Beach Books

1919-1944: ‘Over There,’ Commander von Trapp, September ’44 Hurricane

The Beachcomber
Jul 13, 2013
Source: Josephine: A Memoir 1917 to 1959/ Down The Shore Publishing THE CAPTAIN AND I: Josephine Lehman's mission was to interview WWI navy heroes, including Austrian Georg von Trapp, whose life story was later recounted in The Sound of Music. In 1929, she sailed with another German Navy officer, Count Felix von Luckner, pictured here. A video is posted at down-the-shore.com.

Editor’s Note: With America’s entry into the “Great War” in Europe, small town newspaper writer Josephine Lehman left her home in Ionia, Michigan in 1918 to work for the War Department in Washington, D.C. In 1926 she got a job as a researcher and ghostwriter for renown author Lowell Thomas. Her first assignment was to go to Europe and track down both English and German U-Boat commanders. In 1933 she and her new husband, Reynold Thomas, moved to Harvey Cedars to “wait out the Depression.” They never left.

Her life story is recounted in the recent book “Josephine: From Washington Working Girl to Fisherman’s Wife. A Memoir 1917 to 1959.” From the publisher at down-the-shore.com: “This fascinating personal history reveals the optimism of the early 20th century, the emerging professional woman, the thrill of adventure travel and a sense of success, followed by the crash of the economy, losing everything, and ultimately happiness in a simple life by the sea.”

It was after Josephine’s death from cancer that a memoir manuscript was discovered by her daughter, Island author and historian Margaret Thomas Buchholz. The memoir is Buchholz’ subject for the July 15 Monday Night Program at the Long Beach Island Historical Association Museum, Engleside and Beach avenues in Beach Haven. The free program begins at 7:30 p.m. It is repeated 7:30 p.m. Thursday, July 18 at the High Point firehouse in Harvey Cedars.

Following are excerpts from “Josephine.”

 

My mother volunteered, along with many young women, to “cheer the wounded” at Walter Reed Army Hospital. There she became friendly with Bryan Kane, a soldier who returned from France with a shattered leg, and she went once or twice a week to visit him, and to help entertain the men while they were rehabilitated. The pressure of thousands of horribly mutilated soldiers just returned from the trenches put Walter Reed at the forefront of rehabilitative therapy. The American Red Cross established a convalescent center on the grounds and took a major role to make the public aware of the services needed for severely wounded and shell-shocked men. Those who were mobile or in wheelchairs had specially trained “reconstruction aides” to assist them in the newly developed field of occupational therapy. With a solarium and recreational facilities, the large, homey building was nestled back in the woods, away from the smells and miseries of the hospital wards. The large lounge could be quickly converted to a dance hall, and the hospital had its own twenty-eight-piece band.

 

1919 – Washington, DC

March 2: Sunday, and I stayed in bed until eleven-thirty, dressing just in time for dinner and the trip to Walter Reed to see Bryan. I found him back in his private room, looking very thin but full of pep and good spirits, and quite confident that he will be on his feet in a week or two. I don’t know whether I want him to come and see me or not when he is well. One thing for which I can be thankful is that Bryan is such a clean boy. I never fear any of the Charles Francis stuff from him. He’s too nice for that.

March 12: Another letter from Bryan, which said although he was being wheeled around, he couldn’t get downtown for some time yet, and wanted me to come out Sunday. Took an extra quarter hour at noon and went downtown to sell my Liberty Bond so I can buy a new suit. Paid my income tax and went for my suit after work.

March 28: It is just twenty minutes to five o’clock, and as the Secretary of War sent out a notice that all employees now have to work until five o’clock in order to hurry up the closing of activities, I have just that much more time to write in my diary. The Colonel is out of town again (he usually is every other day), so I am “keeping the store,” as usual.

April 8: I have been filling the time in the usual methods, and have added a new role, that of entertainer to the Walter Reed Hospital boys.

The boys came from the hospital in automobiles and arrived at Neighborhood House about six o’clock. Fifteen or twenty girls had been there since five o’clock preparing supper and when the boys arrived, formality was dispensed with. Each girl grabbed a soldier and the grand march to the eats started.

A soldier who I helped eat was a tall, rangy, red-haired Kentuckian who had been wounded at Verdun by machine gun fire. He had lain in a shell hole thirty-six hours before a first aid party had reached him. One arm had to be amputated at the shoulder, so close, he said, that an artificial arm would be of no use to him. The other had been broken at the elbow and part of the bone was removed. That was eight months ago, but he still has no use of his one arm, which is in a plaster cast. So, for the first time since the old days when I fed bread and milk to my various young sisters, I fed a person again. I think I was more fussed about it than he was, but then, he has had eight months practice. When it seemed like I was shoveling coal instead of feeding an invalid, he grinned and said, “Ah reckon you’all had bettah stop a bit til Ah ketch up.”

