Jennifer Brooks
See more of the story

The war was over at last, but Katie FitzPatrick was still waiting for word of her lost son.

Bernard had been taken prisoner three years earlier, in 1942, in the Philippines. In Bataan.

And now it was the autumn of 1945 and a Western Union messenger was walking toward her. A telegram to the family of a missing serviceman could only mean one of two things.

"I said are you bringing me good news?" she would later write. "And he smiled and said yes and read the telegram, my first word was Thank God and I cried from joy."

It was the first letter she could write to her son knowing that he would read it, and her relief and gratitude bubbled through every line and pencil loop.

If joy and gratitude feel in short supply this Thanksgiving, let this three-page letter mailed from Minnesota 77 years ago serve as a refresher.

"Honestly Bern the telephone buzzed all afternoon and the next day asking if the news were [true]," his mother wrote. "You would not believe how many friends you have and all were praying fervently for your safe return, Masses on top of Masses were said for you. I hope I can talk to you soon in place of writing."

In three chatty pages, his mother caught him up on neighborhood news and family updates, fretted about his health, and gave thanks again and again and again.

Katie FitzPatrick’s first letter to her son, Bernard, on Oct. 1, 1945, after learning that he had survived the Bataan Death March and the years of captivity and cruelty that followed.
Katie FitzPatrick’s first letter to her son, Bernard, on Oct. 1, 1945, after learning that he had survived the Bataan Death March and the years of captivity and cruelty that followed.

Letter courtesy of the FitzPatrick family

"Really Bernie, all the prayer's done it. All thanks to God," she said. "Please let me know how is your health … As ever your loving, Mother."

Bernard FitzPatrick had survived the Bataan Death March and the years of captivity, cruelty and forced labor that followed. When he was ready to write about it, like his mother before him, he told a story of gratitude.

On almost every page of his award-winning memoir, "The Hike into the Sun," FitzPatrick focuses on acts of courage and kindness in the midst of horror.

The Filipino civilians who lined roads as they marched, risking beatings or worse to slip water or fruit or small cakes of sugar to the sick, starving prisoners. The guards who were kind. The German priest who doggedly delivered food, supplies and secret messages to the prisoners, until he was caught and executed. All the sick, scared and heartbreakingly young soldiers who joked and sang and carried each other through.

Bernard FitzPatrick was born into a large family on a small farm outside Waverly, Minn., in 1915.

There was no running water on the farm and no electricity. But the FitzPatricks were a family more interested in what they had than what they lacked.

They had their faith. They had music and laughter and a deep appreciation of the power of education. Most of all, they had each other.

"As adults, my father and his brothers and sisters never seemed to begrudge growing up in difficult circumstances," Bernard's son Brian FitzPatrick would recall during his eulogy for his father in 2004. "I never heard them complain about those hard times. Instead they joked about it … They seemed to understand that they were rich in the right values."

Katie FitzPatrick lost her husband, Florian, in 1939. At one point during the war that followed, three of her sons were missing in action. Two of the boys, Leonard and Red, were found safe. But not Bernie. Not for three and a half agonizing years.

Bernard FitzPatrick would always insist that the real heroes were the ones who didn't make it home.

Bernie made it home, married the lovely Corinne Hurley, and together they raised eight accomplished children. Throughout his life, he would be approached by parents, wives, children of those who didn't make it home, desperate to know what happened to them.

"I would tell them what happened truthfully, but as gently as possible," he wrote in the introduction to his book. But he would rather talk about how they lived than how they died. "I preferred to describe the courage and camaraderie that the war prisoners had exhibited throughout their captivity."

FitzPatrick himself came home emaciated and ill. Captivity had damaged his vision, his hearing and the muscles of his heart. He was diagnosed with malaria, beriberi, scurvy, pellagra, filariasis, dysentery, pleurisy and troubles with his bowels and teeth.

After reviewing his enormous medical file, a new doctor at the veteran's hospital once diagnosed his patient as a "tough old bird."

Bernard FitzPatrick died on Oct. 8, 2004. He was 89.

His family donated his papers and mementos to his beloved University of St. Thomas and to the Minnesota Historical Society, so more Minnesotans could hear his story, and be thankful.