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Arts and Entertainment

Words from the Front

Letters from Michael Beresh's long-lost great uncles fuel a new WWII song cycle

Josh Sisk

By Bret McCabe | Posted 3/3/2010

Michael Beresh performs Letters to Baltimore from the War at the Creative Alliance March 6 at 8 p.m.

followed by a Q&A featuring Michael Beresh, his father William Beresh, and his cousin Joe Stewart.

For more information visit letterstobaltimorefromthewar.blogspot.com.

Anzio is a picturesque seaside town on Italy's west coast, some 35 miles south of Rome. Prior to World War II, it was a popular holiday beach spot; during WWII, a 15-mile stretch of shore, including this vacation hamlet, was the site of one of the pivotal battles of the Italian campaign. On Jan. 22, 1944, Allied forces launched an offensive on the area. This surprise attack eventually turned into four months of hard-fought beachhead battle, with Allied VI Corps casualties--according to the Center for Military History, United States Army's 1990 publication Anzio Beachhead 22 January-25 May 1944--numbering approximately 30,000, including at least 4,400 killed and 18,000 wounded in action

PFC Walter C. Beresh of East Baltimore, a pressman and plate printer at Bethlehem Steel before he enlisted in June 1941, was one of the American soldiers who survived that battle. "They had named one of the guns on the front Anzio Annie," says local musician Michael Beresh, Walter's great-grandnephew. "And I thought that was pretty wild, because you guys are so out there you're naming guns."

Beresh, an instantly affable 35-year-old native of West Baltimore who now lives in Harford County, laughs at the wit of a man he never knew. Beresh isn't, however, recounting family lore passed down through the generations. In fact, until late last year, Beresh had known little about his great uncle Walter and Walter's younger brother Henry, who both served and were killed during WWII. This week, though, Beresh sings their words when he debuts the musical project Letters to Baltimore From the War at the Creative Alliance at the Patterson.

"I knew I had two uncles that died in the war, but that was pretty much it," Beresh says during a recent interview. "It was basically one of those non-talked about things, you know what I mean, within the family. Like, my grandfather--my dad's dad--it was both of his younger brothers, and he took it real hard. And he was a Baltimore City firefighter, over in Canton, when they used to have the house over there. And he was the kind of man who went kicking and screaming when he died at 97, with a beer in this hand and a cigarette in the other."

Beresh--and his entire extended family--learned about Henry and Walter from their own words. Last summer, Beresh's cousin, 62-year-old Joe David Stewart, a U.S. Naval Academy graduate who retired in 2002 after 29 years of service, came across a stack of letters after going through his mother's collection of family papers. In her belongings were roughly 140 letters from Henry and Walter that, the family presumes, nobody had seen since the war.

Last September, Stewart started retyping the letters and e-mailing them to the extended family. "You know how families are where you're not as close as you should be," Beresh says. His great aunt Fran, Walter and Henry's sister to whom most of the letters were addressed, didn't even know they still existed. "She thought they had just been dusted and, you know, the way stuff disappears when somebody dies and here's some stacks of paper and you do it as fast as you can because it's a little painful so you rush through it. She was really surprised."

Now, Beresh and his family have nearly five years of Walter's thoughts about his life and his military career, from his short stints at Texas' Camp Hullen and Camp Wallace, where he conducted basic training; his stationing in Kent, England; his 7-8-month tour in North Africa; his return to England; and finally his deployment in Italy. They learned about how he was one hell of a dancer and how he once washed dishes with movie star Rosalind Russell during basic training--"he mentioned in one of the letters that they were hoping to get Rita Hayworth, but they got Rosalind Russell," Beresh says. Henry wrote fewer letters, but he was also overseas for a briefer time. Henry was drafted in July 1944, and by January 1945 he was a mortar operator on the front lines in Bastogne--during the Battle of the Bulge. He lasted 14 days, dying Jan. 24, 1945, at the age of 23.

"It's really brought the family closer together," Beresh says of the letters. "And one day just sitting there with my father and going over these stories, I was, like, You should do something with this because these stories are too good to let them go to waste.'"

