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Our Rich History: Letters from Covington soldier tell of sunlit days in England before D-Day

Part 3 of a continuing series on the 75th anniversary of the closing stages of World War II

By Stephen Enzweiler
Special to the NKyTribune

On the evening of Saturday, May 6, 1944, Private Arthur B. Pranger sat down at his desk in Port Sunlight, England, and penned a letter home to his mother in Covington, Kentucky. It had been more than a month since he last wrote, which had been during the dangerous Atlantic crossing in April, and now he was anxious to tell the folks back home all about what had become of their boy since leaving the states.

“Dear Mom”, he began. “Well, here I am somewhere in England. I’m not living in barracks now. We were put in private homes in this town. The people over here will do anything to help you and make you comfortable. Me and another fellow have a room all to ourselves. They won’t have us clean up the room in the morning. They clean it for us.”

Pvt. Art Pranger in 1945. (Photo provided)

Pranger, assigned to Company A, 86th Chemical Mortar Battalion, was a gunner on the 4.2 M2 mortar, the battalion’s main weapon. He was one of roughly 1,000 men of the 86th that departed New York in mid-April heading for the war in Europe. Once in Scotland, he found himself on a train churning south through the heather-bemused highlands toward the busy coastal city of Liverpool, England. There, he was billeted in a private home in Port Sunlight, a suburb of Liverpool. The British government paid families to house the men of the 86th, while the beds, blankets, pillows, furniture, and three squares a day were provided by the U.S. Army.

Pranger had been placed with a family named Johnson, who lived at 69 Parkside Road, a small, attached house located on a quiet, tree-lined street shaped like a horseshoe. A former employee of The Kroger Grocery & Baking Company of Cincinnati, Ohio and now a soldier in a great war, Pvt. Pranger especially enjoyed his time living with the Johnsons.

“Mr. Johnson had chickens,” he remembered, “so I always had fresh eggs and toast and tea for breakfast. This was delivered by Mrs. Johnson and set on a table by my bed.” Early each morning, Mr. Johnson rode his bicycle to work in Liverpool, where he was employed as a roofing tinner, earning about $20 a week.

Buddies, taken at Camp Swift, Texas. Top row: Art Pranger & Alfred Hoffstetter. Bottom row: Thomas Balcerek (killed in action Nov. 26, 1944), Thomas Blalock, Roy Hutzel. Al Hofstetter (top right) drove a beer truck for the Wiedemann Brewing Co. in Newport, Kentucky before the war and was assigned to Co. A alongside Pranger. (Photo courtesy of Larry Pranger)

They were a quiet, older couple not unlike Pranger’s own mother and father. They were paternal, kind, and protective of their young guests. Though they didn’t have to, they shared their meager rations of food and coal as well as evening tea with their lodgers. Pranger liked the Johnsons from the start and found ways to repay their generosity. On one occasion, he brought back a much-coveted gallon can of strawberry preserves from the Army kitchen, pointing out with pride to his hosts that the preserves had been manufactured by his former peacetime employer – The Kroger Company.

As he explored his new life in England, the 19-year old from Covington found England strange and fascinating. One problem was learning the money system and how to pay for things. At the time, English money consisted of pounds, shillings, sovereigns, guineas, sixpence, ‘thripence’ (three pence), ‘tuppence’ (two pence), and pence (penny). Language could be disorienting, too, especially when trying to translate the local Liverpool dialect. Once when he asked a British soldier how much the bus fare was, the soldier replied, “naypence.” He learned only later that it meant ‘ninepence.’ A ‘bob’ or ‘quid’ was slang for a pound, and a three-penny coin was referred to as either a ‘thrippence’ or a ‘thrip’ny joey.’

“They sure go for tea in a big way over here,” he wrote May 6th to his mother, Mrs. Frank Pranger of 536 Thirteenth Street, Covington. She read his letter with interest, sitting on the couch in her living room and pondering her son’s words.

“Every time I turn around somebody is always shoving a cup of tea in my fist,” he went on. “People even stop us on the street and invite us for tea and cake.” Within a few days, local teenage boys, frustrated at being too young to join the British army, sought out and befriended the American GI’s, most of whom were not much older than they were. As the days wore on, Pranger found himself spending long, lingering afternoons playing baseball with his new friends in a nearby field.

A rare photo of soldiers of the 86th Chemical Mortar Battalion in fresh army haircuts crossing the Atlantic on the converted British luxury liner, New Amsterdam, April 26, 1944. Pvt. Pranger is at right jumping off the crate. (Photo courtesy of Larry Pranger.)

