He had moved many times after leaving home — to other parts of Montana, to Utah, to Beaverton and eventually to McMinnville. But his mom had stayed put until her death.
When he opened a shoebox, he immediately recognized its contents — all the letters he had written to his mother during his tour in the Army during World War II.
“Dear Mom,” the young soldier wrote on July 1, 1944, three days before he celebrated his 20th birthday and six weeks before his unit began fighting its way across France and Germany.
“Well, Mom, I am now in England. Our outfit is quartered in tents out in the English countryside, on an old Lord’s estate. Thanks for the letter and money. I sure like mail best, though.”
That letter, and 184 like it, chronicle his life from basic training in 1943 through his return home in January 1946. They are free of information about battles and military strategy, as censorship was in full swing, in order to guard Allied secrets from the enemy. But they nonetheless provide an intimate account of what it was like to be a soldier who was part of Patton’s Third Army.
“I didn’t know Mom had saved them,” Ragsdale said, looking through box stuffed with letters and feather-light V-mails, all addressed to Mrs. Dorothy B. Ragsdale.
He has a strong, detailed memory of the period the letters describe, “a short time but a very important time, one of the best parts of my life.” But even he was surprised by some of the details he recorded back then.
“I bitched a lot,” he said, laughing about how he complained to his mother and begged her to send things such as a new watch, film for his camera and toothpaste.
The early letters reveal a teenager, one of the youngest in his unit, who enjoyed spending time with his buddies and the girls he met along the way. He liked reading and bicycling, not to mention eating. He frequently asked his mother to include candy in the care packages she sent, and would trade his Army-issue cigarettes for chocolate.
More recent letters show someone who’s come to appreciate what he has, both at home and in the military. He admires the officers and his fellow soldiers, and feels close ties to them.
Members of his unit became his family, he said. He called them “truly my brothers ... closer than brothers.”
Taken together, the 185 letters paint a portrait of a boy maturing into a man.
Ragsdale is a descendant of a Civil War vet. And his father, who died in 1941, before the U.S. entered WWII, had served with the Colorado National Guard on the Mexican border in 1916, then done a stint as an infantry training officer during World War I.
Young Jim was ready to serve his country as well when the time came.
Drafted, he reported for duty just after his freshman year at Montana State in Bozeman. “In July 1943, I was on my way,” he said.
Following training camp, he was sent to Fort Slocum in New York to await transport to England.
He wrote his mom: “There were Italian prisoners of war on island and they moved freely about and I noticed them flirting with the WACS who were there. This I resented; the WACS shouldn’t even talk to those prisoners, or put up with their advances.”
He crossed the Atlantic on an ocean liner that had been converted into a troop ship. There were no luxuries on the seven-day trip, just bunks stretched five high, he said.
His outfit spent a couple months in England, then crossed the English Channel to Normandy. Assigned to Patton’s Third Army, XII Corps, the 738th fire unit would spent the next 280 days fighting as it crossed 1,700 miles. It crossed through France, jogged into Belgium and Luxembourg, then marched straight across the heart of Germany to Czechoslovakia.
The XII Corps started with 68,000 soldiers. By war’s end, about 85,000 men had been assigned to it, counting replacements.
According to corps records, 6,138 were killed, 33,051 were wounded and 7,943 were classified as missing in action, meaning they had been killed, been captured, gone AWOL or gotten lost. The corps took 243,132 prisoners along the way.
Ragsdale’s 738th artillery unit — a tight-knit group of 570 — fired 28,600 shells along the way, each weighing 200 pounds. Deploying Howitzers and other heavy guns, they could hit targets 12 to 15 miles out.
Forward observers in planes or tanks would spot the enemy and radio back to the 738th, providing the coordinates of the target. Then Ragsdale and other members of the fire direction team would figure out the angle to set the gun’s barrel, the number of bags of powder to load into it and the type of fuse to use.
“I was a ‘computer,’ a living computer,” he said. “I would do the computations with a slide rule.”
The 738th would keep firing until the enemy was knocked out or driven into retreat. American ground forces could then move forward safely.
