One of a vanishing few
World War II veteran reunited with past.
With a chill wind gathering and leaves falling quickly, longtime Lake Leelanau seasonal resident Edwin Tostige, 84, was packing up his SUV to begin his annual migration back to Florida last week when he paused to take another look at some of his most precious cargo.
Tostige wanted to take one more look at some letters he had written to a friend back in Michigan while serving as a U.S. Marine in the Pacific during World War II.
The letters, which were missing for more than 60 years, were returned to Tostige this summer after a woman from downstate Romulus bought them at a flea market 15 years ago.
“Fifteen years ago, we didn’t all have the Internet, so it was very difficult to track down all the people who wrote those letters,” said Jan Tjernlund. “There were dozens of letters for sale for a few dollars at the flea market – mostly because they had some really interesting World War II-era postage stamps on them,” she explained.
“Then, I began actually reading the letters,” Tjernlund said.
Almost all of the letters were addressed to a Mrs. Essie Brown of Ecorse, Mich., who had apparently been corresponding with a number servicemen from her neighborhood who were off to war and stationed all over the world. One of them was young Edwin Tostige.
“Mrs. Brown was a good friend of the family,” said Tostige, who retired from his Detroit-area job as a plumbing contractor a quarter-century ago. “During the war, Mrs. Brown often sent me letters and cards and packages, and I wrote her back. Of course, she and her husband died many years ago.”
Tostige enlisted in the Marines in 1942 and served as an aviation ordnance specialist – he loaded guns, bombs and rockets onto Marine aircraft. About a dozen historic letters recently returned to him outline the breadth of his service – from “boot camp” in San Diego, to an explosives ordnance school in Oklahoma, to a Marine Corps Air Station in California and, finally, to the island of Mindanao in the Philippines. There, Tostige and fellow Marines were preparing for a final air assault on the Japanese mainland until nuclear airstrikes launched from another Pacific island ended the war.
The woman who acquired Tostige’s letters decades after they were written described herself as a “baby boomer” whose interest in World War II history was not all that remarkable until last year.
“Those letters had been put away in a drawer for years; but I never really forgot about them,” Tjernlund said. “Then, I began watching that Ken Burns documentary, The War, that was on TV last year and I realized what a treasure I had. I also realized that if I were going to find any of the men who wrote those letters, I needed to act quickly. So many of them are gone now, and more of them are dying every day.”
Tjernlund did locate one of the letter-writers – a retiree living year-round in Florida – as well as the widow of another of Mrs. Brown’s correspondents. It was not until a local newspaper in southeast Michigan published a story about Tjernlund’s efforts that Tostige found out about the letters from a downstate relative who had read the article.
“I got a phone call from Jan (Tjerlund) this summer,” Tostige said, “and it just surprised the devil out of me that anyone would have those letters.”
Tostige recalled how, before he headed overseas, he’d visited Mrs. Brown at her home and introduced her to the young woman he planned to marry, Gladys. The two were married in 1945 and enjoyed more than 55 years together before Gladys passed away in 2001.
Nearly every summer through all of those years, Ed, Gladys and their children vacationed on Lake Leelanau. Tostige was sitting at the dining room table in his family’s cottage on the lake last week when he read aloud from one of the letters he’d written so long ago to Mrs. Brown:
“Thank you very much for the compliment you gave for my girl,” Tostige wrote to Mrs. Brown from one of his far-flung duty stations during World War II.
“She sure is a swell person and will make a very good wife.”
His normally strong voice cracked slightly, and he paused.
“I don’t want to get too sentimental here,” the Marine said.
He set the letter down.
Has he stayed in touch with any of his comrades from the war?
“For many years I did,” Tostige answered.
“But all of them are gone now.”