What Beresh has decided to do is set Walter and Henry's words to music. In the late 1990s, Beresh played drums for a local "jazz-funk thing" called the Everything Bagels, and since 2002 he's led the country-rock outfit the Country Devils. Last October, he sat down with his acoustic guitar and printouts of Walter's and Henry's letters to see what might happen.

About two weeks later, he had written about 30 songs. "I got to admit, man, once I started doing it and they were coming real fast, I was a little intimidated about showing it to my family," Beresh says. "Because I'm not--the Country Devils aren't exactly the kind of band you bring your mom to. We're more of a bar band sort of thing. So that was a little intimidating. It was like, 'If I do this, they're all gonna be there. They're all gonna show up.' And at this point they're all ecstatic. And I guess I just want to do it as truthful and as honest as I possibly could."

Beresh has no need to worry, because he's come up with a set of moving songs that emotionally sneak up on you. During a Tuesday night rehearsal at the Parkville home of bassist Bob Brooks, Beresh and the band he's assembled for the performance--Brooks, Lawn Chair singer/guitarist/harp player Adam Miller, guitarist/lap steel guitarist Greg Pardew, and pianist Chris Pumphrey (not present were drummer Todd Boyle and backup singers Jackie Beresh, Anna Bauer, and Karla Chisholm)--move through the 14 or so songs Beresh has arranged for the Creative Alliance performance with a fluid ease.

Throughout, Beresh self-deprecatingly knocks his arrangements--"I'm not the best guitarist," he says when asked what key a song is in or when he runs through the simple chord progressions of a song--but the music's simplicity nicely frames Walter and Henry's words. Beresh says he's taken snippets from individual letters and barely changed a word or phrase to create lyrics and choruses, and these excerpted phrases form haunting scenes and unforgettable lines.

And they might be so memorable because the gentle country-folk Beresh has written for the words is so unexpected. WWII music--in the movies, at least--is typically some boogie-woogie-bugle-boy pop or locale-setting snippets of French, Italian, or German songs. Folk isn't the sound associated with this era, but as handled by Beresh and company, the sound cradles the words like a bird's nest. It looks fragile and stitched together from scrounged parts, but feels as natural as rain.

And sometimes, they end up landing with a tremendous emotional force. In "May 11, 1944"--all the songs are titled either by date or dateline, such as "Somewhere in Italy" or "Somewhere in Belgium" since military censors frowned upon actual locations being named in correspondence--Beresh has turned Walter's words into a pirouette portrait of a young man starting to feel the stress of battle:

The chorus is a blunt gut-punch of sober fact: "The countryside is beautiful it's a shame what war can do to things." Walter survived Anzio, but he wouldn't survive Italy. PFC Walter C. Beresh of the 473rd Infantry Regiment, Company A, was killed April 14, 1945, somewhere in Italy, at the age of 33. On the morning of May 7, 1945, a mere 23 days later, Germany would unconditionally surrender to Supreme Allied Command at Reims, France, effectively ending European fighting.

"It's pretty much the general consensus, through Walter's sister, that Walter would have had a really, really hard time coming back and adjusting to life because he had been in combat for so long," Beresh says. "The letters, in the beginning he's very optimistic and very sort of hopeful and all this, and by the last letter, 12 days before he passed, they're just, 'I cannot wait to get out of here.' That one song that we played that was real slow about the sun going down and all that and the streets of Baltimore and all that--that was his letter to a 'T.' Talking about being a kid and running wild and being a maniac but still very--I hate to sort of analyze the letters but that's part of the adaptive process."

It has to be odd singing the words of somebody you never met, practically collaborating and forming a relationship with that person purely through letter they sent back home to loved ones. And you get the impression Beresh himself is still figuring out how this experience continues to affect him. "You can see the breakdown of the psyche of the person," Beresh continues. "So this strong, gung-ho kid coming in at 28 and then by the end, it's 'War is a shame and it is not right and it's wrong' and he's seen a little too much. And I don't understand, because I always sort of imagined that if you've been through that many battles . . . .," Beresh drifts off. "But he stayed on till the very end."

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