Wartime letter is returning to sender, 67 years later

  • Article by: GAIL ROSENBLUM , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 15, 2012 - 2:41 PM

Jane White was talking herself out of stopping at an estate sale in her Uptown Minneapolis neighborhood last February. It was snowing, she was recovering from foot surgery, there was nowhere to park.

Then a car pulled away right in front of the house. White grabbed the spot, walked inside and found the letter.

Or, as she likes to say, the letter found her.

While other treasure hunters hovered around the stately home's china, silver and French provincial furniture, White zeroed in on a three-page handwritten letter, with envelope, set out neatly on the desk of the former owner's library.

The postmark was Germany, April 27, 1945. The writer, 20-year-old James Haahr of Grand Forks, N.D., wrote with warmth and boyish bravado to a Mr. Allen S. King, hinting at historic events swirling around him.

"Dear Mr. King," Haahr wrote in neat cursive, "I've seen quite a bit over here in Europe -- most of the large cities of England and a few in France -- and of course those in Germany that we took but not on a 'Cook's Tour'! They weren't very glad to see us, I'm afraid."

Three days later, on April 30, Adolf Hitler committed suicide. Nazi Germany's surrender was ratified in Berlin on May 8.

"I picked the letter up and realized I had an absolute treasure on my hands," White said. For $2, it was hers.

White, 57, has long been fascinated by history, some of the best of it hanging on her own family tree. One of her ancestors was a private bodyguard for George Washington. Her great-great-great grandfather was the first assessor of Tucker County in West Virginia, where her parents were raised. He was awarded a princely bonus of $25 for "keeping the nicest books." The money was deducted from the assessor who kept the worst books, White recounted with a laugh.

But nothing piques White's interest like the potentially monumental accounting found in a simple letter. "My great-uncle Andrew White made my ancestry come alive for me," she said. "Every year around Christmas, he would send long, descriptive letters about our ancestors and the details of their lives."

Those letters, White said, "make up a part of who we are, whether we become famous or not."

"We had much tougher fighting in France than we have in Germany -- quite a feeling of satisfaction to roll into one German city after another and see the sheets hanging out of the windows! The people have various reactions and some think we're English rather than Yanks! Close for now. Sincerely, Jim Haahr"

From a "Who's Who" book nestled into the library shelf of the home on James Avenue S., White learned that King lived in Grand Forks at the time. He later moved back to Minneapolis and became president of Northern States Power Co., a predecessor to Xcel Energy. Born in 1900, King died in 1979.

So, what about Haahr? White's computer was down, so a friend, Judy Harrington, did an Internet search for his unusually spelled name about a month ago. She tracked down Haahr in Reston, Va. White followed up with an old-fashioned call to 411 to get his phone number. She and Haahr have now spoken twice, one of those calls lasting 45 minutes.

"He was just tickled to find out I had this letter," she said. They're Facebook friends, too.

Haahr, who is married, turns 88 on Pearl Harbor Day. He has two grown daughters and two grandchildren. He doesn't recall King, but guesses that they were members of the same Grand Forks church. King was likely part of a group writing to the troops to express their support. At the time, Haahr was recovering from wounds sustained in battle.

Just days after Haahr wrote the upbeat letter, he learned that his 23-year-old brother, Louie, had been killed while serving in the Pacific Islands.

"My captain said, 'Sgt. Haahr, go back to the tent and take the day off,'" Haahr said in a phone interview this week. "It was a great shock to me. I went back and said a few prayers for my parents and my brother."

Haahr returned home and graduated from George Washington University. He spent 32 years in the Diplomatic Service. In 2003, Haahr wrote a book about his experiences with the 101st Infantry Regiment, titled "The Command Is Forward."

On Veterans Day, Haahr will gather with friends, some of them World War II veterans, "for a long kaffeeklatsch." He'll wear his special military jacket "and pretend I'm back in the Army again."

A special delivery will help him with that. White planned to overnight-ship the letter that Haahr penned 67 years ago so that he'll have it. "I'm glad something I wrote was saved," Haahr said with a laugh.

White shakes her head. "If I hadn't picked the letter up," she said, "it would have gone into the garbage."

gail.rosenblum@startribune.com 612-673-7350

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