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Tracy Briggs, Published November 10 2013

'Your pal, Merle': World War II veteran’s letters home show lifelong bond between friends

PELICAN RAPIDS, Minn. - The weeds and grass are overgrown around the abandoned country school on Minnesota County Road 4, but as 89-year-old Merle Grossman walks up the rickety stairs and looks over the property, it might as well be 1929.

Grossman and his buddy Junior would have been playing in the schoolyard.

“We’d run around here, sometimes even past those trees,” he says, looking off into the distance.

Grossman and Bill Albright Jr. grew up just across the road from each other near Pelican Rapids. They walked the mile and a half to school together and would come home to “horse around” in each other’s yards.

“I remember one year we even built a playhouse in the yard. It looked pretty good for us kids,” he says.

As they graduated from schoolyard games and playhouses to jobs, families and real houses, the two remained friends.

“We got along so well. He was a talker, and I was quiet. It worked well,” Grossman says.

It was a friendship that would last more than 70 years until Albright’s death last year. But thanks to a sentimental gesture by Albright, memories of their friendship live on.

Letters found

As family started clearing out Albright’s things following his death, they came across a stack of old letters that Grossman sent during World War II.

Grossman, who was two years older than Albright, was drafted in 1944 and sent to the Philippines. Albright, who was declared “4-F,” a classification given to those the military decided weren’t physically fit to serve, stayed back in Pelican Rapids.

The letters were faded and weathered. Some even had sentences blacked out by military censors, afraid Grossman was telling his friend too much. Each was signed from, “Your Pal, Merle.”

“Those letters were precious to him,” says Albright’s widow, Georgie-Ann Albright. “They were very, very good friends, more like brothers, and I think staying in touch during the war was their way to stay connected.”

Georgie-Ann says they knew they couldn’t just throw the letters away; instead, they gave them to Grossman.

He said he was shocked to see them again.

“He always wrote back to me during the war, but I certainly didn’t save his letters!” he says with a laugh.

Grossman showed the letters to his family. As they read them around the kitchen table one night, granddaughter Jansina Grossman, a writer and publisher, had an idea: put the letters into a book for her grandfather.

“Your Pal Merle – Letters from World War II” is now available as an e-book.

“I was so surprised! I can’t believe she’d do that,” he says.

But Jansina says the letters touched her so much that she wanted to share them with the world.

“I loved learning about who he was and how it translated into who he is today,” she says.

Minnesota boy off to war

A 106-pound, 20-year-old Grossman had never traveled farther than Bismarck when he was drafted and sent on a ship to the South Pacific. One of the ways he coped with the homesickness was to write letters home to Junior and get the news from home in return.

He wrote of seasickness:

“The PX came through with candy and cigs. They have a library on the boat too, but I haven’t been there yet. The only place I’ve been is my bunk with my helmet ready.”

He wrote about weathering a typhoon, a possible invasion of Japan and beautiful native girls.

“I can dream, can’t I?”

But he also longed for news from home, asking Junior about hunting and threshing seasons and comparing his swim in the ocean to “a good old Minnesota lake.”

He says letters from Junior helped the long days at war go just a little faster.

After service in the Philippines and Korea, Grossman came home in June 1946. Four years later, he met and married his wife, Lillian, who died last year. He farmed and worked as an underground contractor for Ripley Construction. They had eight children and 28 grandchildren.

His old buddy Junior became an insurance man and also remained in the community. The connection that began as boys and deepened during the war, continued as the men reached their 80s.

“Oh, they were good buddies for years. The families were close,” says Karen Bunkowski, owner of The Cornfield Cafe in Dunvilla, where the two men were regulars. Grossman smiles when he tells one story of just how close the families were.

“I remember one year we took our families to Duluth together. Them with their four children, us with ours. All 12 of us in one car!” he says with a laugh.

Georgie-Ann adds, “You should have seen the look on the face of the girl at A&W when we pulled up in the car and ordered 12 root beers.”

The men chronicled their friendship over the years in photos, posing the same way they had since they were boys: Grossman on the left, Albright on the right.

“Did you know Merle used to carry around those old photos of the two of them?” says Cornfield server Lori O’Brien.

Grossman says it’s been a wonderful surprise to see these letters again and to reminisce about his old pal. It’s bringing back memories of the war and how news from a best friend back home could make all the difference in the world.

Georgie-Ann says she’s just delighted that younger generations are appreciating the letters for what they are.

“They’re not just letters; they’re history. It’s so special that people see that,” she says.

Now this quiet man is the center of attention to people hoping to learn about World War II and friendship. He’s even been asked to autograph a few copies of the book.

“Some guys have been razzing me about it definitely,” he says.

Junior would probably get a kick out of that.