To Charlotte, with love: A WWII soldier's family wants to know more about special Pittsburgh pen pal


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Who is Charlotte Johnston?

A family in Wisconsin is trying to solve that mystery with a single clue -- a letter from a young airman who died 67 years ago in the Pacific.

Andrew Rausch of Burlington, Wis., was a gunner on a B-24 Liberator in the Philippines whose plane hit a mountain on Jan. 10, 1945.

The last letter he wrote was to a young woman named Charlotte Johnston, who lived at 217 Kramer Way on Mount Washington.

She and Mr. Rausch had never met, but they carried on a long-distance relationship through the mail for several months in 1944. She'd even sent him a picture, to which he replied that she was a "very nice-looking young lady, no fooling!"

Yet no one connected to the Rausch family in Wisconsin knows who she is -- or whether she's still alive.

She's long gone from that Kramer Way address, and searches of old handwritten census forms, street directories and genealogical sources have turned up nothing about her.

Steve Wagner, a Wisconsin architect and World War II aviation buff related to Andy by marriage, pieced together Andy's history and spent 16 fruitless months trying to find his lost pen pal.

The letter

The text of Andrew Rausch's unmailed letter to Charlotte Johnston:

January 9, 1945
Palau Islands

Dear Charl,

Your letter of Dec. 6 arrived here today and was very glad to hear from you. It must have got lost somewhere for I have received several others dated after that. Oh well it got here and that's what counts.

Please don't worry if my letters don't come in regular, but sometimes we get busy flying and can't. You may have noticed that I have moved, you will be able to find where I am now on a map.

This is the worst place that I have been yet, it's rough, Charl, no kidding. Poor food and the officers in our outfit can't do anything about it. We are here on detached service and they don't treat our boys good at all. But things will be better soon and that's OK with me.

I don't mind the pencil and am glad to hear from you even if it's on wrapping paper.

Boy did we ever razz Sankey about Pgh and he couldn't deny it. We always tell him we could never live in Pgh because it was so dirty. To tell the truth I wouldn't hope you don't mind. Well I showed the fellas that line you wrote: "Pgh is such a dirty filthy place." Your letter really put him in his place. So we won't argue that no more for awhile.

Your letters are swell and I can't even tell you how glad I am to get them. Am sending you a picture of myself which I had taken on my last furlough. It was taken by surprise so it isn't very good. Quite a position I'm in, don't you think. Come on down and see me some time. It was taken in a park near the lake at home.

You're not kidding a bit when you say a lot can happen in three months. Here I am and so far away and can't do anything about it. But in those three months, I have taken a liking to you, even if it is in the mail. Hope you don't think I'm being too forward but I must tell the truth. I did get your pictures and will thank you again. You're a very nice looking young lady, no fooling.

We have only four missions in now and I am eager for more. The sooner we get it over with, the sooner we get home. We have bombed Manila in the Philippines, some fun eh what. There isn't much more I can say due to the censor.

I am fine and hope you are the same always. Write soon and send another picture of yours truly if you can.

Bye now.

Love,

Andy

Mr. Wagner, 42, wasn't particularly surprised that it's taking so long. Finding women from the 1940s is especially difficult because their names changed when they married.

"At the very outset I knew it was going to be a challenge," he said. "With someone so young, there are so many opportunities for a name change."

Mr. Wagner's fascination with Charlotte began three years ago when he was doing research for his wife's family on Andy's history. His mother-in-law -- Andy's niece -- had shown him a picture of the bomber on which Andy flew because she knew of his interest in World War II aircraft.

He identified the bomber as a B-24, but he also became intrigued by the young men posing in front of the plane.

"I realized that these guys had stories to tell," said Mr. Wagner. "I asked, 'What happened to Andy?' "

The family knew only that his bomber disappeared in the Philippines one night in 1945.

"This is when I jumped down the rabbit hole," said Mr. Wagner.

He began poring over government documents, after-action reports and websites dedicated to World War II and Pacific theater wrecks, eventually finding that Andy's plane crashed into a 6,500-foot volcanic mountain and that he was buried in Manila.

As part of the research, Mr. Wagner dug through a box of Andy's correspondence and personal items and found the letter he wrote to Charlotte Johnston, dated Jan. 9. He included a picture of himself, apologizing that it wasn't a very good one.

