A story lost in time
‘Static Lines: Letters from a Kansas City Paratrooper’
ALAMOSA — Thirteen years ago, when local author Eric Palmer’s father-in-law handed him a shoebox of letters while he was visiting in Montana, he had no idea what was waiting for him inside. The letters, composed 80 years ago, were written by a relative in his wife’s family that he had never heard mentioned and, in fact, few in the family knew much about. The contents of the box became the basis of Palmer's new book.
“My father-in-law offered the shoebox to all the others but no one was interested,” says Palmer, who is the assistant principal at Alamosa’s 3-5 school. “He finally offered it to me because he knew I had an interest in history.”
When Palmer opened the box, he immediately knew that it contained something very special. Inside was a collection of letters, 86 in all, known as “V-mail”, photos of letters written by soldiers during World War II that were then processed and printed on small pages roughly 4 inches by 5inches big. The letters, in pristine condition, were all written by a single soldier, Sonnie Rockford, to his mother back home in Kansas City. Sonnie Rockford was his wife’s great-uncle.
What Palmer didn’t foresee is that those letters would prompt him to ultimately compile them into a book titled “Static Lines: Letters from a Kansas City Paratrooper”.
The story is the tale of a journey told in Rockford’s own words and painstakingly transcribed by Palmer. It’s the journey of a young man — a teenager — who, four months after Pearl Harbor, lied about his age and enlisted in the U.S Army where he was trained to be a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne Division, 505th Infantry Regiment, 1st Battalion, Company C.
Over the course of two and a half years, Sonnie Rockford would survive four combat jumps, including D-Day, and serve in six countries — Africa, Sicily, Italy, Ireland, England, France and Holland.
While the letters tell the story of a young optimistic soldier fighting in a war thousands of miles from home, Palmer did extensive research and inserts historical information that provides context to where Rockford is serving and what’s going on at the time.
Equally important, Palmer also researched family and community history and couches the tale in other documents that tell the story of Sonnie, himself, the young kid from Missouri who got good grades in elementary school, who posed for photos with his mother and younger sisters, who earned patches from Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts and Rotary and a certificate for being a strong swimmer.
“I feel like I got to know him pretty well,” Palmer says. “He gave a lot of personal details, talking about missing his family and his sisters. I think if I met him in real life, I’d think he was a fun guy to be around. He was upbeat. ‘Don’t worry about me, mom, I’m doing fine.’ He definitely loved the girls he met, and he definitely loved his beer. But he also gave it his all. He talked about walking down the streets of Berlin one day. He was in it to the death.”
Although there is no mention in the letters of any of the military operations Rockford was a part of, readers can also occasionally get glimpses of the toll war was taking on the young man, if they choose to.
Palmer only calls attention to one time when Rockford seems to be considering his mortality for the first time, writing “when and if I get home…”. As far as the other cracks that can be seen — ““I don’t know why I’m still here when all my friends keep getting blown up” or wondering if his “family will recognize,” him — Palmer leaves it up to the reader to interpret those or not, as they will.
Palmer foreshadows how Sonnie Rockford’s journey ends. But the impact of what that means can only be fully experienced after reading the book in its entirety.
Despite the letters that are somewhat simplistic and largely repetitive — they are, after all, written by a teen-aged boy — they are also endearing. Perhaps, they also reveal a young man who is putting on a brave face for his “sweetheart” mother thousands of miles away as his service records suggest he was seeing the horror of war firsthand.
But, in ultimate respect for the reader and for letting Sonnie speak for himself, Palmer makes almost no attempt to interpret what the young soldier might have been experiencing. He simply provides the contextual facts, reproduces Rockford’s letters exactly as they were written and allows the reader to make their own conclusion.
“I just wanted to tell his story. He’s one of a million soldiers, but he survived these combat jumps, and we have this record. How many millions of soldiers didn’t make it home?”
Since his book was published, Palmer has been giving author talks to all the classes at the elementary “because it helps young minds see the average person can do above average things like publish a book. I hope to inspire the next generation of authors.”
When asked about his own takeaway, Palmer says, “Sonnie was a hardworking and quiet soldier with great attention to duty. He was one of millions of soldiers but also an individual. While we, as humans, can be individualistic, we are also part of a greater group. We need to utilize our individual talents to help others rather than always helping ourselves.”
And when asked about what readers should take away, he shares what he experienced. “What I found was a story lost in time; the pieces of a puzzle that reveal a short life lived, a boy becoming a man, a son who very much loved his mother.”
Eric Palmer will be at a book signing on Friday, Feb. 2, at Narrow Gauge Book Co-op, 602 Main St., in Alamosa from 5 to 8 p.m.