Hi, welcome to the Storyworth Podcast. We're glad you're here. I'm your host, Krista Baum, co-founder of Storyworth. On this podcast, we feature true stories written by Storyworth writers. If you're new to Storyworth, we help people write their life stories, the big stories and the small ones. Once a week, we send our writers a question to help inspire their writing. They reply to the email with an answer or story that comes to mind. At the end of the year, we print what they've written into a beautiful keepsake book.
Every story written using StoryWorth is private, but for this podcast, the writers volunteered to share their stories publicly with you.
This is our season three premiere and a very special Veterans Day episode. We want to share a series of letters from World War II sent by an American soldier named Rudy Denka to his wife, Carol, back home. Carol included these letters in her StoryWorth book. These letters are read by voice actors Luke Brett and Aaron Shout. Then we have the honor of talking to Rudy and Carol's granddaughter, Rebecca McFadden.
To Mrs. Rudolph C. Denke, c/o Mrs. Jake Young, Spring Valley, Minnesota, USA.
From Staff Sergeant R.C. Denke, 742 Bomb Squad, Army Post Office 520, April 5th, 1944, Southern Italy.
Dear Princess Precious,
The time approaches for me to pick up my pen and put it on paper. Things are really quiet tonight and I am the only one in the orderly room, so I'm going to peck out another one of my expert pieces of typing. Hope you don't mind too much. I got a letter from Mother Branham today, and she tells me that everything is alright. I'm really jealous of all Baby Skippy's aunts and uncles that are back there now, admiring my newborn son, holding him, and telling each other how cute he is, when all I can do over here is to wait longingly for the mail and use my imagination. I almost feel like an outsider, a total stranger. And again, it brings to me the realization that I am not the perfect husband and father that you deserve. Again, that question crops up in the back of my mind. Is the price you are paying worth being a soldier's wife? Funny, those thoughts that come to a man in the early hours of the morning when he is all alone and his mind wanders. I know your answer, and I know that it's wrong to even let myself start on that trend of thought, but a wandering mind has no consideration for right or wrong.
We are having a taste of real summer weather. The last few days have been scorchers. Yates and Leadbetter have already begun to get a tan, and I guess that by the time the summer is over, we'll all have a healthy coat.
Yates was kidding me again this evening. He claims that when a child is born, the mother forgets all about her husband and lavishes all her love on the new addition to the family. According to him, a man is good for bringing in the weekly paycheck. Is there anything to that, darling?
The conversations in our tent are the craziest things. It makes life in our tent more interesting, and we get along much better with one another when we can get the other fellow's viewpoint. Every one of us has been the target of the other fella's kidding at one time or another, so none of us gets sore when it's our turn. Incidentally, darling, all the boys send along their very best regards to both you and little Skippy. Tex especially.
Now that things are a little more settled at our camp, we get a lot more comfort than when we first got here. There still isn't any running water in our tents, but we have electricity and all the water we can carry from a well not too far away. There aren't many left with dirty hands and faces, only those who are too lazy to clean up. Well, my darling, there isn't much room left, so I guess it means that I'll have to bring my ramblings to a close. So with a million kisses, all my love to both you and Junior, and a prayer that soon, real soon, we can begin living the dreams and plans that we've had so long already to make, I'll say goodnight, my wonderful darling, pleasant dreams, and remember always that no matter where I go or what I do, I love you, I love you, I love you. Say hello to everyone for me.
Forever and always,
May 8, 1944.
To all who read this day-by-day account of mine, I wish to say that this is all due to the suggestions of Carol. I shall not even attempt to promise that I will keep it faithfully every day, but I shall try. Hope this log will not prove too boring.
Rudolf C. Denke.
Thursday, June 1, 1944
Ten months ago today, Carol and I were married. Already I've spent seven of those overseas, and only three with her. No mail except a V-mail from Cora and Bob, which I answered.
Tuesday, August 1st, 1944.