Letters to and from England typically took two weeks to cross the Atlantic. Occasionally they took longer. Soldiers were encouraged to write on V-Mail stationery distributed by the army, but generally, they wrote on whatever paper they could get their hands on. Fountain pens and pencils were the preferred writing instruments of the day. Letters had to first pass through military and postal censors, who read each one in covetous detail to ensure they didn’t contain information that could be of help to the enemy or affect public support for the war.

“Dear Mom,” Pranger penned the morning of Sunday, May 28th. “I received your letter a few days ago and I’m glad you finally know I’m in England. I go to church every Sunday and I just now came back. The last time I went to Confession was on the boat and that’s been a month ago. I’ll go again soon… I guess it must be spring back there now. It’s pretty nice here too when it’s not raining. It’s a nice day today so I guess I’ll go bicycle riding.” He signed it, “Your son, Pvt. Art.”

As May turned to June, there were subtle indications that the war was getting nearer. It wouldn’t be long before the 86th Chemical Mortar Battalion – and Pvt. Art Pranger with it – would be leaving the idyllic life of tea and sunlit ball fields for the business of war. “About the time I was beginning to blend into English life,” he wrote in his 2007 memoir Traveling Through W.W.II, “this was also the time I was about to leave this vacation land for the job we were drafted for.” For weeks there had been “whispers” and rumors of invasion plans among the men of the 86th. They were ordered to round up all the jeeps and have them waterproofed, but not told why. Each morning, the battalion assembled at Hume Hall in town at 5 a.m. for roll call, close order drill and inspection. According to the official battalion history, the men were also “able to get one day of firing (4.2 mortars) on the range at Ruabon, Wales, as well as some small arms firing.”

Hulme Hall on Church Road in Port Sunlight, where Pvt. Art Pranger and the 86th Chemical Mortar Battalion assembled each morning at 5 a.m. for roll call, close order drill and inspection. (Photo courtesy of Lucy Kreader. )

The morning of D-Day, June 6, 1944, came without anyone knowing about it. At the time, Pvt. Pranger had been in one of the town’s nearby fields playing baseball with his teenage friends. “I remember listening to the news of the invasion on the radio. It was a strange feeling,” he confessed. “This was the biggest amphibious landing in history, and we listened as if it were a football game! I had no idea that about two weeks later we would be doing the same thing on a much smaller scale.” The battalion pulled out of Port Sunlight on a Sunday morning, June 25, 1944, and arrived at Stonehenge that night. At 0300 hours on June 28th, a convoy took Pranger and his battalion mates to the marshaling area at Southampton on the English coast. There, they received their final issue of equipment, instructions, and waited to board the craft that would take them across the channel to France.

Back home, Pvt. Pranger’s mother had been worrying ceaselessly about her boy ever since she heard the news of the allied invasion. Letters were the only means of communication then, often taking weeks to reach home. She had not heard from him since May 26 and wondered his fate. Sitting down at her kitchen table on Thursday, June 8, she penned a letter. “Dear Arthur” it began. “Just take care of yourself and make the best of it. I hope these letters find you with a lot of courage, always do what’s right because it is right. I feel like you are meeting all kinds of people good and bad so I know it is not an easy thing to be with all kinds, so I hope that you pick your kind, remember what I said to you – don’t forget the church. – pray.”

At Southampton, four ships waited to carry Pranger and the 86th to France. It was standard procedure to break up a battalion’s companies and transport each one across the channel on a different ship.

Sixty years later, Art Pranger returned to 69 Parkside Road to visit where he had lived with the Johnsons in the spring of 1944. The current owners, a young married couple, welcomed the former GI into their home as the Johnson’s had, and listened in fascination to Pranger’s wartime stories of their home and life in Port Sunlight. (Photo provided.)

Pranger and Company A boarded the vessel Dan Beard, a war-weary LST transport that the soldiers liked to refer to as the “Low, Slow Target.” Cramming the men like sardines into the hold below deck, the LST pulled away from the dock. It was about midnight and it would take eight hours to cross.

But unseen to the young GI from Covington huddled in the darkness of the ship’s hold, dangers were just ahead. Though 23 days had transpired since D-Day, the Allied advance had been agonizingly slow, moving inland only seven miles. The waters of the Channel still bristled with enemy craft and U-boats. The beaches still harbored snipers and spies, and an enemy waited in its full strength just beyond the shoreline…

Stephen Enzweiler is a writer, author, and historian. He is at work on a book chronicling the men of the 86th Chemical Mortar Battalion.

See Part 1 here.

See Part 2 here.

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