He said the pleasure was all his when I spilled coffee and potato salad on his lap, and gave me many valued pointers on the feeding of helpless patients. I admire the spirit that boy had. He took his disability as a matter of course – he had gone over to do his bit and his chief disappointment was that he didn’t get another chance to get back and fight.

Another boy had been wounded in the face by a piece of shell at the Argonne. By the marvelous surgical skill of the several operations performed on his face, he will be but slightly disfigured. A little yellow haired fellow down at the end of the table, looking barely old enough to be out of school, was wearing three service stripes, two wound stripes and the French Croix de Guerre. Several of the boys had artificial arms and legs, but no matter what their condition, all were in high spirits. Not one complaint was voiced. Afterward, when some of us danced, the ones who could not join accepted their lots cheerfully.

… It makes one wish to do more and more and still more when one sees the pleasure they get from a simple affair like our supper. It isn’t money these boys want, although some of them have mighty little. Most of them don’t know a soul in Washington. It is true that they are given theatre parties through the generosity of societies and individuals, but what they really want is the chance to meet some young people and to enter into the spirit of a social time – something to take the place of the church suppers, the strawberry socials, the lodge dances, the college hops, and all such affairs in which they participated back home.

 

1928 – Germany and Austria

Back in Berlin, Jo negotiated with the officers who had already published their memoirs in German, and reported to Lowell Thomas: “One of the men in the Admiralty says Forstmann is a keen business man and drives a hard bargain; he would not listen to a cent a word. To save time, I made him the two-cent a word offer. I shall get on as soon as possible to Rome and Paris, and think I can work through our naval attaches there. Here in Berlin I am almost buried under a last minute avalanche of odds and ends, and this Teutonic deliberation and red tape make me almost frantic. An errand that in New York could be completed in ten minutes, takes anywhere from one to two hours here.”

Forstmann suggested she go to Austria and interview Georg von Trapp. She flew to Vienna then took the train to Salzburg, where she searched out Trapp. She wrote Thomas: “I knew only that he lived somewhere near Salzburg. At the hotel I was told the only way to reach his place was by automobile. With a driver, I left the city, winding about over quaint bridges and through equally quaint squares and market places, on into the open country, always with those magnificent mountains as a background. Those snow-capped peaks look entirely too theatrical to be real. Several miles out was the Villa Trapp, an enormous establishment, but it needed to be, as I found out later.

“Commander von Trapp was laid up with an infected foot, and I found him reclining on a sofa in his room, nattily garbed in striped pink and blue pajamas. One foot was swathed in bandages; with the other, quite bare, he squirmed about on the couch. Every few minutes my mind would be distracted from submarines by the sight of that bare foot hanging over the side of the couch or sticking out from under the blanket. It was most diverting.

“We made good progress for two or three hours, with the Commander referring now and then to his albums and his notes. When he wanted anything, he blew on the boatswain’s whistle beside him — a relic from his submarine. We had a very English tea in front of the fire, tea with milk and buttered toast and jam, such as I had not tasted since I left England. A bit later a very fresh-looking radiant young woman came in and asked how we were getting on. She was introduced as his wife, although she didn’t look any more than twenty-two or so. After she went out the Commander made a remark about his family and I asked if he had any children. ‘Seven’ was the answer. He must have noticed that my eyes widened, as he hastened to add that this was his second wife.”

Josephine’s typewritten letter continues on for forty pages, in which she has transcribed von Trapp’s vivid experiences in his submarine during the war. The story of his 1939 escape from the Nazis was the basis of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical “The Sound of Music.”

 

1934 – Harvey Cedars

In December, my mother wrote her younger sister: “Dear Lillian: You can send me a big spank by long distance and I will deserve it. For three weeks I’ve had laid out something that should have gone for your birthday, but I was running around looking for jobs, dashing back and forth trying to keep one eye on Maggie and one eye on the big outside world.

“I’ve got a job reading letters for Floyd Gibbons. He prints a prize adventure letter in the New York Journal every day and my job is to go to New York and take as many as I can carry, bring them down here and wade through them, picking out the good ones for the prizes. I’ve only had one check from him so far and just as soon as I got a chance at the job I had an infected finger and sat around for a week with my hand in hot Epsom salts. Finally the doctor had to cut it to the bone, and it healed.