Today marks the passing of one year of married life for me. Twelve months, which could have been twelve days or twelve years depending on whether the time was spent good or bad, some of those months are the happiest of my life. And there are some that were spent in lonely misery. No matter what else can be said, I'm not sorry for them or the things they brought me: a wonderful wife, a really good and true friend; a little son, and a future to work for.
The months gone by already hold their memories, and each and every little thought is priceless to me. Now if God can bring me home to those that I love before too long, then I shall be content.
Stand-down today so I spent the day in camp. What else is there to do? Tech's got darn high on our rations of beer and some wine. Oh, my darling, you don't know how much I miss you and need you. This just can't go on much longer. No mail today, but I wrote. I'm all caught up, so I go off to bed. Night.
August 20th, 1944.
My dearest Rudy. Everyone but me is in bed as I start my letter to you tonight. Little Rudy has been in bed for about four hours, Marlene about the same, and Marion has just gone to bed. I expect our son to wake up and want his bottle in about another hour, so I waited until everything was quiet before I started writing to you tonight. Darling, I didn't get any mail from you at all last week. Should I blame it on the mailman? I am.
Tomorrow I'm going to haunt the mailbox until the mailman comes. I'm sure I will get a letter tomorrow. One whole week without a letter is long enough. Nothing seemed to go right last week. I felt so lonesome and blue. Each morning, I hurried downstairs for the mail and came up either empty-handed or with just a letter for Marion. Because you were at Capri, I didn't mind quite so much because I know it's hard to write while you are vacationing, but I did miss your daily letters terribly. I'm anxious to hear all about Capri, too. Did you like it? I guess I have asked all these questions before, though.
Last night, after Arnie left, Marion and I sat up until 4 a.m. talking. We planned our other sisters' and brothers' lives the way we thought they should have been. Of course, we talked about our husbands, too. In fact, we talked mostly about that. And that is the reason we sat up so late. We got so interested in discussing you and Jake that we forgot all about the time.
Honey, it is getting rather late and little Rudy still hasn't woken up yet, so I guess I'm going to have to go and wake him up. I should have got him ready for bed when I gave him his bottle the last time, but I didn't expect him to sleep this long, so I just lay him on his bed with his suit on. Anyway, I want to get to the land of dreams early tonight. So with every bit of my love, a million kisses from little Rudy and me, and a prayer that the day will soon come when we will be together forever, I'll say goodnight.
Always, your Carol.
Narrator: The following letter was from Carol, returned to her unopened and labeled missing.
September 3rd, 1944.
I am sending you another box of candy and air mail stationary tomorrow. I hope you get home before the time the package reaches you. It takes almost two months, doesn't it? But I will send it anyway. The other boys can enjoy the candy if you aren't there to get it. How much longer do you think it will take now, honey? Do you still think you'll be home by the first of October? I hope so, darling. The time is beginning to drag so slowly. Since you told me there was a possibility that you might be home very shortly, the hours can't pass swiftly enough. I miss you so much, honey. And as each month passes, the loneliness in my heart grows larger. Please hurry home so we can pick up our lives where we left off and start to really live again.
Narrator: In late summer 1944, Carol learned through a telegram from Rudy's brother that Rudy's plane had been shot down over Germany on August 22nd, 1944. The following letter was returned to her marked undeliverable. Carol left it sealed for nearly 80 years until March of 2022.
Friday night, September 8th, 1944.
My dearest Rudy,
I didn't write last night. I couldn't have written anything intelligible anyway. Darling, where are you? What are you going through right now? I'd give everything I have just to hear that you are safe. The telegram said August 22nd, that is 18 days. What has happened during that time, darling? If I only knew. I won't believe you aren't coming back, I won't. Surely I would know, wouldn't I? I am just as sure tonight as the night we said goodbye that I will be seeing you again. It won't be so long now, will it? If anything happens to you, I don't want to go on living either. There would be nothing left for me. My whole future is wrapped up in you, honey. You and our children. I know you're coming back, just as we've always planned, and we will have our little home someplace in Patterson, New Jersey. Maybe what we're going through right now had to be.
