Mystery of Aunt Pete's message in a bottle solved by soldier's grandson

John Lichfield
Wednesday 12 March 2008 01:00

When "Aunt Pete" wrote to her soldier nephew in France in 1918, she had no idea what she was starting. Her letter began life inside a US mail bag, spent almost 90 years as a message in a bottle and ended up generating an avalanche of transatlantic emails.

Earlier this month, The Independent published an article reporting that Aunt Pete's letter, sent from Oklahoma City in July 1918, had been found by French archaeologists in a spring-topped beer bottle near old trench lines in Lorraine.

The letter – almost perfectly preserved – gave a jaunty account of the mood in the midwest of the United States four months from the end of the First World War. But who was Aunt Pete? And who was her nephew soldier, Sgt Morres Vickers Liepman, of D Battery of the 130th Field Artillery?

It was known that Sgt Liepman survived the war but little else emerged from US government records.

The story, spotted by an American reader of The Independent in France, produced a flurry of emails and calls to the French government archeological agency, L'Institut National de Recherches Archéologiques Preventives (INRAP). One of the calls came from Sgt Liepman's grandson, Cecil Liepman, 56, an investment manager in Houston,Texas.

"My first thought was that granddad had had his five minutes of fame at last," he said. "I knew him very well. He died in 1980 but he never spoke to us much about the First World War.

"The finding of this letter has brought distant parts of the family together and it has made us all think, and read, about that war so long ago. If a German shell had fallen on granddad, none of us would have existed."

Morres Liepman went on to serve as a Major in the US air force in the Second World War. He became a commercial artist and devised – among other things – the arrow that appears on all packets of Wrigley's chewing gum.

"Aunt Pete" was Sgt Liepman's mother's youngest sister, Luna Vickers, daughter of Congressman Andrew J Vickers of Kansas – part of family which traces its ancestry back to the American Revolution, the Mayflower and the Vickers engineering company in Sheffield. Aunt Luna's nickname was "Sweet Pete". By the time she wrote the letter, she was married to Robert M Scott, owner of a drugstore in Oklahoma City.

In her letter, she describes the excitement in the black community in Oklahoma City as their young men are sent into the war.

"Its (sic) all most (sic) impossible to get help of any kind and those you do get are likely to be called any time. There is a big bunch of darkeys (sic) going tomorrow night. They had a big parade today and are going to have a big dance tomorrow at the colored park: we lost our porter."

Aunt Pete also wrote: "It is so hot here that you could cook eggs in the sand, and the tires are all but off the old Jack Rabbit we ride until about 11 every night getting cooled off.

"Gee Morres, I wish I could visit you now. It sure would be some trip. Robert [her son] says he would like to see it all, but he don't think he would like to get in the war..."

Cecil Liepman said the early part of the letter should not be seen as racist. The comments reflected attitudes at the time. Aunt Pete's family had, in fact, been anti-slavery and funded schools for black children.

Why did Sgt Liepman place his aunt's letter in a beer bottle and bury it? When found, the bottle was still equipped with its mechanical closing system. The tightly rolled up envelope and four pages were almost perfectly preserved.

Mr Liepman believes his grandfather buried the letter as a "time capsule". "He must have guessed it would be found one day and stand as a memorial of that terrible war," he said.

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