WWI love letters returned to Portland family after a journey around the world

WWI love letters returned to Portland family after a journey around the world

It's a story that's been 95 years in the making. A collection of love letters that were written by a soldier in World War I was lost for decades. Now, thanks to the kindness of a couple of strangers, they've found their home in Portland.

The letters written during World War I from a soldier “somewhere in France” to his wife in Phoenix, Arizona reveals the story of what it means to be family.

“I will be thinking of you while I am marching … I will go with the regiment and be discharged. Then home tout de suite to my own darling girl … Will close with all my love to you and baby … Best wishes to all. I am, as ever, your loving Nathan,” Wagoner William “Nathan” Byrd wrote in 1919.

Nathan penned the first letter to his love, Lota, and their baby boy, William, in 1918. Throughout the 25 letters, Nathan tried to span the distance between them.

The story might have ended there, if not for fate.

Lisa Byrd Adajian, Nathan’s granddaughter, has lived in Portland for decades. She’s a math and science teacher by trade. She built a life for herself here; she’s raised a family of her own.

"I just have boxes of photographs everywhere and so it's easy to forget about them,” Adajian said.

She's rarely thought about the roots of her family—until now.

You see, the journey that brought her grandfather's letters, his story, home to her, is as remarkable as the love they reveal.

"They first went to Oklahoma, and then Texas. They were in New Jersey, and now Pennsylvania where I live,” Sheryl Caliguire said.

She’s a complete stranger to the Byrd family.

She told KATU News reporter Hillary Lake over Skype that she found Nathan's letters to Lota in Southern California 30 years ago.

"It was an open shoe box sort of just left there. And I have to believe that it fell into the wrong hands. It didn't mean anything to them,” Caliguire said.

Caliguire wanted to return them. But the only clue she had was the address on the envelopes, which was a road in Phoenix she discovered no longer exists. So she held on to them for sentimental reasons.

"I come from a long line of military people in my family, so that's not something you can throw out,” Caliguire said.

Last year, Caliguire, who lives in Pennsylvania, decided once again to try to retrace history.

She turned to the ABC TV station in Phoenix for help.

Kevin Curran, an assignment editor there, found the 1940 census, and a property deed that showed the Byrd family once lived there.

He made a connection to Oregon when he stumbled across a 2005 newspaper obituary for Nathan and Lota's son, William.

That led straight to granddaughter Lisa Byrd Adajian.
 
"It's kind of overwhelming at this point. I'm anxious to read all of them and put all the pieces together,” said Adajian.

And slowly, the shape of her past becomes clearer.

Nathan Byrd drove horse-drawn wagons full of supplies during the war, a task well-suited for a skilled rancher.

He deployed to France as part of the famous "Indianhead" 2nd Infantry Division.

Nathan writes about being away, in the trenches of World War I, all while hanging on to his love for Lota.

"I am getting along all right, and getting plenty to eat and having a very lazy time, but I can't keep from getting homesick and wanting to see all my loved ones at home sometimes,” Nathan wrote.

Chance brought these two stories together. One of Nathan Byrd's past, the other of Lisa Byrd Adajian’s present. Well, chance, and Skype.

Adajian recently had a chance to ask Caliguire about the letters when the two met over Skype.

“I found them a long time ago and I’m so happy you have them,” Caliguire told Adajian.

Caliguire told Adajian her grandfather's letters were left alone, in an open carport in Highland, California. She found them in 1987. Caliguire lived there because her father was stationed at nearby Norton Air force Base. 

And in another strange twist, the women figured out Caliguire lived in the same condominiums’ as Adajian’s grandmother, Lota.
 
Nathan survived war, but he also survived the sinking of the Lusitania, the ship that took him there.

But as the saying goes, there's a fine line between love and hate. And by 1930, his marriage to Lota had died.

"He traveled a lot. So the only story we were ever told is that my grandmother heard that he was having an affair with someone,” said Adajian.

Nathan Byrd passed away from appendicitis two years later in Arizona. But now, his words live on.

"My precious girl I will try to pen you a few lines this afternoon. Did not have a chance to write you last night,” Nathan wrote to Lota.

Tender words, on tattered pages, and a part of the Byrd family history returned to Lisa Byrd Adajian.

"That is what I have longed for ever since I left you. I can't hardly wait for the time to pass,” Nathan wrote.

Adajian plans to find a way to preserve the letters, and she wants to learn more about her grandfather. She's also looking forward to sharing the letters with the rest of her family.