May God please bring this waiting to an end. If I could only be sure that you aren't wounded, hungry, or suffering in some way. Whatever has happened, darling, remember, I love you. And I will always, always love you. Nothing can ever change the love I have for you. All my waking hours will be filled with prayers for your safe return to us who love you. I'm going to close now, my darling. If I don't write long letters or if I don't write every night, it isn't because I have given up hope. It's just because it's rather hard for me to write now.
Always, your Carol.
Narrator: A month later, another letter arrived.
October 1st, 1944.
I wonder, as I sit down to write this letter tonight, if you know by now that I am a prisoner of war. Not much to write since my last letter, for everything is still about the same. I am healthy and as comfortable as can be expected. With a lot of time on my hands, I worry quite a bit about you and little Rudy, and not knowing if you are all right makes it worse. It takes quite a time for mail to get through, but you should have heard from me in a little while.
Find out about sending me cigarettes and eats. I could use them as soon as possible. What do the folks say? Is everything still all right? Please, God, end all this soon. I want to be with my family so much.
Bye for now, darling. Remember, I love you, and do not worry. All my love to both,
Carol and Rudy have since passed away, but they are remembered by dozens of grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and great-great-grandchildren. I got a chance to talk to their granddaughter, Rebecca, who submitted their story to StoryWorth with their family's blessing. Rebecca, how did Rudy and Carol meet, your grandmother and grandfather?
So, my grandmother went to visit her sister and her husband in South Dakota. And while she was there, there was a dance at a nearby army base. And she was told never to date a soldier. And she had gotten into an argument with her brother-in-law over something. And she was very mad at her brother-in-law. And so the very first soldier at that dance that asked her to dance was my grandfather. They got to talking, he showed her pictures of his family, and she was just taken with him. And so my grandparents dated and saw each other as much as they could.
And when did they get married?
They were married then four months later, on August 1st, 1943.
How long were they newlyweds before he was sent to war?
They were married for three months before he was deployed to Italy.
Krista: Did she know that she was pregnant when he deployed? Or did she find out —
They knew that this was happening and that he was going to be deployed. So it wasn't like it was a surprise. They knew it was coming and still… the vulnerability of it.
Yeah, she must have had… I mean, of course, it's difficult. Yeah. …Do you know what your grandfather's assignment was during the war?
So when he initially went to serve in World War II in Italy, he was a radio mechanic. People figured out that he knows fluent German. And he would be great to go in the airplanes and intercept the transmissions by the Germans and translate it for the Americans in an effort to help the Americans understand what their plans are.
Did he ever talk about what the war was like?
He was, you know, as he described in his diary, he was very nervous that first day. He had to go up in a plane. You know, he was shaking like a leaf, he said. But after that, it got easier, and he would talk about, you know, I brought back a certain number of pages of talk. I brought back 20 pages of talk. And then he'd have to sit there and, like, translate it all.
Did he ever talk about what happened? Like, how he was shot down and how he became a prisoner of war?
My grandfather had a certain number of missions to complete in an airplane. A mission was there and back, like being in an airplane. He had 50 missions to complete. When he had 21 missions to go, his plane was shot down. He ended up landing in a country that was sympathetic to the Third Reich. They were ready to hang him, literally. They had a noose around his neck, and my grandfather was able to speak German and convince them, we're not Nazis, we're not, we're, here's, we are, we're Americans, we're just. So they spared their lives, his life, and he got transferred to a POW camp, ending up at Stalag Luft IV in Germany.
And he was kept there from until February of 1945 when they learned that the Russian forces were coming westward and getting too close to their camp. So they had to be evacuated. They could not stay. My family said that they knew that if the Russians got you, you wouldn't be heard from again.