It's clear from the tone of the writing that he was courting her from afar, but who was she and what happened to her?


Would she remember?

In reviewing the letter, Mr. Wagner got to wondering whether Charlotte would remember Andy all these years later.

"I would get on a plane tomorrow if I knew she was still alive and she might be interested in reading the letter she never received from Andy," he said in an email.

It's not clear how they came to know each other; Andy had never left Burlington before he enlisted at 17. But one possible link is Walter C. Sankey Jr., another member of the 12-man crew of the B-24 who died on Jan. 10 that year.

Walter was from Hornaday Road in Carrick, and his hometown's smoke-choked reputation was a topic of discussion in the letters between Andy and Charlotte.

"Boy did we ever razz Sankey about Pittsburgh and he couldn't deny it," Andy wrote to her. "We always tell him we would never live in Pittsburgh because it was so dirty."

Apparently Walter had defended the city, so Andy showed his crew mates a line that Charlotte had written earlier: "Pittsburgh is such a dirty, filthy place."

Andy told her, "Your letter really put him in his place, so we won't argue that no more for awhile."

Beyond that glimpse of Charlotte, however, the Rausch family has no other details. Several distant relatives of the Sankey family also did not know of any connection to her and Walter Sankey. Walter's parents died long ago, and his younger brother, Norman, has been dead since 1995.

Apparently by coincidence, the house at 217 Kramer Way was once owned by the late F. Paul Sankey of Oakmont, who owned many rental properties. But he does not appear to be related to Walter Sankey.

The relationship between Andy and Charlotte is the last link in a puzzle for the Rausch family.

"I'm not sure if Charlotte ever knew what happened to him," said Mr. Wagner. "I'd love to be able to introduce her to him."

The other pieces of Andy's life and last days have come together at last -- and they tell another sad tale from a war that produced so many.

Andy died on his fifth mission. His crew was on a detached operation from its regular bomb group, teaming up with the 22nd bomb group for missions to Luzon using an advanced bombing radar system.

They flew to an airstrip at Tacloban on Jan. 9 in preparation for a night bombing run on Manila the next day.

The plane took off at 9 p.m. on Jan. 10 and disappeared sometime between 10 and 11.

Weeks went by with no word of what happened. Walter Sankey's mother in Carrick, Eulalia Tello Sankey, wrote a desperate letter on Jan. 30 to Andy Rausch's mother in Wisconsin, saying she was told by the military that the plane took off on Jan. 10 but hadn't been heard from since.

Saying she was "almost crazy with worry and grief," she asked Mrs. Rausch to write if she heard anything and promised to do the same.

She included a prayer that the boys were "safe somewhere."

Now he's a person

Word of their fate came the following month, when Filipino locals found wreckage of the B-24 some 6,200 feet up on the face of Mount Banahaw on Luzon, south of Manila.

All 12 men aboard died.

Out of respect, the Filipinos had buried them in shallow graves covered by rock mounds.

A U.S. military recovery unit later removed the bodies for proper interment.

Walter Sankey's remains were brought home to the U.S. and buried with five other crew members' remains in a common grave at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis.

Andy was buried in the American cemetery on Manila. He was 20 years old.

His last letter was returned to his family with his personal items, where it lay for decades with other letters at the bottom of a box.

Written in longhand and addressed to "Charl," its theme is universal -- a young man at war, an ocean away, pining for a young woman:

"You're not kidding when you say a lot can happen in three months," the letter says. "Here I am and so far away and can't do anything about it. But in those three months I have taken a liking to you even if it is in the mail. ... I am fine and hope you are the same always. Write soon and send another picture of yours truly if you can. Bye now.

"Love, Andy."

When Mr. Wagner began his history project, Andy was an abstraction to his wife's family -- a distant figure who died in a war long ago.

"Now this is a person to them," he said. "Now I'm able to say, 'This is Andy; he was a war hero.' I'm grateful that I could give something back to my wife's family."

And yet one untold chapter remains. When Mr. Wagner presents the story, as he did recently at Andy's old high school, he tells his audience that Andy's last letter home to family was on Jan. 8.

But then he mentions that Andy wrote one more letter after that, to a girl in Pittsburgh. The reaction is always the same:

"Everyone says, 'Who was she?' "

Steven Wagner can be reached at swagner@andersonashton.com.

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Torsten Ove: tove@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1510.


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