The Times West Virginian

West Virginia

August 11, 2013

W.Va. man reunites veterans in Virginia with hundreds of letters

BUNKER HILL — Having joined the U.S. Army in December 1966, Bryan W. Stotler was sent off to basic training camp.

“I didn’t write home, so I was called into the commander’s office and I was yelled at for not writing home,” he said in a recent interview. “My mom had called the commander about me not writing, and I got my butt chewed out.”

From then on, Stotler wrote every day — sometimes banking five letters in a day — and not only while he was in boot camp, but after he was sent to Vietnam.

His mother, Mary Katherine, saved all his letters, keeping them with all the letters she had sent to and received from Bryan’s father, Herbert J. Stotler, while he was serving in the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II.

Both now living in Winchester, Herbert, 95, and Bryan, 66, were recently reunited with the letters — about 300 in all.

Michael Wiltshire, who is well-known throughout the area for saving and preserving historical artifacts like military burial flags and family Bibles, got a call in early July from a local auction house about a cache of letters the auction house had gotten that he might be interested in.

“I recognized the red, white and blue envelopes,” the U.S. Marine Corps veteran said. “I made a little deal and ended up with them. I wanted to make sure the right people got their stuff back.”

It took Wiltshire a couple weeks to find the rightful owners of the letters, but he tracked them down and he made a phone call.

“I talked to Bryan’s wife, Nancy,” he said. “I knew how it would sound. I pleaded with her not to hang up on me, to hear me out. I explained I had these letters that belong to Bryan and his father.”

Wiltshire does not take any money for returning the artifacts to family members.

July 19, the Stotlers traveled to Wiltshire’s home in Bunker Hill to retrieve their letters.

“I wasn’t going to call,” Bryan said. “Nancy insisted we come to get them. She wanted to be here. She was very close to my mother and took her passing hard.”

Mary Stotler died April 10, 2009, at the age of 90.

“It’s a treasure and we’re fortunate to get them back,” Bryan said. “And it’s emotional. I remember writing them. I knew my letters existed, but I didn’t know where they were. We thought the World War II letters were destroyed. But she hid them away.”

Herbert Stotler had recently moved from his home in Winchester to an assisted living facility and someone had been hired to clean up the house. The father and son think that is how the letters were found. They do not know how they got to the auction house.

Bryan said his mother was emphatic about sending care packages to him when he was in Vietnam.

“She sent me a lot of care packages,” he said. “She was faithful about sending the packages and they were expensive to send. I remember writing her that ‘I got four packages today.”’

Bryan became popular with his unit because of the care packages.

One time, he got a sponge cake with what he described as having “the prettiest blue icing.”

“I wrote her about the icing and she said, ‘There was no blue icing,”’ Bryan said. “It was mold. We had eaten it, but it didn’t hurt us.”

He was in the signal corps and was attached to the 4th Infantry, while in Vietnam.

“I shot expert,” Bryan said. “He (his father) taught me to shoot. I think that’s why they sent me to Vietnam. I was surprised.”

Herbert was drafted during WWII, serving from 1944 through 1946.

“We were sent to Texas for basic training,” he said. “We rode in cattle cars. It was hot and dry and men would fall out during marches. Trucks would come along and pick them up.”

Herbert was a very good shot.

“I was a country boy — I did well shooting,” he said. “I did so well, they offered me an instructor’s position. So, I stayed in the U.S. and taught people to shoot machine guns out of airplanes.”

He was promoted to sergeant and was stationed in Florida, where he was able to bring Mary and their three children to live.

“We had a trailer on the Gulf Coast,” Herbert said.

After the war, he and his family moved to Washington, D.C., where he got his college degree on the GI Bill.

“I became an engineer and worked for the government for 30 years on computers,” he said. “I was in on the very beginning of computers.”

Married in December 1938, several of the letters between Herbert and Mary are personal and some are quite mundane.

After he arrived at the Fort Meade reception center outside Baltimore, he sent her a postcard with a photo of a typical induction center barracks. On the back he wrote, “Arrived here yesterday. Everything OK so far. How are all of you? I have to get up at 5 every morning.”

The card was postmarked 5 p.m., May 5, 1944, and was addressed to Mrs. Mary Stotler, Vienna, Va., where they were living at the time. He is originally from Winchester.

She also saved the newspaper clipping listing Herbert’s induction; baby pictures, which the father and son could not identify; a miniature Bible sent to Herbert to keep him safe and several other memorable items.

“This is a surprise,” he said of getting the letters back. “I’m sure once I read them that they’ll bring back memories.”

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