My grandmother tells it, they got everyone together and the leader of the camp, of the Germans, said, “I have orders to shoot every single one of you. You've got 30 minutes to get your personal belongings and leave.” So they got everything that they could, packed up, left with, you know, just something to carry their Red Cross parcels, and It's the middle of winter in Germany and they were out walking for 86 days to leave and go farther west to get away from the advancing Russians.
So they ended up walking and just camping in or sleeping in whatever barns they could find if there was a farm nearby; eating off the land if they didn't have much in their Red Cross parcels. If you passed a beet farmer, they would literally take — steal, basically, beets or potatoes or something from their farm in order to eat something. And I can't imagine how much sickness and some must have passed away. I don't really know. But what I did hear was that my grandfather was a leader. that because he was able to speak German, he could help and translate, you know, and even though the German forces were with them, they were kind of, there's this strange dynamic between them. Yes, they're prisoners and being kept under German, under German occupation, but also they became friends with them too, because they were all in this together and they're all trying to get away from the Russians.
Oh my gosh, can you imagine his state of mind? And then I know it took months and months for him to get home. Do you know what that homecoming was like? Did your grandmother ever talk about it?
She did say that he came home in the middle of the night and he wanted to see Rudy. He wanted to see his son, who was a year and a half old at that point. And she said, no, no, don't wake him. Don't wake them. You can see him in the morning, and he'll know who you are. And he just couldn't help it. And he went into his bedroom and saw and met his son. And his son instantly knew that was dad. He forgot he had a mom. According to my grandma, he went right to his father for everything after that.
Aw, Rudy just seems like the greatest guy. What was his personality like?
You know, he was, he was a German guy who was just loud. So his presence was always larger than life. Like, oh my gosh, you know, grandpa's here. And there's just a lot of him, you know, this big loud voice and this man who eats a lot of food. We couldn't keep enough cold cuts and bratwurst and sauerkraut and coffee in the house. The coffee pot would just be brewing nonstop. He was just so wise and such a good grandpa, playful too. He would take us to get Slurpees or ice cream. We'd go on walks with him. He loved to walk. And so we'd walk up to the local convenience store and get Slurpees while he'd play the lottery.
He's just one that made the most of his life. I think he would have wanted — he wanted to go to college after the war, but his family said, you have a family now, so you have to go to work. So he never got to go, but he made it work with odd jobs here and there. He worked for a sheet metal factory, you know, selling insurance. Even selling vacuum cleaners at one point, you know, just picking up whatever job he could to support the family.
Okay, so I'm glad to learn this about Rudy because I was picturing him as more stoic, but it seems like he had a really big personality.
He filled the room! And definitely and between him and my grandmother, they were just lots of conversation, lots of talking, lots of laughter. But also, you know, he could be pretty gruff and intimidating at first. It almost took me as a kid a few days to kind of you know, figure him out and see his soft spot. Like he was very tender-hearted, but he didn't wear that right away. He was kind of wanting to be strong and kind of show his like, you know, stern side, but he's a big teddy bear underneath.
Oh, I mean, it's clear that he just loved her so much. Do you remember what their relationship was like?
Oh, my gosh, they were joined together. Emotionally, they were affectionate towards one another. They were holding hands and, you know, giving each other kisses and even the way that they interacted and showed devotion to one another. They really embodied what it meant to make your spouse number one. My grandmother made my grandfather her number one priority, and she said, you know, I don't know how my children felt about that, but Rudy was always number one.
That is what she then told me on my wedding day. She looked at me on my wedding day as I'm about to walk down the aisle, and she says, now, you have to keep your husband number one, and he has to keep you number one. So they really lived that in every way.
I remember my grandfather even — many, many years after the war, obviously, once I was born, I remember my grandfather taking a job in Germany. And he had to go abroad and he had to go overseas and without my grandmother. And he was supposed to be there for a month or something without her. And he lasted a week. And he said, come over here now. I need you. I need you beside me.
They just have the sweetest relationship. I'm wondering, how has it affected you or shaped the way you see the world?