“It has been bitterly cold here and of course that northwest wind blowing across ten miles of frozen bay doesn’t get any warmer before it hits us. Fortunately, the house is tightly built, and no wind can get in. Our house is still not finished. Every time we can spare a few dollars we buy a few more pieces of lumber or cans of paint. Most of the inside is still to be painted, and all the outside, but it is quite comfortable.”

 

I wondered if my mother was in her right mind when she wrote this, or just tried to reassure her family that she didn’t live in a ramshackle hut – 70 years later the northwest wind still finds its way through the west wall. But the winter of 1934 recorded the lowest temperatures in 64 years. A woman froze to death on the mainland; the water mains in town froze; and, the story goes, a bottle of ink froze on the table just four feet away from a neighbor’s glowing potbelly stove.

 

September 1944

“The Great Atlantic Hurricane, named by the Miami Weather Bureau – passed Long Beach Island at high tide about 30 miles offshore; its maximum winds registered 96 miles an hour. Witnesses described the storm surge – that massive mound of moving water topped by a cresting wave – as anywhere from 30 to 100 feet high. The eye passed about six in the evening and the wind shifted to westerly and pushed all the debris-filled water that had washed into the bay from the ocean back out again.

[After having evacuated to Manahawkin] “We returned to the island at dawn the next morning; because we were residents, the State Police let us back on. Sand covered everything; the town looked like a two-mile stretch of beach sprinkled with whole buildings, homes belly-up and fragments of homes – a wall and a floor here, half a house there, roofs at rakish angles – all scattered like my brother’s toys on our sandlot across the street. The soldiers’ barracks next to the Coast Guard station had washed over near the bay. Mr. Gurney’s real estate office was plop in the middle of the road. Our friend Jimmy McClellan’s house on 76th Street had disappeared; every home on his street was gone. He was crying, and Jimmy never cried. The tide had peaked at a record nine and a half feet and the storm surge destroyed almost all the oceanside homes. Front yards on the bay were a mess of smashed timbers, porches, stairways, refrigerators, cupboards, deck chairs, benches, rowboats, sailboats, wicker furniture, cushions, dead seagulls, and chicken coops. [It was wartime and people kept chickens.] People stood around in small groups, not sure of what to do. Soldiers billeted at the Coast Guard station wore bold, black, and white Military Police armbands, and took charge of the town, alert for looters who tried to come by boat from the mainland.

“All the windows on the east side of our house were blown out and a scummy line on the wall about four inches above the floor marked how high the water had been. Sand and grit was over everything below that level, but our two cats and four kittens purred placidly on the rolled-up rugs and waited for food. The garage and everything in it was gone; the front of the car looked like an accordion.”

 

My mother wrote about the experience from a cook’s point of view:

 

“All the water mains were broken and water was obtainable only at the pump house. I brought my own bucket and walked it home. Walked, because hardly a street was passable with a car, even if the car didn’t have a hundred pounds of sand under the hood. People with gas stoves could still cook, but with no electricity on the island, food in shops was spoiling by the ton.

“At noon the day after the hurricane, the Red Cross sent down foot trucks and handed out sandwiches, coffee and soup. The next day, they set up shop in the firehouse. A few days later, a local woman took over the responsibility for the cooking. In one way that was a mistake. Her food – I still remember her bread pudding, and ordinarily I hate bread pudding – was so good that more and more people crowded in three times a day for meals. A Red Cross official, who knew that the crowds being fed were supposed to taper off as electricity was restored to the various streets, found they were increasing instead. One man, who was told that the food was only for the homeless, replied, ‘Look lady, give me that piece of pie and I’ll give you what’s left of my home.’

“Water was the most precious thing imaginable that first week; included in a donation of food brought down by our neighbors was a five-gallon can with a TOP on it. Remembering all the water I had slopped down my ankles as I carried my bucket of water down 80th Street, I appreciated that covered can. Water from the pump house had to be boiled, by order of the Board of Health. Then I figured out how to use each drop six different ways. If I rinsed off fruit or vegetables, I saved the water and reheated it for washing the dishes. Then I used the same water to scrub the bathroom. I went to the bulkhead and dipped up saltwater with a rope and bucket to try to sluice the mud out of the living room, constantly tracked in. The doormat on the porch had been washed away. So had the porch.”

 

Margaret Thomas Buchholz is the former owner of this paper and author of Island Album, Shore Chronicles, New Jersey Shipwrecks, and the newly released book Josephine: A Memoir 1917-1959. She is co-author of Great Storms of the Jersey Shore. Reach her at lbipooch@comcast.net.

 

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