In April 1945, a few weeks before the war ended, Ragsdale’s unit was in central Germany.
American soldiers discovered a series of deep, salt caves in which the Germans had hidden huge amounts of money and a cache of art, most of it confiscated from Jewish citizens. The cave also contained suitcases full of gold teeth, watches and even hair, all taken from Jews as they entered the work camps and death camps.
As Ragsdale’s unit moved on, Gens. Eisenhower, Bradley, Eddy and Patton arrived to inspect the cave themselves. The loot was loaded onto trucks and taken away for safekeeping. It was eventually returned to its rightful owners or parceled out to war victims, a process that took years.
That same month, Ragsdale recalled, he and his fellow soldiers also learned the truth about the concentration camps. They had heard rumors, but hadn’t been able to fully comprehend the horrors until they saw the camps themselves.
“After that, the efforts of all our armies became a little more aggressive,” he said.
The war in Europe ended in early May. Ragsdale spent the next seven months as part of the occupation forces in Europe, first in Germany, then as a guard at a prisoner of war camp north of Paris.
Most of the POWs were “just like we were,” he said. They hadn’t wanted to fight, and they hated Hitler for what he’d done to their country.
Later, he was transferred to Luxembourg City, where he was put in charge of a food service program for American troops. “I couldn’t even boil water,” he said, but he managed a crew of German cooks and helped serve meals.
Then the Army had another important assignment for him. “They found out I’d played cornet in high school,” Ragsdale said, “so they sent me to be in the band.”
Once he got his lip back, he said, he loved it. The jazz band performed nightly at a Red Cross club in Metz, France. He played alongside top-notch musicians, and during breaks, danced with the girls.
“Boy, that was good duty,” he recalled.
In January 1946, he boarded a Victory ship at Le Havre, France, for the trip home. The journey took twice as long as the crossing from the U.S. to England — two weeks, as severe storms buffeted the small ship and sent waves cascading over its decks.
Ragsdale was happy to reach dry land. He returned to Montana and used the G.I. Bill to finish his business degree at the University of Montana.
There he met his future wife, Anita, on a blind date. It turned out that their mothers were already friends, as Anita had grown up in Absarokee, just a few miles from Jim’s hometown of Columbus. It didn’t take long for them to become engaged, and they married June 27, 1947.
“That’s one reason our marriage lasted,” he said. “We had so many mutual friends and so much history together.”
They raised five children, including a daughter, Vicky Ragsdale, who lives in McMinnville. Another daughter is living in Portland and two sons are living in Utah. Their fifth child, a son, died about five years ago.
The Ragsdales moved to Oregon in 1980 and settled in McMinnville in 1985. He had grown up working in his father’s clothing store, so took up retailing.
He owned The Shoe Horn until his retirement in 1994. “I was 70 and my lease was up,” he noted.
He walks several miles a week, either in his neighborhood or on the track at the Willamette Valley Medical Center. If it’s raining, he climbs stairs instead. He’s walked enough to wear out a couple of pairs of shoes, he said.
Ragsdale also does some writing.
Four years ago, he turned his WWII letters into a book, “Dear Mom, A Soldier’s Letters Home.” The 300-page tome contains all 185 letters, along with photos, cartoons and trivia about the era.
To many of the letters, Ragsdale has added information he couldn’t write back then — details about what was happening in the war zone, which would have been clipped out by the censors.
He said he put the book together for his children, his 10 grandchildren and his seven great-grandchildren, the latest born April 27. He wants them to know what his life was like back then.
Ragsdale hopes they won’t have to experience war themselves. “I don’t believe in war,” he said.
While WWII was “what we had to do,” he doesn’t want to see another conflict.
“It’s so much waste, foolishness, guys getting killed for no reason,” he said. “One man getting killed is not worth any country.”
Starla Pointer, who is convinced everyone has an interesting story to tell, has been writing the weekly “Stopping By” column since 1996. She’s always looking for suggestions. Contact her at 503-687-1263 or email@example.com.