Thirteen loose leaf binders and two photograph albums wait on my dining room table in my home in a Boston suburb. The enormity of material is overwhelming. Until now, these carefully curated records had lived with my younger brother since our father’s death in 2006. Now, seventeen years later, they are mine to explore.

Richard Crawley’s letters home to his parents begin in September 1937 and end in August 1945. Organized by him, they chronicle his life through college to the end of his deployment in World War II. From Texas to Cincinnati to New York to North Carolina to Sicily to Algeria to Italy to France to Germany. His words loop on lined notebook paper, hotel stationery, postcards, typing paper, or scrunched on V-Forms, the “Victory Mail” system used during the Second World War. To reduce the cost of transferring an original letter, the military postal system would censor a letter, copy it to film, and then print and forward it to its destination.

My father’s letters are ordered and preserved in plastic sleeves and are accompanied by 694 photos, each one identified with a letter and number, referenced in pages and pages of annotations. I have hazy childhood memories of photographs in old albums with thick black pages, snapshots secured by photo corner tabs. But this is my first time to see these letters home to his parents. My opportunity to meet him as a young man in the context of the towering history of World War II is both poignant and daunting.

My father left his small West Texas cotton town of Lamesa in 1937 for Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene to play as solo cornetist with the Cowboy Band, a college touring ensemble known for their large white hats, neckerchiefs, chaps, and flashy maneuvers. One year later he sought advanced music training at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music and took private trumpet lessons with Mr. Henry Wohlgemuth, a German native who was 1st trumpeter of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and one of the foremost trumpet players in the US. A favorite of Mr. Wohlgemuth and his wife, my father “Richie” would be invited to play for Sunday afternoon picnics of German gatherings. Subsequently, he would wonder if the concerts might have been for the benefit of Nazi sympathizers, since those groups existed in the Cincinnati area at the time. Although a jarring thought, it never diminished his love for Mr. and Mrs. Wohlgemuth.

Years later on a trip back home to Texas, I quizzed Dad about his college years. One afternoon as we drove on sandy roads outside Lamesa to look at cotton crops, he talked of playing in Cincinnati, directed by Dr. Frank Simon, former cornet soloist with the John Philip Sousa band. He also played with the Jimmy James Dance Band, on radio programs, and as an extra trumpeter with the Cincinnati Orchestra, one time under the baton of Igor Stravinsky.

“Wow, Stravinsky? That must have been so cool.”

“Quite the contrary. At that time he was a little-known Russian composer who wrote music beyond the registers of instruments. The musicians were outraged. You should have heard the grumbling!”

While completing his conservatory work, he took the position of first trumpet with the house band of the Shubert Theater in Cincinnati, playing primarily for stage shows out of New York City.

“My first night in the pit was the last night of an up-and-coming vocalist named Doris Day. She winked at me from the stage!”

* * *

American participation in the Second World War ended Dad’s nascent musical career in Cincinnati. On another drive heading to an airport in Florida after a winter vacation visit to Sanibel, I wanted to know about his wartime experiences. I’d grown up with Hollywood’s romantic versions of young men enthusiastically joining the cause.

 “Dad, weren’t you excited to enlist in the war effort?”

“Not at all. We were itching to get out into the world and build our music careers. But we strategized the next best thing.”  

As we travelled past palm trees and peeks at the ocean, Dad explained how he and a select number of classmates boarded a train to New York, where they joined a cadre of Julliard graduates. With the threat of being drafted looming, these young musicians rushed to audition for the director, Olle Blomfelt, who was building a topnotch Army band. In January of 1942 at the age of twenty-one, he accepted 1st chair of the band of the 36th Engineering Regiment. The band was commandeered by Lieutenant General George Patton, Jr. and played for the many dignitaries who visited with Patton in the European and North American theaters, including two reviews for President Roosevelt, plus ceremonies for generals Eisenhower, Alexander, and Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten. Later, Lieutenant General Alexander Patch commanded the 7th Army for duties for the remainder of the war in Europe.

As I go through photos of that time, I find my father in photographs, his sweet smiling face and round cheeks greeting the camera. In one he stands erect in formation, trumpet raised, ready to play “Taps” for General Patton.

My father described the origin of some of the photographs:

Some of the snapshots were given to me that had been taken by official Army photographers. For example, the photo taken at the Shell Building in Casablanca during the first months of our over-seas stay; the photo at the cemetery outside Palermo where I played taps in the presence of Lieut. Gen. George S. Patton Jr.; and the photo of Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt with Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower which was made at the airport near Castelvetrano, Sicily, when he reviewed troops on his return to Washington following the Tehran Conference with Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin in December of 1943.

One letter written “Somewhere in Germany” and dated 6 May 1945 anticipated the end of the war in the European theater with the expected surrender of Germany. The words were crammed on a V-Form.

Radio last night said that we could expect the announcement of the end sometime today or tomorrow. All the boys are ready for it….We never guessed it would last this long when we left New York harbor. You should see some of these cities with the flag poles which boastingly once flew the swastikas and black crosses now dejectedly flying bedsheets, pillowcases—I even expect to see white petticoats somewhere!