I think that we know that I've heard bits and pieces of this story over the years, and it wasn't until I really sat down to do the Storyworth story that I saw it for the first time as my grandmother's life, what she could remember from start to finish. I think what I get out of it now is an appreciation for not just his service, but her service too, that she had an incredibly important role in supporting and him from home taking care of the kids. Her story has inspired me.
And I think knowing my grandfather's service, though, was hard for me to grasp as a kid. But I remember I was so inspired that it was my grandfather who served in World War II, and that he was translating plans for the Americans, and that he was so brave. I think to just be over there and be in this airplane and hearing about your missions and the way that he must have had to talk to people who weren't kind to him. He had a noose around his neck. He would have been hung. He was a leader and had to be, because that's the only way he got out of that alive.
So I think it's a story of perseverance and love to have done all of that and come out of it without any malice towards anyone. He said in one of his letters, please, God, let this end. When will this fighting end? We blame no one, but now we just want to be home.
Yeah, and forgive me if I'm wrong, but Rudy was one of a long line of Rudy Dinkas to serve in the military. Is that right?
So my great-grandfather is a Rudy and my grandfather, Rudolph Conrad, then had his son, Rudy, who served in Vietnam. And his firstborn was also a son named Rudy, Rudy III, who also was enlisted in the military and was a career service person. And his son, also a boy, was named Rudy, and is also in the military. So four generations of Rudys, and five if you include my great-grandfather. I don't think you could say anything higher about their commitment to the military than their time, their dedication, and enlisting in whatever service was needed.
I honestly haven't, like, kind of welled up this much by — for me, it's 11 o'clock in the morning. Oh, my gosh.
Yeah. Yeah. It's such a cool story. I'm so honored to be able to share it with you. It's inspiring to me. And so if other people can get some inspiration from it, too, and that's all the better, you know. To imagine now what it must be like to not hear from your spouse for almost a year when you have a son at home and your wife not knowing what's going on. To write to her as lovingly as he did all the way up until the end, you know, he just was sure that they were going to be reunited and that they were going to pick up where they left off.
And he also said, which was the greatest thing, a lesson to me, is that I would do it all over again if I could do it with her.
My gosh. I was, you know, reading through the story again, and I was just thinking, like, there's such a sweet romance, you know, with calling her Princess Precious, you know, just, like, very sweet. Like, they're very sweet and romantic with each other, right? There's this, like, clear longing —
Yes. The night that my grandfather died was incredibly hard. He had Alzheimer's at the end, and she came back to her house, and in the middle of the night, it was very, very late at And she was an immaculate housekeeper, and she found a feather on the floor. And it was this white feather, and she thought, what's this feather doing on the floor? And she kept it. And then she talked to a Native American friend of hers who said, don't lose that feather. That's his soul telling you he's OK. And she kept that feather. I saw it for myself when I visited her and told me that story.
She says, you know, “I believe in those things. I believe in those signs. Because when you love someone as much as I loved your grandfather, it's not easy to understand when that person It's gone.” She's like, well, what was that feather doing on the floor? You know, how could a white feather? It was very big. It wasn't like this tiny thing. It was a large feather.
I have chills. But Rebecca, thank you for sharing it with us, because I was like, I can't believe they actually have the letters. And it was such a treat to read them. So thank you for sharing them. A really special story for Veterans Day. And your family has such a special story.
And thanks to our listeners for joining us today. If you want to get started writing your life stories, or want to give the gift of Storyworth to a loved one, head over to storyworth.com.
We'll be back in two weeks with a special episode for Thanksgiving. And in the meantime, if you want one of your stories to be considered for the podcast, head to http://storyworth.com/podcast.
Storyworth is a production of Evergreen Podcasts, hosted by me, Krista Baum. And we have a new production team. Welcome Erin Lann, our new producer. And we get production help from Wendy Sobrozo. Thanks, Wendy! Our mix engineer is Zach Hurst. We'll see you next time.