At first glance, the letter looked ordinary -- a young girl writing to a naval officer boyfriend. Then Ron Cullins noticed the words at the end of the letter, written on May 30, 1940. Even in German, the words were clearly understandable in English: "Heil Hitler!"
Those words convinced Cullins, then a young U.S. soldier, to keep the letter.
"Although I could not read the German handwriting in the body of the letter, the fact that it was signed 'Heil Hitler' piqued my interest and prompted me to keep it for what is now over 65 years," he said.
Cullins, a member of Troop C, 81st Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron (Mecz.), First Armored Division in the U.S. Army during World War II, took the letter back to the states and stored it with his other war memorabilia.
In 1971, while working as an executive for Continental Airlines in Denver, Cullins hired a secretary fluent in German. He mentioned the letter to her, and she agreed to translate it.
Reading the English translation more than 25 years later, Cullins was fascinated by what this young German girl, Margret Burkhardt, wrote in her letter to a naval officer named Horst -- especially the last paragraph:
"I was recently in Bamberg. I liked it very much, but I kept thinking of the 4,000 people murdered. For your outing, I wish you all good weather and lots of fun. Many greetings to your beloved mother. Heil Hitler!, your Margret."
Forty years later, Cullins researched the reference to Bamberg through a book entitled "The End of a Community -- The Destruction of the Jews in Bamberg 1938-1942." He was shocked to find that Jewish people were persecuted and murdered as early as 1938, a prelude to Hitler's "final solution" that led to the massacre of more than 6 million Jews.
"To say I was shocked after reading the book would be a gross understatement," said Cullins, now 85 and living in Salina. "It was pretty shocking how coldly people were treated, although not nearly as much as they later were in concentration camps."
After being translated in 1971, the letter was packed away until May 2011, when Cullins began sorting through his World War II memorabilia and rediscovered the letter.
Reading the letter again, Cullins decided to tell the story of its discovery in 1945, along with a capsule history of the worldwide conflict, in a long letter to his five grandchildren, who ranged in age from 10 to 22.
"It's history they may not have been taught," he said. "I would tell them how I found the letter and provide some history on Adolph Hitler and the German aggression. The (letter) gives a real insight into what this German girl was thinking while Hitler and the Nazis were rampaging through Europe."
Page 2 of 3 - Cullins, born in Wichita and raised in Coldwater, was inducted into the Army in May 1945 at Fort Leavenworth, shortly after the war in Europe ended. In November 1945, he boarded a troop ship which took him to Le Havre, France, a major commercial harbor on the English Channel.
While Europe had been liberated from German occupation by Allied forces, many cities, including Le Havre, had been heavily bombed and damaged.
Arriving troops were temporarily housed in clusters of empty homes on the city's outskirts, all of which were named after American cigarettes. Cullins was assigned to "Camp Philip Morris," where he slept in his sleeping bag on the floor of a once ornate home.
In the room in which he slept, Cullins noticed a number of papers scattered on the floor. Curious, he looked through some of them and found the "Heil Hitler" letter from Margret Burkhardt. He put the letter in his pack, intending to have it translated later.
It took another 25 years before Cullins finally "met" Margret Burkhardt.
In the letter to his grandchildren, Cullins wrote that based on the letter to Horst, "we can probably assume that Margret Burkhardt was likely a young, single, German woman from a well-to-do family, who was attending school in Hohensalse, perhaps at a college or private academy. Horst, her likely boyfriend, was a German naval officer based in Le Havre and apparently living in the house where I found Burkhardt's letter."
In the letter, Margret takes great pride in the accomplishments of the German Army in 1940, a time when Hitler's forces were overrunning smaller European countries, Cullins said.
"What do you say to the progress of our army?" Margret wrote. "Isn't it super?"
She also reveals her ethnic prejudices of the day by writing: "Why do I care about the Polacks bothering me? They steal like ravens."
Yet at the same time, Cullins said, Margret seems troubled by news of the murder of 4,000 Jewish men, women and children from Bamberg.
"How did she feel upon learning that under Hitler's ideology over 6 million European Jews were put to death?" Cullins wrote to his grandchildren.
If Margret were still alive, Cullins wonders what she would think about an American soldier finding her personal letter, taking it back to the U.S. and then giving copies of it to his grandchildren more than 65 years later.
How would this girl writing in 1940 react to what happened to the world during the next five years?
"When you look back, if Allied forces had not stopped Hitler's armies, it would be an extremely different world today," he said.
Cullins hopes his own letter will help his grandchildren better understand the sacrifices made by hundreds of thousands of men and women during World War II to help preserve the freedoms we still enjoy today.
Page 3 of 3 - "They should appreciate what that generation did for future generations," he said.