Chillingly, on Holocaust Remembrance Day I find the photograph I recall seeing from my childhood—a tangle of emaciated bodies outside Dachau. The picture haunted me then and continues to do so. I thumb through the plastic sheets of letters. His letter from 26 May 1945 reads:

Dachau, as you probably have read, was one of the infamous German extermination camps where political prisoners and Jews and maniacs were done away with. Because of a typus epidemic we weren’t allowed entrance, but I have talked with fellows who did go through the camp and I have seen pictures taken of piles of starved dead bodies waiting for the crematory, and I can truthfully say that it is beyond description. The people who perpetrated those deeds must surely be inhuman. It is amazing how low people can sink to carry out cruel ideas. Don’t brand as propaganda things you may happen to read in papers about these places—it’s truer than they can write.


* * *


The war came to an end, as did the letters. My father returned to Lamesa in 1945, met my mother, and decided to abandon the uncertain life of a musician to settle in his hometown and raise a family. Although he had a successful career as a banking executive for thirty-one years, music continued to be a constant in his life. In collaboration with his brother Bob, he founded a musical group, the Slumtown Symfunny, of brass, winds, drums, strings, and vocalists, drawn from the ranks of local musicians, and whatever talented band or choir directors happened into town. For decades, this group entertained civic groups across the windswept plains of the lower Panhandle of Texas, even traveling to California to play for the Lions Club International Convention in 1965.

Age and illness gradually dwindled the ranks of the band. My dad kept up his daily trumpet practice. He offered entertainment to senior centers and retirement homes both locally and in the nearby city of Lubbock. Luckily, his longtime accompanist Lavoy Miller, our beloved hometown piano teacher, joined him. She was an exquisitely talented musician.

On a trip back home from Boston in 2003, I accompanied my father to a “gig” in an assisted living facility in Lubbock. His posture was surprisingly erect for a gentleman of 83 years, with shoulders slightly rounded and his stomach a small paunch. The audience in the spacious dining hall watched my father intently–some from their wheelchairs, some with canes or metal walkers nearby. Song by song, the audience was revitalized. He took them with him back to an earlier time. It was a time without thick glasses or hearing aids, when legs could dance, and there were no empty places by their sides and in their hearts. He had their full attention. No one nodded off. I watched as he raised his horn and his left finger to cue Lavoy. Off they went, bouncing and jazzing. One tune. Then another. And another.

None of the onlookers lining the perimeter at the assisted living facility nor I could follow the residents back to the world where this music took the audience. We only had an outsider’s sense of dancing to Big Bands, uniting as a nation to wage war in The Big One, coming home triumphant with the certitude that every life lost and every sacrifice made was for the right reason. It was not the experience of our Vietnam War generation.


* * *

On a warm Baltimore evening in 1995, the surviving members of the Seventh Army Band met for what was billed as their final reunion. My dad, known affectionately as “Tex” by all his Army buddies, had kept the group together with periodic reunions and his quarterly “The Bulletin.” Personal updates, obituaries, and recollections of overseas stories and adventures were published, alongside photographs of young men in helmets cradling instruments, doing laundry, posed in front of the Eiffel Tower. “Pops Keenan,” “Barber,” “Niles,” and “Mousie” were names that I had attached to smiling, fresh faces from my father’s original photograph album. That evening those names came to life. These young soldiers were, however, old men—some with spines that curved like alphabet letters, some able to carry on a conversation only with constant prompting from a wife.

At the reunion’s banquet, Tex planned for each band member or his wife to share a memory. When it was his turn, my dad, experiencing more difficulty controlling his emotions with each passing year, stood beside his table at the Holiday Inn banquet room. Bent forward and gripping his chair with both hands, his story to the group was one I’d never heard. He struggled to relate his remembrance, trying to keep his breaking voice going forward from word to word.

“You remember at the end of the war we were in Augsburg, Germany. Our Seventh Army division was guarding the prison where Hitler’s Hermann Goering was being held. We were the very first band to play the Stars and Stripes on German soil. It is my thought. . . It is my hope. . . It is my prayer that Goering heard us playing our national anthem from his cell down below.”

He finished with tears streaming down his face. I then understood, more fully than ever before, the meaning of patriotism for his generation, and how it was impossible for my generation to ever experience those same feelings.

My father’s gift of thirteen notebooks of detailed and well-written letters and two carefully annotated photograph albums offers the opportunity to know my father and my country in a way not possible before. Through my first pass at only one notebook, I am learning a great deal.

Recently I came across a letter from my father to a fellow bandsman from November of 2001, in which he summarized his musical life. I learn that he began piano lessons at the age of six and cornet at eight and had no goal other than life as a musician. A Saturday Evening Post cover showing the spirit of John Philip Sousa helping a student cornetist adorned his bedroom wall from his earliest days. I love thinking about where that picture led him. Rick, Richie, Tex, Richard. Dad. I am beginning to see many more parts of him in each photograph around my home and through words and pictures from his life. And there are still twelve notebooks to go.