When Charles Orr Ryan returned in 1918 from serving in England during World War 1, his family stashed his wartime letters in the attic of their Minnesota farmhouse.
There they remained for about 100 years, until a relative sent them to Charles’ daughter Patricia Jane Ryan. Jane Ryan, as she calls herself, graduated from National College of Education in 1960 with a Bachelor of Education degree and worked as a teacher until her retirement. NCE continues to exist as the college of education within National Louis University.
In 2018, a century after Charles penned the now-fragile letters, Jane published the book “In His Own Words: Charles Orr Ryan, The Story of a WW1 American Soldier.”
“I had to wear white gloves to turn the pages (of the letters), because they were 100 years old and they would tear,” Jane Ryan said by phone from her home in Redondo Beach, California.
“A lot of the photos had never been seen before because photos were heavily censored during World War II.”
She and a friend, Mary Catherine Davis, decided the best way to commemorate Charles Orr Ryan’s service would be to create a book based on both the letters and the stories Charles had told Jane over the years. So the two women teamed up to write the book.
Shipping off to war
Charles Ryan, born in 1895, spent his youth working on his family’s Minnesota farm until his draft notice arrived in April 1918. That sent him east to Basic Training in Pennsylvania and New York, where the flu epidemic of 1918 was taking the lives of many recruits. Charles got assigned to carry out the dead from their tents.
He made it onto a ship bound for England only to face more peril. One night, a German submarine started tailing the ship, but a violent storm blew in and threw the submarine off track. In the morning, they found that the Germans had sunk two other American ships.
During his time in England, the military trained Charles Ryan as a carpenter and he built wooden wings for airplanes, which were still in their infancy. No one realized at the time, he later told his daughter, that helping to push the airplanes off cliffs (to get them started) kicked up debris and dust that could injure eyes, and after the war, doctors classified Charles as having a disability in one eye.
Taking a toll of suffering
“This was a war where many never knew of the suffering that took place, because people then didn’t talk about it,” Jane Ryan reflected.
“They were quite a generation. They were taken off the farm and President Wilson drafted all the 22-year-olds.”
After the Great War, as it was called then, ended on Armistice Day, Nov. 11, 1918, with the Treaty of Versailles, Charles Ryan returned home to St. Vincent, Minnesota, married Bertha Erickson, and had eight children, five of whom survived to adulthood. The book notes Jane was born in 1938.
Attending NCE in the 1950s
Jane Ryan’s decision to enter the education field led her to National College of Education, and she later moved to Manhattan Beach, California, which was then a fishing village before becoming the coveted slice of Los Angeles beachfront real estate that it is today. Jane spent her career teaching.
“I always had nice memories of NCE,” Jane Ryan recalled. “My teachers had such a love for teaching, and I did, too. Everybody always treated me really nicely.”
She rode Chicago’s el train to get to her NCE classes and worked at Marshall Field’s department store on Saturdays. Her father, who spent his career working for the Veterans Administration, passed away in 1983.
Bringing a voice to soldiers
In the book’s conclusion, the authors write of Jane Ryan’s parents, “They kept their private life and their personal concerns to themselves….They gave support and guidance. They did not share their thoughts and feelings. It is for these reasons that reading the letters of the young man expressing himself so openly gave Jane a more intimate understanding of her father than she ever imagined.
“…Charles, in his letters, brought a voice to many young soldiers who have been sent away from home to a foreign land to risk their lives in service to their country.
“…these men deserve to be recognized for the sacrifice they made. The story told by the letters Charles wrote brings light to their sacrifice.”