50-year-old letter to a fallen soldier is finally opened by his family

By GREG JORDAN | Bluefield Daily Telegraph, W.Va. | Published: December 9, 2019

PRINCETON, W. Va. (Tribune News Service) — About 50 years ago, Opal Shrewsbury wrote a letter to her son, Paul W. Shrewsbury, about what was going on with his family back home, enclosed some family photographs, and mailed it to where he was serving with the Army in Vietnam.

The letter was dated March 11, 1969. It was the day Paul, known in his family as Wayne since his father was Paul Shrewsbury, had died in action.

Pfc. Paul W. Shrewsbury of the United States Army, 1st Cavalry Division, served from July 23, 1968 and died March 11, 1969. The Army sent his mother’s last letter to him back. She put the letter in a box with his other papers including an official telegram stating he was missing in action, and there it remained unopened and eventually forgotten until Opal Shrewsbury passed away on July 22 at the age of 95. Her children found the letter while they were cleaning out her house and decided, since they would all be together on Thanksgiving, to open it then and see what she had sent to their brother Wayne so many years ago.

“She just wrote about life, what was happening, who was dating who,” Wayne’s sister Virginia Lusk said.

Another sister, Lila Shrewsbury, read the letter’s first page while her siblings gathered around and listened. They had all read their mother’s letter, but they decided to hear it again. In it, Opal mentioned Wayne’s wife, Reba, a woman he had married just before he was sent to Vietnam.

“Will try to write you a line this morning. How are you? I talked to Reba on the phone a lot. She told me about writing that 17-page letter to you,” Opal wrote to her son. “I wish I could think of that much to write. I know you like to read letters like that. I sure would. She told me you wanted a camera like daddy’s. I hope she can get it for you. They really are nice.”

Opal enclosed black and white photographs of herself, Wayne’s father, Paul, and his brothers and sisters. She also told him about her latest experience with West Virginia’s winter. Wayne and his fellow soldiers were enduring Vietnam’s tropical climate, but his family was experiencing very different weather back home.

“We are sending you some school pictures of the kids,” Lila read. “We are out of film now, but we will get some and take some pictures and send those to you. We sure have had some cold weather. Last Friday night we didn’t get the Volkswagen all the way home. Daddy and me had to walk about a mile and a half. We waded snow about halfway up our legs.”

Memories came forth as the family talked about those days 50 years ago. Jeffrey Shrewsbury remembered why his parents were out in the snow. His mother had worked at Brock’s Pizza, which the brothers and sisters agreed made “the best pizza in the world.”

The four-page letter included other pieces of family news, and concluded with, “Lots of Love, Mom and All.”

A framed portrait of Wayne in his Army uniform was on the table along with other family mementoes. Wayne’s brother Daniel Shrewsbury brought out a shadow box containing Wayne’s medals and badges. The contents include a Combat Infantry badge, the Bronze Star, the Purple Heart, the Good Conduct medal, the National Defense medal, the Vietnam Service medal, a Sharpshooter badge, a badge for being an expert in auto-rifle and grenade, and more.

Wayne’s family wasn’t surprised by his ability to earn a Sharpshooter badge. They remembered an outdoors person who loved to hunt and fish. Their father would laugh and say that even if Wayne didn’t find anything to shoot, he would still fire his gun before he came home. He would shoot rats with his BB gun and enjoyed target shooting.

They also remembered a comic personality. Wayne could imitate the mumbling, grumbling Paw Bear from the 1960s cartoon series, “The Hillbilly Bears.” And they remembered a compassionate young man who looked after his siblings.

“He was my brother, but he was also my best friend,” Lila recalled. “We double dates and everything at that point in time.” The family laughed when reminded these double dates included visits to some bars.

Daniel recalled a time when Wayne walked with him to a store that was about a mile away. Daniel, who was about 11 years old, was not wearing shoes.

“We were poor and I didn’t have shoes on,” he said. “So I walked up that gravel road, and coming back I remember my feet started hurting. He picked me up and carried me the rest of the way on his shoulders. I remember that.”

Rhonda Wagner, who was the youngest child, remembered how big brother Wayne comforted her whenever thunderstorms raged over their home. She was scared of thunder and lightning, so he sat on the couch with her until the storm passed.

Another one of his sisters, Pamela Nicewander, was inspired by her brother’s service to his country.

“I was 17 when he passed, and three years later when I was 19, I enlisted in the Air Force,” she said. “I thought I wanted to know a little bit more about it. We were so sheltered and he was in a war. I don’t think we really had any idea he would be gone, and it was like, ‘Why?’ We found out later and I don’t remember who told me, I think mom must have. He told dad he didn’t think he would be coming back. None of us knew that until years later.”

Pamela retired from the Air Force after serving from 21 years and 15 days.

From what the family learned later, Wayne died after a tank he was walking next to hit a landmine. They had a dark black and white photo of him standing in front of some tanks and wondered if there was any way it could be lightened. Wayne talked a lot about tanks in his letters home and seemed to love them, they said.

Paul, who was next to oldest child in the family, is not the only sibling who is now gone. His older sister, Diana, has also passed away. Their brothers and sisters still remember them despite the passage of time, and finding their mother’s letter to Wayne reminded them that loved ones who are lost in war don’t have to be forgotten.

When asked about what they felt after finding the letter, reading it and seeing the family pictures, Rhonda thought for a moment.

“There was peace about it. I don’t know how to explain it, there was just something calming about it,” Rhonda said.

It was like getting a gift from their mother and their brother, Wayne.

©2019 the Bluefield Daily Telegraph (Bluefield, W.Va.)
Visit the Bluefield Daily Telegraph (Bluefield, W.Va.) at bdtonline.com
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