story, or a solid lead to it, if there was one.
Through about 20 minutes of questions, answers and discussion, I decided that the information could make a fair-to-midlin’ story if I could get a good angle on it.
Ipswich said a Zidell crew had been tearing down an old World War II ship and found the usual scrap metal, nuts, bolts, pipes and screws, and porthole assemblies. She said workers then proceeded to dismantle some bunks in the ship’s living quarters, and found a letter there, sandwiched between a bunk and the ship’s bulkhead.
That wouldn’t be earth-shaking, of course, but the note apparently had been stuck there since World War II. In the envelope dated February, 1945, was a brief letter from a sailor to a woman, Henrietta Holcomb, no doubt his girlfriend, in Rochester, N.Y.
My knowledge of Rochester was zero. So I called the city desk at the Rochester News, and talked to an assistant city editor. He said the address—65 Trent St.—was “close-in.”
A Rochester reporter then checked on the name Holcomb and the address and called me back in Portland, OR. He could find no name Henrietta Holcomb, then or now, and the address was for a place that no longer existed. “Where exactly was the letter found?” he asked.
I told him it was in a bunk of an old troop ship—I can’t today remember the ships’s name—a crew was dismantling at Zidell Industries.
We both went to work on the story, sharing information while trying to piece it together. He checked 1942-through-1945 guides in Rochester, and snooped the reverse addresses, and could not find any Henrietta Holcomb. He also consulted obituaries. No dice there either.
Meanwhile I sent a tracer to the appropriate Naval office on 3rd Class Fireman’s Mate Gerald Whitacker of Jackson, S.C., and nothing came back. Finally, three days later I was notified by that Navy center that a man with the same name and hometown of Jackson, S.C., had been killed by an exploding torpedo launched from a Japanese aircraft in the sea battle off Guadacanal in 1942.
“Well, that ends that,” I told the Rochester reporter. “But wait a minute!” I said. “How could he be writing a letter to his sweetheart in 1945, if he was killed in 1942?”
Darned if either one of us, knew.
The only thing we could think of was that perhaps he had written it earlier and had given it to a fellow swabbie or to someone bound for Pearl Harbor, San Francisco, San Diego or Seattle , who had put it in another envelope (re-addressing it) for mailing it to the Holcomb woman once the courier got either to Hawaii or the states. Or perhaps it was some other Gerald Whitacker from Jackson, S.C.
Neither one of us could do much more than speculate. As hard as it was to admit after several days of diligent digging we concluded that we had reached a tombstone in getting more information.
However, we both acknowledged that some mystery surrounds God and His works, and that if we were meant to know the whole story, He would’ve seen to it that we did.
Yet, all of these years later, the whole scenario still bothers me.
(© 2013 Web Ruble – All rights reserved. Written material may not be duplicated without permission.)