BRANDON — Cyndi Buchanan found the box on the porch of a house in the shade of a 100-year-old oak tree with limbs that scratched patterns in the sky.
It was 2000, and Buchanan had just bought the home on North Taylor Road in Brandon. It was cluttered with the possessions of its previous owner, Tandy M. Wallace. She knew almost nothing about him.
Buchanan opened the box.
What she found was a window into a soldier's heart as he and his buddies, veterans of World War II, returned to life in America after the carnage in Europe. Buchanan found letters.
She read every word.
Buchanan got a glimpse of ordinary men coping with life. Their names are in no history books. Most are dead.
They're honored on Veterans Day in an abstract way, but their sacrifice was all too real, said Buchanan, 56.
"What they did shouldn't be forgotten," Buchanan said.
She wanted to get the letters back to Wallace, who had moved into an assisted-living facility. But she learned he died on Oct. 6, 2001 at age 82.
As Veterans Day approached this year, she thought about all those old letters once again.
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The Fifth Armored Division was formed in 1941 and its men saw some of the hardest European combat of World War II.
It was Wallace's division.
What part Wallace played in the fighting is unknown to Buchanan except that he was 23 when the war started.
Not long after the war ended, Wallace started writing and receiving letters at his Chipco Street home in Tampa.
One of Wallace's closest friends in the Fifth was Lorne Yetter.
Perhaps they were drawn together by geography. Yetter lived in Wauchula, a small farming community south of Tampa.
Yetter was wounded in Europe.
"I have been wanting to write you ever since I have been home, but my memory wasn't any good," Yetter wrote in a June 28, 1946 letter. "What I am anxious to learn from you is did Col. Scott McCase get any better and what happened to him? (I) want to know what happened to all the pals of mine.
"Thompson told me Mountain Willie was killed. I hated to learn that because I liked him. Dickie … was also killed same morning I got hit …"
In another letter, Yetter hints at the physical and mental toll the war had exacted.
"My doctor told dad not to let me try any type of work for quite some time. Going to try farming on a small scale ... After being in hospitals I feel like being outside rather than taking a job that will coop me up. Whenever I feel better, Tandy, I'll come up to see you … But at the present time, I'm not in the mood to do any traveling by myself. …"
It wasn't long before the friends met again.
"It was wonderful seeing you again, Tandy," Yetter wrote afterward. "That night I cried — don't think I'm a sissy. I was just thankful you took the time out to come down and be with me."
Yetter died in 1999.
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A second friend wrote to Wallace on Nov. 10, 1946 to share the details of his ruined marriage.
The friend told Wallace, "She has changed an awful lot. She isn't the same girl that was in Watertown with me before I got into the Army. … Maybe I have changed. I don't know."
A friend named Buck in Haines City exalted in his recent discharge.
"Well I'm glad to be a civilian again. … I still can't do anything with this left hand of mine and boy I mean it hurts plenty, too. I haven't tried to do anything but fish since I've been home."
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Wallace wrote to a friend named Charley a month after Christmas 1945 to trade gossip. He congratulated Charley on the birth of a daughter.
"Tough luck — sorry you didn't get a boy. Think I'd rather have gals though, get rid of them quicker. Ma's had me around for 27 years and I think I'll be around a few more – can't find a gal that will have me."
The letter was returned unopened. Charley had apparently moved.
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Several letters to Wallace came from families in Holland and Luxemberg he met in the war.
Several were written by a 19-year-old girl in Holland named Mia Packbier. She lived near an American cemetery where thousands of GIs are buried. Mia's family had adopted a grave. They placed flowers and said prayers for the GI.
Mia knew Wallace's brother had died in Italy during the war.
Mia wrote, "It's such a pity your brother will never come home again. He's also buried far from home like thousands of other boys. Enclosed you'll find some pictures of the U.S. military cemetery at Margraten (Holland.) Here rest 20,000 Yankees who gave their lives for our freedom."
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Wallace has few relatives left in Tampa.
One who remembers him is Kitty Wallace, a Tampa woman whose husband, Roger, was Tandy's nephew.
She said Wallace was a well-liked, cheerful man. He worked in an Ybor City cigar factory after the war, married, then divorced. He had no children.
She too has a box of Wallace's letters.
"My husband said he spoke hesitantly about the war," Wallace said. "He didn't glamorize it. He was no John Wayne type."
Last week, Buchanan sold the Brandon home where she found Wallace's letters.
Buchanan is going to give the letters to a military museum, though she isn't sure which one.
But Buchanan isn't going to donate everything. She may give a few items to the new owner, perhaps a picture she found of Wallace sitting on the steps of the house with his dog in the final years of his life.
"The house should keep some of the history," she said. The new owner "should know the guy who once lived here."
William R. Levesque can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3432.