Column: A WWII letter mystery is finally solved
Last Sunday, Kathleen Grimmett of Austin, Texas, was on the Internet trying to find information about her parents, Bill and Billie Lamb. Billie was her mother’s nickname; her given name was Vera. Ms. Grimmett’s father was a World War II veteran who wrote hundreds of letters home from France and Germany to his wife in Orlando, Fla.
Her mom, who was born in Montana, loved to draw pictures of cowboys and bucking broncos and women in beautiful gowns.
In doing her Internet search, looking under her parents’ names, she found a story that ran July 27 in the Riverhead News-Review and The Suffolk Times about an extraordinary cache of hundreds of letters from “Bill,” written in Europe in 1944 and 1945 to his wife back home in Orlando. The thick folders of letters also contained dozens of drawings signed by “Billie Phelps.”
Ms. Grimmett did not know much about her dad, who died in 1956 when she was just 3. Her mom, whose maiden name was Phelps, died in 1997 at age 85. It was her desire to find out anything she could about them, and to flesh out their genealogy, that brought her to Google Sunday afternoon.
The documents were found two years ago in the crawl space of a house in Orlando. The owner of the house, John Kurpetski, was selling the house and when he cleaned it out he found the letters and drawings and didn’t know what to do with them. His mother, Pat Kurpetski of Calverton, was visiting her son when he was moving and, knowing they would mean something to a family somewhere, brought the material back. She had them in a closet until sharing with them with these newspapers, where a column headlined: “A WWII mystery: Who made drawings?” appeared over a story about the discovery.
Ms. Kurpetski knew the letters and drawings would be important to someone. She told the editor who called her, “I hope I can find the family they belong to.”
When Ms. Grimmett saw the story, she broke out crying. The letters were written by her father and the drawings were made by her mother, who was born Vera Phelps in Kansas. She moved to Castle Butte, Mont. at age 10 and then to Florida when she was 19. She could not fathom how they’d been left in a house her parents had not lived in for decades, nor could she comprehend how they stayed there, safe and untouched.
That after all this time her father’s letters home and her mom’s Montana drawings will be given to their daughter is, for Ms. Grimmett, fantastic.
“It was a miracle,” she said. “I can’t believe it. I just can’t believe it. I am so happy.”
Vera “Billie” Phelps was born in Montana in 1911 and moved with her parents to Florida as a teenager. She met her future husband, Bill Lamb, who went into the U.S. Army in 1944 and soon found himself in France. As a married couple, they owned the Orlando house and, over the years, Ms. Grimmett never saw a red folder of her mother’s drawings and a bound book of hundreds of her father’s letters home.
A typical letter is one her father wrote from Germany after the surrender, addressed to “Stick,” which was another nickname he had for his wife.
“That referred to ‘stick in the mud,’” Ms. Grimmett said. “My dad died when he was only 42. This will tell me so much more about him. I think it’s a miracle.”
For Ms. Kurpetski, the material being returned to the Lambs’ daughter is a stroke of good fortune.
“When I brought it back from Florida it sat in my house. I wasn’t sure what to do with it,” she said. “This is a very good ending. I’m glad the letters and drawings will find a good home.”
Top courtesy photo: Billie and Bill Lamb in an undated photo.
Correction: Bill Lamb was 42 when he died, not 45. Ms. Lamb died in 1997, not the early ’80s and she was born in Kansas before moving to Montana at age 10.
Steve Wick is the executive editor of the Times Review Media Group. He can be reached at [email protected].